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polly-and-the-wolf-cover-imageThe Complete Polly and the Wolf, written by Catherine Storr, illustrated by Marjorie Ann Watts and Jill Bennett
originally published in 1955-1980; collected and reissued in 2016 by The New York Review Children’s Collection

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Polly who, like all children, had some Great Fears and one of her fears was of the wolf who was certainly hiding under her bed.

So Polly’s dear mother chased away that Fear by telling her some marvelous bedtime stories in which Clever Polly utterly outwits a befuddled wolf every time. The more ingenuous the wolf becomes in his ploys to eat her up, the more deft Polly becomes at outsmarting him. This girl is one smart cookie!

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That mother, Catherine Storr, published the first set of stories, entitled Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf, in 1955. Subsequent stories were published in a couple of volumes, and they’ve all been collected here for your enjoyment.

These tales are full of humor. Yes, this wolf is bad. Audacious. Wicked! Indeed, he plans to climb into Polly’s bedroom “before it’s light tomorrow morning, crunching up the last of [her] little bones.” Like every good fairy tale, the danger lurking out there is dark and toothy.

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At the same time, he is immensely gullible, so easily traipsed along on a tangent, hoodwinked by the astute Polly at every turn. It’s a ticklish pleasure to watch Polly bait him with some innocent conversation. His vanity and gnawing appetite for juicy little girls get the best of him every time and zip-zup, with one sleight of hand Polly makes his plans fall to pieces.

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The stories begin fairly simply and grow in length and complexity. They are illustrated with zesty ink drawings that fairly pop with personality. With its feisty, female protagonist, these stories would make a lively read-aloud for brave children ages 5 or 6 and up.

February is Black History Month so here’s a heads-up to grab both of these fantastic titles now!

To help with that, I’m giving away my copy of  one of them — Fancy Party Gowns! Details are at the end of today’s post.

freedom-over-me-cover-imageFreedom Over Me, written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan
published in 2016 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

This powerful, visually-stunning, labor of love by one of our national treasures, Ashley Bryan, is guaranteed to make an impact on you and your children.

I read the Author’s Note first, even though it’s at the back of the book, and recommend you do that for some context. In it, Bryan tells how he “acquired a collection of slave-related documents” and went about focusing on one of them — an estate appraisal from 1828 detailing the valuation of eleven slaves among other assorted commodities: hogs, cotton, a cheap handmill.

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Bryan uses his imagination, his long years of life and learning, and his very soul, to bring these people to life for us, giving them faces, histories, talents, sorrows, and dreams. And what magnificent faces. Strong as oaks. The sinewy, rich, wood grain whorls in these faces are at once a testament to the stalwart nature of these oppressed individuals, of their glory as human beings, and at the same time a reminder of how they were treated inhumanely, like a stick of furniture to be casually bought or sold.

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Just let it sink in that someone could kidnap a child from her home, drag her across the world in the hell-hold of a ship, stick her on an auction block to be prodded and poked and crassly appraised like a cow, and sold, resold, worked, beaten, all to increase the value of a wealthy man’s property. Imagine this happening to your precious child.

Bryan spins free verse depictions of eleven unique persons and the situations they landed in — cooking fancy meals, sewing elaborate ball gowns, tending gardens, weaving artistic baskets for their masters, all the while feeling that sting of loss, the tug of homesickness, the burning desire for freedom and dignity.

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Each of these folks also tells us his dreams — dreams of remembrance and dreams for the future. Bryan illustrates these pages in a bloom of radiant color, an unleashing of the richness each possesses.

Don’t miss this extraordinary work, for ages 4 through Adult.

fancy-part-gowns-cover-imageFancy Party Gowns: The Story of Fashion Designer Ann Cole Lowe, written by Deborah Blumenthal, illustrated by Laura Freeman
published in 2016 by little bee books

Just look at that stunning cover! The artistry of Ann Cole Lowe is on full display in this lovely book introducing us to “the first African American woman to become a designer of couture clothing.”

Here was a woman who persevered through tremendous odds, early tragedy, segregation, discrimination, and an abysmal lack of recognition due to her skin color. Yet she “thought about what she could do, not what she couldn’t change” and propelled herself to the top.

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Lowe grew up with a needle and thread in hand, learning the dressmaking trade from her mother, then attending a New York design school.

Despite all the obstacles she faced, her elegant gowns attracted the attention of the rich and famous, including young Jackie Bouvier who requested Ms. Lowe to create the gown for her wedding to John F. Kennedy. What a fairy tale confection!

