Early Chapter Book Review: Little Shaq

This high-quality early reader is strongly recommended for 1st-3rd graders who enjoy basketball or struggling readers from higher grades.

Little Shaq, written by Shaquille O’Neal, illustrated by Theodore Taylor III
Bloomsbury Children’s, New York, 2015.
Early Chapter Book autobiographical fiction, 73 pages
Lexile: 520L
AR level: 3.4 (worth 0.5 points)

I got this book as a gift from a list of requests I made.  Husband and I are either indifferent to or dislike most organized sports but the kids love basketball, so I added this title without knowing too much about it.

This book is the first in what is now a series of early chapter books by famed NBA player Shaquille O’Neal (so famous even I have heard of him).  Originally I was surprised not to see a ghostwriter or a co-author credited on a book by an athlete, but upon reading the conclusion, I was happy to see that Mr. O’Neal has an MBA and a P.Hd. in education.  He also has been heavily involved in the Boys and Girls Club and has children of his own, so he is undoubtedly familiar with the limited books available for early chapter book readers of color.

This book focuses on Shaq and his cousin Barry, who also happen to be best friends.  Sure, Shaq might be better at basketball, and maybe even a little better at their favorite video game.  But as neighbor Rosa is quick to point out, that doesn’t mean Barry shouldn’t get a chance to shoot for a basket or his turn to be player 1.  When the video game breaks during their disagreement, the boys have to figure out a way to earn enough money to buy a new one.

Little Shaq, the first in a series of high-quality early chapter book readers from an amazing team.

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Review: My Name is Truth

Significant flaws mar this ambitious book.

My Name is Truth: The Life of Sojourner Truth by Ann Turner, illustrated by James Ransome.
Harper Collins Children’s Books, New York, 2015.
Picture book biography, 32 pages.
Illustrator has won Coretta Scott King Award, and author has won other awards.
Lexile: AD1410L   (What does AD mean in Lexile levels?)
AR Level: 4.4 (Worth 0.5 points)

Award-winning author Ann Turner and illustrator James Ransome team up for a lyrical biography of Sojourner Truth, inspired as much as possible by her own words.

I purchased this book new at full price because I couldn’t get any used books about Sojourner Truth from the local used bookstore in the time frame required, but the other bookstore had this.

My Name is Truth by Ann Turner, Illustrated by James Ransome

This book had so many excellent elements that simply failed to make a cohesive whole.  The text is written in a first-person, somewhat poetic style.  It is a picture book biography but has difficult language and content such that I was somewhat uncomfortable reading it with an 8 year old, let alone the younger children this seems to be marketed to.

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Review: Ruby Bridges Goes to School

Just one big caveat before using this early reader in a school library or classroom.

Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story by Ruby Bridges.
Scholastic, Cartwheel Books, New York, 2009.
Early reader (Scholastic Level 2) non-fiction with photographs, 30 pages.
Lexile: 410L
AR Level: 2.5 (worth 0.5 points)

This is a nonfiction early reader about the life of Ruby Bridges, written by her. This book covers her historic integration of the William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, as well as some information about reactions to the integration and her later life (particularly a reunion with her teacher).

It’s not entirely clear whether she wrote an entirely new book or simplified her book In My Eyes for a younger reading audience, however she is attributed with both the text and the photo compilation, so until I read the other book, I’m going to assume these are two separate works.


Most of the children’s non-fiction books about African-American history tend to be aimed at second grade on up.  There are, of course, many picture books intended to be read aloud by an adult, but most of the basic early readers are predominately white.  This sets up the disturbing standard of the “white default” early in life.

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Different Types of Books for Elementary School Students

Picture books, chapter books, independent reading or read-aloud books. Are there any diverse early chapter books you can recommend?

For those of you who aren’t currently teaching or parenting an elementary school student, you might not realize how complicated the different types of elementary school books are.

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Review: Abby Takes a Stand – Scraps of Time 1960

This meaningful chapter book uses one family’s story to explain a chapter in African-American history.

