{book} a legacy, a man, a company of men, and Ntozake Shange

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Nine: Ellington Was Not a Street

Written by Ntozake Shange

Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster for Young Readers [text: 1983] 2004

ellington2The narrative of Ellington Was Not a Street comes from Ntozake Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo” (from A Daughter’s Geography, 1983). The poem, excerpted for the picture book, is a reflection of and tribute to a legacy of African American innovator, a “company of men” “who changed the world.” It is a personal poem of a young Shange (nee Paulette Williams) whose home nurtured and was nurtured by this company of men.

Only such gorgeously wrought poem could withstand the company of Kadir Nelson’s illustrations. The images themselves (as Sean, an Artist, breathed “precise”) have a precision a poet, too, would recognize.


ellington celebrating-the-duke

You may want to read with some kind of liquid precision the first time through, caught in a rhythm of the words, but plan the time to linger again and again on an image, a deeply impactful moment Shange and Nelson have crafted. It took me a stretch of time to pull away from the cover, then from the portrait facing the title page (‘piano’ image above). I was drawn to circle

our house was filled with all kinda folks

our windows were not cement or steel

our doors opened like our daddy’s arms

held us safe & loved

As the narrative acknowledges the simultaneity of then and now, the illustrations move back and forth in time between the streetscape whether the narrator reminisces and her childhood home. Her home is quiet, interior, full of warm patterns. The street is busy with a different sort of liveliness, other textures that are met with rain. The narrator holds a red umbrella amongst the institutionalized black, a “Don’t Walk” sign flashing at the intersection.

Our narrator, she is small in the presence of the company, her and her brother, and she is small in this house (another of her surroundings), but she is without question present, never forgotten, and cherished (e.g. a man’s suit jacket draped over her as a blanket as she sleeps on the couch).

ellington fps-133397_2zThe images are real, not abstracted. The poem is hardly abstract, but an illustrator could have reinterpreted the narrative into something more ephemeral. The detail in the setting, the verisimilitude of the portrait, the inclusion of a group sitting for a ‘photograph,’ these establish the very real and tangible existence of the life/lives represented.

Ellington Was Not a Street includes two pages of biographies using excerpted images from the narrative, “More About a Few of the Men ‘Who Changed the World’:” (I will list them as the book does) : Paul Robeson, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois, Ray Barretto, Earlington Carl “Sonny Til” Tilghman, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, Virgil “Honey Bear” Akins, The Clovers.

The endpage at the close shares narrative the in its stanzaic form of “Mood Indigo.” Of course “Mood Indigo” is also a musical composition by Duke Ellington, so exquisitely observed on the vinyl held by our narrator on the cover: the record, an RCA Victor special of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra. I have a YouTube option, undoubtedly a lesser quality, if you are interested.

Do I really have to say it? You really must find a copy of Ellington Was Not a Street.

ellington cover



Ntozake Shange, Barnard College, Reid Lecture, November 1978 via Barnard College Archives

Poet, performance artist, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. She earned a B.A. in American Studies from Barnard College in 1970, and then left New York to pursue graduate studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was during this time that she took the name “Ntozake” (“she who comes into her own things”) “Shange” (“she who walks like a lion”) from the Zulu dialect Xhosa. She received an M.A. in American Studies from USC in 1973. [...] She is the author of multiple children’s books and prose works, including Some Sing, Some Cry (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1998), See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984), Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel (1982), and The Black Book (1986, with Robert Mapplethorpe).

Kadir Nelson is an award-winning American artist whose works have been exhibited in major national and international publications, institutions, art galleries, and museums. Nelson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. […] Nelson has also gained acclaim for the artwork he has contributed to several NYT Best-selling picture books including his authorial debut, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball”, winner of the Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert Awards, and was published by Disney/Hyperion in the spring of 2008.

His corpus thus far is extensive: Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011); Nelson Mandela (2012); He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands (2005); Baby Bear (2014); Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit (2009); Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, words by Carole Boston Weatherford (2006)…. you can find listings here and here.

{images belong to Kadir Nelson, words to Ntozake Shange}



{book} card carrying

30 days of pbDay Twenty-EightThe Midnight Library

By Kazuno Kohara 

Roaring Book Press 2014


“Once there was a library that opened only at night.”

