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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Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

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Image Credit: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group), Javaka Steptoe

Radiant Child is a masterful tribute to artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Steptoe channels Basquiat’s energy and love for his city in how he uses found-wood pieces from landmarks all over NYC and paints them in rich colors.

This is an honest and thoughtful picture book. It introduces Basquiat and his art to children and is exactly what we need in children’s literature, especially for children of color. A confident, smiling black boy on the cover is powerful in and of itself.

In Radiant Child, we meet a Haitian/Puerto-Rican boy from 1960s Brooklyn, NY who dreams of becoming an artist. Basquiat is a focused and messy artist and his mother, also a creative person, encourages him to create. His mother leaves home because of her mental health and this leaves him heartbroken…but not broken; he keeps creating and drawing outside of the lines. As he gets older, his drawings become graffiti. He makes sure to stay connected to his mother as best he can; he wants her to see the artist he becomes. His graffiti, under the name “SAMO,” eventually becomes art in galleries and museums. Basquiat’s  talent and drive bring him international fame.

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Image Credit: Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group), Javaka Steptoe

Steptoe uses powerful and lyrical text (“Somewhere in Brooklyn, between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice, a little boy dreams of being a famous artist”) to tell Basquiat’s story. His art is equally compelling; brightly painted & collaged wood blocks are fun to look at. None of Basquiat’s original art is used in this book; it’s all Steptoe’s original work inspired by the artist. As we learn about Basquiat’s life, style and use of symbolism, we can also study the symbolism that Steptoe tucks into his detailed illustrations. The cover alone (Haitian and Puerto Rican flags prominent, ABC blocks that spell out Basquiat’s name, etc. ) tells Basquiat’s story.

I love that this book celebrates Basquiat’s relationship with his mother and that it’s honest about mental illness; this is important for children, as many may relate to Basquiat’s life. A lengthy Author’s Note gives readers more information about Basquiat (including information about his drug addiction and death) and tells us why and how Steptoe came to create this book.

This vibrant and beautiful book is one of the best of 2016. It will win a Coretta Scott King Award but will it also get a Caldecott? I hope it does; the art is top notch. Nevertheless, I hope many children read Radiant Child because Basquiat’s spirit, creativity and determination to create are inspiring!

 

 

Recommended for: All Ages
Great for: Family, Art, Love, African-American, Haitian, Puerto-Rican, Biography, Determination, Dreams, Mental Health, Diversity, Non-Fiction, New York, Discussion
Book Info: Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe, 2016 Little, Brown and Company (Hachette Book Group), ISBN: 9780316213882

Mission to Space

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Image Credit: White Dog Press (Chickasaw Press), John Herrington

Native American Heritage Month just ended here in the U.S. with constant reports of aggression and violence towards Native peoples at Oceti Sakowin Camp. Snow has fallen on the camp and the water protectors are still standing strong against the Dakota Access Pipeline. I’ve noticed, through media coverage of this situation, that visibility of Native peoples has risen somewhat. When children see Native people standing strong and united against a pipeline that will affect all of us, that helps fight ignorance & combats racism. Stereotypes of Native people are still very pervasive and harmful.

Contemporary stories about Native people, especially written by Native people, are important “mirror” books for Native children who simply don’t see enough of themselves in books. These stories are also vital tools in classrooms full of non-Native children. That’s why Mission to Space is so important; it’s a non-fiction book, written by Chickasaw astronaut John Herrington, printed by Chickasaw Press. Author Zetta Elliott often talks about the importance of community-based publishing and this is a perfect example.

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Image Credit: White Dog Press (Chickasaw Press), John Herrington

In Mission to Space, Commander John Herrington takes us back to his roots as a boy who loved shooting rockets with his dad and brother. Years later, he’d grow up to be an astronaut on the shuttle Endeavor! In this book, simple but effective text is accompanied by vivid photographs. Herrington explains how much work it takes to do something well and in his case, to become an astronaut. That’s an important lesson for children. When he was launched into space, people from his nation came to celebrate; he was the first tribally-enrolled Native person to fly in space!

Children who love science, astronomy and languages will get a lot out of this book. Not only does Herrington give readers a behind-the-scenes look into what it takes to become an astronaut, he talks about how important language is for Chickasaw identity and provides a glossary of space terms in the Chickasaw language. I hope you’ll check this book out!

P.S. Visit the book’s website to see a cool video and take a look at Debbie Reese’s glowing review.

 

Recommended for: All Ages
Great for: Astronomy, Determination, Dreams, Role Models, STEM, Language, Native American, Chickasaw, Sovereignty, Native American Heritage Month, Family, Discussion
Book Info: Mission to Space by John Herrington, 2016 White Dog Press (Chickasaw Press), ISBN: 9781935684473

 

When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter

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Image Credit: House of Anansi Press (Groundwood Books), Sonia Rosa/Luciana Justiniani Hees

Women’s History Month is wrapping up and I’m going to officially end it on my blog by sharing the story of this strong black woman.

