Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas

 

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Gwendolyn Hooks/Colin Bootman

Historical dramas like Hidden Figures have me thinking about all the stories of black excellence I don’t know about; stories that we’ve yet to discover and celebrate. Though I was fortunate to grow up with a decent education on Black History, there’s always more to learn.

In Tiny Stitches, Gwendolyn Hooks tells the story of the incredibly gifted Vivien Thomas. We meet Vivien as he’s examining the tiny needles he designed. The needles are for an operation he invented but wouldn’t get credit for for twenty-six years, all because of the color of his skin. As a teenager, Vivien worked as a researcher at the all white Vanderbilt University for Dr. Alfred Blalock. He absorbed everything very quickly, but when he learned that his official job was “janitor” (and that he made less than his white counterparts) he refused to work until that changed.

When given the chance, Vivien moved his family to Baltimore, Maryland to assist Dr. Blalock at John Hopkins University. Even though he faced more discrimination and segregation there than in his home of Nashville, Tennessee, he thrived. When presented with the challenge of how to treat “blue babies” he excelled. Though he got no credit for his procedure until he was much older, he became a respected technician, always eager to share and teach his knowledge. Vivien Thomas pioneered open heart surgery on children and his compassion, intelligence and bravery has saved countless lives.

Hooks does a great job chronicling Thomas’ life & explaining medical procedures clearly for children to understand. She also includes interesting back matter about “blue babies” and more information about Thomas. Bootman’s use of cool colors gives the story a calm feeling; Thomas seemed to be a calm and collected person and the watercolor illustrations reflect that.

This is a really nice addition to non-fiction picture books for children and even better, it’s about a black man! It very deservedly just won a 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children. If you have a child who is interested in the body, medicine and stories of perseverance, check out this book!

 

 

Recommended for: 3rd Grade and up
Great for: History, Medicine, Pioneers, Perseverance, Determination, Discrimination, Segregation, Black History Month, African American, Dreams, Role Model, Non-Fiction, Science
Book Info: Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks/Illustrated by Colin Bootman, 2017 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781620141564

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Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Paula Yoo/Lin Wang

Whenever I see photograph of Anna May Wong…SLAY QUEEN, SLAY!   >_<

Anna May Wong grew up in LA washing clothes in her parents laundry and healing from the hateful slurs from her white peers at school. She started skipping school to watch actors on movie sets and was inspired to act. Though she was discouraged by her parents (good Chinese girls didn’t act), as a teenager she won a role as an extra in a film (her dad allowed it because they needed the money). She did extra roles for years until her first big role in Bits of Life in 1921. She played the wife of a Chinese man (White actor in yellowface) but they could’t kiss because it was against the law. She was disturbed by the yellowface but pressed on for the money and experience.

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Paula Yoo/Lin Wang

She’d continue to rise but her roles were very stereotypical and demeaning of Asian women. Anna May moved to Europe and achieved fame there but when she came back, hoping to score the lead role in The Good Earth, they gave it to…a white actress. She was fed up with discrimination and was caught between her desire to resist the racist roles AND follow her dream of acting in the US. During a trip China (she faced some criticism there for accepting stereotypical roles) to learn more about her heritage and to visit her retired parents, her spirt was renewed. Her father reminded her to always be proud of her race and fight to respectfully represent her people. She’d continue to act, but only in non-stereotypical Asian roles!

Lin Wang’s watercolor and acrylic illustrations are gorgeous. I just LOVE the way Yoo and Wang open the book; the illustration of the train rushing towards Anna May is extremely dramatic and dynamic! Wang really brings to life the glamour and grace of Anna May Wong.

What a good book! Anna May Wong isn’t as well known as she should be…The efforts she made towards improving the representation of Asian Americans in film isn’t as well known as it should be. With the current state of diversity in the film industry (not enough has changed), it’s especially important to go back and learn about those who’ve paved the way!

