Dear Dragon

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Image Credit: Viking (Penguin Young Readers Group), Josh Funk/Rodolfo Montalvo

Like the dragon Blaise Dragomir, this excellent book has flown a bit under the radar. Josh Funk writes really amusing books and this is my favorite one so far! Dear Dragon has themes of kindness, inclusiveness and discovery; kids will enjoy watching these characters fall into friendship!

Blaise Dragomir (dragon boy) and George Slair (human boy) are matched through a poetry/pen-pal assignment in their classes. I love how the language they use is formal at first but as they get closer, it becomes more familiar. The boys have no idea that they’re different species; their friendship grows over several months. It’s fun to see how each boy imagines the life of the other; different experiences lead to different perspectives. When Blaise reads about George building a fort with his dad, he imagines two dragons hammering A REAL FORT, that protects a castle! He has no idea that George’s fort is built of cardboard (and that he is human! 😉  ). Their classes finally meet in the spring and though it’s quite a surprise, they roll with it!

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Image Credit: Viking (Penguin Young Readers Group), Josh Funk/Rodolfo Montalvo

 

Though dragons and humans don’t have the best history of peaceful interactions, these boys overcome that and recognize the goodness in each other. Children can relate to overcoming differences (and learned prejudices and fear) to connect with others. Also, at first Blaise and George don’t enjoy writing much, but though the project, they gain more confidence in their skills (as they gain a friend).

As with most excellent picture books, the synergy between the text and illustrations is phenomenal. Montalvo’s watercolor, ink and graphite illustrations are warm and so detailed! I happened to see the book’s cover months before it published and I remember being SO excited to see a brown boy with bushy hair! It’s not common to see brown boys on the cover of picture books so I’m glad to have one more gem to recommend. Montalvo brings Funk’s writing to life in a beautiful way.

I really enjoyed Dear Dragon and I hope you will too! In addition to being a very good read aloud, this book is perfect for pen-pal projects. Maybe a new (dragon?) friend is waiting…

 

 

Recommended for: 1st Grade and up
Great for: Friendship, Open-Mindedness, Courage, Acceptance, Read-Aloud, Rhyme, Humor, Pen-Pal, Inclusiveness, Diversity, Adventure, Animals
Book Info: Dear Dragon: A Pen-Pal Tale by Josh Funk/Illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo, 2016 Viking (Penguin Young Readers Group), ISBN: 9780451472304

Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books, Andrea Cheng

I never had the chance to meet Andrea Cheng but I handled her books, I sold them. I was in the same space as them. A Cincinnati author, talented and kind are some of the things people told me about her. Interestingly enough, I’ve been connected to her for quite some time though; I went to school with one of her daughters, Ann. Recently I was able to reconnect with Ann and spend time with two of Andrea’s close writer friends. Here’s what I can say about Andrea Cheng, now that I’ve read her words for myself and can reflect on her people; her voice is strong and she’s left a legacy of goodness.

Etched in Clay is poetry inspired by the historical record of an amazing man named Dave (David Drake). Dave was a skilled potter/poet who happened to be enslaved. Cheng speaks for him but doesn’t say too much. It’s just enough. We follow Dave from his teenage years fresh off the auction block to his life as a free man in his seventies. He’s sold and re-sold several times within the Landrum family to work their pottery works. His first owner, Harvey Drake, notices his talent and teaches him how to create pottery. Drake’s religious wife Sarah gives Dave a powerful tool too, a spelling book from which he learns to read and write. In his long life, he is split apart from the women and children he loves, he struggles with his lack of agency as an enslaved man and he REBELS with words and poetry. Words spill out of his head and onto his pottery. Dave finds a way to assert his worth as a human being through the liberatory act of black creativity.

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books, Andrea Cheng

Harvey Drake (like most whites at the time) is conscious of the danger in nurturing the intelligence of a slave. He’s comfortable in his power and is protective of the system that keeps his whiteness above blackness. Though Dave knows he can be lashed for knowing how to read (and showing it), he does it anyway. Even signing his name on a pot is dangerous yet he does it…and by doing so, he reflects on his legacy (his pots are made to last) and asserts HIS power. His defiance is through words.

