Monday, September 30, 2013

YUM! MMMM! QUÉ RICO! by Pat Mora

Mora, Pat. 2007. Yum!  Mmmm!  Qué Rico!. Ill. by Rafael López. NY:  Lee and Low Books.
ISBN 978-1-58430-271-1


This picture book celebrates 14 foods native to the Americas, providing a short bit of information about each food’s origins in addition to offering a descriptive haiku of each food.  Each food receives a two page spread with colorful illustrations.


Pat Mora uses her gift with words to describe food in lush, vivid ways that children can easily relate to.  With Pat Mora, children can learn to love poetry.  When describing chocolate, Mora writes, “Fudge, cake pie, cookies/brown magic melts on your tongue./ Happy, your eyes dance.”  Children can understand the sensation of chocolate melting on their tongue and most children are indeed very happy while eating it!  In the informational section about chocolate, she rounds out the fun description with historical information about the origins of chocolate, from the seeds in the pods of the tropical cacao tree.  She also talks about how the Aztecs roasted them, giving credit to an ancient people group from Central America who first discovered this popular food.

She uses figurative language to make the food come alive in our minds.  Cranberries are described as, “Scarlet fireworks,” blueberries are represented as summer in the metaphor “a bowl heaped with summer,” and chilies are “green mouth-fire.”  The role of poetry is to capture the truth of an experience or thing in as few words as possible while maximizing the beauty of language.  Her figures of speech about these foods do all of that.

Mora sprinkles some Spanish in like candy topping, celebrating the Spanish language by including it in her poetry smoothly and seamlessly.  She provides a short glossary of the few Spanish words in the t.p. verso page on the back of the title page, across from the dedication page. Our class notes say, "Now the trend is for Hispanic authors to share their own stories and experiences in a combination of English and Spanish.  The text is generally in English, but there is an interlingual use of Spanish.  Some authors then provide glossaries for the Spanish words, others expect the story's context to help with the meaning" (Vardell, n.p.).  This is the way Pat Mora works in this book, though the amount of Spanish she uses here is less than in some of her other works.  Spanish language is a large issue for Latinos, as "Latino children are faced with societal prejudice against their home language" (212, Smolen and Oswald.)

The fun, celebratory poetry is well matched by so many happy, fun-filled colorful illustrations (acrylic on wood panel) by Rafael López, such as the little boy about to eat a dripping ice cream cone while a girl cavorts with a kite and a dog dances on its hind legs in hopes of catching a drip. Stylized, magical images such as kids floating down from the sky to eat papaya or a giant pineapple with a face and a mouth full of pineapple rings, brings elements of fantasy to the book. These types of images provide a feeling of whimsy.  Some scenes, though, are more serious portrayals of indigenous people, such as one showing a family eating corn, for example.  The home in the background is an authentic adobe home or cave dwelling and the individuals are seated on a blanket with traditional Native American designs around the edges.  Their skin tone is authentic, as is their hair. Yet on another page, a castle of chocolate floats in the sky on a cloud, and a little red-headed girl savors a chocolate chip cookie. The smiling suns, the trumpet playing peanut butter sandwich and laughing children truly combine to create a powerful image of fun.  The warm, rich, bold colors have a very southwestern flair. 

Children of all ethnicities are represented, though it is fair to say that the Latino community is shown more than others—as it should be, in a book about foods native to the Americas.  As Pat Mora says in her reader’s note at the end, “We do know that all these plants were grown and enjoyed by the peoples of the Americas long before Christopher Columbus or any other Europeans had ever tasted such wonderful foods.” It is a good book to have for many reasons, not the least of which is that it distinguishes between different parts of Latino culture, such as Peruvian, Mexican, southwest American and Brazilian.  Dr. Vardell writes, "As we learn more, we begin to realize that we can't lump all Latino cultures together.  There are distinctive differences even between Cuban, Puerto Rican, Nicaraguan, and Mexican cultures, for example."  While this book is not written from the point of view of all these different cultures, Mora is careful to mention a great many of them and give credit to them when a fruit comes from their history or country.

Her informational sidebars are as bursting with information as the illustrations are bursting with color and fun.  We learn that the pineapple is the leading fruit crop in Puerto Rico and that potatoes are native to the Andean mountains of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador in South America.  She educates about the important role these Latin countries have in the world in part through the food and food history they offer.


This concept book serves as a delicious introduction to 14 types of food, all of which have their origins in the Americas.  Snippets of information and a haiku poem accompany each one, ranging from blueberry and chili pepper through papaya, prickly pear, and vanilla.  Using English and a smattering of Spanish words, Mora crafts a playful introduction to each one, as in, “Pumpkin”: “Under round luna,/scattered tumblings down the rows,/autumn’s orange face.”  The sense of whimsy is further unscored in López’s colorful acrylic on wood-panel illustrations.  Artful compositions and brilliant complementary colors bear out the book’s multicultural themes.”  -- School Library Journal, Sept. 1, 2007.

“*Starred Review* This inventive stew of food haiku celebrates the indigenous foods of the Americas.  Each of the 13 [sic] poems appears on a gloriously colorful double-page spread, accompanied by a sidebar that presents information about the origin of the food.  From blueberries to prickly pears to corn, the acrylic-on-wood-panel illustrations burst with vivid colors and stylized Mexican flair.” – Booklist, Dec. 1, 2007.

