Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler by Ibi Zoboi

Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers

Summary:  This biography of science fiction writer Octavia Butler is told through a collection of poetry, photographs, and quotations from Butler.  Starting with her early life as a solitary child growing up in 1950’s Pasadena, readers get to see how Octavia’s struggles in school, her introverted nature, and her love of books combined to lead to her a life as a writer.  She was fascinated by science fiction, although almost all of the writers and heroes of the stories were white men.  After years of rejection, she finally began selling her stories and eventually wrote books that earned her Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a MacArthur fellowship.  Includes a final chapter on Ibi Zoboi’s connection to Octavia Butler (they shared a birthday and met in person several times, including a science fiction writing workshop) and a list of Butler’s books.  128 pages; grades 7-12.

Pros:  This unique biography is a pretty quick read but gives an intimate look at Octavia Butler’s life and writing.  Readers who are not familiar with Butler’s work (like me) may be motivated to seek it out after getting this introduction.

Cons:  I saw some recommendations for this book starting in fifth grade, but I think it would be better appreciated by middle school and high school students, since Butler’s books are for young adults and adults.

Because of You, John Lewis: The True Story of a Remarkable Friendship by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Keith Henry Brown

Published by Scholastic Press

Summary:  Tybre Faw grew up learning Black history and was particularly inspired by John Lewis.  In 2018, at the age of ten, he convinced his grandmothers to take him to Selma to be part of the commemoration of 1965’s Bloody Sunday.  Tybre met John on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and the two became friends.  They walked together again in 2019 and in 2020 when John Lewis had been diagnosed with cancer.  Lewis died a few months later, and Tybre was invited to recite one of the congressman’s favorite poems, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley at the memorial service.  Includes additional information about both John Lewis and Tybre Faw, a timeline of Lewis’s life, a list of sources and resources for further reading, photos from both the 1960’s and the interactions between John and Tybre, and the text of “Invictus”.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  I marvel at the way this book is written, using beautiful poetry and watercolor illustrations to weave together the lives of both John Lewis and Tyre Faw, and showing the intersection between the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements.  The back matter adds a lot and gives resources for further exploration.

Cons:  I found it a little difficult to figure out when and at what age Tybre met John; it would have been helpful to me to have those dates included in the timeline.

Free At Last: A Juneteenth Poem written by Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, illustrated by Alex Bostic

Published by Union Square Kids

Summary:  This free verse poem begins with the news arriving in Galveston, Texas: the war is over, and “all who live in bondage here shall from now until be free.”  The words and oil paintings depict Black people’s reactions.  Some head for their shacks, which they now declare home; some go to another farm to work “for a pittance and a little plot of space.”  Others pray, dance, or head farther away.  The last few pages depict their descendants celebrating that freedom, right up to the present day.  An author’s note tells how she was introduced to Juneteenth in the 1980’s and wrote this poem, originally published in 2004, and how Juneteenth has gained wider recognition, eventually becoming a national holiday in 2021.  32 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The beautiful words and pictures in this book make it an excellent addition to Juneteenth literature, and a perfect way to observe the holiday.

Cons:  It would have been interesting to get more information about the fate of the different people portrayed in the book, and how their decisions to stay close to home or travel affected their futures.

Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech by Ted Kooser and Connie Wanek illustrated by Richard Jones

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  This poetry collection kicks off with “A Disappointment” in which the speaker sees a tree clowning on one leg and spinning a pie until a friend informs them that it’s just an old squirrel’s nest.  From there, the 27 poems are divided into four sections: Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, and imagination is allowed to reign freely.  The poems are written in free verse, many just a single verse, and are illustrated with beautiful somewhat abstract paintings of nature.  Includes an afterword with messages from both poets inviting readers to let their imaginations run wild.  72 pages; grades 4-8.

Pros:  These poems written by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser and acclaimed poet Connie Wanek are simple but beautiful in their use of imagery and metaphors that kids will relate to.  They’re short enough for elementary kids to be able to read and analyze them, yet rich enough to be used in classrooms into high school.  This book has gotten six starred reviews and was included on Betsy Bird’s spring Newbery predictions list, so look for it to get some awards consideration.

Cons:  I wish there had been some information about how the two poets worked together.

Serengeti: Plains of Grass by Leslie Bulion, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander

Published by Peachtree Publishing Company

Summary:  Each two-page spread depicts a scene from the Serengeti, with a four-line poem and a paragraph of additional information.  An introductory page describes the ecosystem of the Serengeti, and a note at the end gives additional information about the poetic form, which is derived from an East African form called the utendi.  Also includes a glossary, a reading list, and information on Serengeti stewardship, including three organizations that are working to preserve the Serengeti.  48 pages; grades 2-6.

Pros:  A beautiful science and poetry book, with gorgeous paintings of the Serengeti that will catch the eye of any animal lover.  The additional information about the poems and the Serengeti makes this an excellent resource for language arts, geography, and science.

Cons:  I wish there had been some information about the humans who live in that area.