Esperança Garcia was an enslaved Afro-Brazilian woman, a mother, a wife and a writer. The author opens the book with the hope that the world will know her story and know her strength. Esperança’s family was enslaved by Jesuit priests but when the priests were expelled from Portugal and its colonies, her family was split apart. Under the Jesuits, though enslaved, she learned to read and write. At this time, very few women at all had this skill. Unfortunately, her life with her new owner was worse than with the Jesuits; she and her young children were regularly beaten and mistreated.

Esperança devoured books and knowledge because they gave her joy. But the more she read, the angrier she became about the injustices of slavery. With this passion for change in her heart, she decided she’d write a letter to the governor to tell about her suffering and ask for his help in sending her home to reunite with her family.  She also explained her dismay at not being able to baptize her young daughter. She carried on loving her children and working, toiling and waiting anxiously for a reply…Esperança was the first slave to write a letter of petition in Afro-Brazillian Brazil.

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Image Credit: House of Anansi Press (Groundwood Books), Sonia Rosa/Luciana Justiniani Hees

The writing of this book is gorgeous. This woman’s story deserves powerful illustrations and luckily, Luciana Justiniani Hees’ art goes above and beyond. I love how she draws Esperança and the slaves with their blue/black/purple skin and strong faces. Esperança’s cornrowed hair and features are beautiful. The colors Hees’ uses are so deeply vibrant and comforting despite the heavy subject matter of the book. My favorite spread is where Esperança rests in the slave quarters, body propped up and head rested on her hand as her children sleep beside her.

I’d never heard of this woman until now and I’m glad to know her. Thank you to Brazilian author and illustrator Sonia Rosa and Luciana Justiniani Hees and Groundwood books for publishing this book in North America. Check out When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter, discuss deeply and share her story. What is Women’s History Month if not an opportunity to learn about (and be reminded of) the strength of women?

 

Recommended for: 2nd Grade and up
Great for: Afro-Brazilian, Brazil, Piauí, Black History, Slavery, Injustice, Black Girl Magic, Family, Community, Cultural Diversity, Diversity, Defiance, Determination, Inner Strength, Resistance, Education, Discussion, Religion, Non-Fiction, Biography
Book Info: When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter by Sonia Rosa/Illustrated by Luciana Justiniani Hees, 2015 House of Anansi Press (Groundwood Books), ISBN: 9781554987290

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

Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman

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Image Credit: Orchard Books (Scholastic Inc.), Nikki Grimes/E.B. Lewis

“…Bessie made me believe I could be anything.” – Young Fan

I’ve been wanting to review a book about Bessie Coleman for quite a while. I found two contenders and ultimately I chose this one over Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman. Though that book is also good, Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of Aviator Elizabeth Coleman is a stronger book in execution, creativity and memorability. It has more heart and that’s exactly what Bessie was about. I recommend Fly High! The Story of Bessie Coleman for younger readers.

Talkin’ About Bessie has a unique concept; 20 family members, acquaintances and friends come together after Bessie Coleman’s funeral to speak about her. Instead of a straightforward non-fiction narrative style, we get something special; reflection based on fact, crafted by author, Nikki Grimes.

Bessie grew up poor in segregated Texas, picking cotton with her many siblings. She loved numbers and words from an early age and her mom always encouraged her to read the bible. Though her father left their family  when she was young (which left her little time for childhood), she kept dreaming. When an adult, she moved to Chicago and after taking many jobs found inspiration from the blacks who ran the newspaper The Defender. She decided to go to France and get her pilots license and when she set her mind on that goal, she was determined to follow through! Bessie Coleman became the first person of African descent in the US to get an international pilot’s license and came back to the US to became an aviatrix. She wanted to encourage blacks to fly and worked towards raising funds to open a flight school for her people. Her personality was bigger than life and she was (and still is) an inspiration.

Nikki Grimes’ writing is great. The characters’ various speaking styles bring them to life. Each page has a “photo painting” in the corner  with the name of the person speaking and a gorgeous full page illustration. This is a nice design. One aspect of the book that didn’t make sense to me though was the character “Laundry Customer.” She’s a white character who employed young Bessie and her family (created by Grimes). Her words are very privileged and she makes it clear that Bessie was, from an early age, challenging and out of line for a young Negro girl. So why would she be present at Bessie’s funeral?? Though I understand the author’s desire to help us understand the segregated world Bessie lived in, it seems out of place and the other characters do a fine job of creating context for readers.

E.B. Lewis’ art is absolutely beautiful. This kind of story requires a very straightforward type of illustration that serves to compliment/enhance the words. His watercolors are meticulous and he does a great job of creating place, mood and character. I hope you’ll take the time to read this excellent book that honors Bessie Coleman’s spirit!

