Kid Lit Review of “Joni: The Lyrical Life of Joni Mitchell” by Selina Alko

The author begins by writing “Joni Mitchell painted with words. . . . The songs were like brushstrokes on a canvas, saying things that were not only happy or sad but true.”

But before the songs, Alko writes, there was a restless and not always happy girl named Roberta Joan Anderson. Alko tells readers what this little girl was like and what happened during her life growing up in Canada, including a bout with polio.

As a young adult, Joni attended art school in Calgary, and immersed herself in “a world of coffeehouses and poetry and a captivating music scene.” She sang songs in the cafes, but at first, they were songs written by others. At age 21 she met Chuck Mitchell, married him and took his surname, and moved with him to Detroit. There she began performing her own songs for the first time. They divorced in 1967, and Joni moved to New York City. She played venues up and down the East Coast, performing frequently in coffeehouses and folk clubs. She became well known for her unique songwriting and her innovative guitar style.

Joni Mitchell, age 24

She turned her thoughts and feelings into music. Even looking up at the clouds became the song “Both Sides Now” in 1968. Who hasn’t gone up in an airplane for the first time and thought of her lyrics?

“I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all. . . .”

In 1969, she did not perform at Woodstock, but wrote about it in the song “Woodstock” that became an iconic expression for a generation, along with her other big hits such as “Big Yellow Taxi.” In 2020, the New York Times chose her 1971 album “Blue” as one of the 25 albums that represented “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music.” In 2020, Blue was rated third in Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”

She told Rolling Stone Magazine in 1979:

“The Blue album, there’s hardly a dishonest note in the vocals. At that period of my life, I had no personal defenses. I felt like a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes. I felt like I had absolutely no secrets from the world, and I couldn’t pretend in my life to be strong. Or to be happy. But the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defenses there either.”

Fans will want to read the New York Times tribute to “Blue” on the 50th anniversary of the album, in which twenty-five musicians speak about the LP’s enduring power, here. Contributors include James Taylor, Rosanne Cash, Judy Collins, David Crosby, Bonnie Raitt, and more. The author of the article writes: “Half a century later, Mitchell’s “Blue” exists in that rarefied space beyond the influential or even the canonical. It is archetypal: The heroine’s journey that Joseph Campbell forgot to map out.”

Joni Mitchell became famous, and traveled all over the U.S. and Europe, still expressing her feelings through music. She once said, “I sing my sorrow, and I paint my joy.”

Alko writes, “Her songs show us the way by telling us her truth. Truth gives us freedom. And freedom gives us wings to fly.

The book ends with an Author’s Note, a discography, and a biography.

The illustrations, also by Alko, are gorgeous creations in mixed media using acrylic paint, pencil sketches, collages, and ink stamps. Birds, flowers, musical notes, and lyric excerpts accent the double-page spreads.

Evaluation: This lovely story will appeal to readers whether they know who Joni Mitchell is or not; her childhood journey and turn to the arts to express herself are not only interesting but inspirational. Her music, including songs from the album Blue, are available on Youtube.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2020

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Review of “Shed No Tears” by Caz Frear

This is the third novel in a series featuring Detective Constable Cat Kinsella, who, at 27, is an important part of London Murder Investigation Team 4.

As the story opens, Cat’s boss, DCI Kate Steele, asks Cat and her partner DS Luigi (“Lu”) Parnell to re-open a six-year-old case involving serial killer Christopher Dean Masters, even though he was murdered in prison a year ago. All of his purported victims had been found but one: Holly Kemp, 22 when she died. Now Holly’s bones have just been discovered, but the method and place of her killing are quite different from those of the previous victims. As Cat and Lu revisit the old case, they find more disparities, and some startling lapses in the previous investigation as new secrets get exposed.

In the background, Cat worries about her own secrets, even as she employs her considerable ability to drag secrets out of others and make judgments based what she finds. She muses, “My hypocrisy astounds even me.”

The biggest secret she carries is the identity of her father, who is involved in the criminal underworld. No one knows about this connection, since Cat has taken her mother’s maiden name. Her sister Jacqui doesn’t even admit to the truth about their dad. Cat thinks about how memory works:

“Details fade the second you turn your back. Inaccuracies grow. Your hard drive gets corrupted. It’s why Jacqui frames our childhood as something straight off an episode of The Waltons, while I seem to conjure up the bloodiest scenes from The Godfather. The truth is usually a gray blotch lying somewhere in between.”

