Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.
This young black baby is ready to raise a fist like a little panther. Using activist phrases and historical references, this little one wakes ready to take on a world without a glass ceiling to shatter, with no one to tell this baby no. The text is poetic, beautiful even, and clever, empowering, loving, describing the child’s fists, toes, eyes, voice, dance all as acts of self-expression and tools to change the world for the better. The text addresses the child in second person: “Here are your hands.” The illustrations are of the child waking, wailing for a parent, being heard, and being lifted from the crib, playing, and resting. The intended audience is certainly young children, toddlers, but I would love to wake up to this myself.
The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach. Scholastic, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.
I didn’t love this story as much as I had hoped to do, and I’m struggling a little to determine why. The premise is simple enough: an impatient caterpillar who doesn’t realize at the beginning of the book that becoming a butterfly is even possible for it is impatient to be a butterfly now. It doesn’t like having to wait in its chrysalis to become a butterfly. I know the caterpillar’s impatience and its ignorance, its constant questioning are supposed to mimic a child’s behavior, and certainly it gives Burach the time to include some facts about the caterpillar’s/butterfly’s transformation process (terminology and the length of time that the transformation takes), but I found it irritating, and more so I found the other caterpillars’ (or whatever one calls a caterpillar halfway through a transformation) responses to it irritating too. They are irritated, sometimes yelling, so I felt irritated reading their responses aloud, reading in tone. Told in dialogue and soliloquy, I feel like this is the type of book better acted out and probably better with two actors. The impatient caterpillar finally overcomes its impatience through meditation and deep breathing exercises and emerges as a “changed” butterfly, ready to be patient, though the final page hints that its transformation may not have been so complete as that.
100 First Words for Little Artists by Kyle Kershner. Familius, 2019.
Familius has been publishing this series in which each book in the series offers 100 words of a particular specialized vocabulary. I read 100 First Words for Little Geeks in 2018, which took its words from various sci-fi and fantasy fandoms of literature and film. This 100 First Words is all about the world of art, the tools (including coffee) that an artist uses to create in a wealth of mediums. Some of these are words that I, a 30-year-old woman who took art classes through high school, never learned. As a series, this is a neat concept. There are words and phrases in these primers that you will never find elsewhere. But I think that the market for these may be narrow. It’s definitely a fun book for young artists that are becoming parents.
Family Forever: A Julia Storybook by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by MaryBeth Nelson. Sesame Workshop, 2019.
This book, exclusively printed for Barnes & Noble but otherwise available digitally, is a gem of an education tool! Julia, one of the newer Muppets to join the Sesame Street cast, has autism. Never is autism or Julia seen by any of the characters in this book as an inconvenience. She and her family (mother, father, and brother) go for a picnic. While at the park, she and her brother leave the picnic blanket to play with Elmo and Abby. Julia’s big brother Samuel is excellent at making sure that Julia is included and her strengths acknowledged. He suggests a game. He asks Julia to be the leader first. Julia is upset when she realizes that sometime during the play, she has lost her stuffed friend, Fluffster. Her family and friends help to locate the toy. Sometimes Julia expresses herself in different ways, but her ways are not seen as lesser. She uses a talker sometimes to help her communicate when she can’t find the right words. Elmo at one point even uses Julia’s talker when Julia doesn’t need it to express herself. She flaps her hands when she is excited sometimes, and she rocks when she is upset. The story itself—of a missing toy lost and recovered—has a good, full arc and is relatable I think to most children (and adults), but it means all the more when it offers a too rare example of a child with autism in a picture book, handled with compassion and love and empathy.
Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Candlewick, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.
Julián and his abuela see a few women on the subway dressed for (research tells me) the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Julián loves mermaids, the idea of swimming in sea with the fish. On the subway, Julián is reading a book, probably about mermaids. Julián tells his grandmother that he is a mermaid too. His abuela goes to take a bath, and while she does, Julián dresses himself as a mermaid with fern fronds and flowers in his hair and curtains as a tail. When upon seeing what he has done, his abuela walks away without a word, Julián becomes momentarily uncertain of himself and of his outfit, until she gives him beads to complete his outfit, and takes him to the parade. Julián is awed by the mermaids, which his abuela comments are “like you.” Together they join the parade. This won the Stonewall Award in 2018, an award given to books that best represent the GLBT experience. I use the he/him pronouns for Julián because even in her loving acceptance of Julián, his abuela continues to use “mijo” when referring to Julián, which I have most often heard translated to son, but Love carefully uses no pronouns in the book, so I am not 100% which pronouns Julián prefers. Julián uses the term “mermaid” for himself, but I take mermaid as more gender neutral than necessarily feminine, though at no time does anyone “correct” Julián and tell him that he is a merman. Men are not discouraged from participating in Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade as far as I can tell. Without the Stonewall Award sticker though, I’m not sure that I would have read this as a representation of the GLBT experience; its messaging to me was that subtle. I love the casual usage of Spanish in this book. The Spanish words are not italicized or marked any differently than the English. I love the body diversity and positivity in this book. There are curvy, older women in bathing suits. There are young girls in bathing suits. There are older men wearing shorts with thin legs and knobby knees. Most of the women are bare-armed, wearing spaghetti straps or strapless tops or dresses or towels. Almost all of the characters are people of color. I just love Julián’s abuela. She is so wonderfully accepting and supportive. If the A stood for Ally, I would give her an A+. She gets an A+ anyway, just not that A. The text does not describe many of the actions of the book, allowing the illustrations to speak for themselves. The text is primarily dialogue. Only reading this through a third time am I noticing the echoed pattern of the scales of the fish and his abuela’s dress as each offers Julián a necklace.
Harrison Dwight, Ballerina and Knight by Rachael MacFarlane and illustrated by Spencer Laudiero. Imprint-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.
I read an advanced reader’s copy of this picture book about feeling and expressing what you feel without thought to convention or societal expectation. Even the adults do not conform to expectations, Harrison’s mother taking him to football games while he and his father pick wildflowers together. Harrison dances when he wants to because it makes him feel strong. He cries when he is sad or when he is moved or hurt. He implores others to explore and express themselves with confidence as he does. The text is admittedly maybe a little heavy-handed in its message, but until we start living these truths, maybe we need a little heavy-handedness.
These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.