Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring by Nancy Churnin

Happy Juneteenth 2020!

Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring

Nancy Churnin, Author

Felicia Marshall, Illustrator

Creston Books, Biography, Feb. 4, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 6- 11

Themes: Laura Wheeler Waring, Artist, African American, Biography

Opening: “Laura loved the color brown. She loved her mother’s chocolate-colored hair, her father’s caramel coat, and all the different browns in the cheeks of her younger sister and brothers.”

Synopsis:

As a 10-year-old girl, Laura spent hours mixing and blending colors to find the perfect shades of brown to paint pictures of her parents, brothers and sister and friends. She dreamed of being an artist and exhibiting her artwork in museums. But she didn’t see any artists who looked like her. In 1897 she didn’t see artwork of African Americans. So she created her own gallery, and hung her painting on the walls of her room where her family could view her art.

Her dreams continued to grow. By the time she finished high school, she applied to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. She was accepted. Her dreams didn’t stop there. After she graduated she went to Paris to study art and the great artists.  Word of her talent spread and she was commissioned to paint the portraits of accomplished African Americans — poets, authors, diplomats, activists and singers, including her inspiration, Marian Anderson.

Today Laura Wheeler Waring’s portraits hang in Washington D.C.’s National Portrait Gallery, where children of all races can admire the beautiful shades of brown she captured.

Why I like this book:

Well done Nancy Churnin! Beautiful Shades of Brown is a celebration of brown Americans, as readers will discover in Churnin’s polished and richly textured narrative about Laura Wheeler Waring’s ordinary, but extraordinary life. Children will find her journey inspiring.

Waring is the perfect role model for little girls who have big dreams. Determined and committed to pursuing her passion, young Laura began to manifest her dreams. She was self-confident, believed in her gift, and welcomed each opportunity that came her way. Most important, she was paving the way for girls and women to live their dreams.

Felicia Marshall’s illustrations are rich, beautiful, expressive and soulful. My favorite illustration shows the joy Waring feels as she paints Marian Anderson’s red gown and remembers the day she first heard her sing.

There’s an informative Author’s Note, and the book is further enhanced by reproductions of seven of Waring’s portraits from the National Portrait Gallery.

Resources: Encourage children to draw or paint a picture of a family member. If they use paints, suggest that they mix colors together to create more interesting faces, hair and clothing.

Nancy Churnin is the author of several picture book biographies, including South Asia Book Award winner Manjhi Moves a Mountain and Sydney Taylor Notable Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, both Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People. Visit Churnin at her website.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J. Lockington

For Black Girls Like Me

Mariama J. Lockington, Author

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Fiction, Jul. 30, 2019

Suitable for Ages:  9-11

Themes: Idenity, African-American, Interracial adoptions, Family problems, Mental illness, Moving,

Opening: “I am a girl but most days I feel like a question mark. People throw their looks at me. Then back at my mama sister and papa. Who are all as white as oleander. Then they look back at me. Black as a midnight orchard.”

Bookjacket Synopsis:

Makeda June Kirkland is eleven-years old, adopted, and black. Her parents and big sister are white, and even though she loves her family very much Keda often feels left out. When Keda’s family moves from Maryland to New Mexico, she leaves behind her best friend, Lena — the only other adopted black girl she knows — for a new life. In New Mexico, everything is different. At home, Keda’s sister is too cool to hang out with her anymore, and at school, she can’t seem to find one true friend.

Through it all, Keda can’t help but wonder: What would it feel like to grow up with a family that looks like me? Keda has a constant dialogue in her head with the birth mother she never knew.

In this deeply felt coming-of-age story, about family, sisterhood, music, race, and identity, Mariama J. Lockington draws on some of the motional truths from her own experiences of growing up with an adoptive white family. For Black Girls Like Me is for anyone who has ever asked themselves: How do you figure out where you are going if you don’t know where you came from?

