July 1 – It’s Wild about Wildlife Month

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About the Holiday

The theme of this month-long holiday is simply all about wildlife. Whether you like mammals, birds, fish, or insects best, July is the time to celebrate them. The month is just getting started, which give you and your kids lots of time to explore the wildlife in your area and learn about the creatures on the other side of the world and everywhere in between. Today’s book will get you started!

50 Reasons to Love Animals

Written by Catherine Barr | Illustrated by Hanako Clulow

 

In her introduction, Catherine Barr orients readers to the focus of her book with the alarming statistic that “five times in Earth’s history over half of all animals and plants have mysteriously died out. But today,” in large part because of habitat destruction, “species are becoming extinct much faster than the natural rate.” She and Hanako Clulow then take children on around-the-world-trip to various ecosystems to discover facts about the animals that live in each and find spotlighted “how to love…” suggestions for protecting them in every chapter.

The first stop is a dry savanna, where African elephants, giraffes, zebras, and hippos gather around a watering hole. Kids will be interested to learn that baby elephants take about a year to “figure out how to eat and drink with their strange, long noses,” and that hippos have a built-in sunscreen that protects them from the sun. At night, lions, lesser bushbabies, and pangolins come out to eat. They’ll also learn about other animals on the savannah as well as about the shrinking population of elephants—victims of poaching for their ivory tusks.

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Image copyright Hanako Clulow, 2020, text copyright Catherine Barr, 2020. Courtesy of Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Readers next dive into the sea to explore a coral reef, which provides nutrients and a home to a wide variety of creatures—including marine sponges, which contain “chemicals that are used in medicine to treat diseases like cancer, spiny lobsters, seahorses, sharks, dolphins, and various types of sea turtles. Children learn more about these shelled favorites who have populated our oceans for 100 million years and the dangers they face, including polluted waters, fishing nets, and plastic bags, which they mistake for jellyfish and ingest. How can kids love a turtle? By learning more about climate change and how it is killing coral reefs.

Children return to land to discover the Arctic and Antarctica. The northern icy pole is home to polar bears, harp seals, puffins, whales, while the southern pole is home to seals and emperor penguins. Kids might think about these intrepid creatures—who can “survive in very low temperatures of -76 degrees Fahrenheit” the next time they put on a sweater or coat.

Ahhh! Kids can warm up in an evergreen forest with two cute bear cubs learning how to scratch their back against a tree trunk as a porcupine, a Steller’s jay, and a pine marten look on. There are all kinds of forests, and readers are next transported to a bamboo forest, where a giant panda and her cub chow down on lunch. Here, children learn about the threats to bamboo forests and, by extension, the panda population while meeting a few more denizens of this unique environment. An old forest growing in the shadow of snow-capped mountains gives shelter to a grizzly bear family and majestic elk. Did you know that a grizzly bear “can run as fast as a race horse?”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-50-reasons-to-love-animals-pandas

Image copyright Hanako Clulow, 2020, text copyright Catherine Barr, 2020. Courtesy of Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

The northern and southern open oceans host whales, octopuses, penguins, seals, a multitude of fish species, and strange creatures we’re only beginning to learn about. Many animals of the cold Southern Ocean eat krill, but the loss of sea ice to climate change decreases the number of krill and threatens to endanger the animals that rely on it. How much does pollution affect our oceans? “Scientists estimate that the population of ocean animals has halved over the last 40 years.”

Finally, kids come to a tropical forest, where Asian elephants are busy scratching an itch and swatting away flies with sticks they use as tools. Bengal tigers, orangutans, sun bears, and hornbills are only a few of the creatures who make these lush forests their home. Tropical rainforests are being diminished by logging and their replacement by palm oil plantations. You can help by checking the ingredients of products you use—”from food to toothpaste” for palm oil and finding “better options such as sustainable palm oil or palm oil-free products.”

As the book closes, readers meet up with elephants once again. These African forest elephants share space with people and gorillas. While the elephants can wreak havoc on farms, “farmers are encouraging elephants away from their crops—with a hum and a sticky reward.” Can you figure out what it is?

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Image copyright Hanako Clulow, 2020, text copyright Catherine Barr, 2020. Courtesy of Frances Lincoln Children’s Books.

Catherine Barr’s captivating text and fifty highlighted facts offer readers a fascinating and eye-opening trip around the world to raise awareness of the dangers animals and humans face if we don’t work together to find solutions to pollution, habitat destruction, and other threats to the environment. Today’s environmentally conscious children will eagerly want to participate in the “Show you love…” tips, which provide ideas for classroom and homeschool research and activities.

Hanako Clulow combines lifelike portrayals with the appeal of kawaii to bring the various ecosystems to vibrant life for readers. Through her textured and detailed illustrations, readers will feel transported to a grassy plain, where each blade of grass is visible; dive into warm and frigid waters for a peek at what lies below; and enjoy a warm day on a flower-speckled riverbank. Clulow’s wide vistas also give children a stunning view of each environment, allowing them to see what is in danger of being lost. While clearly depicted and easy to read, the numbered fact boxes do not intrude on the illustrations, making each two-page spread a lovely learning experience. The chapter format makes the book easy to dip into for classroom or homeschool lessons.

An excellent introduction to world environments, 50 Reasons to Love Animals would be a favorite addition to home, school, and public library bookshelves.

Ages 3 – 7

Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-0711252462

Discover more about Catherine Barr and her books as well as free learning activities on her website.

You can find a portfolio of work by Hanako Clulow on her website.

Wild about Wildlife Month Activity

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Handprint Elephants

 

This easy craft is fun for siblings to do together and can make a nice decoration for a child’s room or a gift for mom, dad, or other family members.

Supplies

  • Craft paint in two colors of the children’s choice
  • Yellow craft paint
  • Black fin-tip marker
  • Crayons, markers, or colored pencils to make a background
  • Paper
  • Paint brush

Directions

  1. Paint one child’s hand and press it on the paper. The thumb is the truck and the fingers the legs.
  2. Paint the second child’s hand and press it on the paper near the other “elephant.” A couple of examples are: the elephants standing trunk to trunk or trunk to tail 
  3. After the paint has dried, draw on ears and an eye
  4. Add a sun with the yellow paint
  5. Add grass, trees, or other background features

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You can find 50 Reasons to Love Animals at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

June 22 – It’s National Insect Week

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About the Holiday

Insects are endlessly fascinating, and this week celebrates their diversity, purpose, and beauty. This week was established by the Royal Entomological Society to encourage people to learn more about insects, from those close to home to the exotic species around the world. This year the theme is Entomology at Home and people are invited to participate by learning about local species of insects and enjoying the resources on the National Insect Week website. There’s a photography contest, learning videos for all ages, access to Instar the Magazine for Young Entomologists, and so much more, including a mention of “the most bizarre use” of an insect ever imagined. To discover all of the resources and fun, visit the National Insect Week website.

I received a copy of Moth for review consideration. All opinions are my own.

Moth

Written by Isabel Thomas | Illustrated by Daniel Egnéus

 

“This is a story of light and dark. Of change and adaptation, of survival and hope. It starts with a little moth.” Long ago a peppered moth wiggled out of its cocoon, unfurled its “salt and pepper” wings, its legs, and its antennae and took to the air to avoid predators. It met up with other peppered moths flitting and fluttering among the trees in the night sky. Most of these moths “had speckled, freckled wings,” but some had “wings as dark as charcoal.”

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Image copyright Daniel Egnéus, 2019, text copyright Isabel Thomas, 2019. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

During the day, the peppered moths rested, flattening themselves against the speckled bark of the trees, camouflaged from birds and other animals. But the black-winged moths weren’t so lucky. Easy to spot against the light bark, they began to vanish as birds nipped them up for themselves and their chicks. As the speckled peppered moths had more and more babies, they also sported a mottled pattern.

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Image copyright Daniel Egnéus, 2019, text copyright Isabel Thomas, 2019. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Over many years, the speckled moths became dominant while the dark-winged variety dwindled. But then, factories, trains, and other machines that burned coal were built. They spewed dark clouds of soot into the air. The soot settled everywhere, turning buildings and trees black. Now, the lighter-colored moths became the meals of birds and other predators, and the black-winged peppered moths had better camouflage. “Now they lived long enough to lay eggs of their own…and their wing color passed on to their offspring…and their offspring’s offspring.”

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Image copyright Daniel Egnéus, 2019, text copyright Isabel Thomas, 2019. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

After decades of pollution and adaptation, the peppered moth population was still strong, but now most of the moths were dark, while the lighter moths were rare. But then, people came together to clean up the pollution. Less coal was burned as new ways to fuel machines were found. In time, the air cleared, the sky was again blue and the clouds white. “The trees shed their sooty bark.” Modern life brought many changes to the landscape, providing places for both dark and speckled peppered moths to hide. Today, a mix of peppered moth can be found flittering and fluttering in the night sky, offering their “story…of survival…and hope.”

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Image copyright Daniel Egnéus, 2019, text copyright Isabel Thomas, 2019. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Isabel Thomas’s superlative nonfiction picture book masterfully combines lyricism with clear descriptions of the science of adaptation and natural selection to create a story that touches on natural history, human history, and the interactions of the two. Thomas’s conversational tone and direct address to the reader makes this a personal story and will captivate children sensitive to nature and the world around them. Her excellent pacing serves to show the passage of time involved in the evolutionary changes within the moth community. Thomas begins and ends her story with a note of hope that living things will adapt to today’s changing world. The underlying lesson may also encourage readers to find ways in which humans can adapt to promote the survival of all living things.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-moth-an-evolution-story-trains

Image copyright Daniel Egnéus, 2019, text copyright Isabel Thomas, 2019. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Exquisite mixed-media illustrations by Daniel Egnéus will immediately draw readers—both children and adults—into the nighttime forest where peppered moths take wing, silhouetted against the golden moon and the deep blues and purples of the midnight sky before finding a hiding place from hungry bats and birds. The story’s theme of light and dark in its variations is powerfully presented. In the early pages, images are set against bright, open backgrounds; foliage is vibrant green; and birds dazzle with color. As a bird brings a charcoal-winged moth back to her nest while speckled moths hide, children can easily see natural selection at work.

As the Industrial Revolution alters the skyline and the quality of the air, the images become denser and the hues of the sky, trees, and birds muted. For children who have not grown up with the air pollution of the past—even the near past—double spreads of smog-churning factories and trains will make a strong impression. The introduction of a child at the beginning and end of the story reminds readers of two things: that we owe it to our children to treat the world with kindness and that our children are the hope this story builds on.

Special mention must be made of the magnificent and poignant illustrations of the speckled peppered moths. Looking closely at their outstretched wings, you will see nature—trees, water, dappled sunlight—reflected in them. The stunning cover—with its foil-embossed lettering, stars, and moth—reflects the importance of each reader to our world: touch or look into the shining silver and you will find yourself mirrored there.

A beautiful book to enhance nature and science studies and help children develop an understanding of the impact of change, Moth is a must for school, public library, and home collections.

