Cover of Martí's Song for Freedom shows Jose Marti in front of the Cuban flagJosé Martí was an activist for Cuban independence in the late nineteenth century, but because of his political activities in Cuba, he was exiled. He ended up spending many years in the United States. Martí’s Song for Freedom tells the story of his life but also captures that duality of his movement between Cuba and the United States by including all the text in both English and Spanish on the same page. Almost every page includes excerpts (in both English and Spanish) from his poems:

I come from every place,

And I’m on the road to everywhere

Yo vengo de todas partes

Y hacia todas partes voy

One of the challenges of a bilingual text is the sheer amount of writing that needs to find a place on every spread. This book is carefully designed to solve that problem; every page has text on the left side, the first column in English, the second in Spanish, and a full-page illustration on the facing page.Spread from book shows text on one side, illustration on facing page.

The back matter is also in both languages, and includes, on one page, all of the excerpts (in both languages) in the book.

I loved learning about a freedom fighter that I only knew about vaguely, and I loved having both languages available to me.

Martí’s Song for Freedom/ Martí y sus versos por la libertad, by Emma Otheguy, illustrated by Beatriz Vidal. Children’s Book Press: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

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


Portraits of seven Hispanics.One of my favorite questions to ask teachers and librarians is what books they wished they had to put in kids’ hands. A school librarian who works near San Diego told me she desperately wants more books with Hispanic protagonists. She worries that her kids don’t see themselves often enough in the books she has to give them. I think she’s going to be happy to see a copy of Bravo! Poems About Amazing Hispanics.

In this collection, the poet Margarita Engle has written short biographical poems about eighteen Hispanics, some still famous but most not, all with a connection the United States. It was a fascinating set of people–scientists, athletes, artists, teachers–and her poems are beautiful, cutting to the heart of why each person is memorable and remarkable. I was surprised that I’d never heard of some of these people–George Melendez Wright, who pioneered animal protection in the National Park System, Baruj Benacerraf who won a Nobel Prize, Juan de Miralles, who fought with George Washington.

Opposite every poem is a wonderful portrait by Rafael Lopez, who also illustrated Engle’s book Drum Dream Girl. His website has images showing his process in creating the portraits.

This is a fascinating collection that urges the reader to expand the definition of national hero.

Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael Lopez. Henry Holt: 2017.

Children with book around a globe

I participate every Wednesday in KidLit Frenzy’s Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.

Woman in kimono holds child's hand as they walk in an evening landscapeA sixty-four page picture book? By a tiny regional press? I never would have predicted that a book fitting that description would end up on my Christmas list, but that was before I’d seen Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko. This unusual book is really two books in one. The first half of the book is a picture book biography, framed by the story of the researcher who searched out and collected the female Japanese poet’s unpublished poems, that gives the account of her brief and tragic life. Yet despite the tragedy, her poetry is luminous and child-friendly. Ten of her poems are used within the text to comment on or illuminate biographical events.

The second half of the book is a collection of 15 more poems. Each is published in English with Japanese on the facing page.

Finally, the back matter includes both and author’s note and a translator’s note.

Others have written extensively about this interesting book–Betsy Bird’s blog is where I first read about it and a review I highly recommend. I won’t repeat the many wise things that have been said about it, but inspired by Megan Dowd Lambert’s fantastic book, Reading Picture Books with Children where she encourages readers to consider not just the text in books but also the design elements that accompany it, I did want to point out some things I noticed about this book as an object.

Surprisingly, the book is printed in landscape format. Usually picture book biographies–portraits of people–are printed in portrait orientation. But the choice of landscape orientation is apt. The low, long rectangle visually brings the sky down closer to the heads in the illustrations, giving a sense of intimacy and enclosure that fits both the story and the poetry. The paper the story is printed on is heavy and matte. It’s very satisfying to turn the page and feel the weight of the page. Its lack of glossiness seems to tie into the theme of looking at nature: there’s nothing over-manufactured or slick about it.

One of the most wonderful design elements of the book is the endpapers. They’re solid blue which you would think is unremarkable but the papers are richly textured, like a snake skin or the bark of a tree. I love running my hand over the endpapers. This understatement–a quiet color but an unusual and striking texture–is evocative of the poems. The poems are deceptively simple on a first read, but richly layered as you read them again and carry them in your head.

It’s a beautiful book and a beautiful story of hope and redemption.

Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko narrative by David Jacobson and translation by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi, illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri. Chin Music Press: 2016.

Children around a globe.



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

Cover of Slickety Quick shows a great white shark swimming in water.Sharks and poetry. What could be better?

In this refreshing book, Skila Brown couples playful, inventive poems with short sidebars about different types of sharks. The poems are in a range of styles. There’s a poem for two voices (about a shark and the remora that cleans it), rhyming poems, shape poems, and poems with a strong rhythmic beat.

The book spotlights thirteen different kinds of sharks. The poetry is the centerpiece. Each poem is in large type and thoughtfully set into the design of the page. The sidebars, each easily digestible at 25 or 30 words, are in small italicized font near the edge of the spread. They’re available if the poetry piques your curiosity, but each poem stands on its own. The digital art is inviting and refreshing.