  • Have students take turns reading each haiku out loud.  Count the syllables per line to study the form of the haiku.
  • Have students write their own food haiku, about their favorite foods or foods from various countries you may be studying in geography.
  • Write Pat Mora a letter, telling her thanks for her work.
  • Read other Pat Mora books and compare how her prose differs from her poetry.
  • Research a food and write a short report about it in the style of Pat Mora’s informational sidebars.  Combine it with a poem about the food and do your own illustrations.


The art is so joyful that I would love to frame some of the images!  I found the facts interesting and the haikus delightful.  This has become my favorite Pat Mora book so far.

Works Referenced:

 Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  “Overview” Culture 3 Hispanic Lit.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed September 27, 2013.  


Morales, Yuyi. 2003. Just a Minute: A Trickster Tale and Counting Book. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
ISBN 0-8118-3758-0


In this trickster tale, when Señor Calavera (Death) comes for Grandma Beetle, she finds nine different things she must do before she goes with him.  She must sweep one house, boil two pots of tea, make three stacks of tortillas, etc…and 10 is the number of guests at her table—including Señor Calavera.  He has such a good time at the party that he leaves without her, promising to come back for next year’s party.  Using both Spanish and English to count, Yuyi Morales creates a clever, fun book that honors the traditions of Mexican culture.


In this clever tale, a grandmother tricks Death by delaying her departure with preparations for her party.  The counting words, both in English and Spanish, are in bold, larger font.  Morales uses the repeated phrase, ‘“Just a minute, Señor Calavera,” Grandma Beetle said.  “I will go with you right away…”’ before she fills in yet another task the grandmother must accomplish.  The repetition makes for a very fun read aloud, as even young children will be able to anticipate what will come next when the page turns.  At the end of each task, the number and the chore are summarized clearly as Señor Calavera counts up the results.  The children therefore are exposed to each number at least three times in each scene, making for a very educational book.

It is a great celebration of Mexican culture.  There are the well-known tortillas and piñatas, but the book is saved from overloading, because the story is so much more than just a description of a Mexican holiday or a Mexican approach to a birthday.  The trickster tale keeps a true narrative running throughout the concept part of the book, which is quite an achievement.  The fruits are authentic to Mexico, as well—Grandma Beetle cuts up papaya, cantaloupe and pineapple and watermelon.  The grandmother and her grandchildren are represented authentically despite the cartoon features, with the skin tone and dark hair of Hispanic individuals.  The children are adorable.  One child grins hugely, showing a missing front tooth.

The art is fantastically vivid and smooth.  The stylized cartoon pastel art is charming, with glowing color that leaps off the page and will entice readers of all age.  Se
ñor Calavera is a skeleton, but not scary at all for the younger audience who could very easily miss the fact that he is personifying Death.  He is, in fact, often portrayed hilariously rolling his eyes in impatience or stomping in the background as he waits for Grandma Beetle.  His pupils are flowers and he evokes the Latino tradition of El Dia de la Muerta (Day of the Dead), as he has little pretty decorations here and there on his skull and along his bones. 

Grandma is the clever trickster in this tale.  It’s exciting to see an elderly woman shown blowing out her candles, “with a gust like a hurricane,” and who is represented as being so smart she could outwit Death itself.  Her intent was just to make it through her birthday celebration with her grandchildren (she tells him she is ready after she gives them all a big hug that made my throat a little tight), but he had gone and left her a note that he would see her next year.  This is a very strong Latina character and one all kids will benefit from getting to know.


“This story is a delight. Morales’s personification of death is never forbidding or scary, but rather a simple matter of fact.  This deceptively simple read-aloud treat has as many layers as an onion, and is every bit as savory.”  -- School Library Journal, Dec. 1, 2003.

“What’s an old woman to do when a skeleton pays her a birthday visit and beckons her to come along?  Grandma Beetle, the heroine of this joyful book by the illustrator of Harvesting Hope, stalls for time.  Just a minute, she says; there’s something she needs to do.  One chore leads to another, but the skeleton can’t mask his enthusiasm as Grandma cooks, fills piñatas, and performs other tasks, each one linked to a number from 1 to 10, uno to diez.  Eventually, nueve grandchildren arrive for Grandma’s birthday party, and guess who else is invited?  Even if children don’t grasp the implications of the skeleton’s visit, they’ll enjoy seeing him join in the fun, and when he extends Grandma’s lease on life, the relieved, loving embrace she gives her grandchildren will satisfy young ones at a gut level.  Like the text, the rich, lively artwork draws strongly upon Mexican culture, with hints of Diego Rivera in Grandma’s robust form, and the skeleton resembling the whimsical figurines often seen in Day of the Dead folk art.  The splendid paintings and spirited storytelling—along with useful math and multicultural elements—augur a long, full life for this original folktale.”  --Booklist, Dec 1, 2003.

"Like the best folktales, the darker motivation for the skeleton's visit remains elusive for youngest readers, and the sly interplay between hostess and visitor makes light of his role.  Morales (Harvesting Hope) whips up a visually striking book and funny to boot."  -- Publishers Weekly, Dec. 1, 2003.  

  • Read Niño Wrestles the World and do an author study, focusing on the humor in these books. Alternatively, read both books together and study all the cultural references in the books and what they mean. 
  • Read other trickster tales and compare/contrast.
  • Read the story on Dia de la Muerta and discuss the cultural holiday.
  • Compare this counting book to other concept books focused on numbers.
  • Have pairs of students act out each scene in the book, perhaps even going through it twice so everyone can play the impatient and funny Señor Calavera.  Give students skull masks to decorate first for their part as Señor Calavera.


