Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Dear Benjamin Banneker” by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, inventor, author, and political activist who was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1731 to a free African-American woman and a former slave.


As the authors explain in a forward, in 1791 Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery and calling Jefferson a hypocrite. (The ostensible purpose of the letter was to enclose the almanac Banneker wrote, which no one would publish but an abolitionist. You can read the full text of his letter here.)

As the authors quote from the letter, Banneker argued:

…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

It is ironic that if Banneker were white, Jefferson would have sought him out as an intellectual soul mate. Many of Banneker’s interests mirrored those of Jefferson. Banneker even built a wooden clock by duplicating the gears of a borrowed pocket watch; Jefferson loved that kind of thing.

Jefferson responded to Banneker, claiming:

I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit.”

[Unless, of course, it meant having to give up his own slaves.]

Washington and Jefferson did, however, hire Banneker to help survey Washington, D.C. for the new nation’s capital.

Banneker’s almanac was quite successful, and he continued to publish it each year until 1797.

The striking and powerful illustrations by Brian Pinkney were prepared as scratchboard rendering, hand-colored with oil paint.


Discussion: The story of Benjamin Banneker is truly inspirational, and Banneker is an important figure in both science and history about whom many are uninformed. However, I don’t think it was necessarily wise to use actual quotes from the correspondence of Banneker and Jefferson in a book intended for ages 5-10. The gist of the letters could have been summarized in simpler syntax to much greater effect. On the other hand, adjusting the suggested age range upward would fix the problem.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gulliver Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998


February 26 – Birthday of Johnny Cash and Review of “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash” by G. Neri

At one point in this biography of Johnny Cash (born in 1932 as just J.R., “a name that stood for nothing”), Neri observes that when J.R. first saw June Carter, he was smitten. It’s clear that Neri is smitten as well, with Johnny Cash and his music. As he writes on the cover flap, “he personified the turmoil and triumph of America. His was a uniquely American story I just had to tell.”


Each page of free verse that tells the story of Cash is juxtaposed with absolutely gorgeous oil illustrations by A. G. Ford.

Those who saw the award-winning movie “Walk the Line” will be familiar with some of the anecdotes in this book, but it didn’t make it any less interesting for me. Neri is an excellent writer who knows how to convey thoughts and feelings in a simple, understandable way without the words losing any of their emotional impact.


But the content is distilled from Johnny Cash’s own words. In an interview, Neri explained:

I made an early decision to use only Johnny’s words as source material. If he didn’t say it or write it, it wasn’t going in. I wanted to tell his story the way he saw it. In fact, it was a hand-written letter he’d written about his mama’s old beat-up Sears Roebuck guitar that made me want to tell his story in the first place. He was a great songwriter but to me an even better writer of prose. He’s known for his voice, but the voice that came from his writing was even deeper. Though I never got the chance to meet the man, his writing was so personal and intimate. By the end, I felt like I had spent a month with him alone by the fireside, talking about every secret he ever held close.”

You’ll feel that way too, when you read this book.

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An afterward provides more details about Cash’s life, a timeline of historical events in his lifetime (he died in 2003), an annotated discography, and a bibliography.

Evaluation: This book is intended for readers aged 9–12, but I would say 9 through adult is a better indication of who would enjoy this book. I certainly did.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Candlewick Press, 2014


Review of “Stone in the Sky” by Cecil Castellucci

This is the sequel (it is a duology, not a trilogy) to Tin Star, a book I applauded for its diversity, gender flexibility, boundary-pushing, and intelligence. (See my review here.)


In Tin Star, Tula Bane from Earth was abandoned and left for dead on the distant space station of Yertina Feray when she was just short of 15. “Brother Blue,” the leader of the colonizing expedition on which Tula, her mother, and sister were traveling, thought Tula had become too dangerously observant of his unscrupulous activities, and he beat her until he thought she was dead.

After Blue departed Yertina Feray, a couple of aliens on the station found Tula and revived her, helping her learn how to survive. She was the only human on the station populated by aliens who did not think much of people from Earth. Eventually, she found a niche by wheeling and dealing and purveying information. But Tula was obsessed by wanting to find Brother Blue and get revenge.


Stone in the Sky begins a year later, and Tula is now proprietor of the Tin Star Café, where she sells the three things all beings in the universe crave: their home-world water, their home-world sweets, and salts – needed by every species. Tula loves the fact that everyone gets along in her cafe, in spite of the speciesism that is “de rigeur in the Imperium.” [Indeed, the Imperium, which is the military governing force of the universe, encourages interspecies internecine conflict. As real-life political leaders on Earth have also found, the best way to maintain popular support for a governing body and to deflect too much scrutiny of, and aggression toward, the elites is to instigate (or not act to suppress) race and/or class and/or ideological resentments among the populace. Historically, people have all too readily bought into a disposition to direct their malice to those around them rather than to those who rule them. The Imperium’s governing strategy is much the same.]

