Tag Archives: poetry

Black Lives Matter books for First Graders

A teacher friend recently asked me for books for (her colleague’s) first grade class to read aloud. The class was pretty vocal in their rejection of the picture books she’d tried being too babyish, and she wanted something a bit more concrete about the unrest happening around the country. Here were my suggestions – by far not a complete list:

Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters – better for slightly older kids (School Library Journal lists it for grades 4-7) but I really like it – the poems tell a story of a black boy and a white girl, especially with microaggressions that younger kids may be able to understand as a way to ease into the more blatant examples of racism, for starting a conversation.

The Breaking News by Sarah Lynne Reul. This is my favorite for littler kids who don’t know the exact issue (and adults may not want to get into details for a variety of reasons) but are picking up on the adults’ anxiety.

Something Happened In Our Town by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard. Shows how a white girl and a black boy talk about the same police murder of a black man with their families in slightly different ways.

Not My Idea by Anastasia Higgenbotham. This is less of a story and more of a nonfiction read. I don’t love the illustrations, especially as a read-aloud for a class, I think collage illustrations are hard to see, though a virtual read-aloud could be different since each child could conceivably be close enough to see. I read this one a while ago and remember not loving the text either, but that it could be a good jumping-off place for a conversation about recognizing white privilege.

The Wall In the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee and The Sad Little Fact (click link for my review) by Jonah Winter are a bit off-topic but excellent political satire for this moment in history.

Two by Lois Lowry: On the Horizon and Looking Back

books_looking1_m  9780358129400by Lois Lowry
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

I am a big Lois Lowry fan and always pleased to dive into a previously unknown (to me) book by her. I know there are a few lesser-known works (ones that are among her favorites, as it happens) and I confess I’m sort of saving them, because I know one day she’ll stop writing (she’s 83 now!).

I was excited to see that she had a new book out, On the Horizon, about her childhood in Hawaii and Japan in the 1930s/40s. It’s a memoir in verse, beautifully illustrated by Kenard Pak. The black and white illustrations, done in pencil, are surprisingly complex in shading. Two in particular were back to back, of Lowry as a girl meeting illustrator Allen Say as a boy, a moment they both recalled when they met for real years later (which I just learned and can’t get over!). In one picture, Lowry is foregrounded and Say is behind a fence, far away with friends. In the other, Say is foregrounded and blond Lowry and her memorable green bike are behind the fence and far away. The different perspectives really help drive home her text which attempts to show both sides, a tension she must have been aware of as an American living in the post-war years in Japan. (If you can, I recommend looking at this in a physical book rather than e-book as I did; some of the formatting was a bit wonky and I’m betting that the layout helps with the impact of the illustrations as well as the flow.)

Lowry did a lot of research into the details of the historic events that she lived through as a child, especially the lives of the American sailors who died in the Pearl Harbor attack and the Japanese civilians who died in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima. The verse is sometimes rhyming and sometimes not, even within the same poem, which is jarring and maybe partly the point – sometimes we can see the rhyme and reason in why things happen, and a lot of times, especially in troubling times, we can’t. I did learn a new style of poetry called a triolet, which Lowry does three times well and is moving in its repetition (and reminds me of a pantoum, but I digress).

Lowry had such a unique childhood experience and I’m glad she finally delved into it. While looking for On the Horizon I also found her 1998 memoir, Looking Back, which helped give more context to On the HorizonLooking Back got a much-needed update in 2016. I loved the way she connected in each chapter a book she wrote to an event from her life that helped inspire it, even the ones I haven’t read yet.

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

poetx-hc-1-678x1024-1by Elizabeth Acevedo
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Xiomara, age 15, is many things: defender of her sensitive twin brother, writer and budding slam poet, Catholic-about-to-be-atheist. Her mother, a fierce Catholic with a tough life history, sees Xiomara’s body taking shape – literally, curves – and tries to force her into what she sees as “safe” but in reality looks a lot like body shaming. When Xiomara gets a crush on her lab partner in science class, she knows she has to hide it from her mother.

