Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

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

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968, by Alice Faye Duncan (ages 8-12)

As we get ready to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I want to share a powerful new book about his work. Alice Fay Duncan's powerful picture book gives context for King's work, helps explain his assassination, and provides inspiration to keep dreaming big.
Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968
by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Calkins Creek / Highlights, 2018
Amazon / your local library
ages 8-12
*best new book*
We often talk about Dr. King's legacy leading nonviolent protests and fighting for civil rights, but I'm not sure we talk enough about his commitment to fight for workers' rights for fair wages and better working conditions.
"Men, women and children contributed to the strike in 1968. Whole families sacrificed their comforts. They suffered for the cause. However, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. paid the highest cost. He gave his life to the struggle for freedom and justice."
Duncan brings young readers into this story centering it on Lorraine Jackson, whose father was a striking sanitation worker. Duncan bases her character on Dr. Almella Starks-Umoja, whose father helped organize the strike. The author deftly moves between helping readers connect to Lorraine and providing information about the bigger issues at stake.
"I remember Memphis and legions of noblemen.
I remember broken glass and the voice of a fallen King."
As the story begins, we learn about the sanitation workers' strike and the tragic deaths of two black garbagemen because of old, unsafe equipment. "Daddy told Mama, 'It ain't right to die like that.' Mama shook her head, and I saw a new storm rising up. I saw it in their eyes." This detail helps young readers feel the tension and understand the injustices. Throughout, Duncan highlights the dedicated efforts of community and the personal cost of striking.
"My daddy marched in that number. He marched for better pay. He marched for decent treatment. My daddy marched for me."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to help the striking men, inspiring them to keep fighting for better pay and working conditions. Through young Lorraine's voice, Duncan tells about King's "Poor People's Crusade" to fight for the working poor, using the Memphis strike to draw national attention to the larger problems.

I especially appreciate Duncan's poetic language throughout, both in her prose and poems:
  • "But as Daddy's soles wore think on his mountain climb, there came a spark of light. Good news filled the air."
  • "Since Martin had conquered giants in the valley of injustice, Reverend Lawson believed his powerful friend could help the striking men."
  • "I was there on that stormy night Dr. King returned. Clouds blotted out stars in the Memphis sky. Wind whipped through the bending trees."
Illustrations copyright ©2018 R. Gregory Christie, shared by permission of the publishers. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Calkins Creek, an imprint of Highlights. 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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Ten outstanding audiobooks (ages 4-18)

Is your family taking a long drive this winter? Consider listening to an audiobook together, letting it take you on an adventure, laugh together or learn about something new. You'll notice that I'm including three memoirs here -- I especially find listening to some tell their story on audio particularly inspiring.

Try downloading e-audiobooks through your public library for free; check if your library uses OverDrive, Axis 360 or Hoopla Digital.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah: Comedian Trevor Noah narrates his memoir, sharing his harsh experiences growing up in South Africa in the final years of apartheid and the chaotic aftermath as the son of a white Dutch father and a black Xhosa mother. Listeners get to hear Noah tell these stories in his South African accented English and several other South African languages. He is engaging, funny and relatable, while also delivering thoughtful and perceptive social criticism about race, gender and class. (ages 13 and up)

Dominic, by William Steig, narrated by Peter Thomas: As Dominic leaves home in search of adventure, young listeners will be captivated by this delightful hero’s journey. Dominic bumbles his way through his journey with curiosity, goodwill and a solid sense of right and wrong as he makes friends, helps others in need and battles the Doomsday Gang. (ages 6-9)


Dory Fantasmagory, by Abby Hanlon, narrated by Suzy Jackson: Dory (called Rascal by her family) wants to play with her big brother and sister, but they complain that she's a pest. Narrator Suzy Jackson captures Dory's 6-year-old voice, with a full range of enthusiasm and emotions. Families will recognize themselves in Dory's attention-getting strategies, her mom's exasperation or her siblings' bickering. A joyful, funny celebration of imagination and resilience. (ages 4-9)

Track series: Ghost, Patina, Sunny & Lu, by Jason Reynolds, narrated by Guy Lockhart, Heather Alicia Simms: Ghost is an all-time favorite, and I've loved the audiobooks for the rest of this series. Guy Lockhart captures the emotions and voice of each different character, with energy and enthusiasm. I especially appreciate how he balances the humor with the darker moments in each book. I've just started listening to Lu, and his swagger and confidence is perfect. Heather Simms captures Patina's many different moods, moving from sassy to tender with ease. All together, these are outstanding audiobooks--"for real for real", as Lu says. (ages 9-14)


