reading log: challenged/banned books

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin (challenged picture book)

Something Happened In Our Town made the 2020 list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books, compiled by the ALA.

Cover of Something Happened In Our Town features two kids, a white girl and a Black boy, their footprints are imprinted on a blank newspaper behind them imprinted with the book’s information.

Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views

ALA, “Top Ten Most

Celano, Marianne, with Marietta Collins and Ann Hazar, and Jennifer Zivoin, illustr. Something Happened In Our Town. Washington, DC: Magination Press, 2018.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the uprising around the country, I searched for books that could help facilitate a conversation with students who might be reckoning with the events and the legacy of racism in this country. This title, aimed at children aged 4-8, was one of the ones I soon discovered and would have presumably leaned on heavily to facilitate conversations about racial biases had we been in person. With my district virtual for a full calendar year, from March 2020-March 2021, conversations did not evolve as I presume they would have in the classroom. I made resources available to those who needed them but to my surprise – and woe – many of my elementary school students, even the upper level, did not know what was happening in the country. Given the trends of this society, it follows that the book would make its way to the list of those most challenged. I am happy to see that despite this, many libraries in Rhode Island are currently cataloging and adding it to their collection. I hardly think the challengers have even read the book since it hardly seems “anti-police,” perhaps “anti-police brutality” is a more apt and legitimate description. One kid is seen doodling pictures of police officers and the Black father clearly states, “There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices.”

The picture book is written by psychologists, whose careers have been dedicated to working with children and social justice, and as such handles the hard subject material comprehensively and thoroughly. The text features the aftermath of a Black man being shot by police in their town. Two families, a white family and a Black family, discuss the situation and the history of racism with their respective children. “I have power, and I am smart,” says one child, to which his mother answers, “and you can change people’s hearts by sticking up for someone who is not treated fairly.” I do wish the book used more people centered language, such as “people who were enslaved” rather than “slaves.” I do believe that the book is a necessary one to have on the shelf, as students will inevitably encounter instances of community violence, as well as racism and prejudice.

The text moves through each family’s conversation providing adults with a starting point to discuss racial biases with children of all backgrounds. The illustrations are digitally rendered and serve to supplement the text without distracting a child who may be listening to the read aloud. Inset boxes, akin to comic books, move the listener along the page and focus their attention on details.

Just as valuable as the text itself, the end of the book features an extensive Note to Parents and Caregivers with guidelines for discussing race and racism with children, definitions that are child-friendly, and sample dialogues for having these conversations with kids. I especially appreciate the notes for having conversations with children, and the reminder to respond with “What makes you say that” without judgement when a child passes a comment that might be racially biased. I appreciate that the definitions do not stop at simple definitions, rather including for example what prejudice is (believing negative or bad things about someone who is different from you without proof), where it might come from, why it is a problem (because you have already made up your mind or have a bad belief about someone before you know the person), and that it is wrong! I look forward to checking out the recent publication by the same authors and illustrator, Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence.

From the Note to Parents and Caregivers:

There are many benefits of beginning to discuss racial bias and injustice with young children of all races and ethnicities:

  • Research has shown that children even as young as three years of age notice and comment on differences in skin color.
  • Humans of all ages tend to ascribe positive qualities to the group that they belong to and negative qualities to other groups.
  • Despite some parents’ attempts to protect their children from frightening media content, children often become aware of incidents of community violence, including police shootings.
  • Parents who don’t proactively talk about racial issues with their children are inadvertently teaching their children that race is a taboo topic. Parents who want to raise children to accept individuals from diverse cultures need to counter negative attitudes that their children develop from exposure to the negative racial stereotypes that persist in our society.

Free resources, including a teacher’s guide, specific read aloud tips, and other book lists are available here, on the APA’s website, apa.org. Sample pages, care of the American Psychological Association, can be accessed here. The book was also published in Spanish.

reading log: diverse voices

Milo Imagines the World, words by Matt de la Peña & illustrations by Christian Robinson

de la Peña, Matt, and Christian Robinson, illustr. Milo Imagines the World. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.

