Oge Mora may remind you of the work of Ezra Jack Keats with her collage illustration style, which is a beautiful comparison. Keats was revolutionary in pushing for the inclusion of Black children in picture books even though he was a white man. His work has influenced multiple generations of picture book author-illustrators, Mora included. Mora grew up in Columbus, Ohio but now resides in Providence, Rhode Island, after attending the Rhode Island School of Design. RISD has been an incubator for some of the best people working in children’s literature today. They must certainly be doing something right at that school. As you look over these titles, you’ll quickly see that Mora’s interests lie in making books about people coming together and growing.Continue reading “Author Spotlight – Oge Mora”
Category: black lives
Author Spotlight – Leah Henderson
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.
Author Spotlight: Floyd Cooper
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.Continue reading “Author Spotlight: Floyd Cooper”
Nonfiction Corner – To Change a Planet/Song for the Unsung
To Change a Planet ( Scholastic Press)
Written by Christina Soontornvat
Illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell
For ages: 4-8
It’s become evident that the continuance of life as we know it on this planet is over. A small percentage of humanity hoards the way resources, the environment has been left ravaged over centuries of extraction, and the pollution caused by fossil fuels all clearly indicate that we cannot keep living like this. Based on the severity of the problems, they will not be solved handily in a single election cycle but throughout the next generation and likely the one that follows (if we can keep humanity alive). This means it is vital that we empower our children to understand the role they will need to play in this global rescue mission & how necessary collective action will be.Continue reading “Nonfiction Corner – To Change a Planet/Song for the Unsung”
Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Vanessa Brantley-Newton was born in Newark, New Jersey. She learned early on to celebrate being Black and living in a diverse community. One of her earliest reading memories is picking up Ezra Jack Keats’s Snowy Day. Brantley-Newton has said that it was the first time she saw herself in a children’s book, which had been Keats’s goal in making his protagonist Black. That began a life-long love of art, particularly picture book illustration. Although, like many artists before her, Brantley-Newton didn’t go straight to kids’ books and studied fashion at The Fashion Institute of Technology. Later, at the School of the Visual Arts, she took up children’s book illustration, which is now her job. Now she lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband & daughter, regularly collaborating with writers on books that continue what the Snowy Day once did for her.Continue reading “Author Spotlight: Vanessa Brantley-Newton”
Middle Grade Must-Reads: Swim Team
Swim Team (HarperAlley)
Written & Illustrated by Johnnie Christmas
For ages: 8-12
The story of how white supremacy erased beautiful cities has been shielded from white people’s view for at least a generation or two since it happened. Only in the last year have I learned that many cities across the country used to have public swimming facilities and even public amusement parks with rides. Where did these places go? When segregation was finally ruled unconstitutional, and these places were opened up to Black families, only then did the municipal leaders decide to shutter and demolish them. Now, most American suburbs and small towns have an absence of places for young people to play safely. I know the small Southern town I come from has nothing for the youth and plenty of drug problems caused by this cancerous boredom. How foolish that some white people should be filled with so much hate that they would torpedo their own children’s & grandchildren’s enjoyment of public spaces.
Book List: Christmas Tales
Tacky’s Christmas (Scholastic)
Written by Helen Lester
Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger
For ages: 3-7
Christmas time in Icy Land can be daunting as this is when the hunters arrive. Tacky isn’t going to let them ruin the holiday season, and he gets his penguin friends to decorate and celebrate. Tacky dresses up like Santa while his buddies dawn elf ears and hats. But then, a trio of beasts shows up with an evil gleam in their eye. Oh no! No worries. They think they have met the real Santa and his elves and a Christmas miracle occurs. This is a fun tale of Christmas time and how it can soften even the hardest hearts. The illustrations from Lynn Munsinger are the perfect accompaniment to this festive tale.
Continue reading “Book List: Christmas Tales”
Spotlight: Oona & Fish
Oona: The Brave Little Mermaid (Katherine Tegen Books)
Written by Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrated by Raissa Figueroa
For ages: 4-8
Oona is a young Black mermaid who adores the treasures she finds at the bottom of the ocean. To the people above, these are items tossed overboard or lost in a shipwreck. But Oona and her otter Otto love treasure hunting and curating these objects. There’s one object, though, that is proving too hard to get. Deep in the ocean is a jeweled crown wedged into a rift. Try as she might, Oona can’t unstick it. An accident causes Oona to forget about the crown for a time, she pursues other things, but none of them give her that feeling of joy she used to have. But then she remembers and knows how to finally get her crown.
