Wednesday, May 26, 2021

JACOB RIIS'S CAMERA: Bringing Light to Tenement Children- A Picture Book Biography

Congratulations to my newest follower, Janet Frenck Sheets who won CAVE DADA PICKY EATER form last week's blog. Here's a hint to my faithful followers. When I offer to give you extra chances by sharing my blog on social media or becoming a new follower, take me up on it! Many times those people win! 


Picture book biographies fascinate me. In fact, I'm so intrigued by this genre that I'm writing one myself. I recently had my manuscript critiqued by awesome picture book author, Kirsten Larson, who helped me figure out my story's inciting incident, mid-point, and plot points. I had no idea that Save the Cat elements could be applied to nonfiction picture books!

With Kirsten's instruction fresh in my mind, I decided to analyze another wonderful curriculum resource published by Calkins Creek: Jacob Riis's Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children written by Alexis O' Neill and illustrated by Gary Kelley.


Before Jacob Riis became a ground-breaking photographer, he was a twelve-year-old boy who hated Rag Hall; a rat-infested dwelling in his town of Ribe, Denmark. And before he arrived in America in 1870 to make his fortune and win the rich mill owner's daughter hand in marriage, he became a carpenter.

Jacob soon discovered that "jobs for immigrants were hard to find, hard to keep." He worked whenever he found employment and slept wherever he could; in abandoned barns, field, and in dirty disease-infested homeless shelters.  "He vowed to put an end to them someday."

One evening, the principal of the telegraph school where he'd been taking a course found him penniless and alone. The principal recommended him for a job as a reporter. That inciting incident started Jacob on a path that would change his life forever.

Jacob became a reporter, an editor, and even owned his own newspaper. But then he started working for The New York Times as a police reporter. Every night when he walked home he passed New York City's worst slum, Mulberry Bend. 

Jacob wrote vivid articles about life in the tenements. Yet his words failed to ignite change. The appalling conditions did not improve. 

If only Jacob could show others what he saw in the slums--rooms packed with people, rooms dark both day and night. How could he shine light into those places?

Then one day, Jacob found the answer...

Here's the midpoint of the book: Jacob discovers Blitzlicht, a special flash powder which photographers used to light up dark places. He and two amateur photographers captured pictures of the dark tenements, but they tired of the job.

Jacob did not. He bought a small four-by-five-inch wooden box camera. Here is one of the verse poems scattered throughout the narrative depicting this plot point:
He practiced taking pictures. 
He practiced using flash powder. 
Twice, he set fire to dwellings. 
Once, he even set fire to himself. 
But he didn't give up.  

With words and pictures, Jacob finally found a way to make the Board of Health pay attention.

Jacob projected life-sized photographs of the slums to church groups, missions, and charities. Finally, the people of New York City started seeing the "plight of the city's poor who lived in squalor."

In 1890, Jacob published How the Other Half Lives. One of the men who read his book was the newly appointed president of the Police Board, Theodore Roosevelt. The two became life long friends and together they eradicated those slums. 


In place of these slums, Mulberry Bend Park opened. A place for children and families. A place

flooded with sunlight,  
feathered with soft grass, 
bubbling with children playing. 

I hope you'll notice the progression of plot points within these sample illustrations. Like Jacob himself, Gary Kelley transformed the dreary slums into places of light and color.


For curriculum resources, including some of Jacob Riis's original photographs, see this page on Alexis O' Neil's website.  The nine pages of back matter include information about Jacob's life, his work, a timeline, a glossary, and an amazing list of his accomplishments. 

Here are two videos. The first includes Alexis' journey of writing this book and the many layers that went into it. The second is a presentation using photographs from How the Other Half Lives.

                                                     Book Talk by Alexis O' Neill

Riis's 'Layman Sermon"

No giveaway this week, I'm saving this book as a curriculum resource for my grandchildren. If you teach 3-6th grade, I think this book would help your students, children, or grandchildren see what poverty looks like--and what a determined person can do to bring about change. 

