Cover of Waiting for Pumpsie shows young black boy watching baseball diamondI thrill to books about triumphal firsts in human rights–stories about the Emancipation Proclamation, stories about universal suffrage, stories about breaking the color barrier in sports, stories about making inter-racial marriages legal. Those are important stories that need to be told. But as recent events remind us, it takes time for society to change. Sometimes a very long change. Children could assume that racism no longer exists if the only kinds of nonfiction picture books that got published were about triumphal firsts. But luckily there are other books that try to depict the struggle (like this one and this one and this one).  The book I’m looking at today, Waiting for Pumpsie, is one of those books.

Waiting for Pumpsie isn’t about the first black man to play Major League Baseball. In fact, it happens twelve years later, long after almost every Major League baseball team had blacks on their rosters. It’s the story of how the hold-out team, the Boston Red Sox, finally hired Pumpsie Green.

The story is historical fiction. The author says in the Author’s Note, “Bernard is a fictional character, but the events leading up to Pumpsie Green’s 1959 arrival in the major leagues with the Boston Red Sox are true.” Using fiction to tell a factual story works really well here since the author is able to cobble together scenes where Bernard and his family face all kinds of different types of ugly daily discrimination. They’re the kinds of daily humiliations that definitely happened, and you could find an example of each  in the historical record, but it would probably be impossible to find a single historical account that included all of them.  So a fictional place-holder allows the story to more fully depict what the world was like in 1959.

The acrylic paintings are vivid and depict actual ephemera from the time–baseball cards, TV schedules, game tickets, a souvenir pennant.

Waiting for Pumpsie by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by London Ladd. Charlesbridge: 2017.

(I’m posting this week at Page Through the Parks–so far, Junior Ranger eclipse pamphlet, a great podcast, and kids of color and the national parks–come visit!)

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.


African American woman stands proudly in front of fancy party gowns.In Fancy Party Gowns I loved learning about one of those fascinating people from the corner of history–someone who changed a little bit of the world but who isn’t widely known. This is a book about a fashion designer, Ann Cole Lewis, who created a career for herself out of designing and producing high end dresses. She made the gown that Olivia de Haviland wore to receive her Oscar in 1947 and the wedding dress that Jacqueline Bouvier wore in 1953 when she married John Kennedy. Ann managed her career while, at the same time, managing anti-African American sentiment that tripped her up time and again.

I loved the way Deborah Blumenthal used refrains in the text of the book. When Ann faces challenges, like the death of her mother or the disastrous destruction of her work, “Ann thought about what she could do not what she couldn’t change.” When she faces discrimination, it’s “because she was African American. And life wasn’t fair.”

My heart sang at Ann’s triumphs over adversity and mean-spiritedness. And the book made me want to sit down with some fabric and a needle, too.End papers show many fancy party gowns.

The art is wonderful. Not surprisingly, there are wonderful fabric colors, textures, and patterns on every page. It dwells lovingly on tiny details related to sewing, like the handful of buttons strewn across the bottom of one page. I especially love the endpapers, which show some of the dresses Ann designed.

This is a book to read with The Hundred Dresses! One is fiction but this nonfiction story will give context and power to the idea of designing dresses.

Fancy Party Gowns: the Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lewis, by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman. little bee: 2017

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy.

In the last few years, the American Library Association Youth Media Awards have increasingly recognized nonfiction. By my count, between 1942 and 1983 no Caldecott medals went to nonfiction books. That’s 0 awards in 41 years. In 2014, 2016, and now 2017, the Caldecott medal went to nonfiction picture books. This week Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe won both the Caldecott and a Coretta Scott King Honor.

Other nonfiction books won big at the ALA Awards, too. Freedom in Congo Square, one of my favorite books from last year, won both a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor. The graphic novel memoir by John Lewis, March, won the Coretta Scott King Award and the Printz Award (besides snatching both of the nonfiction awards–the Sibert and the YALSA Nonfiction).

Happily I have already reviewed Freedom in Congo Square way back in March but I didn’t do so well getting the other award winners reviewed.I have a review of Giant Squid, the only picture book to win a Sibert Honor, scheduled for later this month.

Portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat as a childI have had Radiant Child on my stack of to-be-reviewed books for about a month now. When I first read the book, it didn’t grab me. But I kept thinking about the art and found myself digging out the book to show people how he used found wood, pieced together, as his canvas. I love the subtle collage elements and the shifts in perspective.

The story itself is about a troubled but brilliant grafitti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work was cut short by his tragic end (which is discussed only in the back matter). One of my favorite parts of the book was the note in the back matter by the author/artist explaining why Basquiat’s work speaks to him.

This is a beautiful book with celebratory images of a Puerto Rican/Haitian boy. It’s fitting that a book about art would win the award for the best art in a children’s book.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javaka Steptoe. (Little Brown: 2016).

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.



African American boy looks at a steamboat in the river.Kids deserve to know about amazing, courageous people from the past. But sometimes the historical record is too sketchy to tell a strictly nonfiction story about a real event. That’s where historical fiction comes in–writers can tell a story that conveys a historical truth without having the life sucked out of the story by the lack of documentary evidence required by nonfiction. Deborah Hopkinson tells just such a story in Steamboat School.

