Before introducing last week’s round-up of Cybils Awards nominations in the picture book category, I slightly lamented the challenge this category presents to judges. With a wide range of ages potentially targeted with picture books, very often books in the genre are quite different to analyze and compare. But, I like to think that’s what makes this category so interesting!
Last week, I shared a handful of books best suited to the littlest of picture book readers– toddlers and preschoolers, but this week, I want to share some titles that are much more complex, tackle more serious subject matters, and call for a developmental maturity more in line with older elementary school children for full understanding.
1. Jackie and Me: A Very Special Friendship by Tania Grossinger and illustrated by Charles George Esperanza — As a young teen, author Tania Grossinger had the opportunity to meet her hero Jackie Robinson, and what started as a simple ping-pong game between a celebrity athlete and a child morphed into a twenty-year friendship between two individuals who each knew what it felt like to not fit in. I’ve found it hard for my own children to believe that racial segregation was the standard in our country at one point, so stories about individuals like Jackie Robinson who helped to change the course of history are important to share with them.
2. The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleischman and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline — While this picture book is not about an actual historical figure, it does a fabulous job telling a story about the immigrant experience in the early 20th century. An elderly man shares his family’s personal history with his great-granddaughter by showing her his collection of matchboxes, each holding an item representing an important experience throughout his lifetime. In a gentle manner, his stories reveal hardships and perseverance, and shed a light on the ways in which Italian immigrants were treated at the time. The concept of writing “personal narratives” is familiar to children from their schoolwork, and this book demonstrates how it can be done just beautifully.
3. Unspoken: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Henry Cole — A wordless picture book for older readers? Yes, trust me. The author’s note at the end of the book helps to give some context for the story he has created here in incredibly detailed pencil sketches, for he grew up hearing elderly relatives speak about the Civil War and how important battles played out close to where their family farm was situated in Loudoun County, Virginia. In his note, he states that he wanted to create a story about the people who “were brave in quiet ways” during the Civil War– the enslaved seeking freedom and the people who helped guide their way along the Underground Railroad. The resulting book is stunning, and the choice to make this wordless reinforces the quiet necessary with such an endeavor.
4. Knit your Bit: A World War I Story by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Steven Guarnaccia — During World War I, citizens were encouraged to make items such as sweaters, socks, and mittens for the soldiers fighting in Europe. The American Red Cross encouraged folks to “Knit Your Bit” through posters, and organizations such as the Navy League Comforts Committee sponsored multi-day “knit-ins” to get large amounts of donated goods to send off to the troops. The knitting bee in Central Park in NYC on July 30, 1918 serves as the inspiration for this fictionalized account of competing children breaking out of usual gender roles to see just how much they can contribute to the cause. The children at the heart of the story are directly affected by the war, having seen their father shipped out and feeling the effect of his absence. The historical photos on the inside covers put real faces on the story, depicting young boys and girls knitting away at school, and even a group of sheep grazing on the White House lawn!
5. This is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by James Ransome — I’m not sure that I’ve been able to read this book yet without crying, so trust me when I say that it is quite touching. A piece of rope found under a tree in South Carolina by a young girl becomes an important fixture in a family’s life through several generations. From a jumping rope to a way to secure the few belongings of a young family as they leave the South for a new life in the big city, the rope means different things at different times to that young girl who becomes a mother and a grandmother over the years. This story is told from the perspective of the granddaughter, who is knowledgeable and proud of her family’s history. Jacqueline Woodson’s dedication reinforces to young readers how this story could represent the experience of so many African-Americans, more than 6 million of whom migrated from unjust living conditions in the South during the first seven decades of the 20th century.
Bonus #6. Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington by Jabari Asim and illustrated by Bryan Collier — If you missed it last February, my review of this picture book emphasized its focus on Washington’s perseverance and pursuit of education in the face of extreme challenges. Elementary school children may learn some facts about Booker T. Washington in school, but this book really brings this important figure to life, showing him as a feisty child with big dreams. Be sure to add this to your older child’s reading list!
I’m making steady progress on reading through the nominated picture books, a task that I couldn’t love more. Be sure to let me know if you’ve read some of them, too!
All opinions offered here are mine alone, and do not represent the Cybils Awards.