Abby Takes a Stand (Scraps of Time 1960) by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon James.
Puffin Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, New York, 2005.
Elementary historical fiction, 104 pages.  Author has won the Newberry for previous work.
Lexile: 580L
Not in AR yet

The Scraps of Time series is built around the idea of a grandmother and three grandchildren building a scrapbook about their family from items kept in their grandmother’s attic.  One of the children finds something and asks Gee about it, and then the story proper begins as she tells them the story behind that item.

In this case the item is a lunch menu from a long-gone, segregated restaurant.  Gee herself was just a ten-year old girl named Abby when she accepted a flyer for a free ride on a merry-go-round at the mall’s restaurant, only to find out that she is not welcome there.

This experience changes her and causes her family to become involved in the peaceful protests.  Not all members want to be involved, and both opinions are given some discussion.  Abby and her best friend are too young to join the protests, but they hand out flyers and even sneak downtown where they witness the more dangerous side of protesting.

Abby Takes a Stand, first book in the Scraps of Time series of historical fiction

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Review: D is for Drinking Gourd

Despite a few flaws, this surprisingly informative A-to-Z book is highly recommended for families and teachers.

D is for Drinking Gourd: An African American Alphabet by Nancy I. Sanders, illustrated by E. B. Lewis.
Sleeping Bear Press, reprinted by Scholastic, New York, 2008.
Picture book non-fiction, 38 pages.
Lexile: AD1110L  (What does AD mean in Lexile levels?)
AR level: 7.7 (worth 1.0 points)

This is one of the core texts I used for the 30 day project.  Although I was familiar with Sleeping Bear Press from their lovely state books, I wasn’t familiar with this title until I came across it at my local used bookstore.  (Remember when I started to be known as that lady who buys up all the diverse books?  This goes back to my first trip.)

As soon as I saw it, I knew it was the perfect complement to 28 Days, with the only difficulty being 26 letters in the alphabet and 28 (really 29) days in the Smith book.  I got around that by combining some days and finagling so that some topics aligned.

As with all Sleeping Bear Press books I’ve seen so far, I found this book absolutely lovely.  Each letter has either a full page or a two page spread.  There is a short couplet including the featured letter or word.  This couplet is found amidst the illustration, then off to one side the letter is repeated in both upper and lower case along with at least two paragraphs giving further information about the topic and people associated with it.

There was a wide variety of topics and historical figures covered, including several I was not yet familiar with.  As soon as the third page, I was learning about the Buffalo Soldiers and cowboys on the western frontier.  Although one would think that the alphabet format would be limiting, since the topics were general and the paragraphs covered a wide range of people, there was a surprisingly large amount of information presented.

While this book is not quite as versatile as 28 Days, it is another great choice for a 30 day project.  I think this one would be a particularly good choice for schools, since classrooms would not be doing a day on the weekends.  For example, in 2017 there will be 20 weekdays in February.  There are 18 two-page spreads in the book.  That leaves two days for introducing and concluding the project, or to accommodate any days off your school might have.  This book lends itself to combining with coloring pages and picture books, although you might have to include a few historical fiction picture books in order to cover some of the more obscure topics.

Off the top of my head, there are several other ideas that could be used with this book for older children: Students could each learn one of the short poems and recite them in a skit for other classes.  Individual students or teams could be assigned to learn more about topics or to read an outside book and write a report or present to the class (easy to differentiate by the materials available and difficulty of topic).  The original publisher also has a teacher’s guide which might be helpful.


The children generally enjoyed this book.  They personally found the alphabet format more understandable and relatable than the timeline version.  However, they did not like the illustrations as much.  They felt that the illustrations were darker and it was harder to understand what some of them were depicting, and I have to agree with them.  While I found them appealing, in some it was difficult to know which, if any of the people from the informative paragraphs was shown in the illustration.  This was particularly obvious in comparison to the lively illustrations by Shane W. Evans.  My feeling was that the illustrations by Lewis were calmer and more relaxing, but this didn’t translate for the children.

There was one moment during the reading where we were thrown for a loop.  The Politicians page does mention Barack Obama, but does not have him listed as president, and his picture is not featured.  I was a little surprised until we looked at the copyright date – 2007.  I can only assume that more current editions have updated this page.