Ages 6 – 10

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1547600205

Discover more about Isabel Thomas and her books on her website.

To learn more about Daniel Egnéus and his work, visit his website.

Take a look inside Moth with this beautiful book trailer.

National Insect Week Activity

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Beautiful Moths Game

 

Moths go through many stages of metamorphosis—from egg to caterpillar to cocoon— before they finally emerge as a moth. In this game, help six moths emerge from their cocoons to win!

Supplies

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Directions

  1. Print a Tree Branch Game Board and set of Moth Cards for each player
  2. Print one Moth Playing Die
  3. Choose a player to go first
  4. The first player rolls the die and places the matching moth card on one of the cocoons on the Tree Branch Game Board
  5. Play then moves to the player on the left
  6. Players continue to roll the die and place moths on each cocoon
  7. If a player rolls a moth that they already have placed on their game board, they pass the die to the next player and wait for their next turn.
  8. The player who fills their Tree Branch with moths first is the winner

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You can find Moth at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

 

Celebrating Books about Black Leaders in the Arts, Science, Music, Sports, Politics & More

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About Today’s Post

Following the recent events that have unfolded this past week, I feel it is important to celebrate Black leaders today, rather than another holiday. The biographies included in this list will educate and inspire readers with the stories of prominent Black leaders within the arts and sciences, as well as music, sports, politics, civil rights, and across society.

With their combination of compelling storytelling and powerful imagery, picture books provide a unique vehicle to invite discussion between adults and children about the inequity and injustices faced by many in this country and around the world. This list reflects books I have reviewed over the years. Please look it over and spend time reading these books with your children. Each title provides a link to the full review.

If you are in the position to buy any of the books on this list or other reviews that you may see, please consider supporting black-owned bookstores and/or your local booksellers. You can also support Black authors and illustrators as well as these books and others by asking your local library to carry them.

After today’s post, this list will appear in my sidebar. I’ll continue to add to it as I review more books.

Every day I am reading, listening, watching, and learning. I know I can never understand, but I stand with you.

Artists and Writers

 

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Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks

Written by Suzanne Slade | Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cobrera

In her outstanding biography, Suzanne Slade highlights the prodigious talent of Gwendolyn Brooks, illuminating the influences, continual study, and inborn voice that informed and created her poetry. Gwendolyn’s self-confidence, unique perspective, and the support she received throughout her youth and career are strong themes that will inspire readers. Slade focuses on the awe Brooks found in her subjects, demonstrating her singular vision and how poetry is found in the everyday aspects of life. Beginning with Gwendolyn’s childhood, Slade links the events of Brooks’ life with beautiful imagery of the clouds she once likened to her exquisite future. Quotes are sprinkled throughout Slade’s lyrical text, allowing children to hear Brooks’ own voice and the dreams and pride had for her work.

Cozbi A. Cabrera’s acrylic paintings are stunning representations of Gwendolyn’s life. Her family life with her well-read and supportive family comes alive with images of their home, where the large glass bookcase has pride of place, portraits hang on the walls, Gwendolyn practices the piano while her mother exclaims over her poetry, and the family gathers for a meager dinner during hard times. For young readers, Cabrera visualizes the parts of Gwendolyn’s life that fed her imagination and work and the copious amounts of poetry that she created—even as a child. Images of Gwendolyn’s early publishing successes give way to the changes brought by the Depression, school, marriage, and motherhood, but a pen, paper, and books are still her constant companions. Scenes from Chicago give children a look at the city that inspired Gwendolyn’s poetry, and intermittent views of the pastel clouds let readers dream along with her.

A stirring biography to inspire the dreams of any child, Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks is a story that children will want to hear again and again. On its own or paired with Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry, the book also makes an impactful lesson for homeschooling. The book is highly recommended for home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 6 – 9

Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2020 | ISBN 978-1419734113

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Fancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe

Written by Deborah Blumenthal | Illustrated by Laura Freeman

With straightforward storytelling adorned with lyrical passages, Deborah Blumenthal reveals Ann Cole Lowe’s lifelong love of fashion design, her struggles, and her ultimate acclaim. Lowe’s natural talent, single focus, self-confidence, courage, and persistence come through as she overcomes obstacles and prejudice to become the first African American couture designer. Children interested in fashion and history will find much to spark their curiosity and desire to know more about the woman and her times. Blumenthal’s repetition of Lowe’s philosophy to think about what she could do instead of what she couldn’t change will inspire readers to push past difficulties and find solutions.

Laura Freeman’s full-bleed illustrations are as bold and vivacious as Ann Cole Lowe herself. Beginning with the endpapers, which are scattered with drawings of Lowe’s one-of-a-kind gowns, Freeman takes readers on a tour of the workrooms and salons stocked with the fabrics that gave form to Lowe’s creativity. While the backgrounds are typically brilliantly colored and patterned, twice Freeman places Lowe on a completely white page—after her mother has recently died and she is left alone to finish dresses and when she is segregated from the other students in design school. These pages make a moving and effective statement. Children fascinated by fashion will love seeing the beautifully depicted gowns, and may be stirred to create styles of their own.

Ages 4 – 8

little bee books, 2017 | ISBN 978-1499802399

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America Picture Book Review

Carole Boston Weatherford’s portrayal of Gordon Parks’ life is as starkly revealing as her subject’s photographs. With her writer’s skills, however, she deftly contrasts the facts of his life and turns his story into a universal metaphor for freedom and the struggle to attain it: “When young Gordon crosses the prairie on horseback, nothing seems beyond reach. But his white teacher tells her all-black class, you’ll all wind up porters and waiters. What did she know?” Weatherford’s pacing also adds to the story’s power. Although Parks attained wide acclaim, this biography ends with one of his earlier photographs—a picture of Ella Watson, a cleaning lady, who inspired Parks and came to symbolize the hopes of her generation and beyond. This is not only Parks’ story, but the story of millions of others.

Jamey Christoph continues and strengthens the metaphorical force of this biography in his illustrations. Readers first see Gordon Parks as a much-loved, smiling infant. He goes to school and grows up, his expression changing, slightly but importantly. He acquires his camera, and the pages are filled with drawn representations of his black-and-white photographs. Alternating dark and light pages further emphasize Parks’ world. The darkroom contrasts with Parks’ new bright office and prospects; the shadowed back alleys of Washington DC contrast with the city’s gleaming white marble monuments. Later photographs are also depicted, and “American Gothic” is represented on two pages. Christoph provides readers with much to see and ponder.

Ages 5 – 8

Albert Whitman & Company, 2015 | ISBN 978-0807530177

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Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

Written by Roxane Orgill | Illustrated by Francis Vallejo

Roxane Orgill recreates the syncopation of jazz and the exhilaration of the photo shoot in twenty poems that capture the sights, sounds, conversations, horseplay, and vibe of that special day that forever commemorated the Golden Age of Jazz. The smooth, cool lines of Orgill’s free verse poetry are a joy to read aloud. Full of personality, captivating details, history, and nostalgia, the poems reawaken the past for a new generation.

Working from the actual black-and-white photograph, Francis Vallejo vividly reimagines the scene on 126th Street as well-known and lesser-known jazz musicians came together to represent themselves and their art for Esquire magazine. Vallejo’s acrylic and pastel illustrations bring to life the surprise, camaraderie, and expressions of the men, women, and boys as they mingle, rest, and pass the time until the pose and lighting is right for the shot. As the book opens, readers get a bird’s-eye view of the street and quiet neighborhood, but as the musicians begin arriving the illustrations move in, allowing readers to rub shoulders with the greats of jazz.

For children (and adults) who love photography, jazz, biographies, history, and/or poetry, Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph is a marvelous choice for home libraries and is highly recommended for school and public libraries.

Ages 8 – 12 and up

Candlewick, 2016 | ISBN 978-0763669546

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Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

By Javaka Steptoe

Javaka Steptoe’s compelling biography of this complex, brilliant artist who people called “radiant, wild, a genius child” beautifully brings to life the inspirations and motivations that fueled his unique and intense talent. Steptoe delivers the story in staccato and flowing sentences, using consonance, assonance, and repetition—the rhythms of a poet. He shows how Basquiat maintained his focused determination, self-confidence, and persistence from childhood into adulthood. This perseverance reveals to readers that success is not a matter of luck, but of belief in oneself despite obstacles. Steptoe sensitively addresses the serious injury Basquiat suffered, his mother’s mental illness and Basquiat’s continued love for her, and his unsettled teenage years to complete this far-reaching life story.

Steptoe’s mixed-media paintings were created on found wood from neighborhoods across New York City. While Steptoe does not reproduce any of Basquiat’s work, he states that readers will find “original pieces that were inspired by him and my interpretations of his paintings and designs.” As befitting his subject, Steptoe offers pages that burst with vibrant color and intricate details and beat with the pulse of the city, the people, the dreams, and the imagination that Basquiat transcribed onto paper, walls, and canvas. Part collage, part fine art, Steptoe’s illustrations will fascinate children and entice them to linger and take in the emotion and meaning in each. The final spread, a crowd scene made up of photographs, sets Basquiat in the midst of people whom he and his art continue to inspire.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat offers children an inspirational model of creativity, compassion, and confidence no matter where their talents lie. The book is an excellent choice for school, public, and home libraries.

Ages 6 – 10

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016 | ISBN 978-0316213882

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A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks

Written by Alice Fay Duncan | Illustrated by Xia Gordon

With her own sterling verses, Alice Faye Duncan celebrates the life of Gwendolyn Brooks—the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature—taking readers to the Chicago neighborhoods that informed and inspired Brooks’ ideas and the words and rhythms with which she defined them. Along an arc that takes Gwendolyn from a child contemplating the potential of a flower to becoming that blossom herself, Duncan pays tribute to those who recognized Gwen’s genius and helped her fulfill her talent. For readers who themselves may be poets, writers, or other types of artists, Duncan’s beautifully crafted phrases about the artistic process of revision are inspirational and welcome. Standing side-by-side with Duncan’s storytelling are four of Brooks’ poems—The Busy Clock, Forgive and Forget, Ambition, and the children of the poor—Sonnet #2. From cover to cover, Duncan’s book sings with Gwendolyn Brooks’ positivity, confidence, uniqueness, and love for life that made her a unique voice for her time and always.

From the portrait of Gwendolyn Brooks that graces the title page and throughout the book, Xia Gordon’s distinctive artwork creates a masterpiece of motion and stillness that mirrors Brooks’ penchant for watching and listening to the sounds and sights that filled her mind and ultimately her notebooks. Downy swoops of violets, pinks, browns, and grays provide backdrops to images of Gwendolyn as a young girl and an adult rendered in lines that show her as down to earth but soaring in her thoughts. Her intelligence and spark shine through on every page. Gwendolyn’s parents appear often, always watchful and supportive. Her friends, her husband, her son, and her readers also populate the pages, giving the book an embracing warmth.

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks is a must for school, classroom, and public library collections, and for children who are discovering their talents and the parents who nurture them, the book would be an inspirational and invaluable addition to home bookshelves.