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

CAVE DADA PICKY EATER by Brandon Reese: A Review, Author Interview, and Autographed Giveaway!

 Congratulations to Cindy Lynn Sawyer who won EQUAL and Lisa Fowler who won DRIVE from last week's blog.


This week I'm featuring North Carolina author-illustrator, Brandon Reese, and his newest book, CAVE DADA PICKY EATER (Chronicle Books, 2021). Some of you may remember Brandon's book, CAVE DADA that came out a year ago. In this follow-up, the same relatable characters make a spontaneous discovery. Readers young and old will enjoy this fun picture book.


Baba wakes up and he is HUNGRY! 

Thus begins a search for a breakfast that Baba will eat. 

While Dada is searching for a breakfast that Baba will find acceptable, his wooly mammoth yanks the door off the pre-historic refrigerator (complete with Baba's drawings) and it falls on the fire. 

Not only has Dada lost the refrigerator door but unfortunately, there's no egg for Baba. 

Dada offers:

Of course, nothing is acceptable. Poor Dada is not given a day off from hunting and gathering and must hunt for an egg.

He finds one--under an ENORMOUS chicken!

But then...

Dada is defeated. He has to go find another egg. Until Baba points to the fire and Dada realizes he discovered,

The two enjoy their breakfast and Dada feeds the wooly mammoth. Suddenly, he smells a bad odor coming from Baba. A bath is announced but Baba returns the directive with,

Like the first Dada book, Brandon has included lots of fun details in the pictures so that even toddlers can "read" the story. I enjoy the way in which Brandon shows movement (and stink!) within the illustrations, and I LOVE the character's expressions!



CAROL: How did you come up with this idea? Let me guess...

BRANDON: worked up several ideas for my editor at Chronicle. One story had Dada climbing a tree for a breakfast egg, another had Dada chasing Baba for bath time. Ariel liked the idea of picky eating, so I rewrote the story and I included those elements. People might assume my son was a picky eater. He wasn’t at all. We were actually hard-pressed finding something he didn’t like! I do, however have nephews who had persnickety palettes! 

CAROL: Can you tell us a little about your creative process?

BRANDONA few drawings of story beats came first in my sketchbook. Once I figured out the narrative, I type up the manuscript. Then it is back and forth to my editor with sketches and rewrites as I refine.

From Brandon's sketchbook

CAROL: What medium do you use for the art?

BRANDON: I create the artwork with a combination of techniques. The line art is hand drawn and shaded with colored pencil. That is scanned in and placed in photoshop where I colored it with a combination of digital brushes and gouache paint. I also photographed an omelet for egg textures.

CAROL: How was your first book received?

BRANDON: I think the first book was pretty well liked. It’s been translated for Chinese, Korean, and Italian editions so far.

CAROL: What's next? Is there another Dada book in your future?

BRANDON:I’m definitely up for a third CAVE DADA book, but nothing is set in stone… so to speak. 😀 I’m currently on submission with a new picture book and working on a graphic novel to pitch.


Want to win this book for a child, grandchild, or grown son who is now a father? Please leave me your name and email address (if you are new to my blog) by May 21. I'll draw a name after 6 PM.  Share this on social media or start following my blog and I'll enter your name twice--just let me know what you do. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

EQUAL by Joyce Moyer Hostetter: A Review, An Autographed Giveaway, and a Bonus Giveaway!

Congratulations to Danielle Hammelef who won THE SUMMER OF THE TREE ARMY from last week's blog.


Some people read a book which they really like and rush through it to get to the end. Not me. When I find a book that I love, I stretch it out. I don't want the story to end.

That was doubly true for Joyce Moyer Hostetter's last book in the Bakers Mountain Stories series-- EQUAL (Calkins Creek: 2021). How is it possible that there won't be another story about the Honeycutt family? I'm sorry to say to all her fans--there won't be. 😞 I even knew how the book would turn out AND I still cried at the beautifully crafted ending. But, I'm getting ahead of myself...