Why I like this book:

Mariama J. Lockington has penned an intimate and emotional debut novel that will touch reader’s souls. It is about a girl being adopted into an interracial family. The author uses many of her own personal experiences to share Keda’s inner turmoil of feeling both “loved and lonely” in her white family. This rarely-told story is long overdue and will resonate with many transracial adoptees.

There is beauty in Lockington’s book.  She is a very lyrical writer, so there are many poetic turns of phrases. Her writing tone is rich and and is enhanced with Keda’s musical lyrics, poems, letters, and a journal that carries her heart back and forth through the postal mail to Lena, her bestie. The journal is a lifeline and bond for both. It’s a creative inclusion in the narrative. The plot is multilayered and courageous.

The characters are authentic and complicated. Keda is deeply sensitive, observant and curious about her birth mother. At school she dislikes the never ending questions about her hair, her adoption, and her biological mother. Most of all, she doesn’t like the accusations of being “too proper” and “talking so white.” Keda’s life may feel complex, but she is resilient.  She is a talented song writer and her music is her freedom from  lonliness and hurt. She finds a soulmate in singer Billie Holiday’s blues music.

Making friends is easy for Eve, Keda’s older white sister. Eve is popular and distant, leaving Keda without a friend. Their family is musical. Mama is a prodigy – a talented solo violinist who left the stage when she started a family. Papa is a talented celloist, who heads out on a worldwide concert tour after their move to New Mexico. However Mama’s mental health issues emerge and spiral out of control. The sisters are thrown together to grapple with big decisions.

For Black Girls Like Me raises timely questions about race, identity, and mental health issues that will foster excellent classroom discussions. It is an outstanding work of fiction and belongs in every school library. Keda’s life may feel messy but it is full of courage, hope and promise.

Favorite Quotes:

“So you’re like Obama? An Oreo!” / Kinda. Wait. What’s an Oreo? / “You know when you’re all black on the outside but really white on the inside?” (Page 37)

Questions I have for black girls (with hair) like me: Who decides what kind of hair is beautiful? Do you ever just want to tell your mom: “White lady stop! You don’t know what you’re doing!” Do you remember the first black woman to ever washed your hair? What did it feel like? Did it hurt? Or did it feel like home? (Page 134)

“I am a girl becoming a woman. People throw their puzzled looks at me and I know they’re wondering: Who does she look like? But I am learning to say: Me. I look like me. I am a girl becoming a woman.” (Page 317)

Mariama J. Lockington is an adoptee, writer, and nonprofit educator. She has been telling stories and making her own books since the second grade, when she wore short-alls and flower leggings every day to school. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Buzzfeed News Reader, and she is the author of the poetry chapbook The Lucky Daughter. Mariama holds a Masters in Education from Lesley University and Masters in Fine Arts in Poetry from San Francisco State University. She lives in Lexington, KY with her partner and dapple haired dachshund, Henry.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Sweet Dreams, Sarah by Vivian Kirkfield

Sweet Dreams, Sarah

Vivian Kirkfield, Author

Chris Ewald, Illustrator

Creston Books, Fiction,

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Inventor, African-American woman, Patent, Sarah E. Goode, Cabinet bed, Post Civil War history

Opening: “Before the Civil War, Sarah obeyed her owner. / Hurry up. / Eyes down. / Don’t speak.”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Sarah E. Goode was one of the first African-American women to get a US patent. Working in her furniture store, she recognized a need for a multi-use bed and through hard work, ingenuity, and determination, invented her unique cupboard bed. She built more than a piece of furniture. She built a life far away from slavery, a life where her sweet dreams could come true.

Why I like this book:

Vivian Kirkfield has written a compelling story about a gutsy African-American woman and a true trailblazer who built and patented her cabinet bed in 1885 — before women had the right to vote.

Kirkfield’s well-researched story shows the hurdles black women had to overcome to own a store, become an inventor and obtain a patent. Make sure you check out the back matter which provides more detailed information for discussion about Sarah Goode, the  time period in which she lived in Chicago, and other notable patent holders who were also African-American women.

