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Where are You Going Black Child?

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Who are you? Where are you going? Do you know you are strong? These important and motivational questions are asked by Useni Eugene Perkins in the poem he wrote in 1975, Hey Black Child, which is now a picture book illustrated by Bryan Collier (Little, Brown and Company, 2017). It is a beautiful pairing of Perkins’ words and Collier’s watercolor and collage. Readers will be able to ask themselves these questions and ponder their future, their potential. Bold illustrations of black children are in the foreground with backdrops of their African heritage, the Civil Rights movement and the protests of today.

Perkins wrote Hey Black Child as the closing poem for a children’s musical he wrote titled Black Fairy and Other Plays. He wanted to inspire all black children towards their potential despite life’s challenges. You can read more about Useni Eugene Perkins here.  Sadly, 45 years later, the challenges black children face because of racism are still prevalent. This book and its message is needed.

Hey Black Child is a powerfully focused book with a black child on every spread, allowing black readers to see themselves in a picture book and white readers to ‘step aside’ and let a black classmate/friend/child be center stage. This book should be in the homes of both black and white families. It should be used in schools to build the classroom community. Every child deserves to be motivated, encouraged and seen as a whole person worthy of striving for what they can be, what they want to be. I hope that the tomorrow we create because black children have equal chances, when all children have a voice, does not take another 45 years.

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Saturday

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Ava’s mother works hard and her only day off all week is Saturday. So, Saturdays are incredibly special to Ava and her mother. In Saturday by Oge Mora (Little, Brown and Company, 2019) Oge uses intricate collage to show the reader all the ways that Ava and her mother enjoy their Saturdays. This particular Saturday has an extra special treat planned, but their day is filled with mishaps. What are they to do?

This book is a wonderful example of how not to let cancellations, weather (or puddles), and mistakes ruin your day. A sweet story in itself, Saturday is also great for a discussion with your young reader. When did they have a day that seemed ruined? How did they feel? What could they do next time when something like that happens?

Oge Mora has a BFA in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design. Her collages include paint, markers, old-book clippings and patterned paper. They show expression and allow action to pop off the page. She won a Caldecott Honor for her picture book debut, Thank You, Omu! Visit her at ogemora.com

If you don’t have a special day or times set aside with your young reader, be prepared to make some. Ava and her mother’s spirit and enthusiasm in the face of disappointment is contagious. It doesn’t have to be a Saturday or even a whole day, but Saturday will get you started.

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National Pollinator Week

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Bees and birds and bats, oh my. And don’t forget the butterflies! This is exactly how I started my post for National Pollinator Week (June 22-28) last year.  Instead of repeating myself completely, I am sending you to that post if you’d like to reread or are new to my blog since them. There’s cool photos at the end. 🙂

And if you’re interested in doing something specifically for monarch butterflies, you might consider joining me in theMiles for Monarchs Challenge.  There are three levels of participation and one can participate solely or in a group. You can run, walk, bike, hike or paddle. I decided on the A DAY IN THE LIFE challenge which is to complete 25 miles in any of the choices above to mirror the 25 miles that a monarch can fly in a day. I currently only run about 9 miles a week and get a few more miles in with walks, so this will be a challenge for me, but a fun one.

And if you didn’t feel like rereading my post from last year, I will end with its last paragraph. Thank you.

The Pollinator Partnership website is well done. I hope you will check it out and then go find some pollinators. Please share this post with others – especially those who like good food! If you are a teacher or know a teacher, you can find a FREE 18-page lesson plan to go with my book Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain on my TeachersPayTeachers site. I will leave you with some pictures of pollinators I met just yesterday.

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Mae Among the Stars

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I usually try to post on Saturdays, but I thought I would post this review in honor of Juneteenth – often called Jubilee Day. Enslaved blacks in Texas first learned of their emancipation on June 19, 1865 despite the Emancipation Proclamation being signed on January 1, 1863.  While I would argue that blacks are not yet free because of systemic racism and inequality, this day was a milestone and is celebrated in the black community.

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington (harpercollinschildrens 2018) is about dreams and strength and not listening to naysayers. It is about the power of mentoring a child, and the power inside children to not give up on their dreams.

I think what makes this book so powerful is that we are not completely introduced to Mae in the beginning in the way that many biographies are written. For that reason, any child can relate to Mae with regards to having a dream, and many black children can sadly relate to being told they are dreaming silly because of their skin color or sex. Mae’s teacher’s criticism of Mae’s dream is steeped in the intersectionality of race and sexism. Luckily Mae listened to her mother: she dreamt, believed and worked really hard. On the last page we learn that Mae achieved her dream of being an astronaut. If the reader was unfamiliar with Dr. Mae Jemison before reading the book, they might think it a fiction book of encouragement. But in the last page turn we are treated to something even better. A true story of the dreams of a remarkable woman.

