How did I miss this one????? ACROSS THE ALLEY is not a new picture book, it was actually published in 2006, but I'd never heard of it until this week, when the librarian at school showed it to me. Now that I've read it, I can't believe that I have not heard more about it, because it's a really special book.
Willie is a ten-year-old African American boy whose father played baseball in the Negro Leagues. Abe is a Jewish boy, about the same age. His grandfather was a concert violinist in the "old country." Willie's father wants him to be a professional baseball player, likewise, Abe's grandfather dreams that he will be a famous musician.
Because of the beliefs of that time, the boys are not allowed to play together during the day; but at night, across the alley, that all changes. Willie teaches Abe how to throw the baseball, and Abe teaches Willie to play the violin. When Abe's grandfather finally learns that it's not his grandson, but rather Willie, playing such beautiful music, he invites the him to play at synagogue. Similarly, Abe is invited to play in the baseball game that afternoon.
E.B. Lewis, who illustrated THE OTHER SIDE by Jacqueline Woodson, also did the artwork for this book. And like THE OTHER SIDE, the illustrations are so, so beautiful.
I'm putting this book in a basket with SISTER ANNE'S HANDS, THE OTHER SIDE by Jacqueline Woodson, AND WE ARE THE SHIP by Kadir Nelson. I can't wait to share it with kids.
STEEL DRUMMING AT THE APOLLO is the story of a group of seven teens who attend the John Sayles School of Fine Arts in Schenectady, New York. Talent scouts from the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, and lots of others have launched their careers at the Apollo) arrive in Schenectady, the boys form a steel drum band and win their local competition, then several regionals, finally making it all the way to the Super Top Dog Competition at the Apollo. The book traces the band from its formation in early 2005, all the way to the finals in December of that year.
The band's story is told in a series of short chapters, accompanied by lots and lots of eye-catching, full-color photographs. The chapters include the stories from the competitions, and also biographies from each of the seven musicians/dancers in the band. Sidebar articles fill in helpful background about steel drumming, the Apollo Theater, playing music by ear, etc. The book also comes with a CD.
I played the CD, then left this book on the table, thinking it would be a sure winner with my sons, who have always loved making beats and spend hours on end on my computer writing songs on Garage Band. They didn't seem that interested at first, but I've caught them flipping through it several times since then. I also caught their friend, Eddie, reading it one morning when he was waiting for our car pool to depart. I can definitely see this book attracting the interest of the "musically-minded set."
"Those little towns in the South were rough. The fans would call you everything. One lady brought us a big black cake. Had it delivered by a man in a white coat. Written with icing, from the top corner to the bottom corner, at an angle, was spelled N-I-G…etc. Now you wonder, why would anyone go through the trouble to do something like that. I guess you could call that dedication" (p. 58).
WE ARE THE SHIP: THE STORY OF NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL is truly an incredible book on a number of different levels. Kadir Nelson uses what the book jacket describes as an "Everyman" narrator to tell the story of Negro League baseball from its beginnings in the 1920's until Jackie Robinson began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The voice in the book is so real that you feel like you are right there on the field with the players. This is a story that's way bigger than baseball, however. It's a story of a group of people who really did take lemons and make lemonade. It's a story of creativity, and bravery, and passion, and joy.
The book is organized into ten chapters-- nine innings and one "Extra Innings" chapter, each focused on a different aspect of Negro League Baseball-- how the league began, the rules of the league, famous players, negro baseball in Latin American, the negro leagues vs. the white leagues, etc. I absolutely loved this book, and read it cover to cover in one sitting, but if I were going to choose a favorite chapter, it would be "Third Inning: Life in the Negro Leagues" because it paints such a vivid picture of the lives of African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era. I definitely plan on using it as part of a Civil Rights unit in January.
As for the artwork-- all I can say is WOW, WOW, WOW, WOW, WOW! I have been a fan of Kadir Nelson's illustrations since I discovered his work in MOSES: WHEN HARRIET TUBMAN LED HER PEOPLE TO FREEDOM. With this book, however, Nelson has definitely moved into my club of all time favorite illustrators of children's books. His paintings of the players, different fields, etc. are absolutely gorgeous. According to the author's notes in the back of the book, the paintings have appeared in various museums across the United States. I sure hope they will come to Denver some day.
When I was nine or ten, I read FOLLOW MY LEADER, a novel about a boy who lost his sight after an accident with fireworks. Much of the book, or the parts I remember anyway, occur at a training academy for guide dogs, as Jimmy is learning how to work with his new companion. I was fascinated by this book and went on to read several other books about guide dogs and blindness. Inevitably, I eventually encountered books about Helen Keller.
Many books about Helen Keller mention Laura Bridgeman, who was actually born about fifty years earlier. Bridgeman lost her vision and hearing at the age of three, after a bout with scarlet fever. She spent most of her life at the Perkins School for the Blind, under the tutelage of Dr. Samuel Howe. Bridgeman was an extremely intelligent young woman, who basically learned how language works in one afternoon. Dr. Howe used his research with Laura as a basis for teaching many deaf-blind people, including Helen Keller. SHE TOUCHED THE WORLD is the story of Bridgeman's life.
Throughout the book, I'm struck again and again by the loneliness Bridgeman must have endured throughout her life. She lived with her family until she was nine or ten, and spent a great deal of her time with Asa Tenney, a farmhand who cared for her, took her on walks around the farm, and actually bought a plate with raised alphabet letters around the rim, in hopes that Laura could somehow be taught to communicate. Later, she lived with Howe and his sister, then had a series of teacher/companions who spent many, many hours with her each day. Most of these people, however, were a part of Bridgeman's life, then moved on to marry or pursue other dreams. I suspect that some kids, especially those of the more solitary nature, might also notice this theme.