Kirkfield’s lyrical text is beautiful and emotional. Her narrative showcase’s Sarah’s relentless determination to actualize her dreams and earn an important place in African-American history. Chris Ewalds’s rich illustrations add another layer of beauty to Sarah’s remarkable story.

Resources: Encourage children to draw a picture of something they’d like to invent.  Visit Kirkfield at her website.  There is a Teachers’ Guide available for download.

Vivian KirkfieldWriter For Children – Reader Forever. Even as a young child, I knew that books would always be an important part of my life. They were my window on the world.

When I grew up, I realized how important it is to step out of one’s comfort zone. Although I was afraid of heights, I went skydiving with my son and parasailing with my husband. Although I am a non-swimmer and afraid of the water, I walked under the ocean with a Jules Verne-like helmet on my head. Although I had never traveled internationally, last year I flew 24 hours to Singapore to speak at an SCBWI conference.

In my school visits, my parent/teacher workshops and with the books that I write, I hope to help every young child become a lover of books and reading…because books help kids soar!

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.
*Reviewed from a purchased copy.

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice

Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, Authors

Jennifer Zivoin, Illustrator

Magination Press, Fiction, Apr. 4, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes: Racial injustice, Police shooting, Racism, Prejudice, Inequality, Social Justice

Opening “Something bad happened in our town. The news was on the TV, the radio, and the internet. The grown-ups didn’t think the kids knew about it.”

Book Synopsis:

This story follows a White family and a Black family as they discuss their reactions to a recent police shooting of a Black man. Emma and Josh first hear some older kids discussing the shooting at school. And they have a lot of questions when they go home.

Emma questions her white parents about the tragedy. Emma wants to know why the police shot the man. Her parents say the shooting was “a mistake.”  Her sister, Liz, says “the cops shot him because he was Black.” This leads them to a discussion about racism, inequality, slavery and prejudice.

Josh is Black and wants to know if the White policeman can go to jail? It gives his family the chance to have an open discussion about the shooting, racial profiling, inequality and the unique issues for African American families. They inspire him with stories about Black leaders who stood up for people treated unfairly.

When Emma and Josh return to school, there is a new boy in their classroom. His name is Omad. At recess none of the kids want to include Omad in a soccer game because he is different. But Emma and Josh remember their discussions with their parents and take action.

Why I like this book:

Kudos to the authors for writing this timely and compelling book for children about a difficult topic — police shootings. I also like the fact that both Emma and Josh have older siblings who speak their minds. The book narrative and language is age-appropriate and encourages questions and thoughtful discussions.  The illustrations are expressive, colorful and capture the tension in the story. I hope that Something Happened in Our Town receives a lot of book love because it is a powerful and relevant resource for classrooms. The positive resolution empowers kids to make an effort to connect with kids who may be ignored and make a difference in their communities.

Resources: The book is a wonderful resource for parents and teachers. There is a Note to Parents and Caregivers at the end that provides general guidance about addressing racism with children, child-friendly vocabulary definitions, conversation guides, and a link to additional online resources for parents and teachers. In addition to modeling conversations about race, this book provides messages of acceptance, empowerment and positive community support.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Review copy provided by the publisher.

Just South of Home by Karen Strong

Just South of Home

Karen Strong, Author

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 9, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 320

Themes: African Americans, Family Relationships, Racism, Crimes, Georgia, Ghosts, Supernatural

Book Synopsis:

Twelve-year-old Sarah is finally in charge. At last, she can spend her summer months reading her favorite science books and bossing around her younger, brainy brother, Ellis, instead of being worked to the bone by their overly strict grandmother, Mrs. Greene. But when their cousin, Janie, arrives for a visit, Sarah’s plans are completely squashed.

Janie has a knack for getting into trouble and asks Sarah to take her to the burned-down ruins of Creek Church, a landmark of the small town that she heard was haunted with ghosts. It’s also off-limits. Janie’s sticky fingers disturb the restless ghosts (or haints), who are unleashed upon the town. It is up to Sarah, Janie, Ellis and his best friend, Jasper to uncover the deep-seated racist part of the town’s past that is filled with unimaginable crimes against the black community. With a bit of luck, this foursome will heal the place they call home and the people within it they call family.

