March 30 – It’s Women’s History Month

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-most-clever-girl-cover

About the Holiday

National Women’s History Month is all about celebrating women who broke barriers with their intelligence, creativity, courage, persistence, and unwavering confidence in their abilities. In every discipline, women have brought and continue to bring new perspectives, experiences, and talents to make contributions toward a better world. Today’s book celebrates a writer who broadened readers’ understanding of women and their lives through her complex and compelling novels. 

A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice

Written by Jasmine A. Stirling | Illustrated by Vesper Stamper

 

While Jane loved stories, there were some she couldn’t abide. These were stories about women who fainted at the slightest thing, stories about orphans with dark secrets, and stories about couples who fell in love at first sight. To Jane these books were boring, unbelievable, and predictable. But they were all the rage. Instead, Jane like the ridiculous, and she made up her own stories that “poked fun” at the popular literature of the day. When she read her “stories to her family,… they couldn’t stop laughing.”

Jane lived in a large house in the English countryside. It was always full of people, fun, and learning. Jane’s father was the village rector of Steventon in Hampshire, England, and her mother wrote poetry. Sometimes Jane’s family (mother, father, six sons, and two daughters) staged plays in the barn. They made their own sets and costumes and played all the roles. When there was quiet time, Jane wrote and wrote in the study her father had created just for her and her sister.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-most-clever-girl-rectory

Image copyright Vesper Stamper, 2021, text copyright Jasmine A. Stirling, 2021. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Jane loved the satires she wrote, but “she stared to dream about writing stories that mattered to her. They would come from her own voice—a style that was uniquely hers.” She began to pay attention to tiny personal details, particular conversations, and the way her family, friends, and neighbors interacted. She found it all fascinating. Jane’s father encouraged her writing, saving up to buy her the best pens, blank books, and even a “portable mahogany writing desk.”

Jane had an idea about a story involving “three or four families in a country village,” and soon the characters came to life in her imagination, even when she wasn’t writing. She “wrote three novels before she turned twenty-four. Jane’s voice was clever and real… But something was still missing.”

Over the years as Jane’s brothers left home, the big house grew quiet. When her father stopped teaching, money grew short and Jane’s parents decided to move to a small house in another town, Bath. They sold their possessions, even the books in her father’s library, and left the neighbors and friends they’d known so well. Jane wondered if she would feel at home anywhere else. When they moved into their new home, Jane put away her writing things. Time passed, but “Jane persisted in a very determined, though very silent, disinclination for Bath.” Years passed and Jane spent her time in “busy nothings.”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-most-clever-girl-characters

Image copyright Vesper Stamper, 2021, text copyright Jasmine A. Stirling, 2021. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

When her father died, Jane, her sister, and their mother had to move into a cheap apartment, and then when they could no longer afford that, they moved in with her brother Frank in a rough-and-tumble town. “The weight of Jane’s losses threatened to drown her,” and she still couldn’t write. Four years later, her brother Edward gave her, her sister, and their mother a small cottage near their childhood home. Here she found her way to happiness.

At last she brought out her pens, paper, and writing desk and began to write. Her voice was still clever and “filled with real people, but grief and loss had added something new. Jane’s voice was wise.” Her characters were even more realistic and complicated. She wrote about happiness and wealth, but also about heartbreak and sadness “mixed together in a way that was completely new.”

Jane’s novels were a hit—even with the future king of England. George IV loved them so much that his librarian wrote to Jane and asked her to write one of those “love-at-first-sight” stories she hated. Jane wrote back and told him that she could not unless her life depended on it, that she must remain true to her own style. At long last, “Jane had found her voice.”

Extensive backmatter includes a list of quotes from Jane Austen’s novels that are used in the story, more about Jane Austen’s life, Notes from the Author and Illustrator, a list of Austen’s novels, further resources for young readers, and a bibliography.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-most-clever-girl-novels

Image copyright Vesper Stamper, 2021, text copyright Jasmine A. Stirling, 2021. Courtesy of Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

Jasmine A. Stirling’s in-depth biography of Jane Austen shines with specific details about her and her family’s life, their happy times and tribulations that informed her writing and made it so distinctive for its time and beloved even now. Stirling’s engaging and lively storytelling invites children to share the joys and heartaches that molded Jane Austen’s personality and writing. Quotations from Austen’s novels sprinkled throughout the story give young readers a taste of Jane’s writing and the truths and understanding her novels embody.

Dazzlingly lovely, Vesper Stamper’s expressive illustrations draw readers into Jane Austen’s world and give them a glimpse into her childhood and adult experiences as well as the society of the time. Cleverly designed images allow kids to understand how much Jane loved to read, to laugh along with her as she reads the sentimental and gothic stories she satirized, and to see at a glance all the shenanigans, work, and entertaining that went on in her beloved home. The elegance of these surroundings and the dinner parties that enlightened Jane’s writing are realistically reproduced and her characters come to life on the page. A moving metaphorical image shows Jane riding away from the home she loved while pages of her novels fly out of the writing desk strapped to the back of the carriage. Jane’s sadness is depicted on pages sketched in gray, but her vibrancy returns with her brother’s generosity and the novels that finally take wing.

A superb biography of a beloved and influential writer that will spark enthusiasm for Jane Austen’s novels as well as literature and writing in general, A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice is a must for students of all ages as well as for those who simply love reading and writing stories. The book would make an exceptional addition to lesson plans for readers from elementary school to high school and is highly recommended for home, school, and public library collections.

Ages 5 – 12 and up

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2021 | ISBN 978-1547601103

Discover more about Jasmine A. Stirling and her books on her website.

