Pocket Full of Colors: The Magical World of Mary Blair, Disney Artist Extraordinaire by Amy Guglielmo and Jacqueline Tourville

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Summary:  From the time she was a child, Mary Blair loved colors of all hues.  She used them at art school, and they led her to a job at Disney Studios, one of the first women to be hired by them.  Once there, though, a group of older men rejected her colorful drawings, preferring to stick with mostly black and white.  She did succeed in catching the attention of one man, Walt Disney himself, who invited her on a tour of South America to create art.  Upon her return, under the South American influence, her art grew even more eye-popping, and some of her ideas were finally accepted, including Cinderella’s pumpkin coach and Alice in Wonderland’s caterpillar.  But too many of her ideas were turned down, and Mary went off on her own, where she created children’s book illustrations and theater sets.  A few years later, Walt Disney approached her with a new plan, and Mary became the chief designer for his “It’s a Small World” ride.  At last, her colors could flow freely, and the world could finally see Mary’s world as she had always imagined it.  Includes an author’s note with biographical information.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A colorful biography of a little-known artist with a connection most kids will recognize and a “be yourself” message about creativity.

Cons:  Now we will all have “It’s a Small World” stuck in our heads for the rest of the day.

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Small Walt by Elizabeth Verdick, pictures by Marc Rosenthal

Published by Simon and Schuster

Summary:  When a blizzard hits town, most of the snowplow drivers go for the big, tough plows.  But Gus agrees to drive Walt, the smallest one in the fleet, and Walt is determined not to let him down.  They plug along through town, and Walt keeps himself going with rhymes such as, “My name is Walt. I plow and I salt. I clear the snow so the cars can go!”  Finally, they reach a high hill with the biggest drifts Gus has ever seen.  “I don’t think we’re up to this,” he says, but Walt has different ideas.  With a bit of slipping and sliding, they make it to the top, then back down again, with mega snowplow Big Buck following close behind.  At dawn, they head back to the parking lot, and even Big Buck has grudging words of admiration for Walt.  As for Gus, he takes off his blue scarf and ties it around Walt’s rearview mirror, cementing their friendship for snowstorms yet to come.  40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A cross between Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little Engine That Could, this is a charming story of persistence and optimism with pleasantly retro illustrations.  A perfect read-aloud for the coming winter months.

Cons:  For the purpose of story hours and kids chanting along with a repeated refrain, Walt should have made up one rhyme and stuck with it.  Instead, he kept changing it.

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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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Draw the Line by Kathryn Otoshi

Published by Roaring Brook Press

Summary:  Two boys are drawing lines in this wordless book, their backs to each other.  When they bump into each other, they connect their lines, and the line becomes a string.  The string is fun to play with, until the play turns mean.  As they engage in a tug-of-war, a chasm appears, gradually widening and pushing them further apart.  A shared smile creates the means for closing the gap, turning it into a path that they can travel on together.  48  pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  This simple story and black-and-white illustrations could be a starting point for all kinds of discussions about friendship and conflict resolution.

Cons:  A review I read mentioned color in the illustrations, and there are colors in the picture (above) that I found online, but the copy of the book I had was all in black and white.

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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 Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu, illustrated by Manuela Adreani

Published by Lantana Publishing

Summary:  Etabo dreams about being the best camel racer ever.  His older brothers and sisters make fun of him, saying he’s too small to race camels, but he doesn’t care.  His dreams are put on hold, though, when his family has to sell all the camels to buy water.  Then his older siblings have to leave to find work, leaving Etabo at home to take care of the family’s goats.  When he prays to Akuj the Sky God, Akuj replies, “Your dreams are enough.”  His older sister is sympathetic, and spends her free time carving Etabo a set of wooden camels.  Encouraged by his new camels and his family’s love, Etabo realizes that his dreams are, in fact, enough for now.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A simple story that will introduce children to the Turkana people of Kenya, and a boy with dreams that kids around the world will understand.  The illustrations capture the beauty of the Kenyan landscape.

Cons:  Some back matter with more information about Etabo and his home would have been useful.

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Cancer Hates Kisses by Jessica Reid Sliwerski, illustrated by Mika Song

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  The two young narrators in this story have a mom who has been diagnosed with cancer.  In their eyes, Mom is a superhero who “kicks cancer’s butt hard”.  She is strong and brave as she goes through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.  She has “warrior wounds” from surgery and looks fierce when she loses her hair. Sometimes she has to rest and sometimes she cries, but the family discovers what cancer hates:  kisses, hugs, laughter, smiles, high fives, dance parties, and love.  Includes notes from cancer specialist Dr. Elisa Port and the author, who was diagnosed with breast cancer when her daughter was a baby.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  An excellent resource for children with a family member who is dealing with cancer.  The optimistic tone and light-hearted illustrations provide a good balance for the serious subject.  Surgery, chemo, and radiation are not sugarcoated, either in the text or the pictures, but the strong, upbeat tone gives kids reason to hope for the best outcome.

Cons:  Despite the optimistic presentation, it’s hard not to get a lump in your throat when reading this.

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