Hi, I’m Norman: The Story of American Illustrator Norman Rockwell by Robert Burleigh, illustrated by Wendell Minor

Published by Simon and Schuster

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Image result for hi i'm norman wendell minor

Summary:  Norman Rockwell tells his story in the first person, inviting readers into his studio, then taking them back to his early days when he used art to make up for his lack of athletic ability.  After a stint at art school, he took whatever jobs he could find, eventually landing the plum assignment of creating covers for the Saturday Evening Post.  When World War II arrived, his artwork took a more serious turn, and his The Four Freedoms set helped raise millions of dollars from war bonds.  After the war, he took on the civil rights movement, with The Problem We All Live With one of his most famous works to come out of that era.  His final published work shows him draping a “Happy Birthday” banner on the Liberty Bell to celebrate America’s bicentennial.  Includes additional information, author’s and illustrator’s notes, a timeline, reproductions of five or Rockwell’s paintings with additional information about them, a list of additional sources, and some quotes from Norman Rockwell.  48 pages; grades K-4.

Pros:  The folksy, conversational style of the writing will draw kids in, and Wendell Berry’s illustrations capture Rockwell’s works perfectly.  The extensive back matter makes this an excellent resource for research.

Cons:  There were no dates or places in the text–readers will have to go to the timeline for that information.

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I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage compiled by Lee Bennett Hopkins

Published by Lee and Low Books

Image result for i remember poems and pictures of heritage lee bennett

Image result for i remember poems and pictures of heritage lee bennett

Summary:  Fourteen poets have written childhood remembrances, with an emphasis on their cultural heritage and how it shaped them.  Each poem is illustrated by a different artist, and every artist and poet has written a sentence or two about their art or writing.  Some (“Grandpa” by Douglas Florian; “Amazing Auntie Anne” by Cynthia Leitich Smith) celebrate a person; others (“Route 66” by Marilyn Nelson; “Tepechapa River” by Jorge Tetl Argueta), a particular place; and still others (“Speak Up” by Janet S. Wong; “Pick One” by Nick Bruel) speak to the experience of growing up as an immigrant in America.  Includes brief biographical information and photos of all the writers and illustrators. 56 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  This beautiful and accessible collection of poetry and artwork shows readers the variety of experiences in America and may inspire them to find a way to express their own story through writing or art.

Cons:  The cover and title didn’t really grab me (sorry, Sean Qualls, I generally love your work); I was pleasantly surprised once I dove in.  

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Each Tiny Spark by Pablo Cartaya

Published by Kokila

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Summary:  Seventh-grader Emilia has a lot going on in her life.  Her mom leaves for a business trip the same day that her father returns from his latest overseas deployment.  Emilia depends on her mom for help managing her ADHD, and finds school challenging on her own. Her dad doesn’t seem to want to talk about why he never answered the 30 videos she sent him when he was away, and the only way they seem able to connect is working at her grandmother’s auto repair shop.  Abuela is well-meaning, but overbearing, and she and Emilia don’t often see eye-to-eye.  On top of this, there’s the usual middle school stuff, with shifting friendships and challenging teachers.  Emilia gets caught up in a social studies project that opens her eyes to racism and immigration issues in her town, and sometimes puts her at odds with her classmates.  Ultimately, Emilia finds that most of the changes are positive, as she learns to advocate for herself and get what she needs, both at home and at school. 336 pages; grades 4-7.

Pros:  I’ve been procrastinating reading this book for awhile now, and am so glad I finally got around to it.  Emila is an awesome narrator, and the author deftly handles a number of important issues that many readers will connect with.  He narrated the audiobook I listened to, which seemed strange at first, since the narrator is a girl, but he did a remarkably good job with the many different voices.

Cons:  Although I’ve been reviewing my high-school Spanish with Duolingo lessons lately, I still couldn’t catch all of Abuela’s conversation, and it wasn’t always 100% translated.

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The Gift of Ramadan by Rabiah York Lumbard, illustrated by Laura K. Horton

Published by Albert Whitman and Co.