Ages 4 and up

Sterling Children’s Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1454930884

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Stichin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt

Written by Patricia McKessack | Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Patricia McKessack’s free verse poems capture the close relationships and camaraderie of the generations of women who join around the quilting frame to share and pass down their art and their heart. McKessack’s conversational verses, connected page after page like the patches of a quilt, reveal the complexity of this handmade art form in the way intimate talks between friends unveil a life. Readers learn not only about the little girl and her own thoughts, but the history and influence of her immediate family, world events, inspirational figures, and deeply held beliefs that make her who she is and ties her to the other Gee’s Bend women.

Cozbi A. Cabrera’s stunning acrylic paintings take readers inside the heart of the Gee’s Bend women, depicting the girl’s home, the table-sized quilting frame where the women collectively work, the plantations, the protests, and the changes that came but did not unravel the convictions, values, and love of the little girl’s family. Readers can almost hear the talking and singing of the Gee’s Bend women as they stitch their quilts, and the comforting, embracing environment is evident on every page. Cabrera’s portraits of the little girl, her mama, and her grandma are particularly moving. For What Changed, Cabrera depicts a yellow school bus appearing on the dirt road from the right hand corner of the page. In the  driver’s side mirror, a dot of a house is reflected, reminding readers that no matter how far these women are from home, Gee’s Bend is always with them.

Children—and adults—will find Stitchin’ and Pullin’: A Gee’s Bend Quilt inspirational and uplifting. This volume of poetry can be read at one sitting or delved into again and again, making it a wonderful choice for home libraries and a must for school and public libraries.

Ages 5 – 12

Dragonfly Books, Random House, 2016 (paperback edition) | ISBN 978-0399549502

Culinary Arts

 

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Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate from Farm to Family

By Elizabeth Zunon

Elizabeth Zunon’s celebration of family and pride in one’s heritage is a compelling read that shines with a strong father – daughter relationship, shared memories, and the joys of working together. The warmth shared by the girl and her daddy is evident as she revels in hearing the story of Grandpa Cacao and identifying with him even though he lives far away. Zunon’s smooth delivery of Grandpa Cacao and Daddy’s story imparts fascinating details of how cacao is grown, harvested, and prepared for sale. While the little girl may wish for a new dress or a puppy, she is happier with the surprise of meeting her grandfather at last.

Zunon’s mixed-media, collage style illustrations beautifully meld the world inside the family kitchen with the girl’s imagining of life in Africa on Grandpa Cacao’s farm. The opaque screen-printed images of Grandpa Cacao, the girl’s father as a child and young man, and the other villagers, are powerful reminders to readers that their family and family history is always with them and supporting them.

A unique book to share during family story time, in the classroom, or during a library program, Grandpa Cacao: A Tale of Chocolate, from Farm to Family would be a much-loved addition to home, school, and public library collections. And don’t forget to include cake!

Ages 3 – 8

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1681196404

Music

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Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound

Written by Kathleen Cornell Berman | Illustrated by Keith Henry Brown

Kathleen Cornell Berman’s lyrical passages reveal a boy, a teenager, and a man who embodied music, listening to and absorbing the various sounds around him and incorporating them into his own, unique sound. Her evocative vocabulary (swirl, rollicking, croon, rumbling, far-out, rippling, blizzard of notes, itching to play) and phrasing that blends short staccato lines with longer sentences echoes the rhythm of jazz and will keep readers riveted to the story. Berman emphasizes the listening, practice, and experimentation that informed Miles Davis’s original sound, showing children that innovation is built on hard work, dedication, and even history. Her inclusion of Davis’s setbacks also demonstrates that perseverance is part of the success of any endeavor.

Keith Henry Brown’s gorgeous, detailed pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations take readers from Miles Davis’s living room, where he listens to the radio as images of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington swirl through his imagination, to an overlook on the Mississippi River and its paddlewheel steam ships to the clubs and jam sessions of New York and finally, to the Newport Jazz Festival. Brown’s color palette of cool blues, greens, purples, and browns, punctuated with Davis’s ever-present gleaming brass trumpet, brings Davis’s country and city experiences to life while mirroring the tone and feel of his unique sound. Quotes from Miles Davis are sprinkled throughout the story and set apart with type that looks handwritten, giving his words a personal touch.

Sure to inspire readers to learn more about Miles Davis and listen to his music, Birth of the Cool: How Jazz Great Miles Davis Found His Sound would be an excellent accompaniment to school music programs, an inspiring book for biography lovers and young musicians of all types, and a beautiful addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 8 – 12

Page Street Kids, 2019 | ISBN 978-1624146909

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Hey, Charleston! The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band

Written by Anne Rockwell | Illustrated by Colin Bootman

Anne Rockwell succinctly and clearly relays the story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band while also retaining all the heart and soul of this fascinating group of children and their dedicated caregiver. The true-life tale is mesmerizing, not only for the historical details of the growth of ragtime music and the Charleston dance but for the accomplishments of the orphans once given love, acceptance, and education. Rockwell’s conversational tone contributes to the story’s smooth, flowing pace, which will keep listeners or readers rapt from beginning to end.

Colin Bootman’s bold two-page spreads illuminate the sights and sounds of the early 1900s for readers. Emphasizing the personal connections between Reverend Jenkins and the orphans as well as the band and their audiences, Bootman’s vibrant paintings are full of people watching, dancing, marching, and celebrating these boys’ awesome gifts.

Ages 6 – 10

Carolrhoda Books, 2013 | ISBN 978-0761355656

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Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the African American National Anthem

Written by James Weldon Johnson | Illustrated by Elizabeth Catlett

It has been more than 120 years since James Weldon Johnson, a principal at Stanton Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida, wrote a poem to be used in the school’s commemoration ceremony of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. His brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson, set the poem to music. On February 12, 1900, five hundred students performed the song. From that celebration, the song spread, gaining in popularity throughout the South and then throughout the country.

In 1949 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing as the official African American anthem. The song continues to inspire as it is sung and heard in churches and schools and during times of celebration and protest. This new edition of Lift Every Voice and Sing brings together Johnson’s stirring poem with stunning black-and-white linocuts by Harlem Renaissance artist Elizabeth Catlett, who created them in the 1940s as part of a series of artworks focusing on black women.

An emotionally moving presentation of James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson’s poem and song, Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the African American National Anthem would make a beautiful thought-provoking and inspirational addition to school, home, and public library collections.

Ages 6 – 12 and up

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019 | ISBN 978-1681199559

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When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc & the Creations of Hip Hop

Written by Laben Carrick Hill |Illustrated by Theodore Tayler III

Laben Carrick Hill’s biography of a Hip Hop pioneer invites young readers to discover the early years of and influences on the music they love today. Hill superbly structures his story so through the formative details of DJ Kool Herc’s life from childhood into adulthood, readers understand that they too can follow their hearts to achieve their dreams. When the Beat Was Born is inspirational in its depiction of an “ordinary kid” with ingenuity and self-confidence who changed the face of music by combining his multicultural experiences, being open to experimentation, including his friends, and sharing his vision. Straightforward storytelling is punctuated with verses of rap that make reading aloud fun and will engage listeners.

In his bold, vibrant illustrations, Theodore Tayler III lets kids in on the not-so-distant past that saw the rise of Hip Hop music, celebrity DJs, and new dance styles. Keeping the focus on DJ Kool Herc—just as Clive kept his eye on his future goals—Taylor reinforces the theme of the book. Scenes of kids lining up to attend DJ Kool Herc’s parties and dancing in the street give the book an inclusive feel. Images of skyscraper-tall stacks of records mirrors Kool Herc’s ambitions, and depictions of breakdancing moves will get kids wanting to try them for themselves.

When the Beat Was Born is a terrific biography for all children, whether they like music and dancing or quieter pursuits. In the classroom, the book would be a great addition to music, history, or biography units.

Ages 6 – 10

Roaring Brook Press, 2013 | ISBN 978-1596435407

Civil Rights and Politics

 

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Become a Leader Like Michelle Obama

Written by Caroline Moss | Illustrated by Sinem Erkas

Encouraging, supportive, and always smiling, Michelle Obama inspired millions of kids across the country during her eight years as First Lady and continues to motivate children to be and become the best version of themselves. Through her fast-paced, engrossing biography, Caroline Moss creates a reading experience that gives children the opportunity to get to know their idol the way friends do: by talking together. In ten short, but information-packed chapters, Moss captures Michelle’s voice and spirit through snapshots of formative events that influenced and changed her life, all told in a conversational style with plenty of dialogue and fascinating details.

Sprinkled throughout the text are inspirational quotes from Michelle Obama that are called out in eye-catching blocks and soaring illustrations. Back matter includes ten key lessons from Michelle Obama’s life on how to become a leader, questions to prompt kids to think about what is important to them, and resources for further reading and exploration.

Accompanying this personal narrative are Sinem Erkas’s stunning 3-D cut paper artwork. Bold colors, stirring imagery, and portraits that follow Michelle through times of happiness, sadness, and change reveal to readers Michelle’s intelligence, spark, hard work, and enthusiasm for life that fuels her vision and success.

Emphasizing family, community, self-confidence, and the importance of seizing opportunities to make a difference, Become a Leader Like Michelle Obama is highly recommended for home, school, and public libraries to hearten and embolden young readers to listen to their inner voices and take action for what they believe in.

Ages 8 – 12 and up

Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-0711245181

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Hector: A Boy a Protest and the Photograph that Changed Apartheid

By Adrienne Wright

Adrienne Wright’s gripping storytelling and evocative illustrations go hand-in-hand to present a full portrait of young Hector, his life, his sweet nature, and the dreams he had before he was killed in a protest against Apartheid. His family’s close bonds and their concern for each other is evident in the dialogue that accompanies images of Hector playing, helping Mma and Granny Mma, running errands, and interacting with his sisters. As June 16 dawns, Wright sketches a normal day, with Hector joking with his mother at home and his friend on the way to school.

As it did for Hector, the protest comes as a surprise for readers, sweeping them up into the action just as Hector was. Hector’s sister, Antoinette’s chapter is the shortest but gripping in its pacing that mirrors the turmoil of the day and her tragedy. As readers enter Sam’s viewpoint, they see, blocked off in vertical and horizontal frames, the pictures of celebrating and happy, yet serious students marching to make a difference. The moment of the shot is seen through Sam’s lens and clouded in smoke.

Wright’s use of overlapping storylines as she transitions from Hector’s account to Antoinette’s and then to Sam’s adds to the tension, drawing readers in and reinforcing their understanding of the atmosphere and what the students were protesting. The final, nearly full-page reproduction of the actual photograph is an unflinching look at the reality of that day, what it stands for, and its personal cost.

A profound narrative for teaching children about South African history, the costs of discrimination, and the personal stories involved in any conflict, Hector is an important book to add to school and public library collections.

Ages: The book is targeted for children from eight to twelve, but adults should be mindful of the maturity and sensitivity of readers. Hector would also be a compelling inclusion in middle school and even early high school social studies and history classes.

