Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott with Brie Spangler and Melissa Sweet, art by Melissa Sweet

Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott: Scott, Joyce, Spangler, Brie,  Sweet, Melissa, Sweet, Melissa: 9780525648123: Amazon.com: Books
Melissa Sweet on Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott | The  TeachingBooks Blog

Summary:  Until the age of 5, Joyce Scott and her twin sister Judy are inseparable.  But when Joyce starts kindergarten, Judy, who had “what will come to be known as Down syndrome”, stays home.  One day Joyce wakes up and finds that Judy is gone.  From that day on, Judy lives in a big gray institution where Joyce only sees her on occasional visits.  Joyce finds it harder and harder to leave at the end of each visit until, as an adult, she decides to bring Judy home to live with her and her family.  Since Joyce works during the day, she enrolls Judy at the Creative Growth Art Center, an art school for adults with disabilities.  For many months, Judy sits and looks at magazines, until one day she creates a small sculpture with twigs, yarn, twine, and paint.  From that day on, she works at the studio every day, making unique art from all sorts of colorful materials.  After her death, her work becomes renowned and continues to be exhibited all over the world.  Includes information on Creative Growth Art Center and Down Syndrome, a timeline of Judith Scott’s life, notes from the author and illustrator, sources, and photographs of Judy and one of her sculptures called “Twins”.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Judith Scott’s story is so engaging that, even though it’s a bit long for a picture book, it would hold the attention of younger readers, and possibly inspire them to try their own creations.  Joyce’s voice passes along the love and appreciation she feels for her sister and Judy’s artistic gifts.  And, as always, I would be happy to see Melissa Sweet get some Caldecott recognition, which I wanted so badly for Some Writer! that I feel compelled to still mention it four years later.

Cons:  I wish there were more photos of Judy’s work in the book.

Judith Scott - 20 artworks


Jukebox by Nidhi Chanani

Published by First Second

Amazon.com: Jukebox (9781250156372): Chanani, Nidhi, Chanani, Nidhi: Books
Jukebox | Nidhi Chanani | Macmillan

Summary:  When Shahi’s music-obsessed dad goes missing, she and her cousin Naz wind up at Earl’s music store where her father spent a lot of time.  They find an unusual old jukebox that plays LP records, then accidentally discover that it transports them back to the time the album was released.  While they get some interesting glimpses of history, they don’t find Shahi’s dad.  It takes a lot of trial-and-error and some detective work to finally figure out what’s going on and to have a reunion that not only brings Dad back to the present but mends some of the more difficult parts of Shahi’s relationship with him.  Includes a playlist of songs referenced in the story; an author’s note explaining her inspirations for the book; and several pages showing the evolution of some of her artwork.  224 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  The premise of this graphic novel is very cool, and serves as a great introduction to a lot of music and some of the historical events that both inspired that music and were influenced by it.  Although there’s a bit of an age gap between the two girls (Naz is Shahi’s babysitter), they are loyal friends who help and protect each other.

Cons:  The story felt a bit too ambitious with not only the musical and historical aspects, but a variety of relationship issues and subplots about Naz’s ear surgery and worries about coming out as bisexual.  The pictures at the beginning of the time travel sections included some jotted notes about the artist and/or album, which looked really interesting, but were hard to read.

The People’s Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art by Cynthia Levinson, pictures by Evan Turk

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers

The People's Painter: How Ben Shahn Fought for Justice with Art - Kindle  edition by Levinson, Cynthia, Turk, Evan. Children Kindle eBooks @  Amazon.com.
Bringing Unsung Heroes to Light: Talking about The People's Painter with  Cynthia Levinson and Evan Turk - A Fuse #8 Production

Summary:  As a child growing up in Lithuania, Ben Shahn had two passions: art and justice.  These continued after he and his family immigrated to America when he was 8 years old.  Lacking the funds to attend college, Ben apprenticed himself to a lithographer and studied art at night.  He worried that the art that he learned about in school was different from what he wanted to paint: stories.  In 1927, outraged by the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, Ben created 23 paintings to tell their stories.  Later he was hired by the U.S. government to document the poverty of the Great Depression through photographs and paintings. He continued to create stories with his art through the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War until his death in 1969.  Includes notes from the author and illustrator; a photo of Ben Shahn; a timeline of his life; and a bibliography and source notes.  48 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  An engagingly written story of Ben Shahn’s life, focusing on both his art and his passion for justice.  His work influenced the illustrations of Evan Turk, whom I think we can all agree should finally get some Caldecott recognition.

Cons:  None of Shahn’s art was included.

Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist by Laurie Lawlor, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander

Published by Holiday House

Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist:  Lawlor, Laurie, Stadtlander, Becca: 9780823439591: Amazon.com: Books

Summary:  Growing up in Victorian England, Marianne North was never encouraged in her passions for art and botany.  Self-taught in both, she stayed home and cared for her “irritable, demanding” father until his death when she was 40.  When an elderly widow invited her to be a traveling companion to North America, Marianne jumped at the chance.  This trip led her to Jamaica and the tropics she had long dreamed of seeing.  She eventually circumnavigated the world several times, seeking out exotic plant species that she could paint.  When her paintings crowded her London flat, she arranged to have a gallery built for them as part of the Royal Botanic Gardens.  The Marianne North Gallery opened in 1882 with 627 paintings on display.  She spent the last few years of her life at home in the English countryside, gardening, painting, and writing her memoirs before her death in 1890 at the age of 59.  Includes additional information on her legacy and writings, as well as sources and a who’s who of people Marianne encountered throughout her life.  44 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  This fascinating account of a woman who defied social expectations to lead an adventurous life makes for an inspiring read.  Her single-minded passions, preference for being alone, and discomfort with social situations made me wonder if she was neurodivergent.  The brilliant illustrations capture the spirit of North’s work, and make sure to check out the endpapers for reproductions of some of her paintings (identified in the back matter).

Cons:  The small font of the text.

Strange Nature: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss by Gregory Mone, photographs by Levon Biss

Published by Harry N. Abrams

Strange Nature: The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss: Mone, Gregory, Biss,  Levon: 9781419731662: Amazon.com: Books
Bound To Stay Bound Books, Inc. - Bookstore

Summary:  Levon Biss is a photographer whose work was mostly focused on celebrities and political leaders until the day his son Sebastian brought a beetle into the kitchen.  When the two of them looked at it under a microscope, Levon was captivated by the beauty and complexity of the insect.  Since then, he’s created amazing photos of all kinds of creatures, taking thousands of photos of each one, then piecing them together on his computer.  This book includes 16 insects, with the photos as the main attraction, but also including some information about where each one lives, its size, a description, and a few facts.  Includes a glossary.  40 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Anyone with the slightest interest in insects will be amazed by these photos and enriched by the information; anyone without that interest may be surprised to find out how beautiful and complex insects can be.

Cons:  The author has a note at the end that begins, “Normally an author wouldn’t send his or her readers to the Internet.  Not when there are shelves and shelves stacked with wonderful printed books….”  It’s okay, here in the 21st century, it is actually okay to unapologetically send readers to the Internet.

Clarinet & Trumpet by Melanie Ellsworth, illustrated by John Herzog

Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Clarinet and Trumpet (book with shaker): Ellsworth, Melanie, Herzog, John:  9780358107477: Amazon.com: Books
Clarinet and Trumpet Archives -

Summary:  Clarinet and Trumpet are best friends until Oboe comes along, and the two woodwinds start hanging out.  Trumpet is sad and lonely until he befriends Trombone.  Then it’s woodwinds versus brass, with each group adding more members, until cool Saxophone comes along.  With his reed AND brass exterior, he has everyone wondering: which group will he join?  Instead of siding with one or the other, he starts playing music; before long, everyone is united in one happy band.  The spine of this book is filled with small beads, so it can be used as a rhythmic shaker.  32 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A fun friendship story which also could serve as an introduction to band instruments.

Cons:  Whoever thought the shaker was a good idea has clearly not spent a lot of time with young children.

12 books of Christmas

Starting the day after Christmas, I’ll be posting my year-end lists of Caldecott and Newbery predictions and my favorite books in different categories. I found myself with an higher-than-usual number of books at the end of the year that I had wanted to review, but didn’t get to before time ran out. That number turned out to be twelve, so as a little Christmas gift, here is a list of my final dozen books for 2020.

Tani’s New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope and Kindness in America by Tanitoluwa Adewumi, illustrated by Courtney Dawson

Published by Thomas Nelson

Tani's New Home: A Refugee Finds Hope and Kindness in America: Adewumi,  Tanitoluwa, Dawson, Courtney: 9781400218288: Amazon.com: Books

The true story of Tani Adewumi, who moved to New York City as a Nigerian refugee at the age of 6. He discovered chess, and practiced it for hours in a homeless shelter. In less than a year, he was the New York State Chess Champion. I haven’t had a chance to see this book. The publisher, Thomas Nelson, is a Christian publisher, so I’m not sure if there is any religious content to the story. 32 pages; grades K-3.

Dear Earth…From Your Friends in Room 5 by Erin Dealey, illustrated by Louisa Uribe

Published by HarperCollins

Dear Earth…From Your Friends in Room 5: Dealey, Erin, Uribe, Luisa:  9780062915320: Amazon.com: Books

The kids in room 5 begin a correspondence with Earth, learning different ways to help the planet like recycling and energy conservation. Rhyming text, letter writing, and environmental tips make this an appealing choice for Earth Day or any time of year. 32 pages; grades K-3.

