Elem. – Sticks and Stones

Polacco, Patricia. Sticks and Stones. Simon & Schuster, 2020. Unpaged. 978-1-534-42622-1. $18.99. Grades 2-4.

In another story based on her childhood, Polacco has created a heartwarming tale about the school year she spent with her father in Michigan. Trisha is eager to start middle school with her summer friends, but they desert her at the front door. She is on her own until a skinny boy with glasses called Thom helps her find her first class. The pair sits with a quiet girl named Ravanne, who is artistic and another outsider. A bully named Billy calls Trisha “Cootie” because of a nervous rash on her face and gives Thom and Ravanne the cruel nicknames “Sissy Boy” and “Her Ugliness.” The trio become fast friends as they deal with taunts from Billy and his gang. The three friends go kite flying with hand painted silk kites made by Ravanne and have a great time on Halloween, until Billy steals their candy. Trisha learns that she and Thom share a love of ballet and that he takes ballet lessons.  His secret is revealed to the other students when Thom easily clears the high jump bar, which Billy just failed to do. Thom shouts out, “See what ballet can do for you!” which is overheard by Billy and the coach. The bully is furious that the coach wants Thom to try out for the team and confronts him on his way home, breaking his glasses. Sick of the bullying, Thom announces that he is going to perform a dance in the talent show. Because he cannot see well with the broken glasses, Ravanne and Trisha help their friend with stage blocking. At the talent show, Thom dances the part of Prince Siegfried from Swan Lake and his classmates are amazed at his “high and powerful” leaps and other athletic moves. Thom’s brave performance earns him respect from his classmates. Polanco’s signature illustrations are done with pencil and acetone markers. The kite flying drawings contain so much movement that the reader can almost feel the wind. In the author’s note, the reader learns what her Michigan friends are doing today.

THOUGHTS: This is a powerful story of bullying and resilience. Although the text is wordy, it will still hold interest as a read aloud, because of the dialogue and pictures. It is a good choice for guidance counselors or classroom teachers for character lessons.  A worthwhile purchase and one of Polacco’s better works.

Picture Book          Denise Medwick, Retired, PSLA Member

Elem. – The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read

Hubbard, Rita Lorraine. The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. Schwartz & Wade Books, 2020. 978-1-5247-6828-7. $17.99. 40 p. Grades K-3.

As a child born into slavery, Mary Walker admires the freedom of birds that pass over the plantation. She spends her days toiling in the fields picking cotton, which leaves no time for schooling of any kind. After the Emancipation Proclamation sets her free at the age of 15, Mary works as a nanny and a maid to keep her family afloat. One day, she meets a group of evangelists who gifts her a Bible. Mary vows that she will read it one day, but today is not that day. Work consumes the next six decades of her life until she moves to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Having outlived her entire family, her life changes when she moves to a retirement home, and, at 116 years old, takes a reading class. Caldecott Honor illustrator Oge Mora uses paper, including sheet music and pages from books, to create beautiful collages in shades of brown, green, yellow, and blue. Readers should take care to notice how Mary’s dress changes throughout the book, especially once she learns to read.

THOUGHTS: Even though The Oldest Student is geared towards K-3 students, ALL students can take away the very important message of the book: No one is ever too old to learn. This inspiring book is a gentle way to ease into difficult conversations about slavery, race, and education in our society. With the current emphasis on growth mindset in the classroom, this is the perfect book to show that learning and growing continue long after school is over.

Picture Book          Danielle Corrao, Ephrata Area SD
921 WAL Biography

Mary Walker’s inspirational story, beautifully illustrated in this picture book biography, proves you’re never too old to learn. Born a slave in 1848, Mary never gave up on her lifelong dream of learning how to read. And, at age 116, she finally accomplished it. This book follows Mary from her childhood spent picking cotton on an Alabama plantation, through her emancipation at age 15, to her life spent working low-paying jobs and raising her three children. Mary always dreamed of learning to read, but there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. Finally, at age 114, after outliving her entire family, Mary attended her first reading class. From memorizing the alphabet and each letter’s sound to copying her name over and over again, Mary spent more than a year studying and practicing. Her dedication paid off when, at age 116, she finally learned to read. Friends and neighbors gathered around to hear her read aloud from her cherished family Bible. Oge Mora’s mixed media illustrations, composed of acrylic paint, china marker, colored pencil, patterned paper, and book clippings, bring Mary’s memorable story to life. Beautiful full-page illustrations feature a palette of primarily blues and greens and yellows. Endpapers include black and white photographs of Mary Walker celebrating some of her milestones.