I was a little iffy on the letter Q which stood for quilt.  One of the informational paragraphs stated “quilts may have been used to help slaves escaping north along the Underground Railroad.  A quilt hung on a porch rail might be a signal that the house was a safe place to stop.”  While it does use the words “may” and “might,” it doesn’t reflect the reality that, despite this lesson being taught in many classrooms even now, this myth was a complete fabrication.  I felt like those two (out of eight total) sentences could have been more productively used to add more information about Harriet Powers or Faith Ringgold or to provide information about how quilts were made or used.

Some people may also be bothered by the religious references in Z, so be aware of your context and whether it is appropriate to read about the influence of religion on African-American history.  The Nation of Islam also gets a brief mention on the Malcolm X page.

Overall, this is a great book for families or particularly teachers of about 1st to 6th grade (depending heavily on the maturity and background knowledge of students, and whether it will be read independently or out loud, etc.).

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Review: Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It

“The streak test. Hematite was black, but its streak was red. ‘Color is just a part of who you are… like a mineral,” I said. (p.177-178)

Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It by Sundee T. Frazier.
Yearling, Random House Children’s Books, New York, 2007.
Ages 9-12 chapter book fiction, 193 pages.
Coretta Scott King Award Winner, 2008 (John Steptoe Award for New Talent)
Lexile: 630L
AR level: 4.0 (worth 6.0 pts)

This book I got from the library (SM) as I found the back matter intriguing.  It focuses on ten year old Brendan Buckley over the summer between fifth and sixth grade.  Only child Brendan’s Grandpa Clem has just passed away, his father is busy working as a police detective, and he plans on spending the summer hanging out with his best friend Khalfani, practicing Tae Kwan Do, and learning more about science.  When his mom isn’t making him go to the mall with Grandma Gladys, that is.

On one of those mall trips, he wanders into a display of the local rock club and can’t wait to sign up. But his grandma sees him talking to the club president and drags him away – it’s his grandpa DeBose, whom he’s never met.

So now Brendan has a lot of questions.  Why has he never met his white grandfather?  Who is this guy?  And what does it mean that he is mixed?  What will it mean to look black as he grows up?

Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything In It by Sundee T. Frazier

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28 Days Book Review

In short, this book is a must-have for every school library, and highly recommended for home and classroom libraries as well.

28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith Jr., Illustrated by Shane W. Evans.
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Brook Press, New York, 2015. 54 pages.
Non-fiction picture book.

I don’t recall if I purchased this book or was given it as a gift, but it was one of the early books that inspired the 30 day project.  This book features 29 days that chronologically tell the story of Black History.

Each day has either a single page or a two-page spread.  I am quite curious about the process used for this book, because the text and the pictures are perfect matches.  It’s quite clear that a great deal of time and thought was put into the illustrations and the layout.  Besides the gorgeous artwork of Shane Evans, the book has several features which allow it to be used at a variety of age, reading, or interest levels.

First the date is stated month/date/year.  Then one sentence briefly describes the event featured for that day.  The name of the person featured, or event occurring, is in a different font.  Then the poem or writing follows.  This is the most varied part of the book, with rhyming poems, acrostics, free verse, eulogies, or quotation from documents, speeches, or songs incorporated into various pages.  I see this portion as having classroom applications not only for Black History Month, but also in April for National Poetry Month.

28 Days: Moments in Black History that Changed the World by Charles R. Smith and Shane W. Evans

Finally, each day ends with a paragraph in smaller type that gives additional background about the person or topic for that day.  This means there are four methods of interpretation for each day: the picture, the date and factual sentence, the poem or quotation, and the informative paragraph.  The parent or teacher reading this book aloud could choose to read only one or two sections, or they could read all of them.

One thing to remember when reading this book aloud is that the poetry sections vary quite a bit.  Harriet Tubman’s eulogy fills two pages, while Matthew Henson’s poem is 11 words long.  Some of the poems rely on the reader being able to see the poem, and others are meant for two voices.

Another important consideration is the content.  This book is marketed at ages 4-10, however there are some pages which may worry younger children.  Consider the child or group of children you would be reading this book to.  The kids were rather upset reading about the Dred Scott decision on Day 2.  Even though it is overturned on Day 4, if you are reading it one page each day, that may be too long.  I was able to use this book with older students as an introduction/review.