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Lowe went on to create gorgeous ball gowns for Academy Awards stars and millionaires’ wives, yet her name remained relatively unknown, all because of her race. What an odd, sorry phenomenon racism is.

Thrumming with vivid color, lavish textures, and the boldness of Lowe herself, Laura Freeman’s illustrations are utterly captivating. A treat for ages 4 and up, this book just hit the shelves a couple of weeks ago. And…

giveaway

Thanks to the generosity of little bee books, I’ve got a sweet, hardbound copy to give away!

Enter by commenting on my blog or by sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter — just give me a heads up in the comments so I can enter your name as I can’t see who shares my posts.

I’ll draw a lucky winner on January 26th.

Perfect for cold-weather, dark-early evenings, this outstanding graphic novel rendition of the classic fairy tale will suit folks ages 11-Adult looking for an unusual spin on a Grimm tale (did you catch that pun?) and phenomenal artwork.

snow-white-a-graphic-novel-cover-imageSnow White: A Graphic Novel, written and illustrated by Matt Phelan
published in 2016 by Candlewick

Snow White in the Depression Era. Bobbed hair and Art Deco. Hoovervilles and the Ziegfield Follies. There’s so much heady atmosphere to work with in that time period!  Matt Phelan brilliantly translates Snow White into an early-1930’s New York City scene with a Daddy-Warbucks-millionaire, his vamp-ish second wife, seven tough little street boys, and a tenderhearted beauty nicknamed Snow.

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Phelan’s exquisite watercolors cast a lovely, moody, film-noir sense. Pages of brooding panels are punctuated by black placards bearing titles in stylized type, all hailing to the silent film era.  The story itself is, appropriately, largely told through quiet, wordless panels. Phelan has granted us front row seats in an old cinema, as it were, with images carrying the story along,  and only brief dialogue boxes.

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The wicked stepmother in this story is as hideously ruthless as the old queen in the version you know. Instead of discovering her fate via a magical mirror, it is, ironically, a glass-domed ticker tape machine, the conduit of all their fortunes, which reveals the unwelcome truth to her about her fading glory. Somehow popping this villainess into a realistic modern setting made her coldblooded thirst for murder even more horrifying, for me, and Phelan capitalizes on this with smears of red on the otherwise gray-scale pages. Can you say creepy?!

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Please note that this is not a jolly little fairy tale for the very young. It’s a sophisticated interpretation for middle-graders through adults, masterfully told. I thoroughly enjoyed it and encourage you to give it a whirl.

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we-shall-overcome-cover-imageWe Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song, written by Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
published in 2013 by Disney, Jump at the Sun Books

Music is a mover and a shaker, a transformer, an uplifter.

The soul-stirring melodies and rich words of spirituals sung by enslaved African Americans certainly have that effect on us, even today, even in strikingly different circumstances.

This fascinating book traces the history and evolution of one of those spirituals as it became the anthem for millions of oppressed people the world over:

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome some day.
Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.

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Begin in the cotton fields, then follow along through factory workers’ protests, lunch counter sit-ins, the March on Washington, and on to South Africa under apartheid, to East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and to the election of Barack Obama, a day most African Americans could hardly believe they’d ever see.

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Colorful, upbeat illustrations reflect the times and locations along the journey. Notable milestones are further annotated in some final pages. A wonderfully creative approach to history and song, for ages 6 and up.

preaching-to-the-chickens-cover-imagePreaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis, written by Jabari Asim, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
published in 2016 by Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin  Books for Young Readers

Here’s a gorgeous biography of John Lewis, a man who has worked and suffered and kept on keeping on for his whole life in the struggle for civil rights.

Asim confines his narrative to Lewis’s childhood, allowing him the opportunity to amble along slowly, to soak in the details of those growing up years that were the foundation for all that followed.

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That includes dusty days of following the plow-mule, growing collards and sweet potatoes in the garden patch, and dressing for Sunday services in starched white shirts. John regularly attended church where he loved gospel music and felt called to be a minister, to follow in the footsteps of the sermon-givers he heard each week.

So much so that as a little boy, Lewis would practice by preaching to the chickens! Settle down, Sister Big Belle. Get back on your feet, Li’l Pullet. This boy’s got some Good  News to share with you!

