Black History Month: Strong Women for Strong Girls

black history month google logoTo kick off Black History Month, Google chose Harriet Tubman for its daily Google logo on February 1, 2014. It is so cool on so many levels. It also ties nicely with our theme for Black History Month this year: Strong Women for Strong Girls.

When I read Patricia Hruby Powell’s new book Josephine, the Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker, I couldn’t wait to share it with my daughter. It is a beautifully told and illustrated story … and one that I did not know.

That was when I decided to share some of our favorite books about incredibly influential women of color – trail blazers, independent thinkers, confident women. Women whose stories are not talked about as often as other more well-known symbols of influence.

Black History Month: A Collection of Biographies

Music called to Josephine Baker, and when it did, she had to dance. When she heard that there was an all-black show on Broadway, she left her husband and went to New York. New York in the 1920s was segregated. When she went to Paris, she discovered Parisians thought “black is beautiful.” There, she became the star she had dreamed of being as a girl. This is an illustrated biography of Josephine Baker told in verse.

Reader thoughts: I have read this book three times already. By telling Josephine’s story in verse, reader is drawn into a rhythm befitting of the music of her era (1920s, 1930s). The author does a wonderful job weaving in the social and cultural contexts of the time. There are nuggets that most of us didn’t know or wouldn’t have considered (international adoption in the 1930s!), and they create openings for interesting conversation.

Betty Winston Baye; August Press 2000

Betty Winston Baye is a journalist for The Courier Journalin Louisville, Kentucky. This strong, sensitive, experienced, competent, and well-educated black woman shares her thoughts and feelings about the influence that family, religion, role models, mentors, and friends have had on her life. This is an autobiographical selection of some of Ms. Winston Baye’s articles and editorials.

Reader thoughts: The articles in this collection educate, encourage, support, and praise those trying to take control of their lives and families. Though the material has universal appeal, the author strongly focuses on the challenges that face women, in general, and women of color, in particular. This book can be a valuable resource for parents, teachers, and counselors of teenagers as conversation starters on self-esteem, responsibility, and racism, to name a few.

Phillis Wheatley is a young African girl brought to America during the mid-1700s. She is placed with a family that nurtures her natural abilities. Treated with kindness and taught to read and write, Phillis begins to write poetry about her life and times during the Revolutionary War and the people that affected her life. Phillis Wheatley is the first African American and the first slave to publish a book. This is a biographical history for middle readers.

Reader thoughts: This is an interesting, strong biography for middle-grade readers. The text flowed well and the narrative was engaging. Phillis Wheatley is not someone whom you hear of frequently and yet she would be a great role model for children. I really learned a great deal about her and her tremendous contribution to the new America.

America's Black founders
Nancy I. Sanders; Chicago Review Press 2010

Meet the black men and women who played important roles in our history. From colonial times, through the American Revolution ,and in the years that followed. They individuals came from all walks of life and lived throughout the young nation. This is a nonfiction picture book that introduces preteens to historic figures they’ve not heard about.

Reader thoughts: This book offers a wonderful way of not just showing, but engaging kids in understanding the role black men and women played in the early years of the country. These are primarily individuals who have been largely ignored by other history books. The hands-on activities are an added bonus.


Book Review Milestone: Unspoken by Henry Cole is #2225

unspoken-coleUnspoken, a Story from the Underground Railroad
written and illustrated by Henry Cole
Scholastic Press, 2012

What an apropos book to be our 2,225 book review. A wordless picture book that left us speechless. I was speechless when I saw the review count after I hit “publish,” too. Progress. If all goes well – and the kiddos stop getting snow days – we’ll be hitting 2,500 within the next few months. Stay tuned.

book review pileMy primary project for 2014 is to reduce that To-Be-Reviewed pile over there to almost nothing. Each week, I set a target to get six book reviews written and/or published. Three for books that I’ve read over the last two years, three from our Teen Star Review Team at Be the Star You Are® (BTSYA) from last fall. So far, so good.  Follow these links to the Reading Tub® to see some of our recent faves.