To learn more about Vesper Stamper, her books, and her art, visit her website.

Women’s History Month Activity

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-jane-austen-coloring-page

Jane Austen Coloring Page

 

Enjoy this printable coloring page of Jane Austen as you learn more about this clever writer.

Jane Austen Coloring Page

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-most-clever-girl-cover

You can find A Most Clever Girl: How Jane Austen Discovered Her Voice at these booksellers

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million

To support your local independent bookstore, order from

Bookshop | IndieBound

Picture Book Review

February 6 – It’s Black History Month

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-cover

About the Holiday

Black History Month, also known as National African American History Month, celebrates the achievements and contributions of African Americans in United States History. Originally a week-long observance commemorating the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14,  Black History Month was officially established in 1976 by then president Gerald Ford. The holiday is now celebrated across the country with special events and commemorations in schools, churches, and community centers.

I received a copy of A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks from Sterling Children’s Books for review consideration. All opinions are my own. I’m excited to be partnering with Sterling in a giveaway of the book. See details below.

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks

Written by Alice Faye Duncan | Illustrated by Xia Gordon

 

“SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks. / Sing it loud—a Chicago blues.” This remarkable biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet opens with these soaring lines which introduce eight-year-old Gwendolyn who, seeing a flower in the midst of the city, wonders how it will grow. Already she was observing the world with insight and originality.  “Her head is filled with snappy rhymes. / She writes her poems in dime store journals.” Even something as “simple” as a clock does not escape Gwendolyn’s consideration. In The Busy Clock she writes, in part: “Clock, clock tell the time, / Tell the time to me. / Magic, patient instrument, / That is never free.”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-flower

Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

Out in the neighborhood, she stands quietly and watches the other kids laughing and playing—girls jumping rope and boys playing basketball. Gwendolyn’s father is a janitor and her mother stays at home with her and her brother, who is also her best friend. Gwen spends her time sitting on her porch, looking and listening to the sounds and the conversations of the neighborhood women and men. The “children call Gwen—‘ol’ stuck-up heifer!’”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-jump-rope

Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

“SING a song for Gwendolyn Brooks. / Her mother believes. / Her father believes. / But sometimes—Gwendolyn doubts her radiance, / When jarring, crashing, discordant words, / Splotch and splatter her notebook paper.” And what does Gwen do with these poems that just don’t work? She buries them under the snowball bush in the backyard. Once, unbelieving, a teacher accuses Gwendolyn of plagiarism. Her mother takes her daughter back to school, and there on the spot, she composes a poetic answer to the charges: Forgive and Forget. It makes Gwen feel proud, she believes in herself and feels the sun shining on her.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-parents

Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

During the Great Depression, when jobs and money are scarce, Gwendolyn’s “parents are wise and see her light.” They give her time to write and she hones her words and her craft through draft after draft. With each completed poem, Gwen’s confidence grows. The Chicago Defender publishes some of Gwendolyn’s poems, and now she has an audience. Her parents believe that one day their daughter will be a famous poet.

Soon, Gwendolyn finds her way to a group of poets who meet in a South Side community center. She studies under Inez Stark and meets Henry Blakely, who will become her husband. She enters her poems in contests and wins first place over and over. When she and Henry move into their own two-room apartment, Henry goes to work, leaving Gwendolyn to translate the neighborhood into poetry that she types “in a crowded corner.”

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-typing

Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

Readers swarm to buy her books. “Gwen paints poems with paintbrush words, / And Gwen takes home a Pulitzer Prize.” Henry and their son celebrate, and Gwen’s parents “…cry tears of joy. / They praise her shine.” For they had always known and had “…Planted love and watered it. / Gwendolyn believed. / She found her light. / And— / A furious flower / GREW!”

An extensive Author’s Note detailing more about the life of Gwendolyn Brooks and her work as well as a timeline and suggested readings follow the text.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-pulitzer

Image copyright Xia Gordon, 2019, text copyright Alice Faye Duncan, 2019. Courtesy of Sterling Children’s Books.

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.

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-portrait

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

Discover more about Alice Faye Duncan and her books on her website.

To learn more about Xia Gordon, her books, and her art, visit her website.

A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks Giveaway

I’m excited to partner with Sterling Children’s Books in this Instagram giveaway of:

  • One (1) copy of A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks written by Alice Faye Duncan | illustrated by Xia Gordon

It takes just these two steps to enter:

A winner will be chosen on February 12.

Giveaway open to US addresses only. | No Giveaway Accounts 

Prizing provided by Sterling Children’s Books.

Black History Month Activity

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-writing-journal-craft-1

My Writing Journal

 

With this easy craft, kids can make a journal that will reflect their personality and inspire them to jot down ideas for poems or stories. 

Supplies

  • Two 9-inch by 6-inch pieces of foam or heavy paper
  • Plain or lined 8½ by 11 paper, as many pieces as you’d like
  • Twine or ribbon
  • Foam letters and objects, stickers, play jewels, or other decorations
  • Small scissor, paper hole puncher, or other instrument to make a hole through the foam and paper

Directions

  1. Fold the plain or lined 8½ by 11 paper in half
  2. Place the paper between the sheets of foam
  3. Make a hole through the foam covers and paper near the top and bottom for the twine to tie the journal together
  4. Slip the twine or ribbon through the holes and tie the journal together
  5. Decorate the cover
  6. Start writing!

celebrate-picture-books-picture-book-review-a-song-for-gwendolyn-brooks-cover

You can find A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks at these booksellers

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

Picture Book Review