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E.B. Lewis’s masterful, sun-dappled illustrations carry us straight into John’s world on a dusky farm in Alabama, shine a light on the earthy labors of his family and one earnest, tenderhearted fellow. It’s an intimate, warm, inspiring portrait of one of our American heroes. Ages 4 and up.

birmingham-1963-cover-imageBirmingham, 1963, written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated with archival photographs
published in 2007 by Wordsong

In one horrific moment, on September 15, 1963, four young girls were killed as they attended Sunday School in Birmingham, Alabama.

Violent, white, racist, men bombed their church, unleashed their abhorrent hatred on an entire community. Why? because their skin was a different color.

Poet Carole Boston Weatherford captures the senselessness and abomination of this act, the shock and sorrow of the congregation, as she weaves a free verse story from the point of view of a fictional witness, a ten-year-old girl who attends the same Sunday School.

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Weatherford’s peaceable depiction of this child, the unsuspecting eagerness she feels preparing for Youth Day at church, her steady, happy march towards the terror we know awaits her, is tremendously moving. Devastating. As it should be.

Dylan Roof’s trial, the recent uptick in racist vandalism, Black Lives Matter, are all vivid indicators that this story must still be told. Share this striking, brief book with children capable of managing the emotional jolt of this event. Perhaps ages 8 and up.

lillians-right-to-vote-cover-imageLillian’s Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
published in 2015 by Schwartz & Wade Books

Inspired by a woman named Lillian, granddaughter of a slave, who at age 100 in the year 2008 voted for the first African American president, this is the story of struggle and perseverance in the fight for civil rights and particularly voting rights.

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Just as the elderly Lillian plods her way up a steep hill in order to get to her polling station and cast her vote, so an entire people strove in an uphill battle against slavery, oppression, indignities, discrimination, hatred, violence, untold weariness until that landmark day in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed.

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That right, so dearly won, is one Lillian can’t take for granted. You won’t either, after this meaningful, passionate, succinct survey of those centuries of American history. Illustrated vibrantly with Shane Evans’ affecting, dignified human figures, with pages that pull us up, up, up, until at last we stand. Impressive. Ages 7 and up.

remember-cover-imageRemember: The Journey to School Integration, written by Toni Morrison, illustrated with archival photographs
published in 2004 by Houghton Mifflin

Author Toni Morrison’s powerful imagination is beautifully employed here as she gazes at poignant, sepia-toned photographs, then brings them to life with dialogue, scenarios, thoughts, emotions, ushering us into the tumult of school desegregation in the 1950s and 60s.

Hear from a precious kindergarten-age girl and some protesting remember-ruby-bridgesteen-age boys. From Ruby Bridges and a pair of women sitting at a lunch counter. Anonymous children and famous freedom-fighters. Apprehension. Determination. Innocence. Ugliness.

Pictures are indeed worth a thousand words and I’m so glad that these beauties remember-moms-in-protestare given plenty of room to speak to us. Morrison’s captions gracefully, mightily enhance the photos, but the modest volume of the text does not usurp their power.

A timeline, notes on the photos, and a lengthy foreword by Morrison are all tailored to slightly older students. The richness of the photos and ideas are suited to a wide age range, from 5 to adult.

some-writer-cover-imageSome Writer: The Story of E.B. White, written and illustrated by Melissa Sweet
published in 2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
132 pages

E.B. White. His name instantly evokes a response of warmth and nostalgia; of miracles and true friends; of a loquacious cob and his atypical, trumpet-playing son; of so many enthralling moments, lost in story.

I don’t have many distinct elementary school memories, but one that stands out is my third-grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web charlottes-web-cover-imageto us. How many thousands of children have that shared experience?

A few years ago, I was chatting with a young married couple who were exploring children’s literature in anticipation of their firstborn. They were reading Charlotte’s Web aloud to one another, dumbfounded by the depth, poignancy, and truth in this small novel.

Who was E.B. White?

What kind of childhood did he have?

Where did his bucolic scenes of farm life come from, his genuinely amusing characters, as well as those honestly mourning over loss? 

How did he get started writing and who helped shape his style?

Melissa Sweet has written a fascinating account of White filling in for us the background of this beloved writer and the stories we love. It’s absolutely crammed with the beauty, wonder, color, and whimsy of everything Sweet puts her hand to.

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Quotes and excerpts from letters and essays, old family photos, marked-up and crossed-out early versions of manuscripts — all that is here. Add the choice bits of ephemera, singing colors, vintage papers, charming hand-lettering and a bit of old Corona typewriting, all spun together with Sweet’s remarkable savvy for composition — what you get is a feast for the eyes as well as the mind. 

