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

Bibliography: Steptoe, Javaka. Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. New York, New York: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0316213882.

Plot Summary: The author and illustrator of this book takes his cue from Basquiat himself and illustrates with the influence of Basquiat’s collages, symbols and motifs, and lush, thick slabs of paint. Steptoe writes in his notes that he “painted on richly textured pieces of found wood harvested from discarded Brooklyn Museum exhibit materials, the Dumpsters of Brooklyn brownstones, and the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side…While [readers] will not find reproductions of actual Basquiat artwork…they will find…original pieces that were inspired by him…”

This is fitting considering the entirety of the book is on the formative influences of Jean-Michel Basquiat as he ascends to artistic fame. The book details his childhood, growing up in Brooklyn “between hearts that thump, double Dutch, and hopscotch and salty mouths that slurp sweet ice…” Basquiat is inspired to do art, even as a young child and he draws and draws to his heart’s content, particularly cityscapes. His mother, Mathilde, supports his endeavors and she teaches him “Art is the street games of little children, in our style and the words that we speak. It is how the messy patchwork of the city creates new meaning for ordinary things.” Even as his mother suffers mental health problems, he still pays his love and dedication to her, visiting and showing Mathilde his artwork. As a teenager, Basquiat moves to the Lower East Side. There he flourishes, constantly painting, making collages, and poetry. He turns to graffiti art under the pen name, Samo©. From there, Basquiat is able to showcase his work in art galleries and become a prominent figure. Despite his fame, Basquiat never stops working hard at his passions and his mother will always be his queen, “above all the critics, fans, and artists he admires…”

Critical Analysis: The text is bubbling with passion for Basquiat’s life and works. It is in normal text for the most part, but each splash page features one to two words or phrases that fully capitalized and in a type that looks handwritten and bigger that the rest of the words. “BEAUTIFUL” and “ARTIST” are the words that turn up the most in the book, but there also words that are emphasized only once that are still integral to the character of Basquiat: “PAINT,” “MATHILDE,” “HEALING,” “BREAKS,” and, of course, “RADIANT, WILD, A GENIUS CHILD…” The book gives a clear sequence of Basquiat growing up and showing what influences his art without outright stating it. The book also serves to avoid stereotypes, while showing his mother doing housework, Mathilde also encourages his artistry. “From her he learns that art is not only in the poetry books she reads to him or in the theatres and musuems they visit.” Mathilde teaches him to take the city as his inspiration. Steptoe also avoids stereotypes of mentally ill people being bad parents by showing that despite her illness, Mathilde is a loving force behind Basquiat. This can be a great opening for conversations between adults and children on mental illness and how to care for loved ones that have it.

As for the accuracy of this book, Steptoe goes the extra mile of depicting the illustrations all from the influence of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Like Basquiat, he goes for thick, uneven lines, slaps of thick paint, like Basquiat, “His drawings are not neat or clean…They are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” While Steptoe does not explicitly list out the references he used to create this book, he does write out a one-page biography of Jean-Michel Basquiat at the end of the story. In the notes, he lists out the symbolism Basquiat enjoyed creating into his work and he challenges the reader to see if they can find those symbols and motifs in the book. He also states that he has known Basquiat’s work and impact through high school and college. Steptoe spent time in Greenwich Village where he saw his artwork. He also mentions attending one of Basquiat’s art shows and reading up about him in the 1985 New York Times article, “New Art, New Money,” written by Cathleen McGuigan.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: 2017 Caldecott Medal; 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published October 25, 2016, posted online July 20, 2016:

“Steptoe’s canvas is wood salvaged from the Brooklyn Museum and locales that Basquiat frequented. Spaces between the patched fragments contribute to the impression of a disjointed childhood. Steptoe shows that Basquiat was smart and driven early on, influenced by his Haitian father’s jazz records and his Puerto Rican mother’s style, encouragement, breakdown, and institutionalization when he was only 7. Prior to that, she drew with him, took him to see Picasso’s Guernica, and gave him Grey’s Anatomy following a serious car accident…Several sentences per spread speak with understated lyricism and poignancy, an occasional internal rhyme underscoring a point: ‘Jean-Michel is confused and filled with a terrible blues / when Matilde can no longer live at home.’ Acknowledging his multifaceted sense of connection, Steptoe interprets Basquiat’s style instead of inserting particular works. Vibrant colors and personal symbols channel the ‘sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL’ paintings, incorporating meticulously attributed collage elements and capturing the artist’s energy and mystery.