Why I like this book:

Karen Strong’s Just South of Home is a haunting and extraordinary experience for readers who are interested in looking at racist atrocities committed in the South and how they impact a community who wants to forget the past. The author doesn’t shy away from dealing with the burning of the town’s Creek Church by the Klan and a boy who is brutally murdered and buried near the church. His restless spirit is trapped and needs to move into the light realm.

The characters are loveable and memorable. Sarah’s safe and logical science-filled background is overturned once she experiences the force of evil and the unrest of the haints. Janie is fearless and nudges Sarah to do things she wouldn’t normally do — like breaking into their grandmother’s attic
to search for clues about Creek Church and getting caught. Mrs. Greene is unmoving and won’t think twice about using a willow switch as a form of punishment. But she is also very generous with her famous red velvet cake. Evolving family relationships are central to this novel.

Strong’s plot is thrilling and suspense-filled. It is mystery that Sarah, Janie, Ellis and Jasper desperately want to solve. Her deliberate pacing keeps readers fully engaged and wondering what will happen next. Teens looking for something original and creative will enjoy this novel. It is an excellent discussion book because of the historical themes.

Karen Strong was born and raised in rural Georgia. She spent most of her childhood wandering the woods, meadows, and gardens on her grandmother’s land. She now lives in Atlanta. Just South of Home is her first novel. Visit the author at her website.

Favorite Quote: Page 100

I couldn’t deny it. What we had seen was as real as the sun, the stars, and the planets in our solar system. Those shadows were physical things, and they weren’t human. I didn’t need any more theories. No more explanations. Creek Church was haunted. 

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a library copy.

Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town by A. LaFaye

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Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town

A. LaFaye, Author

Nicole Tadgell, Illustrator

Albert Whitman & Company, Historical fiction, Jan. 1, 2019

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: African-American, Pioneer Settlement, Native Americans, Community, Kansas

Opening: The whoo-eeeh-follow-me holler of the six o-clock train rumbled right into Dede’s dreams. She rode across a prairie so wide even the angels couldn’t see the end of it. Her family had a plan. They would own a place in that open land.

Synopsis:

The Pattons want to leave sharecropping behind and have a farm of their very own. Mama sews dresses and Papa builds furniture to make extra money at night, and Dede shines shoes at the train station. It will take years before her family will save enough to pay off their debt and by their own place.

One day Dede sees a notice offering free land for colored folks in Nicodemus, Kansas. The Pattons pack their bags and board a train. It’s time for them to claim and stake out a homestead near the brand-new town of Nicodemus. They build a sod home along the bank of the Solomon River before winter. Papa stakes out the boundaries of their claim.  Before they can plow and plant their fields, they must face their first winter on the prairie. While they hunt for food, they meet Shanka Sabe, a member of the Native American Osage Nation, who shares his food with them. Will the Pattons  find a better future for themselves?

Why I like this book:

The cover is gorgeous, as are the expressive and detailed watercolor illustrations by Nicole Tadgell. They compliment A. LaFaye’s uplifting and poetic narrative about these African-American pioneers traveling west — building sod homes, hunting food, surviving harsh winters, plowing the spring fields, building fences, planting crops, meeting new neighbors and watching a town come to life.

Follow Me Down to Nicodemus Town, is a perfect classroom share for Black History month. It is a wonderful peek into a period of history that few know about. Nicodemus was founded in the late 1870s by Exodusters — former slaves and sharecroppers, like Dede’s family, who flocked to the Kansas prairie to stake out land, build a homestead and farm. I love that it is shared in a children’s picture book.

