Blips on a Screen: How Ralph Baer Invented TV Video Gaming and Launched a Worldwide Obsession (Knopf Books for Young Readers) Written by Kate Hannigan Illustrated by Zachariah Ohora
For ages: 4-8 As much as we play video games in contemporary culture, we don’t know the names of many people who laid the foundations for this form of entertainment. Blips on a Screen attempts to remedy this by telling the story of Ralph Baer. Born Rolf Baer in Germany, his family was Jewish and fled the Nazis in 1938, just before the borders were closed, and the horrors of the Holocaust ratcheted up. After a name change to try and assimilate, Ralph grew up with a love of inventing things. Radios were his passion, which led to using those skills as a soldier for the States in World War II. After coming home, Ralph wondered if there was a way to create electronic games, and the growing popularity of television had him thinking. Ralph would eventually make and release the Odyssey, the first home video game console, in 1972.
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.
Wordy Birdy (Dragonfly Books) Written by Tammi Sauer Illustrated by Dave Mottram
For ages: 3-6 Some picture books feel like they work for children but are best appreciated by adults. Wordy Birdy may remind some childcare workers & educators of many of their students. First thing in the morning, she talks and continues until the book ends. Her friends’ reactions (Squirrel, Rabbit, Raccoon) will provide the most chuckles for adults with slight annoyance but accept that this is who Wordy Birdy is. It doesn’t help that the talkative bird likes to embellish her stories with unrealistic details. As much as she may get on their nerves sometimes, this trio is there to help when Birdy gets herself into some potential danger. A great book that acknowledges that silence is golden & friendship is essential.
Theo TheSaurus: The Dinosaur Who Loved Big Words (Viking Books for Young Readers) Written by Shelli R. Johannes Illustrated by Mike Moran
For ages: 4-8 Theo is a TheSaurus, a dinosaur type known for their rich vocabulary. On his first day of school, he can’t help but refer to the snacks as “crudités,” lunch as a “midday repast,” and hide-and-seek as “a game of conceal and search.” Theo is aware that the words he uses are considered fancy and not ordinary, making him feel insecure. He worries that his classmates don’t like him, and it seems that Theo’s fear will be realized on his hatching day when none of his classmates show up for the party. Theo’s parents embrace him in a big, reminding their verbose child that he is an incredible little dinosaur. Then the doorbell rings, and his classmates are simply tardy. This book hits the social-emotional elements educators are always on the lookout for and will build vocabulary & spark your students’ desire to enrich their own.
A Walk in the Words (Nancy Paulsen Books) Written & Illustrated by Hudson Talbot
For ages: 4-8 If you are an educator, you have seen students aware of their reading struggles. Unfortunately, many of these students internalize these challenges as personal faults and become either hostile to learning or develop deep feelings of inadequacy. Author Hudson Talbot turns his childhood struggle with reading into the story of a little boy navigating a scary forest where trees are adorned with complicated sentences and vocabulary. Talbot’s greatest strength is the way his illustrations work so beautifully as metaphors for his struggles and growth. The book was very similar to older morality stories like The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the metaphors are pretty obvious, but that’s needed for the intended audience. Talbot also includes a Slow Readers Hall of Fame in the end pages to remind struggling students some of our most brilliant minds faced the same difficulties as kids.
16 Words: William Carlos Williams and “The Red Wheelbarrow” (Schwartz & Wade) Written by Lisa Rogers Illustrated by Chuck Groenink
For ages: 4-8 Poetry is one art form that capitalism has been unable to sink its hooks into. As a result, it remains one of the purest forms of human expression. It is often overlooked for flashier, faster mediums. Lisa Rogers adores the writing of William Carlos Williams, and she can convey that to her readers through this history lesson/exploration of an incredibly famous poem. The poem comes as the finale, while Rogers details Williams’ life as a family doctor in the suburbs of northern New Jersey in the 1920s. Rogers also introduces Williams’ neighbor, Thaddeus Marshall, who grew a vegetable garden that Williams could spy from his window. The poet notices how Marshall’s vegetables help feed many people in their community, which starts a poem percolating in his mind. Our students are deprived of the magic of poetry, especially in elementary grades, where they need to experience how wordplay is a crucial piece of our creative development. If you are looking for a great introduction to a poetry unit, I don’t think you could do better than this picture book.
