This is one in a series of monthly reviews of books for young people written by teachers of children’s literature. Today’s are by Alexa Sandmann, professor of literacy at Kent State University.
This month’s column highlights the two longest-running prizes awarded in children’s literature. First bestowed in 1922 by the American Library Association, the Newbery Medal is presented to the author of the work judged to be the most distinguished contribution to literature for children published in the United States during the previous year. The Caldecott Medal honors Randolph Caldecott, a 19th century illustrator of children’s books and has been awarded annually since 1938 to the illustrator of the most distinguished children’s book. For both, honor books are usually awarded, the number depending on each committee’s decision. Once more, this year’s choices for both medals are books which highlight the stellar professional achievement for which these awards are known. This year, like last year, several of the books won multiple awards, notably the Coretta Scott King Awards for either authorship or illustration and were reviewed last month. Those reviews are once more included so as to uphold the extent of their acclaim.
THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON. By Kelly Barnhill. Algonquin Young Readers. Ages 8-12. $16.95.
Fans of fairy tales will relish the story of Luna, the “girl who drank the moon” and so is infused with magical abilities. She had been left as a baby in the woods outside the town by the people of the Protectorate, a sacrifice to the witch so that she would leave them in peace throughout the year. Clearly, the townspeople believe the witch is evil, but Xan is actually kind and had been rescuing the infants for centuries, safely delivering the children to towns on the other side of the mountain. Xan’s companions, a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon are charismatic, and help Xan rear Luna, the child who drinks moonlight instead of starlight. Thoroughly engaging and thoughtful, as fairy tales were designed to support the social order, good does indeed trump evil, and asks important questions: Is “love a compass?” Is “knowledge a magnet?” I’d wager yes. Affirming.
FREEDOM OVER ME: 11 SLAVES, THEIR, LIVES AND DREAMS BROUGHT TO LIFE BY ASHLEY BRYAN. By Ashey Bryan. Atheneum/Simon & Schuster. Ages 8-12. $17.99.
Also named a Coretta Scott King Author Honor book and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, Bryan was inspired by an actual list of items for purchase at an estate sale in 1836, a list that included men, women, and children — with dollar amounts. From this document, Bryan imagined the lives and thoughts of the 11 slaves. In free verse, Bryan highlights how their individual talents, for sewing or carpentry or cooking bring financial or social gain to the family — but not to the people themselves. In oversized two-page spreads, richly detailed portraits of each are accompanied by poems which honor the significant artistry of their work in support of the Fairchilds estate. Upon turning the page, a poem highlights the dreams of each, accompanied with an illustration which showcases their accomplishments and their wishes for the future. Thought provoking.
THE INQUISITOR’S TALE. By Adam Gidwitz. Illuminated by Hatem Aly. Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin Random House. Ages 8-12. $17.99.
Subtitled Or, the Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog and set in 1242 in France, travelers congregate in a small inn to hear the story of the children and pet. Because the trio has distinctive talents — Jeanne who envisions of the future; William, extraordinary strength, and Jacob, special powers of healing, they are sought as criminals by the King. Reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, this illuminated text has the feel of a medieval narrative. Despite its historical setting, this richly researched story has multiple contemporary themes. Engaging.
WOLF HOLLOW. By Lauren Wolk. Dutton Children’s Books/Penguin Random House. Ages 8-12. $16.99.
Set during the heart of World War II in a small Pennsylvania town, Annabelle’s life is quiet and predictable until a new student arrives in her class. A bully, Betty begins harassing 12-year-old Annabelle and then targets a World War I veteran who lives on the periphery of town. Until Betty arrives in town, Toby’s eccentricities are not at issue, but her actions place him at the center of a tragedy. Another historical story reminiscent of current societal issues, it demands reflection on our common humanity. Compelling.
RADIANT CHILD: THE STORY OF YOUNG ARTIST JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT. Illustrated and written by Javaka Steptoe. Little, Brown, and Co./ Hatchette Book Group. Ages 6 and up. $17.99.
Also the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award winner, this exquisitely illustrated narrative is about artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Steptoe aspired to echo the unique collage style of Basquiat. Using wood he found in the city, Steptoe brilliantly used “bits of New York City” to honor Basquiat’s vision that while his art was not “neat or clean and definitely not inside the lines,” that it was still “beautiful.” A challenging childhood and adolescence, Basquiat never stopped believing that he would be a famous artist, and he was, although he was only 27 years old when his struggles with a drug addiction ended his life. However, his paintings endure, in museums all over the world. Striking.
LEAVE ME ALONE! Illustrated and written by Vera Brosgol. Roaring Book Press/Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings. Ages 4-8. $17.99.
A grandmother, with a household of grandchildren, becomes desperate for quiet and so she leaves home to be able to knit sweaters for her family in peace. She goes to the woods and the mountain and the moon, but bears, goats, and moon-men all find her. Eventually she finds a wormhole and there she finds the quiet she needs to create the 30 sweaters destined for her family. Mission accomplished, she returns home, happily ensconced with her boisterous loved ones once again. Charming.
FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE. Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Written by Carol Boston Weatherford. Little Bee Books/Bonnier Publishing Group. Ages 5 to 9. $17.99.
Also a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor book, poetic text honors those who “flocked to New Orleans’ Congo Square. Sundays, slaves, and free met there.” Gathering together, “Grouped by nation, language, tribe, they drummed ancestral roots alive./ They played triangles, gourds and bells ….” Everyone celebrated the freedom of an afternoon when the harshness of the workweek could be temporarily suspended. The figures within Christie’s paintings capture both the drudgery and pain of the work, as well as the joy of music. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Congo Square remains a vital part of Louis Armstrong Park. Compelling.
DU IZ TAK? Illustrated and written by Carson Ellis. Candlewick Press. Ages 3-8. $16.99.
Illustrated in gouache and ink, this oversized picture book is written in an imaginary language. Self-evident then is that the illustrations must carry the weight of the storyline and they do — splendidly. Lively conversations will be had as the “conversation” is translated into a language its readers understand.
Exquisite detail will provide rich discussion over repeated readings. Fabulous.
THEY ALL SAW A CAT. Illustrated and written by Brendan Wenzel. Chronicle Books. Ages 3-5. $16.99.
Illustrations for this highly imaginative text were, according to the artist, “rendered in almost everything imaginable, including colored pencil, oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, Magic Marker, good old No. 2 pencils, and even a MacBook.” Yet, the story line is simple, as the cat “walked through the world” and among other entities, a “child and a dog and a fox …” all see the cat. And what does the cat see at the end of the book? A delightful journey for readers of all ages.
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