By Cyrisse Jaffee
Some splendid, new (and newish) books that are sure to inspire young children.
Pinkie Promises by Elizabeth Warren. Illustrated by Charlene Chua, Henry Holt, 2021.
Sofia Valdez, Future Pres by Andrea Beaty. Illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2019.
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem by Amanda Gorman and illustrated by Loren Long. Viking Books for Young Readers, 2021.
Fry Bread by Kevin Noble Maillard, Illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Roaring Brook Press, 2019.
Dream Street by Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes. Random House Books, 2021.
On a mission to empower a young child? Try one of these splendid new (and newish) books. Their stirring themes range from leadership to women’s rights, honoring one’s culture, and how to effect change — messages that are conveyed through storytelling, art, and poetic language.
Pinkie Promises by Elizabeth Warren, illustrated by Charlene Chu, embodies the notion that “the personal is political.” Warren has recounted how she was delighted to see little girls at her rallies when she first ran for Congress in 2011. She developed a tradition of trading pinkie promises to help girls remember meeting a woman who was running for public office.
In the story, Polly is frustrated by various males in her life (uncle, brother, neighbor) who tell her that fixing and building things are not “what girls do.” When Polly meets Warren at a presidential rally, they make a pinkie promise to remember what girls can do. The promise gives Polly the courage to meet various challenges, including running for class president. The cartoonish illustrations by Chua are unfortunately uninspiring, despite an effort to show people of different ethnicities and abilities. (The artist has admitted, “I’m not particularly good at depicting real people. I think that’s why I generally prefer to do cartoon-y sort of work for children.” Yet there are plenty of children’s book illustrators who excel at drawing people.) Nevertheless, the story flows easily, is simply told, and the obvious lesson never overwhelms the narrative.
“All politics is local.” This adage of another Massachusetts politician, Tip O’Neill, is evident in Sofia Valdez, Future Pres by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts. Created by the same team responsible for a series of books about talented and determined kids (Iggy Peck, Architect; Rosie Revere, Engineer; and Ada Twist, Scientist), the story is a cheery blend of optimism and can-do spirit. Sofia’s efforts to transform a polluted landfill into a community meeting place may cause some adults to inwardly groan at how easily she fulfills her mission. Yet the simple rhyming couplets, the Latinx characters, the sophisticated drawings, and the idea that you can improve the lives of those around you makes it more than just a book with a message to deliver. In fact, many early childhood educators recommend that helping children feel that they can do something for others — on their own or with a group — is a healthy way to enhance empathy and respect for others. It also assists in countering feelings of discouragement and despair that many young people feel in the face of so many world problems. Sofia’s story offers a bit of positivity and hope.
Change Sings: A Children’s Anthem, by Amanda Gorman and illustrated by Loren Long, carries the message about change even further. The young poet who stirred the national imagination when she spoke at President Biden’s inauguration, Gorman uses the power of her lyrical, rhythmic verses to celebrate the idea of making “good trouble,” as civil rights activist John Lewis so memorably said. The stunning illustrations, filled with drama and color, with beautiful depictions of people and places, show a young African American girl with a guitar and a boy wearing a yarmulke and carrying other instruments. Together they reach out to others — Black, white, Brown, young, old, abled and differently abled — to join them in their “song”: “We are the wave starting to spring/For we are the change we sing/We’re what the world is becoming/And we know it won’t be long/We all hear change strumming/Won’t you sing along?” This glorious invitation is hard to resist.
In Fry Bread, Kevin Noble Maillard, a member of the Seminole Nation, describes all the ways in which fry bread expresses and symbolizes contemporary Native American life as well as tradition: fry bread is food, shape, color, sound, time, art, history, and more. The book, which received the American Indian Library Association Award Youth Literature Award, is celebratory while being informative. The vibrant illustrations by Caldecott Honor winner Juana Martinez Neal (born in Peru) add energy and warmth, showing friends and family as they gather to make fry bread (a recipe is included).
The author’s note reveals that although fry bread may not be made by each of the 573 federally recognized Native American tribes in the US (a number that is probably an underrepresentation), bread in its many forms “nourishes and comforts so many cultures, religions, and communities around the world.” Championing inclusion as well as Native American heritage, the illustrations and endpapers of Fry Bread recognize and honor the diversity of the tribes. After reading it with your young person, you may want to start a conversation about what type of bread is part of your family’s heritage: bagels, pita, naan, tortillas, focaccia, and so on.
Dream Street, by Tricia Elam Walker and Ekua Holmes, is a gorgeous, rich remembrance of the Roxbury, MA, neighborhood where cousins Tricia and Ekua (called Eded and Tari in the book) grew up. The duo welcomes the reader to “Dream Street—the best street in the world!” Mr. Sidney, the retired postal worker “dressed to the nines,” sits on his stoop every day. Belle catches butterflies and dreams of being a lepidopterist. Azaria “can really jump some rope!,” and Ms. Sarah’s voice, though only a whisper now, knows the street’s history like no other. Despite a slightly awkward line here and there, and the unfortunate reinforcement of the shushing librarian stereotype, this is a great book for awakening a child’s inner writer-artist abilities. Holmes’s collages are wonderfully detailed and dense, saturated with color, helping to make the descriptions of each character memorable and beloved. (An exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston presents a survey of Holmes’s work. See Paper Stories, Layered Dreams: The Art of Ekua Holmes through January 23, 2022.) The dreams of the children on Dream Street are “nourished and cared for” — you can do the same for a child in your life. Ask the child you are reading with to take a turn describing or drawing their neighborhood and see what happens.
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for WGBH. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.