I Have the Right To: A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope, by Chessy Prout: As a freshman at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, Chessy Prout was sexually assaulted by an upperclassman. In her raw and honest memoir, Prout shares her experience of assault and the subsequent journey with the tumultuous trial, media attention and search for healing and change. As I read this, I was particularly angered by the way the school resisted Chessy's search for justice and struck by how the legal system does not help our young people find the resolution they need. A powerful memoir. (ages 13-18)

Like Vanessa, by Tami Charles, narrated by Channie Waites: Eighth grader Vanessa Martin dreams of winning her school’s beauty contest, despite feeling too fat, too dark and too shy. Her spirits soar with Vanessa Williams’ historic win as the first black Miss America. But the journey is hard -- will her talented singing shine? Or will her doubts weigh her down? Channie Waites’ narration brings Vanessa’s worries, laughter and grace to life, and her voice sparkles with magnetic charm. (ages 10-14)

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo: Elizabeth Acevedo shines narrating her debut novel, using her talents as an award-winning slam poet to bring passion and life to Xiomara’s story. A first-generation Dominican-American, Xiomara struggles balancing her mother’s strict Catholicism with her own desire to find her place in the world. Writing poetry helps Xio come into her own, channelling her feelings, worries and questions. Acevedo’s poetry is beautifully crafted and the audiobook brings the passion and pacing of the rhythmic free-verse poems to life. (ages 14-18)

Proud: Living My American Dream, by Ibtihaj Muhammad: U.S. Olympic fencing medalist, Ibtihaj Muhammad shares her inspiring memoir, showing how faith, hard work and determination helped her reach her goals. She frankly talks about the many obstacles she faced, yet she comes across as both humble and realistic. She conveys the excitement of winning, and the frustrations and self-doubt she faced. Even though I know nothing about fencing, I couldn't put this down. Ibtihaj is a true American hero. (ages 10-16)

Refugee, by Alan Gratz: Gratz alternates the stories of three children from different periods of time, each of whom are fleeing their homes in search of refuge. Josef is escaping persecution from Nazis in Germany during World War II. Isabel and her family are fleeing Cuba in 1994, escaping the riots and unrest under Castro's rule. And Mahmoud's family flees Syria in 2015 after their home was bombed. These parallel stories are engrossing and compelling. The structure keeps the suspense high, and helps readers see how each character must cope with extreme stress, separation and loss. Gratz uses historical fiction at its best to help readers understand global issues in a way that inspires hope and empathy. (ages 10-16)

The War That Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, narrated by Jayne Entwistle: My students have particularly loved this audiobook and its sequel, The War I Finally Won, finding the story of Ada inspiring as she realizes how she's able to overcome many odds stacked against her. As the story opens, ten-year-old Ada has a clubfoot and is kept locked in her family's one bedroom apartment in London, during World War II. Ada practices making herself walk, so she and her younger brother, can escape and join a train of children being evacuated to the countryside. Jayne Entwistle's narration brings Ada's complexities to life, with her layers of distrust and strength, courage and doubt. (ages 9-12)

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Dactyl Hill Squad, by Daniel Jose Older -- historical fiction with social justice and dinosaurs! (ages 10-14)

I'm really excited to share Dactyl Hill Squad with my readers--my first copy went out today to a reader who loves Percy Jackson fantasies. Dactyl Hill Squad is a terrific mix of historical fiction, action-adventure and fantasy--with a strong underlay of social justice themes. Hand this to readers who want high energy books and a critical look at race relations.
Dactyl Hill Squad
by Daniel José Older
Arthur A. Levine / Scholastic, 2018
Amazon / Local library / Google Books preview
ages 10-14
Magdalys Roca chafes at the rules imposed at the Colored Orphan Asylum in Civil War era New York. Above all else, she cannot stand it when the matron calls her Margaret, instead of Madalys, her real name. Right from the opening page, readers know that Magdalys is strong-willed and proud of her Afro-Cuban heritage. But she also really wants to see the play at the colored theater, so she complies with the matron's demands.

Magdalys discovers that she has a special connection with the dinosaurs that are part of everyday life in this alternative history. She discovers that she can communicate with them mentally: they hear her wishes, and she knows how they are feeling. Dinosaurs and pterodactyls are both wild and tamed, serving people as beasts of burden and roaming free.
"It was only a few years ago that New York had passed a law granting black citizens the right to dinoride, and white people in Manhattan still bristled and stared when they saw someone with brown skin astride those massive scaly backs."
While Magdalys and her friends are seeing the play, riots break out on the streets and their orphanage is burned down. These riots are based on the Draft Riots of 1863. The children flee to Brooklyn, in a neighborhood called Dactyl Hill for all of the pterodactyls that fly over the homes. They find refuge with the Vigilance Committee, which, as Miss Bernice explains, "helps fugitive slaves make it farther up north and works to stop the Kidnapping Club from sending our folks south to bondage."

