Guest Review: Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o, Illustrated by Vashti Harrison

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Guest Reviewer: Brian, UCF Elementary Education Student

Sulwe
Author: Lupita Nyong’o
Illustrator: Vashti Harrison
Published October 15, 2019 by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Summary: From Academy Award–winning actress Lupita Nyong’o comes a powerful, moving picture book about colorism, self-esteem, and learning that true beauty comes from within.

Sulwe has skin the color of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school. Sulwe just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything.

In this stunning debut picture book, actress Lupita Nyong’o creates a whimsical and heartwarming story to inspire children to see their own unique beauty.

About the Creators: 

Lupita Nyong’o is a Kenyan actress and producer. Her first feature film role was in the film 12 Years a Slave, for which she received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as multiple accolades, including the Screen Actors Guild Award, the Critics’ Choice Award, the Independent Spirit Award, and the NAACP Award. She has since starred in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ryan Coogler’s record-breaking box office hit Black Panther, and most recently in Jordan’s Peele’s critically acclaimed horror film Us. Nyong’o earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut in Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed. She lives in Brooklyn.

Vashti Harrison, author and illustrator of the bestselling Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History, is an artist, author, and filmmaker with a passion for storytelling. She earned her MFA in film and video from California Institute of the Arts, where she snuck into animation and illustration classes to learn from Disney and DreamWorks legends. There she rekindled a love for drawing and painting. Now she uses her love for both film and illustration to craft beautiful stories for children.

Review: This book was just amazing! The story, the art, the lesson–everything was perfect. The message that is written in this story is not just for kids, even though the intended audience is children. The book talks about colorism and how one should love themselves just the way they are. We are all unique and special, and we should not try to change ourselves for nobody. In the world we live in today, there is so much negativity, but with this book for children, they can learn to be the light in the midst of darkness, no matter what the color of your skin is. Sulwe’s skin is the color of Midnight, but to me she shines the brightest in her family. Without midnight, everyone else’s shine would be pointless. I hope that when children read this book, they will appreciate who they are and be confident in themselves. This is a story I would definitely keep in my classroom. My favorite quote from the story, “When you are darkest is when you are most beautiful. It is when you are most you.” This left me very emotional and I’m a grown adult now. I should not be tearing up like this!

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Sulwe has many topics that can be discussed and is a great read aloud to teach social emotional learning; it can also be used to teach a variety of literacy skills. Here are some ideas that can be used to incorporate Sulwe into the lesson plan:

The first thing the students can do would be to practice their compare and contrast skills by discussing how the character changes and feels throughout the story. Another activity the students can do would be to practice descriptive writing by having them describe their own appearance. The last activity that can be done is having the students practice writing book reviews after they have read the story. If none of these activities work for you or aren’t that interesting, asking questions about the story to the students is always an option. Here, the teacher can discuss important topics like bullying, appreciating others, respect, and loving oneself.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does the name Sulwe mean?
  • How are the pet names for “day” and “night” different?
  • What types of food did Sulwe eat to try and change her color?
  • What appeared through Sulwe’s window?
  • Why did Sulwe want to change the way she looked?
  • Have you ever been teased because of the way you look? How did that make you feel?

Flagged Passages: 

When you are darkest is when you are most beautiful. It is when you are most you.”

Book Trailer: 

Read This If You Love: Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry or Eyes that Kiss in the Corner by Joanna Ho

Recommended For: 

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Thank you, Brian, for your review!

I Want to Be a Vase by Julio Torres, Illustrated by Julian Glander

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I Want to Be a Vase
Author: Julio Torres
Illustrator: Julian Glander
Published June 7, 2022 by Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division

Summary: Former SNL writer and comedic rising star Julio Torres takes readers on a journey through the lives and intimate dramas of some of the unsung shapes of our time in this picture book inspired by his HBO special My Favorite Shapes.

Shapes. You’ve heard of them. You might have even interacted with a few. But do you really know them? From plucky Plunger, who wishes to defy his shape and become a beautiful vase, to other household objects with dreams of a life beyond their predestined roles, I Want to Be a Vase takes readers on an essential and visually stunning journey through the lives and intimate dramas of often-overlooked household appliances.