 

P.S. Here’s some backstory from the author Nikki Grimes! Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

 

Recommended for: 2nd Grade and up
Great for: Womens History Month, History, Black History, African-American, Diversity, Black Girl Magic, Black Girls Rock, Aviation, Determination, Confidence, Inner Strength, Family, Relationships, Struggles, Segregation, Racism, Sexism, Tragedy, Role Model, Dreams, Biography, Non-Fiction
Book Info: Talkin’ About Bessie: The Story of aviator Elizabeth Coleman by Nikki Grimes/Illustrated by E.B. Lewis, 2002 Orchard Books (Scholastic Inc.), ISBN: 9780439352437

When Marian Sang

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Image Credit: Scholastic Press, Pam Muñoz Ryan/Brian Selznick

Take a look at that cover!

Not only is the cover beautiful, well designed and eye-catching, the entire book is gorgeous.

The story begins with young Marian in her house, set in the middle of a grand stage. When Marian Sang is a moving and beautifully told story of the life of singer Marian Anderson. There was never a moment she didn’t love to sing and people loved to listen. She was passionate about her faith and her music and by the age of eight, was performing for choruses in Philadelphia. Early on, Marian decided that music was something she wanted to dedicate herself to but because of her race, she was turned away from formal lessons.

Prejudice is intertwined with Marian’s story. Even though she was invited to sing across the country, she couldn’t even get a hotel room! But she continued to rise and share the gift of her voice with the world. Like Josephine Baker, she came back to the US and faced the challenge of performing as a black woman. The D.A.R. might’ve denied her performance at their hall but little did they know Marian’s spirit was destined for greatness. Eleanor Roosevelt and President Roosevelt set her up to perform at the Lincoln Memorial instead!! That performance was groundbreaking and memorable not only for the integrated crowd that witnessed it, but for the entire country. Marian continued to sing, inspire and move audiences for years to come.

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Image Credit: Scholastic Press, Pam Muñoz Ryan/Brian Selznick

The art!! Selznick uses rich acrylics and his palette is lush and golden. He uses only browns, golds, rose golds, pinks, and creams for entire book. The layout is very wide and grand. The large pages are perfect for highlighting his art. His paintings glow and the combination of his art with Pam Muñoz Ryan’s beautifully poignant writing is perfect. What a team, what a book and what a story of an amazing woman!

P.S. Take some time to read through the notes in the back about the author and illustrator’s loving and thorough research. Also check out Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century. She was inspired by Marian Anderson!

#BlackGirlMagic #InternationalWomensDay

 

Recommended for: All ages
Great for: Family, Love, Relationships, Faith, Music, Girls in Music, Diversity, Black Girl Magic, Black Girls Rock, Determination, Inner Strength, Prejudice, Segregation, Choir, Opera, Spirituals, Integration, Philadelphia, Europe, Non-fiction, Biography
Book Info: When Marian Sang by Pam Muñoz Ryan/Illustrated by Brian Selznick, 2002 Scholastic Press, ISBN: 9780439269674

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker

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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

Follow the Drinking Gourd

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Image Credit: Dragonfly Books (Random House), Jeanette Winter

This classic from my childhood discusses the importance of allies on the road to freedom. Abolitionists helped fearless slaves free themselves from oppression. Peg Leg Joe, the abolitionist featured in this story, may or may not have been a real person but the Underground Railroad was definitely real.

In Follow the Drinking Gourd, Peg Leg Joe  works at cotton plantations with the sole purpose of teaching slaves his song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, which tells them how to get to freedom. One day, Molly’s husband James is sold to another master and they have only one more night together. Slaves often had their families suddenly torn apart in this way. But that night they hear a quail’s song, the first clue from the song to get moving towards freedom. They decide to make an escape.

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Image Credit: Dragonfly Books (Random House), Jeanette Winter

The family follows the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper), remembering the lines of Peg Leg Joe’s song for guidance. They hide from hounds and look for signs that they’re heading in the right direction; North. They get help from farmers and finally meet up with Peg Leg Joe who takes them across the Ohio River to their next stop, the house of a white family. They keep moving from house to house and take time to rest and heal and even stay at the place of a free black man. The family finally makes it to Canada, to freedom.

This has always been one of my favorite books about slavery because it presents it in a clear, easy to understand way. Children who have no understanding of slavery will need some explanation as to why the family wants to escape. There are no happy slaves here; we see the family’s hesitation, worry, fear and finally joy and relief. Jeanette Winter’s illustrations are extremely moving; especially the one with James on the auction block, head down and distraught, “Negroes for Sale” below him. I read this book quite often when I was young, so much so that the images are still very familiar to me. Be sure to check it out and discuss! The complete song is included on the last page.

 

Recommended for: 1st grade and up
Great for: Slavery, Underground Railroad, African American, Injustice, Inner Strength, Fearlessness, Determination, Family, Relationships, Allies, Abolitionism, Astronomy, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion
Book Info: Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter, 1992 Dragonfly Books (Random House), ISBN: 9780679819974

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