Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “I Am Every Good Thing”

This book is dedicated to Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, EJ Bradford, Jordan Edwards, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, and Julian Mallory.  Author Derrick Barnes explained in an interview:

“I thought about all of the people who care about those young men that I dedicated the book to, and all of the Black and Brown boys who just want to grow up and be somebody, who just want to live in a world where they are not criminalized or seen as an adult as soon as they gain some size and height, around ages 11 and 12.”

Each page shows black and brown children celebrating what is good about them, things that are in fact what are good about all children.

“I am skateboard tricks,
Scraped knees and

“I am kind and polite, like, ‘yes, ma’am,’ and ‘yes, sir,’
Helping my grandmother cross the street, and
Saying ‘bless you’ when a stranger
Has to sneeze.”

“I am Saturday mornings in the summertime.”

“I am that smile forming on your face right now.”

The book then segues into a section perhaps more meaningful for children of color:

“Although I am something like a superhero,
Every now and then,
I am afraid.

I am not what they might call me,
And I will not answer to any name
That is not my own.
I am what I say I am.”

The book ends with a stirring affirmation:

“I am worthy of success, of respect, of safety, of kindness, of happiness.

And without a shadow of a doubt, I am worthy to be loved. I am worthy to be loved.”

Illustrator Gordon C. James, recipient of a number of honors for his art work, shows children doing homework, playing, studying, spending time with their families, loved and being loved, all in richly colored oil paintings.

In an interview, James said:

“I made a running list of everything that embodies the emotions, actions, goals, desires, strengths and weaknesses of my own sons. Every tangible and intangible quality covers a broad spectrum of what it means to be a little boy—maybe riding his bike without training wheels for the first time, or a teenager who somebody prays for at night. I wanted for young readers reader to see themselves in all of these emotions and scenes, and for parents to see these boys the way they see their own children.”

Evaluation: Self-esteem and confidence are the main themes of this ode to children, especially all the black and brown boys who may experience fear and self-doubt in the face of race-based cruelty and injustice.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2020

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Review of “A Stranger in Town” by Kelley Armstrong

Note: Slight spoilers for previous books in this series.

This is the sixth installment of an unusual detective series that is set in the fictional town of Rockton, a hidden place in the Yukon that takes in people on the run. Casey Duncan, a homicide detective in the town, is now married to its sheriff, Eric Dalton.

This episode begins with the discovery of an injured hiker who speaks a different language but manages to convey she is possibly the only survivor of an attack by “hostiles.” Over the years, residents from Rockton have relocated into the wilderness for various reasons. Rockton people refer to most of them as “settlers,” but some are known as “hostiles” or “wild people.” Those in the latter group are primitive and dangerous, fueled by a hallucinogenic “tea” they drink.

It happens that the newest arrival to Rockton, Jay, speaks Danish, which he identifies as the same language as the injured woman. Jay helps interpret as April, Casey’s sister who works in their small hospital, tries to save the woman. But soon there are more injured; a member of Rockton’s mysterious governing council arrives; and the whole situation gets considerably more complicated.

Casey and Eric not only need to negotiate with outside settlers and hostiles. They must also navigate the rocky shoals of council politics, and learn why the council has stopped granting extensions of stay to residents requesting them. Indeed, suddenly the council is sending sending fewer new people to Rockton. Certainly there can’t be less people on the run; they need to figure out what is going on, since it affects everyone’s future in Rockton.

Evaluation: As always, Armstrong ends with a tense run-up with everyone in danger, and with almost everyone under suspicion. Armstrong is one of my favorite authors, and I enjoy all of her work.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Minotaur Books, St. Martin’s Publishing Group, 2020

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Kid Lit Review of “William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad” by Don Tate

This is a wonderful story about a little-known Black man born into freedom in 1821 who grew up determined to help enslaved blacks escape to the North.

William’s parents were originally enslaved in Maryland. His father purchased his freedom and went North. His mother escaped along with their two girls, leaving their two boys behind. They started a new life in New Jersey, eventually having fifteen children. The youngest was William. When William was eight, he helped an escaped slave get to safety; William knew every corner of the woods. The author writes, “The experience defined the rest of his life.”

Growing up, he got a job in Philadelphia, at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, eventually working his way up to manager. William sought out travelers on the “Underground Railroad” – i.e., escaped slaves from the South, and welcomed them into his home, which became a “station” on the Underground Railroad. One evening a “passenger” arrived at his office – an elderly man – and it turned out to be his long-lost older brother Peter.

The author recounts:

“Peter’s story was sad. Tragic. Miraculous. And extraordinary. And Peter’s story restored his family.”

William wondered, could other people’s stories help reunite families torn apart by slavery? He started to record every detail escaped slaves could provide to him, and in 1872 published The Underground Rail Road, a collection of those stories from his journals. (Photographs of pages from Still’s journal are shown on the front endpapers, with transcriptions of them featured on the back endpapers.) Tate writes:

“William Still’s records, and the stories he preserved, reunited families torn apart by slavery.”

Back matter includes a timeline, an author’s note about the book’s inspiration, and a bibliography.

The author, also a noted illustrator, used his warm illustrations and variations in font to help tell the story.

