Monday, February 25, 2019

Biddy Mason Speaks Up, by Arisa White and Laura Atkins: a powerful biography of an early California woman fighting for justice (ages 10-14)

As we celebrate Black History, it is crucial we include many people's stories, not just the ones we know well. When our students study California history, we must bring to light the stories of African Americans who helped shape our state. Biddy Mason Speaks Up is a terrific addition to help children learn about an influential African American woman in Los Angeles's early history.
Biddy Mason Speaks Up
by Arisa White and Laura Atkins
illustrated by Laura Freeman
Fighting for Justice series
Heyday, 2019
Amazon / Your local library
ages 10-14
*best new book
Biddy Mason was an African-American healer, midwife, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist who lived in Los Angeles from 1851 until 1891. Born enslaved in 1818, Biddy was brought to California by the Smith family as one of their slaves, when they moved west as part of the Mormon settlement.
"Even though Granny
isn't allowed to read
or write, she knows
how to read plants."
Arisa White and Laura Atkins weave together Biddy's story with well-researched historical information, giving young readers the historical context for her life. Free verse poems, which enable  readers to feel that they are getting to know Biddy in a personal way, are interspersed with historical information on slavery and midwifery, plantation life and economy, migration, the struggle for freedom, and life as a free black person.
"Biddy probably grew up on a cotton plantation. Cotton, a major cash crop, was grown throughout the Cotton Belt states."
"The record we call 'history' does not tell everyone's story." The voices of ordinary people, especially those who were enslaved or subjugated, were rarely recorded or preserved. When the authors Arisa White and Laura Atkins started writing the biography of Biddy Mason, they faced a challenge: how to accurately portray her story when historical records were scant. They write in the introduction:
"Writing this book was a creative act of repairing the historical record, of imagining Biddy Mason's life based on all the information and stories we could gather. We believe that we are all better when we hear everyone's stories, especially those that have been silenced."
Very little is recorded about Biddy's early years, and so the authors "had to imagine this time in Biddy's life using historical research, 'slave narratives' (written accounts by enslaved people after escaping slavery), and audio interviews with people who lived during the same period and in similar regions." I appreciate how they explain their process and how they used this information to paint a fuller picture.

After 4 years in California, Biddy's owner Robert Smith, planned to move to Texas in 1855. While California was a free state, slavery was legal in Texas. Local sheriffs intervened and took Biddy and her family away from Smith. I appreciate how clearly the text breaks this confusing situation down:
"Even though Biddy was legally free, she had to rely on her community to support her in resisting Robert Smith and the institution of slavery..."
The free verse poems remind me of Ashley Bryan's masterful Freedom Over Me. As Bryan did, White and Atkins used historical records to paint a full picture of ordinary people. This brings to life the stories of Black Americans who helped shape our country.

I wonder if young students will realize that the scenes in the free verse poems did not necessarily occur, or that the authors created the character of Granny Ellen. While the authors are transparent about their process, I wonder if it will be clear to young readers. I see this book as a blend of historical fiction and historical reporting. Detailed source notes show the extensive investigations that went into writing this book.

Illustrations copyright ©2019 Laura Freeman, shared by permission of the publishers. The review copy was purchased for our school library. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2019 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Roots of Rap: Hip Hop & Childhood Meet, by Carole Boston Weatherford (ages 4-14)

"Bro!
This is actually kinda cool -- all about the artists who shaped hip hop.
Oh, it rhymes!
Is this supposed to be a song? a rap?
Bro, that's hecka cool!"
   -- Aya, 9th grade, reading The Roots of Rap
My high school students have loved reading The Roots of Rap. Frank Morrison's dynamic illustrations pull them in, and then Carole Boston Weatherford's text lays down the knowledge. This is a terrific new picture book to share with young readers all the way through high schoolers. I'm honored to have Carole share a little about how rap has inspired her.
The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by Frank Morrison
Simon & Schuster / Little Bee, 2019
Amazon / Your local library
ages 4-14
“Hip-hop and rap aren’t often featured in children’s books,” Swizz Beatz writes in his introduction. And yet, this music speaks to our children, fills their lives. With this picture book, Weatherford helps children see that their music springs from a long tradition of poetry and music. As Weatherford writes, "hip-hop is poetry at its most powerful."