Press Release: Julio Torres is a comedic genius that pairs a dry, absurd humor with earnestness. I WANT TO BE A VASE is out there, wacky, bonkers, but ultimately grounded in the honesty of sense of self and the dream of defying expectations. The book explores the intricate, complicated emotions of childhood (belonging, jealousy, fear of change, excitement) through humor and metaphor, appealing to a crossover audience while being primarily directed towards a young readership. Kids will see their emotions reflected in plucky Plunger, nervous Vacuum, sassy Sink, and helpful Hair Dryer. It’s perfect for fans of the irreverent playfulness of B.J. Novak’s The Book with No Pictures or Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, which take seemingly basic childhood concepts and subvert tropes with wit, insight, and parallels to the human condition.

While this picture book is a hilarious, quirky tale first and foremost, it’s also a story about being your truest self no matter your publicly-ascribed role—in that sense, there’s a gentle pro-trans message to be found here. Julio is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and many of his works have been heralded as subtly queer and progressive. This book is no exception to that standard!

Julio’s voice is unique and authentic, and, despite the absurdist spark to his work, he connects with his audience on a deeply human level. As a self-proclaimed Aquarius with synesthesia, Julio is also quite the aesthete, and his involvement with the visual component of his book guarantees that it will be like anything you’ve ever seen (while maintaining his dazzlingly fun, bright style which is certain to appeal to young eyes!). 3D artist Julian Glander is the perfect, offbeat other half of this whimsical picture book pairing. A darling of the design world, Julian is a welcome new voice in children’s publishing, though he has experience working in children’s animation. His bright color palette and toylike models perfectly complement Julio’s surreal style.

Julio told The Hollywood Reporter: “Had I followed convention, I would probably have a reasonable job and be married with kids in El Salvador, where I’m from. That sounds nice, except I wanted to be an experimental comedian, prolific writer, and so-so actor in New York. At first, I was on a path to be one sort of person, when I really wanted to be another. I wanted to pursue things I wasn’t supposed to, and had the courage to do it, thanks to my parents never saying, ‘That can’t be,’ but instead asking, ‘Well, why not?’ So this book is about a plunger who wants to be a vase. Because, well, why not?”

Praise: 

★“A toilet plunger yearns to be a vase in Torres’s moving object lesson of identity and purpose … A thoughtful and broadly applicable fable with saturated, 3-D-style art by Glander.” –Publishers Weekly, starred review“

The premise is odd but comical and certainly original; children will giggle contemplating different uses for everyday gadgets. Kids are great at pretending and playing imaginative games, so they won’t have trouble buying into the whimsy on offer. They’ll appreciate the reassuring, empowering message to be who you are if that makes you happy, and the collaboration and acceptance themes will resonate. The colorful digital illustrations, featuring dollhouse like miniatures representing common household goods, are very appealing… Hilarious … Great for stimulating creative thinking and art activities: What else can ordinary objects be?” –Kirkus Reviews

About the Creators: 

JULIO TORRES (he/him) is a comedian, a former writer on Saturday Night Live, and one of the masterminds behind Los Espookys, HBO’s Spanish-language comedy about a group of horror enthusiasts, produced by Fred Armisen. Julio is also the creator of the HBO special My Favorite Shapes. Released In 2019, this Lorne Michaels-produced special immediately garnered a cult following. In it, Torres conducts an elaborate show-and-tell that offers a backstory to a wide array of “shapes.” With its unusual, absurdist humor and decidedly human narratives explored within the framework of a universal concept, Torres’ performance is the perfect inspiration for a picture book that completely upends expectations about the everyday shapes and objects in our own lives. While I WANT TO BE A VASE is not a direct interpretation of that special, the connection between that piece of work and this story of household objects will be evident to his many fans. Visit him on Instagram @SpacePrinceJulio.

JULIAN GLANDER(he/him) is a 3D animator, designer, and illustrator. Mostly self-taught, he has created work for Disney, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, Adult Swim, and The New York Times. He is also the creator of the video game Art Sqooland the squishy comics collection3D Sweeties. Visit him at Glander.co.

Review: There is so much to figuring out who you are, what your identity is, what you enjoy, etc. Plunger is all for trying new things and being a bit different than what is expected of them. However, vacuum cannot handle the lack of order, questioning of ideals, and change. So what will take vacuum to see that it doesn’t matter who everyone is as long as everyone is happy?