This book hits all the major court cases and many of the major “names” in Black History, along with others who may not be as familiar.  This was our first introduction to Madam C.J. Walker, although we later read a brief chapter book about her.  Matthew Henson and Robert Smalls might not be as familiar as Malcolm X and Jackie Robinson.  One odd digression is Nelson Mandela on Day 26, as he is not an American (but for some reason often included in African American history).  However, in general we really enjoyed reading a variety of poetic forms and learning about many moments in history and great figures, with vibrant illustrations to match.

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Coloring Book Review: Great African Americans

This coloring book is a win on every front… except including women.

At the spur of the moment, I decided to add coloring pages to the 30 day project, mainly because this Dover Coloring book kept popping up as I added diverse books on my Amazon wish list.  For us the coloring pages were a fun supplement to the main books – we usually didn’t read the text.  However, if you were looking for a easier, cheaper, or simpler alternative to the 30 day project, you could certainly do a 30 day project just coloring these pages and reading them.

The kids colored the pages as I read to them.  Sometimes they would race to finish first, or try to complete the page before we finished reading for the day, other times they would take their time and complete a page more slowly.

Nearly all of the pages corresponded to the “extra” picture book we were reading for the day, however occasionally we had a page that corresponded to one of our core texts, and a picture book that corresponded to the other.  Z found this very confusing, so if I do this project again, I would either avoid that, or explain more clearly who was who.

I think for some of the historical figures it would also have been helpful to have a picture or portrait to look at.  Some had photos or drawings in the books we were reading, but others didn’t.

Dover Coloring Book: Great African Americans

The first book I purchased was Great African Americans.  This book has 45 different coloring pages representing different figures from African American history.  Pages are arranged according to the person’s last name, and a wide range of people are included.  Some of the poses will be familiar from photographs, and the most dynamic pages were definitely the athlete pages.

Each page has a short paragraph at the bottom giving a brief overview of the person’s life and accomplishments, so one could definitely use this book alone for a 30 day study of African American history.  There were two pages which might bring up some questions parents must be prepared to answer: Marcus Garvey’s page, which discusses black separatism, and Mother Clara Hale’s page, which includes information about drug addiction and AIDs.

Of the coloring pages, there are 5 pages which have colored-in examples.  Frederick Douglas is on the cover, Harriet Tubman on the inside front cover, Elijah McCoy on the inside back cover, and smaller images of W.E.B. Du Bois and George Washington Carver are on the back cover.

Out of the 45 people featured in this book, only 10 are women.  After looking through the book, I quickly realized that if I wanted to include the many African American women who have contributed to American history, I would need to expand.  Luckily, there is another Dover Coloring book called Famous African-American Women.

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Where did this blog come from? I wasn’t always aware of the need for diverse reading material.

One day,  Husband and I had some kids come to live with us.  They were bright kids and they loved learning, particularly about history.  We read out loud to them every day from picture and chapter books, fiction and non-fiction.  But we found that their knowledge of African American history was limited to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks.

Summer was coming up and a lot more free time for reading.  So I decided to get some books and read one non-fiction picture book about African-American people and history every day for a month.  I owned a few already and friends helped by buying books or passing books along.

During the months before summer, the project grew and grew.  I became known for buying diverse books at the local used bookstore.  I decided to incorporate coloring pages and build the month around a frame of two books.  We ended up with over a hundred books and still I kept seeking out new ones.  Chapter books got involved because the kids would often ask questions I couldn’t answer.  Life got in the way and instead of spending a month on this project we spent the whole summer.  We enjoyed reading about some people so much that we read longer books about them.  We reread a few favorites.

Suddenly the school year was starting again and I began studying the books in the school library with new scrutiny.  I started asking my friends about the books in their homes and classrooms, or the books they had read growing up.  The books I chose for read-aloud had predominately white characters!  Not a single teacher or parent I met had any intention to be less inclusive in their reading.  Most were not even aware that their media was so biased.  They simply chose the books they saw and liked or those the students requested, and they weren’t seeing very many diverse books.

At the same time, some people were asking about the project we did.  Some wanted to recreate the project for themselves in February, while others wanted to know which books we enjoyed most or which I would recommend for their home or classroom.  Hence this blog.  I hope you find it useful.