Once safe in Brooklyn, Magdalys and her friends form the Dactyl Hill Squad and set out to foil the Kidnapping Club, find Magdayls's brother and protect their friends. There's plenty of dinoriding, battles and near-escapes.

I especially appreciate how Daniel José Older weaves together complex topics such as race, power and gender in the Civil War in the framework of an action-packed, fantastical story. He provides fascinating historical background information in his author's note.

Given this, I do think that this story is best appreciated by kids who already understand some of the complexities of the Civil War and race relations in US history. My first reader who loved it had just finished reading Laurie Halse Anderson's Chains with his class, and this made a perfect follow-up. I wonder if the cover looks a little young--I imagine this working more with a middle school crowd.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Scholastic. 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.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Immigration & refugee stories: hearing children's stories (ages 9-14)

Throughout the United States, we are feeling the rippling effects of family separation policies by immigration officials. How do we explain these painful experiences to children? How do we hear and honor children's stories?

My father's family was torn apart by World War II, and I have always found refugee stories powerful. They let me connect to my own family's history, and help me extend my grandmother's experiences to those of children in my classroom. Here are a few books that I would recommend to children ages 9 to 14. For younger readers, seek out Front Desk and Stormy Shores. Older readers will appreciate the suspense and understand the terrifying situations in The Only Road and Refugee.

Front Desk, by Kelly Yang (Scholastic, 2018): Mia's family has recently immigrated from China, and finding a steady job has been really tough for her parents. When an opportunity to manage a motel comes their way, they leap at it. Mia's excited that she can help out, managing the front desk while her parents clean the rooms. Kelly Yang bases this story on her own experience, immigrating from China to Los Angeles. She weaves humor and compassion into her story, while frankly addressing poverty, bullying and the importance of family.

The Only Road, by Alexandra Diaz (Simon & Schuster, 2016): Twelve-year-old Jaime flees his home in Guatemala after a local drug gang kills his cousin Miguel. Jaime and Angela, Miguel's sister, travel north alone, navigating the treacherous journey by bus, train and foot. This gripping novel not only shows the violence and abuse Jaime and Angela survive, but also how painful family separation is for children.

Alexandra Diaz has been honored with the Pura Belpre Author Honor Award, the Américas Award and was a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. I'm excited that The Crossroads, the sequel to The Only Road, will be published in September.

Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees, by Mary Beth Leatherdale (Annick Press, 2017): This powerful nonfiction book combines brief memoirs, clear information and dynamic collage illustrations, making this an engaging introduction to immigration experiences of children during 20th and 21st centuries. Each chapter focuses on a child fleeing war, oppression and conflict in Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Cuba, Afghanistan, and Africa’s Ivory Coast.

Refugee, by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017): Gratz alternates the stories of three children from different periods of time, each of whom are fleeing their homes in search of refuge. Josef is escaping persecution from Nazis in Germany during World War II. Isabel and her family are fleeing Cuba in 1994, escaping the riots and unrest under Castro's rule. And Mahmoud's family flees Syria in 2015 after their home was bombed. These parallel stories are engrossing and compelling. The structure keeps the suspense high, and helps readers see how each character must cope with extreme stress, separation and loss. Gratz uses historical fiction at its best to help readers understand global issues in a way that inspires hope and empathy.

If you're looking for more stories like these, check out my Goodreads shelf: Immigration. 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.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Thursday, June 7, 2018

#SummerReading 2018 for 5th and 6th graders

Kids know that practice is important in developing any skill; our job as parents is making our expectations clear AND creating a positive environment to encourage practice. You'll have much more success persuading your kids to read if they are able to choose what to read.

