By William H. Armstrong

Sounder is the story of an African American family in the era of sharecropping post the abolition of slavery in America. The story is about told primarily with a focal point on the thoughts and experiences surrounding the family’s oldest son, although I found that the story isn’t really about him as much as it is about his father and his father’s faithful dog named Sounder. Sounder is a loyal companion and skillful hunter, and acquired his named from the caliber of his bark. In describing his bark, Armstrong writes that  it “rolled across the flatlands” and was “louder than any other dog’s in the whole countryside” (4).

Armstrong’s skillful use of figurative language adds a poetic and romantic touch to the development  of Sounder as a character in the story: “Each bark bounced from slope to slope in the foothills like a rubber ball. But it was not an ordinary bark. It filled up the night and made music as though the branches of all the trees were being pulled across silver strings” (4). The reader begins to understand that Sounder is not just any dog, but a very special dog indeed.  Armstrong’s word choice is also particularly striking, like when he describes cabin lights as “punctuating the night.”

Times are tough for this sharecropping family, and we come to realize this is probably how life usually goes for them. Although his father’s guilt in stealing hams is not explicitly said, its more or less implied in the text, such as when the father goes off at night and doesn’t bring Sounder with him. When the sheriff and men come to take him into custody, there are no words from the family said. The lack of explanation of admission of guilt or innocence doesn’t seem to matter for two reasons. Firstly, the reader can emphasize with the difficulty of the times as well as the necessity for a man to provide food and his meet family’s most basic needs at any cost. Secondly, the reader also understands that in these times, it likely didn’t matter if an African American was innocent or guilty. Like in To Kill A Mockingbird, sometimes all it took was the accusation of a crime committed by against a white person by a black person to merit a conviction. Additionally, the reader doesn’t feel bad for the landowner’s stolen hams, probably sitting in abundance in the storehouse, when understanding the unfairness of the whole sharecropping system.

As the father is carried away by these men, Sounder runs after his beloved master, and is shot and severely injured in the process. Although Sounder runs off, the boy finds Sounder’s mangled, bloody ear along the road.  His mother explains that dogs go off to be alone when they die, but that there may be  a small possibility that he might come back once he’s better. Having experienced and witnessed a great deal of lose by her people in her lifetime, she tries to impart her wisdom onto her son: “…you must learn to lose, child. The Lord teachers the old to lose. The young don’t know how to learn it. Some people is born to keep. Some is born to lose. We was born to lose, I reckon. But Sounder might come back.” (52) This quote helps remind the reader about the severity of the situation for African Americans during this time as “born to lose.”

Eventually, both master and dog who have experienced great physical deformity hang on to life until they can go home and die. The boy’s mother comforts him by saying, “When life is so tiresome, there ain’t no peace like the greatest peace- the peace of the Lord’s hand holding you.” (113) The deep spirituality of this woman despite her circumstances is uplifting.

In describing the death of the father and Sounder, Armstrong references an old Native American practice of naming the different monthly full moons based on seasonal changes and cultural elements: “A harvest moon would cast shadows forever of a man walking upright, his dog bouncing after him. And the quiet of the night would fill and echo again with the deep voice of Sounder, the great coon dog” (116). I made this connection to Cynthia Rylant’s Long Night Moon, where she describes these different full moons.


Sun Bread


Written & Illustrated by Elisa Kleven

Sun Bread is an entertaining picture book that is written as a rhyming poem. It begins with,
“The wind it whooshed, the snow it whirled,
the rain streamed down; it sloshed and swirled
And washed the colors from the world.”

In this little animal inhabited town, the winter blues have gotten the best of everyone. The entire book is full double-bleed spreads. The illustrations contribute to the story as well by showing the reader how disgruntled the inhabitants of the town have become. We can see siblings fighting, indications that some animals are getting sick with colds and flu’s, and an overall general perturbed attitude towards the seemingly endless winter and relentless snow.