But that disparity in memory about the past colors their present too. As Cat observes:

“Dad and Jacqui, splashing about in the shallow end of the conversation: floristry, X-ray results, oatmeal stouts, Finn [Jacqui’s son]. Me and Dad, it’s always straight into the deep end. One reckless plunge and we’re off. No topic too toxic. No pain left unexplored.”

She both loves and loathes her father, who claims he has continued to work for the mob boss Frank Hickey only in order to protect her. But there is even more about him she is concealing: her father was involved in a case Cat worked on 18 months earlier, described in the first book of the series, in which a missing girl turned up dead. Against all the rules of police involvement, Cat not only hid her father’s role, but got into a still-ongoing relationship with Aiden Doyle, the brother of the victim. Aiden, after all this time, is still unaware of the connection between Cat’s father and his dead sister. What would happen if he found out?

And in fact, the cliffhanger that ends the book has to do with Cat and Aiden and their relationship. As for the mystery about Holly, it gets solved mostly by Cat’s dogged police work and persistence in spite of a number of twists and turns.

Evaluation: The author is touted as appealing to fans of Tana French, and indeed, she has something of French’s same style. Like French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, this book combines an absorbing and well-crafted police procedural with an even more interesting drama about family secrets and interactions among members of the detective force. Frear’s talent for writing places her in the top tier of mystery authors.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by HarperCollins, 2020

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Kid Lit Review of “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill

Jacob Riis, who became famous as a “muckraking” journalist advocating social reform, was born in Denmark in 1849. [As Wikipedia explains, the muckrakers were reform-minded investigative journalists in the Progressive Era in the United States (1890s–1920s) who exposed corruption in a variety of businesses and among political leaders.]. This biography for kids aged 7 and up tells his story.

Jacob Riis in 1906

Riis immigrated to America in 1870 when he was 21 years old. He quickly found that, as the author writes, “jobs for immigrants were hard to find, hard to keep.” He was often penniless, and slept on the streets. Eventually he got a job at the “South Brooklyn News” and worked his way up. He was even able to buy the newspaper, but then had to sell it for money for his new family.

A neighbor of Riis, who was the city editor of the “New-York Tribune,” recommended Riis for a short-term contract. Riis did well and was offered the job of a police reporter. He was based in a press office near New York City’s worst slum, called Mulberry Bend. In the 1880s, 334,000 people were crammed into this single square mile of the Lower East Side, making it the most densely populated place on earth. They were packed into filthy, disease-ridden tenements, 10 or 15 to a room. It was nicknamed “Death’s Thoroughfare.”

Riis longed to help the desperate people he saw, but his “muckraking” articles didn’t seem to make a dent. He resolved he would show people what was going on, and began to add photographs to his stories. He was aided by the invention of flash photography, which allowed images to be made of dark interiors.

Now people started paying attention. He also embarked on a tour to present his pictures and deliver lectures about the children and families crammed into the tenements. In 1890, his words and pictures were published in a book, How the Other Half Lives.

His book got the attention of Theodore Roosevelt, then head of the Police Board in New York. Roosevelt promised Riis he would use his power to make changes. As the author writes, “And he did.”

Ten years later, a park opened in Mulberry Bend: “And because of him, the lives of tenement children and their families changed for the better.”

As Jacob Riis notably said, “The power of fact is the mightiest lever of this or of any day.”

Back matter includes the author’s notes on Jacob Riis and the immigrant experience, a glossary, timeline, a list of Jacob Riis’s accomplishments, selected sources, and some of Riis’s actual photographs. (You can see a collection of his photos at the Museum of the City of New York website, here.). At the end of the list of “What Jacob Accomplished,” the author writes: “Seldom is America privileged to benefit by one so fine.”

As usual, Gary Kelley’s ink and pastel illustrations are notable for their simplicity, beauty, and ability to engage the emotions of the viewer. The palette is muted, capturing the despair and bleak hopelessness of what Riis witnessed, as well as Riis’s fierce determination to make a difference.

Evaluation: Kids can be encouraged to think about the causes and effects of poverty and what can be done to help. From Riis’s example, they will learn that if they want to make a difference, they will benefit both from thinking outside the box, and by capitalizing on what skills they have.

Published by Calkins Creek, an imprint of Boyds Mills & Kane, 2020

Children sleeping on Mulberry Street, ca. 1890 by Jacob Riis via Museum of the City of New York

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Review of “The Sisters of the Winter Wood” by Rena Rossner

In an Author’s Note at the end of this story, the author tells us that she was inspired in part by the experiences of her own family, who emigrated from the area on the border between the Ukraine and Moldova following a series of pogroms against Jews in 1903. These violent anti-semitic riots, carried out with government approval, left many dead and wounded, with houses destroyed and stores pillaged.

