The Great Book Review Project

What I call “The Great Book Review Project of 2019” has been a grueling one.  I almost made it to the finish line before the official summer season ended, but I knew this would happen once I went back to school.  Though it’s been a fun challenge, I don’t think I’ll do it again, as the books I’ve chosen myself have a far better track record.  However, this process did expose me to books I wouldn’t have read otherwise. 

My biggest complaint?  When the message gets in the way of the story.  

Adults often want to teach⁠.  I had an early childhood education teacher who basically said if a book wasn’t nonfiction, it was a waste of time (for me, as a fiction writer, that was a sleight of hand across the face)⁠; she liked to “learn something from what she read.”  Reading fiction is a valuable way to spend one’s time; here is just a sample of what you get from doing so:  https://medium.com/@farrtom/the-real-world-benefits-of-reading-fiction-ccc7d8ab3f62

There were 7-10 books I didn’t end up reviewing, only because they were wordless picture books (I wasn’t quite sure what to do with those), they weren’t available at the library, or I didn’t feel I could give it a fair review because of the subject matter.  There was one that was so horrible (it promoted violence) that I didn’t even want to give it space on my blog. 

So even though I didn’t always enjoy the books (and neither did my daughter), I loved coming up with suggested activities to accompany the books.  This Christmas break (maybe), I will collect all of them and pick out my favorites, rechecking out the best books and completing the activities. This summer, we’ve just been grinding it out, trying to keep up with reading through them fast enough to get the next ones we have on hold. 

Interestingly, months after I completed this challenge, I would end up enrolling a “Literacy for Emergent Learners” class as an elective.  (Basically, I’m learning how to teach kindergartners and first-graders how to read; it’s worth it if I can just teach my own not only how to read but how to love books.)  I don’t have any desire to be a teacher (I’m way too shy for that); that is why tutoring is more my scene.  However, I do believe that taking this class will help me learn how to write for children, which is totally my scene.  

Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  It is something we can do privately without any fancy electronics.  I’ve always liked to say that books are greater than TV because all stories on screen have to first be written.  With the advent of YouTube, not so much anymore, but the great plays, films, shows, speeches, and songs must have talented writers. 

Writers matter.

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Book Review: The Wall in the Middle of the Book

Wall

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

Take away the painfully obvious reference to Trump’s wall, and what do you have?  A dull story. 

This is another classic case of the message getting in the way of the telling.

The book has a fair amount of negative white space, which is a good thing.  However, what is there isn’t much; The Wall reads like a Dick and Jane basal reader, and the illustrations are ho-hum (or fee-fi-fo-fum).

That said, using the physical structure of the actual book to serve as the brick wall in the middle of the book is clever and the best part of it.

As I read this, I found myself not enjoying the story but rather trying to figure out what the author meant when the large (and typically scary) animals on the other side (who are trying to climb over the wall) freak out over a mouse, instantly making these rotund, exotic animals (who are more or less indigenous to the African continent) less scary.

The missing brick, for me, represented that no matter how good a firewall (or a border wall <cough, cough>) is, there is always a way around it (or under it, etc.).

About halfway through, the little knight is proclaiming how safe his side of the wall is while his side turns more and more treacherous the higher he climbs up the wall.  The animals disappear, and now there is a giant (seemingly scary) ogre on the other side.  However, the boy is so focused on how safe his side is and how unsafe the other side is that he doesn’t notice the dangers on his side until it’s almost too late, and the ogre saves him.

My take?  The water levels rising below the little knight with a shark ready to make a snack out of him represent global warming and Americans involved with child trafficking. 

The other side of the wall is portrayed as downright “fantastic”⁠—where ogres are lifeguards and wild animals are herbivorous and there is only imagined danger.  Apparently, people risk their lives to go to the little knight’s side because it’s so good on their side and not on his, and drug cartels are a myth.  I don’t blame anyone for wanting to escape from that.

The Wall in the Middle of the Book is not a terrible book; it’s not just a terribly interesting one.

Suggested activity: Most every child has an activity table (horizontal surface); let them have a wall (vertical surface) to mess up. Put up a whiteboard wall or paint a chalkboard one.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37969835-the-wall-in-the-middle-of-the-book

Book Review: Let the Children March

March

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

What I liked about this book is that it uses all of its real estate (a historical timeline with children holding up cards like protest signs is printed inside the cover; it was clever and visually appealing).