The Word Pirates (Neal Porter Books) Written by Susan Cooper Illustrated by Steven Kellogg
For ages: 4-8 The pirates that sail under the command of Captain Rottingbones hunger for one thing only, words. They have trained Bumblebirds that swoop down and steal from the best writers and books available to feast on. Some prefer aperitifs of words like “pop.” Other buccaneers desire to eat on big, filling words like “antidisestablishmentarianism.” Eventually, they do battle with a Word Wizard in New Zealand who doesn’t leave them adrift but teaches the scallywags how to make their own words rather than rely on stealing them. Steven Kellog is a tried & true legend in picture books. His illustrations feel familiar and perfectly suited for this silly story. Susan Cooper pens a tale that will undoubtedly entertain students. A great follow-up activity would be to have students design a filling meal with their favorite words to serve.
Digging For Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built ( Schwartz & Wade) Written by Angela Burke Kunkel Illustrated by Paola Escobar
For ages: 4-8 You have likely never heard of José Alberto Gutiérrez, but neither had I. He was a garbage collector living and working in Bogota, Colombia, who started to notice people throwing books in the trash. Jose began collecting the books he found, which became the driving force in his daily life, building his collection. The first book that connects with him is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Once his collection was large enough, Jose realized he wanted to share these beautiful texts with his community. So, in his working-class neighborhood, he builds a library named Paradise and gets to watch his neighbors get transported to the same worlds Jose experienced when he read the books. Paola Escobar’s illustrations do an extraordinary job of visualizing the experience of getting lost in a good book, feeling ensconced in a world different yet familiar to your own. I also love a book that highlights blue-collar/working-class people as also being intellectual, something I think is overlooked in extremely anti-intellectual cultures like the United States.
Noah Webster and His Words (Clarion Books) Written by Jerri Chase Ferris Illustrated by Vincent X. Kirsch
For ages: 6-9 Few people in history loved words as much as Noah Webster, so much that he developed the second most popular book to ever sell in the Western world, Webster’s Dictionary. From an early age, he was pretty clever, entering Yale at 15. Through this text, we learn he imagined a “second Declaration of Independence,” which would create a consistent spelling system for English in the United States. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, it was not uncommon to find some words with six or more spellings based on region or just the individual’s background. This could have easily been a dry, boring book. Still, it is Vincent Kirsch’s cartoonish illustrations & his creative choice of how to frame the words & pictures that elevate this into an entertaining read. Webster isn’t presented as a flawless saint; at one point, Kirsch inflates his head like a balloon on a page that talks about the scholar’s often pompous confidence. Because this is a book about dictionaries, many big words are used, and explanations on how to use & read these lexicons are provided. This is a fantastic example of how biographies for elementary students should be written.
Will’s Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge) Written by Jane Sutcliffe Illustrated by John Shelley
For ages: 7-10 Children should be introduced to Shakespeare earlier in their education than in high school. Will’s Words is a book that can be that window into a world of art that shaped Western civilization. Author Jane Sutcliffe pulls a little meta-writing out and talks about how in writing a book about Shakespeare, you suddenly learn how many of our everyday words and phrases were invented/curated by him in his plays. “Too much of a good thing,” “household chores,” and “eyeball” are just some of the many examples of terms the playwright was the first to coin in his stories. Sutcliffe also includes the history of The Globe Theater and briefly touches on the many plays Shakespeare wrote and performed there. So if you are searching for an accessible text for upper elementary students to begin what will hopefully be a lifelong love of the Bard, Will’s Words might do the trick.
The Crayon Man: The True Story of the Invention of Crayola Crayons (Clarion Books) Written by Natasha Biebow Illustrated by Steven Salerno
For ages: 6-9 There’s little chance your students haven’t used crayons as they’ve grown up, and there’s a solid chance they used Crayola brand crayons. This book gives children a history lesson on how those waxy coloring sticks came about. Author Natasha Biebow introduces readers to Edward Binney, a businessman & inventor who ran a company that sold carbon black. Carbon black was a newly developed pigment that could be used in printing inks, polish, and street lamps. Binney created a black wax crayon which became popular to write on paper packages for shipping. Alice, his wife, was a former schoolteacher and said she could see children enjoying multicolored wax crayons to use in their art. Through trial and error, Binney eventually strikes upon a formulation that works. His wife came up with the name “Craie Ola,” meaning “oily chalk.”