SHE TOUCHED THE WORLD is a short, highly readable biography, crammed full of stories and information. Photographs from provide valuable information about the time period. I also loved the afterword, "If Laura Were Alive Today," because it tells how technology has expanded worlds of deaf and blind people. Author Sally Hobart Alexander, who paired with her husband to write this book, is blind and partially deaf, so I suspect much of this information is drawn from firsthand experience.
I'd pair this book with MISS SPITFIRE, a terrific biography of Annie Sullivan that was published last year. I think kids will love it!
LINCOLN SHOT: A PRESIDENT REMEMBERED is a biography by historian Barry Denenberg. The book, designed to appear like a memorial edition of the National News, a fictitiousnewspaper from the 1860's, opens on the day Lincoln is assassinated.
I've always loved history. I love it because history, presented well, truly is the STORIES of people's lives. Denenberg skillfully weaves stories of Lincoln's life with quotes and photographs. I loved learning about Mary Todd Lincoln- did you know she came from a wealthy family who vehemently opposed their daughter marrying beneath her social station, to the point that Mary and Abe even broke off their courtship for an extended period of time? Did you know she hated Washington D.C., and when they first moved there, she stayed only a few months before returning home with her children? Did you know that she spent so much to remodel the White House, that she was forever scorned by the government officials and the press?
It's the stories from the Civil War, however, that are the centerpiece of this very powerful book. Denenberg tells those stories with amazing detail-- stories of the events leading up to the war, stories about the lives of bumbling and contentious generals, stories of battles where fathers watched their children die, stories of the horrendous decisions Abraham Lincoln faced every day and the toll they took on his mental health. The stories are so detailed and so well-told that I could see using this as a textbook or read aloud for a high school history class. Denenberg uses many, many quotes from Abraham Lincoln, and also pieces of actual correspondence, to further enhance the stories.
I have a few questions about using this book. The pages in the book, as I said earlier, are designed to look like a newspaper from the 1860's. Everything-- the fonts, the pictures, the advertisements, even the SIZE of the pages carry through on that theme. And it's the size that concerns me a little. This book is HUGE, and I mean HUGE, easily double the size of a regular book. Because of the size, it's not a book that will be easy to read aloud, It's not a book that will fit in kids' desks at school. It's not a book you could carry in your purse or even your backpack. It's not even a book that's fun to read in bed, you really need a table to prop it on.
But when you figure out how to hold it, the information is so, so wonderful…
I am a closet book pusher. OK, actually there is nothing closet about it. I push books every chance I get- to kids at school, to friends, to the boys' coaches, and most importantly, to my boys!
My favorite book pushing trick is to leave reading material on every flat surface available, beginning with the kitchen table. Our table is always heaped with newspapers (opened, of course, to the most graphic photograph I can find), magazines, and lots and lots of books. KNUCKLEHEAD, by Jon Scieszka, is teetering at the top of the pile right now.
KNUCKLEHEAD is a collection of 38 short (2-4 pages), fun, easily-read chapters about Scieszka's childhood and adolescence in a family of six brothers. Anyone who has travelled cross country with their family will enjoy "Car Trip."If you have ever had to babysit for a younger sibling, you will love"Brother Sitting," and anyone with the youngest child syndrome will laugh out loud at "Stop Breathing My Air." There are also several chapters about learning to read, including "Strange Books,"a very funny piece about the Dick and Jane series that I plan to use at my next Guided Reading workshop.
My test of a good "boy" book is how long it takes one of my very reluctant teenage readers to pick up the book. I put this book on the table last night and caught my older son reading it this morning at breakfast…
A new book from an old friend. One of my all time, all time, all time heroes is Maya Angelou. This week, a dear friend gifted me with Angelou's wonderful new book, LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER.
LETTER TO MY DAUGHTER is a collection of poems and essays about various "chapters" in Angelou's life. On one hand, it's a fast read- the stories are wonderful and inviting and easy to read. On the other hand, it's a really slow read, because every single page, maybe even every paragraph, has at least two or three morsels of wisdom that you have to kind of roll around in your head, and reflect, and sort of grow into. There's a poem about graduation that I think will be perfect to share with my 18-year-old niece this spring. There is a poem about grieving that would make a perfect sympathy card.
Here are a few tidbits from the book:
"My life has been long, and believing that life loves the liver of it, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring, still." (xi)
"You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone's cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution." xii
Never whine. Whining lets a brute know that a victim is in the neighborhood. xiii
Be certain that you do not die without having done something wonderful for humanity.
Our Hearts Are Woven Into Words is an anthology of over 200 poems from elementary students in the Denver Public Schools. The poems are organized into chapters, e.g. family, food, animals, emotions, secrets, and imagination, and include selections in both English and Spanish. The anthology is a paperback, with student artwork on front and back cover. The artwork inside the book is black and white, but much of it can be seen in color on the website.
Steve Replogle, the creator of the project says, "We work in a diverse school district, and life is not always fair for many of our students. Poetry can reach beyond any limits that are imposed upon our lives-- the limits of age or race, of economics or culture. A kindergartner can write a poem that will move us to laughter. A fourth or fifth grader can bring us to tears."
Steve and a team of high school editors have done an amazing job capturing our kids' lives. It's a limited edition- the only place I have been able to find it is at Bookies, a children's bookstore in Denver. Nevertheless, it's a really special book. I hope people will take the time to hunt it down.
Thank you Steve and team for honoring our children in such an amazing way!