Validate their reading choices, engaging them to think and talk about what they read. Prod them a little to try something new--I often like to talk about it in terms of having a varied reading diet. Here are some of my favorite books to hook 5th and 6th graders.
#SummerReading: 5th & 6th
click for full 2018 summer reading lists

Exciting Adventure & Fantasy
Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi
The Girl Who Drank the Moon, by Kelley Barnhill
The Jumbies, by Tracey Baptiste
Peak, by Roland Smith
The Wonderling, by Mira Bartok

Funny Stories
Funny Girl, edited by Betsy Bird
Hamster Princess, by Ursula Vernon
Pickle, by Kim Baker
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger
The Terrible Two, by Mac Barnett

Historical Fiction
Echo, by Pam Munoz Ryan
The Inquisitor's Tale, by Adam Gidwitz
The Night Diary, by Veera Hiranandani
Refugee, by Alan Gratz
The War I Finally Won, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Graphic Novels We Love!
Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson
The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang
Real Friends, by Shannon Hale
Sunny Side Up, by Jennifer L. Holm
The Witch Boy, by Molly Ostertag

Stories that Touch Your Heart

Amal Unbound, by Aisha Saeed
Fish in a Tree, by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Like Vanessa, by Tami Charles
Rebound, by Kwame Alexander

Fascinating Nonfiction
Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson
Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steve Sheinkin
Boots on the Ground, by Elizabeth Partridge
I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
Marley Dias Gets It Done, by Marley Dias

CLICK HERE for all of the 2018 summer reading lists.

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.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Monday, January 15, 2018

Let the Children March, by Monica Clark-Robinson and Frank Morrison: inspiring children to raise their voices (ages 5-9)

As our country's political stage has been overtaken with denigrating remarks and racial strife, our children are listening and watching. How can we help inspire them to raise their voices to make our country a better place? We must focus on the great possibilities ahead of us, and we must inspire our children to stand up when they see injustice.

Let the Children March is a powerful new picture book that brings readers into the 1963 Children's Crusade through the strong voice of a young girl volunteering for the march. This is historical fiction at its best, combining well researched facts with emotional details that place readers of today in the moment.
Let the Children March
by Monica Clark-Robinson, illustrated by Frank Morrison
HMH Books, 2018
Amazon / your public library
ages 5-9
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. comes to speak at her church, a young girl knows that he isn't there just to preach. They have gathered together to plan. Dr. King "wanted to raise an army of peaceful protestors to fight for freedom." And yet when he called for people to join him, many adults were worried they would lose their jobs. As this young girl and her brother watch her parents worry, she realizes:
"The weight of the world rested on our parents' shoulders, but this burden, this time, did not have to be theirs to bear."
Morrison's dynamic illustrations show the courage, determination and resolve in each of the young marchers. As Kirkus Reviews writes, "Morrison’s powerful use of perspective makes his beautiful oil paintings even more dynamic and conveys the intensity of the situations depicted, including the children’s being arrested, hosed, and jailed."
'I don't have a boss to fear,' my brother said, 'or a job to loose.' 'We can march this time. We'll be Dr. King's army,' I said.

Dr. King didn't like children being put in harm's way--he was a daddy too, after all. But he said that though we were young, we were not too young to want our freedom."
This powerful picture book will spark important conversations between children and adults about the importance of speaking up, the risks involved and the powerful change that can result in peaceful protest. We see the young protestors facing snarling dogs, angry onlookers and water hoses, but we also see the impact that they have on the nation.

Pair this story with the picture book biography The Youngest Marcher, by Cynthia Levinson, which tells the true story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, the youngest participant in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s March.

Illustrations copyright ©2018 Frank Morrison, shared by permission of the publisher. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 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.

©2018 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, October 8, 2017

You Bring the Distant Near, by Mitali Perkins -- a shining intergenerational story of immigration and identity (ages 12-16)

Like Mitali Perkins' family, my own family's story spans continents and generations. This weekend, my father is at a ceremony honoring the oldest Jewish cemetery in Moravia, near his family's home in the Czech Republic. I know too well the gains and losses that come with immigration. You Bring the Distant Near, Mitali Perkins' outstanding new book, speaks to me deeply. This story spans three generations of Bengali women as they immigrate to America and create a home here.
You Bring the Distant Near
by Mitali Perkins
Farrar Straus Giroux / Macmillan, 2017
Amazon / public library / Google Books preview
ages 12-16
*best new book*
Inspired by her own experiences immigrating as a young teen in the 1970s, Mitali Perkins weaves together an intergenerational story of Ranee Das, her teenage daughters Sonia and Tara, and then later their own daughters. When Sonia and Tara move to New York as teenagers, they must navigate the possibilities that new opportunities might bring while they are acutely aware of the cultural expectations of their Bengali parents.

It's the small moments of these women's lives that make this book resonate so deeply with me. Recently, I heard Mitali speak about her story and these small moments came rushing back to me. Out of context, it's hard to capture them, but added all together, they give you a full sense of characters whose story arcs will stay with me for a long time.

