Book report: A Man for All Seasons

August 26, 2008

A Man for All Seasons: The Life of George Washington Carver
by Stephen Krensky
Illustrated by Wil Clay
Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

How does a pumpkin seed become a pumpkin? Why do some plants require more sunlight than others? Even as a young child, George Washington Carver’s mind was consumed with these questions.

George Carver and his older brother, Jim, were born slaves on a farm in Diamond Grove, Missouri. Their parents died when they were very young, but their owners kept them on and raised them, even after slavery was abolished.

George had a passion for learning, so the Carver’s sought help from a tutor. But soon, George’s knowledge outweighed that of his teacher. At the age of 12, he struck out on his own to study at a more advanced school for blacks.

When George Carver attempted to enter college, he was turned away when it was discovered that he was black. He later enrolled at Simpson College where he studied art. Later he transferred to an agricultural college.

Appointed by Booker T. Washington, Carver went on to head the agricultural department at the great Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he made significant contributions to the field of agriculture, particularly with the use of the peanut.

With quiet strength, a hard work ethic and boundless creativity, George Washington Carver propelled himself to national success, though his notoriety never penetrated racial prejudice of the time.

Krensky uses warm simple language to tell an inspiring story. Coretta Scott King Honor winner, Wil Clay, illustrates the story in a realistic style and with historical accuracy. The story of George Washington Carver is one every child should know.

Included is a chronology of important events in Carver’s life.


Book report: The Freedom Business

August 20, 2008

The Freedom Business
Including A Narrative of the Life of Venture, a Narrative of Africa

Poems by Marilyn Nelson
Art by Deborah Dancy
Published by Wordsong Poetry

Ages: 11–14
Grades: 6–9
Pages: 72
Broteer Furro was born the son of royalty. His father was the Prince of the Tribe of Dukandarra, in Africa.

At the age of six, Broteer was captured by slaver traders and was purchased by the steward of the cargo ship for four gallons of rum and a piece of calico. In the belly of the ship, 260 slaves — human cargo — were transported across the Atlantic Ocean headed first for Barbadoes and then Rhode Island.

On the voyage, sixty people died of disease. “Discharge excretion diarrhea spew / oozing pustular nausea vomit snot . . . Festering sticky shit-smeared mucus pus/pissed-on menstruating sweaty stinking.”

In America, Venture was owned by three separate masters over a period of three decades. Throughout his life as a slave, Venture worked over and beyond the demands of his masters, many times, with their permission, he worked through the night to earn his own wages.

Eventually, Venture purchased not only his freedom, but that of his wife, two children and several other slaves.

Venture Smith became known as the first African to document his capture from Africa and his life as a slave.

Paired alongside Venture’s narrative are poems written by Connecticut’s Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson. They are inspired by Venture’s life story, and they are complimented with paintings by artist Deborah Dancy.

Marilyn’s words are absolutely beautiful, the work of a true wordsmith. Her poems offer a sharp contrast to Venture’s eighteenth-century prose (though I enjoyed Venture Smith’s narrative, too), while filling in with visual details. I felt, tasted, smelled, her words.

Artist Deborah Dancy’s abstract watercolor, ink, collage and acrylic paintings are an extension of her emotional response to Marylin’s poems. As per her art notes toward the end of the book, it wasn’t Deborah Dancy’s goal to illustrate the narrative or poems. She set out to create visual metaphors.

A unique book. And a Junior Library Guild selection.

I have two free copies of this book I’d like to offer especially to librarians or teachers. Or anyone, really. Shoot me an email (tate2 at AOL dot com) or leave a comment with your contact info.


Interview: Dr. Jonda McNair

August 15, 2008

Dr. Jonda McNair, assistant professor of reading education at Clemson University,  is the creator of an innovative program that celebrates African-American children’s literature. Her family literacy project, I Never Knew There Were So Many Books About Us: Parents and Children Reading African-American Children’s Literature Together, used monthly workshops to model for parents engaging read-aloud techniques and teach children ways to respond to books in discussion, art and writing. 