There is one page of back matter that detail more about Dr. Jemison. She has had and continues to have a remarkable career. This book is a beautiful way to encourage a child to strive for their dreams. I hope you will read it and share it with young readers.

 

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Moving Forward

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I just can’t seem to write much of anything these days. I am outraged and heartbroken, once again, at the loss of a black life due to police violence. Instead of writing, I’m spending time learning more about the injustices of our current police system, criminal justice system and society in general. Trying to write stories about nature and ecology doesn’t seem important right now. What good is it to promote ecological awareness and compassion for a green earth if not all humans are treated equally?

While reading 75 Things White People Can Do For Racial Justice by Corinne Shutack, I realized that picture books are one of many possible tools to fight racism. The children’s literature culture is already trying to increase the amount of books by and about people of color available to young readers with organizations like We Need Diverse Books. We can help these honorable efforts. If it is normal to see children of color in stories on a daily basis (not just for African American History Month), then I would think and hope white children would begin to see that we’re all people of equal worth – or white children who’ve been told otherwise, because I don’t believe we’re born racist.

As Ms. Shutack suggests in her article, we can buy books and educational toys for classrooms and ask that the teacher use them year-round. “The racial make-up of students doesn’t matter – kids of every race need to know American history and be exposed to people from different races, religions and countries.” She suggests this as a way to help if you know a friend who is an educator. But even if you don’t have a friend who is an educator, why not approach your child’s teacher or the PTA with an offer to donate diverse books to the classroom? Our classroom libraries need to be decolonized.

On NPR yesterday I heard an interview with the owner of Mahogany Bookstore, Ramunda Young. She said that there is a large uptick in white people ordering adult and children’s books about black culture and history. But she also said this happens every time we are shocked into awareness by another heinous act of violence. Then we go back to our lives. We need to move forward – not ‘back to normal’. I don’t want to go back to normal. We need to uproot and tear down systemic racism. We need a world where all children can grow up without fear because of the color of their skin.

Ms. Shutack’s suggestion about diverse books in the classroom is #4 on her list, with links to various articles and organizations that can help you find books by and about people of color. I have added the list below for your use also.

I know you read this blog because you care about children becoming readers and compassionate citizens. Books will help, but cannot fix everything. So I hope you will join me in reading Corrine Shutack’s 75 Ideas and committing to a at least a few of the ideas. Just as we lead by example by being readers, we should lead by example by being anti-racist.

George Floyd’s six-year-old daughter, Gianna, said, “My daddy changed the world.” No child should ever have to say that for the reasons that Gianna did.

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A place to begin:

Five black children’s authors and illustrators you should know.

A diverse summer reading list.

1000 black girl books resource guide.

28 great black history month books for kids.

The Brown Bookshelf.

 

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A New Cycle

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The eggs are here! I have not seen an adult yet, and figured the cool spring has slowed them down, since I’ve seen them as early as mid-May before. I’m sad to not yet see those orange wings of hope, but am confident that I will soon. The egg? A monarch. She picked the best-looking milkweed on the property – a patch that’s warmer and where the plants are twice as big as in other areas. So far, I have found two eggs.

That this life cycle continues has such a grounding effect on me. Milkweed Matters. And not just to the milkweed or the monarch, but to a whole marvelous food chain/web. There are countless such food chains and life cycles interacting around us all the time, but the monarch is one that is both highly visible and famous. If you’d like to share why milkweed matters to the young readers in your life, please check out my book, Milkweed Matters: A Close Look at the Life Cycles within a Food Chain. It is available as a paperback and e-book on Amazon. I could have used a myriad of food chains to model the concept for the book – that life cycles and food chains do not operate separately, but I choose monarchs because they are such a known and loved species.

Milkweed Matters matters to me too. It is the first book I self-published – an experience that was challenging, and which taught me that while I’ve much to learn, I want to keep writing for children and hopefully engage them in the awesomeness of all the life around us.

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Many of my readers may have already read Milkweed Matters. If you enjoyed it, I hope you will check out the other books I have to offer to date. I am currently working on a third book in what I’ve come to call the Matters Series because it uses the same repeat refrain but that’s not all as I use in Milkweed Matters. It may take me awhile as I am attempting the illustrations myself and this is not an easy journey.

Wishing you many sightings of those orange wings of hope and a summer full of food chain and life cycle discoveries.