The Horn Book asked Mitali what she hopes the Das family’s story shows today’s readers about family, love, culture, and country? Mitali answered:
"America inevitably “brings the distant near” because apart from members of the Native Nations, all of us originated in faraway places. Sadly, proximity within the United States doesn’t automatically generate friendship. But if we choose to cross borders that may at first bring discomfort and open our hearts to those who seem like strangers, I believe that we can be transformed and united as individuals, families, communities, and even as a country.

The title of this novel comes from a poem/prayer written by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. My sister recited it in both English and Bangla during my California wedding (to a “foreign” boy!) at the request of our grandfather in Calcutta, India. It translates like this: “You have made me known to friends whom I knew not. You have given me seats in homes not my own. You have brought the distant near and made a brother of the stranger…When one knows You, then there is no alien, and no door is shut.” I hope and pray that despite an unhealed past full of atrocities and deep divisions in the present, God can and will make “the distant near” and a “brother of the stranger” in America’s future."
This novel shines with strong sisterhood, humor and meaningful reflections on family, culture and identity. I came away from this story thinking more deeply about what connects us all, how our lives can bring us close to people in our communities, and how we must reach across borders to see each other as humans.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Macmillan, and I have already purchased many additional copies for friends and family. 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.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Freedom Over Me, by Ashley Bryan -- compelling, heartfelt look into the life and dreams of 11 slaves (ages 7-11)

As I've honored Black History Month with my students, I've been reading aloud a powerful new book: Freedom Over Me, by Ashley Bryan. This compelling story will help young readers understand about the cruelties and injustices of slavery, but even more so it brings alive the hopes and pride of individual people caught in this cruel system.
Freedom Over Me
Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams
brought to life by Ashley Bryan
Caitlyn Dlouhy/Atheneum / Simon & Schuster, 2016
Newbery Honor Award
Coretta Scott King Author & Illustrator Honor Awards
Your local library
Amazon
ages 7-11
*best new book*
Based on an 1828 document listing 11 slaves for sale, Ashley Bryan created portraits of each slave using paintings and free verse poetry--asking each slave to tell their own stories. Bryan creates full lives for each person, helping readers understand their hopes and dreams, as well as their pain and struggles.
Peggy: "I am the Fairchilds' cook.
I work in the Big House
day in, day out"
Each portrait helps readers look more closely, imagining these lives with empathy and compassion. Peggy works hard as the cook, and her mistress often invites friends over to take pleasure in her cooking. She is clear: all of her hard work profits the estate. As the head cook, she can explore the grounds, learning about local plants for cooking and for cures.
"My knowledge makes me
hunger for more.
Relieving the aches,
the pains,
the suffering
of the slaves
is my chief joy."
Herb Doctor is the title Peggy most prizes, for it is when she prepares these cures that she feels pride and accomplishment. Steaming herbs "stirs ancestral memories--my roots in Africa" as she makes cures for her slave family.

Historical fiction enables Bryan to bring his readers close to his subject, making it personal and compelling. He first drew portraits of each one, giving them an job on the estate, asking them to tell him their story. As he told Kirkus Reviews in an interview,
"After the 11 slaves told me their stories, I was deeply moved by their lives. Knowing that human beings all have dreams that we hope to realize, I thought of asking them what their dreams would be if they were living as free people. Their dreams are what brought each one to my heart and soul."
Bryan's hope and optimism shines through in these stories. My students were able to think about the cruelties of slavery, but they were really impressed by the strength and courage of each person. They saw how important community, extended family, and personal history was to each person. Most importantly, my students understood the pride and accomplishment each person felt in their work and in their craft.
Ashley Bryan reads aloud from Freedom Over Me
If you want to explore more resources for this book, I recommend looking at the following:
I'd like to end with this video. I love the sense you get of Ashley Bryan's passion for poetry sparking a light in each person, for loving who you are, honoring what you create.
 
The review copy was kindly sent by the publishers, Simon & Schuster. 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.

©2017 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Full of Beans: Building students' knowledge of a story's setting, helping show the movie in our minds (ages 9-12)

The images that you form in your mind--I describe it as a "movie in my mind"--are key to developing students' understanding of a story. This personal movie also hooks them into the excitement of a story. I put together a short presentation to help my students visualize Jennifer Holm's delightful story Full of Beans, as part of our Mock Newbery Book Club project (see my full review here).
When a story takes place in a different time or place, it's especially important to help kids get a sense of the setting of the book. Historical fiction can bring alive distant time periods, but we also need to remember that kids may not have the same frame of reference that adult readers do. While the Great Depression conjures many images for me, I doubt that it does for many of my 4th and 5th graders.

