Monday, August 13, 2018

MMGM- The Brown Bookshelf

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday at Always in the Middle and #IMWAYR day at Teach Mentor Texts and Unleashing Readers. It's also Nonfiction Monday.

If you don't know The Brown Bookshelf, which has been around since October 2007, you owe it to yourself to visit. I've followed it for years, and have always gotten a lot of good recommendations for books and a lot of interesting insight from authors. One of the contributors to the site, Paula Chase, has a new book out. James Baldwin is frequently mentioned as an influence, so it seems like a great way to start the school year by reviewing the reprint of Baldwin's book and introducing Chase's new title!

36627668Baldwin, James. Little Man, Little Man.
August 24th 2018 by Duke University Press Books
E ARC from Blue Slip Media

This reprint of the 1976 collaboration between Baldwin and artist friend Yoran Cazac was interesting historically, not only from the point of view of seeing inner city scenes from the 1970s, but because the book was written for Baldwin's nephew so that he could see himself in a book. Over forty years later, we are still struggling to find books that portray all readers.

Four-year-old TJ is given free rein to explore his lively Harlem neighborhood with his friend WT and neighbor Blinky (so called because of her glasses). While they don't roam far, the freedom that they are given to talk to people, go to stores, and be unsupervised will seem odd to children today. Their neighborhood is not entirely safe-- at one point, the children see a man who was shot, and WT injures his foot on a broken bottle that falls off a roof because a woman with a drinking problem is trying to hide them from her husband. What is particularly interesting is the social network that the children have. They buy groceries for an elderly neighbor, Miss Beanpole, and even go into her home, which is darkened and secured, which indicates her distrust of the area. While TJ's own parents are supportive and present (there is a nice scene of Sunday morning breakfast), WT's mother is absent and his father is abusive. In addition to Miss Beanpole and the grocer, the children also often interact with Mr. Man and Miss Lee. These adults have their own problems (Miss Lee is the one hiding the bottles), but are kind to the children.

Styles in literature change dramatically over the years, so this format might strike the modern reader as something different. It's a picture book, but one which is too long to read to young children. It has very young characters, but the situations they face are more in tune with what older readers might find interesting. It is a book that is more episodic than plot driven, and concerned with detailing the minutiae of TJs life rather than being concerned with a plot driven narrative. The pictures definitely seem fresh because illustration styles have also changed-- Cazac's line drawings are similar to illustrations with which I am familiar from 1960s books, but have more color and activity added to them.

Reviews at the time mentioned that this book "lacked focus", and I can see that, but it is a valuable book to read. The language arts teachers in my school like to have students read historical fiction (including stories that were written long enough ago to become "historical"-- and that could be a book that is two years old!) to gain perspective on how daily life and culture were different, and how this can influence the choices that characters make. Little Man, Little Man is interesting because it is a rare primary source snapshot of a particular place and time.

To get an idea of what the atmosphere in children's publishing was like in the early 1970s, I highly recommend reading Augusta Baker's 1974 essay for The Horn Book, The Changing Image of the Black in Children’s Literature.

35068789Chase, Paula. So Done.
August 14th 2018 by Greenwillow Books
E ARC from Edelweiss Plus

Bean and Tai are neighbors in a low-income housing project and have been friends for a very long time, but recently things have been strained between them. Tai hopes that when Bean returns from spending the summer with her aunt and sister in the suburbs and the pair start their 8th grade year, that things will return to normal. When Bean decides that she would rather not be called by her nickname and prefers to be addressed as Mila (or Jamila) and still doesn't want to spend time at Tai's house, Tai is rather irritated. Mila is struggling as well. While her mother is not part of her life because of a drug addiction problem, her father is much stricter that Tai's grandmother, who still allows Tai's father to be at their house, even though he struggles with substance abuse as well. Tai is very interested in her new relationship with Rollie, and in investing herself in the neighborhood activities with her friends Mo and Sheeda. Mila is thinking about distancing herself, and is wondering if the suburbs are a better fit for her. When tryouts for a new Talented and Gifted school are announced, and two new students move into the area, the neighborhood is abuzz with who might make it into the different programs. The dancing program is extremely competitive, and Mila feels she can work hard enough to get into it, but Tai isn't as fond of ballet as she is of hip hop, and feels that the good ballet dancers get preferential treatment. Mila and Tai go back and forth in their relationship because of all of these factors, especially a critical incident involving Tai's father that is eventually addressed in an appropriate manner. Will the girls be able to embrace their similarities and remain friends, or will their differences wear down their relationship?
Strengths: This gave a nicely balanced description of the Cove neighborhood (which shows up in this author's earlier work, the Del Rio Bay Clique books), detailing the good parts as well as the problems. Friend relationships are SO important to middle grade readers, and the differences that Tai and Mila are experiencing are very true to life. The auditions for the TAG program are a facet of middle school life not often covered in literature, so the drama surrounding those was refreshing. The cover is fantastic and will sell itself. I'm very much looking forward to having this books available to recommend to my readers!
Weaknesses: There is some slang in this, and I'm always conflicted about slang, since it sometimes dates a book very quickly and deep in my heart of hearts I want to keep all of the books I love in the library forever! Also, slang usage (even in the age of the internet) can be different in various locations. There were several times where I had to look up phrases in order to make sense of what was going on, although most words could be understood with contextual clues.
What I really think: Definitely purchasing this for fans of Renee Watson, Sharon Flake, and Maddie Ziegler.


  1. Thanks for the link to The Brown Bookshelf. I'd forgotten about this resource but now have it bookmarked for future reference. Happy Back to School! Have a great year.

  2. Excellent choices! "Little Man" must merit reading if it has been reprinted 42 years later. I remember books that had artwork in them. I like the idea of having students read "historical" books that share a particular time in history -- although it doesn't feel so long ago for me. Kids also were given more freedom to explore and be kids. "Chase" sounds like an excellent book about friendships. Slang language may be appropriate to the story, but it does date a book. A book I reviewed recently had a lot of slang and the author acknowledged that even the slang he used was different than the slang used a few blocks away. But, it was an important part of the book -- hard for me at times.

  3. Thanks for sharing the link to The Brown Bookshelf. It's always nice to find a new book blog to point the way to books. Have a great week!

  4. Both of these books sound great! The perspectives in both sound like ones that many people are unaware of. Thanks for the reviews!

  5. Thanks for Little Man, Little Man. I'll get it from my library. And thanks for the review of So Done. It sounds like a story that I'd enjoy.

  6. I hadn't heard of So Done before, but it sounds really good! I've added it to my TBR. Thanks so much for the recommendation!

  7. The James Baldwin book sounds really interesting. I had never heard of it and had no idea he ever wrote anything like that. So Done sounds terrific. I would really like to read that one. Thanks for the reviews.

  8. I've always been a big fan of James Baldwin, but I have never heard of Little Man, Little Man. So Done sounds like a book I will really enjoy. Thanks for telling me about these.