Summary: In the first poem, titled “Questions”, a girl gets an assignment to trace her roots and realizes she can only go back three generations. At home, she asks her grandmother for help. Her grandmother gathers the family together and tells them their story, beginning with their ancestors in West Central Africa who were kidnapped in 1619 and forced on a hellish journey aboard a slave ship. Those who survived were forced into slavery in tobacco fields, fighting to hold onto their memories of home. Their descendants went on to become great people in their new country. By the end of the story, the girl is ready to return to school and finish her story; the final poem is called “Pride”. Includes notes from the authors and the illustrator and the website for the 1619 Project. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The award-winning authors have crafted an empowering collection of poems that doesn’t shy away from harsh histories, but also celebrates an African history that is often overlooked.
Cons: I wish there were more resources listed; the 1619 Project website has books connected to the project, but no others.
Summary: The history of the Black Panther Party is divided into three parts: Kindling (1619-1965), Blaze (1966-1982), and Embers (1983-present). Packed with photos and original sources, the story is sympathetic to the Party, but does not shy away from differences among the members which eventually led to its dissolution (and were at least in part caused by the FBI COINTELPRO project to destroy them). There’s an emphasis on the young people and women who contributed so much to all aspects of the group, from the armed oversight of police to the social programs for Black communities. The final section ties the Black Panther Party to Black Lives Matter and invites young people to start their own revolution. Includes an author’s note, a list of key people, a timeline, a glossary, further reading, 32 pages of source notes, an 11-page bibliography, and an index. 400 pages; grades 7-12.
Pros: This is a bit above the age group I usually review for, but I’ve been fascinated by the Black Panther Party since I read One Crazy Summer by Rita Garcia-Williams and realized how much misinformation I had about the group. This book is incredibly well-researched, yet also highly readable and accessible, and was chosen as a National Book Award Finalist. The final section makes it relevant and inspiring for today’s young readers. I hope it will win some awards: Printz, Sibert, and Coretta Scott King all come to mind.
Cons: This book is seriously hefty, weighing in at three pounds or approximately twice as much as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Summary: In the 1940’s, young people danced in groups divided by race and ethnicity. Millie danced to jazz in her Italian neighborhood, while Pedro danced to Latin songs in his Puerto Rican community. But then a band called Machito and His Afro-Cubans started mixing things up, using jazz trumpets and saxophones with Latin maracas and congas to make what they called Latin jazz. In 1948, New York City’s Palladium Ballroom broke the rules by opening its doors to everyone and hiring Machito to play for them. It brought together Millie and Pedro, who danced a new dance called the mambo–and danced it so well that they became the best at the Palladium, the best in New York City, and finally, the best in the United States. Includes an author’s note with more information on Machito, the Palladium, and the dancers mentioned in the text; also a list of resources. 40 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: The realistic oil painting illustrations and the brief text capture the movement and energy of the dancers, as well as the different groups that came together at the Palladium. The back matter adds good informational value.
Summary: Look: you might see a bushy tail or a flash of orange. Listen: a soft pad of paws. A fox travels through the snow, hunting for food to take back to its den, where three cubs wait. As the cubs get bigger, they go out on hunting expeditions, too. On one trip, the fox is hit by a car and dies by the side of the road. The cubs return home and are seen walking by the fox’s body as it slowly starts to decompose. Birds and insects feed on the body, and insects lay their eggs there. “Life is everywhere. Death is not just an end but a beginning.” Includes additional information on death, decomposition, and the cycle of life. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This beautiful book looks at death and decomposition from a scientific viewpoint, part of the cycle that allows new life to grow and flourish. It doesn’t deal with grief (the young foxes seem unfazed by the death of their parent) but shows readers the natural process of death.
Cons: Readers who may not have picked up on the foreshadowing of the “circle of life” subtitle may be shocked and dismayed by the death of the fox. This is definitely a book to share and discuss one-on-one.
Summary: When Sonny Rollins needs a place to practice his music that won’t disturb the neighbors, he heads for the bridge. Climbing the steps to the walkway, he finds a place where he can blow his saxophone as loud as he wants. Subway cars, tugboats, and seagulls add their distinctive voices to the song Sonny plays from New York City’s Williamsburg Bridge. Includes additional information about Sonny Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge, as well as a collection of quotes from interviews with Sonny, now 91 years old. 32 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: This would be a great resource for music teachers to introduce Sonny Rollins’s music. The brief poetic text makes a quick but compelling read-aloud, there’s lots more information at the end, and the illustrations gorgeously capture the feeling of music on the bridge.
Cons: There’s not much biographical information in the main story; the back matter provides more, but more research will be needed for a full picture of Sonny Rollins’s life and career.