Sharing this slideshow helped right away! It made kids interested -- we started talking about why the streets might have been full of garbage, and what it would be like if the city didn't have enough money to pay garbage collectors. We talked about rum runners and what they were, why they had to smuggle rum into Florida.

It also helped students visualize the story right from the beginning. That afternoon, Kalia came to me to tell me how she understood why the streets in Key West were full of garbage. Right on page 8 (see this passage in Google Books), it describes the houses as "weathered gray wooden houses, set close together." Holm describes them as "decrepit"--a word that might be challenging for Kalia.
Because we looked at these pictures before reading, Kalia was able to get a sense of the story right from the beginning. Isn't that terrific?! Now, difficult vocabulary isn't a stumbling block, but instead she's building her own vocabulary.

Here are two short articles all about building movies in our minds as we read:

How do you help your kids make these movies in their mind? What do you find helps? I'm excited to get my students working together to make slideshows like this -- helping share the movies in our minds about the books we love.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Inquisitor's Tale, by Adam Gidwitz -- serious fun, terrific storytelling (ages 9-14)

In a recent interview in The Horn Book, Adam Gidwitz talks about his teaching days as being filled with "serious fun" -- I love that concept. Yes, kids love having fun, laughing, sharing silly or gross stories. They also love to dig into serious topics and want us adults to ask for their opinions.

Gidwitz has legions of fans for his exciting, engrossing retellings of Grimm's tales. In his newest book, he tackles medieval life, religious intolerance and the power of deep loyal friendship--all with a healthy dose of fun, adventure and brilliant storytelling.
We begin our tale at a travelers' inn, hearing about three children fleeing for their lives from Louis, the powerful king of France (for history buffs, this is Louis IX, commonly known as Saint Louis). Each child is ostracized, isolated in their own way, until fate brings them together. Jeanne's neighbors worry that her seizures and visions mean that she's possessed by witchcraft. When her dog Gwenforte, who saved her life as a baby, comes back to life, Jeanne escapes into the forest.

illuminations by Hatem Aly
Jeanne meets up with William, a young African oblate (a monk-in-training), and Jacob, a Jewish boy whose village was burned to the ground by an antisemitic mob. Each child is wary and full of fear at first, but they grow to trust each other.

In the High Middle Ages, life was defined by class and religion--completely different from today. And yet, was it? It was a time full of intense distrust of "the other," people who belong to a different religion or social group. And at the same time, a time marked by rapid social changes, spurred by urban centers, economic development and trade across boundaries.

What will draw children to this story? They will love Gidwitz's storytelling as William battles the fiends in the forest, or Jacob cures the farting dragon by realizing stinky cheese is setting his farts on fire. They will love the way Gwenforte the greyhound is loyal to the children, guiding and protecting them.

Young readers will also connect emotionally to Jeanne, William and Jacob--feeling often as they do, that no one understands them except for their loyal friends. Hatem Aly's illustrations provide both humorous relief and concrete grounding for this complex story.
A portion of the famous Unicorn Tapestries depicting a hound on the hunt. This dog partly inspired Gwenforte the Greyhound, the holy dog.
Just as importantly, children will be drawn into this story where young heroes decide to take a stand for what's right, fighting against ignorance and intolerance, proclaiming that collaboration and friendship is not only possible across social groups but thrives among different social groups. Society is still struggling with these very issues today.

One early reader told me, "I'm loving this story because it's full of so many different people. Most stories I read have characters who are all the same. Here, everyone is different and that's so interesting."

Serious fun. Brilliant storytelling. Fascinating history. And an opportunity to wrestle with important social and religious issues. Friends, this is definitely a must-read, must-share story.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, Penguin. 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.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

For the love of...Beans! An interview with Jennifer Holm about Full of Beans

In Full of Beans, Jennifer Holm pulls me into her story from the very first page:
"Look here, Mac. I'm gonna to give it to you straight: grownups lie.
Sure, they like to say that kids make things up and that we don't tell the truth. But they're the lying liars."
Holm creates a character full of sass and resilience--he isn't afraid to tell it like it is. Grownups lie, life is hard, friends are key. I'm also really looking forward to talking with kids about how Beans grows and changes throughout the story.

I'm fascinated by the way that Holm pulls modern kids into a time and place so far away. Life wasn't easy for Beans--the Great Depression has the Florida Keys and all of America in its grip. Jennifer Holm was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Full of Beans, her research and what struck her during the writing process.
Jennifer Holm
Beans' voice rings so distinctive and true. How do you get into character as you write?

