Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World” by Charles R. Smith Jr.

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The author wanted to create a work for Black History Month that would go beyond the familiar names and faces bruited every year. His thoughts on this phenomenon that he gave in an interview are worth quoting, because they are so true!

“I remember sitting in my sixth grade class at Marian Anderson Elementary in Compton, California, when February rolled around and my teacher, Mr. Johnson, hung up the faces of Black History Month around the room. Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. surrounded us until early March. Each picture had information about the person depicted on the back of the image, and the pictures hadn’t changed since first grade. With no new countenances added each year, it was as if once black Americans had achieved equal rights in the law books, our history was complete.

How could that be? Weren’t there others who accomplished great things, past and present? That question became the focus of 28 Days: Moments in Black History That Changed the World.”

He begins in 1776, during the birth of America, and ends in the present with America’s first black president. He includes an extra day at the end – not only for “leap year” Februarys, but to show that “great things can happen on any day to anyone” and to suggest that Black History is not limited to 28 days!

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It will no doubt be a relief to teachers as well as students to find such nice material (presented in free verse) on people other than “the usual suspects.” While he does feature Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Jackie Robinson, he also has stories about such notable but perhaps lesser-known African Americans as Crispus Attucks, Daniel Hale Williams, Henry Johnson and Matthew Henson.

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The form of the author’s verse changes according to the message he wants to convey. The spread on Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe features lines that go back and forth like a tennis match. The verse devoted to Malcolm X reflects the way his words were meant to educate, and to convey a broader message to his followers.

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I particularly like the author’s concluding sentiments for Day 29:

“What will today bring,
what will today be,
will today be the day
you make history?

….

Today is the day,
today is to be.”

Illustrator Shane W. Evans, a three-time NAACP Image Award nominee, just keeps getting better and better. His collage and oil pictures employ a vivid palette with the dominant colors reflecting the story being told. For example, he uses blues and silver for the two-page spread on the first male and female astronauts, and the bright colors of Africa for his spread on Nelson Mandela.

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Evaluation: One can only hope that this book’s appeal will not be confined to February.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings, 2015

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Review of “A Dying Fall” by Elly Griffiths

Note: Spoilers for previous books in this series

The fifth book in the Ruth Galloway Mystery Series begins two years after the series began. In the first three books, we met Ruth Galloway, now 42, who is a self-described overweight forensic archeologist at the (fictional) University of North Norfolk, and Detective Chief Inspector Harry Nelson of the Norfolk Police. The two teamed up to solve several crimes since Ruth is an expert on bones, and now Ruth is seconded to the Serious Crime Unit, which is headed by Nelson.

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As this book begins, Ruth receives word that an old friend from her university days, Dan Golding, has died in a fire. Coincidentally, the next day she received a letter from him. He wrote that he believed he had found “The Raven King” in an archeological dig, and wanted her to come give a second opinion on the bones. But he also said there is something making him very frightened. She wonders if he was murdered, and calls Nelson to ask if he has any police contacts up in Lancashire, the area where Nelson used to live and work. He agrees to contact his old police mate Sandy Macleod, the DCI at Blackpool CID, and let her know. Thinking about Sandy causes Nelson to suggest to Michelle that they take their vacation in Blackpool, where they can also visit their parents.

Meanwhile, Ruth receives a call from Clayton Henry, Dan’s boss at (fictional) Pendle University, who asks Ruth to come look at the bones discovered by Dan. The university needs funds, and Clayton is hoping the discovery will be lucrative. It certainly might well be; King Arthur was sometimes known as the Raven King.

Ruth makes her way to Lytham, a small town in the area, along with her 18-month-old daughter Kate and her friend Cathbad, godfather to Kate, who is coming along to babysit.

It turns out Dan was indeed the victim of foul play, and there are plenty of likely suspects, including members of a shadowy group called The White Hand, a sub-sect of white supremacist groups obsessed with King Arthur. Perhaps Dan, who was Jewish, was a victim of this group.

