The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora

Published by Schwartz and Wade

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Summary:  Mary Walker was born into slavery in 1848.  As a child, she learned to work hard, but she never learned to read and write.  She continued to work throughout her life, marrying twice and raising three sons.  She received a Bible as a young woman, but didn’t know how to read it, and needed someone else to record the births of her children inside of it.  Finally, 114 years old and the last surviving member of her family, Mary heard about a literacy class and decided to enroll. Over the next year, she learned to read, write, add, and subtract, and was eventually certified as the oldest student in the United States.  She continued to enjoy reading until her death on December 1, 1969 at age 121. Includes an author’s note and several photos on the endpapers. 40 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  An inspiring story that ends with a picture of Mary telling readers, “You’re never too old to learn,” a sentiment that may mean more to readers like myself than its intended audience.  Oge Mora’s illustrations make the story come alive. I particularly liked how the scribbles Mary sees everywhere have transformed into letters and words by the end.

Cons:  I was a little disappointed to read in the author’s note that little is known of Mary’s life before she learned to read well past 100, and that much of the story was Hubbard’s imagining of what her life was like.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Five more favorite picture books

This is my last set of favorite picture books, I promise!  I don’t know that any of these will win awards, but they have a lot of kid appeal, which sometimes counts for as much or more, in my opinion.


Carl and the Meaning of Life by Deborah Freedman

Published by Viking Books for Young Readers

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Pretty sure this the first time an earthworm has ever made any kind of “best of” list on this blog.  I loved Carl’s twin messages of being your best self and taking care of the Earth.


Field Trip to the Moon by John Hare

Published by Margaret Ferguson Books

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I do enjoy a good wordless picture book.  This one is imaginative, yet still easy to understand.  And it has aliens.  I’ve had this one in my mock Caldecott election, so don’t count it out for an award.


Wintercake by Lynn Rae Perkins

Published by Greenwillow Books

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I didn’t find many great new holiday books this year, but I love this cozy winter tale about friendship and the dangers of rushing to judgement on a person (or animal).


Truman by Jean Reidy, illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

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Truman the turtle may be my favorite character of 2019.  Keep this book in mind next August when the first day of school rolls around again.  Another one that was in my mock Caldecott activity.


Who Wet My Pants? by Bob Shea

Published by Little, Brown Books

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I can’t entirely disagree with Amazon reviewers who felt this missed the mark on delivering the “right”message to kids.  But come on, it’s hilarious, and we all know that person who can’t admit they’re wrong.  The cover alone probably has more kid appeal than the other four put together.

It’s not just the Caldecott

Although we in the children’s literature world tend to focus on the Newbery and Caldecott, check out the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards to see all the other categories that are recognized at the same time.  Here are a few picture books that I believe are worthy of consideration for some of those.


Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Published by Versify

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I love Kwame Alexander’s poem, but I think it’s illustrator Kadir Nelson who is most likely to be recognized with a Coretta Scott King award this year for his amazing portraits of the African Americans Alexander writes about.


The Women Who Caught the Babies: A Story of African American Midwives by Eloise Greenfield, illustrated by Daniel Minter

Published by Alazar Press

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This one could go either way for the Coretta Scott King award: both the poems and the illustrations are pretty amazing.


Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People, Maya Angelou by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Tonya Engel

Published by Lee & Low Books

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Pity that Coretta Scott King committee who has so many worthy contenders to choose from this year.


¡Vamos! Let’s Go to the Market! by Raul the Third

Published by Versify

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I will be pretty surprised if Raúl the Third doesn’t get some sort of Pura Belpré recognition for his Richard Scarry-like illustrations of this trip to the market.  I was happy to learn recently that Let’s Go Eat! is coming out in March.


A Place to Land: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Published by Neal Porter Books

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And one more Coretta Scott King possibility.  Of course, all of these could be contenders for the Caldecott as well.  Truth be told, I dreamed up this blog post because there were so many I wanted to put on the Caldecott prediction post, and for some reason I always limit myself to five.

Five Caldecott Predictions

I’ve been running mock Caldecott elections at my schools this month, with a list of 22 to choose from.  It’s always interesting to see what the kids like versus what the Caldecott committee likes.

I seem to be (very) marginally better at predicting the Caldecott.  I actually had the winners on my list in 2016 (Radiant Child) and last year (Hello, Lighthouse), and have guessed a few that got Caldecott honors (Du Iz Tak? and Last Stop on Market Street).  So with that amazing record–four out of the 20 books I’ve predicted have won something–I will gaze into my crystal ball for 2020.