When you get to the Reading Tub® website, you’ll notice that we invite other bloggers to add their reviews. The more voices we can share, the more informed choice a parent can make on whether or not their child would like that particular book.

Friendship First: An Interview with Matthew Stein

friendship first interviewYes, we have an interview with *that* Matthew Stein. Author of the best-selling books When Tech Fails and When Disaster Strikes, and columnist for the Huffington Post.

Bet you didn’t know that he is also a children’s book author? Yep. Mat finished out 2013 celebrating his first children’s book Geronimo the Frog.

Here we’ll talk about the origins of Geronimo the Frog and some of Mat’s favorite children’s books. Readers interested in learning more about the book’s back story, as well as Mat’s publishing journey can read more of our interview on The Reading Tub® website.

Friendship First

RT: I am sure everyone is wondering why I chose “friendship first” for our interview title, so let me start there. When I read Geronimo the Frog, I saw two main themes: conservation and friendship. If you had to pick one primary theme what would it be? and why?

Mat: friendship - geronimo the frogI would say that devotion to friends in the face of danger or adversity. No matter which profession or path one might choose, we cannot do it alone. Perseverance, bravery, and teamwork are what guide us to success in life.

Due to the current record-breaking acceleration of the loss of critical habitats and biodiversity, there is no doubt that caring for Mother Earth is critical to the survival of the planet as we know it.

However, all that caring for the planet will have little effect without a solid foundation to empower each other. That sense of “we’re in this together” is essential for transforming the motivation of caring into the reality of effective actions.

RT: How does a guy who lives in the High Sierra Mountains know enough about the Great Cypress Swamp to make it the setting for a bedtime story for his daughter?

geronimo the frogMat: The main story line just sort of popped into my head one day when my daughter was 3 or 4 years old. Right from day one, the story took place in a swamp in Florida.It’s not like I am an expert on Florida ecosystems.

I just knew that a Florida swampland was where I wanted my story to take place. I contacted a Seminole elder for advice about the animal characters, and she suggested the Great Cypress Swamp.

RT: The Great Cypress Swamp is in Florida, home of the Seminole Nation. Did that element ever factor into your thinking when you were naming Geronimo and his animal friends?

Mat: I had always known that I would give my animal characters authentic Native American names, even if (at the time) I wasn’t sure which tribe was endemic to Florida! What I didn’t know was how fate would intervene.

Like many of us do, I was going over recent events in my head as I was boarding the plane. I kept thinking about being pulled out of a sound sleep the night before, and that “calling” to get Geronimo on paper. In the seat next to me was a striking older lady who was wearing a large quantity of exquisite Indian jewelry. When I noticed that she was carrying a book on Indian sign language, I struck up a conversation. She related that she was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, a college professor, and author of the book she was holding in her hands.

I told her about the strange events of the night before, waking up with the a voice in my head screaming “Stop procrastinating and write Geronimo down NOW!” I told her Geronimo’s story and asked if she had any suggestions for how I might find the Native American names for the characters.

She told me that she had just visited the Seminole Indian reservation in Florida.. She also said that it was obvious to her that our meeting was more than coincidental,and that my story and our meeting must have been due to a higher inspiration and purpose. Long story short, I contacted her Seminole friends, who graciously provided me with names for the animals in my story.

RT: Geronimo’s back story is just fascinating. When I read the Cherokee elder’s comments that your meeting wasn’t a coincidence, it gave me goose bumps. I wasn’t there and it happened years ago. When you were there in the moment, did you have that sense? and how did that feel? 

Mat: At that moment, on the plane together, I truly sensed that some higher power had arranged our meeting. To me it was obvious that the same power that had yanked me out of a sound sleep and instructed me to “Stop procrastinating and write Geronimo down, NOW!” had also somehow prearranged serendipitous events that led to an elderly Cherokee woman writing a personal letter of introduction to the Seminole tribal elders who ultimately provided me with authentic Seminole names for the animal characters in my book.