Page Street Kids, 2019 | ISBN 978-1624146916

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Pies from Nowhere: How Georgia Gilmore Sustained the Montgomery Bus Boycott

Written by Dee Romito | Illustrated by Laura Freeman

Dee Romito’s inspiring biography delves into the crucial role individuals can make in supporting people and causes they believe in. By focusing on unsung historical hero Georgia Gilmore and using her own words and thoughts, Romito reveals how those with strong beliefs can use their talents and courage to fight for change behind the scenes and still make an important difference. Her conversational storytelling brings a personal touch to this biography, drawing young readers in to learn the details of this early battle in the Civil Rights movement—also begun by an act of a solitary person. Bookended by the radio reports that Georgia hears, the story is well-paced to show how Georgia’s contribution grows over nearly a year. This timely biography is made even more resonant perhaps in that Georgia’s cooking and selling of meals and baked goods is an activity that many children will recognized from their own involvement in bake sales and other food-related fund raisers. The open ending invites readers to learn more about the Civil Rights movement and Georgia Gilmore.

Laura Freeman’s boldly colored, realistic artwork allows children to embrace the historical context of Romito’s biography through her expressive portraiture that introduces Georgia Gilmore, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the members of Georgia’s Nowhere Club. A double-spread of the National Lunch Company’s segregated counter is visually striking as the divide comes at the book’s gutter, creating the side for white customers on the left and the side for black customers on the right. The injustice of this separation is expressed in the similar red clothing and dark hair of the woman on the right and the man on the left. Illustrations of crowds walking as buses go empty, attending the boycott strategy meetings, secretly buying pies, and filling Georgia’s home place readers at these scenes of the resistance movement. Freeman uses action, media coverage, and Georgia’s courtroom appearance to great effect. Knowledgeable readers will understand that making a positive difference continues across all generations.

Pies from Nowhere is a stunning book of empowerment for children and adults. The theme of using ones talents to make a difference is a timely lesson that kids will respond to. The book belongs in all classroom, school, and public libraries and is a top choice for home bookshelves as well.

Ages 6 – 9

little bee books, 2018 | ISBN 978-1499807202

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What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

Written by Chris Barton |Illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Chris Barton’s stirring biography of Barbara Jordan introduces children to a woman whose voice is just as relevant today as it was when she was a state senator, US representative, and professor. Barton clearly and lyrically depicts Jordan’s trajectory while showing readers what it takes to succeed: practice, perseverance, learning, and wisdom. For young readers Barton briefly but cogently outlines the core of the case against Richard Nixon then allows readers to hear, in her own words, Jordan’s rousing defense of the Constitution. His inclusion of Jordan’s seventeen years of teaching after her diagnosis of MS is a poignant reminder that her influence is still heard through her students and admirers, and Barton’s final exhortation to readers to speak out honors Barbara Jordan’s life and will impel both children and adults to follow her lead.

Ekua Holmes stunning mixed-media illustrations will set readers’ hearts soaring in this over-sized picture book that beautifully reflects Barbara Jordan’s influence in politics and beyond. Holmes’ collages, rendered in lush colors and textured with intricate patterns and images from nature, take children on Jordan’s journey from sun-drenched Texas to law school to Washington DC, giving them a glimpse of her childhood and her growing stature as a stateswoman. Today’s savvy readers will be interested in the examples of campaign materials and images of Jordan’s building relationships with diverse voters and her fellow senators and representatives. Several photographs of Jordan from her graduation, campaigns, and televised appearances during the Watergate hearings join Holmes’ realistic portraits and will inspire readers to learn more about this influential and unforgettable woman.

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? is a stirring and empowering biography that belongs in every home, school, and public library collection.

Ages 4 – 8 and up

Beach Lane Books, 2018 | ISBN 978-1481465618

Science

 

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-blast-off-into-space-like-mae-jemison-coverBlast Off into Space Like Mae Jemison

Written by Caroline Moss | Illustrated by Sinem Erkas

Focused, intelligent, courageous, and giving, astronaut Mae Jemison is an inspiration to millions of kids and adults around the world. Through her captivating biography, Caroline Moss introduces readers to this accomplished woman in ten engrossing chapters that, through pivotal events, dialogue, and thoughts, reveal Mae’s dreams, motivations, and triumphs. Paced in short, impactful chapters, this biography reads like a novel yet imparts factual information that will entice readers to learn more about Mae Jemison and careers in science.

Sinem Erkas punctuates this personal narrative with her stirring 3-D cut paper artwork. Vivid colors and  action-packed imagery, take readers along on Mae’s journey from childhood dreams of “sailing off into space on a rocket ship” to the day she fulfills that dream and beyond. Images of Mae completing experiments in college and medical school as well as detailed depictions of Mae inside the space shuttle working and interacting with other astronauts will have children lingering over the pages.

Compelling and personal, Blast off into Space Like Mae Jemison is a biography young readers won’t be able to put down. The book is highly recommended for homeschooling and home libraries as well as for school and public library collections.

Ages 8 – 12

Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2020 | ISBN 978-0711245150

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-counting-on-katherine-coverCounting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13

Written by Helaine Becker | Illustrated by Dow Phumiruk

Helaine Becker’s captivating storytelling captures Katherine Johnson’s genius for math and talent for applying it to even the most complex problems in a ground-breaking field. Her self-confidence, curiosity, and love of learning as well as her trajectory at NASA will impress readers, many of whom may also be dreaming of making a mark in new ways. A highlight of Becker’s text is her clear explanations of how Katherine’s calculations for NASA were used and what was at stake when her help was needed most. Becker’s repeated phrase “You can count on me” and her stirring ending weave together the numerical and lyrical aspects of Katherine’s life to inspire a new generation of thinkers.

From the first page, readers can see Katherine’s intelligence and inquisitiveness that shined whether she was walking to school, doing chores, or, later, making sure our astronauts made it to the moon and back safely. Dow Phumiruk’s artwork is always thrilling, and here blackboards covered in formulas as Katherine stands on tiptoe as a child and on a ladder as an adult to complete them will leave readers awestruck with her understanding of and abilities with numbers. Illustrations of school rooms and offices give children a realistic view of the times, and her imagery pairs perfectly with Becker’s text in demonstrating the concepts of sending a rocket ship into space and bringing it home again. Phumiruk’s lovely images of space are uplifting reminders that dreams do come true.

A stellar biography that will enthrall children and inspire them to keep their eyes on their goals and achieve their dreams, Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 is highly recommended for home bookshelves and is a must for school and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 9

Henry Holt and Company, 2018 | ISBN 978-1250137524

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Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race

Written by Margot Lee Shetterly | Illustrated by Laura Freeman

Margot Lee Shetterly brings her compelling story Hidden Figures to children in this exceptional picture book that skillfully reveals the talents and dreams of Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine as well as the work atmosphere and social injustices of the time period. While acknowledging the struggles and obstacles the four women faced, Shetterly keeps her focus on the incredible achievements of these brilliant women and the positive changes and opportunities for others they created. Brief-yet-detailed descriptions and explanations of math, science, and computer terms flow smoothly in the text, allowing all readers to understand and appreciate the women’s work.

As Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, Christine each begin their work at Langley as young women, Laura Freeman establishes their dreams and their particular field of expertise through richly colorful illustrations that highlight the schematics, tools, equipment, and models they used. In one particularly affecting spread, Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine go off to their offices on the left-hand side, and their white counterparts head out to theirs on the right-hand side while the blueprint of their building lies under their feet. Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine’s clothing is also mirrored in color by the women on the other side of the fold. Period dress and electronics show progression through the years, and kids may marvel at the size of early computers. The final image of Dorothy, Mary, Katherine, and Christine as older women is moving and inspirational.

Hidden Figures: The True Story of Four Black Women and the Space Race is an outstanding biography of four women who contributed their gifts for math as well as their self-confidence not only to science but to dreamers in their own and future generations. The book would be a stirring choice for classroom and home libraries.

Ages 4 – 8

HarperCollins, 2018 | ISBN 978-0062742469

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Ticktock Banneker’s Clock

Written by Shana Keller | Illustrated by David C. Gardner

With lyrical language that glides as smoothly as a well-oiled timepiece, Shana Keller reveals the remarkable story of Benjamin Banneker, born free during the time of slavery, who possessed exceptional math and scientific skills and used them to help his friends and neighbors and to make real his vision of a striking clock. Keller’s detailed and descriptive storytelling animates this life story, allowing readers to take the journey with Banneker as he experiences excitement, setbacks, and ultimately success. Banneker, embodying determination, persistence, and creativity, is an excellent role model for kids with big dreams of their own.

David C. Gardner’s lovely full-page and two-page-spread illustrations gloriously portray Benjamin Banneker’s farm and home as well as his dedicated commitment to building a striking clock despite—or perhaps spurred on by—the challenges he faced. Gardner’s detailed images set the biography firmly in its time period, letting children experience farm and home life in the 1750s. Banneker carries wooden buckets to feed the animals, tobacco leaves hang in a dry shed, a fire blazes in a large, open fireplace, and a candle flickers as Banneker whittles wheels and gears with his pocket knife. The realistic paintings that depict Banneker’s emotions as he imagines creating a large clock, overcomes obstacles, and studiously works on his drawings and carvings will inspire readers to attempt their own inventions—whatever they may be.

For any would-be inventors, history lovers, tinkerers, and science buffs, Ticktock Banneker’s Clock is a stirring biography that would make an inspirational addition to home, school and public libraries.

Ages 6 – 10

Sleeping Bear Press, 2016 | ISBN 978-1585369560

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Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions

Written by Chris Barton | Illustrated by Don Tate

Chris Barton’s biography of Lonnie Johnson is a fascinating look at a man who succeeds in turning “No” into “Yes” by the power of his intelligence, ideas, and determination. Kids will love hearing about how one of their favorite toys came to be and will be inspired to chase their own dreams despite challenges and setbacks. Barton’s detailed narration provides a full picture of Lonnie Johnson and his times, specifics that attract and inform like-minded kids. Including the results of Lonnie’s exam should encourage kids who think differently. The story is enhanced by the conversational tone that makes it accessible to kids of all ages.

Don Tate illuminates Lonnie Johnson’s life story with his bold, full-bleed paintings that follow Lonnie from his being a child with big ideas to becoming a man who has seen these ideas through to success. With an eyebrow raised in concentration, young Lonnie demonstrates confidence and skill as he works on an invention, and kids will love seeing the tools of his trade laid out on the kitchen table. As Lonnie grows older and designs systems for NASA, the illustrations depict the schematics of the Galileo power package and Lonnie’s surprise at the strength of the water stream in his prototype cooling design. As all kids know, the spurt of a Super Soaker is awesome, and this fact is demonstrated in a “Wowing” fold-out page.

WHOOSH! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions is a superb biography of the man who designs systems for the greater world but has never lost his youthful enthusiasm to invent. The book would be an inspirational addition to home, school, and public libraries.

