Monthly Archives: February 2016

Book Trailer Premier: Shana Corey and Red Nose Studio’s The Secret Subway

The New York City subway is a unique form of transportation, an enormous system of underground trains that helps people get far and wide throughout a large and busy city. Now I’ve heard of ghost stations, mothballed trains used in coral reefs, but a secret functioning subway — that was news to me. But indeed there was one and Shana Corey tells its story in The Secret Subway abetted by illustrator Chris Sickels of Red Nose Studio. Their utterly delightful collaboration pulls into the station on March 8th.

Next week I will be featuring interviews with Shana and Chris and today I’ve got something equally if not more exciting — the book trailer!



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We’ve Got Contenders, We’ve Got Judges, We’ve Got Brackets — SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books is Coming


Yesterday we revealed the brackets with judges — our final closing judge being none other than Ann M. Martin herself. To say we are excited (“we” being us three who constitute the Battle Commander and our SLJ editor Shelley Diaz) is an understatement. And we know many others gearing up too. But I truly hope even more join in — this is a great way to revisit 16 fabulous 2015 titles and to watch 15 amazing judge-writers at work, considering and exploring them in some terrific ways. Not to mention having fun perusing Mark Tuchman’s witty graphics. And we’ve got kid commentators too — anyone who has read what they have to say will agree — they are often the stars of the battle. To learn more check out Rebecca Miller’s editorial, “The Joys of a Good Book (Battle)”  and Shelley’s overview, “Primed for a Fight“. Hope to see you out there, cheering on your favorites!


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The Danger of the Universal “We”(or “They” or even “You”)

recent post by Ellen Oh received a thoughtful response from my friend Roxanne Feldman (who is originally from Taiwan, that is Chinese American), “Dear Ellen Oh, You Are Not Me!” While strongly agreeing with most of Ellen’s comments to those writing from outside their own experience, ethnicity and race, Roxanne did wonder who she was referring to in her “we” when she wrote “Yes We Need Diverse Books. But that doesn’t always mean that we want YOU to write them.” Roxanne responded that she, “….often find[s] sweeping generalization of all kinds problematic” something that is true for me too, especially when it comes to attempts to define people and more so when I think about my 4th grade students.

That is, the students I work with never tidily fit any sort of generalization be it one about reluctant readers or about their ethnic and racial identities. There are as many different reasons for reluctant reading in my classroom as there are children that I might identify as such. Similarly, when it comes to ethnicity and racial identity I find each child to be completely and utterly different in tastes, wishes, and needs. As a result, among those who would be identified as diverse in some way, some gravitate to and look for titles that reflect their own experience and selves while others prefer books that take them to worlds completely new and different from their own.

This sort of thing makes me again and again appreciate and think of Adichie’s  “The Danger of a Single Story” as it is so important to consider in every possible way.


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February 21, 2016 · 5:29 am

Ashley Bryan’s New York City Subway Poster

Anyone who has ridden NYC’s subways will have seen the lovely posters within the cars, frequently by familiar children’s book illustrators. They evidently commission 5 or 6 new ones every year. And this year one of those will be this one by remarkable Ashley Bryan!


Here’s the scoop from the MTA site:

MTA Arts & Design has released a new graphics arts poster, and this one celebrates music and voices of the Bronx. The artwork is titled “New York Voices,” by artist and children’s book author Ashley Bryan. The piece will be installed in hundreds of subway stations and cars throughout the New York City Transit (NYCT) system.

The colorful poster depicts two groups of singers with their arms linked, mouths opened in mid-song. It is based on an original painting by Bryan, who said he was celebrating the variety of voices that create the soundtrack of New York City.

“The spirit of the voice harmonizes the city. It is this character of raising the voice in song which adds color to the life of all New Yorkers,” Bryan said.

MTA Arts & Design commissions five to six artists each year to create transit-related graphic art for posters installed on platform and mezzanine walls of subway stations and for art cards displayed inside subway cars. The posters are seen by millions of NYCT customers, providing illustrators and artists an opportunity to reach a broad audience while introducing the public to visionaries who create engaging visual art.

“We are honored to work with the celebrated artist Ashley Bryan and to share his work with his hometown. He was inspired by the joyful music of the city and created an image of a choral group coming together to sing. His work celebrates the millions of voices in our great city and the harmony we can achieve when we raise our voices together,” said MTA Arts & Design Deputy Director Amy Hausmann.