I do think Torres was trying to have an extending metaphor about identity specifically, but there is a moment where the characters also mention jobs and liking what they do, so I think that this book will comfort anyone that feels like they don’t fit exactly where everyone expects them to be, either in their identity, how they act, how they dress, what they like to do, etc. And it is pretty silly and fun in so many ways!

And I loved the illustrations by Glander! The 3D art that is clay animantion-esque just brings the characters and setting to life! A perfect combination.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: Like the Kirkus reviewer mentioned above, I’d love to see what creative thinking this will bring out with students. The discussions and writing that could come from these questions would be fantastic!

  • Pick an every day object–what else could it be?
  • If you were an every day object, what would you pick?
  • Other than what that every day object does, what else could you do if you were that every day object?
  • What is something about you that doesn’t fit your “definition”?
  • Is there ever a time where you feel like you are a different shape than others expect you to be?

I think conversations about author’s purpose, comparison/contrast, and symbolism could also be started based on this book.

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: My Shadow is Purple by Scott Stuart, I’d Like to be a Window for a Wise Old Dog by Philip C. Stead, Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima, Picture books by The Fan Brothers

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Alex at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division for providing a copy for review!**

Educators’ Guide for Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers: A Story Inspired by Loujain Alhathloul by Lina AlHathloul & Uma Mishra-Newbery, Illustrated by Rebecca Green

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Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers
Authors: Lina AlHathloul & Uma Mishra-Newbery
Illustrator: Rebecca Green
Published: February 8, 2022 by Astra Publishing

Summary: A courageous girl follows her dream of learning to fly in this beautifully illustrated story inspired by imprisoned human rights activist Loujain AlHathloul.

Loujain watches her beloved baba attach his feather wings and fly each morning, but her own dreams of flying face a big obstacle: only boys, not girls, are allowed to fly in her country. Yet despite the taunts of her classmates, she is determined that some day, she too will learn to do it–especially because Loujain loves colors, and only by flying will she be able to see the color-filled field of sunflowers her baba has told her about. Eventually, he agrees to teach her, and Loujain’s impossible dream becomes reality–inspiring other girls to dare to learn to fly. Inspired by co-author Lina al-Hathloul’s sister, formerly imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Loujain al-Hathloul, who led the successful campaign to lift Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. This gorgeously illustrated story is lyrical and moving.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation and Discussion Questions: 

Please view and enjoy the teachers’ guide I co-created for Astra Publishing for Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers:

You can also access the teaching guide here.

You can learn more about Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers on Astra Publishing’s page.

Recommended For: 

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Wave by Diana Farid, Illustrated by Kris Goto

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Wave
Author: Diana Farid
Illustrator: Kris Goto
Published March 29th, 2022 by Cameron Kids

Summary: A coming-of-age novel in verse set in 1980s Southern California, about a Persian American girl who rides the waves, falls, and finds her way back to the shore.

Thirteen-year-old Ava loves to surf and to sing. Singing and reading Rumi poems settle her mild OCD, and catching waves with her best friend, Phoenix, lets her fit in—her olive skin looks tan, not foreign. But then Ava has to spend the summer before ninth grade volunteering at the hospital, to follow in her single mother’s footsteps to become a doctor. And when Phoenix’s past lymphoma surges back, not even surfing, singing, or poetry can keep them afloat, threatening Ava’s hold on the one place and the one person that make her feel like she belongs. With ocean-like rhythm and lyricism, Wave is about a girl who rides the waves, tumbles, and finds her way back to the shore.

Praise: 

“Processing her feelings through music empowers Ava and gives her a new understanding of home and the connections she shares with others. Raw and powerful, this free verse novel honestly explores issues of identity, culture, grief, and hope… Rich, layered, and heart-rending.”―Kirkus Reviews

“Farid’s poetry rides the page like a wave, charting the ups and downs of Ava’s emotions. . .The verse format makes this text extremely accessible, and readers will be delighted to find elements of Ava’s Persian heritage and 1980s childhood also woven throughout.” ―School Library Journal

“Farid brings her expertise as an MD to Ava’s story, simplifying the complexity of lymphoma while packing an emotional punch with the musical references that Ava uses to cope.” ―Booklist

About the Creators: 

Diana Farid is the author of When You Breathe, published by Cameron Kids. She is a poet and a physician at Stanford University. She lives in the Bay Area.