Resources: Make sure you check out the historical information About the Exodusters in the back of the book. There is another important piece of history that is briefly touched on in the book — the Native Americans who were forced to sell their lands in the Great Plains and move to Oklahoma. Check out this website, to learn more about Nicodemus and the amazing people who settled there. Each year the current residents, the families of former resident, and the descendants of the original settlers celebrate the Nicodemus Emancipation and Homecoming during the third week in July.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Review copy provided by publisher.

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Finding Langston

Lesa Cline-Ransome, Author

Holiday House, Fiction, Aug. 14, 2018

Pages: 108

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Loss, Single-parent families, Moving, Bullying, Poetry, the Great Migration, Chicago, History

Opening: “Never really thought much about Alabama’s red dirt roads, but now, all I can think about is kicking up their dust.”

Synopsis: Eleven-year-old Langston is a long way from Alabama. After his mother dies in 1946, and he and his father move to Chicago’s Bronzeville. Langston must leave behind everything that he cherishes — his family, friends, Grandma’s Sunday suppers, the red clay and the magnolia trees his mama loved so much. He misses the slow pace of life at home and how he could take his time walking home before he starts his chores.

Bronzeville is noisy. Their kitchenette apartment is just a lonely room with two beds, a table and chairs and a hot plate. Dinner is what daddy brings home and throws into a pot. At night, the sounds are loud. People talk loudly on stoops, music blares from radios, and huge rats run down the hallways. At school, Langston is teased for being too country and three boys bully him after school. But his new home has something his old home didn’t have: the George Cleveland Hall Library that welcomes the community, black and white.

The library becomes a refuge from the bullies and a place where Langston joyfully discovers another Langston, a poet whose words are powerful and speak to him of home. With the help of a kind librarian, he reads all of Langston Hughes’ poetry, discovers the power of words and is transported.  A neighbor, who is a teacher, also introduces Langston to other black poets. Through poetry Langston begins to understand his mother, uncovers one of her secrets and finds healing through his namesake.

Why I like this book:

There is so much beauty in Lesa Cline-Ransome’s coming of age novel. Langston will melt your heart as he deals with loss and loneliness, and struggles to find his voice through words and poetry. It is an inspiring story that is relevant today.

The story also gives readers insight into the Great Migration of black families in search of better jobs in larger cities, like Chicago and New York. They leave behind a slower-paced life and close family relationships, to live in sub-standard housing in noisy, concrete cities.

The chapters are short, the narrative is strong and the writing is lyrical. The plot is compelling and there are themes that will spark important discussions among teens and adults.  This is an important book to add to any classroom curriculum.

Favorite lines: Langston’s first visit to a public library.

I trace the letters on the covers of each and stop. One has my name. I pull it out and open to the first page.

I pick up my life

And take it with me

And I put it down in 

Chicago, Detroit,

Buffalo, Scranton.

Feels like reading words from my heart. (Pg. 21-22)

Lesa Cline-Ransome is best known for her award-winning picture books. Her most recent book, Before She Was Harriet, is illustrated by her husband, James Ransome, received six starred reviews, a Christopher Award, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award for illustration, and a nomination for a NAACP Image Award. Finding Langston is her first novel. Visit the author at her website.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from library copy.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina and 13 Artists

Thirteen ways of Looking at a Black Boy

Tony Medina & 13 Artists

Penny Candy Books, Poetry, Feb. 13, 2018

Pages: 40

Suitable for Ages: 6-11

Themes: Poetry, Black boys, Everyday life, Emotions, Creativity, Potential

Opening: Anacostia Angel

Fly bow tie like wings

   Brown eyes of a brown angel

His Kool-Aid smile sings

   Mama’s little butterfly

Daddy’s dimple grin so wide

Synopsis:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy by Tony Medina offers a fresh perspective of young men of color by depicting thirteen views of everyday life: young boys dressed in their Sunday best, running to catch a bus, going to school, sitting on stoops on hot summer days, flirting with girls, participating in athletics, and growing up to be a teacher who gives back to the community who raised him. Each of Tony Medina’s tanka poems is matched with a different artist―including recent Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Award recipients.

