Choosing Brave: How Mamie Till-Mobley and Emmett Till Sparked the Civil Rights Movement by Angela Joy, illustrated by Janelle Washington

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Beginning with Mamie Till’s decision to bring her son Emmett’s body home to Illinois after his horrific murder in Mississippi, the story goes back to trace Mamie’s life to that point.  A smart, hardworking girl who graduated at the top of her high school class, Mamie married an abusive man, escaping the marriage with her son.  Emmett was visiting family in Mississippi when he was murdered by white men who believed he had violated Jim Crow laws when interacting with the wife of one of the men at a store.  The sheriff planned to quietly bury Emmett’s body, but Mamie insisted on bringing him home and having an open casket funeral.  Photos were widely published, giving impetus to the civil rights movement.  After Emmett’s death, Mamie remarried, went to college, became a teacher, and continued to work for civil rights until her death in 2003 at the age of 81.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a playlist, a glossary, a timeline, and a list of sources.  64 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This is a powerful book, both the free verse text and the cut paper illustrations.  The tone is appropriately somber, but also inspiring, showing Mamie’s love for her son, her grief, and her incredible resilience.  A Coretta Scott King Award contender for sure. 

Cons:  The narrative may be somewhat confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with Emmett Till’s story.  They might want to start with the back matter.

Action! How Movies Began by Meghan McCarthy

Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books

Summary:  This whirlwind tour of the movie industry faithfully reproduces scenes from a huge variety of films, including Saturday Night Fever, The Gold Rush, Nosferatu, Star Wars, and many, many more.  There’s a quick history of various film technologies that led to silent movies and then talkies.  The influence of one film upon others is shown through the illustrations, most fascinatingly with Metropolis.  Racism is briefly touched upon, showing how it affected Josephine Baker’s career, and comparing this with a scene from Black Panther, a blockbuster with an all-Black cast.  “Movies will continue to inspire us for generations to come,” McCarthy concludes, “and we have all the inventors, actors, writers, and directors to thank.”  Includes additional information about the MGM lion, female film editors, the beginnings of Hollywood, the disappearance of Louis Le Prince (which could be a whole book itself), makeup in the silent era; also a bibliography of books, websites, and other sources.  48 pages; grades 2-7.

Pros:  I know this probably sounds like a random mishmash of information, but somehow Meghan McCarthy makes it work as a fascinating read, and the illustrations are phenomenal.  All the characters have her trademark bug-eyed expressions, but they are amazing renditions of so many famous scenes from film history.  If I were on the Caldecott committee, I’d give this a close look.  

Cons:  If you’re a Thomas Edison fan, prepare to be disillusioned.

Invisible by Christina Diaz Gonzalez, illustrated by Gabriela Epstein

Published by Graphix

Summary:  The story opens with five middle school students gathered in the principal’s office, clearly in some kind of trouble and being asked to tell what happened.  Jorge, or George, begins.  When he’s assigned a community service stint in the cafeteria, he’s told he’ll be with “kids like him”.  He assumes that means other gifted students, but it turns out it’s a group of Latinx kids, many of whom, unlike George, speak Spanish as their first language.  While they’re often lumped together, each student is from a different country and has a distinctive personality: George is Puerto Rican, Dayara is from Cuba; Miguel is Dominican; Nico, Venezuelan, and Sara, Mexican.  Although each one has a typical middle school label (smart, tough, jock, snob, loner), as they take turns recounting their story, a very different picture emerges that shows each of them struggling with both family and school issues.  By the end, the principal has heard a story of compassion, helping a little girl and her mother who have been living in a van near the school.  The mean cafeteria lady is reprimanded and sent on her way, while the five kids celebrate their accomplishment and the beginning of a new friendship.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator.  208 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  There’s a lot packed into this graphic novel, with five unique and well-drawn (in both senses of the term) characters who help dispel the notion that Latinx kids all have similar backgrounds.  Most of the students speak Spanish throughout the story, with the English translation added with a dashed-line cartoon bubble.  Sure to be a big hit with all the fans of graphic novels set in middle school.

Cons:  I was hoping for a little redemption for the mean cafeteria lady.

Sal Boat: A Boat by Sal by Thyra Heder

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Summary:  Sal loves the water and dreams of having a boat of his own.  Being a kid, though, he can’t buy a boat, so he decides to build one.  He scavenges materials from wherever he can find them: the garage, a builder’s castoffs, the marina’s dumpster.  Word soon gets around, and everyone has questions to ask and advice to offer.  But Sal is an independent kid, and he knows what he wants.  He finds a secluded spot and starts to build.  Before long, though, one thing becomes apparent: Sal’s boat looks like a house.  But Sal stubbornly clings to the notion that it’s a boat.  Disaster strikes when it’s time to launch the boat.  Try as he might, Sal can’t get it into the water.  He’s just about to destroy the whole thing when he hears, “Wait!”  His family, neighbors, and friends have shown up, ready to get to work.  At last, Sal’s boat is afloat, and he can enjoy a solitary sail…surrounded by the canoes, kayaks, and rowboats filled with all the people who helped him.  48 pages; ages 4-8.  

Pros:  This winning story with enchanting illustrations shows the power of determination and independence…and also accepting help when you need it.  The final picture is a lovely celebration of community.

Cons:  This would be a great read for Talk Like a Pirate Day, but unfortunately, you’ll have to wait another 364 days for it to come around again.