Beans was always such a clear character to me. It sounds silly, but I could totally hear him in my head. I mostly try to get outside to get in the writing zone—away from my desk and computer. For some reason, if I’m taking a walk or jogging, the ideas come more easily.

What are some images of Key West from the 1930s that show how hard life was during the Great Depression?

The website Florida Memory from the state library archives has an incredible collection of historical photographs. At the height of the Great Depression, Key West was in dire straights. The majority of the inhabitants were unemployed and on public relief. This photo from 1935 shows garbage cleanup in a Key West neighborhood:
Garbage cleanup in Key West, 1935
As part of President Roosevelt's New Deal, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration created a plan to revitalize Key West, renovate houses and hotels and turn it into a tourist destination. These before and after pictures of a school teacher's house are amazing. My great-grandmother grew up in a house like that.
Home of a retired school teacher before renovation - Key West, 1935
Home of a retired schoolteacher after renovation- Key West, 1935
What are a few of your favorite sayings from this time period? Did you make them up get them from your research?

I love the phrase “mind your own potatoes.” That just says it all.

All of the sayings except for one were rooted in the time period. My daughter, Millie, made the lone modern contribution with her own personal phrase: “What in the history of cheese?” It’s become a household saying around here.

What was something astonishing you learned doing your research for this book?

The whole leprosy storyline sucked me in pretty fast. It seemed quite far-fetched at first when I started to track down some of the rumors, but the more research I did, the more I discovered. In retrospect, the idea that people would hide family members who had leprosy (Hansen’s Disease) was very understandable. There was no treatment available at the time and quarantine was how the public health service managed the disease. People with leprosy were commonly “sent” (exiled is a better word in my opinion—there was not much choice involved) to leper hospitals, a notable one being in Carville, Louisiana. Even children were sent away. It was quite a heartbreaking situation all around.

Can you share one of the recollections of a family member that helped you bring this story to life?

My favorite memory was shared with me by a distant cousin. She had grown up across from the cemetery—which is in the middle of an old part of the city. The houses in Key West are made of wood and built quite close together. She told me how when she was a child and there was a fire, all the neighbors near the burning house would take their belongings – from pots and pans to pianos – to the cemetery for safe keeping. They would just kind of camp out there because it was the only place that wouldn’t catch fire.

That's pretty amazing, and shows how fire was such a threat in this community. This photo from the Great Fire of 1923 shows just how vulnerable the wooden houses were:
Remains from the "Great Fire of 1923" - Key West, Florida
What connections do you make between the hard times Beans and his friends faced in the Great Depression and challenges kids might be experiencing today?

Having a parent lose their job and the fear of having to move is something that kids of any era can relate to. In our own family, we have had a lot of up-and-down times. Kids always know what’s going on even if the parents aren’t discussing the problems with them.

Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us about Key West, your research and your wonderful story.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, Random House Books. 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.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Monday, August 29, 2016

Full of Beans, by Jennifer L. Holm -- (ages 9-12)

Does building resilience in kids mean they have to be able to handle everything by themselves? Or that they can weather the hard times, with their sense of self intact? I adore Jennifer Holm's newest novel Full of Beans precisely for the way that Beans struggles through hard times, learning about the consequences of his decisions, yet never losing his sense of humor or his loyalty to his family and friends. It is both delightful to read and wonderful to reflect upon.
Full of Beans
by Jennifer L. Holm
Random House, 2016
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
*best new book*
Beans Curry knows life is hard with the Great Depression--his dad is out of work, leaving home to look for work up north, and his mom takes in laundry, raising the family in their Key West home. Beans tries to help, sifting through the garbage looking for cans because a local con man has promised him twenty cents a can.

Life keeps throwing bum deals his way--the con man refuses to pay Beans what he promised--but Beans won't give up. He helps his mother babysit his crabby baby brother; he leads his gang of friends, challenging other kids to marbles; and he keeps his eye out new opportunities. So when a rumrunner makes him a proposition, it seems like things are finally turning up. Beans just doesn't predict how his actions might put others in harm's way. As the starred Horn Book review wrote,
Beans’s earnest voice shows a young boy trying so hard to help out and to do the right thing, but getting caught up in dubious circumstances over which he has no control.
Readers may remember Beans from Jennifer Holm's popular Turtle in Paradise (my review here), but this new story stands on its own. I think that the setting Depression-era Key West becomes even more fully realized in Full of Beans, as Holm seamlessly weaves historical details into the story. I especially like what librarian Tasha Saecker wrote over at Waking Braincells:
Holm writes with a natural ease that is deceptively easy to read. Her writing allows readers to explore Key West in a time just as it is becoming a tourist destination due to the New Deal and its workers. Beans’ personal story is clearly tied to the story of Key West with his own despair and lack of money mirroring the city’s. His own journey through to honesty and truth follows that of the city as well. It’s a clever dynamic that makes both roads to change all the easier to relate to and believe.
This would make a terrific read-aloud, either as a family or in the classroom. Terrific sayings from the 30s infuse the dialog, and short chapters keep the pace moving quickly. Readers will root for Beans, whether it's as he's playing marbles against a rival gang or as he's struggling with hard decisions that will affect his neighbors and friends.