Honolulu-based fine artist Kris Goto was born in Japan. She spent most of her adolescence in Hong Kong and New Zealand, where she became inspired by the outside world and a passion for manga.

Review: This book is actually hard for me to write about because it is just so beautiful in all the right ways. It is full of so many emotions, beautiful writing, important topics, characterization, and 80s references. The author’s inclusion of such a specific setting and pop culture references could have easily turned off a reader, but Farid seamlessly blends it into Ava’s story to where it is all part of one amazing package. A package that includes a lot but that is because a 14 year old Persian girl growing up in California would have dealt with a lot: identity, self-love vs. loathing, immigrant experience, expectations, friendship, hobbies, school, racism, family… and on top of that Ava has Phoenix’s and (my favorite character) Room 509’s health to think about, her own broken leg, surfing, music, and a single parent. Add to all of this plot poetry that is robust in its rhythm and variety in a way that makes reading the book an experience, a wonderful reading experience.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: In addition to all of the reading discussion that can happen with this book, it is also a wonderful poetry writing mentor text. Each poem has its own format, personality, mood, tone, etc. so students have so many choices about which they would want to be inspired by. Goto’s illustrations show how art can add to poems as well, so students could create their own drawings to accompany their poems. Also, with the inclusion of music, students could turn their poems into songs.

Students could also make their own mix tapes for different characters in the book using Ava’s and Phoenix’s as examples. Students could then explain why they chose the songs they did for the characters.

The inclusion of Rumi’s poetry could also lead to a poetry study of his poetry which could include historical instruction as well.

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why did the author format __[poem]__ the way she did?
  • How did music influence Ava’s time during this point in her life?
  • How do you think Ava’s summer would have been different if she hadn’t broken her leg?
  • How did Phoenix and Ava’s friendship change over time? What caused their friendship to evolve?
  • Why does Ava blow up at Phoenix and Naz at the beach?
  • How does Room 509 play a part in Ava’s summer? What do you think the purpose of this character is?
  • How did Ava’s mother’s decision to leave Iran to go to medical school transform her life?
  • Farid included instances of racism in the book. Why is it important that she includes these? What does it show us about our country?
  • Do you believe Ava has OCD? What parts in the story show you this?
  • How does Ava both embrace her Persian culture but also resent the pressure it holds?
  • The author included Farsi throughout the book. Why is this translanguaging important to include when telling Ava’s story.
  • Find an example of when Farid captured the rhythm of the ocean in her poetry.

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Land of the Cranes by Aida Salazar, Starfish by Lisa Fipps, Benbee and the Teacher Griefer by KA Holt, Open Mic edited by Mitali Perkins

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you to Blue Slip Media for providing a copy for review**

Bright Star by Yuyi Morales

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Bright Star
Author and Illustrator: Yuyi Morales
Published September 7, 2021 by Neal Porter Books

Summary: A Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book

Inspiring, reassuring, and beautifully illustrated, this new story from the creator of the New York Times bestseller Dreamers is the perfect gift for every child.

New York Times Best Children’s Book of the Year

With the combination of powerful, spare language and sumptuous, complex imagery characteristic of her work, Yuyi Morales weaves the tale of a fawn making her way through a landscape that is dangerous, beautiful—and full of potential.  A gentle voice urges her onward, to face her fears and challenge the obstacles that seek to hold her back.

Child, you are awake!
You are alive!
You are a bright star,
Inside our hearts.

With a voice full of calm, contemplative wisdom, readers are invited to listen and observe, to accept themselves—and to dare to shout!

In a world full of uncertainty, Bright Star seeks to offer reassurance and courage. Yuyi Morales’ first book since her New York Times bestseller Dreamers explores the borderlands—the plants, animals, and insects that make their home in the desert, and the people who live and travel through this unique and beautiful part of the world.

Created with a combination of techniques including hand-embroidered lettering, painting, sketching, digital paintings with textures from photographs of the Sonoran Desert, this stunning book is full of beauty—from the handwoven blanket of the endpapers through the last inspiring spread of young families facing their future with determination and hope.

A Spanish language edition, Lucero, is also available.