Connections: A connection can be made by teaching children how to create collages of their own and interject symbols and motifs of their own life. Another connection can be of them creating a story of how their parents or other adults in their life grew up as children, teaching them the value of biographies.

Review (Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America)

Bibliography: Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Terrible Typhooid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America. Boston, Massachusetts: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015. ISBN-13: 978-0544313675.

Plot Summary: She was a reserved but well-liked cook that served for many wealthy New York families. She was an Irish immigrant whose past is not well-known before she went to the United States as a teenager. She had few friends and kept moving about for her job. She was always diligent at her tasks, toiling in fourteen-hour shifts. In a lot of ways, Mary Mallon is not who you would typically write a biography about. She was an aloof servant, usually a character that would be in the background of a story. Mary Mallon however killed people. She didn’t intend to, but she was a “healthy carrier” for typhoid fever in a time where germs were barely understood. After serving peaches and ice-cream to a family that nearly dies of the fever, her life changes and she is locked into a battle. Medical professionals want her to not harm people with her bacteria, Mary Mallon just wants to have a normal life with privacy. This is a book where there is no bad guy, but a thriller-like situation that is not as simple as readers would first think.

Critical Analysis: Bartoletti keeps a neat organization of all her research, having a photo album, a timeline, sources. One of the reoccurring themes of this book is the ethics and if it was right for the medical community and media to treat Mary the way they did. So, it is no surprise that the author does the ethical thing, putting up not only a bibliography, but also two pages for acknowledgments and permissions for those that helped with her research. Lastly, there is an index where people can look at any of the social, cultural, scientific, and historical aspects of this story. In fact, Bartoletti categorizes her bibliography into the following: Understanding Mary: In Her Own Words; Understanding Mary : From the Words of Others; Understanding Mary From Newspaper Accounts; Understanding Mary, Secondary Sources; Understanding Mary’s World; Understanding George Soper and Josephine Baker; Understanding Typhoid, Hygiene, and Disease; Understanding Public Health, The Law, and the Trust Factor; and Understanding Yellow Journalism. Bartolettie is all about understanding how Mary’s world worked and how the people in it behaved and why.

Bartoletti knows the good and bad sides of them all. She approaches everyone in a nuanced manner: George Soper (who wanted Mary quarantined and fought to catch her) is overly vain and is even resentful of Mary’s and Josephine Baker’s strength as women. At the same time, however, he does genuinely care for public health. Josephine Baker is also dedicated to her job in health (she too also believes Mary needs to be arrested), but she has prejudices against Irish people like Mary. As for Mary Mallon, she is dedicated to her work but obstinate to many people. Mary is vulnerable to public perception of her but refuses to listen to reason.

What Bartoletti also does effectively is embrace the mysterious character of Mary Mallon. “To her employers and fellow workers, Mary never spoke of her growing-up years. Most of what we know about her comes from a few documents, from what others say about her, and a six-page letter written in her own hand.” Bartoletti trusts readers to decide for themselves why Mary distrusted medical professionals, why she wanted to continue cooking, and refused to admit that she carried a disease, despite evidence. Bartoletti lays out the context of the world Mary lived in, where “Good servants understood that all Americans were equal, regardless of class. But they also understood that employers were more equal than servants…For many employers, a good servant meant a specific race, nationality and religion.”