I'm especially looking forward to talking with my students in our Mock Newbery Book Club about how Beans responds to hard situations and how he changes. I wonder how they'll envision the setting of Key West, and themes they'll identify in the story.

Join me on Wednesday -- I'm looking forward to sharing an interview with Jenni Holm. I'm especially looking forward to sharing a slideshow of images of 1930s Key West. The review copies were kindly sent by the publisher, Random House Books. 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.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

2016 Mock Newbery, part 2: Bayou Magic & Chasing Secrets (ages 8-12)

Kids who are excited by a book love telling their friends about it. And the honest truth is that they listen to their friends much more than they listen to adults. But often kids start rambling too much as they summarize the story.

Our Mock Newbery discussions have helped kids focus on what really makes a story good--what aspect of the story grabbed them. Today's books have definitely created "book buzz" at Emerson: Bayou Magic and Chasing Secrets.
This summer is Maddy's turn to visit her grandmother; each summer, Grandmére sends for one of her grandchildren, asking that they spend the summer with her in the Louisiana bayou. Maddy's older sisters warn her that Grandmére is strange, a witch, and very strict, but Maddy develops a special relationship with her and realizes that she feels at home in the bayou. In fact, Maddy senses that she has a special power to feel things, to hear things like her grandmother does.
student responses (click to enlarge)
Students loved the way Jewell Parker Rhodes describes the setting--it brought them right into feeling like they were in the bayou. But I think it's more than that; Rhodes helps them see the bayou through Maddy's eyes. She's a newcomer, but one with an innate sense of the magic in the bayou. Several commented about how many sensory details they noticed in the book. You knew how Grandmére smelled, how the hot air felt on your skin, how the light sparkled through the trees.
"I love this book so much because it feels like I'm in the book." -- Meleia
Maddy becomes good friends with Bear, a young boy who lives near her grandmother. Rhodes skillfully develops the plot, as Bear helps Maddy search for the elusive mermaid she is sure she's seen, sticking by her when all logic would say she's imagining it. And this friendship helps her believe in herself and trust her intuition, her sense of family magic as an environmental disaster is about to strike.
Chasing Secrets
by Gennifer Choldenko
Wendy Lamb / Random House, 2015
Your local library
Amazon
ages 9-12
*best new book*
Choldenko weaves a plot with plenty of action and suspense, full of historical details but never weighed down with too many details. San Francisco in 1900 was a growing city full of wealth from railroads and the Gold Rush, but it was also a city marred by discrimination against the Chinese American community. In the midst of this, the city leaders try to cover up an outbreak of the plague, and then try to show they are handling it by quarantining Chinatown.
student responses (click to enlarge)
Lizzie can't stand all the expectations for her to act like a lady, prim and proper, when she really wants to become a doctor just like her father. Right away readers get a sense of just how different medical care was at the turn of the 20th century when Lizzie accompanies her father on a house call.
"I really admired how Lizzie wanted to be a doctor and how being a doctor was more of a man's job. She spent all of her free time reading about diseases and sicknesses, and cures. Eventurally, the plague comes and she uses everything she knows to help her family." -- Amelie
The plot is full of twists and turns, as Lizzie overhears her uncle's newspapermen colleagues talking about the plague. When Jing, the cook for Lizzie's family, fails to return home, she sets out to help him. Choldenko's steady pacing kept students interested in the mystery, as the story built to an exciting climax.
"I loved how the plot was very sophisticated, but in a way where there are a lot of little parts to find out what the end would be. In lots of other books, you can figure out the end." -- Talia
Both of these books create a specific setting and characters, so students could create a movie in their mind and imagine being right there alongside the main character. It's interesting that both of these stories are told from the first person perspective, and this helps many young readers step into the shoes of the main character. It will be interesting to see what kids think about the secondary characters in these stories, whether they feel fully developed as individual, distinct people.

The review copies were kindly sent by the publishers, Little, Brown and Random House, but we have also purchased additional copies 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.

©2016 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books