Saving Stella: A Dog’s Dramatic Escape from War by Bassel Abou Fakher and Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Nadine Kaadan

Published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books

Saving Stella: A Dog's Dramatic Escape from War: Fakher, Bassel Abou,  Blumenthal, Deborah, Kaadan, Nadine: 9781547601332: Amazon.com: Books

When Bassel was forced to flee Syria, he had to leave his beloved dog Stella behind. After settling in a new home in Belgium, he worked with friends back in Syria to create a daring plan to rescue Stella. 40 pages; grades K-5.

Rabbit, Raven, Deer by Sue Farrell Holler, illustrated by Jennifer Faria

Published by Pajama Press

Raven, Rabbit, Deer: Farrell Holler, Sue, Faria, Jennifer: 9781772781366:  Amazon.com: Books

There’s a copy of this book traveling to my library right now, but I haven’t gotten a chance to see it. A boy and his grandfather enjoy a winter’s day together, finding animal tracks and identifying the animals in both English and Ojibwemowin. Sounds like a cozy winter choice. 32 pages; ages 4-8.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller

Published by Random House Books for Young Readers

When You Trap a Tiger: Keller, Tae: 9781524715717: Amazon.com: Books

When Lily and her family move in with her sick grandmother, Lily meets a tiger straight out of the Korean folklore she’s grown up on. This book won a Boston Globe/Horn Book honor and received five starred reviews. Personally, I couldn’t really get into it and only read about the first third back in the beginning of the year. Everyone else loved it, though, and it could definitely be a contender for more awards. 304 pages; grades 4-7.

Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi, illustrations by Ashley Lukashevsky

Published by Kokila

Antiracist Baby Board Book: Kendi, Ibram X., Lukashevsky, Ashley:  9780593110416: Amazon.com: Books

Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist is #15 on Amazon’s list of 2020’s bestsellers. Here he offers nine tips for being (or raising) an antiracist baby, with a note to parents and teachers at the end. Available as both a board book and a regular picture book. 32 pages; ages 0-4.

Woodpecker Girl by Chingyen Liu and I-Tsun Chiang, illustrated by Heidi Doll

Published by Reycraft Books

Woodpecker Girl: Chiang, I-Tsun, Liu, Chingyen: 9781478869559: Amazon.com:  Books

A girl with cerebral palsy tells how she learned to paint with a brush strapped to her forehead. An amazing gallery of her work is included. Told in the first person, the story doesn’t shy away from the challenges she faces and the discouragement she feels, but also expresses her joy at sharing with others through her art. 40 pages; grades K-4.

Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye

Published by Greenwillow Books

Everything Comes Next: Collected and New Poems: Nye, Naomi Shihab:  9780063013452: Amazon.com: Books

I just got this book on December 23, so haven’t had a chance to read it. These 100 poems by Young People’s Poet Laureate Nye start with a section of poems on childhood, both her own and others. She also explores her Palestinian heritage and the need for peace, as well as an appreciation for the diversity of people in the world. 256 pages; grades 3-7.

Unstoppable by Adam Rex, illustrated by Laura Park

Published by Chronicle Books

Unstoppable: (Family Read-Aloud book, Silly Book About Cooperation) -  Kindle edition by Rex, Adam, Park, Laura. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon .com.

A crow being pursued by a hungry cat and a crab who dreams of flying work together to help one another. When they add a turtle and a bear, they become UNSTOPPABLE! At least until they see a bulldozer digging up the lakefront to build a mall. Then it’s off to see the President of the United States…and Congress…and things really get zany as only Adam Rex can imagine them. 56 pages; ages 4-8.

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust by Uri Shulevitz

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Chance: Escape from the Holocaust: Memories of a Refugee Childhood  (9780374313715): Shulevitz, Uri: Books - Amazon.com

Caldecott Medalist Uri Shulevitz’s memoir covers his childhood from his days in Warsaw at the start of World War II to his family’s harrowing experiences in the Soviet Union during the war and their postwar years in Paris before emigrating to Paris when he was 14. Although it’s a thick book, the print is large and filled with Shulevitz’s illustrations, making it a quick and engaging read. 336 pages; grades 4-8.

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India by Meera Sriram, illustrated by Mariona Cabassa

Published by Barefoot Books

A Gift for Amma: Market Day in India: Sriram, Meera, Cabassa, Mariona:  9781646860616: Amazon.com: Books

Another one I haven’t gotten to see, but I love the brilliant colors of the cover (and pictures I’ve seen of the illustrations). A girl shops in an Indian market to find the perfect gift for her mother. 32 pages; ages 4-7.