Now, Dr. McNair and a group of talented, black male teaching students (who also helped with the family literacy project) have created a newsletter, I Never Knew . . ., to “promote an awareness of an appreciation for literature written by and about African-Americans for children in grades K-6.” Here Dr. McNair talks about her literacy project, newsletter and African-American children’s literature.

How did you become interested in children’s books?

One of my professors at the University of Florida, Dr. Linda Leonard Lamme, really turned me on to children’s books. She introduced me to authors and illustrators like James E. Ransome, Eloise Greenfield, and Floyd Cooper. After graduation, I kept in touch with Dr. Lamme while I was teaching elementary school and she encouraged me to pursue a doctoral degree in children’s literature at The Ohio State University. It was there that I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, a leading scholar of African American children’s books. These two women have had a profound impact on my life.

Please tell us about your family literacy project.

I received a grant from the Research Foundation of the National Council of Teachers of English to implement a family literacy project titled, “I Never Knew There Were So Many Books About Us: Parents and Children Reading African American Children’s Literature Together.” I conducted five monthly workshops at a church in which 10 African American families-with children in grades K-2-were exposed to an abundance of children’s books written by and about African Americans. I modeled ways for parents to read aloud to their children and help them respond to books via art, discussion, and writing. Each family received more than 50 African American children’s books and the project ended with a presentation and book signing by James E. Ransome.

What was the reaction of parents and children to seeing so many children’s books by and about African-Americans?

I think the parents were thrilled to find out that there is a wealth of books available in which their children can see themselves and read about their history. Being exposed to these books led to paradigm shifts for the parents and children. For example, after reading a biography of Bill Pickett, one of the little girls who participated in the project told her mother that she didn’t know that there were Black cowboys.

How did the project impact the families who participated?

Certainly, the families became more knowledgeable about African American children’s literature and its creators and they were passing on what they learned to other family members, friends, and even people on their jobs. I also think the families gained a sense of pride in the work of African American authors and illustrators like James E. Ransome. It was inspiring for them to have an opportunity to meet him, hear him talk about his work, observe him drawing, and ask him questions.

What did you learn from the project?

I learned that these parents had a tremendous desire for knowledge about culturally relevant materials such as books and toys for their children. The attendance at the workshops was astounding and it wasn’t just to get free books since nearly all of the families who participated were solidly middle class–some with relatively high incomes. One of the families actually drove their daughter from Lexington, South Carolina for all of the workshops and this is more than 100 miles away. This child and her family did not miss a workshop.

What can be done to raise awareness of African-American children’s books?

I think people have to work within their own spaces to do what they can to make others more aware of African American children’s books. As a college professor, I share the books with my students and most of my writing and research is about African American children’s literature. I create the “I Never Knew . . .” newsletter to circulate throughout the local, state, and national community. I also conduct presentations at conferences and talk with my friends and colleagues. I am blessed to be a member of an active chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. that is extremely supportive of my work with African American children’s literature and the local community.

Your “I Never Knew . . .” newsletter is a wonderful resource. What is your mission for the publication?

My mission for the publication is to educate parents, teachers, booksellers, and others about African American children’s books and its creators. I also include a section in the newsletter in which I highlight culturally relevant materials such as dolls, games, and so forth. My favorite materials are People Colors Crayons (available from Lakeshore Learning Materials and historical action figures of Benjamin Banneker, Bessie Coleman, and Matthew Henson.

How did working on the literacy project and creating the newsletter affect the Call Me MISTER participants?

The Misters [young black men in a teacher recruitment program] get excited about the books and the opportunity to use them in their classrooms in the near future. They are also learning about different authors and illustrators and developing their favorites. Many of them are fans of Kadir Nelson. They really like his most recent book, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.

What response have you received from teachers, parents, and librarians who have read the newsletter?

I have received a number of positive responses from people all over the country. Several professors have told me that they use the newsletter with their undergraduate and graduate students in children’s literature and language arts courses.

Can authors, illustrators, and publishers who are interested in being considered for reviews or features contact you? How?
I usually contact publishers to get review copies of books I’m considering for review in the newsletter. Certainly, authors and illustrators are welcome to send me books and if I really like them and think they exhibit extraordinary literary merit, I’ll review them.

What’s next for your newsletter?