A baker (who’s also a dog) decides to bake a load of bread that looks like the sun to bring a little sunshine into the gloom and doom of the winter. The whole town ends up enjoying this delicious sunny feast, and in their delight “the real sun woke up from its sleep!” The town rejoices and we seem a dramatically different scene as the people’s hearts are warmed by the sun’s presence.
Children would really enjoy exploring the details within the illustrations. Little signs with text are included on every page for added little nuances – for example, a newspaper called the Daily Sunless Times featured in a dispenser comments on the conditions of the town on several different occasions. One of my favorite mini-scenes features a mother bear scolding her child for writing on the window “I hate rain 😦 & snow” with a marker.

Kleven’s  illustrative technique is one that uses mixed media collages and is very detailed oriented. Kleven uses vivid and vibrant colors, fully packed illustrations on many of the pages, and captures the energy of life within her creations. In this book, I could recognize the use of little cut-up doilies throughout the illustrations. I thought this was interesting because doilies always reminded me, too, of snowflakes, and I think that was Kleven’s intention by incorporating them in this book about winter.

Thematically, the message of this story isn’t really about the literal event of baking the bread, but rather about sometimes making our own sunshine and enjoying the company of others. This theme is supported by a quote the other cited on her website by John Muir – “”The sun shines not on us but in us.”

The idea of making a baked good of some variety to combat adverse weather conditions reminded me the book by Patricia Polacco’s Thunder Cake where a little girl and her grandmother prepare a thunder cake as a storm approaches to help them keep their minds off of the scary lightning. At the back of this book, like Thunder Cake, a recipe is included to make the baked good of the story’s namesake.

Poems by Cynthia Rylant

In Waiting to Waltz, Rylant shares poems of her time growing up in Beaver, West Virginia. In some ways, this collection of poems about reads like a memoir and a series of snapshots from throughout her formative years. We learn through this collection that Rylant grew up in a single parent household since her father left when she was four years old, and died when she was in her early teens. Rylant’s mother was a nurse so worked a lot and couldn’t be overly involved in he life, and sometimes Rylant had to do things other children might not have had to, like get her own lunch.

Some of Rylant’s memoirs are more nostalgic, like “Wax Lips” when she remembers the candy, and others are more sentimental like “Little Short Legs” when she tells when her mother accidentally hit and killed a dog while driving. Others are just poignant memories, as in “The Brain Surgeon” when she remembers a handsome drunk. I liked seeing this side of her because the romanticism in which she views the world, even destitute drunkard, is part of her signature style. Rylant convinces herself this he is a “tragic figure”, and  “in fact, he was a Brain Surgeon whose wife had died their honeymoon night. ”

I made a strong connection between the poem “The Great Beyond” and another one of Rylant’s works, Missing May. In the poem, Rylant describes a type she nearly drowned in a friends pool because she could scarcely swim: “And no one ever knew, Not even Karen, How close I’d come to the great beyond.”  Although “no one ever knew” about this happening to Rylant herself, it seems that she transferred the experience to one her character Cletus in Missing May who describes his own near death experience and almost crossing over to the outside side.

I liked Rylant’s articulation of time when growing up when you feel like you are waiting for things to start happening to you, for your life to really begin – “waiting to Waltz.” Growing up is one of those things  you look forward to for so long while you are little, and the suddenly you find yourself as an adult and are not sure how time as past so quickly.

By Jerry Spinelli

First grade babies!
Second grade cats!
Third grade angels!
Fourth grade…RRRRRATS!

Fourth Grade Rats is the story of a boy named Suds Morton who is entering the fourth grade. According to the schoolyard nursery rhyme, the fourth graders are known as rats. Suds doesn’t like the idea of going from a third grade angel to a fourth grade rat. He liked being an angel! Suds becomes nostalgic about the idea of growing up. Thinking of his childhood belongings “I tried to picture life without them. I couldn’t. I always thought when you grew up, stuff like bikes and bubble gum just sort of disappeared from your life. You didn’t want them anymore. They got replaced by cars and coffee and all” (p. 21-22). Spinelli’s description of this process of growing up is an interesting articulation of this life event. Reflecting upon my own experiences, I can relate to how as a child you think that magically, POOF!, one day you just become an adult. The difficult part of the whole process is the navigating and transitioning between the two states.