An 1847 made it illegal in Missouri to teach reading or writing to any African Americans, even free citizens. In this book Hopkinson tells the true story of how one committed, creative African American preacher found a way to keep teaching without breaking the law.

This is a great story for kids. It highlights the importance of education, and the lengths people are willing to go in order to learn to read and write. It showcases a man of courage and conviction. It’s a story about kids learning. It would be a great shame for the story to go untold simply because the historical account is so sketchy. So Hopkinson creates a fictional frame to tell the story, but she also makes it clear right from the cover of the book that this is a fictional account, “inspired by a true story.”

The back matter is extensive and fascinating. She talks a little about research material she looked for but failed to find, and she gives the reader much greater detail about the historical characters.

The text of the book isn’t quite nonfiction, but combined with the excellent back matter, this book can fill many of the functions of excellent nonfiction for kids.

Steamboat School, Inspired by a True Story by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Ron Husband. Disney-Hyperion: 2016.

Children around a globe.




I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book every Wednesday at KidLit Frenzy.

Cover of Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton shows George Moses Horton rapturously holding a newspaper in which his first poem has been printedPoet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton is a lovely picture book biography about an African American who started writing poetry while he was enslaved. In the afterword, Tate says, “…the publishing industry could do a better job of balancing the topic of slavery with other African-American stories.”

This month furor has erupted again over what kinds of stories about enslaved people can be told in picture books. After A Fine Dessert and A Birthday Cake for George Washington, what topics can nonfiction picture books cover? I think it’s clear that right now it isn’t possible to write about slavery tangentially. If a nonfiction book is going to tell the story of an enslaved person, it had better deal directly with the issue of slavery itself. I feel wistful for those stories that aren’t being told. But I also think it’s fair to argue that we haven’t told the story of enslavement well enough or often enough to our picture book audience. That terrible story needs to be told before other kinds of stories about enslaved people can be heard.

Poet is a great example of what can be done in a picture book. It deals with the horrors of enslavement without losing the wonder and beauty of what Horton managed within the confines of slavery. Tate tells the inspiring story of Horton learning to read and to write and then finding a way to make a living out of poetry. But he doesn’t whitewash the injustice or horror of slavery, either.

I don’t think, though, that Tate was suggesting that we ONLY tell stories about enslaved African Americans.  I totally agree with him that we need lots, lots more nonfiction picture books about African Americans. And about Chinese Americans and Mexican Americans and Indian Americans. We need to hear the stories we haven’t heard yet to remind us of what makes us who we are.

Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate. Peachtree: 2015.

Cover of book Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland Shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird In this lyrical autobiography, ballerina Misty Copeland speaks to a young, uncertain dancer, encouraging her to prepare, to practice, and mostly to believe in her ability to dance. The text has none of the dates or places of the birth-to-death biography but is instead a spiritual account of the internal process needed to succeed in ballet.

You won’t hear from this book that Copeland is one of the great modern ballerinas or that she was born in poverty or that she became, just a few months ago, the first female African American principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater. The book’s language is lovely, but it will have even more meaning if you first dig into Copeland’s life a bit–perhaps at her website or by watching the new movie about her life. Copeland includes a letter to the reader at the back of the book, but it talks more about why she wrote the book than about where she came from. I would have loved a much longer, more detail-oriented back essay here. But luckily there are other resources to fill the gap.

Teachers might think about comparing this autobiography to Yuyi Morales’ biography of Frida Kahlo, Viva Frida.  Both use lyricism and imagery to describe artists.

Firebird: Ballerina Misty Copeland shows a Young Girl How to Dance Like the Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated  by Christopher Myers. G. P. Putnam’s: 2014.

CorneliusSometimes everyday people are the true heroes of history. Here’s a book that celebrates one of those heroes.

Cornelius Washington was a New Orleans trash collector. After Hurricane Katrina, despite the devastation and discouragement, he stayed in his job. Trash collectors like Cornelius were vital to making it possible for others, people from New Orleans and all around the country, to clear out the debris left in the wake of the storm and start a new life.

Phil Bildner makes Cornelius into a folk hero–one who piled bags into “perfect pyramids” and who danced in the streets while he picked up trash–who inspires everyone to work together. The language is infectiously bouncy, full of alliteration (“The barbers, bead twirlers and beignet bakers bounded behind the one-man parade” of  Cornelius) and onomatopoeia (“Hootie Hoo!”) and fun to read aloud.

The back matter carefully draws a line between the invention that is in the story and the nonfiction basis of that invention:

…while Cornelius was certainly a showman, he may not have twirled lids like tops or clapped them like cymbals. He had signals and calls, but they weren’t the exact ones described here. The garbage bags he threw into his hopper probably didn’t land in perfect pyramids….And though he was celebrated and beloved in his neighborhoods, he was not called Marvelous Cornelius.

But he deserves to be.

This book reminded me of the beauty of a life well-lived and of the power we have as individuals to lift others, even when the problems we face are enormous.

Marvelous Cornelius: Hurricane  Katrina and the Spirit of New Orleans, by Phil Bildner, illustrated by John Parra. Chronicle Books: 2015.