Andrea Cheng doesn’t romanticize or soften slavery; she gives us a glimpse of Dave’s reality. I appreciate her honest characterizations of the slave masters and their disregard for Dave’s (and the other slaves’) humanity. The entire book is full of excellent characterization! A masterful storyteller has the ability to make you bubble and boil with frustration yet eagerly reach to turn the page. I wanted to keep going and see what would happen to Dave, a man who, like my ancestors, was remarkable.

The woodcuts in this book are also done by Andrea Cheng and just like the writing, they are just enough (and so much). They give us a glimpse into Dave’s life with blocky shapes, black and white lines and outlines that suggest more than tell. Not only do I recommend Etched in Clay for casual reading, I think it’s perfect for the classroom. There are so many lessons to take away and to discuss and Dave should be more well known. I hope you’ll pick up this book and enjoy.

 

 

Recommended for: Ages 11 and up
Great for: Inner Strength, Rebellion, Courage, Determination, Defiance, African American, Slavery, History, Pottery, Creativity, Poetry, Relationships, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, History-Inspired, Discussion, Classroom
Book Info: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng, 2013 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781600604515

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

Josephine

Image Credit: Chronicle Books, Patricia Hruby Powell/Christian Robinson

A passionate woman full of energy, charisma and magic was Josephine Baker.

Patricia Hruby Powell uses the metaphor of volcano to describe Josephine’s personality and I think this is perfect. Ever since a little girl, she bubbled and popped and fizzled with pent up energy to perform and dance. She was born poor in segregated St. Louis to a single mother who also loved to dance. They shared a love of vaudeville. As a child she started out in the group The Jones Family but quickly moved on to The Dixie Steppers. Even in a chorus line she stood out with her distinct, silly style. She got hitched, went to broadway and used her smarts to get onstage and SHINE.

Look how spunky and charming she is in the film Zouzou (1934)!

Though she loved to perform, Josephine was tired of segregation and just barely getting by. She got the chance to head to Paris where as soon as she stepped off the steam ship, she wasn’t discriminated against because of her color and felt truly beautiful! She took Paris by storm, charming the entire city, headlining shows, staring in movies and drawing crowds with her energy and risqué banana skirts. She was in every way fabulous, scandalous and daring. When war came she spied for France and became a hero.

As she got older, she remarried and adopted twelve children from all over the world; her rainbow tribe. Though she worked hard to support her children and keep up her lavish lifestyle, she was put out of their mansion, the bills too much to pay. Luckily her friends helped her family and years later, at sixty-seven years old, she decided to give the US one more try. It was a success! America loved her and dear Josephine danced herself to eternal sleep.

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Image Credit: Chronicle Books, Patricia Hruby Powell/Christian Robinson

The rhythm and energy of the writing in this book suits Josephine’s personality. It’s broken very cleverly into “acts” of her life. Robinson’s illustrations, as usual, are vivid and beautiful. His signature long bodied figures are perfect for Josephine’s limber body. The book opens with a red curtain, each “act” is introduced by a scene on a stage and finally, after we finish reading the story, the red curtain returns, flowers stewn on the floor below it. I love this touch. It brings the story full circle; she lived for performance. Robinson says in the end notes that he’s been connected to Josephine Baker’s story ever since he was young and it’s very evident in the loving way he depicts her.

Josephine has become one of my favorite biography picture books. It’s one that my bookstore never carried and I kept reading about online. I kept thinking “I’ve GOT to read that book!” After reading Josephine (or maybe even during, like I did), you’ll want to look up photographs and videos of this AMAZING woman. What a woman she was…

 

Recommended for: 2nd grade and up
Great for: Dance, Vaudeville, African-American, Segregation, Determination, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Confidence, Courage, Rhythm, Energy, Paris, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion, Biography
Book Info: Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell/Illustrated by Christian Robinson, 2014 Chronicle Books, ISBN: 9781452103143