The illustrations capture that time period perfectly with its retro colors.  Let the Children March opens with a child’s-eye view of a chain link fence supporting a White Only sign.

Even though it is stated that Dr. King is in a church, a Bible passage that Dr. King also used should have been included (though I can understand the author wanting this book to appeal to more than just Christians, as equality is an issue that should transcend religion).  The page of Dr. King in profile behind the microphone with his Bible on the pulpit was a powerful image and a wonderful likeness. 

This book contains some of the best children’s illustrations I’ve seen, as so much depth of emotion is conveyed in the faces of the main characters.  

I can understand why the adults feel like they don’t have the freedom to march–as exercising that freedom would come with consequences⁠—out of fear of losing their livelihoods.  You’re told you have these rights, but if you exercise them, there are dire consequences.  No one should have to choose between their jobs and their freedom.  

March showed the fearlessness of children⁠—children who were able to do what their parents could not.  They represented an almost innocent sacrifice, though it is stated that Dr. King did not like children being put in harm’s way.  It is heartbreaking that children had to fight for what adults should have been able to fight for them rather than just be children, learning to read and playing with their friends.  How frightening it must have been to march towards the unknown, knowing only that it was filled with angry people who were much bigger than you.  

The aerial shot of the children surrounded by hate in the form of angry dogs and rushing water made my throat catch.  The policeman with the hat over his eyes, pulling the curtain on the windows to his soul as he pushed a little girl by the neck and locked these young children into a jail cell was chilling. 

Children need to see that Dr. King promoted non-violence as the news prefers to cover only violent protesters.  It would’ve been nice to include the song lyrics to the songs of freedom.

“For they are doing a job for not only themselves, but for all of America and for all mankind,” Dr. King says.  I think this was an important quote to include because what is not good for a certain group of citizens cannot be good for any citizen, as it promotes feelings of disenfranchisement and stirs unrest.  

The juxtaposition of the white parents whose children sat safely between them in the comfort of their own home, watching the television where this ugliness was not a part of their world but something they saw on TV with the black parents being separated from theirs, not knowing what might happen to them, struck a chord.  I could just feel love and relief emanating from the black parents who held their children in their arms as if they never wanted to let them go, contrasting this tableau with the white parents who didn’t have to hold onto their children so tightly, knowing that they would never be targeted because of their racial make-up.

I greatly admire these (fictitious but based on truth) followers of Dr. King, for it must have taken an amazing amount of grace for them not to become violent back; they gave their enemies no ammunition for treating them like non-persons.   

The last picture shows children in the park (bringing it back to the beginning), black and white, playing together; it was never the children who minded⁠—it was only some (not all) adults who wished for the races to remain separate.  

Let the Children March is a beautiful book that will help any child “walk in another’s shoes.”

Suggested activity: Read Dr. King’s most famous speech, but if you can, listen to it in his own voice. It’s all the difference between reading someone else’s poem to yourself and listening to the poet who wrote it, speak it.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/32510367-let-the-children-march

Book Review: Bowwow Powwow

BowWow

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

The only redeeming value of Bowwow Powwow was the title, with its nod to ablaut reduplication (https://www.rd.com/culture/ablaut-reduplication/).

I can understand why the author would make this book bilingual—if it was only published in the Ojibwe language, few would buy it, so including the English translation was smart.  

It has been said that in 100 years, the only languages that will be around will be English, Spanish, and Mandarin, which I think is a shame, for I do believe it is important to preserve languages (like animal species, trees, art, etc.), especially in this world that is becoming increasingly homogenized.  

The illustrations were awful—flat, without nuance, and downright creepy—all had a darkness to them and the people looked like something out of a cheap comic book.

The humanoid dogs and cats—wearing human clothing, marching, and playing the drum—was extremely creepy; closer representations to nature would’ve been appreciated.  And what was up with all the sunglasses when it was dark out? Was it to mask the windows of their souls? 

Though those who have an interest in Native American customs would probably give this book a look, especially those who are a part of the Ojibwe heritage, but there isn’t a story here; rather, the nonfiction portions would’ve been better rewritten as a passage in a World Book Encyclopedia or Encyclopedia Britannica, sans the illustrations.

I generally come up with a suggested activity related to the book, but when I hate a book this much, I just don’t have it in me to do that.  

