Shades of the Season

December 21, 2009

Chances are you’ve heard of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.  They’re wonderful stories that have been shared for generations. But what if you’re looking for a tale that celebrates the season and African-American culture? Here are 10 picture books to consider adding to your holiday book list that salute Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Day.

The All-I’ll-Ever-Want Christmas Doll by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

The Buzz:

“Parents looking for books on sharing will find this an appealing exploration of the subject, teachers seeking picture books set during the Depression will find many details that bring the period to life. A gentle lesson that plays into the spirit of the holiday.”

— Starred Review, Booklist

“Full of humorous dialogue and scenes of realistic family life showing the close bonds within the family. Pinkney’s watercolor illustrations are masterful, as always…”

— Starred Review, Kirkus


Shante Keys and the New Year’s Peas by Gail Piernas-Davenport, illustrated by Marion Eldridge

The Buzz:

“In rhyming text and vibrant illustrations, this upbeat story celebrates family, community, and multiculturalism, highlighting an African American family’s New Year’s food traditions, including “lucky” black-eyed peas. Grandma has prepared a delicious meal, but something is missing: “‘Mercy!’ cries Grandma. ‘I’m weak in the knees. I cooked lots of food, but forgot black-eyed peas!’” Young Shanté is sent to check with the neighbors: Miss Lee, who is Chinese; grocer MacGhee, from Scotland; Shanté’s friend Hari, who is Hindu. None of them have peas, but on her visits, Shanté learns about their celebratory food traditions—from dumplings to haggis and cheese. Finally, she finds peas, which Grandma prepares, and the neighbors happily share at the festive dinner. The story, with abundant dialogue, is written in couplets, with all lines ending in a long “e” sound, and the expressive art warmly portrays characters’ interactions in bright, rich hues and lively detail. Notes on a few other culture’s special New Year foods and a recipe for Grandma’s hoppin’ John are appended.”

— Booklist

Check out the cute trailer here:


Under the Christmas Tree by Nikki Grimes, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

The Buzz:

“Grimes and Nelson are ideal collaborators for this celebration of the sights, sounds, and feelings of Christmas from a child’s point of view. Twenty-three poems take readers through the season, focusing on the life of an urban African-American family. The selections capture the excitement and wonder (“Slightly giddy/And primed/For miracles”) as well as humor (“Christmas-His cradle/Is empty. Did He grow up?/Is He Santa now?”) and wisdom. Nelson’s realistic paintings in rich, muted colors and soft textures masterfully portray the warmth and joy of the selections. This is a treasure that families will want to share every year.”

— School Library Journal


Christmas Makes Me Think by Tony Medina, illustrated by Chandra Cox

The Buzz:

“A different look at the Christmas holiday is presented in this picture book. A young African American boy reflects on the joys of the Christmas holidays-no school, special foods, decorated trees, and lots of presents-when he begins to think about trees cut down, animals slaughtered for Christmas dinner, and the hungry and homeless. He then thinks of ways to improve Christmas-feeding animals, sharing toys with the less fortunate, and giving warm clothing and food to the homeless. [T]he message… is… an important one. The colorful illustrations are excellent. They carry well and do a good job conveying the story. An author’s note provides readers with ideas for helping others. There is also a short bibliography listing five titles for further reading. This is a worthwhile Christmas title for most collections.”

— Bayviews


The Story of Kwanzaa by Donna L. Washington, illustrated by Stephen Taylor

The Buzz:

“Beginning with ancestors in Africa, Washington explains the history leading up to the creation of Kwanzaa, following it through slavery and on to the civil rights movement, when activist Dr. Maulana Karenga came up with the idea of an African American festival. The author explains the principle behind each of the seven days of the celebration and notes some of the objects and activities used during the holiday . . . ”

— Booklist


Baby Jesus Like My Brother by Margery W. Brown, illustrated by George Ford

The Buzz:

“Keisha and her younger brother Tony go downtown with the Boys Club to look at the
Christmas decorations in the windows of the downtown stores. During their walk,
Tony asks a lot of questions about Christmas, Jesus, and the meaning behind many holiday
traditions. Keisha, still a child herself, answers the questions as best she can as
the two discuss the true meaning of Christmas.

Ford’s illustrations are simply beautiful and are a nice accompaniment to this cute
story. If you are looking for a book that provides an accurate Biblical account of Jesus
and his birth then this is probably not the book for you. But if you are looking for a
feel good story, which highlights the special relationship between siblings and presents
the story of Christmas from a child’s point of view, then this book is a worthy addition
to any child’s library.”

