a March jumble of great reads

I’m still on a bit of a blogging break which means that today
I’ve got another miscellaneous jumble of titles.
Each one shone out like the bright, Spring sun to me.
There are
*picture books
*picture book biographies for Women’s History Month
*nonfiction books for teens and adults
As well as some tributes to the great Shirley Hughes.
Thanks so much for stopping by.
I hope you find something to jazz up your reading stacks!


The Legend of Gravity: A Tall Basketball Tale
written and illustrated by Charly Palmer
published in 2022 by Farrar Straus Giroux

Okay, this book had me smiling from start to finish. Absolutely love it!

On the blacktop courts in the Milwaukee projects, b-ball is king. There, guys like Liquid, Sky High, and Left 2 Right dribble, jump, shoot with iconic style and sass, owning the game like so many robber barons.  So when a new kid shows up, a kid who jumps so high he goes well beyond “looking like he could touch the clouds,” a kid who earns the nickname Gravity before he can even descend back to Earth — when that kid joins the team, it’s historical. With Gravity on the court, no one can touch them.

Sure enough, Gravity takes the team straight to the “Best of the Best” Milwaukee pick-up basketball tournament, a thing not to be believed just a short while ago. Powers them right smack to the finals where they’re up against the East Side Flyers. Will Gravity finally meet his match in this game? Or carry them singlehandedly through?

This is a flamboyant, joyful tribute to streetball, teamwork, and the unsung legends of basketball who never made it to the NBA but dazzled nonetheless. Charly Palmer’s text sings and his muscular, painterly illustrations blaze off the page in glory. Yeah, I loved this one. A gem for ages 3 and up, up, up. An ideal choice for March Madness.

Little Red and the Cat Who Loved Cake, by Barbara Lehman
published in 2021 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Barbara Lehman has spun up another wordless wonder! It’s a delightful riff on Little Red Riding Hood, and woven into the story are many other familiar fairy tale characters to spot. Especially for those who know their fairy tales and Mother Goose, this is a magnificent treat!

Plus — the end papers are filled with clever snippets from the Goosetown Gazette!! So much fun for ages 3 and up.

Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest: a fairy tale by Ole Könnecke, translated by Shelley Tanaka
English language edition published by Gecko Press in 2021

I loved this fantastic, quirky, original fairy tale coming to us from Germany.  Dulcinea and her dad live happily and mostly self-sufficiently on the edge of a dark forest inhabited by…a terrible witch! Egads. Dulcinea has pinky-sworn to never go in there.

But! When it’s blueberry pancake morning, and the only berries are in the forest, and her dad ventures off to pick some and is turned into a tree by that nasty witch — well, what’s a girl to do?!  Perky text, an undaunted Dulcinea, illustration work with a nice splash of oddity, and a downright satisfying book to hold in your hands — it’s a thorough delight for ages 4 and up.


9 gems for Women’s History Month

Sweet Justice: Georgia Gilmore and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
written by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
published in 2022 by Random House Studio

You’ve heard the saying that an army lives on its stomach. During the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, that was the truth in an unusual, inventive way, courtesy of the stamina, courage, and baking prowess of Georgia Gilmore.

Long famous for her sweet potato pie, what was perhaps more hidden but far more potent was Georgia’s sense of justice and her fierce determination to avoid those Jim Crow buses, both before the boycott started, and every long and weary day of 1956.  But when the Black population of Montgomery took to their feet and to car-pooling to stand for their civil rights, more than commitment was needed — money was needed to purchase the gas for those cars, to pay the fines for those found guilty of helping one another.

Georgia bravely founded her “Club from Nowhere” to whip up everything from fried chicken to cake, sell her wares, and funnel that money to the cause. Her stance put her in line for harassment, got her fired from her job, yet Georgia would not be moved.  This superb biography tells her story in riveting text and Christie’s masterful paintings. What a woman! Make her acquaintance through these pages — ages 4 and up.

Make Meatballs Sing: The Life & Art of Corita Kent
written by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kara Kramer
published in 2021 by Enchanted Lion

Corita Kent was an extraordinary person who lived a surprising, ebullient, faith-filled, and creative life. A nun, activist, artist, and educator, a woman committed to justice, love, and seeing the world with fresh eyes, Kent touched everyone she met with an electric current of joyful possibility.

This book reverberates with her spirit in text and art. It’s a giant splash of raspberry happiness! Ages 5 and up.