Desert Diary: Japanese American Kids Behind Barbed Wire by Michael O. Tunnell

Published by Charlesbridge

Desert Diary: Japanese American Kids Behind Barbed Wire: Tunnell, Michael  O.: 9781580897891: Amazon.com: Books

When Mae Yanagi was eight years old, she and her family were forced to move to Topaz Camp in Utah for the duration of World War II. She and her third-grade classmates created a diary of their daily lives in camp, filled with mundane details about school and family life, as well as descriptions of the difficulties of camp life. Michael Tunnell tells their story with plenty of photographs and excerpts from the diary. 144 pages; grades 4-7.

Selena: Queen of Tejano Music by Silvia López, illustrated by Paola Escobar

Published by little bee books

Amazon.com: Selena, reina de la música tejana (9781499811438): López, Silvia,  Escobar, Paola: Books
Amazon.com: Queen of Tejano Music: Selena (9781499809770): López, Silvia,  Escobar, Paola: Books

Summary:  Growing up in Texas, Selena Quintanilla was surrounded by music from an early age.  Her father taught her older siblings to play guitar and drums, and Selena soon proved herself to be a natural performer, singing and dancing to their music.  By the time she was nine years old, they were performing regularly in her father’s restaurant.  A few years later, the restaurant went out of business and the family fell on hard times.  Touring and making music seemed like the only way to make a living.  There was a demand for Tejano music, so Selena learned Spanish to perform the popular songs.  By the time she was in her late teens, Selena was an award-winning star, loved in both Mexico and the U.S.  She also was a popular celebrity, treating both her fans and co-workers with kindness and respect.  The final page memorializes Selena as a trailblazer and role model.  Includes several pages of additional information about Selena and her music, ending with a few paragraphs about her murder at the age of 23. A Spanish-language version of this book, Selena: Reina de la Música Tejana is also available. 48 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  Here’s another book I’ve been anticipating for several months, as my music-loving daughter has gotten me interested in learning more about Selena.  As I imagine is true for many others, I only knew about her death, so I’m glad this book has been written to celebrate her life and legacy.  There’s a lot of text, but the story is so engaging it doesn’t feel like a lot to plow through, and the illustrations really capture Selena’s spirit.  I was even inspired to watch the official video of “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom”, which is an incredibly catchy tune.  Sadly, as the book concludes, quoting Selena biographer Joe Nick Patoski: “The debate will never cease as to what could have been.”

Cons:  This book seems to be getting recommended for the 6-9 age group, but I think older kids will appreciate it more, due to both the text-heavy story and the tragic ending.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Published by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

RESPECT: Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul: Weatherford, Carole Boston,  Morrison, Frank: 9781534452282: Amazon.com: Books
The Original Art 2020: The Exhibit - Society of Illustrators

Summary:  The story of Aretha Franklin’s life is told in rhyming couplets, each one titled with a word written like “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” in the title.  Starting with “B-L-E-S-S-E-D”, showing a young Aretha praying while her parents watch, the story traces her life and career from singing gospel at her church to performing at President Obama’s inauguration.  In addition to her musical career, Aretha’s civil rights work is touched upon.  The final two pages celebrate both her legacy and her humility, ending with her description of her voice as “the gift that God gave me”.  Includes an author’s note with additional information about Aretha Franklin’s life and a list of her biggest hits.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The large, colorful illustrations capture Aretha Franklin’s big personality and singing voice, starting with a gorgeous pink Cadillac on the title page. This is the third book I’ve reviewed this year illustrated by the prolific Frank Morrison, and I hope he gets some recognition at awards time.  This would make a good companion to A Voice Named Aretha.

Cons:  Those who don’t know much about Aretha Franklin’s life may struggle to make sense of the brief text unless they start with the author’s note at the end.

Bunheads by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Setor Fiadzigbey

Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons

Bunheads: Copeland, Misty, Fiadzigbey, Setor: 9780399547645: Amazon.com:  Books
Bunheads: Copeland, Misty, Fiadzigbey, Setor: 9780399547645: Amazon.com:  Books

Summary:  Misty is excited to hear in her first ballet class that they will be performing Coppélia.  She listens carefully to her teacher’s retelling of the story, and decides she wants the role of Swanilda.  She’s concerned that another girl named Cat might be a rival, but Cat decides to audition for Coppélia.  When the cast is announced, both Misty and Cat get the parts they wanted.  They work hard to prepare, inspiring each other, and by the time the big night arrives, both are ready to deliver a flawless performance.  Both girls are front and center for the final curtain call, smiling happily and wondering what their next ballet will be.  32 pages; grades K-3.

Pros:  Aspiring dancers will enjoy this story featuring a young Misty Copeland, and will learn the basics of the story of Coppélia.  The illustrations enhance the story and demonstrate some of the ballet steps mentioned.

Cons:  Readers may be disappointed when they’re not selected for a starring role in their first year of ballet like Misty is.  And speaking of Misty, I would have enjoyed some back matter connecting this story to the real Misty Copeland.

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