Bartoletti never overloads the information for the reader. Instead, she lays out all the action in a linear fashion and then adds context in areas that need context for twenty-first century reader. She also does not hold back from imagery such as describing North Brother Island, where Mary lived in isolation in a clinic. “Today, if North Brother Island has any secrets to tell about Mary Mallon, it guards them closely. The island is overgrown with kudzu, porcelain berry, poison ivy, weeds, and thickets. Riverside Hospital and other buildings are crumbling or lie in ruins. The tiny cottage where Mary lived for nearly twenty-six years is gone.” With this one paragraph, she manages to showcase what a haunting case Mary Mallon was and how her treatment impacts how we treat people in this day and age. As Bartoletti later states: “As a society and as individuals, we must protect healthy people from disease. We must also treat those suffering from disease in an intelligent, human, and compassionate way.”

Mary never got that. She was quarantined twice against her will. She could not hold a steady, decent-paying job. Her privacy was destroyed when newspapers gave away her name. Suddenly, she goes from Mary Mallon to “human typhoid germ,” “human culture tube,” “human fever factory,” and “Typhoid Mary.”

Review Excerpt and Awards Won:

NCTE Orbis Pictus Honor Book (2016); Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12 (2016); ALA Notable Books for Children 2016; 2016 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

Following excerpt is from The Horn Book, written by Jonathan Hunt, August 12, 2015:

“Bartoletti focuses…on Mary, using her as a lens through which to view — and analyze — a wider swath of American society. What was it like to be a servant, an immigrant, a woman at the dawn of the twentieth century? Bartoletti skillfully weaves the answers into the beginning of the story, before moving on to Soper’s cat-and-mouse game of tracking Mary down and then keeping her quarantined for most of the rest of her life. And there are questions remaining at the end, too. How do we balance the rights of the individual with the safety of the entire community? Why was Mary made a public scapegoat, while other healthy carriers walked free? Despite the novelistic trim size and narrative, the book contains the hallmarks of excellent nonfiction: a photo album, timeline, source notes, bibliography, and index.”

Connections: This book can be used to facilitate a group discussion with young readers about how the whole case was handled. Would you have agreed that Soper approached Mary the right way? Does Mary have a right to feel angry about how she is treated? Would things have been different if Mary was not Irish or female or a servant? Another connection can be to discuss the basics of health, what constitutes as a cold or a flu, what are myths about diseases, and whatnot.

Review (Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist)

Bibliography: Greenburg, Jan and Sandra Jordan. Vincent Van Gogh: Portrait of an Artist. New York, New York: Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0385328067.

Plot Summary: This book details Vincent van Gogh’s life from birth to death. It separates moments of his life into chapters, mainly the places van Gogh traveled to, the people who came to know him, and the process and creations of his artwork, especially his education. It is a linear type of storytelling. He is quoted at the beginning of each chapter, many quotes coming from his letters to his younger brother, Theo. The book depicts the loving but draining devotion the brothers had to one another, with Theo being one of van Gogh’s supporters, despite preferring the Impressionist style that van Gogh rejected. The book does not hesitate to show the struggles van Gogh had, ones that he had no control over, such as the cool reception his works would receive, but also the ones that he sabotaged himself. A prime example is when he gets fired from his uncle’s gallery and from there on, he spends most of his life in poverty, depending on his family, mainly his brother, to financially support him. As Theo notes to their sister, “‘It is as if he had two persons in him–one marvelously gifted, delicate, and tender, and other egotistical and hardheaded. They present themselves in turn, so that one hears him talk first one way, then in the other, and this always with arguments which are now all for, all against the same point. It is a pity that he is his own enemy, for he makes life hard not only for others but for himself.'” The book also talks of his failing health, mentally and physically, how his artistry evolved with every painting he did, and his yearning to make an impact on the art world. This is a bittersweet book that can teach readers history, art, but also how beauty and tragedy can intermingle.