Nina: A Story of Nina Simone, written by Traci N. Todd, illustrated by Christian Robinson
published in 2021 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Speaking of larger-than-life women — I give you Nina Simone, ladies and gentlemen. A musical prodigy. A woman who faced countless obstacles, was accosted with untold daggers of meanness and racist stop signs to her career, yet persisted until she became a lionhearted icon of the Civil Rights movement.

Read her powerful story, robustly illustrated with Robinson’s phenomenal illustration work. I’ve been waiting for an adequate children’s bio of Ms. Simone, and this is it.  Ages 6-7 and up.

Tu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria, written by Songju Ma Daemicke, illustrated by Lin
published in 2021 by Albert Whitman & Co.

Malaria is a subject raw and near to me as I so very nearly lost my 2-year-old daughter to cerebral malaria when we lived in West Africa. Half a million people die of malaria every year, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa, and in that region children under the age of 5 account for 80% of the deaths. It is a fierce, rapid killer.

So I was deeply glad to see this biography of Tu Youyou, a Chinese woman who won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of a plant-remedy being widely used now to treat this dreaded illness. An inspiring account for ages 5-6 and up.

Fearless World Traveler: Adventures of Marianne North, Botanical Artist
written by Laurie Lawlor, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander
published in 2021 by Holiday House

Marianne North did not fit into the prescribed roles and temperament for wealthy young Englishwomen in the late 1800s, and thank goodness she went ahead and forged her own way. Her self-directed studies led to a prodigious knowledge of both plants and painting, and she employed her skills around the globe, intrepidly trekking about, hunting for rare plants and painstakingly painting their portraits.

What an incredible story this is! Her artwork — 832 of her paintings — hang today at Kew Gardens in a sumptuous display. I loved meeting Marianne in this book! Ages 5 and up.

Kate’s Light: Kate Walker at Robbin’s Reef Lighthouse
written by Elizabeth Spires, illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully
published in 2021 by Holiday House

Let’s hear it for another enormously brave woman, Kate Walker, who married into the lighthouse-keeper business and got a whole lot more than she bargained for. Making a home out of the isolated post of Robbins Reef in New York Harbor, Kate learned all the vital, difficult duties involved in maintaining the station, then took over completely when her husband perished of pneumonia.

Such a stalwart person, strong in body and spirit! And I love that Emily Arnold McCully illustrated this, as she is a long-time favorite of our whole family. A lengthier, breathtaking story, wonderfully told, for ages 4 or 5 and up.

The Girl Who Could Fix Anything: Beatrice Shilling, World War II Engineer
written by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Daniel Duncan
published in 2021 by Candlewick

Here’s another gal who defied stereotypical feminine interests and aptitudes and found her niche in the world. Beatrice Shilling was the kind of young British girl who spent her pocket money on Meccano sets, saved up to buy a motorcycle at 10 years old, then taught herself to take the engine apart and rebuild the thing.

When WWII broke out, her mechanical skills were just what the Royal Air Force needed, particularly as she solved a dire problem with the plane engines that had everyone else stumped.  Beatrice is an absolute joy to meet in these perky pages! Ages 4 and up.

What Isabella Wanted: Isabella Stewart Gardner Builds a Museum
written by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Matthew Cordell
published in 2021 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House

Isabella Stewart Gardner — extraordinarily wealthy, opinionated, and eccentric, found her great joy in life as an art collector.  Well, some might say an art…thief, an art…smuggler.  Be that as it may, she accumulated a vast collection of art from all over Europe and Asia, then set about resolutely arranging it in her very own, unusual way, at her grand palazzo in Boston.  Where it remains in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum — at least most of it remains.

Just a cool $500 million worth of the art was stolen in 1990 in a case still unsolved! There’s even a new Netflix documentary about it — ” This is a Robbery: The World’s Biggest Art Heist”.  This biography by a megawatt talented team is a gem through and through. Ages 4 and up.

And I Paint It: Henriette Wyeth’s World
written by Beth Kephart, illustrated by Amy June Bates
published in 2021 by Cameron Kids

N.C. Wyeth and his son Andrew Wyeth are two of the most iconic American artists.

Here in this serene, gorgeous, lyrical book we meet the lesser known Henriette who was also a painter. It’s a soft-as-down piece of picture book magic, so lovely and elegant from cover to cover, you’ll find all the muscles of your body and heart relaxing. Ages 4 and up.