“What story do we want to put into the world next?” This was a question posed by Matt de la Peña to his frequent illustrator collaborator, Christian Robinson. The story, in the vein of Toni Morrison, would be the story Robinson wished he had as a child…and that his classmates and teachers had, too. It is the epitome of a diverse story.  Christian said of the book: “So I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion.”

Milo imagines the world, words by Matt de la Peña and pictures by Christian Robinson, is evocative of Last Stop on Market Street as the title character takes a ride on public transit with his older sister.  Along the ride, Milo, beanie on head, sketchbook in hand, imagines the lives of all the people he encounters on the trip, observing from behind his glasses and pencil. As we arrive at Milo’s destination, where he goes to visit his mother, who has been incarcerated, we – like Milo – are forced to face implicit biases and second guess our first impressions. Can you really tell who someone is, just by looking?

The text moves slowly like the train, asking us to slow down amid the hustle and carefully contemplate those around us, rather than dismiss and disregard.  The pictures which swap back and forth between spreads of the train and spreads of the world as Milo imagines it for each passenger. This picture book offers a look at stressors and anxieties that some children quietly face, and that Robinson himself faced as a child. 

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How many of us haven’t been there, as Milo is? Imagining where passerby are going, who they are, what they do?  How often are we pleasantly surprised or find ourselves mistaken in our assumptions? I imagine asking students these prompts, asking about first impressions and judgement, asking students to reconsider and to reimagine.

Text response ideas: Think of a time you made a judgement or assumption. What did you think? What did you later find out that made you rethink? 

*Have you ever felt like a “shook up soda”? Where were you going? what could help you feel better, to keep yourself from bursting? *Echoing the last illustration in the book, in which Milo imagines a day with his mother eating ice cream on the stoop, students could illustrate or write about the world they wish they could see. 

*With older students, the text could be used to discuss and dismantle implicit bias and stereotypes.  

Check out this resource guide for more ideas related to Milo Imagines the World, as well as Carmela Full of Wishes and Last Stop on Market Street. Check out the illustrator’s site here, and the author’s site here.

I feel like right now especially, it’s so important that we’re telling stories that ask each other to take a second look and to not make those easy, quick judgments about each other. …

As a kid, of course, not having my my mother there was painful, certainly, but probably even more painful thing was holding on to that experience myself and internalizing it and feeling disconnected, not having that connection with others. So I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion.

~Christian Robinson
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reading log: realistic fiction

Front Desk by Kelly Yang (realistic fiction)

Front Desk: Yang, Kelly: 9781338157796: Amazon.com: Books
Front Desk by Kelly Yang, the front cover features a young girl managing a motel check in desk. She has shoulder length black hair and bangs, is standing in a power pose answering the phone while wearing floral cotton pants and green sneakers. On the desk are a tip jar and yankees hat, behind her are the keys to each room of the motel.

Yang, Kelly. Front Desk. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2018.

All of my students who have read this middle grade novel have loved it, so it was with good reason a RICBA nominee last year. Still, I’m ashamed to say I was not familiar with the premise and went in with no expectations or knowledge of the subject matter! I’m so happy I’ve read this sweet book about Mia, whose story is based on the author’s real life experiences with her parents running a motel after having recently immigrated to the States in the nineties from China.

Mia Tang is a fourth grader, a writer, nd a Chinese immigrant whose parents have just taken over managing a motel (where they also live) for a nasty man who barely pays them enough to survive.  Mia encounters many a diverse guest and befriends many of the regular weeklies, establishing familial ties with their guests. While dealing with regular fourth grade woes, lying to friends to fit in, realizing you both lied for no reason, the teacher’s red ink shouting grammar corrections, stolen pencils, unwanted crushes from the mean boy, Mia also takes it upon her self to solve society’s woes, a microcosm of which are portrayed at the motel. Her parents secretly house immigrants escaping various situations where their labor was exploited and humanity demeaned, Mia reckons with the racial profiling of Hank, a Black man who helps her adjust to the motel, and helps him find a new job.

