Libba: The Magnificent Musical Life of Elizabeth Cotten by Laura Veirs, illustrated by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  Growing up in North Carolina, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten loved playing music.  She learned to play her brother’s guitar, but because she was left-handed, she played it upside-down and backwards.  When her brother moved out, taking his guitar with him, Libba did chores until she had saved $3.75 to buy her own instrument. When she was 12, she wrote a song called “Freight Train”.  But an early marriage and a baby derailed her musical ambitions for many years. In the 1940’s, she took a job as a housekeeper for the musical Seeger family.  When they heard her play, they helped launch her career. She recorded her first album in 1958, then went on tour. “Freight Train” became a hit, and her songs were covered by many artists.  Libba won a Grammy award in 1985, when she was in her 90’s. Includes a lengthy author’s note with additional biographical information and a list of works cited. 48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Kids may not appreciate the “it’s never too late to follow your dreams message”, but it’s an inspiring one for us older readers, and Libba’s unconventional way of playing the guitar will help kids to see there’s more than one path to greatness.  Look on YouTube for a video of Libba playing and singing “Freight Train” to really appreciate her guitar talents.

Cons:  Although the illustrations are lovely, the cover didn’t really grab me, and I had this out of the library a couple times before I finally read it.

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Fairy Spell: How Two Girls Convinced the World That Fairies Are Real by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Eliza Wheeler

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  In 1917, cousins Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright spent much of the summer playing near the beck, or stream, behind their home in Cottingley, England.  When Frances got in trouble for getting her shoes wet, she claimed she and Elsie had seen fairies near the water. She convinced her father to let them take his camera to photograph the little creatures, and sure enough, they were able to capture some of the fairies on film.  The photos came to the attention of Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, and he was so intrigued, he got them published in a magazine. The hoax continued until 1983, when Frances and Elsie, then 75 and 81, finally admitted that the pictures were faked. They never expected their prank to get so big, and when it did, hadn’t wanted to embarrass their families and Conan Doyle.  In fact Frances admitted faking most of them, but would never renounce the final photo they took, and always claimed there had been fairies in Cottingley. Includes an author’s note and list of sources. 40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  This story has been told before, but this version is particularly well-done for younger kids, with the original photos incorporated into the illustrations.  The author’s note includes a discussion of how people can be tricked into believing things that aren’t true, and how this continues today, aided by the Internet.  

Cons:  Kids may find it hard to believe that people believed these photos were real for so many years.

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The Elephant by Jenni Desmond

Published by Enchanted Lion Books

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Summary:  When a child takes a book off the shelf and begins to read, he learns a lot about elephants.  Much of the book is nonfiction, giving facts and information about elephants, including the different species, their size, what they eat, their habitat, and why they are endangered.  The child appears in some of the illustrations, and there are connections to his world, like the picture that shows four cars piled on top of each other that are equal in weight to a male elephant.  Although elephants sleep a lot less than most other mammals, the same is not true for the reader, and the final page shows him asleep in his dark house, his head pillowed by the elephant book. 48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  An appealing nonfiction book, with the whimsical illustrations adding some humor, but also informing (the car picture, the one above that shows the length of an elephant’s trunk with two children lying on it toe-to-toe).  Jenni Desmond has written similar books on polar bears and blue whales, which I am now looking to add to my libraries.

Cons:  There is no back matter–some additional resources would have been useful.

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Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot’s World War II Story by Marc Tyler Nobleman, illustrated by Melissa Iwai

Published by Clarion Books

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Summary:  On September 9, 1942, Nobuo Fujita set out on a mission to drop two bombs in Oregon, with the intention of setting a forest fire that would spread to nearby towns.  The raid was successful, but only one bomb ignited, and the resulting fire was quickly contained. Residents of the town of Brookings, Oregon were somewhat alarmed to discover pieces of a Japanese bomb in a nearby forest.  The mission was repeated a few weeks later, with similar results. After the war, Nobuo settled down in Japan, never telling anyone about his raids over America. In 1962, the Brookings Jaycees, trying to boost tourism, decided to track down the Japanese bomber pilot and invite him to America.  For the first time, Nobuo told his family about his role in the war, and the whole family traveled to Oregon, not sure about what to expect. Despite some protests, most of the townspeople welcomed the Japanese visitors with open arms, and the trip ended up being the first of four that Nobuo made; he also sponsored three Brookings high school to visit him in Tokyo.  The day before he died in 1997, a town representative flew to Japan to make Nobuo an honorary citizen; a year after his death, his widow scattered some of his ashes in the Oregon town. Includes an author’s note and additional sources. 40 pages; grades 1-6.