— RAWSISTAZ Reviewers


Seven Spools of Thread: A Kwanzaa Story by Angela Shelf Medearis, illustrated by Daniel Minter

The Buzz:

“. . . This latest title is an original folktale that will help introduce children to the holiday’s seven principles, while also suggesting how Kente cloth was first created. In a Ghanian village, a father’s will commands that his seven argumentative sons must make gold from silk thread “by the time the moon rises,” without fighting. Working together, the brothers create a tapestry of Kente cloth, the first multicolored cloth the village has seen, which they sell to the king’s treasurer for gold, before returning to their village to farm and live harmoniously. Well-paced, the story incorporates the Kwanzaa values without spelling them out too much. Minter’s attractively composed, dramatic painted linocuts, with strong community images and lively, silhouetted figures, root the story in a sun-drenched, magical landscape that will draw children even after repeated readings. An introductory section, with glossary and pronunciation guide explaining the principles, and an appended craft activity round out the volume.”

— Booklist


Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack, illustrated by John Thompson

The Buzz:

“This unusual book shows life on a Virginia plantation in 1859. Beginning after the harvest is in, the narrative describes the preparations for the Christmas season and the celebrations that follow. The differences in resources, lifestyles, and traditions between the plantation owner’s family and the slaves provides a continuous contrast. Although the slaves’ hardships are evident, they are not sensationalized, and the slaves’ relationships with Massa and Missus in the big house are drawn with more subtlety than in many other children’s books on the period. The final scenes use ironic foreshadowing: the master tells his young daughter that she’ll be old enough to have her own slave in 1865, and in the quarters, a mother tells her son not to speak of running away, because she has heard rumors of freedom coming. Dramatic, full-color illustrations throughout the book offer windows on the period, showing individualized portraits of the characters at work, at rest, and at play. Some may find this a romanticized picture of slavery, but appended notes provide background information and show the authors’ research on the period.”

— Booklist


Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales

The Buzz:

“In the tradition of the McKissacks’ Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (1994), this glowingly illustrated book puts a gentler face on life during slavery. Irene Jennie wakes up on Christmas day missing her parents, who have been loaned by the master to work on another plantation. She prays for their early return but also finds solace in the arrival of the wild paraders known as the Johnkankus. These slaves, who don feather masks and inventive costumes, dance and play their musical instruments to the delight of the other slaves, who revel in the extravagance of the moment. Then, happily, Irene Jennie’s parents return home early, so she can enjoy the rest of the day with them . . . Rosales’ pictures are lovely, quiet in the moments when Irene Jennie is missing her parents, yet able to capture the frenzy that arrives with the dancers, acrobats, and musicians who make up the Johnkankus. Because it’s Christmas, everyone here is smiling and happy, and the darker side of slavery seems very far away.”

— Booklist


My First Kwanzaa Book by Deborah Chocolate, illustrated by Cal Massey

Description from

“During the last week of December, Kwanzaa is a time to dress up in African clothes and gather together with relatives from all over the country. Grandma brings special things to eat, Grandpa lights the candles, and everyone in the family celebrates their heritage.”


Kelly Starling Lyons is the author of One Million Men and Me (Just Us Books, 2007) and NEATE: Eddie’s Ordeal (Just Us Books, 2004). She has two forthcoming picture books with G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Visit her at


December 7, 2009

I am such a sucker for a challenge.

I was lounging over at Miss Attitude’s site, Reading In Color, and saw the link to Story Siren’s YA/MG 2010 Challenge. The objective is to read a set number of YA and MG books by authors debuting in 2010.

What I love about this is, it forces you to keep it fresh.

I, for one, am notorious for crawling into my comfort zone when it comes to reading. #1 It saves time when I go to pick out books and #2 I pal around with too many authors, so I’m always reading the books of my friends or those they recommend – leaving little to no time to explore anything else.

But I like this challenge and while I’m just now finding the time to read regularly again AND the third in the Catching Fire series comes out next August, so that’s already one book on my 2010 TBR list, I think I’ll join this challenge and attempt to read at least six debut authors in 2010.

My 2010 Debut TBR List

Bleeding Violet, Dia Reeves

The Cinderella Society, Kay Cassidy

Tell Me A Secret, Holly Cupala

Eighth-Grade Superzero, Olugbemisola Rhuday Perkovich

Split, Swati Avasthi

The Naughty List, Suzanne Young

I’d love to see other folks take on this challenge, remembering to keep their debut rosters diverse and patronizing books by debut authors of color. When possible, we’ll certainly be sure to bring those authors to your attention.

All that’s left for you is to join up.

Paula Chase is the author of The Del Rio Bay series. Say the word challenge and she’s there!


December 4, 2009

Being a new member of The Brown Bookshelf, and primarily a picture book writer, I thought it fitting that I dedicate myself to blogging about newbie/PB stuff. My mission is to provide inside info— tapping a broad spectrum of key decision makers that drive what is currently deemed marketable (and therefore, most likely to be purchased). I’ll also shed light on the present and evolving status of PBs in the industry.  

I’ll seek out the usual suspects to help us make sense of all this (editors, agents, and booksellers), but I’ll also access experts and gatekeepers whose thoughts we writers don’t often hear. Toward that end…

Tonya Pointer is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT), certified in the area of Elementary Education (K-6), and a member of the North Carolina Association for Educators (NCAE).