 

Recommended for: 2nd grade and up
Great for: Determination, Confidence, Girl Power, Role Model, Women’s History Month, Acting, Film Industry, Discrimination, Racism, Stereotypes, Ant-Miscegenation Laws, Diversity, Cultural Relativism, History, Film History, Asian American, Chinese American, Dreams, Family, Relationships, Discussion, Biography, Non-Fiction
Book Info: Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo/Illustrated by Lin Wang, 2009 Lee & Low Books, ISBN: 9781600602597

Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert

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Image Credit: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Gary D. Schmidt/David Diaz

Martin de Porres was born to an African/Native slave mother and a Spanish nobleman father in the barrios of Lima, Peru. The priest of a cathedral reluctantly baptized him, not knowing or caring that Martin would grow to be a true man of God. Martin lived with his mother and sister in poverty until he was 8 years old when his father came and took them to Ecuador. Martin came back to Lima to be an apprentice to a surgeon (a cirujano) and excelled at it.

Because he was African, people were prejudiced towards him but his skills were obvious. He was gifted lemon seeds for helping a man and after planting them, the next day a tree grew. At fifteen he wanted to become a priest but was denied the opportunity due to his mixed-blood. He offered to clean, wash and care for the monastery instead. People started to notice his gift with animals and his amazing healing powers. He performed miracles. Everyone, from the poor to the rich, came to him when in need. After many years of service he was allowed to become a priest, was finally seen as a brother, and continued his good deeds until his death.

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Image Credit: Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Gary D. Schmidt/David Diaz

The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous and soft. I also love Diaz’ work in Wilma Unlimited. He has a very distinct style. My favorite spread shows Martin blissfully surrounded by a horse, chickens, mice and dogs. They all show their love and appreciation for him and he gives it back just as much.

To his mother, Martin was always a Rose in the Desert but finally, despite his brown skin and heritage, he was seen as the true rose he was, by everyone. Martin de Porres was beatified in 1837 and finally canonized in 1962. He is the first black saint in the Americas! How fitting this caring and spiritual man of color be named the patron saint of brotherhood, those of mixed race, animal shelters, interracial relations and social justice!

I like finding unique stories. I’m glad to be able to share this one with you for Black History Month. 🙂

 

Recommended for: 1st grade and up
Great for: Catholicism, Saints, Miracles, Mixed-Race, Injustice, Discrimination, Peru, Helping Others, Animals, Community Service, Love, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion, Biography
Book Info: Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt/Illustrated by David Diaz, 2012 Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), ISBN: 9780547612188

 

Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald

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Image Credit: Candlewick Press, Roxanne Orgill/Sean Qualls

Ummm hmm. Ella’s voice is one of my all time favorites. What I like about this picture book is that it tells the story of her early life, when she was just a Raggedy Cat trying to survive.

Ella had a larger than life personality ever since she was a young girl. Growing up in Yonkers, NY, her family didn’t have much but they had plenty of music.  Her voice could draw a crowd. She and her friend Charlie learned the newest moves and made a little change on the sidewalks dancing for crowds. It was a time of Jazz Jazz Jazz. Her mother passed away suddenly and she ended up on 145th Street in Harlem, living with her aunt. She didn’t get much love there so she searched for something better, on her own.

Ella’s 1938 chart0topper “A Tisket A Tasket” which was included in a movie called Ride ‘Em Cowboy in 1942. Oh look she’s at the back of the bus!  >_<

She got into some trouble and found herself in a school for orphans. They beat the girls, especially the black girls, so she ran away, back to Harlem. She was on the streets and in and out of people’s homes but one day she heard about auditioning at the Apollo Theater and decided to give it a try. The crowd almost ran her off the stage but the emcee gave her another chance and she blew them away! Ella started to make a name for herself. Despite her plain looks, bandleader Chick Webb gave her a chance to join his band at the Savoy. Ella’s spirit shone through her voice, loud and clear. People loved dancing to her. The band got their first big hit when she wrote “A Tisket, A Tasket.” With that song she shot to stardom and didn’t have to worry about food, lack of nice clothes and a place to sleep ever again!

I like Sean Qualls’ art style. He likes to lay his acrylic down a little rough and scratchy and uses a palette of reds, oranges, blues and browns. I love the jazz scenes that show the vibrance of Harlem at its artistic peak. Author Roxane Orgill and Sean Qualls really did an excellent job of pairing story with illustration; when I finished the book, I felt satisfied. I learned so much about young Ella and her spirit.

If you’re looking for an excellent biography that celebrates never giving up despite the odds, check out Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat…and go listen to some jazz!