Pros:  Kids who are interested in World War II may pick this up, but there is a lot more to the story than just military history.  It’s a tale of forgiveness and pacifism, and raises the interesting question about Nobuo: “He went from fighting to uniting.  Which took more courage?’’ An engaging story and meditation on war and peace.

Cons:  It does make you wonder what would have happened if those bombs had worked the way they were supposed to.

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Do Not Lick This Book*:*It’s Full of Germs by Idan Ben-Barak and Julian Frost

Published by Roaring Brook Press

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Summary:  Meet Min, the microbe, so small that she and 3,422,166 of her friends could fit on a tiny dot.  When Min is bored, she goes exploring, visiting a tooth, a shirt, and a belly button, where she meets and befriends other microbes.  Magnified photos show what each of those environments looks like to a microbe. Much of the book is addressed to the reader (“Touch your teeth to pick Min up.  Put your finger on your shirt to send Min and Rae on a new adventure) that make the book interactive (if you want to go there). The last page properly identifies the microbes (Min is an E. coli…yay!) and shows what they really look like.  40 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  A weirdly fun and fascinating book that introduces the youngest readers to the world of microbes…who are pretty cute in the illustrations.  The close-ups of everyday objects will fascinate kids.

Cons:  Does a book about microbes that live in your teeth and clothes really need a stated “con”?

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Lights, Camera, Alice! The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Simona Ciraolo

Published by Chronicle Books

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Summary:  Alice always loved stories, but when her father died and the family business went under, she was forced to become practical and find a job.  She was hired by a camera company and learned about a new kind of camera–one that made moving pictures.  To help sell the camera, Alice decided to capture some of her stories on film.  She created props and costumes, found actors and actresses, and experimented with different film techniques.  She even learned to add sound and color to her motion pictures.  She eventually moved to America, where she opened a studio and eventually made over 700 movies.  But when the film industry became big business, Hollywood put Alice’s little studio out of business, and she moved back to France with her children.  Much of her work was lost, but in 1955, her role in movie making was rediscovered, and she was awarded the Legion of Honor.  She also wrote her memoirs, which were finally published in America in 1986.  Includes additional information and a list of sources, including two of Alice’s films that can be seen on YouTube.  60 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  This quirky book tells the unbelievable story of Alice Guy-Blache, who contributed a huge amount to early film, yet was almost completely unrecognized for her achievements.  The story is told in the style of a silent movie, and the illustrations have a good time playing with that genre.

Cons:  All recommendations I saw were for grades K-3 or K-4, but most kindergarteners and first graders wouldn’t have enough background knowledge to understand or appreciate this.

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Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams by Lesa Cline-Ransom, illustrated by James E. Ransome and Sisters and Champions: The True Story of Venus and Serena Williams

Game Changers published by Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers

Sisters and Champions published by Philomel Books

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Summary:  When I went to write a review about Game Changers, I discovered Sisters and Champions, another 2018 book about Venus and Serena Williams.  Both are picture book biographies that emphasize the girls’ unlikely background, growing up in Compton, a rough Los Angeles neighborhood.  Richard Williams, their father, is introduced in both books as their coach who never wavered from his belief that they could become professional tennis stars.  Venus’s rise to success and fame, followed shortly by Serena’s is documented in the books, as well as the fact that the sisters often played each other for the championship at many professional matches.  Cline-Ransome’s book talks a bit more about the racism the two of them encountered as they moved up the ranks in what had traditionally been an almost all-white sport. Her story ends with Venus taking pictures of Serena after Serena had beat her for the first time at the French Open.  Bryant’s goes a bit further, touching on illness and injuries that both women have had to overcome. Game Changers includes an afterword, source notes, a selected bibliography, and a list for further reading; no back matter in Sisters and Champions.  48 pages (Game Changers) and 32 pages (Sisters & Champions); grades 1-4 for both.

Pros:  I’m happy to see two excellent books on the Williams sisters by acclaimed authors and illustrators; Serena and Venus are a frequent topic of research in my third grade libraries.  Both books are well done, but if I had to pick one, it would be Game Changers.  I preferred the sharp, action-packed cut-paper illustrations to Cooper’s pastels, and the back matter makes it a better choice for research.

Cons:  There were some inconsistencies between the two. Cline-Ransome: “Venus won every single one of her sixty-three junior tournaments by age ten.”  Bryant: “Their father wouldn’t let his girls play junior tournaments even though everyone played juniors.”  Also, no photos in either book.

If you would like to buy Game Changers on Amazon, click here.

If you would like to buy Sisters and Champions on Amazon, click here.