The story lines converge as Ruth tries to ascertain (1) were these actually the bones of someone who could have been King Arthur? (2) why was Dan afraid? (3) why would someone kill him? and (4) why is Ruth receiving threatening texts to stay away from the bones? As both Nelson and Ruth get closer to answers, the tension increases, as does the danger to Ruth.

Underlying this story is the ongoing relationships of Ruth and Nelson (who is married to Michelle), and Cathbad and one of Nelson’s detectives, Judy, who is now married to Darren.

Evaluation: This is a very appealing series, with well-drawn fascinating characters who seem very much like real people. I also love that one comes away from these books learning a great deal more than how to commit a murder. Although King Arthur’s existence has been disputed, he is still very much “alive” to the people of England, Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales. The author shares some of the background of the mythology surrounding Arthur in this book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

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Review of “Saga: Volume Five” by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan

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This outstanding graphic novel series continues the story of the little family of Marko, Alana, and their baby (now toddler) Hazel, who are struggling to stay together in spite of a war between their two peoples.

Alana, Marko, and Hazel shortly after Hazel's birth

Alana, Marko, and Hazel shortly after Hazel’s birth

Alana is from the planet Landfall, where inhabitants have wings on their backs, and Marko is from its moon, Wreath, where all people have horns on their heads. The two defied all convention (and propaganda, viz: those people have horns on their heads!) and fell in love. Hazel was born with both horns and wings, and it is Hazel who narrates the story.

There are many other memorable species and characters in this series, such as the people (and even animals) of the Robot Kingdom, who have CRTs for heads. Prince Robot III is leading the intergalactic hunt for Marko and Alana, because their love story gives lie to the party line that the people from these two species can’t, and never will, get along.

One of the members of the Robot Kingdom, Dengo, believes that the Robot Kingdom cares more about the war between the wings and the horns than about its own people. Dengo is also devastated because his own son died, and in a desperate measure to force the Robot Kingdom to pay attention to its people, he kidnapped the robot princeling and now is holding Alana, Marko’s mom, and Hazel as hostages.

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In one scene both hilarious and poignant, Alana tries to talk sense into Dengo, trying to convince him of the truth, insisting he knows the truth, saying to him “It’s written all over your face.”

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Meanwhile, Marko has a temporary alliance with the robot princeling’s father, Prince IV. Both are trying to get to Dengo and Alana to get their children back.

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In fact, the love of children is central to this story. And the aspects of child-rearing – with its stress, frustrations, exhausting challenges, and joy – and family – are incredibly moving and endearing.

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A side story concerns a mercenary named “The Will” who was chasing Marko and his family but was mortally injured, and needs dragon sperm to save him. Working on that particular project are Marko’s horned ex-girlfriend Gwendolyn, a wild cat who can distinguish lies from truth (L.C. or Lying Cat), The Will’s brother Brand and his hilariously normal-looking dog, and the little girl Sophie.

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With all of this wild weirdness, most of the characters seem like “regular” people [sic] with the same insecurities, hopes, fears, and passions that most “people” have. Alana wears fuzzy bedroom slippers around the house, Sophie and Brand roast marshmallows around a fire while out on their quest for dragon sperm, and many of the characters constantly question their own values and commitments and try to be better and do the right thing, especially with respect to one another. As Hazel says at one point:

“Every relationship is an education. Each new person we welcome into our hearts is a chance to evolve into something radically different than we used to be.”

In this volume, there are heartbreaking developments as the characters try to help those they love. But we know at least that Hazel will endure; her story isn’t over, and she promises, at the end of this volume, that her “education” is only beginning.

It seems inaccurate to say Fiona Staples is “just” the illustrator rather than a full co-author. In fact, Staples gets top billing in Volume 5, apparently having contributed to the storyline as well as the artwork. Her pictures are incredible – creative, expressive, and full of meaning, adding layers and implications far beyond the words. Vaughan’s dialogue is clever, satirical, and engaging, but Staples adds pure genius to the finished product.

