Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James

Published by Carolrhoda Books

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Summary:  Growing up in Oregon in the early 1900’s, George Fletcher was one of the only African-Americans in the town of Pendleton.  He spent a lot of time on the nearby Umatilla Indian Reservation, playing with the kids there and learning about horses. His riding skill led him to the rodeo, where he often experienced racism.  Sometimes black cowboys weren’t allowed to compete; other times they weren’t judged fairly against white competitors. This was demonstrated dramatically at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, the biggest rodeo in the Northwest.  George made it to the finals of the Saddle Bronc Championship, where he competed John Spain, a white rancher. It was clear to the audience that Fletcher did the best, but the judges chose Spain as the winner.  Sheriff Tillman Taylor grabbed George’s hat, cut it into pieces, then sold the pieces for $5.00 each, raising more money than the first prize saddle was worth. The audience declared George Fletcher the People’s Champion, parading him around the arena on their shoulders.  Includes a glossary of rodeo terms, additional information about and photos of George Fletcher, John Spain, and Tillman Taylor, and a bibliography. 40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Told with a Texas twang, this action-packed story brings to light a little-known but brave cowboy and his friends and supporters.

Cons:  Because little is known of George Fletcher, especially his early life, some of the details are more speculation than history (as described in the author’s note about the research).

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Carter Reads the Newspaper by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Don Tate

Published by Peachtree Publishing Company

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Summary:  Carter Woodson grew up on a poor farm in Virginia, the son of two former slaves.  Although his father couldn’t read or write, he liked Carter to read the newspaper to him.  Later, working as a coal miner, he often met after work with friends for snacks and more newspaper reading.  After three years in the mines, Carter was able to continue his education, and eventually got a PhD in history from Harvard (the second African-American to do so, after W.E.B. Du Bois).  For the rest of his life he championed the cause of black history. In 1926, he started Negro History Week, choosing the second week of February to mark the birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.  Eventually that became Black History Month, still celebrated today during the month of February.  Includes author’s and illustrator’s notes; additional resources; a list of Black leaders pictured in the illustrations; and a timeline of Woodson’s life.  36 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  An inspiring story of a little-known man whose influence continues today.  The list of leaders that are pictured in the book would make a good starting point for some research projects.

Cons:  Too bad this book wasn’t released on January 1, instead of February 1, to make it more available during Black History Month this year.

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Never Caught: The Story of Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar and Kathleen Van Cleve

Published by Aladdin

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Summary:  Ona Judge, one of Martha Washington’s favorite slaves, traveled north with the Washingtons when George became President.  In Philadelphia, she saw free blacks for the first time and began to consider what that life would be like. When Martha Washington decided to give Ona to her spoiled granddaughter as a wedding present, Ona escaped.  She traveled on a ship to New Hampshire, where she spent the rest of her life, despite determined efforts on the part of both the Washingtons to capture her and send her back to Mt. Vernon. Although Ona had a difficult life of poverty and hardship, she never looked back.  In an 1845 interview, when she was 72 years old, she was asked if she was sorry to have left the Washingtons. “No,” she replied. “I am free, and have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means.” Includes an epilogue describing how some of Ona’s younger relatives, inspired by her escape, were able to obtain their own freedom and make better lives for themselves.  Includes copies of her newspaper interviews and an 11-page bibliography. 272 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  This young reader’s edition of the 2017 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction is compelling reading that brings to light some of the less-than-heroic aspects of George and Martha Washington.  This would be interesting to read in conjunction with Kenneth Davis’s In the Shadow of Liberty for a different look at some of the founding fathers.  The story is impeccably researched, given the lack of historical record about Ona Judge.

Cons:  Because of that lack of records, the author frequently speculates about what Judge may have been thinking or feeling, which, while interesting, is not necessarily historically accurate.