Critical Analysis: This is a well-organized book, not only compartmentalizing all the significant events of Vincent van Gogh’s life, but doing so in a way that still respects both the artist and the reader for not watering it down. The book does not hesitate to describe the famous ear incident, where he cut off his earlobe. Rather, it explains exactly what transpired, explaining it was due to his fight with Gauguin that he did it. In the notes section, the authors mention that there are two versions of the ear incident. “…the first story Gauguin told their mutual friend [Emile] Bernard about Vincent’s accident is more likely the truth than the version Gauguin recounted fifteen years later…The first is the one we have followed. In the second, more melodramatic version of the story, Gauguin claimed that Vincent threatened him with a razor, something he didn’t mention at the time.”

The authors take a no-nonsense approach to their research while writing in a clean, narrative style that, yes, goes into a storytelling flair, but gets descriptive only when discussing van Gogh’s paintings. And they do it in a way that tell young readers why this artwork is beloved: “The color scheme was dark, his favorite bistre and bitumen heightened with gold. The heads he painted ‘the color of a very dusty potato, unpeeled of course.’ He left the brushwork purposely rough. ‘It would be wrong to give a peasant picture a certain conventional smoothness. If a peasant picture smells of bacon, smoke, potato steam–that’s not unhealthy…to be perfumed is not what a peasant picture needs…We must continue to give something real and honest.'” The authors avoid creating any dialogue as way to drive the authenticity of the narrative. They only use letters to show what the people were saying to one another, which also gives intimacy to the reader as these were originally meant for the sender and the receiver. They choose many emotional parts of letters to drive the sorrow and passions of a complicated man.

The book features illustrations, a map, a postscript, a biographical timeline, museum locations of van Gogh’s famous works, a glossary of artists and terms. The book also includes notes that state where the authors took their resources from and stating the page number where the resource is utilized. There is, of course, also the bibliography that shows the array of research authors went into, sources ranging from the 1950s into the early 2000s, including books on the letter exchanges Vincent van Gogh partook in.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

2002 ALA Notable Children’s Books Winner; 2002 Sibert Medal Nominee; 2003 Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee.

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, published August 14, 2001, and posted online June 24, 2010:

“After a brief prologue about a key moment in his work, the biography follows van Gogh’s life chronologically (with the dates covered given as part of each chapter title), followed by a relevant quote from a letter. Many chapters end on notes of anticipation, sometimes almost cliffhangers, leading the reader eagerly into the next phase of the painter’s life. Information about van Gogh’s personality, moods, and relationships is interwoven with descriptions of his progress in art to form a seamless whole. Two drawings and 17 color reproductions of his paintings from different periods illustrate the changes in his style as described in the text. The authors attain their goal stated in the introduction of getting ‘beyond the myth without losing touch with the power of its appeal.’ They clarify the widely-known story about van Gogh cutting off his ear, all the while conveying the artist as a sympathetic man who suffered greatly but also recognized and took joy in his own talent. The biography focuses on van Gogh’s life rather than on a critical look at his work; those hoping for commentary on specific paintings will have to look elsewhere. But the reader who wants insight into the life of this remarkable painter will find it in this lively, beautifully written biography. “

Connections: Teach children how to paint like van Gogh and reproduce his painting, Starry Night by imitating the brush strokes used as well as the main idea of the artwork. Another way to teach them is to have them paint a relative or friend and see how they feel about the endeavor.

The Future of Comic Studies in the RGV

So, on February 25th, I was given the wonderful opportunity to discuss comic studies in the Rio Grande Valley in a panel for FESTIBA. For those that do not know, to quote the website, the Festival of International Books and Arts is here to “promote the importance of literacy, culture and the arts to students, parents, educators and community members throughout the Rio Grande Valley. With the theme of Building a Better World, FESTIBA 2020 strives to focus on a bright future by promoting and inspiring education for sustainable development, or the idea that we must teach in a way that empowers students to provide tomorrow’s generations with the same opportunities and quality of life that we enjoy today.”