Well, I’m hoping that this year the Misters and I can create a website to put all of our newsletters as well as information about ourselves and our project.

What else would you like people to know?

I recently coedited a book that contains research about African American children’s literature titled, Embracing, Evaluating, and Examining African American Children’s and Young Adult Literature.


If you’re interested in receiving PDF files of I Never Knew . . . newsletters, please contact Dr. Jonda McNair at Here are linnks to three past editions:

I Never Knew . . .  Spring ’07 newsletter

I Never Knew . . . Fall ’07 newsletter

I Never Knew . . . Spring ’08 newsletter

Book report: Becoming Billie Holiday

August 6, 2008

Becoming Billie Holiday
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Art by Floyd Cooper
Published by Wordsong Poetry, (An imprint of Boyd Mills Press)

From the jacketflap: “In Philadelphia, on April 7, 1915, Sadie Fagan gave birth to a daughter. She named her Eleanora. The world, however, would know her as Billie Holiday, possibly the greatest jazz singer of all time.”

This book — or rather, should I say, Floyd Cooper’s art work — caught my eye this past spring while I walked the floor at TLA. I’m a huge fan of both Carole and Floyd’s work, so I practically begged Boyd Mills Press for their only copy. Instead, they took my name and recently sent me a review copy. I’ve never been so thrilled to open a package. And I read the book in practically one sitting (on a plane from Austin to Vegas).

Becoming Billie Holiday is a coming of age, fictionalized memoir told in verse. Combining oral histories from the singer’s contemporaries with Holiday’s sensationalized autobiography, Weatherford imagines Holiday’s legendary life from birth to young adulthood.

This story is real. Holiday’s life was rough around the edges, and the story doesn’t dance around those issues. Holiday was born to Sadie Fagan, a teenage, single mother, “‘Cause Clarence whispered in Sadie’s ear, sweet-talked his way right up her skirt.”

Born in Philadelphia, Holiday was sent to live with relatives in Baltimore when she was just a baby. Bumped around between extended family and her mother, she practically raised herself. She suffered a rape in which she had to serve time in reform school. She drank bootleg liquor, smoked marijuana (then legal), went to jail, and yet performed on stage (the first African-American woman to perform with an all white band) and appeared in films with Duke Ellington and Paul Robeson. This book will give readers a look into the life of Billie Holiday as a young person, before heroine and fast-living stole her life.

Words and art expertly combine to tell a compelling story of triumph (sink or swim, maybe) in the face of adversity.

Carole Boston Weatherford is the award-winning poet and author of over two dozen books for young readers. Floyd Cooper has illustrated over sixty books for children, and is the recipient of three Coretta Scott Kinng Honors.

What others are saying:

Becky’s Book Reviews


Brown Bookshelf Chat #3: Hype, Hype, Hooray!

August 1, 2008

Teens read books.  They know what they like about books as well as what they dislike.

When I was teaching, I loved to share good books and talk about a good read with my students.  It was fun to be able to pass along a good book recommendation as well as receive a tip about a book that I must read. 

Now it’s time to expand that conversation about books with more teens. 

Just like politicians want to hear from their constituents, authors enjoy being able to hear from our readers.  Thanks to the Internet, we’re able to exchange e-mails or come together on message boards or chat rooms.

The Brown Bookshelf wants to hear from its teen readers.  Hype, Hype, Hooray is the final chat in The Brown Bookshelf’s summer chat series.  We’re inviting teens all over the country to log on to MySpace, stop by the Brown Bookshelf’s group on Wednesday, August 6, 2008 at 9:00 PM EST, and express themselves about books, favorite authors, and what makes them love a book. 

Since we’ve launched The Brown Bookshelf, teens have chimed in on some of their author favorites including Dana Davidson, Christopher Paul Curtis, and Stephanie Perry Moore.  They are enthusiastic about books they’ve read for school and for pleasure.  Now is the chance for teens to dialogue with each other and The Brown Bookshelf in real time. 

We’re curious about what books they’re reading and what books they want to read.  Our goal is to dialogue and gain insight from the people we write for as well as introduce them to more authors for them to check out.

So on Wednesday, after checking out the matinee of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, stop by MySpace and talk books with The Brown Bookshelf team.