Suds’ best friend Joey has taken the whole rat thing to an extreme, and has altered his behavior to be as ratty as possible. Joey convinces Suds that to become a man, he needs to de defiant of his parents, break the rules, and tolerate pain unnecessary pain (like intentional bee-stings and hammering a nail through his ear lobe. In Joey’s eyes, this process is like a necessary rite of passage as they transition from boyhood to manhood: “You gotta learn to take pain, that’s all. No more crybaby., You know, like the Indians used to do.. You had to go through stuff, really painful, before you could become a man. You had to prove you could take it” (p. 45).

In the end, Suds and Joey realize the antics they have been pulling don’t really make them men, and reconcile to “drop out of the rat race and rejoin the human race” as Joey’s mother most eloquently puts it. I think upper elementary students (grades 3-5) would enjoy this book and find it translatable to their own experiences as they make transitions and begin to shift into their adolescent years.

This book was reminiscent of kind of reflective boyhood narration as in The Wonder Years, where an older version of the character makes commentary on his interactions with members of the opposite sex (“I loved her. I was sure that any day she would start to love me back. In the meantime, she mostly ignored me.” p. 2, “Judy Billings followed Joey around the rest of the day like a puppy dog. I walked home with him, but so did she, and it was like I wasn’t even there.” p. 35)

In critiquing the occasional illustrations in this book, I did not think some of the placements were well thought out. For example, on the two-page spread 52-53, the illustration on the left-hand side of the page reveals a suspenseful moment that happens on the right side of the page. The worst part about this placement is that it happens during the page-flip, not allowing the reader to find out mid-revelation what happened .

The Jacket


by Andrew Clements

In the Jacket, a sixth grade boy named Phil gains a new perspective and awareness of the racial situation in his town, and becomes more cognizant of his own possible prejudices. One day while running late to school, he sees the back of his brother’s jacket and runs to catch up with him to give him his lunch money. To his surprise, it is not his little brother inside of this jacket, but instead an African American boy around his brother’s age. Phil immediately accuses this boy of stealing his jacket from his little brother, and an altercation ensues and the school’s administration intervenes.

Upon further investigation, it is uncovered that the his mother had given the jacket to their family’s cleaning lady, and that cleaning lady happened to be the African American boy’s grandmother. Phil realizes he jumped to conclusions about this situation, and wonders what part subconscious racial prejudices played in how quickly he jumped to conclusions.

This heightened sensitivity caused Phil to see with fresh eyes: “But walking home by himself this particular Thursday afternoon, Phil felt like he’d never seen this part of the city before. Everywhere he looked, he saw white people” (33). Phil’s thoughts also think about the idea of someone looking like the belong somewhere, and how race and attire help formulate these types of assumptions. Very disturbed that he feels like he has been living in ignorance of these prejudices, he talks to his mom and tries working through these overwhelming feelings he is having.  Phil’s thoughts are set-off throughout the book through the use of italics. For example, “And he thought, This morning, what if Daniel had been a white kid? Would I have grabbed him like that? If he had looked like he belonged in that jacket, would I have said he stole it?”

Interestingly, Clements even integrates modern technology that I think helps to date the book in contemporary times. After getting Daniel’s home phone number from Daniel’s grandmother, he uses the  internet to type Daniel’s phone number into a reverse lookup website that tells the address . Phil sets out to Daniel’s house to give him the jacket back and clear the area. As he is on his way, Daniel again realizes that beyond past the bad part of town, there are other neighborhoods. Phil realizes that Daniel lives in a house almost exactly like his own – in fact, “Same house, only different people. And practically the same neighborhood, too!” (74)

In the ninth grade, I changed from a predominantly white school to a predominantly  African American school to attend an academic program. This experience was formative for me and helped me realize the disparities between the neighborhoods in my own community. I could relate the hypersensitivity that Phil was feeling towards the race issue. It is through mutual understanding and dialogue that we can help to alleviate these racial tensions in our communities and have critical conversations about how subconscious prejudices affect our daily interactions.  The Jacket is a provoking way for young people and adults to start a dialogue about race and prejudice issues.