 

Recommended for: 1st Grade and up
Great for:  Jazz, Jazz Bands, Music History, History, African-American, Black Girls Rock, Black Girl Magic, Inner Strength, Family, Determination, Discrimination, Jim Crow, Apollo Theater, Harlem, Dance, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Discussion, Biography
Book Info: Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat Ella Fitzgerald by Roxane Orgill/Illustrated by Sean Qualls, 2010 Candlewick Press, ISBN: 9780763617332

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans

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Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Don Brown


Drowned City
is a tough but very important read. The graphic novel element makes this story accessible to reluctant readers and Brown does a great job of recounting and documenting this part of history. It’s easy to pick up the book and learn the history, facts, heroism and the incompetency. The writing of Drowned City reads like an extended newspaper article; fact after fact with the addition of speech bubbles. The moments of dialogue help connect readers to the tragic events and the people who suffered through them.

As I read the book, I’d stare at the words and then the illustrations and I’d shake my head, memories of television news reports coming back to me. Brown’s illustrations are powerful. He uses a palette of of browns, blues, grays and purples to depict the stagnant water, stormy skies, and hopeless expressions of the people of New Orleans.

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Image Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Don Brown

One criticism I have of this book is that in the summary, Brown writes “The suffering hit the African American community hardest; a weather disaster became a race disaster” but he never addresses this in the book. Brown skin is visually noticeable in the illustrations but he doesn’t discuss the issue of race in the lack of response to the hurricane victims, or even acknowledge that most of the victims were African American. This is something I’d encourage parents and teachers to discuss.

Published in 2015, just in time for the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Drowned City is a worthy and moving read that will provoke much discussion in your home or classroom. This book can be even more powerful when used in conjunction with real life accounts and stories from the victims themselves. A while back I compiled a group of excellent books about Hurricane Katrina for a display at my bookstore. Check out my post here for those books and be sure to pick up a copy of this graphic novel.

 

Recommended for: Ages 12 and up
Great for: History, Modern History, Hope, Community, Determination, Discrimination, Discussion, Economic Inequality, Incompetency, Hurricane Katrina, Inner Strength, Lack of Leadership, Leadership, Social Issues, Struggle, We Need Diverse Books, Non-Fiction, African American
Book Info: Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown, 2015 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN: 9780544157774

Surfer of the Century

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Ellie Crowe/Illustrated by Richard Waldrep

 

Ah, what a COOL guy. This excellent biography is about Hawaiian athlete Duke Kahanamoku who’s credited for spreading surfing all over the world with his passion for the sport and the waves.

Duke didn’t grow up with much but he grew up a boy of the island Oʻahu and its waters. He wasn’t the best at school work but he was a natural athlete and a powerfully fast and gifted swimmer. When he was a teen, he lucked upon a coach, started a “poor man’s swim club” and continued perfecting his swimming as well as the curve and design of his surfboards.

At a local AAU swim meet, Duke shattered the world record and AAU records but people on the mainland didn’t believe it! His community would raise money to send him to California to try out for the US Olympic Swim Team where he’d easily qualify and set off to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Duke faced a great deal of discrimination and racism on the mainland for being a person of color and Crowe addresses these issues in the book. Though he faced several challenges, he overcame them and and became a symbol of Hawaii. In his lifetime, he won multiple medals, gained adoring fans from all over the world and would share his love for surfing with the global community.

Duke Kahanamoku truly embodied the spirit of aloha (love/kindness) in everything he did! He rightfully deserves the title of Surfer of the Century and continues to be a role model to this day.

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books Inc., Ellie Crowe/Illustrated by Richard Waldrep

[Jim Thorpe and Duke Kanahamoku on their way to the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden a.k.a. #IndigenousBadassery]

 

Now an excellent book about surfing needs excellent illustrations and luckily, Walrep comes through strong. The gouache illustrations are absolutely glowing and gorgeous. Blocks of color, excellent lighting, shining dark brown skin, confident smiles, and blue waves with wispy foam transport readers to Hawaii. Surfer of the Century is a worthy tribute to a great sportsman and human being.

 

Recommended for: All ages
Great for: Community, Diversity, Surfing, Aloha, Hawaii, We Need Diverse Books, Biography, Discrimination, Segregation, Discussion, Social Issues, Family, History, Swimmers, Non-Fiction
Book Info: Surfer of the Century by Ellie Crowe/Illustrated by Richard Waldrep, 2007 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781584302766