Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, illustrated by James E. Ransome

Published by Holiday House

Summary:  Harriet Tubman’s story is told in reverse, beginning when she is “an old woman/tired and worn/her legs stiff/her back achy”.  Before that, she was a suffragist, and before that, a Union spy.  The narrative continues back in time, showing Harriet as Moses, conducting slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and finally, all the way back to a child named Araminta, “who dreamed/of living long enough/to one day/be old/stiff and achy/tired and worn and wrinkled/and free”.  32 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros: A brief, poetic look at Harriet Tubman’s life and many achievements, beautifully illustrated by Coretta Scott King medalist James Ransome.

Cons:  I was disappointed that there was no back matter giving more biographical information.

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Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books

Summary:  James Castle was deaf, mute, and autistic.  He never learned to read or speak.  He spent a good portion of his childhood in the loft of an unused icehouse, and later lived in an abandoned chicken coop.  His parents and teachers actively discouraged him from art, but he kept creating it any way he could.  He would collect scrap paper, and use a burned match and saliva to draw.  The people and animals he created from cast-off cardboard became his friends.  His nephew, Cort Conley, loved to watch him draw.  When Cort went to art school, he showed one of his teachers his Uncle Jimmy’s work.  The professor was so excited, he drove to Boise, Idaho to meet James, and later organized an exhibit in Portland, Oregon.  Other exhibits and sales followed, and when James Castle died, he left behind over 15,000 pieces of art.  An author’s note explains how Allen Say came to write this book after being asked by his friend Cort to create a portrait of his uncle.  64 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A sad but fascinating story of a man who was pretty much treated like trash by everyone who knew him, including his own family, yet continued to create art whenever and wherever he could.  Much of Allen Say’s art is done in the style of Castle’s, and may very well be considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  I wasn’t sure if the illustrations were done by Castle, or by Say in Castle’s style.  If they were the originals, some captions would have been helpful; if they weren’t, I would have liked to see some of the originals at the end of the book.

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The Red Bandanna (Young Readers Adaptation) by Tom Rinaldi

Published by Viking

Summary:  On September 11, 2001, as people were struggling to evacuate the Twin Towers, some were led out by a young man with a strong, clear voice and a red bandanna over his face.  Although he helped many people to safety, he himself did not survive.  This book tells the story of Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old Wall Street trader who had worked as a volunteer firefighter, and was considering a career change to FDNY.  From a young age, Welles was fascinated with firefighting, and was a compassionate and exuberant boy who often helped his friends.  He always carried that red bandanna, and it later helped identify him, allowing the survivors he helped to connect with his family.  A feature on ESPN spread his story around the world, and continues to remind others to follow Welles Crowther’s inspiration to help.  176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Keep the tissues handy for this moving story of a young man whose brief life has touched many, many others around the world.

Cons:  “Bandanna” just looks wrong, but apparently “bandana” and “bandanna” are both correct.

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Full of Fall by April Pulley Sayre

Published by Beach Lane Books

Summary:  “September sun is low in the sky/So long summer/Green, goodbye!” So begins this homage to autumn.  Each page has a few lines of poetry, describing the colors as leaves change from green to red and gold to brown.  Large, colorful photographs show the stages in detail, as well as animals often associated with the season, like squirrels and geese.  “Goodbye, leaf show/Winter is coming/Oh, hello, snow!”  The last page provides a perfect transition to check out a similar book by the author, Best in Snow.  Includes two pages that give more scientific information about what is happening on each page of the book.  40 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Another gorgeous book about the seasons from April Pulley Sayre (see also Raindrops Roll).  Combine this with In the Middle of Fall by Kevin Henkes (see my 9/22 review) for a perfect autumn story hour.

Cons:  All that raking.

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How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild by Katherine Roy

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  When a baby elephant is born, she has a lot to learn; good thing she has a protective family and herd to teach her.  From walking to using her complex trunk to figuring out the different smells in her environment, the youngster will spend several years learning all the elephant ways.  Labelled diagrams and full-page illustrations complement the text to impart all the intricate knowledge the elephant needs to survive.  Includes a note from the author about her research and the endangered status of African elephants, and a list of resources for further information.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Readers will learn a ton of information about elephants, both through the text and the illustrations, which should be considered by the Caldecott committee.

Cons:  While the book has the look and feel of a picture book, the information and vocabulary is pretty advanced for primary grades.

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Imagine That: How Dr. Seuss Wrote the Cat in the Hat by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes

Published by Random House

Summary:  In 1954, there were lots of great new books for kids like Charlotte’s Web and Horton Hears a Who!.  Good books for those who already knew how to read; for children just learning, there wasn’t much.  Ted Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, was hired to write a fun and interesting book for beginning readers, using an “official” list of approved words.  He thought it would take him a week or two, but he ended up spending over a year getting it just right.  The result, of course, was The Cat in the Hat, and it became an instant hit, leading Ted to write more books for beginning readers like The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and Hop on Pop.  When his friend Bennett Cerf challenged him to write a book with just 50 different words (The Cat in the Hat had 236), Geisel rose to the occasion once again with Green Eggs and Ham.  Includes writing and illustrating tips from Dr. Seuss, notes from the author and illustrator, and a list of books by Dr. Seuss. 48 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  A fun look at creative genius, with a few pages of Seuss-inspired rhyming text and plenty of Seuss-inspired illustrations.  Messages about perseverance and hard work are subtly woven into the story.

Cons:  A brief biography or timeline at the end would have been a nice addition.

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What Makes a Monster? By Jess Keating, illustrated by David DeGrand

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Summary:  From the team that brought you Pink Is for Blobfish comes this collection of animals that can seem “monstrous”.  Each two-page spread features a photo of the animal, a brief description of the animal and what makes dangerous or deadly, a sidebar with facts like diet and habitat, and another interesting fact or two.  Many of the animals have monster-sounding names like the assassin bug, the horror frog, and the tyrant leech king.  And some of them are downright creepy, like the cordyceps fungus that takes over insects’ brains, causing them to self-destruct.  The final page is the seemingly obligatory inclusion of humans with a catalog of how we are wreaking havoc on the planet.  Includes a page connecting animals to famous monsters (e.g., Dracula and the vampire bat), a page explaining how what we see as scary is really an animal’s way of protecting itself, and a glossary.  48 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  The gross-out factor combined with striking graphics and appealing page layouts makes this a surefire nonfiction hit.

Cons:  An introductory page would have been nice to give an overview of the book before diving into the first animal.