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Image result for gift of ramadan rabiah york

Summary:  When Sophie’s grandmother tells her that the heart of a person who fasts during Ramadan is “pretty and sparkly” like Sophie’s new ring, Sophie decides she wants to fast.  Waking up before sunrise is tough, though, and Sophie falls asleep at breakfast, and again during morning prayers. By lunchtime, she is famished, and her little brother is tempting her with his delicious cookie.  Grandma finds her eating cookies, and reassures her that her sparkles are growing, and that there are other ways to celebrate the holiday. She and Grandma spend the afternoon preparing a pizza dinner, which the whole family enjoys after sunset.  Includes an author’s note about Ramadan. 32 pages; ages 4-9.

Pros:  Children of all faiths will connect with this story, and those who don’t know about Ramadan will learn about it through the eyes of another child who is a lot like them.  

Cons:  The reasons for fasting during Ramadan aren’t explained in either the story or the author’s note.

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River by Elisha Cooper

Published by Orchard Books

Image result for river elisha cooper

Image result for river elisha cooper

Summary:  The illustration facing the title page shows a woman tracing a route on a map with her finger while her two children look on.  Outside the window, her husband is loading a canoe on the top of her car. We never learn the woman’s name, but we follow her journey as she travels the length of the Hudson River in a canoe.  We learn what she eats, how she camps, and what animals she sees along the way. We watch as she struggles through rapids, narrowly avoids a tugboat collision, and capsizes in a storm before finally reaching her destination: New York City.  After paddling the length of the city, she dreams of other adventures, but knows that right now she belongs back with the family who is greeting her on the shore. Includes an author’s note (that begins “I did not canoe down the Hudson River.”), a note on the Hudson River, and a list of additional resources.  48 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  Here’s one more for the pile of Caldecott contenders I’m gathering up to share with my students.  Readers will be inspired to try an adventure of their own after reading the details of this one and seeing the gorgeous landscapes.  

Cons:  There’s a fair amount of text, written in a quiet style with plenty of details; while this is certainly not a bad thing, it may not grab readers right away.

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Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace by Ashley Bryan

Published by Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books

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Image result for infinite hope ashley bryan

Summary:  Author and illustrator Ashley Bryan offers a very personal look at his years serving in World War II.  From basic training in Massachusetts to Scotland to the D-Day invasion to waiting to be sent home in France, Bryan shares letters home, particularly to a college friend named Eva; a narrative about his experiences; and many, many sketches.  He writes about the racism that was rampant in the U.S. military, and the surprising lack of it in Europe (that experience of being treated equally by white Europeans led many black military men and women to join the civil rights movement after the war). Mostly, he talks about how art saved him.  He kept paper and pencils in his gas mask, and his comrades would often take over his work to let him draw. He concludes with his return to civilian life, including many years when he didn’t talk about his military experiences. Encouraged by colleagues in the children’s literature world, he has finally opened up and shared this wealth of art and stories.  112 pages; grade 5-adult.

Pros:  This is a pretty amazing work of art written and compiled by the 96-year-old Ashley Bryan.  Plan on spending a long time reading and studying his artwork. The audience for this may be pretty specific, but if you get this in the hands of the right readers, they are sure to find it to be a meaningful and important book.  Definitely a contender for some awards in January

Cons:  I would have liked more information about Eva.  I was confused at the beginning and had to read the jacket flap to understand to whom Ashley was writing.

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Birdsong by Julie Flett

Published by Greystone Kids

Image result for birdsong julie flett

Image result for birdsong julie flett

Summary:  A girl narrator tells of her move from the city to the country.  At first, she’s sad and misses all the people and things she’s left behind.  Her mother encourages her to visit their neighbor Agnes, and soon a friendship forms between the older woman and younger girl.  Both of them are artists–the girl loves drawing and Agnes makes things out of clay. As the seasons of the first year go by, Agnes gets sick and can’t get outside any more.  In the spring, a year after the move, the girl creates dozens of pictures of birds and hangs them in Agnes’s room to help her feel like she is outside. Walking home and, later, in bed, the girl thinks about her friend and how grateful she is for their friendship.  48 pages; ages 4-8.

Pros:  A quiet story celebrating intergenerational friendships and the passing of time in the natural world.  I don’t think Agnes dies at the end, but it’s not clear; either way, the story celebrates life and friendship. Julie Flett is Cree-Mêtis and deftly inserts some Cree words and imagery into the text.

Cons:  One review I read said there was a glossary of Cree words at the end of the book, but this was not the case with the book I saw.

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