This was such a fun book!  My girls are a little old for any sort of counting book, but they both had a great time laughing at the silly depictions of Señor Calavera.  The only bit of advice I’d give is that the font chosen for the main text made it hard to tell if this was, “Señor Calavera” Or “Señor Galavera.”  If you are not familiar with Spanish, this is not an obvious answer and an unnecessary distraction. 

Works Referenced:

Morales, Yuyi.  2013. Niño Wrestles the World.  New York:  Roaring Brook Press.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2010.  “Overview” Culture 3 Hispanic Lit.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed September 27, 2013.  

THE FIREFLY LETTERS, by Margarita Engle

Engle, Margarita. 2010. The Firefly Letters. Harrisonburg, VA: R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company.
ISBN 978-0-8050-9082-6


This short novel in verse tells the story of a 50 year old Swedish suffragette and novelist named Fredrika Bremer, who comes to Cuba in 1851, looking for a new Eden.  Instead, she is provided a pregnant and married enslaved girl, Cecelia, to be her translator, one who misses the Congo and her mother even though she had been sold by her own father.  Cecilia accompanies Fredrika on trips all over the area.  The 12 year old fictional daughter of the sugar baron host, Elena, finds Fredrika unsettling, but becomes more and more influenced by Fredrika over the course of the story as Fredrika reveals the systemic injustice in Cuba.  In the end, Elena makes a decision and a sacrifice to help someone she previously would not have helped.  Based on true events, it’s a story about slavery, women’s rights, and the extreme gulf between rich and poor in Cuba in the 1800’s.


This story is told in first person point of view from multiple characters' perspectives, which effectively shows each person’s experiences and emotions while moving the story forward each time a character makes a decision.  The chapter titles tell the reader who will be speaking.  Fredrika makes an allusion to Eden early on when she says, “I will see how people live/on this island of winter sun/that makes me dream/of discovering Eden” (8), but realizes by the end, “There was a time when I imagined/that I would be happy/living in any land/blessed with winter sun,/but now I know/that even though I still think of this island/as one of the outer courts of Paradise--/as Eden of natural beauty--/I could not bear to stay here/in the presence of slavery’s/dreadful sadness” (116).  Cuba was not what she hoped it would be, but this book still manages to celebrate many aspects of the country.

The language of the poetry is simple and yet evokes clear imagery and emotions.  The use of personification, such as, “The mist was silent/but the water sang softly,/telling its own flowing story,” (15) and similes, “Somehow I must show readers/the bright flowers and glowing insects/that make Cuba’s night/feel like morning” make reading the story easy and beautiful. 

Engle cleverly contrasts a gorgeous image of freedom:“The beach is so lovely/that I feel like a flying fish,/as if I am soaring/up into the starlit sky,” (41) with the horrifying realization that a slave ship has just arrived, bearing crying children.  At every step, Engle uses all the tools at her disposal to paint the truth about the horrors of slavery, even while writing so beautifully it can squeeze your heart.  The painful truth goes down smoothly in her hands.  She uses Spanish words for historical Cuban terms very rarely (volanta carriage on page 23 and niῆa bonita seat on page 118), but consistently uses the word cocuyos for fireflies throughout the story, explaining it the first time Cecilia uses the word.  Even the addition of this one native word used repeatedly adds a depth of authenticity that makes the story more credible.

Cuba comes alive in parts of the story, as the author uses the voice of Fredrika to help us see and smell the island from the point of view as an observant newcomer:  “All the bowls, spoons, and cups/are made from gourds, the hard, dry fruit/of a calabash tree that grows near the house/along with every other variety of fruit tree/known in the tropics:/mango, sapote, mamey, tamarind,/and a half a dozen different types of bananas,/some tiny and some huge…” (83) and “It is a garden/of delightful scents/and enchanted flavors…/a garden that somehow/helps me revive/the old hope of rediscovering/lost fragments/of Eden” (83).  The beauty is made clear, even in contrast to the terrible nature of slavery and the treatment of girls.  We get a short image of a native Cuban who is not a sugar baron:  “The woman is up early/blowing a conch-shell trumpet/to call her husband and sons/in from the fields/for a simple breakfast/of fish, corn, and yams” (82).  The specific details really give authenticity to the story.  It also helps to know that the author based the story on the actual journals of Fredrika Bremer and the author provides a note in the back, specifying which parts are fictional and which came from the journals and other historical facts.  Authenticity is critical for historical fiction and this book delivers, which is not surprising given that Engle has written a great deal about Cuba, to include an entire book of poetry about Cuba called The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom, as well as a book in verse called  The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano. (Smolen and Oswald, 207).

Elena grows the most in the story.  In the beginning, she refers to Cecilia as “just a slave” (4).  Socially, in the beginning, she says, “I find the Swedish lady’s freedom  to wander/all over the island/without a chaperone/so disturbing/that I can hardly bear it” (9).  She is just as unhappy as Cecilia, as she says, “The thought of marriage/to some old frowning stranger/makes me feel just as helpless/as a slave,” (10) and indeed, women and girls were essentially slaves in that era and place.  “Spanish sea captain and Arab merchants/are not the only men/who think of girls/as livestock” (2).  They were the property of their fathers and husbands and Engle very clearly shows that even the life of the white privileged was not easy.  “Elena and her mother move like shadows/lost in their private world/ of silk and lace” (11) and even Fredrika herself says, “I knew I could not survive/as a half-starved girl/for the rest of my life./Roaming the world/has been my escape” (22).  The words are poignant and heart-breaking.