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monarch from summer 2019

PS If you’re a teacher I have a free lesson plan that goes with the book onTeachers Pay Teachers.

4

Something Rotten is Delightful

 

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I feel fortunate to have the indoor and outdoor spaces I have here at Halcyon, and to live in a rural area during this unsettling pandemic. I am grateful that I’m not having to put myself at higher risk every day and appreciative of the workers who are. I’m following the rules of self-isolating to flatten the curve. Many of us are. However, my days are starting to feel like scenes in the movie Groundhog Day. If you’re feeling the same, I have a book that will snap you out if it pretty quickly.

Something Rotten: A Fresh Look at Roadkill by Heather Montgomery and illustrated by Kevin O’Malley (Bloomsbury, 2018) is a middle grade nonfiction/memoir that is equally gross and delightful. The gross parts are truly gross and not recommended to try at home. In fact, it comes with a warning on page 4, stating that the book is not for squeamish souls, reckless readers, or the tenderhearted.

“This book is not for reckless readers. It’s full of things you shouldn’t do. Not, at least, until you are an authorized, bona fide, certified expert. I’m serious. You could catch Lyme disease, end up with a parasite in your eye, become roadkill yourself – rubber gloves can’t protect you from everything. The 11-year-old in Chapter 6 who rebuilt a giraffe from the bones up? He’s got years of experience, his parent’s support, and if he lived in the US, he’d likely need a government permit.”

With that warning, Montgomery dives right in, but don’t worry, since you shouldn’t do what she does, you can sit in a comfy chair and read all about it. There’s a lot of science, which I love, but for me the best features are Montgomery’s narrative style of talking to the reader and the humor that comes out especially in her footnotes. There are a lot of footnotes and they are definitely NOT to be skipped.  Perhaps used as a wonderful technique to get the middle grade reader to slow down and really digest some text, they are not to be skipped because they are informative and hilarious. If you never thought you could laugh reading about roadkill, you were wrong. And if you ever thought of a dead carcass on the road as the end of the story, you would also be wrong.

Something Rotten will take you on journeys that inform, entertain and expand on our scientific knowledge. It will fascinate you and disgust you. It will make you laugh – don’t skip the footnotes! It will also take you out of your Groundhog Day dilemma for a short while and that’s definitely worth your time. Enjoy!*

 

*Unfortunately if you’re a local reader, I am isolating with the library’s copy and not allowed to return it yet. Buy one or add it to your list. It really is good.

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I have been known to photograph roadkill (but never touch). This is actually on my property so more likely predator kill. I had to get a photo. Just look at those feet!

4

Evaluating the Journey

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This summer will mark eight years since I quit teaching to write and to do what I call quasi-homesteading. I have learned much about Halcyon and have started compiling a binder of plants that grow here with their associated fauna. I’m probably still not the Aldo Leopold of Halcyon, but I am learning and enjoying the process. The same goes for my journey with writing for children. My original nature writing morphed into picture books because of an idea that popped into my head that first fall season. I have a lot to learn, struggle like many writers with the steady rejections, and hope to continue and grow in my writing abilities for many more years.

I still like to write lesson plans and have a store on Teachers Pay Teachers. In the course of reading and reviewing picture books for this blog, I will come across one that I would have used in the classroom for either language arts or science and will write a lesson plan for it. But the majority of my writing time is spent drafting my own picture book ideas. These last eight years have produced a lot of drafts, some of them terrible, some of them published, some in revision-submission cycles and the rest in limbo. Why? I deem them good enough to be useful, but not marketable in today’s picture book market. Even before the coronavirus pandemic I toyed with developing these manuscripts into lesson plans using these stories – my stories – instead of someone else’s but as I worked on the most recent one, I realized how (hopefully) helpful the lessons might be because they are readily adaptable to the classroom or the home where more of us are learning these days.

Another dream of mine is to be able to illustrate my own work. In this area, I have A LOT to learn. Often books of poetry for children do not have full-page illustrations, so I started with If I Were a Whale: Ecology Poems for Children, and offered this for free FOR THE MONTH OF APRIL ONLY as a book on Teachers Pay Teachers. This offer will expire on May 1 so please forward this blog post to anyone you know who may be interested. And if you’ve seen it, I welcome any feedback on it.