I am honored to have Carole Boston Weatherford here to share a little about how hip-hop and rap have inspired her, and what planted the seeds for this picture book.

THE ROOTS OF RAP: HIP HOP & CHILDHOOD MEET
reflection by Carole Boston Weatherford

Illustrator Frank Morrison’s oil paintings in the book have a vibrancy and vitality that borders on virtuosity. He honors hip hop legends and luminaries and shows the four pillars of graffiti, b-boying/breakdancing, emceeing and deejaying. I linger over the spreads showing youthful expression through hip hop, a culture young people are inventing.
Just as my son and daughter (now young adults) reintroduced me in the 1990s to children’s books, they also hipped me to the hip hop of the day on BET and urban radio. At Super Jam, my first rap concert, I tagged along as chaperone to my daughter and her friend. Was I in for a shock!? Unlike the jazz and R&B concerts that I attended, there were no bands at Super Jam--only a deejay scratching and the emcees spitting rhymes.

Then, there were the CDs that son and daughter bought. They’d mute explicit lyrics, so as not to offend their mother. Although their censorship meant that I rarely heard entire songs, I found much to like—especially cuts featuring choruses of children. Some of those pulsate with positivity. Here are a few of my favorites:
Enjoy this trailer for Roots of Rap:
Thank you, Carole, for sharing a little peek into what led to this book. Illustrations copyright ©2019 Frank Morrison, shared by permission of the publishers. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Simon & Schuster / Little Bee. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2019 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Carter Reads the Newspaper, by Deborah Hopkinson -- important and timely picture book biography (ages 6-10)

It is essential that we teach Black History throughout the year, especially celebrating Black History Month in February. And yet, do we stop to ask who had the idea to create this special celebration? I highly recommend sharing Carter Reads the Newspaper with your children, and beginning a conversation about why it is so important to honor and learn about Black history.
Carter Reads the Newspaper
by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Don Tate
Peachtree, 2019
Amazon / Your local library
ages 6-10
*best new book*
Carter Woodson is known as the “father of Black history,” tirelessly encouraging others to study the history of Blacks in America. He was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard, after W.E.B. DuBois. In February 1926, Woodson created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C.

Deborah Hopkinson helps young readers see Carter Woodson's journey, helping them relate to his passion for learning. Carter was born on a small farm, and his parents had both been born into slavery. His father made sure Carter went to school and believed in staying informed about the world. Because his father couldn't read, he asked Carter to read the newspaper to him.
"Carter was born on a small farm in Virginia in 1875,
ten years after the end of the Civil War."
When Carter took a coal mining job at age 16, he was inspired by a Civil War Veteran he met there, Oliver Jones, who invited the other workers to come to his home as a reading room. Once again, Carter read aloud to others, informing them what was in the paper. He saw that Oliver was an educated man, even though he could not read or write. And he saw the power of the men's commitment to freedom, equality and knowledge.

After three years working in the mines, Carter returned home to complete high school, go to college and become a teacher. At the age of 37, he earned a Ph.D. in history from Harvard University. "Carter was the first and only Black American whose parents had been slaves to receive a doctorate in history."
Deborah Hopkinson helps young readers see the power of knowledge and the importance of sharing that knowledge, and she makes Carter a relatable character. I especially appreciate how she focuses on the challenges Woodson faced as a young boy, and what he learned from his family and mentors.

Don Tate's illustrations use warm earth-tones tones and the stylized characters convey the humanity of the situations without making the frightening moments overwhelming.

I highly recommend adding this book to your school or home library. It helps begin the conversation about why we celebrate Black History Month. For adults, I also found the following essay very informative: Knowing the Past Opens the Door to the Future The Continuing Importance of Black History Month, from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Illustrations copyright ©2019 Don Tate, shared by permission of the publishers. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Peachtree. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2019 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books