Although usually I steam through books written for kids, I had to keep putting it down because the content is so heavy. I needed time to process the sheer weight of every issue tackled and every stereotype dismantled by Yang. Anti-blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, and other sorts of xenophobia and racism are all addressed by Yang in a way that is engaging and accessible for kids. I found Mia’s voice perfect, at each new obstacle or humorous debacle understanding clearly how Mia was feeling and processing her own emotions. Although my experiences are none too similar, I could easily empathize with many of her struggles, some of them were much more than I’ve ever even imagined.   I appreciated Mia’s love of writing, the way she worked through emotions by writing letters and how, like the protagonists of many children’s books, she took the problems of the world on her own shoulders to solve.  Luckily for her and those around her, she was able to solve a great deal of them. I wonder how many of those letters, written by Mia and addressed to various powers that be in order to change unfair events, the author might actually have written to help her friends as a kid. Originally published in 2018, is timely and highly topical given the heightened discrimination and violence faced by the AAPI community in the age of Covid. At the heart of this novel is a sweet girl reckoning with the world around her and unafraid to fight for what is right, despite being a kid, with her voice and her pencil.

In the classroom this text could be used with middle grade or upper elementary to discuss the class inequities and racism that pervade society while also  be used to discuss social emotional learning as Mia copes with each of the problems she faces with thought and grace. The author’s website features a corner for teachers, with guides and lesson plans. The paperback version from Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine features a discussion guide, along with an extensive note from the author on her real life inspiration, right in the back of the book.

Reading Log: folk tales & poetry

Federico and The Wolf by Rebecca J. Gomez & Elisa Chavarri (traditional tale)

Gomez, Rebecca J. and Elisa Chavarri, illustr. Federico and the Wolf. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020.

Federico and the Wolf is a spicy retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, bringing the story up to modern times and featuring a Latinx protagonist, the tale borders on being a fractured, trickster fairy tale. In this story, the boy, dressed in a red hoodie, outwits el lobo and rescues his abuelo, hurling hot peppers in order to send the wolf running. The tale is modified and updated just enough to keep kids guessing what will happen next, but still predictable. A mother sends Federico to the outdoor market to collect ingredients to bring to his grandfather at his shop. Along the way, he bikes through the woods encountering the archetypal hungry wolf along the way. When he reaches the shop Abuelo hasn’t shaved (the fur), and the familiar lines ring out, (the better to see you with!). The clever kid himself is able to save the day making the wolf sneeze himself silly (kids will love talking about the time they ate something spicy, or if they like spicy food) so that he and abuelo can make some Wolf’s Bane Salsa. The text is sprinkled with words in Spanish. Bilingual Spanish-speakers will enjoy hearing their native tongue while students who don’t know Spanish will be able to easily understand based on context. While the text is funny and engaging, the illustrations from Chavarri will also keep children hooked on the page. Chavarri also illustrated the bilingual books Rainbow Weaver and Sharuko: Peruvian Archaeologist Julio C. Tello. The illustrations are vibrantly colorful and just plain fun to look at. They are reminiscent of folk art Words in Spanish and English are included on almost every page for students to practice reading.

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As Vardell suggests (90), students can create their own version of Little Red Riding Hood after reading and listening to this tale. Does grandma get eaten, or just put in a box like Abuelo? How will they outsmart the wolf? Kids can act it out, draw it as a comic strip, record a flipgrid, or write the story to create their own fractured fairy tale. Since food plays such a prominent role (the pico recipe is shared at the end), students could also be encouraged to share a recipe that is special to them and make up a story to go with it. Be careful if reading in a community with high food insecurity.

Click here to go to the author’s website.

Click here to go to the illustrator’s website. (Access a free coloring page for the book here.)

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Talking with Mother Earth: Poems / Hablando con Madre Tierra: Poemas by Jorge Argueta, pictures by Lucia Angela Perez (poetry)

Argueta, Jorge. Talking with Mother Earth, Poems / Hablando con Madre Tierra. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2017.

