Summary: Before 9/11, the Callery pear tree stood, mostly unnoticed, in the shadow of the Twin Towers. “One September day, the perfect blue sky exploded,” and the tree was buried in the rubble. Workers noticed a green sprout growing out of it, and the tree was taken to a nursery where it gradually came back to life and flourished for the next ten years. Eventually, it was transplanted back to the 9/11 Memorial, where people now stop and marvel at the tree, now known as the Survivor Tree, the last living thing pulled from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. Includes additional information about the tree, an author’s note, an artist’s note, and a photo. 48 pages; grades K-5.
Pros: This beautiful book tells the story of the Survivor Tree in sparse, poetic language, with watercolor illustrations by Caldecott honoree Aaron Becker. The same tale is told from the tree’s perspective in another 2021 book, This Very Tree. I’d be hard-pressed to choose one over the other; both offer stories and illustrations that will engage younger readers with enough back matter to make them excellent resources for older kids.
Cons: I wish this book had been released prior to August 31 so I could have reviewed it in time for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11.
Summary: If you’ve ever seen the rainbow-covered Boston Gas tanks or recall the 1985 USPS Love stamp (also with a rainbow), you’ve seen the work of Corita Kent. Corita grew up in a large family where she loved art and using her imagination. As a young woman, she surprised her family and friends by becoming a nun. She also became a teacher, and used her gifts of art and imagination to liven up her classroom. Eventually, she joined the art faculty of Immaculate Heart College, where she continued to develop her own art. Her somewhat unconventional approach to life and work put her increasingly at odds with her supervisors in the church, and at age 50, she left her life as a nun. She spent the next 18 years pursuing art and fun (she coined the word “plork” to describe the combination of play and work) before her death in 1986. Includes a chronology of Corita’s life, notes from the author and illustrator, and vibrant endpapers with a photo of Corita and some of her art. 80 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: “Plork” may be my new favorite word, and the text and illustrations really capture the spirit that Corita Kent brought to all aspects of her life. Readers of all ages will be inspired by this vibrant woman’s life; this made me want to seek out more of her art and books.
Cons: I was a little put off by the length of this book, and procrastinated reading it, thinking it would take a while. Once I started, though, I flew through it, so don’t let the 80 pages be a deterrent to reading it yourself or to others.
Summary: Scott Joplin grew up in a musical family in Texarkana, Arkansas. His parents encouraged his talents by buying him a piano, not an easy feat for the impoverished family, and got him lessons when his mother offered to clean the music teacher’s house. When Scott was old enough, though, his father told him he should get a job on the railroad, one of the only opportunities for a young African American man to find steady work. But the pull of music was too great, and Scott started playing in saloons, gradually working his way up to more respectable establishments and a chance to go to college. His love of a new form of music, ragtime, led to his most famous composition, “The Maple Leaf Rag”. Its success allowed him to leave saloons forever and focus on composing, creating “an American music like the country itself–a patchwork of sounds and colors.” Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional information, a bibliography, and a recommended listening list. 56 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: There’s a folksy feel to both the voice and the illustrations of this picture book biography that draws the reader in immediately. Although not a lot is known about Scott Joplin, the author does an amazing job of piecing together his story, and the author’s note and bibliography make this an excellent research resource.
Summary: On April 10, 1912, the Titanic set sail from Southampton, bound for New York. The next day, the Carpathia left New York, heading for various ports in Europe. A few nights later, just after midnight onboard the Carpathia, 21-year-old radio operator Harold Cottam received a message saying, “Come at once…we have been struck by a ‘berg.” As soon as Captain Arthur Rostron got the message, he turned his ship around and headed full-speed for the Titanic, navigating through iceberg-infested waters to see if he could save anyone. Around 4:00 a.m. the Carpathia reached the lifeboats and started bringing survivors onboard. The heroism didn’t end there, as the shipheaded back to New York, with passengers and staff providing food, clothing, and medical care. The Carpathia docked in New York on April 18, where it was greeted by a crowd of 30,000 people. Includes a glossary and lists of sources and further reading. 80 pages; grades 3-7.
Pros: I had pretty much vowed to never read another Titanic book for the rest of my life, but I really enjoyed this one, which focused on the heroism of Captain Rostron and others on board the Carpathia, usually just a footnote in the Titanic tragedy. The illustrations are well-done and really support the text, and there’s lots of interesting information about all things nautical, as well as the historical stuff.
Summary: Growing up in Mexico, Luz Jiménez learned the language and culture of her people, the Nahua. Although she dreamed of reading and becoming a teacher, this proved to be difficult. When she was young, indigenous children weren’t allowed to go to school; later the law changed, and they were required to go to Spanish-speaking schools, forbidden from speaking their native languages. When the Mexican Revolution came to her home, most of the men in Luz’s community were killed, including her father. She and her mother and sister moved to Mexico City, where Luz became an artist’s model. 20th-century artists were interested in portraying native people instead of the traditional light-skinned Spanish subjects. Through her work as a model, Luz also became a teacher, sharing her language and culture with others and becoming known as “the spirit of Mexico”. Includes notes from the author and artist, including a photograph and a list of illustrations that were inspired by other artists’ work who had painted Luz. Also a timeline, glossary, notes, and a bibliography. 48 pages; grades 1-5.
