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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The Red Bandanna (Young Readers Adaptation) by Tom Rinaldi

Published by Viking

Summary:  On September 11, 2001, as people were struggling to evacuate the Twin Towers, some were led out by a young man with a strong, clear voice and a red bandanna over his face.  Although he helped many people to safety, he himself did not survive.  This book tells the story of Welles Crowther, a 24-year-old Wall Street trader who had worked as a volunteer firefighter, and was considering a career change to FDNY.  From a young age, Welles was fascinated with firefighting, and was a compassionate and exuberant boy who often helped his friends.  He always carried that red bandanna, and it later helped identify him, allowing the survivors he helped to connect with his family.  A feature on ESPN spread his story around the world, and continues to remind others to follow Welles Crowther’s inspiration to help.  176 pages; grades 5-8.

Pros:  Keep the tissues handy for this moving story of a young man whose brief life has touched many, many others around the world.

Cons:  “Bandanna” just looks wrong, but apparently “bandana” and “bandanna” are both correct.

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Ben Franklin’s In My Bathroom! By Candace Fleming, illustrated by Mark Fearing

Published by Schwartz & Wade

Summary:  When Nolan and his younger sister Olivia receive a package containing an antique crystal radio set, they’re unsure about how it works.  They try twisting dials and flipping switches, and before they know it, they have conjured up Benjamin Franklin from the year 1789.  Ben is quite taken with the 21st century, and insists on going on a tour to see how some of his creations, like the public library and fire station, are faring.  Along the way, he shares stories from his life, told in comic book style.  People are startled, but charmed, by the eccentric old man wandering around town with the two children, and Franklin thoroughly enjoys himself until he starts contemplating the possibility of never seeing his 18th-century friends and family again.  Nolan, who is dealing with an absent father, is sympathetic and finds a way to send his new friend back home.  Billed as Book 1 in the History Pals series, the illustration of the radio offers some hints about what other times in history are planned for the rest of the series. Includes a 10-page section at the end with more information about Franklin, including a bibliography and websites.  272 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Readers won’t realize they’re getting a dose of history education in this fast and funny tale.  A large font, plenty of illustrations, and frequent comic book page inserts make this a good choice for reluctant readers.

Cons:  The bathroom/toilet front cover may turn off some adults; there’s actually very little bathroom humor.

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Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  Arturo Schomburg grew up in Puerto Rico, where he loved reading and history.  When his fifth grade teacher told him that people from Africa had no history, he began a lifelong quest to prove her wrong.  At age 17, he moved to New York and became a bank clerk, but his real passion was collecting books, papers, and pamphlets having to do with African and African-American history.  Eventually, his collection grew to such a size that his wife said she was leaving if he didn’t sell it.  The New York Public Library purchased it, and it became the cornerstone of their Negro History, Literature, and Prints collection.  Schomburg also served as curator for the Negro Collection at Fisk University Library in Tennessee.  Includes a timeline and bibliography. 38 pages; grades 3-6.

Pros:  The free verse poems that make up the text tell the story of Arturo Schomburg, but also of many of the people whose stories he collected, including Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, and Toussaint Louverture.  A poem called “Whitewash” explores the African heritage, mostly ignored, of such famous people as John James Audubon, Alexandre Dumas, and Beethoven.  The large oil paintings that illustrate this oversized book bring all these subjects to life.

Cons:  From the outside, this looks like a picture book biography of Arturo Schomberg, but there is much more to it.  It would be doing a disservice to try to get through it all in a single sitting.

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Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victo Ngai

Published by Millbrook Press

Summary:  During World War I, Great Britain was desperate to find a way to protect its ships from German torpedoes.  Desperate enough to consider training seagulls or sea lions to spot submarines, or to have swimmers try to smash the subs’ periscopes.  But then a Royal Navy officer had an idea to camouflage the ships.  The camouflage, however, wasn’t to make the ships blend in with their surroundings, but rather to use brilliant patterns to break up the shape of the boats and confuse the Germans looking at them through their periscopes.  The Navy hired teams of women to come in and “dazzle” many of its ships.  The U.S. copied the idea, and over 4,000 ships were painted before the end of the war in 1918.  Did this method really work?  The verdict is still out; more ships did avoid torpedoes, but there were other tactics used like convoys and depth charges that might have been more effective.  The dazzle ships do celebrate, in an eye-catching way, the power of creative thinking and problem solving.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator with more history and a description of how they created this book, as well as a timeline of WWI events, and some photos of Wilkinson, his team of painters, and one of their ships.  36 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  An fascinating bit of little-known military history, illustrated with amazing art nouveau paintings that celebrate patterns and the art of the time.  I would love to see this considered for a Caldecott.

Cons:  It was disappointing to learn that the dazzle ships might not have actually prevented any torpedo attacks.

Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Schrodes, illustrated by Sue Cornelison

Published by Crown Books for Young Readers

Summary:  When Sura and her five children decided to secretly leave their home in Mosul, Iraq in 2015, another family member was hidden among their belongings: their beautiful white cat, Kunkush.  Smugglers helped them out of the country, across Turkey, and to a boat that carried them to Greece, but those smugglers would have charged them much more money to bring a cat along, so Kunkush had to stay hidden.  When the family finally arrived in Greece, the cat carrier broke, and Kunkush ran away.  The heartbroken family searched for as long as they could, but eventually had to move on.  An American aid worker found the cat months later, filthy and half-starved, and took him home with her.  She launched a search for the family via Facebook, and they were eventually located, resulting in a happy reunion with Kunkush.  Includes a note from the authors, who helped Kunkush in Greece, a map of the cat’s journey, and photographs of him and his family.  48 pages; ages 4-10.

Pros:  Mosul may seem far away, but readers will connect with this family’s loss of their beloved pet, while learning about the difficulties they encountered as refugees.

Cons:  2017 seems to be the year of the refugee in children’s literature, a sad reflection of the world situation.  

The Banana-Leaf Ball: How Play Can Change the World by Katie Smith Milway, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Published by Kids Can Press

Summary:  When Deo is forced to flee his home in Burundi, he gets separated from his family and eventually ends up in a refugee camp in Tanzania.  Life there is difficult and sometimes scary, with a bully named Remy who forces the other kids to hand over their meager possessions to him.  Deo tries to make a soccer ball from banana leaves like the one he had back home, but Remy discovers it and takes it away.  One day, a man comes to camp with a leather soccer ball and starts organizing the kids into teams.  Deo and Remy end up on the same team and work together to score the winning goal.  It’s the beginning of a friendship; that and the soccer games sustain Deo until he is able to return home to his family and a chance to coach kids from his village.  Includes information and photos of the real Deo (see above); information about organizations that help kids learn how to trust each other and play together; and a paragraph called “What You Can Do”.  32 pages; grades 2-7.

Pros:  Another excellent entry from Kids Can Press’s CitizenKid series, introducing readers to other young people from around the world and showing them ways they can make a difference.

Cons:  The small font and large amount of text on each page may make this a more challenging read-aloud book.