The Midnight Library’s hours are dusk to dawn and its serves an adorable population of animals. The librarian? A young girl assisted by three owls. The picture book has a fairy tale opening, “Once there was…,” and the reader is enchanted and amused by the young librarian and the patrons whom require a bit of extra attention: like the squirrel band, the crying wolf, and the visiting tortoise.

The Midnight Library portrays library life as growing readers will hopefully come to know it. The library is interested in serving its community by providing different spaces whether the needs are for quiet reading, band practice, or story time. I love how Miss Wolf is encouraged to finish a sad book. The librarian reassures her it will be worth it (knowing that it has a happy ending) and helps the Wolf through it.

There are behaviors that are appropriate to spaces, but in the library in general: like considering how your noisiness might affect others; depending on the librarian for help/advice; observing closing hours. And could we really leave this children’s picture book before learning about how to get a library card for borrowing books?


Kazuno Kohara applies her training in printmaking to create illustrations that beg for more surfaces than just the pages of her book. Her images are charming, the black ink bold against harvest moon yellows and midnight blues.


The only false notes for me will likely not bother most; comic book readers may find an irritation. The images span a double page layout, and the movement of the composition draws the eye along left to right; even when the reader wants to follow the upper left text by reading (in sequence) the next set of lines below on the left page. The occurrence is limited to a couple pages. And if one limits their view to only the left page (like the above image, nothing appears out of order). Another double-page, late in the book, I began to wonder if the text and images were created separately and not revised into companionship. The illustrations do evidence a crafting with the other mind. The troublesome moment comes when I read upper left, then force my gaze back to read the lines on the bottom left, “one by one, the animals left the midnight library.” I’d already observe the animals exiting the library and would’ve preferred to read the text waiting on the right page bottom, “All except one new visitor…” Reading the book aloud, the narrative is smooth, and if I were reading to a child untroubled with the need to follow text, only image, I would confirm what it is they are seeing on the page. As it is there is a redundancy that limits its audience to the youngest of us; which is fine, of course. I just wish the design allowed for more.

theMidnight Library_spread 5

Such notes do not keep me from recommending The Midnight Library as a charming addition to every young child’s reading lists. No doubt, their eyes are more patient with the text and leisurely in their perusal of truly lovely illustrations. Preparing your child for a life-long love of the library? The Midnight Library is not only a wonderful educational tool, but an entertaining picture book as well.

Now to figure out how to order excerpted images for t-shirts and totes…


Kazuno Kohara grew up in Japan and moved to the U.K. as a student. She studied at Anglia Ruskin University from 2005 to 2008, and received MA Children’s Book Illustration and MA Printmaking. She is the author of Here Comes Jack Frost (2008), Ghosts in the House! (2009) and Little Wizard (2010).She lives in London, England.

{images belong to Kazuno Kohara}


{book} an antidote

30 days of pbDay Twenty-SevenI’m Bored

By Michael Ian Black 

Illustrated by Debbie Ridpath Ohi 

Simon & Schuster for Young Readers 2012

I'm Bored by Debbie Ohi

The potato was unexpected.

I did not read the inside jacket copy. I didn’t even notice the back cover. Browsing shelves, I saw the front cover, remembered it’s popularity when it was released, and added it to my stack of books. I dove straight into the reading.

im bored potatoA few pages in, after the self-pitying complaints of boredom, the child finds a potato and thinks it may be interesting. It isn’t. And it is, because they proceed to have an argument. The child has to prove that kids are not boring, stating that they are actually quite fun. The potato remains unconvinced, wishing it’d had a flamingo for company instead.

I flashed on an sequence of exchanges between Sherlock and Watson from BBC’s Sherlock…The potato suddenly adopted Benedict Cumberbatch as his voice talent. What was weirder was interposing Martin Freeman as the protagonist of the picture book.

The standoff between child and potato is hilarious—and effortlessly makes the story’s point about boredom. Children are capable of all sorts of activity/imagination. The ending is awesome. I rate the last pages of I’m Bored up there with the Hat books by Jon Klassen.

brought Charles Schulz's Peanuts to mind, to good effect.

brought Charles Schulz’s Peanuts to mind, to good effect.

The title page bearing a heavy bold blue title sets a good tone. Ohi follows with sweeping expanses of white page. There is nothing to distract the reader. We are left only with the protagonist who is bored—and to be appropriate, rather boring herself. She leans, lays, pitifully wails her boredom. She has every promise of liveliness in those pigtails, sunshine-colored clips, striped and pink heart t-shirt. Ohi and character begin to fill the space with imaginative sets to accompany her costuming, props and declarative adventures. The story picks up, crams images on pages, exciting the eye.

