“Water Protectors” is the Perfect Book for Earth Day

We Are Water Protectors by Carole Lindstrom, illustrated by Michaela Goade. Roaring Brook Press, New York, NY, 2020.

First, let me say the illustrations in We Are Water Protectors are breathtaking and well worth the purchase price of the book, but that makes sense as it won the 2021 Caldecott Award for best illustration of a children’s book. The book tells of a story told long ago:

“My people talk of a black snake that will destroy the land…They foretold that it wouldn’t come for many, many years.”

Grandmother tells the young girl that water is the first medicine. It surrounded her before she was born. All life depends on water. Clean water. But the black snake is going to come and poison the waters. Indeed, the black snake is here now. As depicted by Michaela Goade, the black snake is an oil pipeline with the head of a terrifying snake. It winds its way through tiny plants and animals.

The illustrations, in watercolor and mixed media, are simply gorgeous. Butterflies and hummingbirds, deer, bear, and a majestic white bird all are shown as dependent on the flowing, sparkling river.

The young girl shouts, as she rallies her people: “Take courage! I must keep the black snake away from my village’s water.”

The final page depicts a protest rally of many indigenous people holding signs proclaiming, “Water is Life.” Michaela Goade says she was “deeply inspired by the solidarity”  at Standing Rock and she “…wanted the illustrations to convey kinship and unity, while also representing a diverse group of Indigenous Nations and allies.” Lindstrom is Anishinaabe/Metis and Goade is of Tlingit descent.

This book would be an important addition to a teacher’s environmental/outdoor education collection. I, personally, could sit and look at the illustrations over and over, but more importantly, it can be used as a call to action. A running theme and poem that is repeated throughout the book says it all:

“We stand

With our songs

And our drums.

We are still here.”

But without action, not only plants and animals could disappear, but people as well.

If the environmental crisis facing us today seems all too overwhelming, here’s a site that suggests simple things we all can do. Pick one. Each small gesture can make a difference.

10 Ways To Keep Plastic Out of the Ocean | Turtle Island Restoration Network (seaturtles.org)

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Woodland Creatures Will Delight Little Ones

Follow Me Into the Woods by Amy Laundrie, illustrated by Abira Das. Published by Pen It! Publications, LLC in the U.S.A, 2020.

Paris is hesitant when Oliver suggests they hike into the woods. She’s afraid of snakes and wonders if there could be a mountain lion nearby. But Oliver reassures her that it’s safe: “Granddaddy knows where we’re hiking, and it won’t get dark for a couple hours yet. I’ll grab a picnic supper and the binoculars. We’ll need them for the surprise.”

Encouraged by the promise of a picnic, Paris consents to the adventure. When they discover a garter snake, Oliver reassures her there are no rattlers. Paris also worries about possible hunters and jumps when she hears a woodpecker. But Oliver is patient and explains what every noise is. She is pleasantly surprised when a chickadee nearly brushes her shoulder.


In the end, Paris spots something she wants to share with Oliver and now she is the one saying, “Follow me.”


Into the Woods is a sweet introduction to nature for the young child. The illustrations are kid friendly and will undoubtedly encourage little ones to point out details in the pictures. Amy, a retired teacher, has created a final page, Fun Facts About Woodland Creatures which has some simple facts about the animals mentioned. She also has a rich assortment of activities and several different author visit opportunities for all ages, including adults at her website. It is definitely worth a visit whether you’re a parent or a teacher.

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Another “Hidden History” Title from Janet Halfmann

The Clothesline Code by Janet Halfmann, illustrated by Trisha Mason.  Brandylane Publishing Inc., Richmond, VA, 2021.

“Dabney stared up the hill, captivated by the Union soldiers waving red-and-white flags. Two soldiers took turns holding a long flagpole and waving the flag to the right and left, over and over again, with dash and flourish.”