Dog Says, Cat Says by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Sonia Sánchez

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  In rhyming text, a dog and cat alternate talking to their owners throughout the day: “It’s morning! Do you have to go? I’m bringing you my ball/It’s morning? Well, your bed’s so soft, I may not move at all.”  The dog enthusiastically leaps into all things dog-gy: barking at the mailman, playing fetch, and rolling in the mud, while the cat perfects the art of standoffishness and showing superiority to the dog.  When nighttime comes, the dog is ready to settle down in his bed, while the cat prowls through the house, then finally snuggles in with the dog.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A fun book for pet lovers that reminded me of Elisha Cooper’s Yes and No, with the dog and cat leading very different lives but coming together as night falls.  The bouncy rhymes and illustrations capture both the high energy of the dog and cat’s more languid nature.

Cons:  Failed to change my opinion that dogs make superior pets.

A Is for Oboe: The Orchestra’s Alphabet by Lera Auerbach and Marilyn Nelson, illustrated by Paul Hoppe

Published by Dial Books

Summary:  This musical alphabet book has a poem for every letter: from the A the oboe plays to warm up the orchestra to the Zzz’s the musicians and audience members catch after the performance.  In between there are poems celebrating different instruments, the people involved in making music, and the music itself, both what’s written on paper and what is performed.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An A to Z poetry book of music didn’t really grab me, but once I started reading, I found every poem engaging and I zipped through the book in no time.  Many different aspects of music were covered (and of course I appreciated the fact that the letter L celebrates music librarians), and the energetic illustrations help readers understand the topics of the poems.

Cons:  Readers unfamiliar with music will need some additional context; it would have been nice to have some of that provided with either information on each page or with some back matter.

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renée Watson, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith

Published by Kokila

The 1619 Project: Born on the Water: Hannah-Jones, Nikole, Watson, Renée,  Smith, Nikkolas: 9780593307359: Books
The 1619 Project (Picture Book): Born on the Water by Nikole Hannah-Jones  and Renée Watson

Summary:  In the first poem, titled “Questions”, a girl gets an assignment to trace her roots and realizes she can only go back three generations. At home, she asks her grandmother for help.  Her grandmother gathers the family together and tells them their story, beginning with their ancestors in West Central Africa who were kidnapped in 1619 and forced on a hellish journey aboard a slave ship.  Those who survived were forced into slavery in tobacco fields, fighting to hold onto their memories of home.  Their descendants went on to become great people in their new country.  By the end of the story, the girl is ready to return to school and finish her story; the final poem is called “Pride”.  Includes notes from the authors and the illustrator and the website for the 1619 Project.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  The award-winning authors have crafted an empowering collection of poems that doesn’t shy away from harsh histories, but also celebrates an African history that is often overlooked.

Cons:  I wish there were more resources listed; the 1619 Project website has books connected to the project, but no others.

The People Remember by Ibi Zoboi, illustrated by Loveis Wise

Published by Balzer + Bray

The People Remember: Zoboi, Ibi, Wise, Loveis: 9780062915641:  Books
The People Remember: Zoboi, Ibi, Wise, Loveis: 9780062915641:  Books

Summary:  This illustrated poem recounts the history of African Americans, beginning with their capture in Africa and continuing through enslavement, emancipation, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement, the Hip-Hop era, the election of Barack Obama, and the Black Lives Matter movement.  There are mentions and depictions of many famous Black writers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and artists.  Each section embodies one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa and concludes by naming it.  Includes a two-page author’s note with additional information about Kwanzaa and her connection to it, a four-page timeline with additional information about the events in the book, and a list for further reading.  64 pages; grades 1 and up.

Pros:  This amazing book traces the history of African Americans with concise but beautiful language that will inspire readers to dig more deeply into the events and people named.  The vibrant illustrations portray what’s going on in the text realistically but with a touch of imaginative fantasy.  There aren’t nearly enough Kwanzaa books, and this one would make an excellent resource; it could be read all at once or spread out over the seven days of the holiday.

Cons:  Some reviewers recommended this for ages 4-8.  It’s a long book with lots of information, which I think would be more appreciated by older readers of any age.

Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by 19 artists

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance: 9781681199443:  Grimes, Nikki: Books
Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance – EyeSeeMe

Summary:  In this follow-up to One Last Word, Nikki Grimes focuses on the women poets of the Harlem Renaissance.  The book begins with an introduction to the history of the period and to the poetry form Grimes uses called The Golden Shovel, in which she uses the poems of others to inspire her own poetry.  The poems are presented in three sections: “Heritage”, “Earth Mother”, and “Taking Notice”.  They’re bookended with poems in the voice of a middle school girl, skeptical when her teacher hands her books on the women of the Harlem Renaissance, then empowered after she reads them.  Includes biographical information about the poets and the illustrators, sources, and an index.  144 pages; grades 5-9.

Pros:  Like One Last Word, this book is an amazing resource for learning about poets of the Harlem Renaissance, in this case women who have pretty much been forgotten.  The Golden Shovel seems incredibly difficult, but Nikki Grimes proves herself a master of the form. The artwork by so many different illustrators perfectly illuminates the poems.

Cons:  How did One Last Word not win any Coretta Scott King recognition?  I’m rooting for this book to remedy that.