Ages 5 – 10

Charlesbridge, 2016 | ISBN 978-1580892971

Slavery

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Freedom in Congo Square

Written by Carole Boston Weatherford | Illustrated by Gregory Christie

Through powerful rhythmic couplets, as spare and austere as the work they describe yet ending in a focal point of hope, Carole Boston Weatherford recreates the steady thrum that resonated in the hearts of slave and free men and women as they anticipated each afternoon in Congo Square.  As the days remaining until Congo Square are counted off, Weatherford’s predominantly one-syllable words form a staccato beat, the pounding of hard, physical work. When Sunday comes and people find joy in their shared music and dance, Weatherford’s phrasing within the same structured couplets rises, employing multi-syllable words that give the verses a pulsing flow that echoes the freedom they find in Congo Square.

Gregory Christie’s vivid folk-art illustrations are a perfect complement to Weatherford’s verses. The elongated figures stand tall and proud amidst the fields and workrooms of the plantation. In some scenes the slaves’ angled bodies, leaning over to pick cotton, wash floors, or lift baskets may be bent, but they are not broken, and while two men work on building a wall, they seem to kneel prayerfully as they add another brick. In a moving two-page spread set at night, brown wood-grain houses superimposed with rows of sleeping slaves float on a blue-toned ground below a red sky, reminiscent of ships laden with Africans sailing the Middle Passage of the Atlantic slave trade. As the men and women congregate in Congo Square, Christie’s lithe figures raise their arms and kick their legs in dance. The fiery backgrounds swirl with color as the celebrants jump, stretch, play instruments and move with exultation.

Freedom in Congo Square is both a heartrending and jubilant book that would make a wonderful and meaningful addition to any home, school, and public library.

Ages 4 – 8

little bee books, 2016 | ISBN 978-1499801033

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Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Written by Ellen Levine | Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Based on an actual story of The Underground Railway, Henry’s Freedom Box is written and illustrated to stunning effect. Ellen Levine’s lyrical and metaphorical language combines with the excellent pacing of the pages to enhance the emotional impact of this powerful and original true story. Children will be inspired by this man who suffered devastating loss, but persevered and through cunning, bravery, and the help of friends, obtained freedom.

Kadir Nelson took inspiration for his illustrations from an antique lithograph of Henry Brown, created by Samuel Rowse in 1850. Through a combination of watercolor and oils crosshatched with pencil lines, Nelson’s richly hued paintings capture the poignancy of Henry’s struggles and ultimate freedom. His characters’ facial expressions are particularly moving.

Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad is a riveting story of slavery and one man’s fight for freedom that would make an excellent addition to children’s libraries.

Ages 4 – 8

Scholastic Press, 2007 | ISBN 978-043977733

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Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass

Written by Lesa Cline-Ransome | Illustrated by James Ransome

Lesa Cline-Ransome has written a compelling biography of Frederick Douglass for children in Words Set Me Free. In straightforward language and through first-person point of view, Cline-Ransome reveals the brutal truth of Douglass’s life as a slave and his fight against injustice. As the title suggests, the book focuses on Frederick’s desire to become educated and the obstacles he overcame to succeed. This universally important message continues the work Douglass engaged in long ago.

James Ransome’s stirring paintings realistically highlight pivotal scenes of Frederick’s life, beginning with the tender moments he spends with his mother as a very young child. With an unstinting eye Ransome reveals the hardship and cruelty Frederick endured as a slave. His moving illustrations also demonstrate hope as Frederick, with blossoming intellect, resolves to educate himself and find a means of escape.

Ages 5 and up                                                                                                            

Simon & Schuster, New York, 2012 | ISBN 978-1416959038

Sports

 

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Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride

By Joel Christian Gill

Joel Christian Gill introduces children to Bessie, a determined, brave, and pioneering woman at a formative time in her life. Told that girls don’t ride bikes and that she wasn’t good enough or fast enough anyway, Bessie Stringfield wrestled with self-doubt, but she took control of what she wanted and ultimately proved to herself and others that she was more than capable. Gill’s first pages set the stage for readers to contemplate ways in which they may doubt themselves, before encouraging them to find inspiration and confidence in Bessie’s story.

Gill’s vivid illustrations clearly show Bessie’s sadness as she internalizes the boy’s taunts, her tenacity, and finally her jubilation is besting them and achieving her goal. Images of Bessie’s dream and its resulting reality creatively play on the dual meaning of the word dream while a change in Bessie’s room décor while she sleeps is a clever touch.

A singular story about a trailblazing black woman, Fast Enough: Bessie Stringfield’s First Ride encourages children to embrace their own identity instead of letting others define them. The book would be a welcome addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 9

Oni Press, 2019 | ISBN 978-1549303142

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Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jump Champion

Written by Heather Lang | Illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Heather Lang brings an athlete’s appreciation for the in-born talent and hard practicing that creates a world-class Olympian. Her story reveals not only the details of Alice’s physical training but also the social and economic hurdles she overcame in her quest to compete in the Olympics. Lang’s graceful and evocative prose carries readers down dirt roads and over obstacles, to the halls of the Tuskegee Institute, and into Wembley Stadium as they learn about the singular focus Alice Coachman dedicated to her sport. Children will feel as if they are sitting in the stands watching with suspense as the bar is raised again and again, pushing Coachman to a world record.

Floyd Cooper sets readers in the hot, dusty, sun-burned South, where Alice Coachman—as a little girl and then a teenager—runs barefoot on dirt roads, jumps over homemade bars, leaps to tip the basketball from her brothers’ hands, and delivers food to tornado victims. The golden-brown-hued illustrations catch Dorothy Taylor and Alice Coachman as they soar over the high bar in their fierce competition and capture Coachman’s hopes, dreams, and anticipation as she waits—hands clasped—to hear the judges’ final decision in the 1948 Olympic Games. Readers will cheer to see Coachman standing on the first-place podium, ready to receive her well-deserved gold medal.

A compelling and inspiring biography for children pursuing any talent, Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jump Champion would be a welcome addition to home, school, and public libraries.

Ages 5 and up

Boyds Mills Press, 2012 | ISBN 978-1590788509

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Serena: The Littlest Sister

Written by Karlin Gray | Illustrated by Monica Ahanonu

Karlin Gray’s masterful biography of Serena Williams shows young readers the determination, confidence, and strong familial bond that followed Serena through her life and made her one of tennis’s most influential women players. The family’s remarkable life and focus on what one can achieve will inspire all kids, no matter what their dream is. Choosing seminal events in Serena’s and Venus’s life, Gray follows Serena’s reputation on the court as she loses and wins matches, building suspense until that day when she accomplishes her goal and wins the US Open. Her inclusion of articles and comments that cast doubt on Serena’s future success, demonstrates that even the greats face opposition and naysaying, and Serena’s sister’s advice to ignore it is sound.

Monica Ahanonu’s textured, collage-style illustrations leap off the page with vibrant images full of action and the girls’ personalities. As the girls race onto a court for practice, their eager expressions show their love of the game and being together. Even as a four-year-old Serena has the steely eyed gaze of a champion as she watches the bouncing ball and lines up for her swing. Ahanonu’s use of various perspectives and shadowing create dynamic scenes on the court, and tennis lovers will be thrilled at the many illustrations of Venus and Serena playing their sport. The bond between the sisters is evident in images of Serena interacting with one or more of her sisters. Those who remember Serena’s win at the 1999 US Open will recognize her joyous win.

Perfectly aimed at young readers who are the same age as Serena and Venus when they began developing their skills and sport, Serena: The Littlest Sister is an inspirational biography of a present-day role model that is sure to spark an “I can” attitude. Adults who have followed the Williams sisters’ rise to tennis stardom will be equally enthralled with this beautiful biography. The book would make a stirring addition to home, classroom, and library collections.

Ages 8 – 11

Page Street Kids, 2019 | ISBN 978-1624146947

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To order books from black-owned bookstores, you’ll find a list in this article by the African American Literature Book Club.

To support your local independent bookstore, order from: Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

May 18 – International Museum Day

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About the Holiday

On today’s date, museums around the world typically hold special exhibits, events, and activities with visitors in their buildings and other venues. This year, however, the COVID-19 pandemic means that the 40th anniversary of International Museum Day will be celebrated online through digital activities. The theme for this year’s remembrance is “Museums for Equality: Diversity and Inclusion.” The International Council of Museums––a global network of more than 44,000 museum professionals at 20,000 museums in 138 countries––”hopes that this special day will ‘become a rallying point to both celebrate the diversity of perspectives that make up the communities and personnel of museums and champion tools for identifying and overcoming bias in what they display and the stories they tell.'” To take part, visit the website of your local museums or a favorite museum elsewhere in the world and see what treasures they have to share.

Rocks in His Head

Written by Carol Otis Hurst | Illustrated by James Stevenson

 

Carol Otis Hurst tells the story of her father, who—even when he was a boy—loved everything to do with rocks. He collected them and in his spare time walked “along stone walls and around old quarries, looking for rocks.” Everyone said “he had rocks in his pockets and rocks in his head,” and he had to agree. When he thought about what he wanted to do when he grew up, he imagined it would have something to do with rocks, and when he was told “‘There’s no money in rocks,’” he was okay with that. In the end, though, he opened a gas station in Springfield, Massachusetts with his father’s help. He called it the Antler Filling Station.

In the back of the filling station, Carol’s father displayed his rock and mineral collection. “He carefully labeled each rock to show what kind it was and where it had come from.” When the Model T automobile came out, more people could afford to buy a car. Carol’s father learned every inch of the Model T by taking it apart and reassembling it many times. He thought that someone who could repair the car and sell spare parts would have a good business, so he began collecting parts for the Model T—so many that “the pile of parts was bigger than the filling station.”

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Image copyright James Stevenson, 2001, text copyright Carol Otis Hurst, 2001. Courtesy of Greenwillow Books.

Most people in town said he “had rocks in his head” if he thought he would sell all those parts, but pretty soon drivers were flocking to the Antler Filling Station for gas and fixes to their cars. They also came inside to see the rocks, ask questions, and hear the stories of each rock and gemstone. Then the stock market crashed and people didn’t have the money for gas or to fix their cars. Things slowed down at the Antler, and when things were really slow, Carol, her father, and her friends would pile into their Model T and go searching for more rocks.

But while the collection at the filling station grew, people stopped coming because they were all out looking for jobs. Soon the Antler Filling Station closed and the family had to move to a new house. The house was falling apart, but Carol’s father began repairing it—after building shelves in the attic for his rock collection. When he wasn’t repairing the house, he was studying more about rocks. Along the way, he looked for work, taking any job he could even if they only lasted a day or two.

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Image copyright James Stevenson, 2001, text copyright Carol Otis Hurst, 2001. Courtesy of Greenwillow Books.

On days when he had no work, Carol’s father went to the Springfield Science Museum, where “they had a whole room full of glass cases containing many rocks. Sometimes he’d spend the whole day in that room.” One day, he met a woman who asked him what he was looking for. He answered “‘I’m looking for rocks that are better than mine.’” Out of the hundreds of rocks in that room, he told her, he’d only found ten, “‘maybe eleven,’” that were better. They smiled at each other.