Bryan was born and raised in the Bronx in 1923. He studied art at Cooper Union until he was drafted into a segregated unit during World War II, but he continued to draw even on the beaches of Normandy. He returned to New York to finish his degree and earned a second degree in philosophy at Columbia University. He later went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship.

Bryan taught for several years, at the Dalton School in Manhattan, Queens College and Dartmouth College, where he retired as professor emeritus in 1988. He also wrote and illustrated numerous children’s books of African and African-American stories, becoming a pioneer in the genre. In 2013, he was honored as a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library.

Although he has lived on an island off the Maine coast for the past 50 years, New York remains a vital part of him.

“At every moment I strive for connection. If you are in the moment, you are stretching out to reach that which you recognize in others. That’s my secret,” Bryan said.

MTA Arts & Design established the graphic arts poster program in 1991 and has since received awards and recognition nationally and internationally, most recently from organizations such as American Public Transportation Association, The Society of Illustrators and American Illustration. Artists who have created award-winning graphics for the program include Peter Sis, Sophie Blackall, Marcos Chin, R. Gregory Christie, Carlo Stanga, William Low, Raul Colon, Pop Chart Lab, Jennifer Judd-McGee, Yan Nascimbene, Yuko Shimizu and Victo Ngai.

The posters are available for sale at New York Transit Museum stores. Revenue from poster sales support the museum’s educational and exhibition programs.

“The graphics arts program is extremely popular with transit customers. The arts bring an element of fun and visual interest to the daily journey. We expect ‘New York Voices’ to be very popular,” said MTA Arts & Design Manager Lydia Bradshaw, who coordinates the program.

MTA Arts & Design

MTA Arts & Design encourages the use of mass transit in the metropolitan New York area by providing visual and performing arts in the transit environment. The permanent art program is one of the largest and most diverse collections of public art in the world, with more than 300 commissioned works by well-known, mid-career and emerging artists including Jacob Lawrence, Nancy Spero, Romare Bearden, Milton Glaser, Elizabeth Murray, Roy Lichtenstein, Al Held, Faith Ringgold and new projects by Xenobia Bailey, Chuck Close, Vik Muniz, and Sarah Sze. Arts & Design produces graphic posters, photography installations, live musical performances, the Poetry in Motion program and other special events. It serves more than 2.6 billion people who ride MTA subways and trains each year and strives to create meaningful connections between sites, neighborhoods, and people. To learn more, visit

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Anticipating Kate DiCamillo’s Forthcoming Raymie Nightingale


Want to know more? Check out this buzzfeed interview.



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In the Classroom: Teaching About Slavery

Over the last year important if uncomfortable questions have been raised about how to approach the topic of American chattel slavery with children. I’ve been following the conversations closely and they have informed me greatly as I prepare to begin my own teaching of the topic with my 4th grade students this week. It is a unit I’ve done for many years, always reworking it in response to new learnings, new circumstances, and new thinking.

Part of our year-long study of immigration, the unit is bluntly on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, on those who came here against their will from Africa, unlike any of the others the children have already studied (Europeans coming through Ellis Island circa 1900, Chinese coming through Angel Island at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and recent immigrants through an oral history project). Since it is the first time our students have encountered this topic formally in school we continually grapple with how best to teach it. Over the years, teachers have approached it somewhat differently depending on personal experiences and background. One colleague began by sharing her own African-American family history. Another did so via her bi-racial background. A focus on social justice has been a third colleague’s framework. And mine is Africa due to my Sierra Leone Peace Corps experience and subsequent education, research, and writing.

In addition to readying the resources, activities, and discussions my students will experience, I’m preparing for their emotional responses. This includes letting parents know what I will be doing, what resources I will be using, and inviting their responses as well as any concerns regarding their children’s emotional reactions. Throughout the unit I will be carefully watching and listening and providing ways for my students to respond. I will do my best to create a safe place for all of them and be ready to shift my plans if necessary, well aware that each will respond differently depending on race, ethnicity, previous knowledge, family history, personality, and more.

And so tomorrow I will begin. First will be the establishment of a safe place. Here is what I’ve written on my internal class blog and will discuss with the children:

To start we want to be sure that all members of the Edinger House community are sensitive and aware that each person comes to this topic with different knowledge and experience. Some of you may know more than others, some of you may be more comfortable than others with this topic, and some of you may not yet know how you will respond to the topic. We need to be sure that everyone feels safe as we begin learning about these difficult truths about America’s past.