The Scarecrow by Beth Ferry, illustrated by The Fan Brothers

Published by HarperCollins

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It wouldn’t be a Caldecott prediction list without a book illustrated by the Fan Brothers, whose U.S. citizenship always calls their eligibility into question.  As near as I can tell, they live in Canada, but have duel citizenship, which should make them eligible (and should begin the process of changing that particular Caldecott rule).  This has been a favorite in my mock Caldecott elections.


Saturday by Oge Mora

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

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I liked this even better than last year’s Caldecott honor Thank You, Omu!  It’s a great lesson in resilience, and has been another popular choice with kids.


Another by Christian Robinson

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

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I have to say, I found this wordless book pretty confusing.  But I’ve seen it on so many best books of 2019 lists and I left it off my mock Caldecott list, which is pretty much a guarantee it will win something.


Small In the City by Sydney Smith

Published by Neal Porter Books

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This is probably my favorite book on the list.  I loved how what the girl is looking for is gradually revealed through both text and illustrations.  It’s a great mentor text for inferencing, should you be looking for such a thing.


A Stone Sat Still by Brendan Wenzel

Published by Chronicle Books

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I haven’t found this one to have a lot of kid appeal, but I loved the thought-provoking nature of the text, as well as all the animal illustrations.

As with all these lists, I’d love to hear your choices in the comments!

Freedom Soup by Tami Charles, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcántara

Published by Candlewick

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Summary:  The girl telling the story is excited that her grandmother has invited her to help make the soup for New Year’s Day.  The name of the soup is Freedom Soup, and making it inspires Ti Gran to tell the story of Haiti, and how the slave revolt there led to freedom for their ancestors.  The story has been passed down from Ti Gran’s mother and grandmother, and both the girl and Ti Gran like the idea that she will someday pass it along to her own children and grandchildren.  When the soup is done, it’s time to share it with the family, and everyone enjoys it to the last drop as they celebrate a new year. Includes an author’s note with additional information about Haiti and the author’s own grandmother and a recipe for Freedom Soup.  32 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  A perfect way to celebrate New Year’s and effortlessly learn something about history and cooking in the process.  The vibrant illustrations make the story come alive.

Cons:  The recipe is billed as “kid-friendly”, but there’s a pretty long list of ingredients and will definitely require a good deal of adult help.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

Fix That Clock by Kurt Cyrus

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

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Summary:  As construction workers head to an old clock tower to restore it to its former glory, they discover that rats and bats have made their homes among the rusted gears and rotting boards.  They get to work, doing their best to work around the animals.  Math makes several appearances in the story: “Seven steps upon a stair,/Six are tangled, one is bare./Five are red. Two are green./Four are thick and three are lean.”  The clock slowly comes back to life, and the animals scramble when the chimes sound. But the thoughtful workers haven’t forgotten about them: they use scraps of wood to build homes for them on the outside of the clock tower. 40 pages; ages 3-8.

Pros:  Just as he did in Billions of Bricks, Kurt Cyrus uses energetic rhymes and detailed illustrations to bring a construction project to life.  Numbers, shapes, and other mathematical concepts are woven effortlessly into the text.

Cons:  I can’t help thinking those animals might not enjoy living right up against a chiming clock.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.

From a Small Seed: The Story of Eliza Hamilton by Camille Andros, illustrated by Tessa Blackham

Published by Henry Holt and Co.

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Summary:  Eliza is introduced as a strong girl, growing up in a big brick house with loving parents.  She likes to run and climb, but is also compassionate. She often sees an orphan boy and feels sorry for him, sharing her food when she can.  Later, she meets another orphan (Alexander Hamilton, although he’s not identified in the text), marries him, and works to help him found a new nation.  When tragedy strikes, and she and her eight children are left on their own, she remembers the orphan boy and starts the Orphan Asylum Society and the Hamilton Free School.  Throughout the story, trees are used as symbols from the young saplings Eliza sees as a child to the grove of tall trees that overlook her grave. Includes notes from the author and illustrator and three additional sources.  40 pages; grades 1-4.

Pros:  This is a brief and lovely introduction to the inspiring life of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, a bit more accessible to younger readers than Margaret McNamara’s 2018 book Eliza.  The tree symbolism works well, as do the muted illustrations.  

Cons:  The author’s note reveals that few details are known of Eliza’s life, and that her interactions with the orphan boy at the beginning are fictional, making this book straddle the line between biography and historical fiction.

If you would like to buy this book on Amazon, click here.