Mid-way through the story, Elena says, “I try to see a traveling fairy/ on my own shoulder…/but all I see is Fredrika/at my side,/helping me to imagine/invisible wings” (74), with wings suggesting freedom and independence.  By the end, Fredrika says of Elena, “She has learned/how to dream/of a magical world/without masters/and slaves” (125).  Elena works hard to give a priceless gift to Cecilia, who says, in one of the most touching moments in the book, “I assumed she was in love/but as it turns out/her love was meant for my child” (142).  Without Fredrika, Elena would never have grown to see Cecilia as a full human being.  The influence of Fredrika continues past her visit, as she writes about her observations in Cuba.  “Do they ever wonder/about the slaves/who chop the cane/that sweetens their tea?/ How will they know/unless someone travels/and writes/about the tales/told by brave children/like Elena/and courageous mothers/like Cecilia?” (143).  It continues today in the form of this book.

In the early chapters, readers learn that in Cuba, moonlight was considered dangerous.  Women covered their heads.  But in the deft hands of Ms. Engle, moonlight becomes a symbol of education and awareness.  Fredrika has an uncovered head from the very beginning.  For those in power, yes, the education and awareness of the people is a danger—to their comfortable positions, with their slaves, with their money, with their power.  But it’s not a danger to those on the streets.   By the end, Elena concludes the entire novel by saying, “I no longer cover my head./I think of the moonlight/as friendly/and safe” (144). Becoming self-aware and transcending societal expectations is an important theme in this book. 

The fireflies that are referenced repeatedly in the story are another symbol of this theme and the theme of being freed, both literally and figuratively.  Children continue to tie up these little creatures or put them in jars until they starve and Fredrika continues to pay the children to set them free.  Fredrika and Cecilia were real people who really were able to see past the pressures of society at that era and think for themselves.  They are an inspiration for women and girls and slaves everywhere that things can change, even if just one person at a time.


"Both Elena and Cecilia are inspired by their guest’s independence, Elena to wonder if she can void eventual marriage and Cecilia to dream of freedom for her unborn child.  Using elegant free verse and alternating among each character’s point of view, Engle offers powerful glimpses into Cuban life at that time.” – School Library Journal, Feb. 1, 2010.

"Engle spins her latest historical novel-in-verse from the actual diaries of a 19th-century suffragette, Fredrika Bremer, who jettisoned her privileged existence in Sweden to travel and take notes on the plight of the poor.  …As in her other novels, Engle (The Surrender Tree) writes in free verse, alternating among the characters’ perspectives.  Cecilia’s story is the most poignant: Her father gave her to kidnappers in exchange for a stolen cow, and her unborn child also faces becoming a slave.  But it’s Elena who gives the plot momentum with a bold and risky choice that signals her own transformation.  This slim, elegant volume opens the door to discussions of slavery, women’s rights, and the economic disparity between rich and poor.  Ages 10-and up.”  -- Publishers Weekly, March 15, 2010.

 Winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Award
A Newbery Honor Book
An ALA Notable Book
An ALA Best Book for Young Adult
An Américas Award winner

  • As Dr. Vardell says, poetry is meant to be read.  Have students take turns reading a chapter to each other.  Have them write about their own city, home, or country.
  • Read other Margarita Engle books and compare and contrast them.
  • Research Cuba today and compare how it has changed since the 1850’s.
  • Read some of the original journal entries of Fredrika Bremer.  Decide for yourselves how true to life the author was in her representation.  What would you have done differently, if anything?


This was an amazingly fast read.  The chapters flowed quickly and I learned a tremendous amount while enjoying a compelling story.  I will definitely look for Ms. Engle’s other works.  

Works Referenced:

Engle, Margarita.  2008.  The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

            ---------.  2006.  The Poet Slave of Cuba: A Biography of Juan Francisco Manzano.  New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2010.  “Overview” Culture 3 Hispanic Lit.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed September 27, 2013.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

THE FIRST PART LAST, by Angela Johnson

CoverJohnson, Angela. 2003. The First Part Last. New York:  Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers.
ISBN 0-689-84922-2


With chapters that alternate between present and past, 16 year old Bobby tells the story of how he came to be a single dad to his baby daughter, Feather, and the pain and love that have come with fatherhood. 


The biggest strength of this novel is the amazingly poetic language.  Told from the point of view of 16 year old Bobby (with one exception near the end, which is from his girlfriend’s point of view), readers are immersed into the panic, fear, doubts and intense love of expectant fatherhood and new fatherhood.  We are also shown the pain of loss, but this is only slowly revealed.  Instead, Johnson makes readers wonder where Nia has gone, when we see her in the past chapters, but not in the present.  “Why is he a single father when they loved each other so much?” is the question in reader’s minds as we progress through the story, a question that is answered in a heartbreaking manner in the one chapter named, “Nia.” 

The book opens with Bobby’s exhaustion in the now, but also with his love for his child:  “So last week when it looked like Feather probably wasn’t ever going to sleep through the night, I lay her on my stomach and breathed her in.  My daughter is eleven days old” (4).  Lines such as, “Afterward I always kiss her, my baby, and look into her clear eyes that know everything about me, and want me to be her daddy anyway” (81) poignantly capture the innocent love of a child and the instinctual response of a new parent to do everything in his power to protect her and give her a good life.  The language employed by Johnson is breath-taking.  Bobby adores his daughter and it’s a hopeful message within a very hard, real-life scenario of young fatherhood. 