Summary: In 1984, when Waka was 12 years old, her mother decided that she didn’t know as much Japanese as she should and arranged for her to spend five months in Japan living with her grandmother, Obaasama. Not surprisingly, Waka was completely opposed to the idea, which meant missing the end of sixth grade, summer vacation, and the beginning of seventh grade and attending school in Japan for most of that time. She went from being a straight-A student in America to being near the bottom of the class in Japan and had to learn how to navigate the unfamiliar social structure of her classmates. By the end of the five months, though, her language skills had improved dramatically, and she had learned the importance of true friendship. While she came to understand and love Obaasama, she never really was able to communicate with her, and that left a deep sadness at the end of her visit. Ultimately, though, Waka comes to appreciate both of her cultures and to be grateful that she had the opportunity to spend the time in Japan learning about her heritage there. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: This book came out in January, and it’s taken me all year to get around to reading it. I’m not sure I ever would have (see the cons) if it hadn’t been for the fact that it’s currently #3 on the Goodreads mock Newbery list, and Betsy Bird included it in her fall Newbery predictions. I found the story funnier than I thought it would be, but also poignant, especially at the end. It really captures the immigrant experience of having a foot in each culture and makes a great case for the benefits of travel.
Cons: Something about the cover didn’t appeal to me and led me to believe that this was a much sadder book than it actually is.
Published by Simon and Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Summary: “From land to land, brave travelers arrive with hopes, dreams, skills, and determination.” The lyrical text and illustrations of this book celebrate the immigrants who have come to the United States, and the Statue of Liberty that welcomes them. The gifts that people bring in terms of skills, languages, and cultures are recognized, as are the harder truths that people have not always been made to feel welcome. “The long, bitter story of the US” is also acknowledged, including “stealing land from Native people, bringing enslaved captives all the way from Africa, and then seizing a huge part of Mexico.” The final image, though, is of Lady Liberty’s torch, and the book concludes on this hopeful note. Includes notes from the author and illustrator about their personal experiences of immigration. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: This would make an excellent introduction to immigration, with poet Margarita Engle’s text and Raúl Colón’s colored pencil illustrations depicting so many different nationalities coming to the US. While some hard truths are acknowledged, the tone is basically hopeful and celebratory.
Cons: A list of additional resources would have made this even more useful for older kids.
Summary: Pura Belpré grew up in Puerto Rico, surrounded by a family of storytellers. When she moved to New York City, she missed those cuentos and visited her branch of the New York Public Library to discover the stories there. The librarian noticed her interacting with others in both Spanish and English and offered her a job. Pura loved reading to kids but couldn’t find any books with the Puerto Rican folktales she grew up with. She broke with protocol by telling a story instead of reading it during an evaluation with library administrators. They were so impressed that they gave her special permission to use her storytelling skills (instead of reading a book) during library story hours. She was a pioneer of bilingual story hours, making the library more inviting to Spanish speakers. In her retirement, she worked on writing down some of the stories, making her beloved cuentos available in published books. Includes an author’s note, a list of Pura Belpré’s books, and other sources. 40 pages; grades K-3.
Pros: I almost passed by this book, thinking that everything I needed to know about Pura Belpré I learned from 2019’s Planting Stories by Anika Aldamuy Denise. I’m glad I didn’t, as I found it charming and engaging, telling the story of this fascinating woman with slightly dreamy illustrations that incorporate a lot of Spanish words. Planting Stories won a Belpré honor, and this book is worthy of one as well.
Cons: Seems like it would be in keeping with Pura’s spirit to have a Spanish version of this book, but I couldn’t find one.
Summary: Andy Warhol narrates his story, starting with his job drawing shoes. “All day long it was shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe, shoe. I felt like a robot in a factory. It was so cool.” Soon he was drawing other everyday objects as art like Campbell’s soup cans (“Do you like soup? We all like soup”) and boxes of Brillo pads. He made an eight-hour movie of the Empire State Building and prints of Marilyn Monroe (“Did I make her famous? Or did she make me famous?”). He started a magazine and made a TV show. At the end, he predicts the future of media where there will be things to watch, things to follow, and things to share. Astute readers will realize that that future is already here. Includes an author’s note with additional information that speculates on how Andy Warhol might be making art if he were still alive today. 48 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This unique biography really captures Andy Warhol’s art and voice, and would serve as an excellent introduction to use in an art class. There’s humor and some interesting questions for readers to ponder, as well as references to Warhol’s accessible pop art that will undoubtedly pique kids’ curiosity to learn more.
Cons: Since there’s not a lot of biographical information, a list of additional resources would have been helpful.
Summary: Those of us who grew up reading Scholastic’s books like If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620 or If Your Name Was Changed At Ellis Island will recognize the question-and-answer format of this book that traces the history and culture of the Wampanoag people, the Europeans who sailed on the Mayflower, and what happened when their paths crossed. This story does not end with the 1621 harvest feast that these groups shared, but continues on to what happened in the years afterward as Europeans increasingly moved onto indigenous lands and killed many of the people with wars and disease. It also tells how Thanksgiving came to be a national holiday, more than 200 years after the event it purports to celebrate, and concludes with a discussion of American holidays (or the lack of them) that recognize indigenous people. Includes a glossary. 96 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: I enjoyed these books as a kid, and this one provides a much-needed correction to the traditional Thanksgiving story, with a greater emphasis on the Wampanoag history and culture, and a look at some of the history after 1621. Definitely a resource that should be added to elementary school classrooms and libraries where Thanksgiving is part of the curriculum.
Cons: Given the many, many questions around the traditional telling of the history of Thanksgiving, I was disappointed that this book didn’t include source notes, additional reading lists, or any information about the author.