Pros: Another excellent addition to the growing list of 2021 books about indigenous people. Despite Luz’s many difficulties, she maintained a positive spirit and contributed in many ways to Mexico’s history. Sure to receive some Pura Belpré consideration.
Cons: The illustrations that were inspired by other artists’ work were listed with page numbers; since there were no page numbers in the book, I wasn’t sure which page was being referenced.
Summary: Kitty O’Neil may have lost her hearing as a baby, but she never let it stop her from doing the most daring deeds she could find. From movie stunts to speed records for water skiing and boat racing, Kitty embraced any challenge. Her biggest goal was to break the women’s land-speed record of 308 miles per hour in the Motivator, her rocket-powered car. On December 6, 1976, Kitty drove across the Oregon desert, reaching a speed of 618 miles per hour. Her fans cheered wildly: “Kitty could not hear their cheering, but she could feel it in her bones.” Includes an author’s note with additional information about Kitty and her car; a list of her world records; and additional resources. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Focusing mostly on Kitty’s record-breaking drive, the story is exciting and incorporates facts about her early life. The author’s note provides additional context. This belongs on any list of books featuring people with disabilities.
Cons: It seems unfair that Kitty had to average two drives for the world record, so the official speed is 512 mph.
Summary: “War spreads through the day like a whispered, swift disease.” The opening pages of this book show spiders, snakes, and a large black bird traveling through a landscape until they land on a uniformed man, alone in a room, studying a large map and selecting a knight’s helmet before he throws a torch on a huge pile of books. Planes and soldiers gather in armies before bombs are dropped on cities and tanks roll in. The final pages show a destroyed city and large spiders moving in with the sentence, “War is silence.” Originally published in Portugal. 64 pages; grades 4 and up.
Pros: The watercolor illustrations done grays, blacks, and military drabs provide haunting images of the hatred and destruction of war. Combined with spare but powerful text, this would be an effective way to begin a discussion of war at the upper elementary, middle school or even high school level.
Cons: I will definitely not be putting this in the picture book section of my library. It looks like a picture book, but I kept imagining some kindergartener bringing it home to be read as a bedtime story.
Summary: “If you are a boy named Isamu…at the market with your mother, it can be a crowded and noisy place. Maybe there is a quiet space that feels more like you.” Isamu prefers to observe the world by himself, wondering about everything he sees around him: the colors of the fruit at the market, the light through the paper lanterns near his home, the leaves that he finds in the forest. In the evening, his mother asks him how his day was. Isamu thinks how he was alone but not lonely, and how the forest and beach were like friends giving him gifts like sticks, pebbles and shells. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Japanese American artist Isamu Noguchi and two photos of Isamu as a child and as an adult with one of his sculptures. 40 pages; ages 4-8.
Pros: Introspective children will find a kindred spirit in Isamu Noguchi, and all readers can embrace Isamu’s wonder and appreciation for the natural world.
Cons: There aren’t many details about Isamu Noguchi or his art, nor are there any additional resources given.
Summary: When Roberto Alvarerez returned to school from Christmas vacation on January 5, 1931, he was told he was no longer a student at the Lemon Grove Grammar School. He and the other Mexican American children were supposed to go to the new Olive Street School. Most of the kids headed home, as they had been instructed to do by their parents when rumors of the new school started to make their rounds in the neighborhood. Families filed a lawsuit with Roberto’s name on it against the Lemon Grove School District. On March 12, a judge ruled that there could be no separate school for Mexican children, and the students were allowed to return to Lemon Grove. Includes a six-page author’s note with additional information and photos; and sources and source notes. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This straightforward picture book tells a story of standing up to school segregation that happened years before Brown vs. Board of Education. While the story and folk art style illustrations could be understood and appreciated by a second-grader, there’s enough information in the author’s note to get a good start on a middle school project.
Cons: 90 years later, de facto school segregation is still prevalent all over the United States.
Summary: In 2018, Sharice Davids became one of the first two Native American women in Congress. From a young age, Sharice loved to talk and used her big voice to make friends when her single mother’s army career forced them to move several times. She worked hard to get through college and law school and to pursue a passion for martial arts. Her law degree led her to a South Dakota reservation, where she helped people start small businesses, and eventually to a career at the White House. In Washington, she noticed that there weren’t a lot of people who looked like her, and decided to try to change that by running for Congress. Her victory made her not only one of the first Native women in Congress, but also the first LGBTQ Native American there. Includes an author’s note, an illustrator’s note, and additional information about Davids’ Ho-Chunk tribe. 40 pages; grades K-4.
Pros: The chatty, informal tone of the writing makes Sharice seem like an old friend, and like pursuing your dreams is a real possibility. I loved the art for this book, created by Ojibwe Woodland artist Pawis-Steckley. I want to mention that this is the third book I’ve reviewed in the last week that’s by a Native American author with Native main characters. Things sure have changed since I started this blog in 2015, and it’s about time.
Cons: I wish there were more photos with the author’s note. I think the one there is of Sharice with her mom, but it wasn’t labeled, so I’m not sure.