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My latest lesson plan includes a story I wrote called Eager Beaver. In it a beaver is so eager for starting school that he ends up getting in trouble his first day. I played with the idea of synonyms as a way for Eager Beaver to be true to his self, but mindful of when being too eager was negative. Probably not marketable in the trade world, but fun for a language arts lesson. I struggled with the art for this (as you can seen in the ‘cover’ below) and so I decided to just do pen-and-ink outline, which allows a bonus feature of a few coloring pages for kids if parents or teachers print the story (as opposed to projecting on a whiteboard or screen). It is a little scary to put my art out there right now, but I also feel that if I don’t, I will not learn as readily – that it’s ok to make mistakes. At the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference in New York City in February 2014 I heard a fantastic talk by Kate Messner that has stayed with me through my writing journey. She spoke of failure – to never underestimate the power of failure – to guide us in our goals. If we always play it safe and give in to our fears, we will not learn as much, grow as much, reach our dreams. So, I am trying this with my self-publication efforts (still frowned upon by much of the industry) and with my initial attempts at illustration. I am also continuing to submit traditionally and learn craft and value mentors, etc. Maybe I will run into trouble like Eager Beaver did, but I am eager to write books for children, eager for them to love reading and stories and dreams.

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Some scary looking beavers!

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Some wary looking beavers. I went with this one.

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National Citizen Monitor Month

I just found out that April is National Citizen Monitor Month, which is weird since I have been a citizen monitor for the Virginia Save Our Steams since 2001. Increasingly scientists are valuing and relying on volunteers to help collect data and there are many of opportunities based on one’s interests.  Many of us are increasingly anxious over the state of the world and the unnerving changes in our lives with coronavirus. If we are also deemed nonessential workers and finding time on our hands, being a citizen monitor might help us find a way to contribute to our communities and the world.

I am familiar with the following three citizen science organizations: Journey North to study monarch migration, a network that studies phenology, and the Izaac Walton League of America.  I know there are opportunities to count bats or stars. However, there are many organizations out there that are just coming on my radar and so there is a good chance one can find a science question of interest to help with. Zooniverse is an organization that has compiled hundreds of projects in one place. Even children can be involved (see the penguin count), or if your interest lies more toward social studies (see anti-slavery manuscripts). Many can be done from home with a computer and are doable with social distancing guidelines.

My picture book, The Hidden Life in Streams, is a introduction for sparking interest in a young elementary student, showing the main character (my daughter) wanting to learn about the life that lives in the benthic layer of the stream. I find it very peaceful to sit for an hour counting the insects I find and pondering their lives instead of my own.

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I love the community stories that are coming out in this time of crisis, but I am not someone who thinks such stories restore my faith in humanity. I know we care about one another at all times, and I know such stories are always there keeping communities going, but buried under politics and whatever scandals hold our news attention. Citizen monitors are one proof of that.

 

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Happy Earth Day – 50th Anniversary

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I remember the first Earth Day event I attended in Pittsburgh at Point State Park. I remember being both wowed and inspired by all the attendees who cared about plants and animals and saw the earth as more than a resource. Now where I live with land to care for, almost every day feels like Earth Day – I have daily chances to celebrate wildlife, plant native trees, remove invasive trees, create habitat with lots of brush piles – yet I know there’s more to do.  We still destroy habitat and take more resources than we need. Perhaps during this Earth Day the best thing we can do is be still – not because of our coronavirus isolation – but because stillness and reflection help us decide what is most important to us.

Many events around the world are cancelled this Earth Day (always April 22), but we can find ways to celebrate our special home and to find hope for our future. With many people at home, working, learning and being together, there might be even a little time to make this year – its 50th anniversary – a very special Earth Day. I suggest spending the week beforehand pondering both what makes Earth special to you and your family, and then decide on and commit to a few small steps to help in the year and years to come.

For reflection you could start with some research on Earth Day. Learn about its history and find actions that fit your time and abilities. Your research may give you ideas for the actual day and since this is a picture book blog, I am going to suggest that you read! There are so many books out there that celebrate plants, animals, earth, space and science. A google search will bring you many links, but a great one to start with is The Nature Generation’s Green Earth Book Awards.

I will use this time to remind you that all my picture books have nature themes. If you already have Milkweed Matters: A Life Cycle within a Food Chain, I offer a free lesson plan at my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Likewise, with Oliver’s Otter Phase. And as detailed in my last post, I am offering If I Were a Whale: Ecology Poems for Children free for the month of April. It’s a great fit for Earth Day. Please share this blog post with anyone who may like these resources.

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This Earth Day I am going to spend time just being with my property instead of tackling my usual to-do list. I will linger on trails, find something to sketch, learn some bird calls, sit at the pond and fill my heart with gratitude. I only get to be here a short while, but while I am here, I want to give to my home, our earth, instead of just take.

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