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I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Evaluation: This is an outstanding “saga” whether you like graphic novels or not. In fact, usually I prefer pure text. But in this series, the artwork adds immeasurably to the story, and brings it alive in a way I’m not sure pure text could accomplish. This is not by any means a series for kids – you will see graphic (in both senses) depictions of childbirth, oral sex, anal sex, masturbation – just about anything you can think of (or more accurately, might have never thought of!).

Another great aspect of this series is that no one gender or race has claim to any particular qualities, whether courage or compassion. But overall, the females tend to be more formidable, powerful and tough, and the guys more nurturing. The political commentary is as powerful as it is subtle. This series is hilarious, moving, exciting, romantic, action-packed, and crazily mentally stimulating, all at once.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Image Comics, Inc., 2015

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Black History Month Review of “Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America” by Wil Haygood

Thurgood Marshall may not have worn a cape and tights, but he was, nevertheless, every inch a superhero.

Wil Haygood takes us back to Marshall’s childhood to tell us what it was like for a young, smart, ambitious kid growing up in a world in which he couldn’t even use most public bathrooms or be admitted to many restaurants and hotels. But this never diminished his spirit and determination. On the contrary, it inspired him further not only to achieve, but to work for change for everyone else.

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This book uses the Senate confirmation hearings for Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination as scaffolding to structure his story; the author goes back and forth in time, basically telling in large part the history of black America from post-Reconstruction times onward. It is a nasty and brutal history which will often have you cringing (there are, for example, two blow-by-blow accounts of lynchings, though the accounts are quite germane), but will greatly enhance your understanding of the country as it is today.

Thurgood Marshall with the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson

Thurgood Marshall with the president who nominated him to the Supreme Court, Lyndon Johnson

Evaluation: If you only read about the life of one trailblazing hero, I recommend reading about Thurgood Marshall. His unparalleled bravery in spite of constant threats against his life, his unflagging dedication to others, and his unfailing good humor and optimism in the face of unrelenting efforts by whites to keep him down, is utterly amazing and inspirational.

I’ve seen some reviews opine that Devil in the Grove, also about Marshall, is superior to this book. I found it excellent as well, but the fact is, when you’re writing about a true giant of a man like Marshall, it’s hard to go wrong.

Rating: 4.5/5

Hardcover published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Audiobook published unabridged on 12 CDs (14 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2014

A Few Notes on the Audio Production: The narrator, Dominic Hoffman, is nothing short of sensational. He has a couple of mispronunciations (e.g., Estes Kefauver), but I can’t really complain because his overall performance is so outstanding.

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Kid Lit Review of “Eat Your Science Homework: Recipes for Inquiring Minds” by Ann McCallum

I have a whole bunch of little people around me who are opposed to science but not at all opposed to eating. This adorable book offers a remedy for that problem.

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The author combines recipes with basic science information that explains science associated with making the food, in ways I certainly never anticipated. For example, take “Sedimentary Pizza Lasagna.” First the author defines the three basic categories of rocks, one of which is sedimentary. She explains that when the Sedimentary Pizza Lasagna bakes, the ingredients meld together to create a sediment. Then she illustrates how to rate the sediment using the Mohs Scale of Hardness. (Thank heavens I’m not cooking here; I’m sure I would earn a “ten” for some of my baking, and not as in “best” but in “hardest.” The first time I tried pecan pie comes to mind….)

Then there are the very exciting “Invisible Ink Snack Pockets.” You not only learn about how to make invisible ink, but you get to write secret messages on the top of each snack that will become visible at it bakes!

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Ingredients are simple, the cooking instructions are very clear, and they indicate which parts might require the help of an adult (such as for lighting the oven).

At the end there is a “Science Review” and a glossary.

The adorable illustrations by Leeza Hernandez use animals for cooks, scientists, and tasters. There are fun details hidden in mot pictures for those who play close attention.

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Evaluation: This combo primer for both cooking and science should appeal to a wide range of ages.

Published by Charlesbridge, 2014

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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