Johnson spares no details in showing how hard single-parenthood can be, especially for a teenager.  It gives a realistic look at teenage single-parenting.  Bobby falls asleep in class, spaces out and forgets his baby once, spends an entire day spray painting graffiti…he’s definitely a teenager.  But his response to his daughter is so pure, so strong, that we as readers watch him grow from the “before” Bobby who is still a kid, to the man who accepts the responsibilities of parenthood.  The theme of growing up is clear.  After he declares to the social worker, “But I love her, and even though I’m not set up for her, she’s mine.  And I’m hers,” the text continues, “When I walk out of the office I think I see ‘Just Frank,’ standing at the end of the hall.  And then I know I’m being a man, not just some kid who’s upset and wants it his way.  I’m being a man” (125). 

This rather brief story takes place within an urban, middle-class African-American family.  The beautiful cover shows a photograph of a strong African-American teenage boy holding a tiny sleeping baby in pink.  His expression looks both lost and stunned.  The image captures Bobby’s experiences in losing one person he loves tremendously only to gain another.  Other than the cover, there are minimal cultural markers found in the book.  A few cultural markers used include references to music, such as,“jazz, Motown, or reggae music always playing in the background,” (19)—three music styles often associated with African American culture -- and a lovely description of Feather and Coco being “the same caramel color” (35).  This book does a good job of showing, “a range of African American values and lifestyles,” (Hudson, qt. by Vardell) as Bobby’s family loves to travel and has bright colors and styles of various countries in their home, whereas Nia’s family lives with white walls, simple style and a quiet home in Chelsea. 

For the most part, this book focuses more on the experience of being a teen single father more than the experience of being a teen African-American.  Teens of all races and socio-economic statuses experience teen pregnancies, although statistics do show that Hispanic and Non-Hispanic Black teens experience more teen pregnancies than those of other races.  "Non-Hispanic black youth, Hispanic/Latino youth, American Indian/Alaska Native youth, and socioeconomically disadvantaged youth of any race or ethnicity experience the highest rates of teen pregnancy and childbirth.  Together, black and Hispanic youth comprised 57% of U.S. teen births in 2011" (CDC, n.p.) 

Our textbook, Multicultural Literature and Response, states, “A young African American child might be taken into the home of elderly grandparents.  In such arrangements, children have a sense they belong to an extended family clan, not merely to their parents.  Uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents have considerable power within the family unit and may take responsibility for the care and rearing of children and for teaching appropriate skills and values” (98). 

However, in this story, Bobby’s mother, who is also African-American, is very deliberately hands-off.  “Mom always shuts [her door] tight.  She says so she wouldn’t be tempted to do what most grandmothers would do.  Take over.  There are still a whole bunch of times I want her to take over, even more than I feel right about having.  But she never does.  She only ever changed, fed, or rocked Feather to sleep when I didn’t need her help.  But she warned me.  She said I was the parent.  She was only the grandparent” (101).  The mother also laid down the rule that, “In the dictionary next to ‘sitter,’ there is not  a picture of Grandma” (14).  This family structure seems to be in contrast to the African-American family system described in the textbook.  However, he does still live at home (first with his mother and then with his more involved and helpful father), which not all family units would allow.   At the end of the story, Bobby chooses to move to Ohio, where his brother lives.  Bobby’s brother may live in town, but Bobby chooses an apartment and lives alone with his daughter. 


"Each nuanced chapter feels like a poem in its economy and imagery; yet the characters-Bobby and the mother of his child, Nia, particularly, but also their parents and friends, and even newborn Feather- emerge fully formed." --Publishers Weekly, June 16, 2003.

"This Printz and Coretta Scott King Award winner has one of the best covers ever put to a teen book, depicting a beautiful and devoted father cradling a sleeping infant.  It is almost a shame that the awards stickers cover so much of it.:"-- Library Journal, March 23, 2009.

"Gr 8 and up- In this lyrical novel, 16 year old Bobby narrates his journey into teenage fatherhood, struggling to balance school, parenting and friends who simply do not comprehend his new role and his breathtaking love for his daughter.  Winner of the 2004 SRT Coretta Scott King Author Award and the 2004 YALSA Michael L. Printz Award for literary excellence." --School Library Journal, Oct. 1, 2004.

2004 Coretta Scott King Award Author
2004 Michael L. Printz Award
2004 YALSA Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults


  • This book is a companion novel to Heaven.  Read the first novel and trace the character growth of Bobby using character maps, as described on page 102 of Multicultural Literature for Children (Smole and Oswald.)
  • Write a poem about something you love.
  • Have students interview their parents about what they recall about what it was like to have a baby in the house. 


The writing is beautiful, but the story is heartbreaking at the end.  I found myself wishing for a different conclusion, but I know the point is that had Nia not suffered what she did, Feather would have been adopted.  Instead, Bobby won’t let Feather go.  It’s precious and gorgeous, but not a book I plan to reread, because it was too sad for me. I am definitely glad I read it once, though.

Works Referenced:

Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  “About Teen Pregnancy.”  Atlanta, GA:   CDC. Web.  Accessed Sept 12, 2013.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  “Overview” Culture 2 Af Am Lit: Overview.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed Sept 12, 2013.  

I HAVE A DREAM, by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ill. by Kadir Nelson

King Jr., Martin Luther. 2012. I HAVE A DREAM. Ill. by Kadir Nelson.  New York:  Scwartz Wade Books.
ISBN 978-0-375-85887-1


Kadir Nelson illustrates the last third of Martin Luther King Jr’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech from the March on Washington, using strong imagery that compliments the meaning of King’s speech about equality.  The book includes the full text of the speech in the back as well as an audio CD of King giving the entire speech.  Dr. King was a preacher, activist and leader in the American civil rights movement.