I’m Bored is a marvelously designed experience, and that is the only subtle aspect to this highly entertaining read that I know every family could benefit from right about now. Place Michael Ian Black and Debbie Ridpath Ohi timeless picture book next to your copy of Paula Bossio’s The Line, and have it keep company with your books by Jeffers, Willems, Klassen, Barnett,  Reynolds and Santat.


Michael Ian Black is a popular comedian who began his career with The State, a sketch comedy troupe he co-founded at New York University in 1988, which went on to have a successful run on MTV. […] His screenplay “Run Fat Boy Run,” starring Simon Pegg and Thandie Newton came out in 2007. Michael is also a stand-up comedian, who regularly tours the country. […] His first children’s book, “Chicken Cheeks” was released in January, 2009. His latest project is “Michael and Michael Have Issues,” a comedy series premiering in July 2009 on Comedy Central. Michael is married and has two children.

Debbie Ridpath Ohi is a published writer and illustrator based in Toronto, Canada. After graduating from the University of Toronto with a B.Sc. in Computer Science and Psychology, I worked as a systems programmer/analyst for Toronto-Dominion Bank for two years before stepping off the corporate cliff and immersing myself in the arts: writing, teaching piano, and doing some freelance art. Ohi created a Web resource for writers called Inkspot which won a bunch of awards and a newsletter circulation of nearly 50,000. Inkspot began as a hobby but soon became a fulltime career.

Her first picture book that she is writing and illustrating, Where Are My Books? debuts from Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers in Summer 2015. Debbie’s illustrations appear in Naked! (Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers 2014) written by Michael Ian Black. She is also the illustrator of three Judy Blume classics (Freckle JuiceThe Pain and the Great OneThe One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo) reissued as chapter books by Atheneum (2014) as well as on the covers of seven middle grade reissues including Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret.

 {images belong to Debbie Ridpath Ohi, their text to Michael Ian Black}

{book} mother’s

30 days of pbDay Twenty-SixMy Mother’s Sari

By Sandhya Rao 

illustrated by Nina Sabnani

NorthSouth 2006

my mothers sari coverIllustrated using mixed-media, My Mother’s Sari opens with the endpapers bearing instructions in how to don a sari. The photographed human model’s person painted over in the manner of the characters we will soon meet in the story.

my mother sari 65_page1

Whether it is in imaginative play, nose wiping (a favorite), or finally to wrap oneself up in and dream, each of the children’s mother’s sari function differently. And yet the unity of the text, that possessive I the reader will hear with one voice, recommends that one mother’s sari can do all these things.

my mothers sari 65_page2

The children are in paint, but the sari is collage, bright in color, variant in pattern and texture.  The sari appears light with effervescent movement next to the densely drawn figures interacting with them, giving them the ephemeral dream-like quality.


a bilingual version

The metaphor of the sari is tied to the mother, and to the maternal and cultural burdens she bears. “How it makes me dream,” the narrative concludes.


Sandhya Rao is Senior Editor at Tulika Publishers. One of the finest writers for children in India today, her books have won awards and accolades: My Friend the Sea won the Ambitious Children’s Book Project award at the Berlin Children and Youth Literature Festival, 2005. My Mother’s Sari was chosen as an Outstanding International Book, 2007, by the United States Board for Books for Young People (USBBY) and the Children’s Book Council. What Sandhya cherishes most is that she has been able to follow her dream – doing books for children. For this, she cheerfully gave up a promising career in mainstream journalism and joined longtime friend Radhika to create multilingual books for children at a time when independent children’s publishing in India was nascent. She has written over 20 books and translated Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstrump into Hindi. She enjoys different kinds of vegetarian cuisine and lives in Chennai.

Nina Sabnani is an artist, animation director and illustrator based in Mumbai since 2006. Currently, she is an Associate Professor at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay where she recently completed her Doctoral Research. Her area of research concerned Storytelling models in India, with a particular focus on the Kaavad tradition of Rajasthan. She has been teaching illustration, script writing and storyboarding, storytelling and simultaneously making films on diverse issues. She has illustrated several books for Tulika publishers, Chennai which have been translated in many languages.

