Review: Amazing Grace

Lavar Burton’s favorite picture book doesn’t disappoint.


Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch.
Dial Books for Young Readers, Penguin Books USA, New York, 1991,  Reprinted Scholastic, New York, 1993.
Picture book realistic fiction, 24 pages.
Lexile: 680L
AR Level: 3.5 (worth 0.5 points)

Grace loves stories, whether they are read or watched or told to her.  More than anything, she loves to act out those stories.  When her class is producing Peter Pan, classmates say she can’t play Peter because she’s a black girl.  But Grace believes she can do anything.

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch

This book is something of a classic.  It was featured on Reading Rainbow and became somewhat ubiquitous in school libraries in a short amount of time.  Lavar Burton has said that Amazing Grace is his favorite picture book, and it’s easy to see why.

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Review: On Her Own

“Some children were happy at the orphanage. Living there was better than having no home at all.” p. 19

On Her Own: The Life of Betty Brinn, written by Priscilla Pardini, illustrated by Joanne Scholler Bowring.
Elizabeth A. Brinn Foundation, Elm Grove, WI, 2001.
Picture book biography, 32 pages.
Not leveled.

In Wisconsin, especially Milwaukee County, Betty Brinn is known for the excellent children’s museum bearing her name.  However, not many people know her story, or how her own experiences as an institutionalized, and later a foster child drove her to philanthropy.

On Her Own: The Life of Betty Brinn written by Priscilla Pardini, illustrated by Joanne Scholler Bowring.

The first half of the book focuses on Betty’s birth family and her life in the orphanage.  On page 21, she and her sister move to a foster home.  Betty was in 17 different foster homes, so this book only focuses on the Stinson family, whom she lived with between ages 13-16.  The final pages cover her adult life from struggles to success to her early death from cancer.

This book is ubiquitous at used bookstores near Milwaukee.  At one I occasionally visit, there is always a copy on the children’s discount bookshelves, so I picked it up for a dollar.  (The paperback retails for $4.50 new.)

I’m glad that I read this because I definitely learned a lot about Betty Brinn’s life and why she was driven to do what she did.  However, I also am not sure who to recommend this for.  The words and pictures don’t exactly connect to each other.  Reading about the author and illustrator, it appears that Priscilla Pardini is an experienced author but had never written for children before, and that really shows in the writing.

There are at least two paragraphs of text in every two-page spread, sometimes more.  One two page-spread has seven paragraphs!  The text seems to be geared towards a fourth or fifth grade level while the pictures are aimed at a younger audience.  The writing is factual but doesn’t really tell a story that engages kids.

Due to the density of the small print, this doesn’t make a good read-aloud.  The kids who are drawn to the pictures typically aren’t ready to read such challenging text.  And the kids who are able to read the text dismiss it as babyish.

On Her Own, front cover interior map of Milwaukee County Children’s Home in the 1940s.

There are some lovely details in the book.  The front and back covers have maps of the orphanage and the Stinson’s farm.  It certainly gives a comprehensive overview of Betty Brinn’s life.  The writing is solid non-fiction.  Unfortunately there is a fundamental disconnect between the disparate elements of the book.

If you have interest in Betty Brinn, orphanages, or foster care, then this book may be for you.  But I cannot recommend it in general.



Review: A Country Far Away

Creative book concept has a disturbing subtext in execution.

A Country Far Away by Nigel Gray and Phillippe Dupasquier.
Orchard Books, New York, 1988.
Picture book informative fiction, 26 pages.
Lexile:   BR  (What does BR mean in Lexile levels?)
AR level: 1.2 (worth 0.5 points)

This book has an intriguing premise.  There are two stories – on the top of each page, outlined in red, is what my copy calls life in “a small African village” and on the bottom of each page, outlined in blue, is what my copy calls life in “a modern suburban setting.”  The two stories are very, very different, but they are united by the central text, which in simple words states what is happening in the lives of both boys, for example “Today was the last day of school before vacation.” or “I helped my mom and dad.”  In my copy, the text is only in English, although some other reviews have indicated that other editions might have had other text as well at one point, and there is white space where such text could occur.

A Country Far Away, written by Nigel Gray, illustrated by Philippe Dupasquier

Normally I don’t seek out reviews for books I’m planning to review, but this book was an exception.  I needed to see what others were saying in order to make sense of my own reaction to the book, and I was confused that the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.  There were very few negative reviews even though the book has several crippling flaws.

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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: 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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