Then the lady introduced herself as Grace Johnson, the director of the museum. “‘These rocks have come from all over the world,’” she told him, and he said that his had too. She wanted to see his collection, and so they drove out in her big car. Carol’s father showed her up to the attic. After looking around, she told him that while the board of directors wouldn’t allow her to hire him as a mineralogist because he lacked a college degree, she did need a night janitor. When he heard that the job sometimes included cleaning rocks, he took it.

One day, Mrs. Johnson discovered him correcting a label on one of the rocks. She smiled and told him that she had told the board of directors that she needed “‘somebody with rocks in his head and rocks in his pockets.’” Then she asked, “‘Are you it?’ Maybe I am,’” Carol’s father answered. “‘Maybe I am.’” And he was!

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Image copyright James Stevenson, 2001, text copyright Carol Otis Hurst, 2001. Courtesy of Greenwillow Books.

Carol Otis Hurst’s lovely and affectionate memoir of her father offers young readers a snapshot of history while introducing them to a man who stayed true to himself and his life-long love of rocks despite obstacles and good-natured jibes by those around him. Hurst’s easy-going, conversational storytelling represents her father well, allowing children to get a feel for his personality and steady outlook on life. His acceptance as a mineralogist (and ultimate position as director of the Springfield Science Museum as told in the author’s bio on the jacket flap) will satisfy readers.

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James Stevenson’s familiar watercolor-and-ink illustrations are infused with charm, taking children beside an old stone wall that meanders through the woods, back to old-style filling stations and Model-T cars, and into the heart of a true collector. Images of the author’s father attentively setting up his collection in the filling station and later in the attic will resonate with any young collectors reading the book, and the full-page illustration of Grace Johnson and the author’s father talking and smiling together is happy validation that kindred spirits do cross paths in life.

For children who love collecting, history, museums, and biographies, Rocks in His Head is a delightful choice for home libraries and would make am appealing lead in to science lessons or museum field trips for elementary classrooms.

Ages 4 – 8

Greenwillow Books, 2001 | ISBN 978-0060294038

International Museum Day Activity

CPB - Cookie Jar Museum (2)

Create a Museum Exhibit

 

Every item has a story. A fun and educational way for kids to learn family stories and interact with their own history is to create a museum exhibit of objects in your home. Maybe there’s a funny anecdote behind a knick-knack on the shelf. Perhaps the family’s favorite serving dish holds sentimental value. How about your child’s best-loved toys or  drawings or crafts they’ve made? This can be a fun way to spend some time while staying at home and let everyone see common objects in a whole new light.

Supplies

  • A number of household 
  • Paper or index cards
  • Marker, pen, or pencil
  • A table, shelf, or other area for display

Directions

  1. To get started help children gather a number of items from around the house to be the subjects of their exhibit. An exhibit can have a theme, such as Travel Souvenirs, or it can contain random items of your child’s choice, like toys, plants, tools, or artwork.
  2. Using the paper or cards, children can create labels for their exhibit items. Older children can write the labels themselves; younger children may need adult help.
  3. Spend a little time relating the story behind each object: where it came from, how long you’ve had it, and when and how it was used in the past. Include any funny or touching memories attached to the item. Or let your child’s imagination run free, and let them create histories for the objects.
  4. When the labels are finished, arrange the items on a table, shelf, or in a room, and let your child lead family members on a tour. You can even share the exhibit with family and friends on FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, or other app.

Museum Coloring Pages

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Museum Coloring Pages

 

You may not be able to visit a museum in person right now, but you can enjoy three of the most amazing museums in the world with these coloring pages. 

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art | London’s British Museum | The Louvre in Paris

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You can find Rocks in His Head at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from 

BookshopIndieBound

Picture Book Review

April 24 – Arbor Day

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About the Holiday

Today is Arbor Day, a national celebration of trees that began as a campaign by J. Morton Sterling and his wife after they moved from Michigan to Nebraska in 1854. Morton advocated for the planting of trees not only for their beauty but as windbreaks for crops on the state’s flat farmland, to keep soil from washing away, as building materials, and for shade. In 1872, Morton proposed a tree-planting day to take place on April 10. On that day nearly one million trees were planted in Nebraska. The idea was made official in 1874, and soon, other states joined in. In 1882 schools began taking part. Today, most states celebrate Arbor Day either today or on a day more suited for their growing season. To learn about events in your area, find activities to download, and more, visit the Arbor Day Foundation website.

Peter and the Tree Children

Written by Peter Wohlleben | Illustrated by Cale Atkinson

 

One day while Peter enjoyed his morning coffee on his porch while listening to the birds singing, “a squirrel scampered up and sat down next to him as though they were old friends.” With tears in his eyes, the squirrel told Peter that he was all alone with no family. Peter was empathetic—his children didn’t live with him anymore—but, he said, “‘I still have the trees.’” He then told the squirrel how tree families live in the forest and asked if he would like to go look for some. This cheered the squirrel, and they headed out into the woods. On the way, Peter introduced himself, and the squirrel said his name was Piet.

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Image copyright Cale Atkinson, 2020, text copyright Peter Wahlleben. Courtesy of Greystone Kids.

When they reached a sunny clearing, Piet wondered where the tree children were. Peter told him it was too hot there and led the way deeper into the woods. The way was muddy, so Piet climbed on Peter’s shoulders. In the distance, they could hear a loud rumbling. As they grew nearer, they saw a “big machine busy cutting down trees.” Peter told Piet that they wouldn’t find tree children here either because the heavy machine had “‘packed the soil down so much that the little trees can’t grow in it.’”

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Image copyright Cale Atkinson, 2020, text copyright Peter Wahlleben. Courtesy of Greystone Kids.

They walked on sadly until they heard another noise. It was Peter’s friend Dana and her horse dragging a tree trunk. Piet introduced himself and told Dana of their mission to find tree children. She said she hadn’t seen any for a long time while Peter explained to Piet that Dana’s horse left the soil soft and loose unlike the big machine. After a close call with a hawk, Piet rode in Peter’s jacket.

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Image copyright Cale Atkinson, 2020, text copyright Peter Wahlleben. Courtesy of Greystone Kids.

They came to a rocky overlook where they watched a crew planting small trees in a clearing below. Peter looked at all of the big trees that had been cut down, and his face turned red with anger. Piet sniffed one of the little trees, wondering if they’d found tree children at last. He liked the orangey scent the seedling gave off. But Peter told him the trees were sad. “‘This smell is how trees talk to each other, and it means that the trees don’t feel so well. They miss being shaded and protected by their families.’” He wanted to show Piet some happy trees.

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Image copyright Cale Atkinson, 2020, text copyright Peter Wahlleben. Courtesy of Greystone Kids.

At last they came to a dark, cool beech forest, where “the silvery-gray trees formed a roof of leaves way up high.” On the ground Piet noticed “‘butterflies everywhere.’” Peter chuckled and told him that those green fluttering wings weren’t butterflies but “‘freshly sprouted beech children.’” Now it was Piet’s turn to laugh. He told Peter how he had hidden beechnuts in this spot in the fall and then forgotten where he’d buried them. They both thought that this forest where beech trees and their children grew together was the most beautiful they’d ever seen.

The sun was beginning to set, so they started the long walk home. Back on Peter’s porch, Piet looked sad again. He didn’t eat the snack Peter brought him and a tear rolled down his cheek. Everyone had a family except him, he said. Peter picked Piet up and told him that he liked him very much. Then he invited him to stay. “Piet’s eyes grew wide. ‘Does that mean we’re family now?’” Peter replied “‘Of course.’” Piet smiled, and then they made plans to visit the tree children again tomorrow.

Back matter reveals five more fascinating facts about how trees grow.

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Image copyright Cale Atkinson, 2020, text copyright Peter Wahlleben. Courtesy of Greystone Kids.

Peter Wohlleben’s engaging guides, Peter and Piet, educate children about the conditions necessary for trees to grow from seed to adult in his follow up to The Hidden Life of Trees for adults and Can You Hear the Trees Talking? For older children. In an attempt to cheer up Piet, Peter takes him into the forest in search of tree families and their little ones. Along the way, readers learn about the harmful effects of heavy logging machinery and the benefits of sustainable forestry. They also discover the fascinating fact that trees talk to each other through scent, which will inspire them to learn more. Adverse conditions and natural dangers draw Peter and Piet closer together, building a bond that culminates in Peter’s adopting Piet as a new family member. This turn of events, as well as Piet’s part in helping to foster the tree children they find, will cheer young readers.

Little ones will immediately empathize with Cale Atkinson’s cute squirrel, Piet, as he shares his sadness at not having a family with Peter. As Peter and Piet head into the forest, Atkinson’s sun-dappled pages invites readers to point out the butterflies, caterpillars, and flowers along their route. Kids may be surprised to see Dana and her horse and want to learn more about this type of forestry. Images of the impressive beech tree and thriving tree children will spur readers to look for young seedlings and saplings among stands of trees in their own area.

Ages 4 – 8

Greystone Kids, 2020 | ISBN 978-1771644570

Discover more about Peter Wohlleben, his books, and his work on his website.

To learn more about Cale Atkinson, his books, and his art, visit his website.

You can find Peter and the Tree Children at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound

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Can You Hear the Trees Talking? Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest

By Peter Wohlleben

 

For older children, Peter Wohlleben’s endlessly astonishing Can You Hear the Trees Talking? Reveals the depth of senses, awareness, and long-lasting family bonds that trees possess. In seven chapters, Wohlleben discusses in a conversational tone how trees work, what it’s like for them growing up in a forest, trees’ friends and enemies, how types of trees are different, forest animals, the impact of trees, and a tree’s transformations over a year. Each chapter is broken into short sections of discussions on one topic, illustrated with stunning photographs that clearly depict the concept.

Here are just a few highlights:

From Do Trees Have Grandparents?: Trees can recognize members of their own family. How? Through their roots! “If a tree’s roots meet those of a neighboring tree, the can check whether they belong to the same species.” If they are related, “now their roots will grow together. The trees send messages and exchange the sugar they have made through this connection. It’s as if they’ve invited each other to dinner.” And what about old stumps? Looking at the condition of the stump can tell you a lot. “If the bark is falling off and the stump is rotten, the tree is out of touch with its neighbors” and is no longer alive. “If the edge of an old stump is very hard and still has solid bark, the stump is still alive… [and] getting food from its family through its roots.”

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Copyright Peter Wohlleben, 2019, courtesy of Greystone Kids.

In What Do Tree Children Learn at School? kids discover that mother trees don’t leave their children alone and on their own. Mother trees search out their children with their roots, and when they’ve found them, these caring mothers connect with their babies and nurse them with sugar water. They need this nourishment because “in an old-growth forest, it’s very dark at ground level. With so little light, the tree children can’t produce their own sugar with their leaves, so they have to rely on their parents.