Along with this I will read two very different books, Penda Diakité and Baba Wagué Diakité’s I Lost My Tooth in Africa and Jacqueline Woodson’s Show Way. I use the Diakités’ book to give a view of recent West Africa (it is set in Bamako, Mali) through a child’s eyes, one that I can also talk about personally as it is familiar to me from my life there, and  Jackie’s because it so powerfully connects the past with the present, establishing a tone and a theme for our work.

Because I feel it is a story of resilience and resistance, the center of the unit has long been the Amistad affair. Now I am able to use my own book, Africa is My Home; A Child of the Amistad, (with Keren Liu’s wonderful lessons) along with Veronica Chambers’ Amistad Risingsome of Elizabeth Alexander’s Amistad poems from American Sublime, and various primary sources  (For anyone interested, more materials and resources for using my book are here.)

Many of my lessons are centered around books I read aloud. The following titles, among many more in my collection, are some that I am planning to use this year. I’ve selected them because I feel they are age-appropriate, well researched and created, and work for my particular approach to this topic. That said, which ones I end up using will depend on this year’s students’ expressed and observed interest and emotional responses.

Books set (or partially set) in Africa at the time of the slave trade:

  • The Village that Vanished by Ann Grifalconi and Kadir Nelson.
  • Never Forgotten by Patricia C. McKissack and Leo and Diane Dillon.
  • Circle Unbroken by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis. 

Books set in contemporary Africa (mostly West):

  • Boundless Grace by Mary Hoffman and Caroline Binch.
  • Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane and Hoda Hadadi.
  • Emmanuel’s Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson and Sean Qualls.
  • One Plastic Bag by Miranda Paul and Elizabeth Zunon.
  • Anna Hibiscus (various titles) by Atinuke and Lauren Tobia.

Books set in America under slavery:

  • Almost to Freedom by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Colin Bootman.
  • Underground: Finding the Light to Freedom by Shane W. Evans.
  • I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady and Michele Wood.
  • Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle and Alix Delinois.
  • The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery by Judith Bloom Fradin, Dennis Brindell Fradin, and Eric Velasquez.
  • Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad  by Ellen Levine and Kadir Nelson.
  • Night Boat to Freedom by Margot Theis Raven and E. B. Lewis.
  • Way Up and Over Everything by Alice McGill and Jude Daly.
  • All Different Now: Juneteenth, the First Day of Freedom by Angela Johnson and E.B. Lewis.
  • Dave the Potter by Laban Carrik Hill and Bryan Collier.
  • Fredrick’s Journey by Doreen Rappaport and London Ladd.
  • Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr. and Floyd Cooper.
  • Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton by Don Tate.
  • Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie.
  •  The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and Don Tate.

And so, tomorrow  I will begin. Given the passion of this past year’s discussions I am perhaps a bit less confident than other years. Admittedly a bit nervous. But that is okay as this is not about me, but about helping my students begin to know about this henious part of their country’s past.


Filed under Africa, Africa is My Home, Amistad, History, In the Classroom, Learning About Africa

The Fuzzy Line Between Fiction and Nonfiction

I really appreciate Julie Danielson’s Kirkus blog post, “The Stories In Between” as she considers a topic near and dear to me — the blurry line between certain works of fiction and nonfiction.  Two picture books she considers are Greg Pizzoli’s nonfiction Tricky Vic and Deborah Hopkinson’s Beatrix Potter & the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig. These are both works of history, something of particular interest to me. Julie refers to the following comment I made on a 2014  blog post of Betsy Bird‘s about invented dialog in picture book biographies:

… As you know I tried for years to write the story of Sarah Margru Kinson as nonfiction and finally was convinced to fictionalize it. The result is being called historical fiction, but it hardly is a novel in the conventional sense. I think it is a lot closer to some of the titles you cite here.

I’d love to see some sort of new genre that encompasses books like this, those that have fictional elements, but are based on true events and people. One of the reasons I feel so strongly about this is that I feel it will bring many more people to young readers’ attention. So many people did not leave the sort of paper trails needed to create a full work of nonfiction. As a result they are often not the subject of books for children and/or the same set of personalities get repeated attention. Additionally, the ones we need out there are may well be those who were marginalized in their time which is why the paper trail isn’t there. So if we were more open to books that stand on that fiction/nonfiction border and do so honestly and openly we’d have more diverse voices and stories.

With the current discussion on diversity and how to present slavery to children in their books, I think my final point about reconsidering or making a new genre in order to bring in more stories is all the more critical.


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SLJ’s Battle of the Kids’ Books — Guess the Judge!

Today we begin revealing judges.  Here’s a hint for today’s: she was the very first EVER to win a Newbery Honor for her type of book. Find out who she is here.

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