Highly not recommended.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39665297-bowwow-powwow

Book Review: All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah

Jewish holiday

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019 

For those unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, this is an excellent introduction to one of its biggest holidays.  The most I knew about Hanukkah was from watching the 1959 film, The Diary of Anne Frank.  I don’t think the title does it justice (Gertie’s Hanukkah would’ve been a better title and made a lot more sense), but the illustrations worked (as the illustrator said, she kept them roughlike potato latkes); they reminded me a lot of Mercer Mayer’s (of Little Critter fame).  These earth-toned sketches fit the impoverished setting (life was hard if you lived in a tenement; A Tree Grows in Brooklyn came to mind, except the family was Irish rather than Jewish).

The title page is nice, but more NYC background throughout the book would’ve been great.  I have noticed in many children’s books that maps are sometimes printed inside the covers—I think that should’ve been done in this one, which would’ve added another teaching tool.

The story is simple and relatable—younger girl wants to do what the older girls are doing, which the youngest of any family could relate to. My daughter loved the page where all the girls are cooking—it is something she is quite familiar with.  All the illustrations should’ve stuck with a double-page spread layout.

Though this is set in the era of “children are seen not heard,” the mother—who appears authoritarian and much more masculine than her husband—should’ve tried to find something for Gertie to do—telling her child to look at a book or go play, rejecting her when she actually WANTS to help, was not nurturing at all.  Children want to feel included, not be exiled. Besides, Gertie can hear her sisters having fun while she is banished to her bedroom as punishment.  How was that supposed to make Gertie feel? A lot of things take longer with kids, but when they want to help, let them, because the time will come when they won’t be offering.  

But, Gertie’s dad understands and lets her have the job of lighting the menorah (with his help); the picture of him holding Gertie to light the candle was my favorite. 

I liked that a glossary was included but rather than putting it in the back, there should’ve been footnotes at the bottom of the page, as flipping back and forth disrupts the story. 

The deal with the dad asking Gertie’s pillow and library book where she was was odd—if you’re going to ask an inanimate object, ask a doll or stuffed animal—something with a face. 

I’m glad the author just stated that the blessings were done in Hebrew rather than including them.  I’ve never liked other languages (other than the occasional word, accompanied with a context clue) embedded in the story as they detract from the story; I often end up skipping over them anyway.

The last picture is heartwarming—I loved looking through their window, watching this large family sit around a table, enjoying a holiday meal.  I got the impression that the mother offered Gertie the first latke as a consolation prize/peace offering, which was her way of saying sorry without admitting she was wrong. 

All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is the kind of book I like just enough to read around that time of the year.  

Suggested activity:  It is interesting to note that many miracles have to do with increase (i.e. making something last longer or increase in number).  Whether or not you’re spiritual or religious, show how being thankful can make what you have seem like more than you have, as it takes the focus off what you don’t have.  Have your child write down (or say) what they are grateful for—a reverse holiday wish list. You can even make a game of it by making it less serious (e.g. I’m thankful for the letter X because it gets me a lot of points in Scrabble).  Watch some of Jimmy Fallon’s “Thank you notes” for ideas.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31193452-all-of-a-kind-family-hanukkah

Book Review: Blue

Blue

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019

The more I read this book, the more I liked it. The keyhole cutouts in the delightful thickness of these pages seemed unnecessary, but my daughter enjoyed locating them; the book’s square shape and the large, simple, bold font is perfection. The lush, sumptuous color—bright but not unnaturally so—so beautifully textured, is stunning. Most of these pages, given the panoramic treatment in double-page spreads that bleed into the spine, would make perfect nursery art: the deep, twilight blue butterflies were like something out of a Technicolor fairy tale, the water shooting out of the garden hose captured the summertime magic of childhood, the granular texture of the snow against the smooth, sable brown of the tree was striking, and the brushstrokes depicting the frothy whitecaps looked so real, I almost expected to feel seafoam.

Simply titled, Blue has a very organic feel—a certain spirituality and harmony with nature (including human nature). It is a childlike, coming-of-age tale.

The concept is rather interesting, for how many unexpected ways can we describe blue using the word blue (i.e. besides light, dark, powder, navy, etc.)? It’s almost like a series of paintings turned into a poem. Everything that was described as blue was connected with an emotion, a state of being, or something gifted to us by the Creator; Laura Vaccaro Seeger totally nailed midnight blue.

Though few words, it tells a story. Each two-word set “maybe blue,” “true blue,” etc., I treated as the title of the story that the pictures painted. Blue is open-ended enough where you can add to the story, but not so open-ended that there is no story. I’m not a fan of wordless picture books (and this was close to it), but the way I felt while “reading” this timeless tale of friendship—the boy growing up while his dog grew old—resonated with me. No preaching, no message—just life—distilled into the most poignant parts.