The odds are probably many millions to one against this occurrence happening by pure chance. It also conflicts with my scientific background (BSME, MIT, 1978) and upbringing (I was raised Jewish, but without any real spirituality). When it happened, though, I had already witnessed several powerful spiritual experiences that radically altered my core beliefs. So despite my scientific, MIT-trained mind it was not hard for me to accept this type of serendipitous event as being inspired by some kind of unseen higher power.

RT: At the time you decided to make Geronimo a picture book hero, did you research any children’s books to see what was out there and what was popular? If yes, can you share what you learned?

Mat: We read lots of books to both our son (now 38) and daughter (approaching 30) when they were little. Most of our/their favorite books were longer children’s books that had detailed plots and quirky characters.

everyone knows what a dragon looks like

  • The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein;
  • Herbert the Timid DragonBeauty and the Beast, and Everyone Knows What a Dragon Looks Like by Mercer Mayer and various partners;
  • Higgelty Pigglety Pop, In the Night Kitchen, and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak;
  • The Rainbow Goblins by Ul de Rico;

Rainbow Goblins

  • Is Your Mama a Llama by Deborah Guarino and Stephen Kellog;
  • Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballsby Judi and Ronald Barrett; and
  • Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola.

And, of course, the timeless Dr Seuss Books (too numerous to list individual titles here).

By the time I decided to turn Geronimo into a book, its story line was mostly set, though I did develop a number of details during the process of committing Geronimo to paper. Deciding on the artwork took several weeks.

I spent a great deal of time searching through a wide variety of children’s books. I discovered that I did not like the simplified “babyish” artwork of some of the picture books. I was drawn to the more intricate, classically beautiful or humorous artwork in the books that we had loved sharing with our children. I also collected and passed around samples of artwork from various artists to friends and family for their comments and opinions.

RT: That is an awesome list of books. Lots of variety and yet similar, too. What was your daughter’s reaction when she saw the book that first time?

Mat: Our daughter was a big reader as a child. Reading those books were as fun for us, as they were for her. During grade school she became more interested in ballet than reading. Sigh!

Elisha was quite excited to see the book! When I mentioned last winter that I was considering working with CreateSpace and commissioning an artist for illustrations, my daughter was the most enthusiastic. She encouraged me to pursue the project.

We don’t yet have grandchildren, but Elisha’s childhood friend Marissa (who heard many of the stories) is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her copy of Geronimo so she can read it to her 3-year-old daughter.

RT: It is so neat to hear about childhood friendships that last into adulthood. I often hear from authors that they were readers as kids, but then they “moved away” from pleasure reading when they got to high school and beyond. What about you? Do you enjoy reading? what kinds of things to you like? 

Mat: In high school I had the good fortune to take several honors literature classes from a top-notch teacher (Millie Aiken). We read really terrific books that were both inspiring and interesting. To some extent I continued this trend in college, studying the literature of Herman Hesse for a semester at MIT’s Experimental Study Group (ESG). Between my studies, athletics, and making pottery at the Student Art Association, I had little time for fun reading except during breaks from school.

After college, I read a fair amount of fiction for a short while. After a series of powerful spiritual experiences, starting with one in my freshman year at MIT, I began reading spiritual books to help make some sense out of those experiences. Even today, I am more interested in reading nonfiction than fiction.

RT: Our last question. Thinking about friendship, if you could introduce Geronimo to one of your favorite book characters, who would it be and why?

Mat: I would introduce Geronimo to the feisty princess in Herbert the Timid Dragon. Herbert is probably my all-time favorite children’s books! It is such a pity that it is now out of print. They are both tough characters with an attitude, who won’t take any guff from anyone, and I think they would get along splendidly and enjoy a very good friendship!

RT: Mat, we are so glad you stopped by. Thank you for sharing your own reading story and best of luck with Geronimo the Frog.

Mat: Thanks, Terry. I enjoyed being here.

– Interior Images of Geronimo the Frog Copyright Matthew Stein. Used with permission of the author.
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