“Children Deserve Important Books!” Thank You, Margaret Wise Brown.

Lynn: As a young librarian I was taught to honor Margaret Wise Brown and as a parent I loved to read her books to my boys. But with all that, I knew very little about the life of this iconic author. Mac Barnett steps up to help me with that glaring error in his new stellar picture book biography, The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown (Harper/Balzer+Bray, 2019)

Right from the start, Margaret was a different soul and Barnett does an outstanding job of bringing that difference forward and letting readers know that it was more than okay. I LOVE Barnett’s writing in this book. He speaks directly to the reader, is conversational, blunt and refreshingly honest with kids, acknowledging some of Brown’s strange actions. Kids probably won’t know of many other authors who skinned a dead pet rabbit and wore its pelt around her waist, swam naked, or blew her entire first book earnings on an entire flower cart and threw a big party! And, Barnett goes on to say, Brown also wrote strange books, at least strange for her time although not so dissimilar, kids will note, to the very book they are reading.

What comes through wonderfully here is that it is OK to be strange and Margaret Wise Brown was strange in some truly important ways. Brown believed that children deserve important books and as Barnett again points out, life is strange and books that reflect that may seem strange but they also “feel true.” Margaret Wise Brown was a champion for children and books and after reading this amazing book, I think Mac Barnett is too.

Cindy: Maybe the reason we knew so little about Margaret Wise Brown is that she thought the stories were more important than the author! Here is the quote that Barnett opens with:

“It did not seem important that any one wrote these stories. They were true. And it still doesn’t seem important! All this emphasis today on who writes what seems silly to me as far as children are concerned.”

No matter, we know a little bit more now about the author of Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, The Important Book, The Little Fur Family, and so many more. While Barnett spins the tale, we get to immerse ourselves in Sarah Jacoby’s watercolor and Nupastel paintings. There are bunnies, and dogs, and many flowers and trees, and bunny children reading books or being read to by librarians like Anne Carroll Moore. The scenes are at once familiar and fresh.

And then, Mac Barnett slices into our hearts with his truthful pen, or computer, and says:

“Lives don’t work the way most books do.
They can end suddenly,
as fast as you kick your leg in the air.”

And it goes on and is beautiful and is a tribute that Margaret would have liked, I think. But you’ll have to buy the book and read the rest yourself because I am crying just a little and the words are blurring.

The Roots of Rap–Say Holler if You Hear

Cindy: What I know about Rap music I mostly learned by listening in the car as I drove my teen daughters to high school each morning a decade ago. I let them pick the music every day—”I Do It for Hip Hop.” Last year I listened to a delightful debate between my middle schoolers and visiting author Jason Reynolds as they quizzed him for his opinion on their favorites. I have some catching up to do! Meanwhile, I can’t wait to add this new picture book, The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop ( Little Bee, 2019) by Carole Boston Weatherford to my middle school libraries.

“Folktales, street rhymes, spirituals—rooted in spoken word.
Props to poets Hughes and Dunbar; published. Ain’t you heard?”

So begins Weatherford’s rapping text on a spread that features images of the poets in the clouds and a skeptical black teen staring at the reader. On to James Brown, duel turntables, breakdancing on cardboard sheets, and female rappers like Queen Latifah, while “keepin’ the lyrics real.”

“A generation voicing stories, hopes, and fears
founds a hip-hop nation. Say holler if you hear.”

I’ll be adding this book as a choice in our 7th-grade nonfiction picture book research multimedia project and it makes a great pairing with When the Beat Was Born: D.J. Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop (Roaring Brook, 2013), which we wrote about here. The Roots of Rap is a much-needed picture book to balance against the many featuring jazz and blues artists. It will be a huge hit with its intended early elementary school audience, but all ages will enjoy it as well.

Lynn: I know even less about rap and hip hop than Cindy! My kids were into They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies. So this terrific book was a very welcome introduction/history. Not only is it a real joy to read but I feel like I have a much better understanding of this important musical form. I love Weatherford’s text but I’m blown away by Frank Morrison’s illustrations. (Now that we’re independent again, I’m adding “blown away” as a literary criticism term.)

Frank Morrison, Simon & Schuster, 2019

Morrison’s bold dramatic illustrations use every inch of the pages and practically pulse with energy. Strong colors and unusual perspectives make every page-turn a new treat while expanding the text and evoking the time. DJ Kool leans over the turntable out toward the reader on one 2-page spread while on another page, readers look down from high above at a break dancer surrounded by his audience.

Don’t miss the back matter either. There’s a helpful glossary of terms, a Hip-Hop Who’s Who, and personal notes from both the author and illustrator. This book is keepin’ it real!