This would be a great book to share with shark lovers and to lure a reluctant poetry reader. It would pair beautifully with another nonfiction title about sharks like Neighborhood Sharks. With each poem, Brown lures you in and makes you want more, like in this one about the nurse shark:

Two long whiskers–like a frown. Little mustache drips right down.

Vacuums creatures all around,

cleaning up the whole sea town.

Slickety Quick: Poems about Sharks by Skila Brown, illustrated by Bob Kolar. Candlewick: 2016

Children around a globe.


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge at Kid Lit Frenzy. Join us!

Cover of Freedom in Congo Square, showing a stylized picture of a black man dancing over cobblestones.Freedom in Congo Square uses lyrical, ebullient rhymes to tell the story of how slaves carved out their own culture in the face of oppression in New Orleans. Cleverly adapting the idea of a concept book to her historical story, Weatherford counts down through the days of the week to Sunday when, by law, slaves were given half a day holiday to fill as they chose. We see them trading, making music, and creating a new culture at the central location, Congo Square.

This book does a great job of contextualizing this moment of freedom. Never for a minute would a young reader assume that the joyous music rising up from Congo Square was the whole story:

Mondays, there were hogs to slop,

mules to train, and longs to chop.

Slavery was no ways fair.

Six days more to Congo Square.

Alyson Beecher of KidLitFrenzy has also pointed out that in addition to back matter, this book has an introductory foreword which makes doubly sure that the reader understands the context of the story. I thought the foreword was especially interesting because it doesn’t really have any significantly different information from what is in the back matter. It is, however, written by a local New Orleans historian, reminding the reader that this remarkable artistic and market culture which slaves built continues to flourish.

The art is wonderful and unexpected–vivid colors and primitivist  figures. And it’s a text that makes you want to read it aloud.

Lots of other people have written eloquently about it–Crystal Brunelle, Linda Baie, Alia Jones, and Tasha Saecker.

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Little Bee Books: 2016.

cover for Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes Bird Artist shows boy watches two birds fly.In Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes Bird Artist, Margarita Engle skillfully uses poetry to tell the remarkable life story of Louis Fuertes. He began painting birds when the state-of-the-art was to shoot the bird and then arrange it in a lifelike pose. Fuertes, however, couldn’t bear to kill the animals he admired. So he invented new techniques and began painting birds from life.

Engle tells his story in first person, an unusual craft choice in a nonfiction biography. The first person works really well, though, in showing emotional engagement without letting the language become overwrought. We hear Fuertes exclaim, “I love…” and “I care…” but the rest of the language is direct and clear.

Engle includes an interesting historical note–who knew that Arm and Hammer Baking Soda used to include trading cards?!–but I wish sources were attributed.

This book is a great look at a Hispanic American hero. It would work well in a science class, looking at environmental or habitat issues. It would also be great in an art class, followed up, of course, with drawing from life!

Engle offers a fun activity kit related to the book here. 

The Sky Painter: Louis Fuertes, Bird Artist by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Aliona Bereghici. Two Lions: 2015.







I loved this collection of poems, each about a different species of bird. The language was vivid and evocative, the rhythms and rhymes surprising and satisfying. Plus, all the poems were short.

This would be a great read-aloud, both at home and school, and a great mentor text before going outside to do nature drawing and writing. Plus, the poems are really fun!  Just one to whet your appetite:

The Oriole and the Woodpecker

Music lovers fast await

the first duet

of summer.

Oriole is vocalist.

Woodpecker is drummer.

On the Wing by David Elliott, illustrated by  Becca Stadtlander. Candlewick: 2014.



This collection of short, accessible poems soars! Each spread features an illustration of a different species of bird and a poem about them. The longest poem is 19 lines, the shortest 3. There is rhythm and there is rhyme, but both are always subjugated to the brilliant images Elliott is painting with words.

The Cardinal

He’s a hotshot


She’s a Plain Jane.

But one without…

the other…

a song with no refrain.

Since I picked up this book, I’ve been seeing something different when I look at the sparrows in the bush outside my window. It’s a great book to share with kids who love to watch birds, or to share to help them really see the birds they watch.

On the Wing, by David Elliott, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander. Candlewick: 2014.


 Despite the title, this book doesn’t have anything to do with school or classes (check out Snow School if you’re looking for an animals-school comparison). Instead, it’s a clever rhyming picture book outlining the different characteristics of vertebrate classes: amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles.

Lord uses rhyming couplets, each with 7 or 8 syllables. She establishes a strong rhythm that carries throughout the book. In fact, when I closed this book and opened the next one on my stack, it took me several pages to stop trying to wrest those (prose) lines into her very chant-able rhythm.

There’s lots of great information packed into her rhymes. Did you know, for example, that mammals, “People, rabbits, even deers,/all of them have stick-out ears”?

A handy chart in the back matter lays out for you the characteristics she’s covered, an exception to the common characteristics, and some of the species in each class.

Animal School: What Class Are You? by Michelle Lord, illustrated by Michael Garland. Holiday House: 2014