“I can still be sorry that you had to experience that. No child or woman should ever be treated like you, Suzie, and your mom were. It helps me understand a little bit why you think you wouldn’t be any good at fancy dancing.” page 9
Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories for Kids, edited by Cynthia Leitich Smith. Heartdrum, HarperCollins, New York, 2021, my edition 2022. MG short story anthology, 312 pages including back matter. Lexile: not yet leveled AR Level: 5.0 (worth 9.0 points) . NOTE: This review is longer than usual since I discuss each piece and the book as a whole. Also see note on accent marks.
An anthology of pieces centered around one powwow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Despite having left school library life some time ago, I still get excited to see new collections and anthologies like this one published, because they are such important additions to the classroom. Ancestor Approved manages to take this to the next level by having the stories and poems all connected, despite most being by different authors. If it’s difficult as a reader to wrap your head around the many linkages and connections, just imagine the work Cynthia Leitich Smith did to bring this book together!
There are 18 different pieces by 16 different authors (and Nicole Neidhardt who contributed the excellent cover illustration is also rightfully acknowledged). Most are short stories although the book closes and opens with poems. There’s also considerable supportive matter, including a foreword, glossary broken down by story, notes, acknowledgements, and brief biographies of all contributors. As is my custom for anthologies and collections, I’ll discuss each of the individual pieces briefly before returning to the discussion of the work as a whole.
A board book (also available in picture book format) based on the popular song.
I just love song picture books and board books because they have so many applications. Toddlers can look at the pictures. Older children can read the words independently. And everybody in between can sing the song! These are nice for allowing children to read at a bit higher level than they are ready for, because they can use prior knowledge of the song lyrics to decode the words. They can also be helpful for engaging reluctant readers who love music.
However, this type of book is challenging to do well. Luckily, Williams and his team have done a great job converting this song to board book format. Now, I will say that if you’ve never heard the song, this book might not make so much sense to you – the lyrics don’t exactly coalesce into a story. But take a minute and go listen to the song, I’ll wait!
“The sky’s no limit if you’ve flown / on your own power in countless dreams; / […] / not if you’ve gazed at stars / and known God meant for you to soar.” page 1
You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jeffery Boston Weatherford.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers Imprint, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016.
Second person historical novel in verse, 80 pages including timeline and notes.
Lexile: 910L .
AR Level: 6.0 (worth 1.0 points) .
NOTE: I would consider this book for about 4th grade through adult reading.
This story told in the second person vividly delineates the journey of a black airman during WWII through sparse poems and black and white images based on historic photographs.
I did not expect to like this book. A novel in verse – already something I feel ambiguous about. Then you add the fact that this is in second person, which I tend to dislike even when it’s done well. Finally, I was under the misapprehension that this was a work of non-fiction about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Yet this book which I should have disliked actually captivated me.
First, let’s discuss the illustrations. There is one illustration on almost every other page. A few are full page, but most are half or less. They interact nicely with the text. Some scratch into the page, and in other cases there’s white text on black background so the words flow into the illustration. At a casual glance some of the illustrations look like photographs.
“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.
“The softball he couldn’t find / Last Saturday, / One toothbrush, one helmet… / He put them away.” p. 18
Clean Your Room, Harvey Moon! by Pat Cummings.
Aladdin Paperbacks, Simon and Schuster, 1991, my edition 1994.
Picture book, 32 pages.
Lexile: not yet leveled
AR Level: 3.3 (worth 0.5 points) .
The story of one boy with a very messy room and the Saturday morning he spent cleaning instead of watching cartoons.
I’m always delighted when I find books about various life skills featuring children of color. If diverse children are unrepresented in books in general, they are even more invisible in educational books, whether it’s word problems in the math textbook or “soft” life skill texts like this funny book about cleaning your room.
Harvey is settling down with a snack and getting ready for a Saturday of all his favorite cartoons when his mom walks in and tells him no TV until he cleans up his room! Amidst moans and groans, Harvey starts cleaning. The entire book is in loose rhyme and the funniest parts are about the items he finds in his room, both good and gross.
“He is an award-winning bound book, / where I am loose and blank pages. / And since he came first, it’s his fault. / And I’m sticking to that.” p. 99
The Poet X: A Novel by Elizabeth Acevedo.
HarperTeen, HarperCollins, New York, 2018.
Novel in verse, 378 pages.