The panel I was in was titled, The Future of Comic Studies in the RGV. I sat with Paul Valadez (who taught me back when I was an undergraduate), Jean Braithwaite (who also taught me when I was an undergraduate), Sabrina De La Rosa, and Jing Zhang.

The discussion was wonderful. We were asked thoughtful questions and I got to promote how libraries view graphic novels and what types of programs we were looking to utilize them. I presented an assignment I did last semester in my course on Public Librarianship.

Sabrina De La Rosa gave a beautiful presentation on her work and I hope to purchase her graphic novels one of these days, she is a talented person. I am only sorry that I could not share you her work. Paul Valadez also did a great speech on his own views of how to realize that artists and writers are professionals that should utilize their voice in that regard. Jean Braithwaite herself talked of Words + Pictures, the group that set up the panels and information sessions on graphic novels for FESTIBA. She talked of future plans and goals they would be having moving forward. Words+Pictures’ members are art professors, writing professors, and librarians that all want to show the artistry behind making a graphic novel. I hope to be more involved.

A photo before we started. On the left is Jean Braithwaite. On the right is Paul Valadez. Both are fantastic professors and I am lucky to have taken their classes.
Introducing ourselves. Say hello to the Dr. Pepper. It belongs to Carlton Nelson. He is a Research and Instruction Librarian at UTRGV. He was also the person that help set up everything. He is fantastic.

Review (Brown Girl Dreaming)

Bibliography: Woodson, Jacqueline. Brown Girl Dreaming. New York, New York: Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Books USA), 2014. ISBN-13: 978-0399252518.

Plot Summary: Jacqueline tells the story of herself and her family and how her home is in the South and in New York. She is born when so much history is happening around her as stated in the poem, “second daughter’s second day on earth.” While her birth certificate is getting done, “In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King Jr./ is planning a march on Washington, where/ John F. Kennedy is president. / In Harlem, Malcolm X is standing on a soapbox/ talking about a revolution.” She writes out her memories as she grows up, as so many changes happen in her life, such as getting a younger sibling, moving to a new home, dealing with her uncle going to prison. She writes about how she handles it all and how even her own siblings grow into their own persons.

Critical Analysis: Woodson’s writing is sparse but loaded, effective with the way she foreshadows her grandfather, Daddy’s death, “I do not know yet/ how sometimes the earth makes a promise/ it can never keep. Tobacco fields/ lay fallow, crops picked clean./ My grandfather coughs again/ and the earth waits/ for what and who it will get in return.”

Jacqueline loves words but finds herself going a different way about approaching them compared to her older sister, Dell. Where Dell excels at reading book after book quickly, Jacqueline takes a longer time to finish, letting the words absorb her. She makes up her own phrasings inside her head. Unfortunately, teachers at first get excited at having her for a student until they realize she learns differently from Dell. And, unfortunately, while the reader realizes that Jacqueline observes and reads like a poet, that Jacqueline is going to grow up to be a writer, the teachers themselves dismiss her. In the poem, “the other woodson,” the teachers keep waiting to see if she will act like Dell, but then they remember that she is “the other Woodson and begin searching for brilliance at another desk.”

Jacqueline’s narration says so many things in so few lines. She can show how limiting the adults’s viewpoint is that there is only one way to brilliance and that is by how quick children go through things, such as Dell. They end up ignoring great minds like Jacqueline. She also shows how that viewpoint is so limiting because the reader is reading Jacqueline’s point-of-view, we see what she utilizes for an emotional, sensory experience.