Lucy Ann and Dabney Walker, along with their teenage daughter, Sarah, had escaped from slavery about a year earlier and were living and working in a Union camp in Virginia. Dabney had just been assigned to the intelligence unit of the camp and he was eager to learn how best to help the Union army. He asked the soldier with the flag what he was doing. The soldier showed him how the troops sent messages over long distances by using flags—waving them certain ways to represent letters of the alphabet that ultimately spelled words.  Dabney and Lucy Ann got an idea. They could send messages using laundry on a wash line—if they could get inside the enemy camp. Lucy Ann was the laundress of the Union camp, so they thought she could infiltrate the Confederate camp that was just across the river, pose as an enslaved person and use the wash line over there to send messages back to the Union camp. But Dabney hesitated. It was a dangerous plan and Lucy Ann would be in the most danger. She could be hanged if she were caught. But the couple had already endured hardship and danger when they escaped to freedom and Lucy Ann would not listen to Dabney’s objections.

Lucey Ann and Dabney had been forbidden to learn to read and write when they were enslaved, so they had to develop a system not based on the spelling of words. So, they came up with a different system. They chose a different colored shirt for each Confederate leader: Gray for General Longstreet, white for General Hill and red for Stonewall Jackson.  “Lucy Ann and Dabney plotted how they would move each general’s shirt to show a movement of his forces. Removing the gray Longstreet shirt from the line would signal that his troops had moved nearer to Richmond, Virginia. Moving Hill’s white shirt up the clothesline would mean his unit had moved upstream…and on and on.”

In order to get across the river, Lucy Ann posed as an enslaved person belonging to a Confederate woman going across to visit friends. She was successful. Once in the Confederate camp she blended in with the other enslaved men and women and used her skills as a laundress to accomplish her goal as a spy. The Walker’s plan worked like clockwork, until one day when Dabney did not hear from her. Several days went by. Had she been caught? Or worse, hanged?

This non-fiction picture book for older readers will fascinate any child interested in codes. But more importantly, Janet Halfmann is dogged in her pursuit of finding stories about real people who have been overlooked by history (she calls them her “Hidden History” stories) and making them accessible to children. This book, along with her books about Robert Smalls, reviewed here and Lilly Ann Granderson reviewed here do just that and are perfect selections for Black History Month.

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Snowflake Bentley a Perfect Book for this Snowy Season

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Mary Azarian. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1998.

I wasn’t going to make any resolutions this year. Staying healthy amidst a pandemic seemed like enough of a challenge. But I’ve decided to post a review once a month, around the first of the month. I guess I missed that deadline, but at least I’m writing something. My creative writing has really taken a dive during this past year. So, here’s my post for January, 2021.

Many readers will already be familiar with Snowflake Bentley. For those of you who are not this is the perfect time of year to read it. “In the days when farmers worked with ox and sled and cut the dark with lantern light, there lived a boy who loved snow more than anything else in the world.”

Wilson Bentley was born in 1865 in Vermont where the annual snowfall is about 120 inches. “Willie Bentley’s happiest days were snowstorm days. He watched snowflakes fall on his mittens, on the dried grass of Vermont farm fields, on the dark metal handle of the barn door. He said snow was as beautiful as butterflies, or apple blossoms.” The first double spread woodcut illustration, tinted with lots of blue and white watercolor, evokes a serene winter evening. A young Willie spreads out his arms as if trying to collect snowflakes as they fall. A large farmhouse is in the background, tucked into the hills.

The story goes on to say that Willie could net butterflies, and pick apple blossoms, “But he could not share snowflakes because he could not save them.” His mother gave him a microscope and he used it to look at all manner of things, but mostly he used it to study snow crystals. Willie wanted to figure out a way to save their unique beauty. He tried drawing them, but they melted too fast. Even so, “Starting at age fifteen he drew a hundred snow crystals each winter for three winters.” When he was seventeen his parents bought him a camera with a microscope.

Sidebars explain Willie’s failures and successes, the process he used to take the photos and how he “edited” them using a sharp knife to cut away the dark parts of the negative. This is the perfect book to begin a lesson on crystals.

Snow Crystals by W.A. Bentley and W. J. Humphreys is the book Wilson Bentley wrote and contains 2,453 of his snow crystal photos. The plates are black and white and quite stunning. The edition pictured is a paperback, but it is an exact copy of the original. It was published by Dover, Mineola, NY, 1962. The book was originally published by McGraw-Hill in 1931.