My heart broke for Xiomara. I’m sure her mother thinks she’s doing the best thing for her, but from Xiomara’s point of view, it’s wholly unfair. It’s a kind of slut-shaming that reminds me very much of my own early adolescence, when a girl in my fifth-grade class developed earlier than everybody else. There were rumors that she had her period, that she was dating boys in the class, basically that she was acting promiscuously, based solely on her appearance. I realized as an adult how hard that must have been on her, and I see it in Xiomara too – just because she’s got this fully developed body doesn’t mean she knows what to do with it, wants to do those things, or wants the attention it brings.

I loved watching Xiomara, or X as she prefers in writing poetry, develop emotionally. She comes into her own about religion, slam poetry, and her brother’s sexuality, not to mention her own.

Books About Love

We are now well into wedding season here in New England, so here are a few books about love that were on display at my wedding recently!

 

9780395071762I Like You by Sandol Stoddard Warburg
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“I like you because
you are a good person
to like.”

 

9781524740917Love by Matt de la Pena
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This one may not seem like an obvious choice, other than the title, because it gets into what happens when you experience bad things, but the explanation is that you are loved and love carries you through the bad things.

 

9781452126999I Wish You More by Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

“I wish you more ups than downs. I wish you more give than take.”

 

9781442436077Love is You and Me by Monica Sheehan
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

This book seems to be about two friends, but you could take it as spouses/partners. Just lovely.

 

9780062394446How Do I Love Thee? by Jennifer Adams
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

The text is the classic Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem; the illustrations are delightful.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood by Mister Rogers

9781683691136by Mister Rogers
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

What a lovely little collection of Mr. Rogers’ songs. Luke Flowers’ drawings are charming and reflect diversity in the world. This collection would not be nearly as delightful without the illustrations. My only real critique is that these were originally songs and they do not really work as poems, words on paper. I would have loved a CD or DVD with the songs to listen to as you read. (It apparently does exist as an e-audiobook.)

Rebound by Kwame Alexander

9780544868137

by Kwame Alexander
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

In this prequel to Crossover, which focused on the relationship between twin 7th grade basketball stars and their basketball superstar dad, Rebound tells the dad’s story of going through similar struggles of growing up. I wanted to like this so hard, because I loved the original book, Crossover. And it’s completely Alexander – very well-written, complex characters and solid story, which can be hard to hit in a novel-in-verse. However, it felt very derivative, both of Crossover (dad dies young, basketball main theme, starting to like girls, dealing with grief, police and black boys) and of As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds, where the main character is sent away to his grandparents’ house for the summer and earns his keep. The repetitive themes, in retrospect, seem to allude to the cycle of health, poverty, and social issues that people of color are likely find themselves in, especially as hit home by Granddaddy who advises Charlie to choose carefully who he wants on his team, and that he can count on his family. The scenes where Charlie really breaks through and grows did not hit me as hard as they did in Crossover, which was disappointing. I did appreciate the ending, which wraps up the dad’s story and brings it back to present day (actually a little beyond – high school graduation) with the twins. I had read Crossover long enough ago that I wasn’t completely sure CJ was who I thought she was, and that was nice to have confirmed for me. I’m not sure which order I would recommend reading these books in, though probably the original publication order makes the most sense.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

9781481438254

by Jason Reynolds
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

Before he was killed, Will’s brother taught Will The Rules: No crying, no snitching, and get revenge. Those are the guidelines for survival in their neighborhood, and Will takes them literally, until the morning after his brother’s death. In the elevator down to take care of the third rule, ghosts from Will’s path enter on each floor to tell him something he didn’t know about their death and how it is from the other side. In the 60+ second elevator ride, Will finally learns there is another way to deal with his brother’s death.

It took me two tries (and a pep talk from our teen librarian) to get into this one. As with many books, by the time my hold came in I’d forgotten what had actually hooked me about it, but she helped me remember. (Also the device of the 60-second elevator ride composing most of the narrative doesn’t kick in until after dozens of pages of backstory.) Once I was into it, though, this novel in verse slowly and subtly and then all at once left me agog with the topic fitting snugly into a hugely important gun violence discussion happening on the national level. There were several times when Reynolds’ mastery of language and mirroring had me gaping at his brilliance. (Spoiler: I fully expected Will’s mind to have been changed in 60 seconds but the ending made me unsure and I had to double-check with the teen librarian.)