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This is not a picture book. That is coming in the Fall of 2017 by the ace team of Barbara Herkert and Lauren Castillo and I cannot wait!

Sneak peek of some of Lauren Castillo's artwork for A Boy, A Mouse, and a Spider!

Sneak peek of some of Lauren Castillo’s artwork for A Boy, A Mouse, and a Spider!

No, this is a meaty biography that adults will thoroughly enjoy as well as would-be authors ages perhaps 11 and up.

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If you’ve not read White’s books for yourself, now is the time to do so. Begin with Charlotte’s Web, and no it doesn’t count if you’ve watched the movie. Then check out The Trumpet of the Swan. My least favorite of his trio is Stuart Little — it seems to be a book people either love or really dislike, so tackle that one last. Once you’re enamored with White’s storytelling and wordsmithing, join the rest of us in Melissa Sweet’s lovely biography.

Here’s the Amazon link: Some Writer

beetle-boy-cover-imageBeetle Boy, by M.G. Leonard, illustrations by Júlia Sardà
published in 2016 by Chicken House, Scholastic
270 pages

It all starts with the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Bartholomew Cuttle, an enigmatic, punctilious scientist who enters the collection vaults in the Natural History Museum one ordinary day, and *poof* disappears.

12-year-old Darkus Cuttle, his son, is taken in by his uncle, Professor Maximilian Cuttle, a kind, honest, if slightly distracted archaeologist. All well and good BUT! what can have happened to his father? Despite what the detectives and journalists insinuate, Darkus is certain foul play is involved. His father would never abandon him. So where is he?

The answers to Darkus’s questions come from the most extraordinary sources beginning with a large-ish black beetle, eyes glistening like blackberries, sporting a pointy horn and capable of some downright terrifying hissing. Oh, and it understands human language. Comes when called. Darkus names him Baxter.

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Baxter turns out to be just one of a whole collection of intelligent super-beetles, genetically altered in a sinister plot by the Cruella DeVille-esque Lucretia Cutter. Truly someone worth hissing about! Darkus and Baxter team up with a pair of new friends and a veritable army of phenomenal insects, but the clock is ticking. Can they find his father, plus defeat Lucretia, her sinister staff, and a pair of odious, ghoulish neighbors, in time to prevent her diabolical scheme? 

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This is the fast-paced first novel in a new trilogy with loud echoes of Dr. Who and Roald Dahl and a pinch of Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series. With its fiendish, outlandish characters, crisp, polished prose, and relentless tension, it’s a sterling beginning. I know — super-beetles sound unpalatable to you. Believe me, though — you will love these guys!  Their jeweled beauty and extraordinary abilities will make you not only cheer for their valor, but turn a newly-appreciative eye on their counterparts in the real, marvelous, curious world of beetles.

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My U.S. copy did not have any of Júlia Sardà’s great illustrations, which is too bad. But an added Entomologist’s Dictionary helps readers understand terms used, from Coloeptera to transgenic. I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it for ages 10 and up.

Here’s the Amazon link: Beetle Boy

And consider this…

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A fantastic pairing would be Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long’s gorgeous nonfiction book, A Beetle Is Shy. After reading about these amazing creatures’ sci-fi adventures in Beetle Boy, gazing at their true beauty and learning some amazing facts from this book will certainly appeal. 

Here’s the Amazon link: A Beetle is Shy

 

Let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal year for the cause of civility.

Breakfast Table Political Argument by Norman Rockwell

“Breakfast Table Political Argument” by Norman Rockwell

Hateful, corrosive speech has ever been a problem for humanity. There is nothing new under the sun. Solomon himself wrote often about the mouthiness that brings ruin. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords,” he says, “but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

In recent decades our culture has tilted drunkenly toward applauding shock-jocks, zingers, snark, rudeness, and oh my didn’t it erupt into a brawl of meanness this past year.

painting by Henri Deparade

painting by Henri Deparade

Haven’t we all had our fill of this from every corner? 

Most of us can only make a difference in our one small sphere but that is a difference worth the making. I can use my words this year to extend grace, respect, truth, patience, forgiveness, peace. Not perfectly, but better. 