I’m going to have fun exploring snow and ice crystals with two little girls this week. I hope you have someone to share such a lesson with also.












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Prairie Lotus a “Re-Write” of the “Little House” Books

Prairie Lotus by Linda Sue Park. Clarion Books Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY, 2020.

In her author’s note, Linda Sue Park, an avid Little House on the Prairie fan, writes, “I wrote Hanna’s story as an attempt at a painful reconciliation… As a child, I would lie in bed night after night, imagining that I, too, lived in De Smet in the 1880s, and that I was Laura’s best friend…Even at the height of my passion for those books, there were parts that I found puzzling and distressing…Ma hated Native Americans…Pa takes part in a blackface minstrel show.”

Park, of Korean American heritage, goes on to say that in 1880  there were no Koreans in America. They emigrated later, in the early 1900s and landed in Hawaii, not the mainland. There were, however, Chinese laborers here building the railroad. Many resided in California. So, when deciding to re-imagine the “Little House” books, she created a completely unique character, a girl of mixed Korean/Chinese/White ancestry. Her mother has died, and her white father has decided to move from California to the plains of South Dakota.

While her father is busy building a store in town, Hanna is trying to get along in a new school. Her mother wanted Hanna to finish school and Hanna insists on it, even when her father has doubts. Her real dream, though, is to become a dressmaker, like her mother. Soon after enrolling in school, most of the students are pulled out by parents suspicious of this new, “Chinese girl.” With only three children left in the school, Hanna manages to make friends with one girl, Bess. Bess eventually helps Hanna sew a dress to be displayed in the window for the grand opening of her father’s shop. But when Hanna is blamed for an incident with a drunken man, her friend’s mother forbids her to help Hanna any longer and people are determined to boycott the store.

“Little House” fans will appreciate Prairie Lotus. It is not only a lovely homage to the positive aspects of those books, but also a much-needed reality check on their troubling racism. Park traveled to South Dakota (LaForge is modeled on De Smet, with houses and businesses in the same locations) and Missouri to research her story, as well as the Pine Ridge Reservation. By respectfully portraying Native Americans and Hanna, a mixed-race character, as well as showing the obstacles those groups faced, Park has added an important work of fiction on the subject of the settlement of the American West.  

 

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Stunning Picture Book Tells Story of One Boy’s Committment to Save the Environment

The Boy Who Grew a Forest, the True Story of Jadav Payeng by Sophia Gholz, Illustrated by Kayla Harren. Sleeping Bear Press, Ann Arbor MI, 2019.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest is a gorgeous book with an important message: No matter how small or insignificant you may think you are, one person can accomplish great things. Even grow a forest.

The story begins simply with a boy who loved trees. “In India, on a large river island, among farms and families hard at work, there lived a boy who loved trees…But each rainy season, floodwaters swallowed more and more of the beautiful tree-covered land.”

When Jadav Payeng was a young teen, he witnessed the death of hundreds of snakes that had become stranded on a sandbar near the island where he lived, and he became determined to do something about it. He knew what the island needed was trees: trees would lead to other growing things and the animals would be able to thrive again. The elders of his village gave him twenty bamboo saplings. And from those humble beginnings, Jadav Payeng grew a forest, which in turn grew other plants and eventually welcomed a whole variety of animals.

The illustrations, in muted earth tones, perfectly depict the landscape of a flooded sandbar and its eventual transformation.  The boy transports cow dung, earthworms, termites, and even red ants to create a rich soil. As pages turn, the reader watches as each new addition slowly turns a barren sandbar into a vibrant forest.

Some additions, however, are not welcomed by the villagers. “Fear swept over the villages when tigers arrived. So, the man planted more grasses to attract small animals that would keep the tigers happy in the forest.” When elephants began to feast on farmers crops, he planted fruit trees to feed the elephants.

The Boy Who Grew a Forest is a testament to the perseverance and ingenuity of the human spirit. In 1979, a young boy saw a problem and through his persistence, and many years of toil, he solved the problem. The “Molai Forest” is now over 1300 acres.

