February 16 – International Month of Black Women in the Arts

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About the Holiday

During this month we recognize the contributions of black women across the fields of literature, fine, performing, culinary, and healing arts. To celebrate, research black women artists and attend exhibits, readings, or other events that showcase these talented women.

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

Written by Deborah Blumenthal | Illustrated by Laura Freeman

 

From the time that Ann Cole Lowe was old enough to thread a needle, she loved to sew. While her momma and grandma worked at their sewing machines, making dresses for the socialites of Alabama, Ann sat nearby turning “the wisps of cloth” that fell to the floor into “flowers as bright as roses in the garden.” Even at a young age Ann understood that “doing what you love could set your spirit soaring.”

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Image copyright Laura Freeman, text copyright Deborah Blumenthal, courtesy of simonandschuster.com

When Ann was only sixteen years old, her momma died. Not only did her mother’s death leave Ann bereft, it left her in charge of the business, and many women were waiting for gowns, most importantly the Alabama governor’s wife. “Ann thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.” She sat down and finished the dresses. “Then she stood up and ran the business.”

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Image copyright Laura Freeman, text copyright Deborah Blumenthal, courtesy of simonandschuster.com

In 1916 a woman in Florida hired her to sew dresses. She also sent Ann to design school in New York. Because she was African American, however, Ann was required to study in a separate classroom by herself. Ann was not deterred. She continued to make unique gowns and dresses, and her client list grew. Finally, Ann had saved enough money to open a salon of her own in Manhattan. Sometimes she didn’t have enough money to pay all the bills, but she persisted. Her life was about “what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.”

One day Ann received an order for a wedding dress from a woman who was marrying a United States senator. The woman’s name was Jacqueline Bouvier and the man was John F. Kennedy, a future president of the U.S. Ann bought 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta and designed a beautiful dress with a bouffant skirt and pleated bands decorated with tiny wax flowers. She also made the dresses for Jacqueline’s attendants.

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Image copyright Laura Freeman, text copyright Deborah Blumenthal, courtesy of simonandschuster.com

Then ten days before the wedding, Ann walked into her workroom and discovered that a water pipe had burst, flooding the dresses, material, everything. Ten of the sixteen gowns Ann had sewn were destroyed. “Ann though about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change.” She ordered new fabric, hired more seamstresses, and went to work. On this job she lost money instead of making it, but none of that mattered. In eight days all of the dresses were ready.

When Ann delivered the gowns to the mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, the butler who answered the door told her workers needed to use the back entrance. Ann replied that “if she had to enter through the back door, the bride and bridesmaids wouldn’t be wearing her dresses for the wedding.” The front door swung open. On the day of the wedding—September 12, 1953—the whole world oohed and aahed over Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s gorgeous gown and her bridesmaids’ dresses, but not many people thought about or knew the name of the woman who had created them. “Why? Because Ann Cole Lowe was African American. And life wasn’t fair.”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-fancy-party-gowns-sewing

Image copyright Laura Freeman, text copyright Deborah Blumenthal, courtesy of simonandschuster.com

Ann continued to design and sew party dresses and evening gowns for the women of high society. She “didn’t make fine clothes to get rich or famous,” however, but, as she once said, “‘To prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.’” In 1961 Ann finally gained public recognition for her work when she was named “Official Couturiere” in honor of the 33 ball gowns she created for an elegant ball in Omaha, Nebraska. She proudly accepted her award as the fashion world applauded.

An Author’s Note explaining more about Ann Cole Lowe’s life and work follows the text.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-fancy-party-gowns-recognized

Image copyright Laura Freeman, text copyright Deborah Blumenthal, courtesy of simonandschuster.com

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

To learn more about Deborah Blumenthal and her books for children, young adults, and adults, visit her website!

Discover a gallery of illustration work by Laura Freeman on her website!

International Month of Black Women in the Arts Activity

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Create Your Own Party Dress 

 

With this easy craft you can make a  fun sheath dress for playing dress-up. It’s also a great party activity! All you need is a plastic or paper party table cloth, Sharpies, and your imagination!

