Rise! From Caged Bird to Poet of the People by Bethany Hegedus, foreword by Colin Johnson, illustrations by Tonya Engel

Published by Lee and Low Books

Image result for rise from caged

Image result for rise from caged

Summary:  Beginning with young Maya’s journey south to live with her grandmother in Arkansas, the narrative describes her early experiences of blatant racism in the deep south, and continues as she and her brother went to live with their mother in St. Louis.  Her rape by her mother’s boyfriend is described indirectly: “One day, Maya, left alone with Mr. Freeman, is anything but free. After a visit to the hospital, Maya calls out Mr. Freeman’s name as the one who hurt her.” Soon after, he was murdered, and Maya stopped speaking for several years, burying herself in books until she slowly emerged to become a dancer, actress, cable car driver, mother, and finally, a writer and activist. Ending with her death at age 86, the author assures readers that Maya’s words will “always rise rise rise”.  Includes a foreword by Angelou’s grandson; a timeline; resources for children who have been sexually abused; and a bibliography. 48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  Gorgeous acrylic illustrations and poetic text detail the many different aspects of Maya Angelou’s incredible life.  Due to the horrific events of her childhood, it can be tricky to share her story with children, but Hegedus does a good job not shying away from Maya’s rape and its aftermath in a way that’s appropriate for the intended audience.  

Cons:  I had no idea Maya Angelou did so many different interesting things in her life.  It’s hard to cram it all into one picture book.

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How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

Published by HarperCollins

Image result for how to read a book kwame alexander

Image result for how to read a book melissa sweet kwame

Summary:  You start with a book.  And a comfortable place to read.  “Once you’re comfy, peel its gentle skin like you would a clementine.”  Kwame Alexander’s poem encourages readers to celebrate each book, savoring every morsel they get from it, while Melissa Sweet’s collage illustrations provide a neon-colored background with children reading, all sorts of fonts, and shapes cut from an actual book (Bambi, to be exact).  The final pages: “Now sleep. Dream. Hope. (You never reach…The End).”  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A lovely introduction to the joys of reading in Kwame Alexander’s poetic voice, eye-poppingly illustrated by Melissa Sweet with beautiful collages that reminded me why I’m still bitter that she didn’t win a Caldecott for 2016’s Some Writer

Cons:  Although this has gotten multiple starred reviews, and I can appreciate the artistry of both the text and the illustrations, I can’t help wondering if it will be appreciated by the preschool crowd.  Given the choice, I would probably read Kate Messner’s How to Read A Story as a similar introduction for this age.

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Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

Published by Balzer + Bray

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Summary:  Jude worries about the changes going on in her Syrian town: the tourist business has almost completely stopped, and her college-age brother is increasingly involved in protests that could get him arrested or worse.  When her mother tells Jude that she’s expecting a baby, she also reveals that the two of them are moving to Jude’s uncle’s house in Cincinnati, Ohio. In America, Jude finds both good and bad. She likes her ELL classmates and bravely decides to try out for her middle school’s production of Beauty and the Beast.  But she also must deal with a cousin who’s not thrilled to have to share her home and with racism when she starts wearing hijab.  Concern for her brother and her best friend, both of whom go missing after she gets to the U.S., and for her father, whose fate in Syria is uncertain, color Jude’s days.  Seeing her mother’s courage and resilience inspires her, and new friends help her to move toward a hopeful future by the end of the book. Includes an author’s note with websites to visit for more information about Syria and Syrian refugees.  352 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The poetic language of this novel in verse is both beautiful and accessible, and American readers will get a greater understanding of what life for immigrants and refugees is like.  I would certainly not be unhappy to see this on the Newbery or other award list next January.

Cons:  The future still seems pretty uncertain for Jude and her family.

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A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by Xia Gordon

Published by Sterling Children’s Books

Image result for song for gwendolyn brooks

Image result for song for gwendolyn brooks

Summary:  From an early age, Gwendolyn loved words and poetry.  Fortunately, her parents were supportive of her interests and allowed her to opt out of chores if they knew she was working on a poem  When a teacher accused her daughter of plagiarism, Gwendolyn’s mother marched to the school and had Gwendolyn write a poem on the spot to prove her talent.  As an adult living on the South Side of Chicago, Brooks didn’t let marriage and family stop her from writing, and in 1950 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Annie Allen.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Gwendolyn Brooks; a timeline; a list of some of her poetry books; and a bibliography.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  Although this beautifully illustrated book is suggested for elementary ages, it would also make an excellent text to use in a middle school introduction to poetry.  Brooks’ poems are sprinkled throughout the story, and older kids might resonate with the poet’s more introverted nature.

Cons:  The fonts used for the main text and the poems were so similar, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the difference between the two.

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Trees by Verlie Hutchens, illustrated by Jing Jing Tson

Published by Beach Lane Books

Image result for trees verlie

Image result for trees verlie jing

Summary:  Fourteen different trees are profiled, each one getting a brief free-verse poem and a two-page illustration.  Some of the taller trees’ pages require turning the book 45 degrees, as the tree stretches from roots on the left-hand side to the treetop on the right.  The trees are personified, often being assigned a gender, and sometimes compared to a human (a sycamore is a “fashion queen” and the white pine, an “unruly uncle”).  Other trees include maple, aspen, oak, palm, pussy willow, apple, redbud, dogwood, spruce, willow, birch, and sequoia. 40 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  Just enough information is given in the brief poems and illustrations to help kids start to identify some of the trees in their neighborhoods.  The short, easy-to-understand verses and familiar subject matter would make this a good introduction to poetry.

Cons:  There were no additional resources to help readers learn more about trees.

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Sweet Dreamers by Isabelle Simler

Published by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Image result for sweet dreamers simler

Image result for sweet dreamers simler

Summary:  Twenty eight poems tell how different animals sleep: “Toes clinging to the ceiling/kite-fingers folded like a blanket/the bat dreams upside down/As the day shines, she slips into darkness.”  Each spread has a picture of the animal from a short distance on the page with the poem, and a close-up of the animal on the facing page. There are a few wordless spreads of nighttime landscapes interspersed among the poems.  The last poem is for the reader (or listener): “She clambers onto the whale/straddles the seahorse/clings to the elephant/swoops with the swallow./All night long, cuddling her koala/The child dreams beneath the moon.” 80 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  Nothing was lost in the translation of this book from the original French to English.  The poems are brief but expressive, and convey at least a fact or two about each animal.  The big and beautiful illustrations are digitally created, which is hard to believe. They look like scratchboard, with bright bits of color on dark backgrounds, perfect for the subject matter.

Cons:  Some additional information on the animals at the end would have added to the educational value.

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Clackety Track: Poems About Trains by Skila Brown, illustrated by Jamey Christoph

Published by Candlewick

Image result for clackety track poems amazon

Image result for clackety track poems amazon

Summary:  Thirteen poems take the reader from “Morning in the Yard” to “Sleeper Train”.  The poems take different forms, including a few concrete ones like “Tracks” in the shape of railroad tracks, and “Shoulder Ballast Cleaner” with the words interwoven in the illustration.  Each poem gets its own two-page spread, complete with a vivid, colorful illustration. Includes a dozen facts about trains, shown on railroad cars on the final two pages. 32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  The simple poems and bright, colorful illustrations make this an excellent introduction to poetry for primary grades; the subject is sure to be popular as well.

Cons:  I liked how Skila Brown included shark facts on every page of her book of shark poems, Slickety Quick, and wish she had done that with facts about the different trains here.

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