The worst pogroms were in the years between 1881-1883 and 1903-1906, causing a mass exodus of Jews to other countries. Some two million Jews subjected to pogroms emigrated from the area between 1881 and 1914, mainly going to the United States. It was then that the author’s family left Dubrossary and Kupel, both towns featured in this story, and went to the “goldene medina” or “golden land” of America. The Jews who did not leave those two towns were finished off by the Nazis in 1940, who rounded them up, locked half of them in the main synagogue, burned it to the ground, and shot the other half and buried them in a mass grave. As the author writes in her Note, “the stories I drew upon . . . these were all things that happened.”

But this is not a Holocaust story. On the contrary, it is a story of Jewish resilience told in the form of a fairy tale. The story is based upon Jewish history, traditions, and language. There are three glossaries at the end of the book for Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ukrainian words and phrases included in the story. Most of these are defined as they are come up in the narrative, but the glossaries are a nice touch.

The plot centers around two sisters, Liba, 17, and Laya, 15. Liba’s narration is shown in prose and Laya’s in free verse. This variation in style is an apt representation of the differences between them: Liba is earthbound and practical, and Liba has her head in the clouds, always dreaming of flying away. Liba is devout, but Laya is not sure God even exists. She thinks: “We pray because it makes us feel like someone’s listening . . . even if they’re not.” The love they have for each other is fierce, and transcends their differences.

As the book begins, a stranger comes to their cottage and asks to speak to Tati, the girls’ father. The stranger says that Tati’s own father, who is the leader of the Jewish community in nearby Kupel, is dying, and Tati and Mami must go there right away. The parents decide not to take the girls since travel is so dangerous for Jews. Before they go, however, Mami tells each of the sisters secrets about their past and who they are, and begs them to watch out for each other. She tells Liba:

“Know this – anything is possible, Liba, anything. There are lots of different kinds of beasts in the world . . . . People are not always what they seem. And you are more powerful than you’ve ever dreamed. If you’re ever in danger, you can draw on that power to save your sister, and yourself.”

Likewise Mami tells both girls that if necessary, they must become what they need to be to protect themselves.

Indeed, later in the story, after all hell breaks loose, Liba avers that “being a Jew means always changing – staying true to what you are, but adapting to your surroundings. That’s what our people have always done.”

Discussion: The lives of the characters in this book are interwoven with magic, much of it seeming to come from the ancient forest next to the sisters’ cottage. The story most notably harkens back to Christina Rossetti’s narrative poem “Goblin Market,” to which it closely adheres. The author also draws upon the Russian folklore traditions which give prominent roles to bears and to swans. These three strands of folklore allow the author to use metaphor to show what is happening to the girls and to the village, from their transition through puberty and adulthood and the fears this inspires in each of the girls, to the incursion into their area of Anti-semites bent on destroying them.

Evaluation: This book about growing up, the inevitability of change, and the dangers in the wider world is well told. The author added interest and atmosphere by weaving into the story elements from folk and fairy tales.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Redhook, an imprint of Orbit, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2018

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Review of “Zion Unmatched” by Zion Clark and James S. Hirsch

This photographic essay for readers 8 and over illustrates the amazing path taken by Zion Clark, born in 1997 without legs. Zion has refused to see his body as less than whole. As he states: “I’ve never seen myself as disabled. I’m just lower to the ground.”

He has won awards in wrestling and seated racing, and plays a number of musical instruments. His current goal is to compete in the Paralympics and bring home a medal. On his website, we learn that, because of his tremendous upper body strength and athleticism, Zion is also pursuing interests in power lifting (bench press), wheelchair bodybuilding, and the circus arts.


Zion contends that he was given his life for a reason: “I want to be a role model for any young person on how to overcome adversity, and I want to inspire anyone wants to believe in the human spirit.” Part of the way he is accomplishing that goal is as a motivational speaker. He has a tattoo across his back: No Excuses.

There is no doubt his story is inspirational. He urges people to “work with what you got!” and argues, “If I can do it, so can you.”

One thing he has for sure is a fantastic attitude.

A movie about Zion on Netflix is the winner of two Sports Emmy’s and nominated for Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. You can watch the trailer and see many pictures of him in action here.

Published by Candlewick Press, 2021

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