This one is thematically more like All-American Boys than As Brave As You, but less like either of them than like, say, Booked or The Crossover.

The Sky is Everywhere

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by Jandy Nelson
Overall: 4.5 out of 5 stars

The Sky is Everywhere is Nelson’s debut novel, but I’ve already read her second book, I’ll Give You the Sun, which was stronger than this one. That said, this book falls solidly into my new favorite category: “book hangovers of teen love and lust.” Much like IGYTS, the characters struggle with love and grief and an absent mother.

Lennie (short for Lennon, as in John) is suffering the recent unexpected death of her beloved older sister, Bailey. The girls were raised by their grandmother; their mother abandoned them as small children. As Lennie finally learns to grieve, she finds out that among her sister’s secrets is a notebook full of her efforts to find their mother. But the main story is that Lennie finds a weird solace in the arms of her sister’s boyfriend, Toby, even as a new boy in town (whom every other girl is falling over) is falling for her. Lennie has to keep Joe from finding out how she and Toby comfort each other, unless she can bring herself to stop first. When everything falls to shit, as inevitably happens in life, two things help to resolve it, one of which I saw coming and the other I did not at all anticipate.

One really interesting thing about this book is that Lennie, the narrator, gives us two contrasting views of her physical looks. The first view is that she is plain, unpretty, especially in contrast to her sister, who seems incredible in all ways. This is Lennie’s view of herself, wearing unflattering clothes and hair in a ponytail. We are right with her when she describes how shocked she is that both Toby and Joe think she’s beautiful. Two other interesting themes are music and poetry, and apparently Nelson has an MFA in poetry.

Other books in the “book hangovers of teen love and lust” category have similar scenes of first kisses. This is definitely on the purer, more Eleanor and Park-esque, end of things than the more in-depth, mature, I’ll Give You the Sun end. Incidentally, I do not recommend attempting to sleep after staying up way past one’s bedtime reading this book (or any other book in this category). It will almost surely give you a book hangover.

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson
Overall: 4 out of 5 stars

There is no doubt that Jacqueline Woodson is a wonderful writer and I did enjoy this book. However, I’m not entirely sure who it’s meant for. It’s not detailed enough on the civil rights side, not factual enough for those looking for a biography, and not enough of a heart-string puller for what I look for in a novel in verse. Ultimately, it’s about a little girl who wants to be a writer, and there aren’t enough of those little girls (or boys) to give this to. Still and all, I’m glad she wrote it – it’s a beautiful addition to her overall body of work – but just not sure it’s intended for children, per se.

I liked Woodson’s description of her separation from her father and might have liked to hear more about how he came back into her life when she was a teenager (especially since he is largely absent in the book but warmly mentioned in the credits). More detail of where her baby brother came from, since it sounded like he was lighter-skinned than the other kids in the family, and where his father fit into the picture. The hospitalization of her baby brother, separation of her parents, and death of her beloved grandfather were all threads I would have liked to have seen expanded upon. I also loved her friendship with Maria, who is still her dear friend according to the credits, and how Jackie is seen as a member of the family, which was very sweet. She struggles with the appearance of a new friend for Maria but that is magically resolved somehow. Overall, beautifully written and well worth reading, but I’m just not sure who the audience is.

Crossover

by Kwame Alexander
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars

Wow, I can definitely see why this won the Newbery Award this year. This novel in verse packs a punch while telling the story of seventh-grader Josh and his twin brother, sons of the legendary basketball player, sensations on the court. Josh feels left behind when his brother gets a girlfriend and they deal with their dad’s health scare in different ways. Josh is a good student and brings his vocabulary lessons into the poems to bring even more poignancy while telling his story.

There were two interesting parts in light of recent events regarding police violence targeting black boys and men, not to mention the history of black men sentenced to prison. On was when Josh and his dad get pulled over for a broken taillight. The police officer lets them go with a warning, but only after his dad pulls the fame card. Josh prays that his dad won’t go to jail. A little later, Josh loses his temper and lashes out at his brother physically. His mother is furious and gives him a lecture, calling him a thug and telling him that “boys with no self-control become men behind bars.” I hope that even those readers who don’t identify racially with Josh and his family can examine their own racial privilege in their reactions to this and have a conversation.