Supplies

  • 1 plastic party tablecloth (1 cloth will most likely make 4 dresses)
  • Sharpies or other permanent markers
  • Ribbon, scarf, crepe paper garland, or other material for a belt
  • Scissor
  • Newspaper, old sheeting or other material to protect the floor

Directions

  1. With the table cloth folded along one edge, cut a rectangle the appropriate size for the child
  2. In the middle of the folded edge cut a V-shaped or rounded opening for the child’s head. Begin with a small opening and enlarge it as needed
  3. Lay the dress on newspaper or other material to protect the floor
  4. Draw and color shapes, lines, figures, or other designs on the dress
  5. Slip on over a shirt and pants or leggings
  6.  Add a belt with a ribbon, scarf, piece of crepe paper garland, or other material

Picture Book Review

January 27 – It’s Creativity Month

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About the Holiday

January is a time for reflection and new beginnings. What better time to start thinking creatively and finding your inner artist, scientist, inventor, thinker? Go ahead and do the thing you’ve always wanted to do!

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

Written by Patricia C. McKissack | Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera

In this story told through poems, a little girl begins telling of her life, starting with a recitation on Gee’s Bend Women: “Gee’s Bend women are / Mothers and Grandmothers / Wives / Sisters and Daughters / Widows.” They are every kind of woman you know, doing every type of work and activity. “Gee’s Bend women are / Talented and Creative / Capable / Makers of artful quilts / Unmatched. / Gee’s Bend women are / Relatives / Neighbors / Friends— / Same as me.”

In Who Would Have Thought, the girl muses on how perceptions change. “For as long as anyone can remember,” she says, the women of Gee’s Bend, Alabama have created quilts that were slept under, sat on, and wrapped around the sick or cold. But now those same quilts are “…hanging on museum walls, / their makers famous….”

When she was just a tot “Baby Girl” reveals in Beneath the Quilting Frame, she played under the quilting frame, listening to her “mama, grandma, and great-gran / as they sewed, talked, sang, and laughed / above my tented playground.” She remembers the “steady fingers  /[that] pieced together colorful scraps of familiar cloth / into something / more lovely / than anything they had been before” as her mother sang her a lullaby.

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, courtesy of Random House Books for Young Readers

In Something Else, “Baby Girl” is growing too big to play beneath the frame. Her legs becoming longer and her mind full of “recipes for eleven kinds of jelly…how to get rid of mold…and the words to a hundred hymns and gospel songs” while she waits her turn at the frame. Finally, in Where to Start? her time comes. The girl asks her mama how to begin and she answers, “‘Look for the heart. / When you find the heart, / your work will leap to life… / strong, beautiful, and… / independent.’”

In Remembering, the girl thinks about how her mama has told her that “cloth has a memory.” As she chooses the cloth that will become her quilt she sees the life and the history in each. 

Nothing Wasted sees Grandma pulling apart a red-and-white gingham dress stitch by stitch to become a quilting square that the girl suddenly knows “will be the heart of my quilt.” In Puzzling the Pieces the girl and her grandma stand over the quilting frame fitting the squares together in the perfect way to tell the girl’s story. Her quilt comes together piece by piece to tell the history of Gee’s Bend in The River Island. The brown strips along three sides mirror the muddy waters surrounding her town. The fourth side is a green strip—“a symbol of the fields where my ancestors / worked cotton from can to can’t— / can see in the morning until / can’t see at night.” Lined up next to the green strip are six squares representing the small communities “where families with / the same name / are not kin by blood / but by plantation.”

Being Discovered is portrayed with “a large smoke-gray square”—the color of the Great Depression and the 15 minutes of fame Gee’s Bend garnered when discovered “by sociologists, historians, / educators, and journalists” who came and went, leaving Gee’s Bend “the way it had been / before being discovered.”

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Image copyright Cozbi A. Cabrera, courtesy of Random House Books for Young Readers

In Colors, the girl’s grandma explains the meanings and feelings behind each colored cloth. “Blue cools. / Red is loud and hard to control, / like fire and a gossiping tongue.” Green, orange, yellow, white, pink, and all the others have their own personalities. “Grandma says, / ‘Colors show how you / feel deep down inside.’”

In Pinky, the harrowing facts of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama frame the story of one marcher, Mr. Willie Quill who broke horses for the Alabama State Mounted Patrol and was saved from the Police attacks when one of the horses he’d trained knew his voice. In Dr. King Brings Hope, the little girl adds a “Patch of bright pink / to remember Pinky’s story. / Next to it I sew / a spotless white patch for the hope Dr. Martin Luther King / brought to the Bend” and goes on to tell how her grandma saw Dr. King at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church and what it meant to her.

