Summer has flown by, hasn’t it?! The school year has begun again for many of you. Today, I’ve got a slate of titles that celebrate the joy of learning and shine a spotlight on the creative, devoted, nurturing teachers who open so many doors for us all.
Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh
published in 2014 by Abrams Books for Young Readers
In 1944, Sylvia Mendez was an eager young girl reporting for her first day of third grade in Westminster, California. Her excitement was short-lived, however. The school secretary took one look at her and announced she would not be allowed to attend. She must go to “the Mexican school.”
Sylvia was an American citizen. She spoke perfect English. She would go on to become a registered nurse, working over 30 years at a Los Angeles medical center. But first, her father would have to win the basic right for Sylvia to attend her neighborhood public school.
Nearly all of us know of the landmark case for school desegregation, Brown vs. Board of Education, which opened schools across the nation to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity. Many of us have never heard, though, of the Mendez family and their struggle for equal opportunity in California which paved the way for that decision.
Duncan Tonatiuh has brought this important, but less familiar case to our attention in this eye-opening book for ages 6 or 7 and up. Using dialogue from court transcripts and his own interviews with Sylvia Mendez, Tonatiuh strikes a dignified, factual tone which seems to underscore how very reasonable the Mendez family’s peaceful request was.
His illustrations, rich with the brown tones of Sylvia’s setting-apart skin, are inspired by Pre-Columbian art, he says in this fascinating interview with Julie Danielson at Kirkus Reviews. Read it to learn more about that as well as his research for this enlightening book.
The Art of Miss Chew, written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco
published in 2012 by G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Trisha is a young girl who struggles to complete her schoolwork on time, but soars when she has a drawing tool in her hand. Luckily for Trisha, her teacher, young Mr. Donovan, recognizes her talent and lands her a prize spot in Miss Chew’s class, in the high school art department.
Miss Chew is an elegant miracle, even dressed in her vivid tangerine smock and covered with paint. Under her guidance, Trisha learns to truly see, and to draw what she sees, gloriously. She flourishes.
Great trouble arises, however, when Mr. Donovan is called away and a substitute teacher comes who thinks art is a silly waste of time. How will Trisha thrive without art class?
In this semi-autobiographical account, Patricia Polacco poignantly conveys the irrevocable impact Miss Chew had on her life. Simultaneously, she gives an eloquent argument for increasing arts education in our schools, rather than shuffling it off the schedule and budget. As always, Polacco’s illustrations are warm and human, masterfully expressing the emotions of this deeply felt story. A warm and valuable story, for ages 6 and up.
Miss Nelson is Missing, by Harry Allard and James Marshall
published in 1977 by Houghton Mifflin Company
One of the Swanson family favorites, spilling over with sillyness and the dire visage of Miss Viola Swamp! Egads!
Miss Nelson is just the sweetest teacher on the planet, but the rowdy kids in her classroom take dreadful advantage of her. Spitballs. Monkey business. Downright belligerence. They are the worst class ever. Something will have to be done, thinks Miss Nelson.
Enter Miss Viola Swamp, a substitute teacher from the grim side of town. She wants no funny business and nobody’s fool enough to give her any lip. For days the kids languish under Miss Swamp’s tyranny, reminiscing longingly of dear Miss Nelson’s sunny disposition.
Just who is Viola Swamp? Where did she come from? What has happened to Miss Nelson? And how will the kids behave if she ever comes back?
One of the classics of kids’ lit, this story is nearly 40 years old and still fresh as ever. Jolly good fun for ages 4 and up.
Annie and Helen, by Deborah Hopkinson, illustrated by Raul Colón
published in 2012 by Schwartz & Wade Books
One of the most famous persons of all time — Helen Keller — was taught by an extraordinary woman named Annie Sullivan. Of her, Helen would say, “At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them.”
Annie was only 20 years old when she stepped into the Keller home and met this wild, demanding, ill-mannered child, locked in darkness and silence, yet fiercely intelligent. The story of how she brought order to Helen’s life, then brilliantly set about building a bridge of communication with her and opening up the world to her, is staggering.
Deborah Hopkinson has written an absorbing account of the first four months of this partnership. Her prose is packed with vivid detail, and excerpts from Annie Sullivan’s letters are interspersed with the narrative.
As always, Raul Colón’s illustrations are riveting, ushering us right into the inner circle of Annie and Helen, their interactions, emotions, and communication. Historic photographs are included on the endpapers, and an Author’s Note fills in some more details.
I love that this book emphasizes Annie’s role as much as Helen’s. It’s an outstanding read, for ages 6 and up.
Billy and Belle, written and illustrated by Sarah Garland
first published in 1992; republished in 2004 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
Finally, here’s a charming story from one of my favorite British author-illustrators, Sarah Garland.
Billy is a young, school-age boy, and Belle is his little sister. It’s an exciting morning at Billy and Belle’s household because it looks like today’s the day that Mum will have their new baby.
Dad’s going to the hospital with her, so kind Mrs. Plum, their neighbor, is walking them to school, and Billy’s heroic teacher is allowing Belle to sit in Billy’s class, just for today.
Today happends to be pet day. Everyone has brought a pet, from a guinea pig right down to a beetle. Belle desperately wants to bring a pet as well, so she nabs a spider. After everyone’s introduced his pet to the class, the teacher wisely puts the lot out in the playground — for fresh air — and directs the children to draw their pets in brilliant color.
This sounds like everything is under control, doesn’t it? But from here, things take a little turn towards mayhem, courtesy of Belle.
Not to worry, though. All’s right as rain in the end, including a lovely homecoming for the sweet new baby and Mum.
Sarah Garland has a knack for seizing on the lovely ordinariness of families and bringing it to endearing life. I am so happy she has given us this loving, multi-racial, realistic family portrait, for ages 3 and up. Please check out her other work as well. If you’re in the U.S., it is harder to find but worth the search.