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most famous, well-loved and influential African Americans in our nation’s history.  He is celebrated with his own Federal holiday.  As a leading spokesperson for nonviolent protest during the Civil Rights Movement, his speech about his dream of racial equality is recognized, at least in part, by most American school children and contains some of the most well-known lines in any speech in American history.  “I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today.”  His repetition of the line, “I have a dream today,” is rhythmic and powerful, a testament to his gift as a speaker.  Smolen and Oswald write that “the art of language is one of the defining characteristics of the African-American culture” (105).   Additionally, “Many of the leaders in the Black community have been preachers,” (114) and it is true that Dr. King was a preacher.  This added to his gift of oratory and certainly contributed to his approach of peaceful protest.  He referenced spiritual songs in his speech, songs that his audience would undoubtedly recognize, as many African-Americans found solace and hope through their church communities.

Kadir Nelson puts images to the words of the last part of Dr. King’s speech, the “dream” portion of his speech.  On a two-page spread, a black man and a white man face each other from opposite sides of the book, with faint smiles.  His four children are portrayed in their Sunday best, realistically painted with rich colors. Two pages show a dramatic close up of Martin Luther King Jr. himself, giving a remarkable likeness and showing the passion behind his words.  A beautiful, full spread landscape in a more impressionistic style highlights King’s statement that “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low…”  On the page in which King quotes the National Anthem, Nelson paints a group of children of every ethnicity and color, standing close together in a group, showing the unity of King’s dream.  Four paintings on two page spreads represent the various states he calls by name.

When Nelson shows those listening to the speech, he is careful to include people of a variety of races, male and female.  Doves, a traditional symbol of peace, fly on the last page across from words italicized for emphasis: “Free at last!  Free at last!  Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

Playing the CD along with the book is a powerful and moving experience, as readers see his dreams illustrated for us as we follow along with his words.  A must-have for every collection.

This book certainly offers African-American students –and all students—a hero to learn from and admire.  It meets Cheryl Willis Hudson’s standards for an afro-centric book that is worth publishing, as it is culturally specific, with accurate and factual information.  The positive images will leave a lasting impression and it is an attractive book well worth the investment (Hudson, qt. by Vardell, n.p.)


"A great way to introduce young readers to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic 1963 address, this large, square picture book presents the speech with long excerpts and full-page, glowing unframed oil portraits of King, as well as paintings of the thousands who came to hear him at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington."-- Booklist, Sept. 1, 2010.

"There's something exhilarating about viewing Nelson's (Heart and Soul) paintings of Dr. King and the March on Washington while reading the words of the speech King gave that day; it's hard to imagine a better representation of their historical significance....A glorious interpretation of a bedrock moment in 20th-century history."  --Publisher's Weekly, Sept. 24, 2012.

"The luminous oil paintings employ a variety of techniques-scenes at the Lincoln Memorial have a sweeping impressionistic quality, while other spreads employ the artist's signature photorealistic style.  From the wraparound jacket featuring a powerful image of Dr. King, Nelson makes good use of the large, square trim size and generous design appropriate to illustrate such a significant moment in the Civil Rights Movement.  While putting his own interpretative spin on the iconic words, he remains sensitive to King's intent; for example, several of the paintings focus on King's hope that all people will someday live in harmony- a theme that runs through the oration....Even after 50 years, this seminal address still has the power to move listeners, and this handsome illustrated version will be welcomed in all collections."-- School Library Journal, Nov. 1, 2012.


  • Read other books that illustrate this same speech and compare/contrast their approach.  Martin’s Big Words (Rappaport, 2002) or another book called I Have a Dream, with a forward by Bernice King could be used, which includes various artists’ interpretations of the speech.  Another book that illustrates the speech has illustrations by Kathleen Wilson.
  • Listen to the CD or watch a video clip of the speech and compare/contrast it to the experience of reading the picture book.
  • Write a response to King, describing whether or not his dream has come true yet, in your opinion, and why.
  • Read about other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and other important events of the time, such as the Greensboro Sit-In, with the book Sit-In, by Andrea and Brian Pinkney.


This book is incredibly moving.  My husband’s eyes stung when he saw the image of Dr. King in front of the Lincoln Memorial.  I personally loved being able to listen to the complete speech, following along with the illustrations of the book when he reached that part of his speech.  I had never actually listened to the entire speech before, and I’m thankful that I have now. 

Works Referenced:

King, Martin Luther, Jr. 1998. I Have a Dream.  Ill. by a variety of artists.  NY: HarperCollins.

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  2007. I Have a Dream.  Ill by Kathleen Wilson.  NY:  Scholastic Inc.

Rappaport, Doreen. 2001.  Martin’s Big Words:  The Life of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. Ill. by Bryan Collier.  New York:  Hyperion Books for Children.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  “Overview” Culture 2 Af Am Lit: Overview.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed Sept 12, 2013. 


Pinkney, Andrea Davis. 2010. Sit-In:  How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down. Ill. by Brian Pinkney.  Boston:  Little, Brown and Company.
ISBN 978-0-316-07016-4


This picture book is a celebration and explanation of the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter peaceful sit-in and the sit-in movement that the four students sparked in a quest for racial integration and justice. 