Evaluation: This inspiring history for ages 6 and up shows how one person, starting in the worst of circumstances, can work hard and make a difference. I also love that he brings much-needed attention to other African Americans besides the names everyone knows, like Harriet Tubman, who worked so hard to help slaves gain their freedom.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Peachtree Publishing Company, 2020

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Review of “Troubled Blood” by Robert Galbraith

This is the fifth book in the very entertaining detective series by J.K. Rowling using the pen-name of Robert Galbraith.  The stories center around Cormoran Strike, a London private detective, and his partner Robin Ellacott.

Strike, now 39, is an ex-military policeman who lost a foot in the Middle East and who, as his oldest friend describes him, resembles an out-of-condition boxer. He perseveres with the necessary surveillance for his business in spite of the pain he often endures from putting continual pressure on his prosthesis. He is sloppy, eats too much, is “a bit beaten-up-looking,” and has a broken nose. Yet, he is never at a loss for attractive women who clamor for his attention. We are given to understand it is his authenticity and his caring nature that are the basis for his appeal, rather than movie star looks.

Robin, ten years younger than Strike, is working on getting a divorce after finding out her husband Matthew had been unfaithful, and in any event, she also discovered she didn’t like him much. Although she appreciated that he had supported her emotionally when she was going through a traumatic period, he otherwise proved to be pompous and self-involved, and now was showing himself as vindictive to boot.

The messy personal lives of Strike and Robin take up a great deal of the narrative in this book. Strike was raised by his Aunt Joan in Cornwall, and Joan has just been diagnosed with end-stage ovarian cancer. Thus Strike travels back and forth to see her and help take care of her. In addition, Charlotte, his former “on and off” girlfriend of 16 years, while now married with twin babies, keeps texting Strike that she still loves and needs him. Strike is trying to wean himself from emotional involvement with Charlotte, but as she sounds increasingly unstable, he is caught up in her drama once again.

Thus Robin, in addition to ongoing hostile divorce negotiations, needs to take over much of the workload of the frequently absent Strike. She also has to deal with repeated sexual harassment from men she encounters on the job.

Meanwhile, the two get their first cold case, involving a young doctor, Margot Bamborough, who disappeared some 40 years ago. Margot’s daughter asks them to help her get closure by finding out what happened to her mother. Speculation at the time attributed her disappearance to an active serial killer in the area, but it was never proven. Strike doesn’t offer much hope, but agrees to devote one year to the case.

The original investigation into Margot’s disappearance was complicated by the fact that the first detective on the case had a mental breakdown. Strike and Robin need to decipher his bizarre notes, however, which employed astrological signs and other arcane references, in order to get any leads. [The author was possibly influenced by stories about the real life never-identified serial killer who operated in Northern California from at least the late 1960s to the early 1970s. The man, calling himself “The Zodiac Killer,” sent a series of taunting letters and cards to the San Francisco Bay Area press that included cryptograms full of signs and symbols.] Strike and Robin also have to navigate the tricky shoals of 40-year-old memories and witnesses who have led long lives marked by plenty of secrets they wish to hide.

As events in both their personal and professional lives come to a head, Strike and Robin figure out many of the mysteries they are working on, while readers hope for resolution to the greatest mystery of the series: how they feel about each other.

Evaluation: The unraveling of the mystery and crimes committed was well constructed; the solutions caught me completely by surprise, as usual. The author is an excellent storyteller, and keeps you engaged with both her plotting and her felicitous prose, as with this glimpse of Strike and his boyhood friend in a pub in Cornwall:

“They drank their pints. There was a brief break in the cloud and the sea was suddenly a carpet of diamonds and the bobbing seagull, a paper-white piece of origami.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, 2020

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Black History Month Review of “Say Her Name” by Zetta Elliott

This collection of poems was inspired, according to the author’s Introduction, by “examples of Black excellence reported online alongside accounts of appalling brutality.” This book, she explains, is her way of bearing witness. She ends the Introduction frankly:

“We do have allies, but some days it feels like all we have is each other. This book of poetry is for us. I love us.”

The poems are for the most part affirming, and begin with my favorite in the collection, “Black Girl Miracle.” It addresses a black girl, explaining:

“You are more
Than magic
You are a miracle
Because we were never
Meant to survive
Not as human beings….”

One, called “How to Resist,” ends with the heartrending coda:

“most of all:
feel something
feel something
feel something”

The last poem, called “Blessing,” is also a favorite of mine in this collection. (Okay, okay, it’s actually hard to pick favorites – they are all truly excellent.). “Blessing” begins:

“May you have a resilient spirit,
And a compassionate heart,
The desire to heal,
And the will to forgive.”

This one has a strong coda too, made up of three stanzas I want to cite in full, because they resonated so much with me:

“Indictments are rare
Like snow in the Sahara
Or cops behind bars

Innocence belongs
To other people’s children
Ours are born condemned

Stop killing us stop
Killing us stop killing us
Stop killing us STOP.”

Not all the 49 poems in this book are by Elliott, although most of them are. She includes one work each by Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and Phillis Wheatley.

Boldly-colored Illustrations by Loveis Wise convey strength and resilience, complementing the message of the text.

Evaluation: This excellent collection of poems, celebrating black women and girls, is so needed in these times, and is both stirring and uplifting.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Disney/Jump at the Sun, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2020

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