By and By follows the girl as she adds “golden thank-yous, for James Reeb,” a “bright blue piece of velvet for Viola Liuzzo,” and a “big plaid people circle of white, black, brown, yellow, and red for Reverend Dr. King, all “killed for believing in justice.”

In the 1960s, The Sewing Bee tells, Gee’s Bend quilters were once again discovered. There were buyers for the handmade quilts, but stipulations. The girl asks her grandma if she was part of the Bee, to which she replies, “‘Yes, / more money. Less freedom. I chose to stay free.’”

At last all of the patches are laid out and the time comes to stitch the girl’s quilt. Five women stand at the frame “all stitchin’ and pullin.’” They work “in a slow and steady rhythm” relaxing and enjoying being together until the quilt is finished. In Finished, the last stitch is sewn, and the thread bitten and knotted. The girl has hundreds of ideas for future quilts. “Quilts that are about me, / the place where I live, / and the people / who have been here for generations.”

Further poems unite the history of “Baby Girl,” her family, and neighbors, and an Author’s Note about quilting and the women of Gee’s Bend follow the text.

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, on 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 side mirror a dot of a house comes into view, 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 and delved into again and again, making it a wonderful choice for home libraries and a must for school, public, and other libraries.

Ages 5 – 12

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

View a gallery  of fashion designs, dolls, and other handmade art work by Cozbi A. Cabrera on her website!

Creativity Month Activity

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Design a Quilt Coloring Pages

Quilts are so much more than pieces of material sewn together—they’re life stories! Here are two quilt coloring pages for you to design and color. What does each piece mean to you? As you color each section, write a sentence about an event or thought that is important to you.

Quilt Template 1 | Quilt Template 2

Picture Book Review

December 29 – Tick Tock Day

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About the Holiday

As the year winds down Tick Tock Day reminds us of the passage of time and encourages us to examine our life and find opportunities to accomplish the things we really want to. While the day only has 24 hours, a little creative scheduling, letting go of those tasks that aren’t so important, and even saying “no,” can help us achieve the things that matter.

Ticktock Banneker’s Clock

Written by Shana Keller | Illustrated by David C. Gardner

 

With winter approaching Benjamin Banneker has finished up his autumn chores and is looking forward to time to indulge his creative dreams. He finds his favorite spot under the chestnut tree—the place where during the summer he plays his violin and flute, “blending his soft music with the bird’s songs”—and pulls out a pocket watch he has borrowed from a gentleman. Benjamin is fascinated by the ticking and the movement of the small hands. He carefully opens the back of the watch and discovers “a world of wonderful whirls. There were gears of all shapes and sizes. Such a tiny maze!”

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Image copyright David C. Gardner, courtesy of flyingdogstudio.com

The miniature timepiece is mesmerizing, but Benjamin’s mind holds a challenge—a big challenge. He envisions a large clock, one that chimes to tell the time. Remembering his math skills, Benjamin mulls over the scale needed to turn “something small into something big.” As the snow falls, Benjamin goes to work. First, he dismantles the pocket watch and draws careful diagrams of the gears and workings. Then he begins transposing these into larger drawings.

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Image copyright David C. Gardner, courtesy of flyingdogstudio.com

With the coming of spring and his drawings finished, Benjamin plans how he will build his clock. While the little pocket watch is made of metal, that material is much too expensive for a large version. As he ponders the problem under his favorite tree, Benjamin looks around him. Suddenly he knows! The answer is “right in front of him, even in his hands! The very instrument he played was made of wood!” There is a forest of trees on his farm, and this material is free.

During the summer between farm chores, Benjamin uses “every spare moment he had to find the perfect pieces of wood.” Once he has enough he begins to convert his drawings into carvings, whittling the gears and other pieces he will need. Soon, however, he becomes discouraged. The wood begins to split and come apart. Benjamin thinks about how his family cures tobacco leaves—drying them out until all the moisture evaporates. Perhaps, he thinks, he can do the same with wood to make it stronger. The process would take months, but Benjamin is patient.

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Image copyright David C. Gardner, courtesy of flyingdogstudio.com

Winter has come around again, and the wood is finally ready. In his warm house Benjamin sets about carving again. During the day he carves near the sunny window, and at night he works by candlelight. At last he has all the parts he needs to build his clock. Gears, wheels, tiny pins, and the boards that will become the case are scattered across Benjamin’s work table. There is only one piece missing. A piece that cannot be made of wood—the bell!