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Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

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Summary:  Most people know Hedy Lamarr as a film star, but she was also a dedicated inventor who spent her spare time coming up with ideas like a glow-in-the-dark dog collar and a flavor cube to turn plain water into soda.  Her biggest invention, working with composer George Antheil, was the “frequency hopping” guidance system, designed to prevent the enemy from jamming radio signals on torpedos. She and Antheil received a patent for their work in 1942, but unfortunately the system was never implemented by the Navy during the war.  Forty years later, the idea was declassified, and is used today to help keep cell phone calls and texts private. The two inventors never received recognition or money for their creation, but in 1997, they received the Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. As Hedy commented, “It’s about time.” Includes a timeline, additional information about frequency hopping, a bibliography, a filmography of Lamarr’s works, and a reading list about other women in STEM.  48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Who knew Hedy Lamarr was a talented scientist and inventor as well as an actress?  This engaging biography includes information on her both her careers; the lively illustrations incorporate relevant quotes from Lamarr.  I was hoping to include a review of another book on this same topic, Hedy and Her Amazing Invention by Jan Wahl, published the same week, but no one in my library network has gotten a copy of this one.

Cons:  Some of the technical details may be a bit much for younger readers.

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Out of This World: The Surreal Art of Leonora Carrington by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Amanda Hall

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Growing up in England, Leonora Carrington never conformed to the expectations for a proper young lady.  Instead, she pursued art, creating fantastic pictures inspired by Irish legends her grandmother told her.  As an adult, she discovered surrealism, and became part of a group of artists in France. When World War II started, she fled to Mexico, where she eventually married and had children, but continued to paint.  She spent the rest of her life in Mexico, creating surreal paintings and sculptures until her death at the age of 94. Includes notes from both the author and the illustrator and a short bibliography. 40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An interesting biography of an artist who is probably unknown to most kids.  The illustrations, inspired by Leonora Carrington’s art, will spark young readers’ imaginations.

Cons:  None of Carrington’s actual artwork is included anywhere in the book.

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Wilma’s Way Home: The Life of Wilma Mankiller by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Linda Kukuk

Published by Disney-Hyperion

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Summary:  Growing up in Oklahoma, as one of eleven children, Wilma Mankiller knew her family was poor.  She was happy, though, spending a lot of time outdoors and with the close-knit Cherokee community.  When she was 10, her family was part of a government program to move Native Americans to the cities, and they relocated to San Francisco.  Wilma hated the city and missed her old home in Oklahoma. As an adult, she returned to her roots, moving back to the Cherokee community with her two daughters.  She worked as a community developer, listening to the people in rural Cherokee communities, and helping them get the resources and services they most needed.  In 1985, Wilma became the first woman elected chief of the Cherokee nation, a position she held for the next ten years.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator, a timeline, a pronunciation guide for the Cherokee words used in the text, and lists of additional resources. 48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A beautifully illustrated biography about a leader many kids may not know; the author emphasizes Wilma’s commitment to listening to her constituents to learn what they needed instead of forcing her own ideas on them.

Cons:  No photos.

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Fearless Mary: Mary Fields, American Stagecoach Driver by Tami Charles, illustrated by Claire Almon

Published by Albert Whitman and Company

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Summary:  When Mary Fields heard about a job opening for a stagecoach driver to make deliveries to a school over the mountains, she was determined to get hired.  She lined up with forty cowboys to apply for the job, but the manager wasn’t interested in considering a black woman. Mary wouldn’t go away, though, and finally she got a chance what she could do.  The manager was so impressed by her skills with horses and driving that he hired her, and she became the first black female stagecoach driver in Cascade, Montana. Traveling with her trained eagle, she fought off thieves and wolves, and never lost a horse or package.  Mary held the job for eight years, into her seventies, and paved the way for other women to become mail deliverers. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Mary. 32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  A little-known story of a fearless and determined woman, told in a way that will be understandable and interesting to primary-grade kids.

Cons:  So little is known about Mary’s life that the author says some of the scenes and dialogue are made up, making this a cross between biography and historical fiction.

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