This book is a wonderful compilation of bilingual poems paying tribute, in prose and art alike, to the beauties of Mother Earth and indigeneity. Originally published in 2006, this review is of the 2017 printing. The author is an award winning poet for children, a native Salvadorean and Pipil Nahua Indian. Poems address and rebuke the racism experienced by the poet as a young child who looked different than his peers (“and in my chest my heart would boil/ like a volcano getting ready to explode”). He writes of the solace he was able to find in the lessons of his ancestors and in connection with the Earth (“the east is in my belly / where I feel the sun / like a heart warming me / every morning.” The verse is simple yet full of imagery in a way that is suitable for children young and older. The progression of poems acts as a sort of coming of age as the author conveys the emotion of growing up and dealing reckoning with his place in the world. 8This collection of poetry is powerful in its words, and acts as a counter to indigenous erasure of the Americas. Each poem is mirrored in its Spanish and English versions and vocabulary in the native language Nahuatl is incorporated a bit too. The pastel illustrations are light and vibrant and demonstrate the themes of each poem they accompany, incorporating depictions of the young boy surrounded by natural scenes, as well as with imagery of Nahual ancestors. Color and shapes are abundant (“she turns / everything into life /into songs/ into colors”) perfectly pairing with the fragrant text.

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra

Poetry month and Earth day both fall in April and this would be an amazing text to bring to students attention in a study of poetry and appreciations of Earth. Students could write their own odes / poems to Mother Earth, along with an illustration. It could be used for multilingual learners to strengthen vocabulary in English or Spanish in order to talk about the natural world. There is also some language included in Nahuatl!

If librarians are looking to add more bilingual texts or Spanish poetry to their collections, this is a strong choice.

Check out this article from Rethinking Schools for more ideas on how one teacher used Jorge Argueta’s poetry in her classroom, including using this text in lessons on ecosystems!

*Reviewer’s note: I have only a basic understanding of Spanish so I am basing my observations on the English versions of the poetry. However, in sharing poems from the story in both English and Spanish with \Spanish speakers I have received positive feedback!

Click here to visit the author’s website.

Click here to visit the illustrator’s website.

Click here to visit the publisher’s site.

Talking with Mother Earth / Hablando con Madre Tierra

Reading Log no. 1: picture books


Swashby & The Sea by Beth Ferry & Juana Martinez-Neal (picture book)

Ferry, Beth. and Juana Martinez-Neal, illustrator. Swashby & The Sea. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2020.

Click here for Illustrator’s site.

Swashby is a seemingly grumpy recluse who has retired to the sea for peace and serenity, and especially to keep to his salty self. The sea, who features heavily as a character, gives him everything he needs, when he needs and life is as calm as can be on the shore. Until … one day, granny and the girl show up next door… The pacing and predictability of the text, which follows a clear arc, is impeccable, with page turns coming at exactly the right moments, to find what has been written in the sand and how the sea has, repeatedly, “fiddled” with it, “just a little bit.

Children could imagine and draw what messages they would like to write in the sand, or could imagine their perfect day at the beach. With the theme of unintentional and intergenerational friendship, kids could also discuss the qualities of a good friend. The text, for added humor, includes some pirate-speak. The illustrations evoke the calm of a sea shore, with muted tan beaches and blue hues, with just a splash of yellow here and there. In addition to the sea who is personified as a character, children might delight in finding the seagull on almost every page watching carefully over Swashby and his new friends.


How to Find a Fox by Nilah Magruder (picture book)

Magruder, Nilah. How to Find a Fox. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2016.

Click here to go to the author’s website.