Written & Illustrated by Don Freeman

Fly High Fly Low is the love story of two pigeons named Sid and Midge (both conveniently rhyme with “pidg” as in pigeon). The story takes place in San Francisco, California. Freeman includes many famous and recognizable attributes of San Fransico in the vista-view illustrations, including: cable cars, Golden Gate bridge, fog, ChinaTown, and an substantial Chinese-America population.  I sense that it is likely contemporary to the time in which it was written and illustrated in the mid fifties, however I think children could think it was contemporary  because there aren’t too many dating features in the illustrations.

Sid and Midge make a nest in a big little B of a sign. Even though this story was written in the fifties, Freeman portrays their relationship as balanced and equal gender roles – Sid and Midge are equal partners, he describes the pair as being “side by side” (p. 15). We can imagine them as equals as they seem to defy stereotypical gender roles by taking turns sitting on their nest of eggs and working together to build their nest. One day while Sid is out looking for food, the sign of which their nest is built starts to be taken down. The rest of the story is Sid’s desperate attempts to locate Midge and their soon-to-hatch little ones.

The hero of the story is an older Asian-American man named Mr. Hi Lee. He is very friendly, and regularly helps the pigeons by feeding them in the park. He is portrayed as a professional through his dress, and portrayed positively through his demeanor. African Americans are only portrayed via one of the workers taking down the sign – countered by two white co-workers – all are friendly characters and portrayed positively. Although Midge is portrayed equally despite her female gender, human woman are  never portrayed as working in the illustrations – perhaps this is attributable to a sign of times.

As in Freeman’s other words like Corduroy or Manuelo the Playing Mantis, the medium used is a color pencil with texture created through the use of cross-hatching techniques. The quality of the language of the text is typical to Freeman’s signature style. His use of similes and other figures of speech (“Like a rampaging flock of sheep, the fog came surging straight toward him!” p. 33) make the descriptions come to life. In the following excerpts, he employs the use of unconventional syntactical structures were the verbs are inverted to the ends of the sentences (“But no, not a feather did he find.” p. 32, “He looked around on all sides, but not a track of his sign did he see.” p. 30, “He looked high and he looked low, but not a sign of his letter did he spy.” p. 31).

The colorful illustrations and the simple lose-and-found story line with a serendipitous, happy ending appeals to children, yet I think adults would also find this tale charming as well.

by Mildred Pitts Walter

Justin and the Best Biscuits in the World is about Justin’s struggle in a single-parent household filled with sisters to shape his path to manhood. Justin feels like cleaning and cooking are “woman’s work”, and he wants to part in it.

Luckily, Justin is not completely with an adult African American role model in his life because his grandpa plays an active role in his upbringing. Realizing that Justin’s insecurities about not having a father are resulting in his over-projection of a man-of-the-house mentality, Grandpa takes Justin to stay at his ranch with him.

Initially, Justin believes that this escape to the ranch is the ultimate escape from woman’s work with activities like fishing and horseback riding. When grandpa gives Justin his sheets for his bed and asks him if he can make it himself, Justin defensively responds that he can. Seeing Justin’s labored struggle, Grandpa offers to lend him a hand and show him how it’s really done, and comments “That’s how a man makes a bed.” Through these types of interactions, Grandpa slowly helps Justin realize that

Coinciding with Justin’s own development as a man is Grandpa’s sharing of the family’s history to him, including their past in slavery and struggle for freedom. Grandpa’s believes that Justin must “hear it all because you must know where you’ve come from in order to find where you want to go.”

Novels like this one are an important contribution to children’s literature by providing outlets to children to see African American male protagonists, as well as redefining traditional gender roles.  I thought it was particularly poignant that Justin has these rural experiences on the ranch and is portrayed as a cowboy. This is the first time I have encountered such a portrayal, and I’m glad to see Mildred Pitts Walter felt like it was a worthy contribution.