THOUGHTS: Teachers will want to share this inspirational story with older students during morning meetings. It will also work well with lessons or units focusing on perseverance or the importance of working towards a goal.

Picture Book          Anne Bozievich, Southern York County SD
Biography

As a young slave girl, Mary Walker would look up at the birds while working in the fields and imagine what it would be like to be free as a bird. When she was 15 the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, and Mary’s dream of being free was realized. However, that didn’t mean the end of hard work and a lack of education. As a teen Mary was given a Bible, and she vowed to one day learn to read the words written in that book. But marriage, children, and work took up Mary’s time, and she never learned to read. Until…at 114 years old and alone (her three boys and husband since passed), Mary heard about a class in her retirement building that taught folks to read. Mary joined the class and never looked back. She was proclaimed the nation’s oldest student by the US Department of Education when she was 117! Mary lived to 121! The endpapers include photos of Mary later in her life.

THOUGHTS: This amazing story is one of resilience and determination. It is beautifully illustrated by Oge Mora. This must purchase will make a great read aloud for any age.

306 Social Sciences          Krista Fitzpatrick, Waldron Mercy Academy

YA – Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard

Brown, Echo. Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard. Henry Holt and Company, 2020. 978-1-250-30985-3. $17.99. 291 p. Grades 9 and up.

The reader meets the main character of Echo Brown’s Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard at age six in a dangerous situation and follows her until she embarks to college. On the way, Echo is becoming a wizard –not the Hermione Granger kind–but the kind made from determination and desire. Each chapter in this memoir-like novel includes a quality Echo, the Black girl of the title, assumes to realize her true self. Bad things happen as Echo treads that path to her goal: household rife with alcoholism and addiction; molestation; rape; incarceration of her brother; injury to her best friend. But author Brown realizes Echo’s existence is complex. Her mother craves the “white rocks;” but she, too, is a wizard with nurturing powers. Her brothers hang on the corner and drink too much; but they also have dreams and are their sister’s strongest champions. Echo has good friends, mostly Black, but also Jin, a Korean-American gay classmate, and Elena, an Iranian-American gay friend. (Their sexual orientation is irrelevant to the plot.) Her Cleveland neighborhood is supportive and proud of her accomplishments. She has an encouraging teacher, Mrs. Delaney, who takes Echo under her wing to help her attain her college goals. The first time she goes to Mrs. Delaney’s large, suburban home, Echo is shocked to discover her white teacher’s husband is Black. Seventeen and insecure, she senses his restrained and even dismissive opinion of her. The author has an ineffable talent for infusing these important themes of racism, white supremacy, implicit and explicit biases, micro-aggressions, Black versus Black aggression, self image among Black women, and misogyny among Black men seamlessly because she tells them as part of Echo’s story. At times, the author takes a non-linear approach to deliver Echo’s tale, especially when the lessons of wizardry are at work. This technique fits with the book. It is a study in opposites: real but fantastic; lovely but harsh; despairing but hopeful. It is a story of inequity and the innate ability to fight that inequity and succeed, hence the power of wizardry. In truth, the wizards are strong women, overcoming flaws and shortcomings. All of them show Echo how capable and resilient she is.

THOUGHTS: Echo Brown’s writing style is moving. Ms. Brown also differentiates between the main character’s standard English narrative and Ebonics of her family and Cleveland, Ohio, neighbors. Because of some language (the n word), sexual scenes, and the sophistication of the writing, this book may be better suited to older teens and young adults. An outstanding book.

Magic Realism          Bernadette Cooke, SD Philadelphia