This book was brought to my attention this past April when it won the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award  (SONWA) from Northland College. On Sigurd Olson’s birthday, April 4, Northland College announces its choices for the best in nature writing for the previous year. SONWA categories include adult nonfiction and children’s literature.  (See  https://www.northland.edu/sustain/soei/sonwa/ for a list of all past award winners.)

 

 

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March, by John Lewis: a Graphic Memoir for Our Time

March Books One, Two, and Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.  Top Shelf Productions, Marietta, GA, 2013, 2015, 2016.

With the death of John Lewis and recent demonstrations in support of criminal justice reform, I thought I would review, once again, these graphic memoirs of John Lewis. These books begin and end with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Bookending the remarkable life of John Lewis and the civil rights movement in this way gives one the sense of watching history unfold in the most unlikely way. When George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, and when non-violent demonstrators were beaten and killed, could anyone imagine a day when there would be an African-American President?

The comic book style makes it easy to read all three books at once. Even though they are a fast read, I found myself lingering a bit over many of the entries. The picture of Fannie Lou Hammer being beaten—by Black prisoners forced to beat other Black prisoners—to within an inch of her life; the specter of children being fire-hosed and arrested; the incredible violence that was perpetrated on non-violent demonstrators who sometimes were doing no more than waiting in line outside the courthouse in an effort to register to vote. (A word of caution: the language used is the actual language used by many who fought against the civil rights movement.)

If you missed these books when they first came out, get ahold of them now. If you’ve read them before, they are worth reading again. Especially now. To quote President Obama, speaking at John Lewis’ funeral: “Bull Connor may be gone. But today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone. But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators. We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here, there are those in power doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting – by closing polling locations, and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws, and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that is going to be dependent on mailed-in ballots, so people don’t get sick.”

Once again, it is time to March.

 

 

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Unique Picture Book a Rare Find for Any Age

A Bobby-Dazzler of a Pouch! By Janet Halfmann, Illustrated by Abira Das. Pen It! Publications LLC United States 2020.

“In a forest clearing of eastern Australia, a little grey kangaroo practiced diving into his mum’s pouch. It seemed easy…until he had to find it in a mob.”

Who knew that kangaroo mothers actually give their joeys (babies) lessons in diving quickly into her pouch so they can be safe when danger is near? I certainly didn’t. And that’s the unique aspect of this story. Readers of all ages will learn about interesting animals many have never heard of.  And interesting facts about them. Such as, sometimes, the baby kangaroo doesn’t choose the right pouch and ends up surprising another “mum” and baby. When the baby is ten or eleven months old it is no longer welcome in the pouch because  it will soon be needed by a new baby.  But the mother still nurses them both—with different milk for each! These facts and many more are highlighted in a section called “Fun Kangaroo Facts” at the end of the book.

This delightful picture book tells the story of one mother kangaroo and her joey. Mom is teaching her baby how to dive into her pouch. This is a survival skill he will need. But little joey doesn’t know how he will be able to tell his mum’s pouch from all the other mums out there. When he sees a bird with a black tail he comes up with a creative idea:

‘“Could I please have some of your tail feathers?” Joey asked. “I want to put them on Mum’s pouch like little flags so it will be easier to find.” “Bloody good idea!” said Willy Wagtail, and right away offered four feathers.” Soon, all the animals Joey meets up with want to help too.

Halfmann’s book is filled with Australian expressions and exotic animals from Eastern Australia and Tasmania.  Children will be fascinated by Rainbow Lorikeets, Wombats and Sugar Gliders. The kangaroos are eastern grays.

“Australian Words,” another section at the end of the book, explains the unique slang  (such as “bobby-dazzler”) used in the story.

The illustrations, by Abira Das, are playful and will definitely engage the young child. Teachers of elementary students, however, should consider adding this title to their classroom library. With just the right amount of information about animals of eastern Australia, it is an excellent source for inspiring further research. A paper on Echidnas would surely impress fellow classmates!

 

 

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Young Adult Novel, Swing, Serves Up Both Laughter and Tears

Swing by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess. Published by Blink, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018.

“While I’m waiting

by the flagpole

baking beneath sun

hot as the equator,

someone walks up

behind me,

covers my eyes,

and whispers

in a voice

smooth as silk:

Guess who?” 