A determined little girl, with camera in hand, is off to find a fox! Adventure ensues! Almost! The book takes us step by step through how to find a fox but readers and the girl will find that foxes are sneaky, and always just out of sight. Kids will delight in finding the fox on every page, hiding in plain sight from the girl. What to do when the fox can’t be found? Kick rocks? Take a nap? Go home? The illustrations are rendered digitally and feature a large part of the narrative arc. At one point, when the girl climbs the tree for a new perspective (vocab!), the book must be turned vertically to see the illustration from her vantage point. At some points, the text is a bit sparse yet the plot remains predictable and engaging. Perhaps it would have benefited from even more repetitious language. While the pacing on each page doesn’t always flow naturally, the page turns usually allow for that dramatic effect and will have kids eager to find out if she finds the fox. It’s wonderful that How to Find a Fox provides representation of a girl of color exploring the wild.

Children can guess the ending, practice making predictions, and talk about the theme of the story (not to give up! be patient! Sometimes what you’re looking for finds you instead!?). Students can imagine they are looking for their own creature (be it a real live or mythological animal) and illustrate a short book of their own about how to find them.

Interior Image
How to Find a Fox, Nilah Magruder

Saturday by Oge Mora (Picture Book)

Mora, Oge. Saturday. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Click here for the author’s website.

Saturday is the second book from Providence resident Oge Mora. Previously recognized as a Caldecott Honor for Thank You, Omu. This delightful picture book won the 2020 Boston Globe—Horn Book Picture Book Award. Saturday is supposed to be special and splendid for characters Ava and her mom. While the book surely is splendid, this particular Saturday, mom’s only day off work, keeps getting ruined. With visual emphasis on the word Saturday, offering a golden opportunity for children to time in, the book is a collaged sequence of mishaps at every regular Saturday outing. At every turn, of events and the page, after every ZOOM! we are reminded to pause, breathe deeply, and keep going because “today will be special. Today will be splendid. Today is Saturday!” The refrain has been stuck in my head since I read it with classes a few weeks ago, owing to the fact that this lovely little story will most certainly become a classic.

The illustrations are vibrant with contrasting compositions made from collage shapes. At each step in the sequence, there is a new vista, a zoom out of one of the places they’ll go on Saturdays, and then, as they encounter misfortunes, an up close highlight of the two characters focusing on how to get through. Children delight in finding text in the images from the collaged pieces. The plot becomes predictable and the repetition allows for deep engagement and enjoyment. In the end, we find a clear wrap up of the theme conveyed throughout, the best part of Saturdays is spending them together. The text can be used with children to model coping strategies when things don’t go as planned, as well as to make connections to self by writing or drawing about a favorite day spent with loved ones. When reading to a group I would try to be sure that there are no iffy mother-child situations that could cause the book to be a trigger.


Use Your Imagination by Nicola O’Byrne (picture book)

O’Byrne, Nicola. Use Your Imagination. Somerville, MA: Nosy Crow, 2014.

Click here to visit the author’s bio via Candlewick.

Rabbit and wolf take readers through a silly retelling of a classic fairy tale or two. Rabbit is bored, alone on a blank white page but for a wolf’s giant shadow (foreshadowing!) overcasting him and looking like it’s going to gobble him up. Wolf shows up claiming to be a librarian ready to take Rabbit on an adventure through a story. Together they plot out the elements of the story in order to imagine a delicious fairy tale. Unfortunately for the wolf, the rabbit realizes he can use his imagination to escape becoming dinner.

The text is bold on the page, playing with fonts in order to call attention to different elements as well as be large enough for listeners in a group to be able to read when reading in chorus. Textual patterns evoke Little Red Riding while listeners can chime in to answer the wolf’s questions and use their own imaginations to create story possibilities and predict the ending – which changes with a simple twist. The illustrations, which feature the characters on a stark white background for the majority of the story, allow young children to pinpoint the story elements – characters, setting, etc. – while also keeping them engaged through the animal’s facial expressions and the occasional parrot appearance. When the plot twist occurs, the abrupt change is illustrated by leaving behind the white background for a bright red rocket ship taking off against a blue gradated background that opens up to a full four block page.

The story can be used to help teach young learners the basic elements of the story (character, setting, problem, resolution) as well as to work as a springboard for them to use their own imaginations and create a new story, perhaps also featuring Rabbit and Wolf… and parrot!