Benjamin buys a bell from a metalsmith, and back home begins to build his clock. With his drawings to guide him, he fits the gears together and then sets the hands to “match up perfectly with the second, minute, and hour of each day. It took more than one try, but Benjamin had learned to be patient.” Using the sun to determine the correct time, Benjamin positions the hands and steps back. His clock works! “The little iron bell chimed every hour, on the dot, for the next forty years.” Benjamin becomes famous, and neighbors from near and far come “to see his amazing invention.”  

An Author’s Note expanding on Benjamin Banneker’s life and work follows the text.

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Image copyright David C. Gardner, courtesy of flyingdogstudio.com

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.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-ticktock-banneker's-clock-studying-fall-chores

Image copyright David C. Gardner, courtesy of flyingdogstudio.com

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 a wonderful addition to school and home libraries.

Ages 6 – 10

Sleeping Bear Press, 2016 | ISBN 978-1585369560

Learn more about Shana Keller and her work on her website!

Discover a portfolio of picture book art, fine art, animation, and videos by David C. Gardner on his website!

Tick Tock Day Activity

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Cuckoo Clock Coloring Page

 

The chirp of a cuckoo clock keeps you on time—or at least aware of the passing of time! Here’s a printable Cuckoo Clock Coloring Page for you to enjoy!

Picture Book Review

February 1 – National Freedom Day

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About the Holiday

National Freedom Day was created by a former slave named Major Richard Robert Wright Sr. and was established as a national holiday on June 30, 1948 by President Harry S Truman. The observance commemorates the day in 1865 when Abraham Lincoln signed a resolution that would become the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment was ratified almost one year later by each state and outlawed slavery.

Today, people often celebrate National Freedom Day by laying a wreath at the Liberty Bell, which is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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

 Written by Ellen Levine | Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

 

Henry Brown was born a slave. He didn’t know his birthday and he never knew security. “Like autumn leaves are torn from the trees,” his mother tells him, “slave children can be torn from their families.” When Henry’s master calls him to his sickbed, Henry hopes to be freed, but instead, his mother’s fear comes true. Henry is taken away and grows up far from his family, learning to be careful not to make mistakes that will bring severe punishment.

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Image copyright Kadir Nelson, text copyright Ellen Levine. Courtesy of Scholastic Press

One day Henry, now a young man, falls in love with Nancy, a slave on another plantation. Henry and Nancy marry and are allowed to live together despite being owned by separate masters. Henry and Nancy have three children and are living happily.

But one day Nancy tells Henry that her master’s plantation is in financial trouble. She is afraid her master will sell their children to make money. The idea strikes fear into Henry’s heart. The next day Henry learns that indeed Nancy and his children have been sold. He knows he can show no emotion, but “his heart twisted in his chest.”

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Image copyright Kadir Nelson, courtesy of Scholastic Press

Henry runs to the town square and sees his children and Nancy being driven away. Henry is devastated. Time passes and Henry thinks about freedom. Lifting a crate used for shipping tobacco gives him an ingenious idea. He will mail himself to the North, where he can be free.

Henry’s friends agree to help him, and although they’re afraid he will be discovered, they seal him into a wooden box, address it to people in Philadelphia, and send him off. The crate is handled roughly throughout the journey north, and Henry must endure pain for many hours. Henry finally arrives safely in Philadelphia on March 30, 1849. Known from then on as Henry “Box” Brown, he became one of the most famous runaway slaves in America.

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Image copyright Kadir Nelson, text copyright Ellen Levine. Courtesy of Scholastic Press

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.

To view a gallery of books and other illustration work by Kadir Nelson, visit his website!

Ages 4 – 8

Scholastic Press, 2007 | ISBN 978-043977733

National Freedom Day Activity

CPB - Freedom Stamp template (2)

Create Your Own Freedom Stamp

 

If you were going to create a postage stamp representing freedom, what would it look like? Think about what freedom means to you, then grab some colored pencils and design your own stamp!

Supplies

Directions

  1. Print the Freedom Stamp template
  2. Draw your own design about what freedom means to you
  3. Cut out the stamp and display it in your room or in a common area of your home

OR:

  1. Inside the stamp template write a letter to:
  • Someone in the Military: Thank them for their service to the United States to help keep our country free. You can learn how to send letters to members of the military here.
  • Your Teacher: Thank your teacher for all of her or his hard work. Only through education can we really be free.
  • Someone else who inspires you: Tell this person why they inspire you and thank them for their work.
  1. Give your Freedom Stamp letter to the person it is written to

Picture Book Review