Sunday, May 1, 2016

Old School Sunday: A Tree for Peter by Kate Seredy (1941)

A Tree for Peter
by Kate Seredy
1941.  Purple House Press 
As a child, Thomas Crandall sees from the window of a train a shantytown, and standing in it, a young boy who smiles and waves at him. The image of the boy makes such an impact on Thomas that it inspires him, as an adult, to become a builder and work to change the living conditions of those who live in such abject poverty. When he has the opportunity to meet Peter Marsh, a builder known for transforming the shantytown into a place called Peter's Landing, Thomas asks him about the shantytown, and the boy. A Tree for Peter is the story Peter Marsh tells him, of how a young boy with a physical disability (Peter) and a mysterious vagrant (King Peter) take the first steps toward transforming a depressed and fearful community into a place of joy and love.

This is a book which is intentionally sentimental and inspirational, so had it not been written by Kate Seredy, and had my husband not asked me to read it aloud to him, I might very well have skipped it. I usually feel that books like this try to manipulate the reader into having particular emotional reactions, rather than allowing the reader to have natural responses, and it irritates me when their happy endings feel too neatly resolved. Unlike contemporary examples of this type of book, however, A Tree for Peter is so well-written that the author does not have to manipulate me into the feelings she would like me to experience. She takes me there by her words - and pictures - alone.

The descriptions of Peter's lonely days in the shantytown alone while his mother works are very vivid, as are the moments he spends with King Peter, the vagrant who shares his name. Peter's problems are very real - at first, they seem nearly insurmountable - and Seredy doesn't take an easy way out in resolving them. Though King Peter is something of a magical figure in Peter's life, his overall influence on the shantytown is only made possible through Peter's hard work and faith in him, and the willingness of the community to set aside their fears and come together. The reader always has the sense that the story will end happily for everyone, but there are enough questions about how it will happen to keep him or her interested in continuing to read.

The illustrations, too, are appealing, at least to my adult sensibilities. As a kid, I probably would have glossed over them, but as an adult, I appreciate the story each one tells, and how full of emotion the figures' faces are. These are works of art, not just decorations for the story, and they help elevate the book a bit more beyond the usual sentimentality of stories of this type.

This slim novella can be read easily in one sitting, and because of its connections to Christmas, and its explicit religious references, it makes a nice read-aloud selection for Advent. It's also a great way to help kids develop empathy for those in difficult financial situations and living conditions, and to encourage them to think of ways they can be more like King Peter in their interactions with others.

I borrowed A Tree for Peter through inter-library loan.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist by Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter Z)

Red Bird Sings: The Story of Zitkala-Sa, Native American Author, Musician, and Activist
by Gina Capaldi and Q.L. Pearce 
2011. Carolrhoda Books.



Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938) was a Sioux writer, activist, and violinist.


The text of this book features slightly edited versions of monthly first-person articles Zitkala-Sa wrote for the Atlantic Monthly during the early 1900s. 

About the Illustrations

Some of the pictures are better than others. Faces convey much of the story, and the illustrations are kid-friendly, as they fill the page with color. The book is not as much about music as the cover image suggests, and worse, on pages where Zitkala-Sa is shown playing a musical instrument, Capaldi depicts her holding it incorrectly, or leaves entire pieces of the instrument out of the picture. (As the wife of a former music teacher, I have learned that most picture books get these details wrong. Illustrators need to do better.)

Author's Note

The "Author's Note" is placed at the start of this book, where it provides all the necessary context to help readers understand Zitkala-Sa's life story. It includes references to well-known events such as Little Big Horn, as well as to situations readers may not know about, like American Tribal Indians' rights being ignored and children being taken from families to assimilate into the Anglo world. The "Afterword" at the end of the book includes photos of Zitkala-Sa, and talks about her work in the 1920s, and the circumstances of her death. "A Note on the Uses of Sources and Materials" justifies what was already explained in the Author's Note about changing some of Zitkala-Sa's words to suit the format of the book and explains how additional biographical details not explicitly states in the Atlantic Monthly articles was added to provide context. Finally, "Selected Bibliography," "Partial List of Zitkala-Sa's Writings" and "Further Reading" sections provide lots of resources for deeper research.

Additional Comments 

This book is very text-heavy for a picture book. I would say it's definitely geared toward middle grade audiences, and will probably get the most use by classroom teachers who are focusing on American history. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Twenty-two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Jamel Akib (Picture Book Biographies from A to Z - Letter Y)

Twenty-Two Cents: Muhammad Yunus and the Village Bank
by Paula Yoo
illustrated by Jamel Akib
2014. Lee & Low Books.


Muhammad Yunus (1940 - ) pioneered microcredit and microfinance, which earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.


The narrative begins without identifying Yunus's significance, which makes it hard for the reader to become invested in his story. It starts with his involvement with the Boy Scouts and his desire to help others even as a child. Then it describes how he was inspired to help break the cycle of poverty by a meeting with a Bangladeshi woman whose livelihood making stools was dependent upon her ability to pay for supplies.

About the Illustrations

The pictures in this book are done in chalk pastel. They are functional, but not very kid-friendly, and they don't really add much to the text. The cover is also unfortunately bland.

Author's Note

There is an "Afterword" which shows how Yunus's economic system was adapted successfully for use in other countries and lists other awards he has won in addition to the Nobel Prize. There is also a photo of Yunus, and an "Author's Sources" section at the back of the book.

Additional Comments

For a publisher that has come out so strongly in favor of diversity, to the point that it shames other, bigger publishers into revealing the (lack of) diversity amongst their own employees, Lee & Low didn't really do a very good job of making sure its agenda made it into this book. There are plenty of opportunities to explain Indian culture and history, but these are glossed over, as though the author assumes the reader would already know those details. Instead of portraying anything interesting about Bangladeshi culture, or presenting Yunus's personality, it mostly just lists places and dates with very little context, making the story far more tedious than necessary.  The system Yunus started is interesting, especially for kids who already have some background knowledge about economics and social justice, but this book didn't excite me about the subject matter.

Review Round-Up: Books for Beginning Readers, April 2016

I am just finishing up a month of reviewing nothing but picture book biographies, so I haven't reviewed much of anything for beginning readers, but many others have picked up my slack. Here are the easy reader and chapter book reviews I collected from around the blogs during April.

Easy Readers

I didn't find too many easy reader reviews this month, but there are some new and old favorites among the ones I did collect.

Step Up Readers reviewed four easy reader books this month: Dance, Dance Underpants, SplashAmelia Bedelia By the Yard and Get a Hit, Mo!

Flying Off My Bookshelf had a review of an older title soon to be reissued with new illustrations, The Last Chocolate Cookie. Its sister blog, Jean Little Library, reviewed What am I? Where am I?

Becky's Book Reviews highlighted two classic picture books in easy reader format, Best Friends for Frances and A Bargain for Frances.

Finally, Provo Library Children's Book Reviews had posts about Freckleface Strawberry: Loose Tooth! and Big Cat.

Chapter Books

There was a lot of variety among chapter book reviews this month.

Jean Little Library and Flying Off My Bookshelf had a total of 6 posts about chapter books:

Ms. Yingling Reads reviewed the third Syvlie Scruggs book, The Spelling Bee Scuffle, as well as the new Hardy Boys chapter book, The Video Game Bandit and the first two books in the Dr. Kitty Cat series.

Kids Book a Day also had three reviews: Weekends with Max and His Dad, Noodlehead Nightmares, and Fluffy Strikes Back. Weekends with Max and His Dad was also featured at Librarian's Quest.

Other chapter book reviews from this month included:
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