This is a gorgeously illustrated book. Raissa Figueroa gives us a beautiful Oona with her enormous Afro and striped tail. I see people excited about the new Disney live-action Little Mermaid, but Oona will remain my favorite. You may think picture books cannot deliver layered, nuanced characters, but Oona proves us wrong. She is one of the most delightful protagonists I’ve read about in years. She teaches the reader that persistence is the key and that valuing yourself is paramount.
1. We all deserve a beautiful crown, just like Oona. Have your students draw or (if they are up to the challenge) construct their crown. If they can use repurposed materials, that’s even better!
2. Have students write about something they own that was repurposed. This could be a hand-me-down, something bought at a yard sale or thrift shop, or a thing they found. Have them explain why this object means so much to them and how they care for it.
3. I want to know what happens next! Having students write the next story for Oona would be great fun. Take them through brainstorming as a group, listing out future adventures the character could have. Then back to their desks to get those beautiful ideas onto paper so they can share them later!
Fish (DK Children)
Written & Illustrated by Brendan Kearney
For ages: 4-8
Finn is a fisherman, and he loves his job. He and his dog Skip will get up before the rest of his village has woken up and row themselves out into the ocean, casting his line and waiting for the first bite. But today, things are different. Nothing is biting anymore, and all Finn brings up is trash. He and Skip go home without anything to eat, and Finn is confused. Finally, Finn realizes the fish will return once the trash is dealt with. So he finds a creative way to use this discarded material to help his community.
This is an excellent early book introducing ideas about protecting children’s environment. The illustrations are bright and colorful. The story is written in a way that will engage all kids and keep them interested as Finn & Skip solve a big problem that hurts their ability to feed themselves. The trash is detailed, and you can see how much work has been put into this book by author Brendan Kearney. With every day that passes, the environmental collapse of our planet becomes more urgent, and we’re currently headed to the point of no return (if we haven’t passed it already). Our children need to know the truth of what our ancestors and we have done to this world if we ever hope to repair the harm.
1. A good writing activity would be to have students journal about ways to keep the ocean clean once the trash is removed. What are practices they could be employing in their lives every day to help with that?
2. Have a class project where students work together to repurpose classroom trash. Don’t toss the paper away; store it. Do the same with broken pencils, water bottles (washed out, of course), and other things that might get tossed. Then have groups of students go through this refuse in the second of the year to make something functional or just beautiful.
3. One of the best things you can do after reading a book like this is to start and continue a regular program at your school for community clean-ups. The goal isn’t to fix every problem but to get people involved. When we organize, we can change things, and we need people organized to fix what’s happening to our planet.
List: Moving to a New Home
Goodbye House, Hello House (Blue Dot Kids Press)
Written by Margaret Wild
Illustrated by Ann James
For ages: 3-7
Emma is moving from a home in the country to one in the city. The rhythmic prose follows the girl as she notes all the last things she does in the only house she’s ever known. When she arrives at her new home, she does the opposite, recognizing a whole host of firsts. The symmetry of the narratives makes it perfect for comparing and contrasting or talking about accepting change healthily. Ann James’s illustrations feel like a child’s crayons or watercolor paints, letting colors bleed over lines.
Author Spotlight – Jacqueline Woodson
From top to bottom, Jacqueline Woodson is someone who was born to write. She grew up splitting her life between time in South Carolina and New York, learning a lot from both places. After college, Woodson did a lot of technical writing, from children’s packaging to the California standardized tests. After enrolling in a children’s book writing class led by Delacorte editor Bebe Willoughby, Woodson finally found someone who saw the immense talent she possessed. I find Woodson’s work to be some of the most beautiful and pointed in addressing the social-emotional needs of children, especially Black children. She has been forthright in her opinion that “bleakness” and “hopelessness” have no place in children’s literature without at least a strong notion of hope added to counter them. While Woodson has written for all ages, I am only familiar with her picture book work, and it is some of the best out there right now. She can deftly tackle things many educators may be scared of at the moment, aggressive right-wing movements making it “awkward” to talk about. Woodson’s writing is so laser-focused on speaking to the child that she is not interested in catering to adult hatemongers who want to muddy the child’s thinking.
While you are likely to hear about Woodson’s more recent books (like The Day You Begin or The Year We Learned to Fly), I want to recommend some older pieces from her bibliography.Continue reading “Author Spotlight – Jacqueline Woodson”