When I went to the river that day in 1959,
I didn't expect to meet a colored boy
who loved birds like I love my cow.
I didn't know what all I'd learn from him
or that a mean old drunk would come along
and force me to see myself as I never had before.

I didn't realize I was face to face with a muddy wide river.

I didn't think when I went into eighth grade
that a teacher would name my strengths
and inspire me to be even stronger.
I didn't know that I'd learn 
to speak up while measuring my words,
to hold back when I wanted revenge,
or to imagine an enemy as my friend.

EQUAL is the story of two boys--one white and one Black--becoming friends despite their differences, hard feelings, and an act of senseless prejudice. But that only scratches the surface. 

EQUAL is also about what it was like to live in a small, rural town in North Carolina in 1960 on the eve of civil rights. Segregation was the norm. As 8th-grader Jackie Honeycutt finds out, the atmosphere of prejudice not only dictates what school and church Jackie attends, but it leaves his new Black acquaintance, Thomas Freeman, and his family in constant fear of potential harm to themselves or their property.  

Mrs. Cunningham, Jackie's teacher, begins the school year by writing Abraham Lincoln's quote on the chalkboard: "Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them into my friends?" This question haunts Jackie throughout the book and (as you can tell from the cover) is EQUAL's theme. Jackie wrestles with jealousy towards other kids at the 4-H competition; he struggles with anger towards a classmate who constantly mocks him; and he feels irritated towards the woman who leads the local Home Demonstration club and snubs his mother. But most of all, he has to come to resolve that dilemma with Thomas. It is not until he truly empathizes with Thomas and Thomas's family does he realize how he can answer Lincoln's rhetorical question. 

In the last third of the book Jackie is staring at Bakers Mountain from his front porch and thinks, "One thing I was figuring out was--as long as white people didn't know Negroes personally, we could never understand their viewpoint. Thomas had educated me on things I never even thought about before." (p.206) That is Jackie's moment of truth which leads to actions that surprise him, are character-revealing, and lead to the wonderful conclusion.

I have blogged before about the importance of making secondary characters a vital part of the story; there are many other characters in EQUAL who are strong and well-crafted. Readers will be happy to see Ann Fay get reunited with Imogene, her friend from the polio ward in BLUE and now she and Junior are happily married (finally)! But the other person in EQUAL who I want to mention is Jackie's mother. Her character arc is shown as she goes from being afraid of what her neighbors will think when a Black family spends the night during a snow storm to saying to Jackie, "Your father and I have been wrong. I was wrong for letting Blanche scare me away from doing the right thing. I believed her when she said poeple would think we're communists. And she was always saying integration could bring violence. I was scared, Jackie."

That conversation ends with her encouraging Jackie to invite Thomas over so she can really meet him. Jackie doesn't know it--but his learning to make friends with his enemies--changed not only him--but his parents too.


When I went into the new year, 1960,
I didn't expect to be snowed in with a colored family
who deserved freedom as much as I did.
I didn't know what all I'd learn from them
or that a personal enemy would make me care enough
to join their fight.

I still didn't know how to cross that muddy wide river.

When I went to graduation that night
I knew I wasn't happy with my speech.
I didn't know that Maribelle would show up and 
I'd see Thomas in my mind's eye.
I didn't imagine that because of them,
and the two Jackies,
and all the brave people
who sat at lunch counters and marched in the streets,
I'd change my words midsentence
and wade right into that muddy wide river.

But I'm glad I did. 


Equal takes place sixty years ago and is equally as relevant today. Read it with your kids, grandkids, and students.  Explore the Author's Note at the end. Talk about it. I want to hear the discussions that happen as a result of this book--and I'm sure Joyce does too.