Woodson is strong in conveying a sensory experience, especially as she links it to nostalgia and the bittersweet emotions from that. She plays the senses with a rhythm to her verses. Part of the experience is how she paints the North and the South as contrasts. There are emotions tied to both places. With the south, Jacqueline feels free in many ways that is close to serene, such as running barefoot or catching fireflies in jars. In the winter, she talks of how it is like to be with her grandfather on the porch swing, ” a blanket around us as we sit on the front porch swing./ Its whine like a song. / You don’t need words/ on a night like this./ Just the warmth/ of your grandfather’s arm. Just the silent promise/ that the world as we know it/ will always be here.” Things are not always so sweet in the South, however. In a previous poem, Jacqueline narrates about the trauma of segregation in Greenville, where, despite a White Only sign being painted over, “…you can still see the words, right there/ like a ghost standing in front/ still keeping you out.”

When Jacqueline and her siblings move to New York with their mother, they miss South Carolina constantly, but then they start growing and start forming their own selves within New York while never forgetting their roots. For one thing, Jacqueline makes a best friend, “All the dreams this city holds/ right outside–just step through the door and walk/ two doors down to where/ my new best friend, Maria, lives.” New York is also where Jacqueline falls in love with the form of a poem. She is entranced when her teacher reads a poem about a birch tree and talks of how enthralled the whole class is, “And even though we’ve never seen an ice storm/ we’ve seen a birch tree, so we can imagine/ everything we need to imagine/ forever and ever/ infinity/ amen.”

This is a book about the many parts a person can have. They carry the legacy of both sides of the family, they can believe different things, they can consider different places their homes. As Jacqueline says near the end, “I believe in johnny pumps and jump ropes,/ Malcolm and Martin/ Buckeyes and Birmingham/ writing and listening, bad words and good words–/ I believe in Brooklyn!/ I believe in one day and someday and this/ perfect moment called Now.” This memoir of verses should be read-aloud, for both the beautiful imagery and the lilting rhythm that can empower anyone.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Author Winner (2015); National Book Award for Young People’s Literature (2014); NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in Young Adult Fiction (2015); John Newbery Medal Honor (2016).

Following excerpt is from The New York Times, by Veronica Chambers, dated August 22, 2014:

“I thought of Nikki Giovanni and the teenage girl I was, almost constantly, as I read Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful memoir in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” because I suspect this book will be to a generation of girls what Giovanni’s book was to mine: a history lesson, a mash note passed in class, a book to read burrowed underneath the bed covers and a life raft during long car rides when you want to float far from wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, toward the person you feel destined to be…t is as rich a spread as the potluck table at a family reunion. Sure, you can plow through the pages, grabbing everything you can in one go, like piling a plate high with fried chicken and ribs, potato salad and corn bread. And yes, it’s entirely possible to hold that plate with one hand while balancing a bowl of gumbo and a cup of sweet tea with the other. But since the food isn’t going anywhere, you’ll make out just as well, maybe even a little better, if you pace yourself.”

This verse novel is organized in a way that it is thick as regular novel, but you find yourself quickly sweeping through, entranced by the vivid words Woodson writes. She even organizes them like memories, where one would experience vignettes of a daily life. This is truly a coming-of-age story.

Connections: A connection that can be made by reading this story is to have students interview guardians, parents, or grandparents over a favorite childhood memory. Have the student then write a poem out of that childhood memory. This can show students how to create poem out of a topic.

Review (A Pocketful of Poems)

Bibliography: Grimes, Nikki and Javaka Steptoe. A Pocketful of Poems. Boston, Massachusetts: Clarion Books, 2001. ISBN-13: 978-0395938683.

Plot Summary: A vibrant story about a little girl named Tiana who lives in Harlem and keeps words in her pockets. As she says in the beginning, “I play with [words] sometimes./ I use them in haiku./You can borrow most of them/if you want to.” She takes you, the reader, on a tour of seasons and celebrations, providing both wordplay and a sensory language that makes a familiar world new all over again. There are free-verse poems but also haiku playing against the illustrations. This is a book that reminds young minds of the beauty around the world. It also reminds older minds of the exuberance and beauty that children can take of their own surroundings.