Why I like this book:

Tony Medina has penned a stunning collection of 13 poems that celebrate the lives of black males, from birth to adulthood, who are brimming with potential. He focuses on the beauty found in the everyday lives of Black boys, who Medina considers “an endangered species.”

Medina’s has collaborated with 13 award-winning artists who show off their splendid skills through oil, watercolor,  pen and ink sketches, collage, and mixed media. I wanted to name all of the artists so readers will understand the powerful art that bring each poem to life. They include Floyd Cooper, Cozbi A. Cabrera, Skip Hill, Tiffany McKnight, Robert Liu-Trujillo, Keith Mallett, Shawn K. Alexander, Kesha Bruce, Brianna McCarthy, R. Gregory Christie, Ekua Holmes, Javaka Steptoe, and Chandra Cox.

The poems are written in tanka form, a Japanese syllabic, verse form, much like haiku.  It consists of 31 syllables distributed along five lines. Each poem is short, passionate and timely and introduces young people to reading and writing poetry.

This collection is a treasure for parents to read and reread to their children. There many creative ways to use this book at home and in the classroom.

Resources: There is a beautiful poetic Introduction by Medina. The backmatter includes information on the artists, and Notes that address the title, the poetic style (tanka), and the history of the Anacostia area in Washington D.C. This would be an excellent opportunity to encourage children to try write a poem using tanka or haiku. Or use the art in the book as inspiration to create their own drawing using a variety of mediums.

Tony Medina is a two-time winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People (DeShawn Days and I and I, Bob Marley), is the author/editor of nineteen books for adults and young readers. A Professor of Creative Writing at Howard University, Medina has received the Langston Hughes Society Award, the first African Voices Literary Award, and has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes for his poems. Jacar Press recently published his anthology Resisting Arrest: Poems to Stretch the Sky, on police violence and brutalities perpetrated on people of color. Tu Books published Medina’s debut graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones in 2017. He lives in Washington D.C.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s website.

*Reviewed from library copy.

Zora and Me: The Cursed Ground by T.R. Simon

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground

T.R. Simon, Author

Candlewick Press , Fiction, Sep. 11, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Zora Neale Hurston, Jim Crow south, Slavery, African-Americans, Community, Friendship

Synopsis:

A powerful fictionalized account of Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood adventures explores the idea of collective memory and the lingering effects of slavery and the Jim Crow south.

“History ain’t in a book, especially when it comes to folks like us. History is in the lives we lived and the stories we tell each other about those lives.”

When Zora Neale Hurston and her best friend, Carrie Brown, discover that the town mute can speak after all, they think they’ve uncovered a big secret. But Mr. Polk’s silence is just one piece of a larger puzzle that stretches back half a century to the tragic story of an enslaved girl named Lucia. As Zora’s curiosity leads a reluctant Carrie deeper into the mystery, the story unfolds through alternating narratives. Lucia’s struggle for freedom resonates through the years, threatening the future of America’s first incorporated black township — the hometown of author Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960). In a riveting coming-of-age tale, award-winning author T. R. Simon champions the strength of people to stand up for justice.

Why I like this book:

T.R. Simon skillfully captures the spirit of famous writer Zora Neale Hurston in this gripping and haunting story of her fictionalized childhood. In alternating chapters, he addresses the harsh realities of race in Jim Crow’s south in 1903, and slavery in 1855. Both Zora and Lucia’s stories are masterfully woven together until they culminate into one profound story. The narrative is rich and poetic and the dialogue is suspenseful and humorous. The plot is gripping and dangerous. The book cover is stunning!

The story is set in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated all black township in the United States. The historical facts about the town, with the only black mayor, is fascinating. It is out in the middle of nowhere. The black community lives peacefully together for many years enjoying their freedom, until trouble comes calling from some white men in a nearby town.