{images belong to Nina Sabnani, text to Sandhya Rao}



{book} a present nostalgia

30 days of pbDay Twenty-FiveWait! Wait! 

By Hatsue Nakawaki

Illustrated by Komako Sakai

Translated by Yuki Kaneko

Enchanted Lion Books 2013

wait-waitWait! Wait! is an ideal book for young children that gently follows their rhythms and preoccupations. With a text of few words, frequent repetitions, and delicate illustrations with which children will quickly identify, the book follows a young child’s discovery of other creatures. This discovery comes with the recognition that while other creatures can suddenly appear they can also go away and disappear just as quickly. But the delightful appearance of a dad and his playful swoop of his toddler up onto his shoulders will remind little ones that the people who love them will always be there and will never, ever not come back.—publisher’s comments.

wait wait birdsPretty acrylic and oil pencil illustrations focus the white expanse of the page. And they certainly sympathize with the young child audience. The accuracy of the toddling child’s postures anticipates a curious child hoping to take hold of the creatures about it. The sleek quick motion of nature escapes the still plodding inelegance of the young subject. Eventually the father picks up the child exclaiming: “Here we go!”: lending his height, stability, and mobility to the young one still discovering their own arms and legs.


Wait! Wait! is indeed a picture book about a fostered independence and engagement with the world, but it also fosters a reassurance (and reliance) in the strong and capable presence of the adult caregiver who is likely thinking to the child—Wait! Wait! don’t grow up too quickly! It is a picture book of stages, simultaneously anticipatory and nostalgic; for the child and adult reader alike.


Hatsue Nakawaki was born in 1974 in Tokushima, Japan. She is a prolific author of books for children and adults. She has written several novels over the past few years and has a strong interest in folklore. She is an author and a mother and loves creating stories.

Komako Sakai was born in Hyogo, Japan, in 1966. After graduating from Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, Sakai worked at a kimono textile design company. She is currently one of the most popular authors and illustrators in Japan. Her books Emily’s Balloon and The Snow Day have been published in the United States and were received with starred reviews and much acclaim.

check out Book Dragon’s review 

{Images belong to Komako Sakai, text to Hatsue Nakawaki}


{book} birth stories

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Four: The Baby on the Way 

by Karen English

Illus. Sean Qualls 

Farrar Straus Giroux 2005

the baby on the way1The Baby on the Way was not what I was expecting. I thought it was going to be about a boy who is feeling anxiety about a new baby sibling on the way. And maybe Jamal is and maybe there is a younger sibling on the way, but the book takes a decidedly other track. It is a story a grandmother tells about when she was born in a decidedly different time.

With his grandmother harvesting salad-makings from the rooftop gardens, Jamal suddenly wonders if his grandma was a little girl, or smaller yet, an actual baby. He looks and looks at her, trying to reconcile the differences. As they return to kitchen and have their salads, she tells him about when she was born, the tenth child. The story crosscuts time between kitchen scene and historical past and often places them beside one another with stunning full-page portraits.

the baby on the way021Jamal (and Reader) learn how it was, the traditions, the community. Grandma’s voice is unlike the narrator’s in a pleasing way, but both have a sweet and entertaining way about them.

Grandma’s story has Jamal wondering if he will have a story of his own someday. Grandma tells him he can and that she has his story to give him as well as her own, reminding us that her own story must have been told her. The story inspires further storytelling in Jamal and his grandmother and for the reader and their family.

the baby on the way041

Little wonder at the confidence in both writer and artist to allot text-only pages beside full-length artwork, the voices and illustrations have an understated appeal. This is my first picture book illustrated by Sean Qualls, and I can tell you there will be many more.

The Baby on the Way makes the child a part of something larger. We come to understand that the boy’s place in the story and family will be both unique and shared; like the grandmother’s. All birth stories can hold importance, not just that of the latest arrival, and English acknowledges that these kinds of stories are situated in community. English gives a ‘baby on the way’ story depth and scope, context and legacy, inspiring the reader to lift their eyes from introspection and desire to participate in not just their own specialness, but that of their family’s as well.

Now, if only all children were so blessed to have the storyteller from which The Baby on the Way benefits–and to commission Qualls to do their family portraits.