This clever picture book uses food metaphors, poetic word play, and vibrant artwork to share an emotionally charged time in history with young readers. Her repeated phrase, “Their order was simple.  A doughnut and coffee with cream on the side,” unifies the book, especially when students finally receive the order they asked for.  “A doughnut and coffee, with cream on the side, is not about food—it’s about pride.”  The rhyme makes it fun to read aloud, even as the topic is poignant.  The art could have shown the scenes of violence done to the teens, but chose to stick with a few choice descriptions of what the students suffered “a big dose of  hatred, served up hot and heaping.” 

 The references to recipes are many.  Given that this was about sitting in at a lunch counter, they are particularly apropos.  For example, Pinkney writes, “Those kids had a recipe, too.  A new brew called integration.  It was just as simple:  Combine black with white for sweet justice.”  The end of the book even has a fold out page with a “recipe” for integration and racial justice that gives steps such as, “1.  Start with love.  2.  Add conviction.  3. Season with hope…”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s words start off the book with one of the themes, “We must meet hate with love,” and the words are big and brightly colored to show their importance.  Every time Dr. King is quoted, his words are set apart both in size and in color, so readers can’t help but notice them.  This book offers up great heroes to the African-American community, not just by including the beloved Dr. King, but also through showing that, “We are all leaders,” because the four students that started the sit-in were just four college kids who wanted things to change.  They were heroes for standing up for what they believed in. Or, as the subtitle cleverly says, for sitting down to stand up for what they believed in. 

The art is comprised of black lines of various thickness and watercolors, with a swirling movement to most images that convey a sense of urgency and immediacy.  The students’ skin tones are accurate cultural markers, offering a range of tones in watercolor.  In the scene in which the students are receiving violence such as coffee dumped on them and pepper thrown in their eyes, the perpetrators are only hinted at in the art, sketched only loosely behind the students, nearly in the same color as the background.  But the students who are protesting are distinctly shown, calm and in full color.  They are fully present, whereas the others are nearly as invisible and powerless as they had wished the students to be.

The back pages include a short and clear Civil Rights timeline, a “Final Helping” which is a note from Andrea Davis Pinkney providing more facts about the movement and her research methodology.  She also provides an additional list of resources. These offerings show the book is historically accurate.  Pinkney manages to effectively capture the hopes and determination of the students involved in this critical era of Civil Rights.

“Children’s literature depicting the history of African-Americans is powerful” (Smolen and Oswald, 116).  When African-American students are able to study their own history, they can not only better understand the past, but take pride in their heritage (116).  But all students benefit from studying books about the history of African-Americans and all students can learn to appreciate the struggles overcome by the African-American community so far and what injustices still remain.  Based on Bank’s levels of multicultural education, this book steps into Level 3 territory, although just barely.  The book, “enables students to view concepts, issues, events, and themes from the perspective of diverse ethnic and cultural groups” (18).


“Starred Review...Even young children will grasp the powerful, elemental, and historic story of those who stood up to oppressive authority and changed the world." -- Booklist, Feb. 1, 2010.  

"Gr 3-6- Through effectively chosen words, Andrea Pinkney brings understanding and meaning to what four black college students accomplished on February 1, 1960, by sitting down at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC."-- School Library Journal, April 1, 2010.

"Brian Pinkney's sinuous watercolor and ink art conveys the solidity and determination of the activists as well as a building energy that grew out of their act of civil disobedience.  A succinct civil rights time line and additional facts and suggested reading about the topic round out this account."  -- Publisher's Weekly, Feb. 8, 2010.


  • Do a research project on the Greensboro Sit-In and make a presentation using a Web 2.0 tool such as Voicethread, Photopeach, Animoto or PowToon.
  • Research another important event in the Civil Rights Movement, choosing from the events included in the timeline in the back of the book.  Or go to the Smithsonian National Museums electronic field trip, “which is based on the exhibit, ‘Separate Is Not Equal:  Brown v. Board of education’” (Smolen and Oswald, 50).
  • Experiment with India ink and watercolor, drawing and painting in various styles to create different moods.   Try painting/drawing to different types of music to see if you can replicate the type of mood found in the musical piece. 
  • Do an author study by reading some of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s other works.
  • Read the book aloud, but have students read with you chorally each time Martin Luther King Jr’s words appear.
  • Read along with the picture book, I Have A Dream, by Dr. King Jr., Ill by Kadir Nelson.  Listen to the audio recording of his speech.
  • Act out the book, writing your own play based on the historical events described.
  • Make a “recipe” for A) being kind or fair B)  being tolerant  C)  being _(fill in the blank)_.


I read this to my oldest daughter, who was shocked at the treatment the students received from hateful people.  I was thankful that the illustrations were not too graphic, given her age.  But it was a great realization for her how far we’ve come as a society and it was a great jumping-off point to discuss in which ways our society still needs to improve to become a more fair and tolerant place.

Works Referenced:

King, Martin Luther King, Jr.  2012.  I Have a Dream.  Ill by Kadir Nelson.  NY:  Schwartz Wade Books.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  2011.  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2010.  “Overview” Culture 1 International Lit: Overview.  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed August 28, 2013. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

THE FRANK SHOW, by David Mackintosh


Mackintosh, David.  2012.  The Frank Show.  New York, NY:  Abrams.


13591173A young boy must give a report about a family member, and the only one he can interview is his grandpa, Frank, who is always around and does not like anything.  He is portrayed as a boring subject to speak about.  Frank “doesn’t always like the way things are.  And he always does things his way.”  The other kids have cool relatives to talk about, like an uncle who plays drums or an aunt who swam the English Channel.  However, without any other option, the boy reluctantly gives his report, listing all the things his grandfather does not like, but then his grandfather tells a story of a battle he was in, and the class loves him after all. 