Ricki’s Review: I took a deep breath after I finished this book. It’s really quite magnificent. The words, the use of language, the mixed media of the illustrations—it all works together to offer a warm embrace for readers. I felt as if Yuyi was speaking directly to me, as the reader. This is a book that will resonate with all readers. It share the beauty of the borderlands and demonstrates Morales’ flexibility to maneuver language and illustration in ways that are, quite simply, captivating. Typically, I donate my books after I read them, but this is going to be one that I have a hard time giving away. I want to read it again and again. I might just need to buy copies for everyone I know. Most of all, I love how this book offered great hope.

Kellee’s Review: This beautiful book is a guide to life and an ode to parenthood & community. The use of second person engages the reader in a way that wouldn’t have happened without this choice. This moves the reader and really sets the mood of the book and makes it an excellent read aloud! The book is alsoabout facing fears, all types of fears that may come a child’s way during their life. But it also promotes students advocating for their feelings and using their voice to share what they feel. All of this in a beautifully illustrated, scarcely (but specifically) worded text. This shows what a brilliant author and illustrator Yuyi Morales is.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Teachers might ask students to share out the many ways that they can layer literacies—through images and language. Then, they might try to layer literacy themselves. Perhaps they could translanguage or offer images layered in text.

Discussion Questions: 

  • How does the use of second person point of view draw you into the text?
  • What types of illustration and imagery does Morales use?
  • What did you learn about the borderlands?
  • What did you learn about yourself?

Flagged Spread: 

Read This If You Love: Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, The Refuge by Sandra Le Guen, The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Refugee by Alan Gratz, The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson

Recommended For: 

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**Thank you, Sara at Holiday House, for providing copies for review!**

Have You Seen Gordon? by Adam Jay Epstein and Ruth Chan

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Have You Seen Gordon?
Author and Illustrator: Adam Jay Epstein and Ruth Chan
Published: September 28, 2021 by Simon & Schuster

Summary: Packed with vibrant and dizzying artwork, this hilarious story cleverly riffs on classic seek-and-find books and will have young ones laughing out loud as the narrator struggles to get the characters to play along.

Have you seen Gordon? Oh. There he is. Gordon isn’t very good at hiding, is he?

The narrator wants to play hide and seek with Gordon and the reader, but Gordon just wants to stand out. This madcap, fourth wall–breaking picture book is packed with humor and full, zany spreads with details kids will return to again and again.

Review: This book is very funny, and my kids loved it. It is a more humorous, more accessible Where’s Waldo? but for younger children. That said, all of my children (ages 2-8) loved it. Readers are finding Gordon (and others) across the pages, and they are also listening to a very clever tale about him. As an underling theme, Gordon doesn’t want to hide anymore. I adored this charming book and will enjoy reading it again and again.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: Students could be inspired to reimagine their own favorite picture books, and they need not be hide-and-seek texts!

Discussion Questions: 

  • Why doesn’t Gordon want to cooperate in the text?
  • What did you learn about him?
  • How is this text creatively imagined?

Flagged Passages: 

Read This If You Love: Funny stories, Hide-and-seek stories, Where’s Waldo? books, I Spy books

Recommended For:

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**Thank you to Chantal at Simon & Schuster for providing a copy for review!**

Inside Cat by Brendan Wenzel

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Inside Cat
Author: Brendan Wenzel
Published: October 12, 2021 by Chronicle Books

GoodReads Summary: Told in rhyming text, Inside Cat views the world through many windows, watching the birds, squirrels, and people go by—but when the door opens it discovers a whole new view.

Review: Brendan Wenzel regularly impresses me. I use his They All Saw a Cat to teach about perspective, and it reminds us of the value of picture books at all levels of class instruction. I was really excited to read Inside Cat because I knew it would be just as compelling—and it was! Inside Cat can see the world in so many ways. It travels around the house and sees so much. I don’t want to give a spoiler, but the last page of this book will make you gasp.

Teachers’ Tools for Navigation: This book should be paired with They All Saw a Cat to teach perspective. Both offer different angles to questions of perspective. I think it could also be used to teach about authorship (as in authority and authenticity). Teachers might ask students to think critically about what perspectives we do or do not hold.

Discussion Questions: 

  • What does Inside Cat do?
  • What does Inside Cat see?
  • How do the images on the page work together?
  • What does the surprise ending teach you?

Read This If You Love: They All Saw the Cat by Brendan Wenzel, The Journey Trilogy by Aaron Becker

Recommended For:

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RickiSig

**Thank you to Eva at Chronicle for providing a copy for review!**