Multi-cultural author Karen English has been writing children’s books since 1992. […]Many of English’s books focus on multi-racial friendships, feuding friends, resolving differences, and the internal struggles of young females facing a range of controversial issues from discrimination to questioning their own religious beliefs.” (blog for your book bio) English is a Coretta Scott King Honor Award-winning author and a retired elementary school teacher. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

books include: Francie (Farrar Straus Giroux 2002), Nadia’s Hands w/ Jonathan Weiner (Boyds Mills 1999), Nikki and Deja series.

Sean Qualls is an award winning, Brooklyn-based, children’s book illustrator, artist and author. He has illustrated a number of celebrated books for children, including Giant Steps to Change The World by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis-Lee, Little Cloud and Lady Wind by Toni Morrison and her son Slade and Before John Was a Jazz Giant, for which he received a Coretta Scott King Illustration Honor. […] Qualls has created illustrations for magazines, newspapers, and advertisements. His work has been shown in galleries in New York and across the country. Sean draws inspiration from an array of influences such as movies, television, childhood memories, aging and decaying surfaces, architecture, old buildings, nature, folk art, fairy tales, Americana, black memorabilia, outsider art, cave paintings, collectibles, African art, golden books, vintage advertisement graphics, psychology, mythology, science fiction, music, and literature. He lives in lives in Brooklyn (where you can find him DJing on occasion) with his wife, illustrator/author Selina Alko and their two children Ginger and Isaiah.

do check out “Seven Questions over Breakfast with Sean Qualls” via Seven Impossible Things before Breakfast 

{images belong to Sean Qualls, text to Karen English}

{book} a red knit cap girl to know

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Three:

Red Knit Cap Girl and Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue 

by Naoko Stoop 

Megan Tingley Books/Little, Brown and Co 2012 and 2013 respectively

red knit cap girl cover

I would start with “charming story,” but what captures my attention is the medium in which Naoko Stoop illustrates Red Knit Cap Girl: Acrylic, ink, and pencil on plywood. The gradation of colors catch in the grain creating an intriguing texture. The brushwork of the moon’s face is just lovely on plywood. The lanterns are pretty sweet, too.  Not every page bears a full-wash of color, but Stoop frames out a page or two, to striking effect.


Red Knit Cap Girl would like to speak to the Moon and wonders how to find her. She learns that Moon with come close, so Red Knit Cap Girl and friends dream up of ways to attract Moon’s notice. They create lanterns, sing songs, but cannot find her. Stories that reward problem-solving are rarely so understated and cute. The animal friends are really adorable. Cute and wise is even more rare.

The Moon smiles and says, “You have made it dark enough to see me and quiet enough to hear me.” For all the light and activity, there is a benefit to darkness and silence, to whispers and listening. Welcome to your next bedtime story.

red knit cap girl to the rescue cover

Stoop returns with her adorable Red Knit Cap Girl and animal friends—and paper cuts. The text is simpler as the illustrations create most of the narrative. And I must say the storm at sea is gorgeous in interpretation. The story is magical, flying with paper gliders, sailing in a paper boat, making new friends and helping them find their way before returning home.

red kcg2-10

red knit cap girl to the rescue page

The background colors are stronger of hue. The blues and greens are really beautiful. The illustrations are straightforward, calm and they make me think of a folk art version of something Jeffers would do, though with less clever humor. That Stoop carries off adventure stories without the impulse for high-energy is impressive and incredibly appealing.

I’m looking forward to Red Knit Cap Girl and The Reading Tree (2014).


Naoko Stoop’s love of drawing began when she was a young child growing up in Japan. She was educated at Keio University in Tokyo and New York School of Interior Design in New York. Naoko now lives and paints in Brooklyn, New York.” She “uses found materials including plywood and brown paper bags as her canvas. She has shown her work in a variety of galleries and stores in New York and hopes that, through her artwork, she can inspires the child within everyone. –jacket copy

Red Knit Cap Girl is her first picture book. She has also illustrated: All Creatures Great and Small (Board Book), Sterling Children’s Books 2012; Noah’s Ark, illus. for Susan Collins Thomas (Sterling 2013); Red Knit Cap Girl and the Reading Tree (2014)

“I walk around in my neighborhood with a sketchbook. And I meditate in my studio to be present. I’m trying to bring out the five-year old in people through my artwork. Because I believe that is the last moment before children start learning how complicated the world is, and that was when I once stopped drawing. It took me decades to come back to myself. Now? Here I am drawing everyday!” –(bio) 

{images/text belongs to Naoko Stoop}