Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon (Harry N. Abrams) Written by Ying Chang Compestine Illustrated by Joy Ang
For ages: 4-8 Discovering a great retelling of an old fairy tale classic is always enjoyable. This version is told to us by a big but not bad wolf who wants to set the story straight. Red Riding Hood came from China. She was bringing her Nǎinai herbal soup & a rice cake. Unfortunately, Nǎinai gets eaten up by a big bad dragon who takes her place in the sick bed, waiting to devour Little Red. The confrontation between the two is a real battle where Red has to find objects around the house to fight back the fearsome beast.
Everybody Feels Fear (DK Children) Written & Illustrated by Ashwin Chacko
For ages: 4-8 For a very long time, parents in America were taught to push their children despite signs that the child might have anxiety. The result was a society full of anxious people who were terrible at communicating their feelings. The solution to handling fear is different for every person. This book does an excellent job of talking to young children about how it is normal to feel fear and provides some strategies on what to do when you feel it. One of my favorite things about this text is that it emphasizes nothing wrong with feeling scared & that bravery has nothing to do with making fear disappear. Courage happens in spite of fear, and it can take time to build up enough of it.
Roll For Initiative (Running Press Kids) Written by Jaime Formato
Tabletop roleplaying games have opened up children & adults to their creativity for decades, having successfully weathered the inane “satanic panic” of the 1980s. In Roll For Initiative, we meet Riley Henderson, a middle schooler suddenly thrust into a new situation. Her older brother, Devin, has started college across the country in California while her mom is picking up more and more shifts at her retail job. This leaves Riley by herself most afternoons, and into the evening, yearning for the Dungeons & Dragons group her brother was the Dungeon Master for. A chance meeting on the bus has Riley befriending Lucy, who has been curious about D&D but has no one to teach her the game. Despite initial misgivings, Riley decides to be a DM for the first time, and she and Lucy have a lot of fun. Eventually, two more girls join the group, and they spend every Saturday playing out adventures in a magical world.
Leah Henderson has always loved to travel. Her family made many trips when she was a child, which continued into adulthood. Home was Andover, Massachusetts, where she also cultivated a love of reading. When Leah couldn’t physically go somewhere, books could take her there. As she grew, the young woman noticed how little some books she read resembled the world she knew and herself. There were so many people that got overlooked in the media that Leah decided to write about them. Today she lives in Washington, D.C., and teaches in the graduate writing program at Spalding University. Leah also has spent many years mentoring & volunteering in Mali, where her family has their roots. In her books, the author consistently highlights what it is to be a Black person worldwide over many periods.
Daddy Speaks Love (Nancy Paulsen Books) Written by Leah Henderson Illustrated by E.B. Lewis
For ages: 4-8 The ripples caused in the wake of the murder of George Floyd are still being felt today. There was a palpable and justified anger at the time has, which has cooled slightly but still simmers. The problem of the murder of Black people at the hands of police hasn’t stopped, and the fight certainly needs to continue. Leah Henderson was inspired by the words of Gianna, George’s daughter, who was only six at the time of his murder. We have an unnamed Black child talking about their father and their joy in spending time with him. The lyrical text focuses on the refrain of “Daddy speaks love.” The book holds a sense of momentum that builds to a beautiful spread of a child beneath a mural of the late Floyd with the words declaring “Black Lives Matter” and that we will change this world for the better. Relevant, beautiful words should not be hidden from children by white folks who fear the truth.
A Day for Rememberin’ (Harry N. Abrams) Written by Leah Henderson Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
For ages: 6-9 Telling the origins of today’s Memorial Day, we go back to when Black Americans celebrated Decoration Day. A community of formerly enslaved people in 1865 faces a future with opportunities they never dreamed would be possible. Eli wants to go to work with his dad, but he’s still a child, and they tell him school is what he needs to do. One day, he gets to skip school, go with his father, and help as the adults prepare a special event to memorialize Black soldiers killed in the American Civil War. There’s a lot of work to do, and then a parade with songs, sermons, and flowers laid on simple graves. The legendary late Floyd Cooper illustrated this book, a perfect pairing between her and Henderson—another reminder of how fantastic his painted illustrations were.
One Shadow on the Wall (Atheneum Books for Young Readers) Written by Leah Henderson
For ages: 8-12 This middle-grade novel tells the story of Mor, an 11-year-old Senegalese child. The child’s father had died, leaving Mor and his two younger sisters as orphans. Mor’s father comes to him in a dream encouraging him to do everything he can to keep the family together. There are dangers in this place, including a gang of men intent on doing harm & taking what they want. Eventually, Mor learns his best friend has joined this gang and wonders if he should too. They don’t seem to ever go without. Henderson presents Senegal with so much life and detail that it makes you feel like you are there. So often, African countries are ignored in Western children’s literature that it’s a refreshing surprise to read about one. This is slower than some middle-grade readers might be used to. Still, its message of determination and loving one’s family is a universal sentiment everyone can connect with.