Critical Analysis: This book will have children analyze it time and time again. Not only by the author’s clever, pretty phrasings, but by how the illustrator plays up to the sensory language. Steptoe makes moonlight out of aluminum foil on Tiana’s quilt and has it look almost like siren blares to complement the haiku that follows across it: “Full moon, magic in/silver, speaks to me, drowning/the sounds of sirens.” Steptoe completes the feeling of sleepiness by using a real-life texture to the quilt that takes up two pages of the book.

Steptoe adds a further experience with the senses with how he texturizes so many things. Tiana’s baseball bat is made of bendy straws. The Harlem buildings are made of maps of New York. The haiku tends to blend more against the illustrations while the free-verse is traditionally set in a more blank area of the page. Most often, the illustrator and author do not work together in making the story. Usually the illustrator sees the work sent to them and interprets them their own way. So, it is

There is emotional impact in this story, and it is of love and relishing every moment. The author does this by playing with simile and metaphor. For example, for Tiana, showers are like “soap and water for the sky” and snow makes “each streetlight into a star on a stick.” One of the best parts of the book is with the poem, “Harlem.” Tiana is an African-American girl and in the poem, her father, in his own way, says to cherish her heritage on Fourth of July. As the poem goes, “HARLEM/What a restless word!/It kicks up its black heels/day and night./I slide it into my hip pocket/next to AFRICA/and zip it tight./Daddy says these/are not words to spend/but to save.” Steptoe creates an image of Tiana being embraced by her father while holding the American flay. This serves a great purpose of highlighting that there are different ways of being an American and can start an excellent discussion with a child on heritage.

In the author’s note, Grimes writes that she’s “always loved what traditional haiku teaches about Eastern cultures, but [she] also thought it would be fun to read haiku poetry with contemporary images that [she] could relate to as a Harlem-born city girl, who grew up in North America.” Reading A Pocketful of Poems will serve as a great way to show children how to analyze words and images as well as appreciate their own surroundings.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: There are no honors or awards for this book, but the author’s career has led her to gain the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award, 2016 Virginia Hamilton Literacy Award, and the 2017 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.

Following excerpt is from Publishers Weekly, date unknown: “Narrator and girl poet Tiana begins with an invitation to join her in wordplay, and the accompanying illustration depicts her, literally, with hands outstretched and bearing what appear to be carved letters in her palms. The poem ‘Tiana’ launches the volume, then the heroine leads readers through the seasons with more than a dozen words, from ‘Spring’ to ‘Gift’ at Christmastime… Tiana’s bubbling personality shines forth from each verse, and Steptoe…in an extraordinary feat, sculpts each of his character portraits from construction paper in a single, uninterrupted linear outline. His glorious mixed-media collages make the transition from intimate interior scenes to electric urban landscapes. Readers can only hope that this dynamic duo has many more pockets full of poems.”

Connections: This will be a great way to teach children to write their own haikus. Have the children think about their favorite places or weather and have them write out them out in haikus. Another connection will be teaching children about personifications–have the children choose a word that they can illustrate its meaning. For example, for the word, “fur” a child could draw the word with hair and a tail coming out of it.

Review (Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy)

Bibliography: Sones, Sonya. Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy. New York, New York: HarperTeen, 1999. ISBN-13: 978-0439250702.

Plot Summary: On Christmas Eve, Cookie’s older sister has a mental breakdown. Cookie’s sister is eventually placed in a psychiatric ward. Cookie grapples with many things after this happens. Her parents fighting, and she feels isolated in both home and school. Cookie fears how her friends and peers will view her once they find out that her sister is mentally ill, “Sometimes/ I worry that/ the truth will break out all/over my face, like a fresh crop/of zits.”

Cookie also worries that whatever her sister is dealing with, she may have it. This fear goes as far as to form into this idea (this hope) that her sister may be adopted, “She’s not my real sister./ I don’t have/ any/ of the same genes as her,/ not one single same gene,/ not one/single/insane/gene.” Cookie is ashamed, Cookie is angry, Cookie is in despair. Cookie is going through what many people do when they are coming to terms that a loved one is sick and needs help and treatment. As the months go by, there are ups and downs in Cookie’s life where she learns to accept what her sister is going through, discovers who her real friends are, and even falls in love with an understanding boy. Little by little, poem by poem, Cookie grows up, and, through all that, never stops loving her sister.