Can Trees Talk? Reveals that “a single tree notices when something bites it. After the initial shock, the tree will taste who is nibbling on it. Yes, you read that right: trees can taste. Because whenever an animal bites into the bark, a leaf, or a branch, it injects a bit of saliva into the wound. And every animal’s spit tastes different.” The tree then pumps a foul-tasting or even poisonous liquid into the site that wards off the predator. For example, to defeat bark beetles, trees “release a sticky, bitter substance called pitch” that trap beetles. The tree then alerts other trees to the danger by releasing a scent that causes nearby trees to begin generating pitch for themselves.

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Copyright Peter Wohlleben, 2019, courtesy of Greystone Kids.

We all know that animals, such as squirrels, hide food for the winter, but did you know that jays are masters of this autumn task? In Who’s the Best Forest Detective? Kids learn that when jays bury nuts and worms there are certain considerations. “Acorns and beechnuts remain fresh for more than six months, while dead earthworms only last a few days. The bird knows it has to eat the worms first so they don’t spoil.” And with the ability to “remember up to ten thousand hiding places,” quickly finding his stash is easy. “Usually, two thousand acorns and beechnuts are enough to see it through the winter. But because the jay can’t be sure that will be enough, it prefers to bury a few thousand more just in case.”

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Copyright Peter Wohlleben, 2019, courtesy of Greystone Kids.

With quizzes, prompts for observation, and interesting experiments to try, Can You Hear the Trees Talking? will keep young readers riveted to the pages and eager to get out into nature to explore the trees in a forest, a park, in their neighborhood, and close to home. This book would make a superb and often-referred-to addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 8 – 12 and up

Greystone Kids, 2019 | ISBN 978-1771644341

You’ll find a Can You Hear the Trees Talking? Companion Guide for parents and teachers to download on the Greystone Books website.

Discover more about Peter Wohlleben, his books, and his work on his website.

You can find Can You Hear the Trees Talking? at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound

Arbor Day Activity

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Paper Plate Tree

 

On Arbor Day children love planting trees in their yard or as part of a community project. With this easy craft, they can also make a tree for the table or to hang on their wall or bulletin board.

Supplies

  • Two paper plates 
  • Paper towel tube
  • Brown craft paint
  • Green craft paint (using a variety of green paints adds interest)
  • Paintbrush, cork, or cut carrot can be used to apply paint
  • Glue or hot glue gun or stapler

Directions

  1. Paint the paper towel tube brown, let dry
  2. Paint the bottoms of the two paper plates with the green (or other color) paints, let dry
  3. Flatten about 4 inches of the paper towel tube 
  4. Glue or tape the flat part of the paper towel tube to the unpainted side of one paper plate
  5. Glue the edges of the two paper plates together, let dry.
  6. Pull out the bottom of the tube so the tree can stand up, or hang your tree on a wall or bulletin board or in a window

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You can find Peter and the Tree Children at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

April 22 – Earth Day and Interview with Author Shana Keller

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About the Holiday

Celebrating 50 years of raising awareness of threats to the environment and spurring global action to combat them, Earth Day is the world’s largest civic-focused event. The initiative began on April 22, 1970, when 20 million Americans (10% of the population) demonstrated against the industrialization, pollution, and pesticides that were damaging people and the environment. In response, in July President Nixon and the US Congress created the Environmental Protections Agency and enacted laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act among others. This year’s theme is Climate Action, and the day will be commemorated with a global digital mobilization encompassing conversations, video teach-ins, special performances, calls to action, and more. To learn how you can participate or access resources in your area, visit the official Earth Day website.

I received a copy of Fly, Firefly! from Sleeping Bear Press for review consideration. All opinions about the book are my own.

Fly, Firefly!

Written by Shana Keller | Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki

 

As the wind curled through the forest on a breezy night, a little firefly was blown out to sea. “WHOOSH! Now he was farther than he meant to be.” Floating on the current, “he saw the sparkles that flashed and glowed.” He dove in search of the twinkling lights, but deep water was not the place for him.

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2020, text copyright Shana Keller, 2020. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

A woman and her niece, strolling along the beach, saw him sinking. The woman scooped him up and gently placed him in her niece’s hand. “‘Little firefly,’ Marjie said. / ‘It’s not flies that you see! / That’s bioluminescence swirling / and twirling through the great sea!’” Marjie carried her treasure up the beach to the edge of the woods, where hundreds of glittering friends and family were waiting to welcome him back, and she set him free.

Following the story, Shana Keller includes a discussion about Rachel Carson—scientist and author of Silent Spring and other books whose experience inspired this story­­—and a description of fireflies and bioluminescence.

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2020, text copyright Shana Keller, 2020. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Shana Keller’s glowing and lyrical story about one misdirected firefly that sparks an act of compassion and discovery will inspire children to learn more about both fireflies and the bioluminescent sea creatures that attracted him. The fact that the story is based on an actual event in the life of Rachel Carson will also appeal to readers, who may enjoy sharing one of their favorite marvels of summer with this influential environmentalist and author. Told in the first person, the story directly invites children to observe nature around them and lend a hand in protecting it.

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Image copyright Ramona Kaulitzki, 2020, text copyright Shana Keller, 2020. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

Ramona Kaulitzki’s illustrations are as beautiful as a summer sunset. Under the pink and lavender sky, dots of light flit among the bushes and low-standing trees. Children first meet the firefly at the center of the story as he’s tumbling head over tail in the wind toward the rippling ocean. As the firefly mistakenly dives into the waves, kids will empathize with his plight and be cheered when Marjie and her aunt rescue him. Kaulitzki’s gorgeous underwater images highlight the diversity of marine creatures found close to shore as well as those that glitter with bioluminescence. The brilliant glow of the firefly on the dusky pages glimmers like a precious jewel and serves as a beacon of the hope and promise of nature.

A unique book for kids who love nature and to inspire studies of bioluminescence, Fly, Firefly! would be a shining addition to home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 7

Sleeping Bear Press, 2020 | ISBN 978-1534110335

Discover more about Shana Keller and her books as well as extensive teacher and homeschool resources and readalouds of her books on her website.

To learn more about Ramona Kaulitzki, her books, and her art and find free coloring pages to download in her shop, visit her website.

Meet Shana Keller

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Shana Keller grew up a middle child in Middle America wondering exactly how clouds stayed in the air. She’s traveled all over the country and some parts of Europe with her family and moved too many times to count. She’s settled in Pittsburgh for now, a city built just for kids and one that she finds secretly inspiring. One of her favorite quotes is from Benjamin Banneker. “Every day is an adventure in learning.” That said, she graduated from the University of Miami, Florida, with a degree in Communications, from UCLA’s screenwriting program, and took a course in songwriting from Berklee College of Music. Her goal is to never stop learning.

I’m excited to talk with Shana today about her books, her inspirations, and her extensive travels. My writing partner Jakki’s sons Steve and Jack also loved Fly, Firefly! and had some questions for Shana.

Steve asked: We like to capture fireflies. Did you capture fireflies as a kid?

I did! My brother and sister and I would compete to see if we could get one of them to land on us.

Jack wondered: Did you watch real fireflies to write your story?

I was so lucky and grateful to live close to where Rachel Carson lived in Pennsylvania while I wrote this story, and to have a pond in our yard. We had frogs, fish, birds, and a good number of fireflies. I watched them every night in the summer when the weather was warm. There was so much wildlife in our backyard! We had chipmunks, groundhogs, wild turkeys, voles, and woodpeckers.

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Our back yard in Pittsburgh. On the bottom right is the pond. Our cat loved to sleep on the picnic table up the small hill. Can you see it behind the little tree? Back there is where the groundhog moseyed around.

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One of the koi fish in our pond surrounded (and protected) by lily pads.

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A groundhog just past the picnic table in our (former) backyard.

CBP Shana Keller Toad Image

A picture of our frog in the same pond as the koi. Lots of critters lived in it and used it for water.

We don’t live in Pittsburgh anymore and I really miss that yard. Sadly, I haven’t seen any fireflies in my new neighborhood in North Carolina.

Jack and Steve said: We’ve brought frogs back to a pond. Have you ever rescued an animal?

Yes! In the traditional sense, our last dog Abby, was a pound puppy. (Though she has passed, I included a photo.) She always stayed up with me while I wrote, no matter how late it was. I still miss her, so it was the neatest surprise for me to see a beagle in the illustrations for Ticktock Banneker’s Clock. Abby was part beagle.

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Abby running in the snow. She always looked like a deer or rabbit the way she bounded and jumped!

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Jazzy standing outside on our deck.

Today, one of our cats is also a rescue. Her name is Jasmine, but we call her Jazzy. And yes, in the literal sense I have rescued a handful of animals! My most memorable one was when I was about ten or eleven years old and I rescued a squirrel from my aunt’s swimming pool.

The little squirrel had tried to jump from one tall tree to the next and missed. He fell into their round pool. The water was too low, and the ledge was too high for him to climb out. I didn’t want him to drown, so I looked around the yard and grabbed a tree branch to see if he would climb onto it. He didn’t. Then, I ran into the shed and grabbed the biggest (which was also the heaviest) shovel I could find. The squirrel swam away from me even faster than before! I chased after him wielding the long shovel and tried not to rip the lining of the pool. Round and round we went until he finally slowed down long enough, I was able to scoop him out.

I’ve also stopped to scoot turtles along if I see them in the middle of the street. This one (photos are of the same turtle) was the littlest and also brightest green turtle I have ever seen in nature.  

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A little turtle crossing the street.

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A picture of the same little green turtle after I moved him. It looked like he was headed toward a pond. I helped him cross the street so he could get there.

Hi, Shana! What fantastic stories about your love of nature and your pets! Thanks so much for sharing all of these beautiful pictures with us. I can see that nature has really been a life-long inspiration. What sparked your idea to write this particular story?

A few years ago, I read a letter Rachel Carson wrote to her friend Dorothy Freeman in a book called Always, Rachel. In her letter, Rachel and her niece, Marjorie (nicknamed Marjie), came across a firefly while at her summer home in Southport, Maine. Around midnight, Rachel and Marjie headed down to the shore to secure Marjie’s son’s raft.

On the shore, they turned their flashlights off and saw a sea filled with “diamonds and emeralds.” The sparkling was bioluminescence, a (likely) form of marine plankton called Dinoflagellates. Rachel joked with her niece how one gem “took to the air!” Of course, it was a firefly! Well, further in the letter, Rachel tells her friend that she had already thought of a children’s story based on her experience. That sentence is what sparked the idea! 

What kind of research did you do in writing Fly, Firefly! and the back matter about bioluminescence that follows the story? What was the most surprising thing you learned about fireflies?

With this story, I headed to the library first to learn as much about the area Rachel was located in (Maine), and the insects and bioluminescence there. Once I sorted through all of my facts, I reached out to an entomologist here in North Carolina, the director of the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and a marine biologist who studied at the very same Marine Biology Lab Rachel did.