Tula only has two real friends: Thado, the caretaker of the station arboretum, and Tournour, Chief Constable of Yertina Feray, who is in love with Tula. In addition, she has the companionship of Trevor, a souped-up robot made by a human, Caleb, who had stopped at the station the year before. Caleb, Reza, and Els, rare human visitors to the station, were members of the Imperium Guard. But they also, along with Tula, wanted to help Earth escape the clutches of the Imperium so it wouldn’t be stripped for resources. In Tin Star, Tula had a brief fling with Reza, and she helped Caleb and Reza escape when Brother Blue, now an agent of the Imperium Government, returned to Yertina Feray. (Els was killed by Brother Blue, who thought Els was Tula.)

As this book begins, Reza returns to Yertina Feray after discovering a goldmine of resources on Quint, the planet orbited by the space station. In search of this new wealth, Brother Blue also comes back to Yertina Feray. When he sees that Tula once again has evaded what he thought was her certain demise, he sentences her to death on trumped up charges, but Tournour and Reza conspire to allow Tula to flee the station. Tula then transfers from ship to ship in space, attempting to contact Caleb and sending intermittent coded messages to Tournour. At the same time, she is trying to figure out where to live, how to survive, and how to help the humans who are being betrayed and sent to their death by Brother Blue. And then there is the matter of her heart. Reza is still interested in Tula, and he is human. But what about Tournour? . . .

Discussion: Tula is a wonderful protagonist. She is smart and resourceful, and never relinquishes her optimism and moxy. She knows her obsession with Brother Blue is a big weakness, but she can’t seem to let it go. Her struggle with this idée fixe that prevents her from getting on with her own life is a recurrent theme.

In addition, these books do a great job of showing, without any exposition but just by virtue of the story, that looking different on the outside need not have any consequences for friendship, cooperation, or even something more.

The author also explores, in an interesting and creative way, how one’s body and mind might react to changing environments that vary so hugely, such as on different planets, or on a planet versus a space station versus a space ship.

I would have liked to see more development of how an interspecies relationship might work in the long term and all the issues that might arise from, say, interspecies mating. To that end, I would welcome it if this duology became a trilogy . . .

Evaluation: Although in Stone in the Sky some of the plotting seemed rushed and the prose not as polished as in the first book, I still loved spending time with this brave and big-hearted girl, Tula, who understood that – as The Little Prince learned, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Roaring Book Press, a division of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, 2015

Review of “Hush Hush” by Laura Lippman

Although I was a bit disappointed with the previous book in the series featuring Baltimore Private Eye Tess Monaghan, I found this one much more satisfying.


Tess and Crow’s little girl, Carla Scout, is now three years old, and a bit of a handful. Still, although Tess often feels like a failure as a mother, as well as frustrated, hamstrung, and sometimes even bored, she can’t relate at all to mothers who intentionally kill their children.

When Tyner Gray, longtime friend and now relation-by-marriage, asks Tess and her work partner Sandy to help out with a new case he has involving one such mother, she reluctantly agrees because she could use the money. Tyner is representing Melisandre (“Missy”) Harris Dawes, who left her baby in a hot car to die twelve years earlier and was acquitted by reason of criminal insanity. It turns out that Missy also had been involved with Tyner before her marriage to the successful businessman Stephen Dawes.

Stephen is now remarried with a new baby, and has custody of the two surviving daughters from his marriage to Missy. Missy has returned to Baltimore to see if she can get her daughters back. In addition, she has hired someone to make a documentary about her case in order to educate people about criminal insanity, and to show how society is reluctant to accept such a verdict and grant forgiveness.

But matters take a violent turn, and everyone involved is in danger, including Tess. While the pool of possibly guilty people is small, the case is complicated by the fact that almost all of the suspects are very unreliable narrators.

Evaluation: Readers get to spend a lot of time with Tess in this installment, and to enjoy her self-deprecating sense of humor and her love of Baltimore. Moreover, many will relate to Tess’s struggles with her new existence as a parent.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by William Morrow, and imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2015

Note: The publisher has a fun site dedicated to this book that features character profiles, audio excerpts, an interactive map of Baltimore, and weekly contests! You can check it out here. In addition, you can find out more about famous Berger’s Cookies (the ones that Tess’s boyfriend, Crow, would never eat, but that play an important role in this story, and are the one thing I regularly beg my sisters to mail to me), here.