Turn on the news these days, and you’re likely to see a news report about the increase in homelessness. Unfortunately, the language used in this reporting is often cruel and dehumanizing towards the people who don’t have shelter. I find the way they are spoken about almost places them in a category separate from humans. It’s a troubling, fascistic way of talking about the poor. Empathy is needed, as well as material help in the form of housing, food, education, health care, and so on. We must teach our children that homeless people are people first. Their living conditions result from broken systems that harm us all to varying degrees. We’re also all one bad day away from ending up in that same position; creating a world where no one has to go homeless benefits us all. These books can help begin conversations with your children about the plight of people who have been forced to live on the streets or perpetually live on the edge of losing everything.
Jabari Jumps (Candlewick) Written & Illustrated by Gaia Cornwall
For ages: 3-6 Jabari has decided this is the day he will jump from the diving board into the city swimming pool. His father and baby sister accompany him on this day out, with the little boy constantly stating aloud that he’s a good jumper & he’s not scared. Jabari is psyching himself up to do something he is somewhat frightened of. But he’s determined, though. As Jabari gets in line and moves closer to the ladder that will take him to the board he feels the butterflies set in. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all? He keeps finding ways to stall, like needing to stretch first. Dad never pressures him but reminds his son that being scared is okay. Of course, Jabari conquers his fear and learns a lesson. So do we.
Take A Picture of Me, James Van Der Zee (Lee & Low Books) Written by Andrea J. Loney Illustrated by Keith Mallett
For ages: 7-12 The novelty of having someone take a picture of you has lost some of its magic as we walk around with digital cameras in our pockets all the time. Of course, people are taking pictures more than ever now because of its ease, but in the early years of the analog camera, it was a memorable moment. James VanDerZee was a young boy growing up in Lenox, Massachusetts, when he saw a camera for the first time. The book tells us how he got a camera as a young man, turning the closet in his bedroom into a makeshift dark room. Reaching adulthood, James moves to Harlem, which is undergoing a cultural transformation at the time. He captures that movement in photographs that would end up being hidden for decades. Eventually, his work was discovered and put on exhibition garnering him the rightful praise he deserved.
Damn cancer. On Friday, July 16, 2021, it took children’s author-illustrator Floyd Cooper from us. What remains is a body of work that will be carried on into the future. He wrote stories about Black children living ordinary lives but found immense beauty in their perspectives & observations. Cooper was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1965 and started making art at three. Using a piece of gypsum, he etched “little shapes onto the side of my Dad’s house.” His parents’ divorce turned his life into chaos, causing Cooper to attend 11 different elementary schools in Tulsa over his early years. He credits his teachers for keeping him focused, and he earned an art scholarship to the University of Oklahoma. Adult life began with work in the greeting card & advertising industries doing illustrations. In 1988, Cooper landed his first children’s picture book Grandpa’s Face. About his style, Cooper said, “I tend to focus on the humanity of my subjects, the details of expression that add a certain reality to the work. Real faces = real art. That’s the goal anyway.” Cooper’s grandfather survived the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 and, over his life, shared these experiences with his grandson. Cooper would go on to illustrate a book about the event titled Unspeakable, ensuring we do not forget the evils of racism. The influence of his grandfather can be seen throughout his work, often a character popping up to guide a child.
In Boy Writers: Reclaiming Their Voices by Ralph Fletcher, the author talks about how the female-dominated landscape of elementary school has created a culture clash. Female teachers often (not always, it is certainly getting better as the younger generation become teachers) have a very particular way they like things, and that often clashes with the types of humor that appeal to boys (and many, many girls as well). It doesn’t mean either “side” is wrong, but rather that we need to meet our students on their terms. If you want someone to read & write, you can’t just let them read books that you like or write in a way that pleases you. The job is to teach them the skills and let them find their own voice & opinion. This means being open to horror, science fiction, and toilet humor. But, of course, it must remain appropriate for the school setting. Still, these books would be fantastic ways to get kids excited about reading.
The Sour Grape (HarperCollins) Written by Jory John Illustrated by Pete Oswald
For ages: 4-8 You are likely already familiar with the Food Group series of picture books, and this is the latest (as of this writing) addition to the collection. The Sour Grape is a grumpy person who spends time explaining how they ended up this way. It started when the Grape planned an elaborate birthday party, but no one showed up. The Grape went from being sweet to bitter and then sour, lashing out at anyone who crossed their path. A relatable situation.