Critical Analysis: This is not an easy book. It is not an easy topic. This is why this verse book is significant today. Sones based this book on her own journal when her sister was taken to the psychiatric ward. Sones would have been the same age as Cookie in the early 1960s, but the book never specifies the time it is set in. We only know that Cookie is twelve and eventually turns thirteen. There is a brevity to this work, especially at the beginning as, poem by poem, Cookie slices into the many emotions toiling inside her. The dissection of the many things going on is further emphasized by most of the falling rhythm Sones uses.

Sones also uses rhyme for an eerie effect in “Sister’s Voices,” where “She tried to block them out, but couldn’t make/ them go away./ The voices asked her why/ she’d lost her mind. Her hands began to shake.” Sones also likes to use only one word for certain lines of the poem as a way to establish the harsh thoughts and emotions Cookie is dealing with.

Cookie later on develops an interest in photography, but the reader may see hints of this with the way the book is arranged. The poems are all titled and they look similar to how one captions a photograph, such as “Boston,” or “In English Class,” or “Her Self-Portrait.” These poems indicate that these are snapshots of both Cookie’s life, but also snapshots of what goes on in her own mind.

While the poetry is written in a clean-cut way, Sones does not hesitate to showcase uncomfortable things, especially with imagery. During art class, Cookie draws herself and her parents and it is unsettling. “I’m drawing my sister/ with sauces for eyes./ The saucers are spinning out sparks./ I’m drawing my mother/ with zippers for eyes./ The zippers are zipped up tight./ I’m drawing my father/ with windows for eyes./ The winds are broken and cracked./ I’m drawing myself/ without any eyes/ at all.” Unnerving, but it perfectly encapsulates what Cookie is feeling.

The imagery does not just end with Cookie’s emotions. She also uses it to fully paint to the reader the extent of her sister’s illness. In one visit, she describes her as feral. She acts feral the way she freezes her hands “like rabbits freeze when danger’s near,” and she is later “hissing” her words to Cookie. The book does not hesitate to show that Cookie’s family is going through a difficult period, and that Cookie’s sister can’t simply be cured.

This book is a raw book. It is hopeful, but it is raw, and it can be a great introduction on how mental health is viewed and treated for young readers. Cookie’s sister does get better (but, like I said, she isn’t cured) and there is an optimism entwined with that uncertainty throughout the second half of novel. The author’s own notes state that her sister now takes medication after undergoing several treatments. The real-life Cookie’s sister is now married and has become a librarian. She also writes and draws and does volunteer work. This is an excellent verse book to teach readers compassion and empathy towards mentally ill people.

Review Excerpt and Awards won:

Awards and Honors: Winner of the 2000 Claudia Lewis Award for Poetry; Winner of Myra Cohn Livingston Poetry Award (2000); chosen for the ALA Best Book for Young Adults (2000), and the ALA Popular Paperback for Young Adults (2000.)

Following excerpt is from Kirkus Reviews, posted online on May 20, 2010 and originally written October 31, 1999:

“Collected, [the poems] take on life and movement, the individual frames of a movie that in the unspooling become animated, telling a compelling tale and presenting a painful passage through young adolescence. The form, a story-in-poems, fits the story remarkably well, spotlighting the musings of the 13-year-old narrator, and pinpointing the emotions powerfully. She copes with friends who snub her, worries that she, too, will go mad, and watches her sister’s slow recovery.”

Connection: Use this book for teens as a way for them to create their own journals but only write poetry in them, this will help them express themselves. Another way to use this book is to facilitate a group conversation about mental health and what are the good and bad ways of handling someone with mental illness.