Berger's Cookies (a.k.a. Best Cookies EVER)

Berger’s Cookies (a.k.a. Best Cookies EVER)

Review of The Silver Palate Cookbook: 25 Years Anniversary Edition by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

This is not a new cookbook, but there is a reason why it is has remained popular since it first appeared in 1982. As far as I’m concerned, the main reason is the cakes. Yes, the ratatouille is wonderful, and the Tarte Saint-Germain is delicious, but who offers cake recipes like this in these calorie conscious times? That is to say, it does not exactly seem like you could eat a lot of their cakes without showing some effects, but if you just exercise self-control (ha ha, a little humor there) you won’t regret it!


For example, ordinarily, I wouldn’t pick banana cake out of a pile of cake. But their banana cake is moist and lush and covered in scrumptious cream cheese frosting. The same frosting goes on their carrot cake, which is the best I’ve ever had, even though I omit two of the ingredients, coconut and pineapple. (You can easily find the recipe from the cookbook for this popular cake online, such as at this site. And by the way, it calls for pureed carrots. As if I would use, and therefore have to wash, the food processor. I buy baby food carrots. That counts as pureed, right?)

Most of the recipes are accompanied by something extra: a color photo, a suggested menu, or a quote (“…I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy gingerbread” from William Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labor’s Lost” and my sentiments exactly. Well, maybe not the sharing part, but definitely the gingerbread part.) There are also intermittent sections with background information about food, such as an explanation of the different kinds of olive oil, or a review of the differences among various mushrooms or salad greens. Occasionally there are anecdotes by the authors about a recipe or advice on cooking techniques, such as cooking bacon or making the perfect omelet.

Evaluation: There is a wealth of information in this colorful cookbook, and everything I have tried in it has been outstanding.

Twenty-FifthAnniversary Edition Published by Workman Publishing, 2007


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!

Black History Month Kid Lit Review of “Juneteenth For Mazie” by Floyd Cooper

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Mazie is a little girl who is always getting told “no” by her parents, which makes her grumpy. Her father tries to make her feel better by promising that the next day, she can be part of a celebration. He explains to her they will be commemorating Juneteenth Day, and tells her that this is the day the slaves in Texas got word of their freedom. They never forgot that wonderful day.

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He then adds that in spite of the emancipation of slaves, things weren’t perfect, and blacks still had to protest and march in order to stand shoulder to shoulder with whites. But blacks worked hard, excelled, and accomplished much (here he shows Barak Obama taking the oath of office). And now, he says to Mazie, you will be able to participate in the remembrance.

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Discussion: This book differs from the other book on Juneteenth Day reviewed earlier this month in that it explains the significance of this date in the course of the text, rather than just in end notes. But I think the storyline paints the history of blacks in America with a too-rosy brush. Given the current tension in the country over race relations, it seems a bit quixotic.

Evaluation: In spite of my slight discomfort with the way black history is presented by this story, I would still share this book with kids. I love Floyd Cooper – his illustrations are magical. I especially love the central role of a dad instead of the usual ubiquitous picture book mom. But I think if I were reading this to kids I would add some “annotations” to the text….

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Capstone Young Readers, 2015

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Review of “The Sky is Everywhere” by Jandy Nelson

Lennie, 17, lost her older sister four weeks ago, when Bailey died unexpectedly from a heart arrhythmia. The girls were especially close because their mother had abandoned them when Lennie was one, and they were raised by their grandmother and uncle. But their relationship was never equal; Bailey was the lead star, the race horse, and Lennie played the “companion pony,” “the side-kick sister, tucked into a corner of her shadow.” Lennie thought she was happy that way.


Now that a month has passed, it is time for Lennie to return to school. She hasn’t been in touch with her friends; she has withdrawn from everyone, communicating only with her dead sister by leaving small notes and poems all around for Bailey perhaps to see from Heaven. But unexpectedly upon returning to school, hormones kick in for Lennie, and they do so with a vengeance. Lennie finds herself dealing with two attractions at once: her sister’s boyfriend Toby, and a new guy in school, Joe, who not only plays music with abandon and passion and courage, but has a personality to match, and a smile as big as the sun.

When Toby and Lennie are together, they feel like she somehow they are getting Bailey back. Lennie reflects:

Bailey loved both Toby and so much – he and I almost make up her whole heart, and maybe that’s it, what we were trying to do by being together, maybe we were trying to put her heart back together again.”

Then there’s Joe, who makes Lennie feel joy, and like she wants to be alive. But this feels like a betrayal to Bailey:

I don’t believe time heals. I don’t want it to. If I heal, doesn’t that mean I’ve accepted the world without her?”

Lennie, her family, and Toby, have to learn how to grieve and how to heal, and Joe has to decide if he can accept their choices.

Evaluation: Though the plot sounds like a very ordinary coming-of-age story, in fact this book is extraordinarily well done. It is full of poetry and music, passion and compassion, and endearing episodes of teenage angst and humor. This author is terrific, and the writing is exceptional. It is not a depressing book; rather, it is an exuberantly told story of self-discovery, renewal, and an affirmation of life.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2010


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