I've had the privilege of being Joyce's beta reader and read several drafts. You will read the completed story of how Jackie recognizes his racism and deals with it. But I saw how Joyce built the book. She knew Jackie was someone who talked first and regretted his words later. She knew he was a 4-H kid who loved his cow, Lucy, and would learn big lessons when he showed her at the county fair. She knew that fears of bombs from Russia, Communism, and integration would be part of the setting. She had the characters of course--she's been creating stories about the Honeycutts ever since Ann Fay's father left for WWII in BLUE. 

But Joyce didn't know Jackie's backstory and why Thomas didn't trust him. I was on the sidelines and watched her figure out that BIG piece of the puzzle and then weave it into the book. 

I tell you all this because some of you reading this are writers, like myself, who realize the enormity of pulling together all of the many threads that go into a novel--and I want to encourage you that even a master writer like Joyce works HARD to accomplish this. Others of you are readers. I want you to know that a story as magnificent as Joyce's doesn't just happen. There are hours and hours of drafting, writing, reorganizing, deleting, revising, and tweaking that go on behind the scenes.

If you are new to my blog and haven't heard of the Bakers Mountain Stories, please check out my other posts: AIM, BLUE, COMFORT, and DRIVE. (In this blog and this one, Joyce explains the order in which the first three books were written.)


Thanks to Calkins Creek's generosity, Joyce is giving away one copy of a personally autographed book to one fortunate winner. Please leave me a comment by 6 PM on May 14 to enter. MAKE SURE you include your name and email address if you are new to my blog. 

DRIVE - with a beautiful new cover-- just came out in paperback and I have a copy of of that to give away also. When you leave a comment, please let me know which book you are interested in winning. Only continental United States addresses please. Sorry, you can't win both!


Joyce's virtual launch with SCBWI-Carolinas is on May 27 at 7 PM.  She will be giving away another copy of EQUAL at that time--so if you don't win now, you'll have another chance to win later. You don't need to be a member of SCBWI to sign up and attend. Come and find out why Joyce wrote EQUAL and what she hopes readers will take away from it. 

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Summer of the Tree Army: A Picture Book Review and Giveaway

 I'm happy to share another new release by Sleeping Bear Press, Summer of the Tree Army: A Civilian Conservation Corps Story written by Gloria Whelan (who is still publishing books at 97!) and illustrated by Kirbi Fagan. 


This is a fictional account of a young boy, Charlie Brightelot, who encounters the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) building cabins in the woods near his Michigan home.

When he asks his parents about the cabins, his mother says they are young men who need jobs because of the depression. His father clearly states his disdain for the CCC. "From what I hear, all they do is eat three meals a day, sleep, and sit around."

Over the summer, Charlie found the young men planting trees in a place where "dead tress rose like skeletons" from a forest fire.

Charlie meets a young man wearing the CCC uniform who is lost in the woods and seems scared.

Charlie invites Luke to fish with him  and a friendship blossoms. He brings Luke home for a home-cooked meal and although Mr. Brightelot isn't very welcoming, Charlie's mother knows a hungry boy when she meets one.

The next day, a forest fire breaks out nearby. Charlie's father decides to go help the "city boys" and although Charlie is warned not to follow, he's a boy. So, of course he hops a ride without his father's knowledge.

When they get there, the CCC men are in the middle of fighting the fire by digging trenches. By mid-afternoon the fire dies away. 

Despite himself, Charlie's father has to admit, "Those CCC boys earned their keep. The folks around here owe them a huge thanks."

The story ends with Mr. Brightelot affirming Luke's work and a sweet statement about the boys' great summer. 

This book takes place in a time when boys could spend hours in the woods; Kirbi Fagan's Norman Rockwell-like illustrations reflect that time period. Both the author and illustrator call Michigan home and the book, a part of the Tales of Young American series, reflect their love for the state. This book will be a fine elementary school resource for home and classroom libraries.


If you're interested in winning my copy of this book, please leave me a comment by 6 PM on May 7. Leave your email address if you are new to my blog. For additional chances, share this post on social media or start following my blog--just let me know which you do in the comments.


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