I also read Rachel’s books to get a sense of her voice and style. It filters through in her letters, but her books definitely have a poetic aura about them.

The most inspiring thing I learned was the importance and prominence bugs have in our world. We take them for granted. We call many of them pests. But the truth is, they are an important part of our ecological system. As I discovered with fireflies, when you have them, it is a good indication that your ecosystem is in great health.

What inspired you to write Fly, Firefly! in verse?

While I was researching, I discovered Rachel Carson had a love of poetry. Though this is not pertaining (that I know of) to the children’s story she discusses; in another letter written to her, she was quoted by her friend Dorothy (regarding Rachel’s poetic aims), as having said, “I just want it to be simple and clean and strong and sharp as a sword—for it has work to do!”

I did my best to honor her vision in that way, so I kept it lyrical, simple, and clean!

In your bio, you describe how you’ve traveled and lived all over the country and in parts of Europe. What took you to all of these places? Can you name a favorite place in the US? In Europe? Why are those places special to you?

People always assume I was a military brat when I’m asked about the places I’ve lived. Family and school took me/us to Oklahoma (my birth state), Kansas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas. Adventure and jobs took me/us to Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, Germany, & North Carolina.

My mom simply said she had wanderlust and gypsy blood. I definitely got my love of travel from her. Although now, with my kids in school we have settled down. At least until they graduate. J

My absolute favorite place in the United States is Big Bend national park. My mom and I camped there the year before I left for college. It’s right on the border of Texas and Mexico in a NO-FLY zone which means zero light pollution. Seeing the vast Milky Way at night is something I will carry with me forever. I wish every kid could see the sky that I saw.

My favorite place in Europe was in Berlin. It was the bombed Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church left as it was after the war and converted into a museum. When I first saw this monument of destruction but also of hope, it impacted me in a strong way. My photo from over ten years ago is on the left and does not do it justice. The photo on the right is what it originally looked like. It is definitely worth a Google search to see more pictures of it and compare the before and after.

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My photo of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Notice the top tower is broken.

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An online photo of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. See how big it was before the bombing?

You’ve also recently released Bread for Words: A Frederick Douglass Story from Sleeping Bear Press that relates how Douglass, born into slavery, taught himself to read and write despite overwhelming challenges. Your powerful telling of this story is written in first person. Why was writing Douglass’s story in first person important to you?

I was first introduced to Douglass’s autobiographies in college. I thought this was way too long of a wait to learn about someone who was the most photographed person in 19th century America and considered one of the greatest orators in our nation.

Frederick struggled for years in a hostile environment while he learned to read and write. To honor his accomplishment, one he was clearly proud of, I wanted to present this story in the same format he had and give children direct access to his own words.

 

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Can you describe a little about your process in writing Bread for Words?

I read Douglass’s autobiographies of course, but I also studied his speeches. I was able to take a trip to Baltimore and meet with Urban Ranger and docent, Bradley Alston thanks to the folks at Baltimore National Heritage Area. His insight and knowledge not just of Frederick Douglass but of the Baltimore Douglass grew up in was incredible. Touring the Frederick Douglass–Isaac Myers Maritime Park and museum (a place I highly recommend) with Bradley Alston rounded out my research. I’ve included a few photos from that trip!

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A recreation of Frederick Douglass arriving in Baltimore. (Photo taken at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum.)

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A recreation of the letters Frederick Douglass saw carved into the wood. (Photo taken at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum.)

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This is me learning what it was like to caulk a ship, a job Douglass had. They took long rope, dipped it into tar and used the hammer and tool to wedge it in for a watertight seal. (Photo taken by Bradley at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park and Museum.)

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What Baltimore Harbor looks like today.

Did you always want to write for children? How did you get started?

I didn’t expect to, not at first. I always thought I would write screenplays. I got started when my oldest daughter came home with a small paragraph from school about a man named Benjamin Banneker. It was during Black History Month, and I was amazed that I had never heard of this scientist and astronomer. Curious, I began to research him. When I discovered he built a strike clock using only a pocket watch and a pocketknife, that was the story I shared with my daughter, and that’s when the idea to put it in picture book format took place. I haven’t stopped writing picture books since.

You’re really enthusiastic about connecting with readers. What’s your favorite part of book events and meeting kids? Do you have an anecdote from any event you’d like to share?

Yes! In fact, before all the quarantines, I had such a special moment with a group of fourth graders on the day I shared Bread for Words with them. A student referred to the picture that’s on the back of the cover and said, “See how Frederick wants to be with his friend?” The kids interpreted that image as Frederick waiting for his friend to finish with his tutoring so that they could play and hunt and eat together. But also waiting, so that his friend could teach him.

It seems so obvious now that they mentioned it, but my original interpretation was one of exclusion, not simply waiting. To them, all Fred had to do (which Fred actually did) was ask his friend for help. One of the 4th grade boys even said, “I’m glad he had a friend that could help him.” I agreed and said, “It’s amazing how all the kid’s helped each other, isn’t it?!” And there was the real ‘lesson’ which another student pointed out and said, “We have to help each other if we can.” That kind of interaction is my favorite part about school and library visits!

It does make me wonder how other students will interpret this image.

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Bread for Words – back cover. Courtesy of Sleeping Bear Press.

What’s up next for you?

Hopefully more picture books! I’m working on a WWI story, as well as a picture book that highlights the effects of light pollution on migratory birds. I also just finished a very cool Coast Guard story that I can’t wait to share with my editor.

Thank you, so much, Shana for this wonderful talk and your generous pictures! I wish you all the best with all of your books and am really looking forward to reading them as I’m sure kids are too!

You can connect with Shana Keller on

Her website | Twitter | Instagram

Earth Day Activity

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Firefly Flight Maze

 

This little firefly wants to join her friends in the forest. Can you help her through the maze to find them in this printable maze?

Firefly Flight Maze Puzzle| Firefly Flight Mage Solution

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You can find Fly, Firefly! at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound

April 16 –National Orchid Day

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About the Holiday

National Orchid Day was established to celebrate one of the world’s most intricate and diverse flowering plants. With over 25,000 recognized species each, the orchid and the sunflower families of flowers vie for the title of largest as new species are discovered every year. Orchids range in size from a tiny 2.1mm flower with transparent petals only one cell thick to the grammatophyllum speciosum or Queen of Orchids, which grows to nearly 10 feet tall. Vivid coloring and striking patterns make the petals of each species things of wonder and prized plants for homes and botanical gardens. To celebrate today, learn how flowers use their colors and other features with today’s book!

I received a copy of Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate from Millbrook Press to check out. All opinions are my own.

Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate

Written by Sara Levine | Illustrated by Masha D’yans

 

A little purple prickly pear has something he wants to get off his spines. He shouts up at the reader holding the book. “Pssst! Down here! That’s right—I’m a plant, and I’m talking to you!” Once the reader is all attention, he goes on: “I want to clear up some of your crazy ideas about what the colors of our flowers mean.” You’ve got it all wrong if you think “red roses stand for love and white ones are good for weddings.” The prickly pear may see that the reader feels a bit confused, even a little embarrassed, so he softens his tone a bit and explains that while we may interpret a flower’s colors in certain ways, that’s not what they’re really for.

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Image copyright Masha D’yans, 2019, text copyright Sara Levine, 2019. Courtesy of Millbrook Press.

He then continues to reveal “we use our flowers to talk to the animals” so that we can make seeds and more plants. To do that each plant needs pollen from another plant of the same kind. Flowers are like big ads, the prickly pear explains, that attract just the right birds, bees, or butterflies to help them out. Often, if they’re hungry, they fly from flower to flower and bring pollen along with them.

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Image copyright Masha D’yans, 2019, text copyright Sara Levine, 2019. Courtesy of Millbrook Press.

But how does each bird, butterfly, or bee know which flowers to pollinate? That’s where a flower’s colors come in, the prickly pear says. “A flower’s color invites specific animals to visit.” Then he lets children in on their conversations. Hear the red flowers talking? They’re calling out to birds, offering hummingbirds a bit of nectar in exchange for carrying pollen. Insects can’t see the color red. Blue and other vibrant flowers whisper sweet nothings to bees, inviting them to take along some pollen – to their hives and also to other flowers, thanks! White flowers are perfectly hued to attract pollinators at a particular time of day. Brown flowers may not be showy, but they appeal to certain insects too. And green flowers? Well they don’t need to talk at all. The prickly pear encourages kids to guess why.

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Image copyright Masha D’yans, 2019, text copyright Sara Levine, 2019. Courtesy of Millbrook Press

Colors aren’t the only trick that flowers have either. Most emit a scent and some are just the right shape. But now, the prickly pear excuses himself with an abrupt “Go take a hike.” Why the brush off? It seems he’s making a new flower and is just about done with it. When you see it, you’ll think it’s the bee’s knees!

Back matter includes an illustrated step-by-step look at how pollination works, information on how to protect pollinators, and a list of other books for further reading.

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Image copyright Masha D’yans, 2019, text copyright Sara Levine, 2019. Courtesy of Millbrook Press.

With an impish attitude, Sara Levine’s hilarious and knowledgeable prickly pear narrator engages kids in witty banter while taking them on a colorful garden tour. As the cactus explains a plant’s growing cycle and the need for pollinators, the information it imparts is eye-opening for children and adults. Why and how each flower’s color and scent attract just the right pollinator is clearly described in conversational language that kids will laugh along with and learn from. Every page contains an “ah-ha” moment that will spark discussion and an excitement to plant a colorful garden and watch nature at work.

Like a riotous field of wildflowers, Masha D’yan’s dazzling illustrations put colors on glorious display as the flowers lure insects and animals to them. D’yan’s detailed images provide a great place for young naturalists to start researching the various plants introduced. Depictions of the prickly pear, birds, and bees match the humor of Levine’s text. Kids will love lingering over the two-page spreads to point out the various animals and insects and how they interact with the plants. They’ll also like following the growth of the prickly pear’s bud as it grows bigger and blossoms.

A superb book for teaching children about this fascinating feature of flowers and plants as well as providing a guide for gardeners interested in attracting a variety of pollinators, Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate would be an outstanding addition to home, classroom, and public libraries.

Ages 7 – 11

Millbrook Press, 2019 | ISBN 978-1541519282

Discover more about Sara Levine and her books on her website.

To learn more about Masha D’yans, her books, and her art, visit her website.

National Plant a Flower Day Activity

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Flower Garden Stakes

 

It’s fun to start a garden from seeds, but how do you remember what you’ve planted where? With these easy to make garden stakes, you can mark your pots with style! 

Supplies

  • Wide craft sticks
  • Chalkboard paint in various colors
  • Colorful chalk
  • Paint brush

Directions

  1. Paint the stakes with the chalkboard paint, let dry
  2. With the chalk, write the name of the different flowers or plants
  3. After planting your seeds, stick the stake in the pot 
  4. Wait for your seeds to grow!

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You can find Flower Talk: How Plants Use Color to Communicate at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | IndieBound

Picture Book Review