Twelve-year old Lanesha is different from her peers in one major way: she can see ghosts. And several minor ways: she was raised by Mama Ya-Ya, the midwife who birthed her, but without the formality of kinship or an official foster care relationship. She loves to learn, tackling difficult math problems and learning new words with glee.
The book covers nine days directly before and during the events of Hurricane Katrina over 14 chapters. Within the chapters the text is further broken into sections, and the sentences tend to be short. Although Parker Rhodes doesn’t shy away from challenging words, they are decipherable with context clues if not defined in the text. These explain why this has a low reading level, but it’s not meant for very young readers. Children closer to Lanesha’s age would be a much better fit, because the novel does include deaths, extreme peril, hunger, destruction, and family rejection.
The story starts slowly, establishing Lanesha’s character, neighborhood, and routine before tearing everything apart. It’s a first person novel, and Lanesha is smart, independent, and loving. She’s in an unofficial kinship situation with Mama Ya-Ya since her mother died in childbirth without revealing her father and her mother’s family refuses to accept or acknowledge her.
Bessie Coleman: Trailblazing Pilot (Rookie Biographies) by Carol Alexander.
Children’s Press, Scholastic, New York, 2016.
Picture book biography/early chapter book, 32 pages.
Lexile: 600L .
AR Level: 3.4 (worth 0.5 points) .
NOTE: Despite the reading level, these are typically used by first and second graders, or read aloud to younger students.
The life of Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot.
Rookie Biographies is a series of books that use photographs and simple text to inform students about the lives of various historical and modern-day figures. This series tends to be perfect for second or third graders to read independently, although I’ve also seen them used with higher or lower elementary school students.
“Dream big, little one. There’s so much you can do. Just look at all the leaders who came before you.” pages 1 and 2
Dream Big, Little One by Vashti Harrison.
Little, Brown, and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, 2018.
Board book nonfiction, 26 pages.
A board book adaptation of Harrison’s popular book Little Leaders.
We already have more board books than one family really needs. But after spending so long hunting for great diverse board books, I still get excited about new releases, especially one like this that has excellent role models for our daughters.
“Slavery corrupts the owners. The master’s sons are corrupted by their father’s immoral behavior. The master’s daughters hear their parents fighting about slave women and may overhear talk of their father having seduced or raped slaves.” page 30
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs, edited by Lisa Barsky.
The Townsend Library, Townsend Press, New Jersey, 2004 (first pub. 1861).
Slave narrative, 152 pages including editor’s afterword.
Lexile: 740L .
AR Level: 7.1 (worth 14.0 points) .
NOTE: I read a printed book which had been edited and contained additional back matter. Project Gutenberg has a free ebook version of the original text available.
The autobiography of a young woman born into slavery in 1813.
This book is remarkable, and I’m only surprised I didn’t read it sooner! But let me write a review anyway in case you need more convincing and haven’t clicked the link above to read it already. So many aspects of Jacob’s life are typical of her time, place, and station in life, but she herself is not very typical.
“We three stuck together / like the pages in a brand-new book. / And being normal young children, / we were almost always up to something.” page 10
My Brother Martin: A Sister Remembers Growing Up with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Christine King Farris, illustrated by Chris Soentpiet.
Simon and Schuster, New York, 2003.
Picture book nonfiction, 40 pages.
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: 5.0 (worth 0.5 points) .
Personal remembrances of Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood from his older sister Christine.
I debated a lot before buying this book. Our local libraries didn’t have it and the cover, especially in a small thumbnail version, is just so unattractive. However, I was hoping for something different from the standard stories, which is exactly what this book delivers. Luckily the interior art is excellent!
The book does skew a bit toward older readers with denser text and more difficult words like chifforobe, Cyclorama, Auburn, cruelty, bigotry, nourishing. The main focus here is on MLK’s childhood, specifically on two fronts – both the ways in which he was an ordinary, sometimes mischievous little boy, and the events that shaped his personality.
“Everett had been wandering around for almost an hour. His body ached from the cold, and he had no idea where to go.” page 19
Away West (Scraps of Time 1879) by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Gordon James.
Puffin Books, Penguin Young Readers Group, New York, 2006.
Elementary historical fiction, 121 pages.
Lexile: 510L .
AR Level: 3.4 (worth 1.0) .
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 Civil War army medal, although the story does not deal directly with the Civil War. Instead, Gee tells them about her grandfather, Everett Turner. The youngest of three brothers, he was determined to find his place in the West.
“Bob had been a slave and had never learned to read words. But he could look at the ground and read what animals had walked on it, their size and weight, when they had passed by, and where they were going.” page 7
Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story by Julius Lester, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.
Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin, New York, 1998.
Picture book nonfiction, 40 pages.
Lexile: 710L .
AR Level: 4.5 (worth 0.5 points) .
One expedition of a cowboy named Bob Lemmons, famed for his ability to bring in herds of wild mustangs solo.
As a young reader I acquired a childish interest in the West. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was from Laura Ignalls Wilder (and yes, I now know how problematic that was, and our kids read Louise Erdrich instead). In adult life, I’ve been learning just how very much was wrong, or omitted, from my early education. Even so, it was surprising to learn that the common all-white image of cowboys were actually roughly a third Hispanic and that one in four cowboys was African-American.
Luckily there are several diverse books about this, so I can share a much more accurate and sensitive culturally appropriate portrayal of the West with our kids. Since we love Jerry Pinkney, of course this was our first title.