Lexile: HL800L ( What does HL mean in Lexile? )
AR Level: not yet leveled
Dominican-American teen Xiomara Batisa is one half of a pair of miraculous twins – their birth to older parents caused her philandering father to change his ways and reaffirmed their mother’s devotion to her Catholic faith. Her genius brother Xavier skipped a grade and is living up to their miracle status, while she defends his comic book collection and feels inadequate.
Target seems to be shelving more and more diverse novels that I’m interested in reading. There’s been some buzz about this one, but I didn’t know many details. I think because of the title, I assumed it had to do with Malcolm X and just wasn’t interested. But that’s not what this book is about at all. This book is about poetry and love and family and the power of being who you really are.
But let me back up a bit. There is a love story in this, but don’t get turned off by the heavy romance early on, because this is not a love story. Rather, this is about Xiomara’s sophomore year of high school, and how she learned to be more confident in herself, and how her family relationships completely changed.
I’ve been reading some of Maya Angelou’s work, and what variety! I’d really never progressed beyond some of her more popular poems, so this has been very eye-opening for me.
Perhaps you are new to Angelou’s work, or just want more background? Check out her biography page on the Poetry Foundation website. You can get a good overview of her life and books as well as read a small sampling of her poems.
If you want to hear from the woman herself, check out this 2003 interview from Smithsonian magazine. The wide-ranging conversation covers her traumatic childhood, her writing methods, and so much more.
Of course, you can also watch clips of Angelou or hear her recite some of her poetry at her official website, which is still running with updates on the latest Angelou-related projects.
Or watch one of the final Angelou projects come to fruition after her passing:
That’s Harlem Hopscotch, one of her poems reimagined as a song on the Caged Bird Songs album. You can hear more on their website (this is the only music video, but they do have a few lyric videos available as well).
What’s your favorite Angelou book, poem, song, or project?
“Paris was not the place for me or my son. The French could entertain the idea of me because they were not immersed in guilt about a mutual history…” p. 165
Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas by Maya Angelou.
Bantam, New York, 1977 (originally published 1976).
Adult autobiography, 242 pages.
In a funny coincidence, I gave away Angelou books (not even read yet… but better loved by someone else) and then a month later came across this in the free books. Of course I started reading this one immediately and it was fascinating. I’ve read quite a bit of her poetry before, but never one of her autobiographies. Upon reading this one I realized that they are probably best read chronologically.
This title is the third, and covers the time when she lived in San Francisco after her son was born, worked a wide variety of jobs, spent a few years married to a white man, and eventually found herself with an entertainment career that took her all over the world, but sadly separated her from her son.
“I wanna say I am somebody. I wanna say it on subway, TV, movie, LOUD.” page 31
Push by Sapphire.
Vintage books, Random House, New York, my edition 1997, orig. pub. 1996.
Adult fiction incorporating poetry, 140 pages plus the Life Story Class Book (not paginated).
Lexile: not leveled.
AR Reader: 4.0 (worth 5.0 points)
NOTE: This book is not intended for children, whatever the reading level may be.
16-year-old Precious is pregnant with another one of her father’s babies and has been kicked out of school. Her mother feels there’s no point and what’s the use, since she can’t read anyway? But Precious, fierce, determined, angry, and sad, misses school and is going to try again. Maybe her baby can have a better life than her.
I came across this book in the most roundabout way. I’d heard of it before and the movie Precious which is based on it. But it wasn’t on my TBR, just one of those books you hear about and nod, “yes, I’ll read that some day.” Then I was at the summer clearance at Barnes and Noble, and they had a copy of the 2011 sequel, The Kid in hardcover for a dollar. That’s been sitting on my shelves for a year now, and I finally picked up a copy of Push.
“I started spending time in the library, researching books on religion and philosophy.” page 56
Un-Ashamed by Lecrae Moore, with Jonathan Merritt.
B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee, 2016.
Autobiography, 204 pages including notes (211 pages including blank note space).
The autobiography of a “Christian rapper” who successfully transitioned to general rap spaces and overcame many personal challenges.
This one is from the library. I knew it was somewhat religious, but didn’t realize just how Christian it was. There definitely were points that could apply to everyone, but it also was very heavy on religion. For example, his conversion experience takes up most of a chapter, while other aspects of his life are given much less detail. Lecrae sees his life through the filter of Christianity and views everything with God’s purpose in mind.