The structure of The Crayon Man is exactly what I was looking for as an elementary school teacher. It has all the facts & information necessary but also uses features like bolding keywords, text boxes with supplemental historical context that can be read after the initial reading to provide more understanding, and illustrations that both express the character’s emotions while being detailed enough to present a world more than a hundred years old to our students. There will be readers who linger on pages like the sooty carbon black factory or the scene as Binney and his workers grind materials to make the rainbow of pigments needed for their crayons. I am a big advocate of children understanding where everyday materials in their lives come from. It helps them understand the labor involved in manufacturing and appreciate objects because many people spend their time developing and producing these things.
What’s Up Pup: How Our Furry Friends Communicate and What They Are Saying (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (BYR)) Written by Kersten Hamilton Illustrated by Lili Chin
For ages: 4-8 When I was a little child, I was so afraid of dogs. I shouldn’t have been, but my parents did not do an excellent job introducing me to dogs and modeling how to act with them. It wasn’t until we got two dogs of our own when I was ten that my confidence with the animals began to grow. It wouldn’t be until I was a full-grown adult and my wife and I got our dogs that I truly began to understand what beautiful, loving creatures they are. The key to this was learning how to read a dog’s body language & barks, their only means of communicating with us humans. These are easy things to misinterpret, and we can’t just use our understanding of people to decode dogs.
What’s Up Pup is an excellent primer for young children to observe a dog to understand its feelings. Through her rhyming text, author Kersten Hamilton lets us know that when you interact with a dog, you should primarily pay attention to its noises and tail. These two indicators will often let you know the animal’s mood and how you should approach them. This is aided by the beautiful illustrations of Lili Chin, who provides a variety of breeds and can perfectly capture the movements of dogs. I particularly love a two-page spread where the sentence “Next, pretty purebreds, mixed, or mutts must wuffle-whiff fur and snuffle-sniff butts” accompanied by over half a dozen dogs in a park sniffing each other’s rear ends. It’s a behavior our students have seen, and the book helps provide context as to why this is happening. A list of behaviors and what they mean to go even deeper with interested readers is included at the end. I recommend this book to alleviate children’s anxieties about interacting with a dog. They will walk away more interested in spending time with a dog and building their confidence with the animals.
In America today there is a growing problem with far right-wing reactionary behavior. A small but loud subset of the population is creating a lot of difficulties in public education by making wild accusations about what happens inside schools. I’m sure you’ve seen the nonsense claims of CRT (a law school theory) being taught in schools, that “furries” are allowed to use litter boxes in schools, and that teachers are grooming children to become transgender. It’s absolute psychopathy used by fascistic political forces to gain power in the country. As educators, we have an obligation to aggressively push back in any way we can against this rhetoric. We must educate our students on media literacy and critical thinking, so they do not get swallowed up in this frenzy.
There is an ugly event happening within portions of America at the moment, a rising tide of transphobia & gender ignorance prodded on by greedy media interested in driving up traffic and morally rotten politicians who think throwing hateful red meat to their voting base guarantees them electoral success. All of this spits in the face of reality which is that LGBTQ+ people have existed and lived in our societies since the earliest days humans walked the Earth. Transgender people are not a “new fad”; they have been ever-present; in the United States, reactionary forces have been very efficient at driving these people into even further marginalization. That does not extinguish the truth, though. There is hope that we can end this hate, not by listening to the transphobes but by holding up and supporting transgender youth.
The Second Red Scare (1947-1957) is a period of American history not often addressed with our younger students. As the political climate in the United States becomes increasingly reactionary (one look at today’s headlines shows the horror), we must inform our students about times in America’s past when people’s political beliefs were used to harm them. The tradition in the United States in times of political strife is for most of the brutality to be visited upon Leftists’ heads. This was no more apparent than during the McCarthy era when people lost jobs and were even sent to prison simply for holding a political belief supportive of Communism.
For ages: 4-8 Our world is full of inventions we use every day but rarely think much about. The traffic light is a crucial technology that has helped save countless lives. It was invented by Black American Garrett Morgan, whose story is told in verse in this brand-new children’s book. Morgan was born to a farming family in 1870s Kentucky, where he seems to be underfoot while the adults and big kids do essential work. The young man’s strength comes in the form of mechanical genius, breaking down and rebuilding all sorts of devices to understand how they work. For example, after studying with a tutor, Morgan invents the zigzag stitch after breaking apart a sewing machine.