It’s Sam, the girl Noah has known since third grade, and who he’s been in love with ever since. Now, Juniors in high school, life is a little more complicated. Sam has a steady boyfriend, but Noah’s best friend, Walt, tells Noah that doesn’t matter. She will soon be available. Walt is an incurable optimist. After both of them getting cut from baseball tryouts, Walt is determined to get on Varsity Senior year.

“I’ll tell you this Noah. I WILL make the Varsity baseball

team senior year. Bet on that. I’ll practice harder than

before…

From now on, just call me Swing.”

Walt has decided to become the ultimate cool, so besides taking on the moniker, Swing, and other dubious (according to Noah) persuits, tries to get Noah interested in jazz. But Noah thinks:

“…jazz sounds like

what biting into a lemon

would taste like

if you could bear it.”

When Noah buys his mother a purse at a resale shop, and discovers old love letters inside, he is inspired to write anonymous letters to Sam. But he doesn’t give them to her. When Walt takes charge and sneaks them into Sam’s bag, Noah is furious.

Baseball, and the strange appearance of American flags cropping up all over town, weave themselves through this novel, written in verse. Two best friends: Noah who is White, and Walt, who is Black, are just trying to navigate adolescence.

Like Aristotle and Dante, which I reviewed last time, this novel is filled with the clever banter of two young men who are smart and funny. The ease of reading this text carries the reader through the story in a hurry. This is a novel particularly appropriate for this moment in our history. Just be prepared to not only laugh, but to cry as well.

 

 

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YA Book treats an Important Subject With Sensitivity

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Simon and Shuster Children’s Publishing Division, New York, NY, 2012.

“The problem with my life was that it was someone else’s idea.”

Aristotle Mendoza is fifteen. One steamy hot morning, he wakes up to a song on the radio he hates. “I was bored. I was miserable…The DJ was annoying. He’s yelling: ‘Wake up El Paso. It’s June fifteenth, 1987!’” But Ari doesn’t feel like waking up. It’s not until the DJ plays La Bamba, that he thinks he might be able to cope with this day.

Ari greets his mother in the kitchen and we immediately see the two of them have a warm relationship. Ari and his father – more problematic. Ari’s father fought in Vietnam and the war changed him. “So I was the son of a man who had Vietnam living inside him. Yeah, I had all kinds of tragic reasons for feeling sorry for myself. Being fifteen didn’t help. Sometimes I thought that being fifteen was the worst tragedy of all.”

One of those tragedies is that he has a brother, eleven years older than he, in prison. His parents don’t talk about him. There are no photos of him in the house. It’s as if his brother doesn’t exist.

On this day, though, Ari’s life will take an unexpected turn when he goes to the local pool. He doesn’t know how to swim, so he sits on the edge of the pool, eventually floating in the shallow end. And then he hears a voice: “I can teach you how to swim.” When it turns out the boy’s name is Dante, “…we both kind of went a little crazy. Laughing…I wondered what it was we were laughing about. Was it just our names?”

These are smart, funny teens who know who their namesakes were. They ride the bus and make up stories about the riders. They argue about comics vs. literature. “I was darker than he was. And I’m not just talking about our skin coloring. He told me I had a tragic vision of life. ‘That’s why you like Spider-Man.’” Dante, on the other hand, likes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  Ari reads it and tells Dante he hates it, when in fact, he loves it. Then Ari discovers it’s one of his father’s favorite books. “I wanted to ask him if he’d read it before or after he’d fought in Vietnam. It was no good to ask my father questions. He never answered them.”

And so, Ari, a loner, a kid who doesn’t seem to fit in, has found a friend. He has to admit to himself, “Dante. I really liked him. I really, really liked him.”

This is a novel that begins with two young teens finding each other. It ends with them finding themselves and learning what it means to be true to who you are. And they both, over the next two years, grow up.

This novel, of two boys coming to terms with their sexuality, is beautifully written as can be attested to by the four awards it received: The Michael L. Printz Award, the Stonewall Book Award, the Pura Belpre’ Award and the Lambda Literary Award. If you haven’t already read this one, I encourage you to read it now. You know you have the time.

 

 

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