There are many multi-layered characters that are memorable. In the main story, Zora is bold, curious and an adventurous spirit. Her best friend Carrie knows that what ever problem or mystery they are chasing always “courts trouble.”  Old Lady Bronson, who wears soldier boots, lives in solitude, and is the town healer, seer, wise woman and “witch.” Mr. Polk is mute, but has a gentle spirit and a gift for working with horses. The 1855 story characters are very compelling. Prisca, the daughter of a plantation owner, who seems naïve to slavery at first. Prisca’s best friend is Lucia, who she treats as her sister, even though she is a slave. Lucia shares many of the same luxuries as Prisca and can read and write. The truth about Lucia is revealed when Prisca’s father suddenly dies, and she is torn away from Prisca to be sold. Lucia is angry and struggles to not lose herself in her hatred. Horatio is a kind stable boy who plays a significant role in the story.

Zora & Me: The Cursed Ground is stunning, heart wrenching and inspiring. Simon’s deliberate pacing and tension will keep readers fully engaged. There are many surprises for readers. It is an exceptional story, one I plan to read again.

Resources: Make sure you check out the biography of the remarkable Zora Neale Hurston and a timeline that chronicles her life, which are at the end of the story.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by publisher.

The Length of a String by Elissa Brent Weissman

The Length of a String

Elissa Brent Weissman, Author

Dial Books for Young Readers, Fiction, May 1, 2018

Suitable for Ages: 10-14

Themes: Adoption, Identity, Family relationships, Jews, African Americans, Holocaust

Synopsis:

Imani is adopted by a Jewish family. Now that she’s turning 13, she knows exactly what she wants as her big bat mitzvah gift: to find her birth parents. She loves her family and her Jewish community in Baltimore, but she has always wondered where she came from, especially since she’s black and almost everyone she knows is white.

When her mom’s grandmother–Imani’s great-grandma Anna–passes away, Imani discovers an old journal among her books. It’s Anna’s diary from 1941, the year she was twelve and fled Nazi-occupied Luxembourg alone, sent by her parents to seek refuge in Brooklyn, New York. Imani keeps the diary a secret for a while, only sharing it with her best friend, Madeline. Anna’s diary chronicles her escape from Holocaust-era Europe and her journey to America and her new life with a Jewish adoptive family. She continues to write to her sister Belle about the tall New York sky scrapers, shopping in supermarkets, eating Chinese food, modeling fur coats, and playing Chinese checkers, until news about her family stops. She fears the worst and puts down her pen.

Imani decides to make Anna’s story her bat mitzvah research project. She uncovers some important information about the war and Luxembourg. As Imani reads Anna’s diary, she begins to see her own family and her place in it in a new way.

Why I like this book:

The author skillfully weaves two stories, one from the present and another from the past, using characters that you will feel like you know intimately. This is a very different holocaust story because it focuses on the identity of Jewish and African-American girls (70 years a part) and their search for self, something that readers will find relevant. The setting, the unforgettable characters, and the plot create an engaging reading experience. The ending is unexpected and very satisfying.

You learn about Anna Kirsch and the painful decision her family makes in deciding which of their seven children to smuggle to America as the Nazi’s begin to occupy Luxembourg.  Anna is selected and separated from her identical twin sister, Belle, the other half of her heart. On the ship she begins to write Belle daily letters daily chronicling her journey so that she keeps their connection alive. Anna lives with  loving strangers, Hannah and Max, a Jewish family who open their hearts and home to her. Anna is essentially adopted, like Imani. She continues to write to Belle about her adventures until news about her family stops.

My children are adopted, each responding differently like Imani and her adopted El Salvadoran brother. Like Imani, my daughter had so many questions about her past. What were her ethnic roots? Who did she look like? Why was she adopted? Like Imani’s family, we ran a genetic DNA test for our daughter so she had a sense of her heritage. This eventually led to her finding two biological sisters this past year.  Now she has answers and it has brought her peace as an adult. We need more MG and YA books for adopted children who are trying to figure out who they are and need to see themselves in stories.

Elissa Brent Weismann’s novel is a captivating story that is a departure from her humorous Nerd Camp series. Her website includes teacher resources and curriculum for all of her books.

Greg Pattridge is the host for Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.