It was sweet that the boy (now a young man who had yet to befriend another dog) met his true love through their love of dogs—her dog actually seems to choose him first, as if it sensed another dog lover, leading (or rather, dragging) her to her destiny.

My daughter liked this one, and I enjoyed reading it to her. Blue is the kind of book I read when I want not just to make a memory but a connection. If there was a complete set on all the colors, I would buy everyone one of these books.

Suggested activity: Numbers, letters, shapes, and colors are some of the earliest building blocks of learning. When I was a child, getting Crayola’s 64-count with the built-in sharpener was something quite magical. Try having your child come up with naming their own colors (they don’t have to be blue; I was always intrigued by names like periwinkle and lavender; if your child is older, you can come up with double adjectives, like mascarpone-white or tiramisu-tan. Someone has to come up with all of those names, after all. For a field trip, go to a paint store and get a handful of paint sample cards (which I’ve used to make Christmas cards: https://onelittleproject.com/paint-chip-christmas-cards/). And take time out to visit the author’s website. It’s gorgeous! https://studiolvs.com/

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37534395-blue

Book Review: Don’t Touch My Hair!

Hair

As part of my Post-K Summer Reading Boot Camp:
https://sarahleastories.com/2019/06/08/post-k-summer-reading-boot-camp-2019/

This book struck just the right chord with its timely message. When I was carrying my child, I had strangers who felt like they could just touch my stomach without permission, only to be affronted when I politely told them no. However, I do think this story went a bit far with the woman in the park yelling for people to chase Aria—just to feel her hair. Pure hyperbole.

Don’t Touch My Hair! opens with a close-up of Aria’s face and her magnificent mane. In this age where many black girls seem to want straight hair, I’m glad she is happy with her curly locks; she is comfortable in her own skin and with her natural hair (body-positivity isn’t just about size, btw). Little girls of all ethnic backgrounds will enjoy looking at the different styles in which Aria wears her hair.

The narrative about having to row out to a deserted island, go underwater or outer space, or to fantasyland was also hyperbolic, though kids are often over-dramatic (i.e. something is never just far but a million miles away); however, this portion would’ve been better had Aria been shown dealing with handsy people at the grocery store, library, school, etc..

I generally hate speech bubbles (I’m not a comic book fan, as this requires your child to have to look at the pictures; I like for them to have the option to close their eyes and just listen) and might have put the book down had part of the story not been told in narrative first-person through Aria.

The art works. As the author noted in the back, I love that she made Aria’s hair the star, using a different process to give it texture, which really made it pop. The bright illustrations matched Aria’s bold personality. A lot of children in children’s books don’t have much of one, but Aria owns this!

One of my favorite pages was the spread with all the houses lined up and the people going about their daily tasks, showing that Aria isn’t an island but part of a community; these illustrations reminded me of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.

The cover was perfect with the border of hands (belonging to people in different shades of the DNA spectrum) reaching for Aria, which would make anyone claustrophobic.

It’s interesting that the story doesn’t show Aria’s parents (or teacher, etc.) giving her guidance on how to handle a hairy situation (pun intended) but rather shows her figuring it out by doing some reflecting (on a mythical island, red planet, swimming with the mermaids, etc.) where she comes to the conclusion that she is the one who gives the yay or nay on whether someone can touch her hair and that it’s okay to say no to some people and yes to others. That it’s her choice.

In this age of redefining consent–which is not the absence of a no but the presence of a yes.

This book shows that no doesn’t have to be confrontational. Girls need to grow up feeling comfortable to say no–to men and women.

Another point is that some people will still try to touch something, even if it’s just covered up. What’s more, not everything we show is for touch–just for looks. Modesty is another issue, but you shouldn’t have to cover up to keep from being unmolested.

This book would make a great teaching tool—for girls and boys—in this new age of a heightened awareness of consent.

Suggested activity: Teach your child to respect the boundaries of others (and to not be afraid to ask that their boundaries be respected). Teach them that it’s okay if someone says no, that they shouldn’t be afraid of saying no, and that a please will not always get you a yes. This book can also be used to talk about touching things in general, such as art in a museum, other people’s property, and even dangerous things. You could even discuss the power of touch and how King Midas used that power that brought about both desirous and disastrous consequences.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38929947-don-t-touch-my-hair