"Conversation Pieces - Snow" by William Utermohlen

“Conversation Pieces – Snow” by William Utermohlen

Today’s books address this with flair and empathy — no heavy moralizing. Maybe they’ll open up some good conversations in your household.

alphonse-that-is-not-ok-to-do-cover-imageAlphonse, That is Not OK to Do! written and illustrated by Daisy Hirst
published in 2016 by Candlewick Press

I love Daisy Hirst’s uncanny knack at empathizing with and portraying the real frustrations and emotions of children.

This story of Natalie and her new small brother Alphonse spotlights the limits of patience for an older sibling. Mainly Natalie welcomes Alphonse’s companionship, but there are certainly Challenges! Alphonse’s predilection for eating things not meant for eating is one of those Challenges.

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One bad day, the Challenges spin wildly out of control. I think Natalie shows remarkable restraint in the face of Alphonse’s destructo-binge. Even so, there are fences to be mended between these two. Watch them handle their anger and remorse with candor and sweet reconciliation.

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Hirst’s flamboyant characters, loud primary colors, and general mayhem are immensely engaging, relatable, and cheering. Love this for ages 2 and up.

ill-wait-mr-panda-cover-imageI’ll Wait, Mr. Panda, written and illustrated by Steve Antony
published in 2016 by Scholastic Press

Mr. Panda is back (see Please, Mr. Panda reviewed here) and I am welcoming him with open arms! Steve Antony’s stout, steadfast baker with a proclivity for politeness ought to be in every child’s circle of friends.

This time around Mr. Panda is cooking up something most surprising, but it’ll take some patience on the part of would-be partakers. To every eager questioner, Mr. Panda has the same response: Wait and see.

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These are tough words to hear, to be fair, for all of us. But the rewards for the one patient penguin are so stupendous! Willing waiting is worthwhile! Down with demanding!

Antony’s pages sprinkled with colorful confections are so enticing! Next up in the Mr. Panda series is Thank You, Mr. Panda, due out in 2017. Hooray! Ages 18 months and up.

please-say-please-cover-imagePlease Say Please! written and illustrated by Kyle T. Webster
published in 2016 by Scholastic Press

Kyle Webster’s retro, whimsical artwork blasts this little ode to politeness right out of Stuffy-and-Staid and into a land of eye-popping adventure.

One little girl with appalling manners gets schooled in the magical word Please. Her benefactor — a man reminiscent of the Monopoly man — won’t tolerate her rude demands of I Want! I Want! Nope, he insists on a polite Please.

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And then – shazam! Her craziest wishes are granted!

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It’s an over-the-top, fantastical appeal to polite speech which will bring some laughs and make saying “please” gobs more fun. Ages 2 and up.

fionas-little-lie-cover-imageFiona’s Little Lie, written and illustrated by Rosemary Wells
published in 2016 by Candlewick Press

Fiona is wriggling with excitement over her role as Birthday Elf for her friend Felix’s birthday. Felix is glad, too, because “she knows that I love vanilla cupcakes with raspberry icing and lemon sprills!” He’s sure that’s what she’ll bring to class tomorrow.

But Fiona turns up empty-handed. What?! It seems this Birthday Elf plum forgot her mission until she spots Felix, beaming in his new birthday outfit. Fiona’s heart sinks! She can’t bear to tell Felix the rotten truth. So — she lies.

And that one lie turns into another and another, growing like Pinocchio’s nose, until it all finally catches up with her.

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Wise Miss B. comforts and coaches. “Truth and a good I’m sorry always clear the air,” she says. Oh, I love you, Miss B! Celebrate honesty and birthdays with this merry crowd, suffused with Wells’ trademark charm. Ages 2 and up.

the-honest-to-goodness-truth-cover-imageThe Honest-to-Goodness Truth, written by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Giselle Potter
published in 2000 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Sometimes — and I think you’ll recognize this if you’ve been paying attention this past year — the problem isn’t so much lying as stating your “true” opinion in stunningly hurtful ways. 

Adults who practice this behavior know better. Children sometimes don’t. Patricia McKissack has written a brilliant story about a little girl named Libby who initially struggles with lying, then, when reprimanded, marches headlong into unkind, abrasive “truth-telling.”

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After buckets of hurt, Libby learns from Mama that “Sometimes the truth is told at the wrong time or in the wrong way or for the wrong reasons,” and that is not the purpose of honest-to-goodness truth.

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Giselle Potter’s warm, rustic illustrations set this lovingly in the rural South, a world full of glowing, growing green and warm-as-cinnamon browns which keep this fairly serious story from a sense of severity. This is such an important idea for all of us. Share the story with kids ages 4 and older.

 

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