The Civil War of Amos Abernathy by Michael Leali

Published by HarperCollins

Summary:  Amos Abernathy loves history, and it’s a good thing because his mother runs the Chickaree County (Illinois) Living History Project.  Amos enjoys his work there as an interpreter, working with his best friend Chloe.  When a boy named Ben starts volunteering, Amos develops a crush, but Ben is ambivalent about whether or not he’s gay.  The three kids discover an interest in people written out of history, like those who were LGBTQ+, or Black like Chloe.  The narrative goes back and forth between Amos’s first-person narration of the present and letters he wrote the previous year to a (deceased) Civil War trans man named Albert D. J. Cashier.  In the letters, Amos describes his relationship with Ben, how it ends, and how Ben refuses to speak to him.  He also reveals a secret project that has to do with the kids presenting untold history to the public.  This presentation is the culmination of the story, where the past catches up with the present, and Amos, Ben, and Chloe get to express who they really are through their passion for history.  304 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  There’s lots going on in this story which would make an interesting book club choice with plenty to discuss about who has been written out of history.  The alternating chapters of letters describing the past and Amos narrating the present make for an engaging structure.

Cons:  Michael Leali makes a few rookie mistakes in this debut novel, like occasionally crossing the line between good story with a message and a story with an agenda. Ther also aren’t a lot of shades of gray in portraying characters who are either a little too good to be true or completely misguided/evil.

The Animal Toolkit: How Animals Use Tools by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Published by Clarion Books

Summary:  The introduction defines a tool as “an object that an animal manipulates and uses to affect its environment, another animal, or itself.”  Many of us probably know that certain kinds of apes and monkeys use tools, but what about the corolla spider that uses stones to build its web, or the bottlenose dolphin that catches fish in a shell?  Or, creepily, the black kite that will carry a burning stick from a wildfire to start a fire in another area to flush out prey (I wish I could unsee the cute quorra fleeing the flames).  Each page has a cut paper illustration with a brief paragraph of information; additional information on each animal is provided at the end, along with a bibliography.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  By now you know of my deep and abiding love for all things Steve Jenkins (and Robin Page for that matter), and here you have another fascinating book to wow elementary kids.

Cons:  Still experiencing grief and denial over the fact that Steve Jenkins passed away earlier this year.

Gibberish by Young Vo

Published by Levine Querido

Summary:  Dat has sailed on a boat, flown on a plane, and today he is taking a school bus.  His mother warns him that when people speak it will sound like gibberish but tells him, “Just listen and do the best you can.”  As the day unfolds, that’s exactly what Dat does.  The world is gray, people look unfamiliar, and adults call him Dav or Dan.  But one girl keeps popping up unexpectedly, playing with him at recess, eating with him at lunch, and riding home with him on the bus.  By the time they get home, the two kids are friends who understand each other’s names and can introduce each other to their moms.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  I love how this story builds empathy for non-English speaking kids thrown into American schools.  The illustrations are clever, incorporating a code that can be cracked if you study the endpapers, and showing how Julie gradually transitions in Dat’s eyes from a gray monster-like creature into a colorful human.

Cons:  The story sets the bar pretty high for finding success and a new friend on the first day of school.

How Was That Built? The Stories Behind Awesome Structures by Roma Agrawal, illustrated by Katie Hickey

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Summary:  Written by a structural engineer, this book is divided into fifteen sections that delve into how to build in different circumstances, with examples of each.  For instance, the Brooklyn Bridge is featured in “How to Build Long”, London’s sewers in “How to Build Clean”, and the Pantheon in “How to Build a Dome”.  Each section opens with some general information, then dives into the history of the structure with plenty of illustrations to help with the explanations.  There are sections about building on ice in Antarctica and building undersea and in space.  The final two pages include some new technologies that will help engineers create structures of the future.  Includes a glossary and an engineers’ gallery featuring ten engineers.  80 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  This is a pretty amazing collection of information with beautiful, detailed illustrations that will fascinate readers with an inclination toward science and engineering.  

Cons: I couldn’t figure out what the criteria were for which engineers made it into the gallery at the end.

The World’s Longest Licorice Rope by Matt Myers

Published by Random House Studio

Summary:  Through luck and an assortment of odd jobs, Ben collects a bagful of nickels.  Deciding what to spend them on takes some consideration, but he finally succumbs to a salesgirl with what she claims is the world’s longest licorice rope (costing just one nickel).  “How long is it?” asks Ben.  “How long is the world?” the girl replies.  Determined to find out, Ben starts chewing.  Everywhere he goes, the girl is there to sell him (for a nickel) whatever he needs to continue the journey: a boat, snowshoes, even a carrot suit to outsmart a hungry lion.  Finally, just as he is getting tired, Ben runs into Jimmy, a boy on the other end of the licorice rope who also paid a nickel.  The girl tells them that for one more nickel, they can become friends.  The two boys burst out laughing, because, they say, “Friends are free!”.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This quirky and unpredictable book would make a great writing prompt to share where you might go with the world’s longest licorice rope.  The end makes a great case for exploring the world with a friend or two.

Cons:  The very tiny font.

This Is a School by John Schu, illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  “This is a school.  This is a kid.  This is a kid in a class.  This is a class in a hall.  This is a hall in a school – WELCOME!”  As school starts, kids learn that school is a place to learn and discover, to make mistakes, and to find out what they’re good at.  The school becomes a community that grows, transforms, and cares about each other.  The school community is made up of all sorts of people: teachers, students, principals, and staff, and each one of them is an important part of that community.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A wonderful back-to-school book that celebrates many different aspects of school through both the text and the illustrations.  A good companion to Alexandra Penfold’s All Are Welcome and a perfect springboard for discussing classroom and school communities.

Cons:  I should have reviewed this before school started.