This delightful picture book is a quirky, zany look at what happens when the young and the elderly must interact in a meaningful way.

Author-illustrator David Mackintosh grew up in Belfast, but lives in London.  Nevertheless, there are very few clues that this is an international book.  There is one image with a car that has a European license plate and the scene of the city may have buildings that someone in London could recognize, but I do not.  In the end scene, Grandpa Frank is wearing a red coat and carrying a bugle, so perhaps he fought for England, but this is never stated and it does not really matter.  What matters to the children—and the young reader-- is that bullets whistled past him, he still has shrapnel in his arm and he has a blurry green tattoo.  He is unexpectedly COOL.

The child is in a modern classroom and the assignment is the type of assignment that is probably found around the world.  There are other clues that this is a modern story, to include the modern dress of the boy and mother, the skateboard on the kitchen floor and the references to modern items such as electric guitars and Hannah’s mom arriving in the company car.  

The art is a brilliant kaleidoscope of many sketchy images of what looks like pencil, ink and some mixed media.  The images are often overlapping and contain whimsical, hilarious touches in the details.  The longer you look, the more you find, making it a great book for repeated readings with a child.  For example, when Frank is telling about leading the troops into battle, the horses behind him are not your everyday cavalry.  One is a Roman gladiator, one horse has a unicorn horn and another horse is being ridden by a jockey…and the jockey has wings on him.  Clearly, we are not supposed to believe that Frank, “captured one hundred enemy soldiers with nothing but his wit and brute force…” but he does have some kind of battle experience and he does save the day for his grandson, which is a great victory for them both.

There is a heavy use of charcoal grey, punctuated by brilliant yellow, often seen in Frank’s glasses.  Except for his glasses, Frank himself is usually rendered nearly completely in shades of grey, even his skin tone.  The huge, vibrant yellow glasses make Frank stand out to the reader and sets him apart from his grandson, who is always much smaller than his larger-than-life grandfather. The grey shows his connection to the past and also shows how boring he is to his grandson, who repeats several times that Frank is "just a grandpa."  

The scenes that include the school children are done in full color.  The grandson is usually in color as well, except he is shown in grey when he is preparing for his speech, alone and scared and sad.  The scene with the city is swirling with color—except for the tiny grey figures of grandpa and grandson.  The colors therefore guide the viewer, even subconsciously, to understand the two different approaches to life that these characters have and the emotions they experience.

The art also gives us the clue that this grandpa has a penchant for elaborating and embellishing the past, as the images included in reference to the tougher times when “he was younger” include even a dinosaur and a witch.  The text even reflects his strong personality, becoming much larger and bold when Frank states, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” His storytelling abilities will come into play later in the story.

In addition to his huge yellow glasses, Frank sports a mustache, a hearing aid and a hat—and often has crossed arms, clearly communicating a stereotypical grumpy old man.  In the scene in the car, he is totally grey like the car (the car has yellow headlights instead) and only his young grandson stands out in color.  Frank listens to an old fashioned phonograph, uses a “prehistoric” typewriter and takes photos with a camera that looks like it is from the 1930’s.  He is, in short, from a different culture than his thoroughly modern grandson.  So even though this book is not obviously an international book, it is about two cultures connecting in the end.  

The contrast of grey (and seemingly dull) Grandpa Frank with the brightly colored modern world ends during show-and-tell.  When Frank tells the stories of his battles to the children and is admired for them, he is finally shown in full brilliant color, with peachy skin instead of grey and wearing a bright red jacket and what looks like a safari helmet.  He has finally “come alive” to the little boy—and perhaps even to himself.

The young children love Frank at the end of the story, and each has a little comment about him that they have learned, some of which are very funny, such as, “He keeps a real Japanese sword under his bed,” and “He hasn’t bought a new pair of pants in ten years.”  He is accepted and celebrated for who he is, which is the spirit of multicultural literature.


"Rendered mostly in ink, watercolor, pencil, and some mixed-media collage, the cartoon illustrations are very funny.  Frank's oversize glasses with a missing right temple enhance the mood.  A sweet story that proves elderly relatives can be cool after all." -- School Library Journal, October 1, 2012.

"The boy approaches show-and-tell like a prisoner headed for the gallows. (Mackintosh draws him all alone in gray, while his classmates laugh and shout in color on the opposing page), but there's more to Frank than his grandson realizes.  Mackintosh's busy, helter-skelter images contribute mightily to the story's humor and emotional honesty, but it's the willful personalities of both of these protagonists that make it stand out." -- Publisher's Weekly, July 9, 2012.

"A fresh look at taking a fresh look." -- Booklist, September 1, 2012

Parent's Choice Award Winner

USBBY Winner 2013


  • Have students interview one of their own grandparents or an older person in their community for their own show and tell.
  • Compare and contrast all of the old pieces of technology in the book (even if only visible in the illustrations) with today’s modern equivalent.  Can students recognize the old fashioned radio and telephone across from the title page?  Would they be able to figure out which object is the film projector on the end pages?  This could be a fun history/social project, using social media to compare/contrast the time eras represented.
  • Do an author study by reading Standing in for Lincoln Green.


This book is so much fun to read.  With the wacky and clever art, it’s like playing a game of hide-and-seek with the author, finding fun mixed media images tucked away in unexpected locations, such as the actual tiny photograph included on the pencil or ink shelf across from the title page—it does not say, but perhaps it’s a picture of the author/illustrator as a child, with a sibling. 

Works Referenced

Mackintosh, David.  2013. Standing in for Lincoln Green.  New York, NY:  Abrams.