BBS:  Welcome to The Brown Bookshelf, Tonya.

TP:   Thank you.

BBS:  How long have you been working in the field of literacy/education?

TP:   I’ve worked in the educational field for 19 years…ranging from paraprofessional, teacher, literacy facilitator, and now reading specialist.

BBS:  What age group do you currently work with? What age groups have you worked with in the past?

TP:   Currently, I am a literacy coach for the second grade team at a local elementary school.  I’ve taught 4th grade, and reading to K – 5th grade students.

BBS:  What does your job entail?

TP:   I coach classroom teachers in implementing research based teaching practices to promote high student achievement.  This includes: facilitating team planning to align classroom instruction with state standards; modeling lessons to address all learning styles; co-teaching; and motivating teachers to improve teacher efficacy, collaboration and overall student development.

BBS:  What role do picture books play in improving a child’s literacy level?  Are there specific ways teachers can utilize them in the classroom to do so?

TP:   All genres of books are significant in educating a child.  Picture books are especially useful to promote the core values that underpin the curriculum, and to generate thoughtful debate on a range of issues. These discussions promote oral language development.  They also provide ideal material to develop students’ visual literacy, helping them to achieve stronger outcomes in the viewing mode of the English Learning Area.

Picture books serve as excellent tools for helping students link the text to the pictures, aiding in visualization and comprehension. They also help students make connections to personal experiences, to deepen their understanding of the story.  These books are often used to teach fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies for overall reading development. 

BBS:  As a writer of this genre, I’m interested in your opinion about what makes a superior picture book. As a specialist, what attributes do you specifically seek when selecting picture books to help a child improve his or her reading skills?

TP:   It depends on the child’s reading needs.  There are five main components of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.  If a child is weak in phonemic awareness and phonics, I look for picture books that have simple, rhyming text with supporting pictures.  For vocabulary and comprehension development, books that use pictures to support context clues are important to aid in identifying the meaning of unknown words and understand the story.

BBS:  Picture books traditionally have been written for the pre-school to lower elementary set, but increasingly we hear they’re being utilized in the classroom with older children.  Has this been your experience? In what specific ways are they used? 

TP:   Yes.  As I stated, they are extremely useful in teaching comprehension strategies—especially to older students who are still developing fluency.  The illustrations aid in tracking comprehension because these students still spend a lot of effort in decoding text.  Pictures also provide support for students when they are constructing literal meaning such as the “who, what, where, when” in reference to story elements.  Older students often use the images in picture books to help clarify meaning of events, characters or vocabulary.

BBS:  Do you actively seek out books written by (or for) people of color, African-Americans in particular? Is this authorship information readily available to you, or is it difficult to obtain?

TP:   Actually, I purposely choose books from diverse cultures.  Students often have a deeper interest in books to which they can make connections.  These connections lead to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the author’s intentions.  Another reason I seek diversity is to broaden their knowledge base regarding their world.  Yes, locating minority authors is easily accessible.

BBS:  For all of the aspiring PB writers out there, what types of picture books could you use more of? What are some of the most popular picture books among the students at your school?

TP:   There are a plethora of picture books available to children. Lately, I find myself searching for more bi-lingual books for our students who are learning English as a second language. Picture books by Eric Carle, Patricia Polocco, and  Mildred Taylor are some of my students’ favorites.

BBS:  Thank you so much, Tonya, for the knowledge you have shared with us today. Before you leave us…Coffee or Cocoa?   

TP:   Cocoa

BBS:  Scrabble or Pictionary?

TP:   Scrabble

BBSFat Albert or Akeelah and the Bee

TP:  Fat Albert

Book report: Looking Like Me

December 3, 2009

Looking Like Me
written by Walter Dean Myers
illustrated by Christopher Myers
Published by Egmont, 2009

Walter Dean Myers is a writer and photographer, a flute player and cat lover. Christopher Myers is an artist and writer, a clothes designer, a dancer. Together this father-son duo created the picture book Looking Like Me, a collaboration that celebrates the concept of every individual having a unique identity.

The book reads like a rap song: “I looked in the mirror / And what did I see? / A real handsome dude looking just like me. / He put out his fist. / I gave it a bam! / He said, ‘Jeremy!’ I said, ‘That’s who I am.'”

One by one, the young narrator, Jeremy, is greeted by members of his community: A sister, his father, a teacher, the mailman. They give him an approving fist-bump — bam! — and identify him in a different light. To his sister, he’s brother. To his father, he’s son. To his teacher, he’s a writer. Jeremy’s perception of himself (his self esteem) is affirmed by the people in his life. He’s a dancer, a runner, a dreamer. Jeremy is every child.

Christopher Myers illustrates the story, which has a bold graphic feel, psychedelic. Photos and textures mix with cut-out figures in every color of the rainbow. Kudos to the book and jacket designer, Yvette Lenhart.