You can find dozens more fabulous biographies of women from across time and around the globe on my Women’s History page here.


And who is going to craft the picture book biography of this icon?

Shirley Hughes, truly one of the all-time greats of children’s literature, died in late February
at the age of 94.
Like so many, I was gutted to hear the news.

Hughes wrote and illustrated many of our family’s firm favorites,
creating books and characters who knit their way into our hearts
and whom we reference still, decades later.
Alfie. Dave. Lucy and Tom. Moving Molly.

One of the features of Hughes’ masterful illustration work
which I love, and countless others as well,
is the lovely, mussy, rumpled scenes
of ordinary family life.
Nothing pristine and far-removed from reality in Shirley’s make-believe worlds.
Some day, I’ll write a longer reflection on that.

I couldn’t possibly share the links to all my posts containing one or more of her books
but I’ll pop a few in here so those of you who have not yet met her
can remedy that.
I’ve also included a couple of links to some beautiful tributes to her life work.

a list of five books from my all-time-favorite author/illustrator Shirley Hughes
a list of five favorite Christmas stories
a list of five warmhearted books about giving
a list of five stories about small-fry and their special loveys
roll out the red carpet! a list of five tales replete with royalty
two Christmas charmers from dear Shirley Hughes
let the sun shine in…five to gladden your hearts

How Shirley Hughes explored the dramas of children’s lives in a changing world

Shirley Hughes remembered: ‘Everything she shone her attention on turned to gold’

Shirley Hughes, whose books depicted children’s mini-dramas, dies at 94


Once Upon a Camel, written by Kathi Appelt, illustrations by Eric Rohmann
published in 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
322 pages

It’s 1910 in the desert of West Texas. Zada, an elderly, wild camel with a rich past — running races for the royal Pasha of Smyrna, crossing heaving oceans, leading army missions — finds herself in the path of an enormous sandstorm. It’s imperative that she escape its vicious onslaught. She’s also the only hope a pair of kestrel parents have for the rescue of their two small chicks. Zada valiantly pushes her creaky old self into action, harboring the chicks in her tufty coat, plodding her way to shelter.  Along the journey she  unreels fabulous tales of her life in an effort to distract and calm the wee chicks.

This is a vibrant animal tale woven along the lines of classics like Lawson’s Rabbit Hill or Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan, and told in a witty, folksy, storyteller’s voice.  At the same time, it’s a remarkably apt book for our current state of increased anxiety, distress, and general upheaval with its steadfast, protective, rising-to-the-moment protagonist.  Zada’s commitment to providing shelter both physically and emotionally for the vulnerable kestrel chicks envelops the whole account in a warm, security blanket, even though sad and distressing events are included. Honestly, it’s a refugee story at heart.

Occasionally punctuated by Eric Rohmann’s soft, graphite drawings, this would make a fine read-aloud for ages 7 and up. The sophisticated vocabulary (note that there is a glossary for non-English phrases) demands a strong independent reader.

I also read 3 novels set in wartime for tweens/adults:

Love to Everyone, by Hilary McKay
published in 2018 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
324 pages

British author Hilary McKay is one of my favorite novelists for children. I loved her Casson Family series as did all 3 of my daughters, who passed those books along to quite a number of their friends back in their teen-age years. McKay has a way of crafting memorable characters cram full of warts and wonderfulness and then carrying us into their fully-human lives– funny and sad, ridiculous and touching, poignant and relatable — such that we feel forever bonded to them.

Love to Everyone (published in the UK as The Skylarks’ War) features her superb writer’s touch as she introduces five children in pre-WWI England, then follows them through their coming of age during that terrible war. It’s a bittersweet, ultimately heartwarming story starring a girl named Clarry who wins our hearts from start to finish. McKay offers a steely glimpse of the horrors of trench warfare, but doles that out in small enough helpings that it does not overwhelm the entire account with grim tragedy. The bulk of our perspective comes from those on the home front, their interrelationships, and the courageous way they faced their supreme trials. Throughout the story, Clarry’s pluck, love, and loyalty buoy us up tremendously.

I’d recommend this to ages 13 and up, as the emotional weight of the book will be best managed by slightly older readers. Additionally, McKay packs a lot of meaning into what is left unsaid, the space between the lines, which requires a somewhat sophisticated reader. Adults are a good audience for this as well.

McKay followed this title up with a companion novel which revisits these same characters as adults whose own kids are confronted with the Second World War:

The Swallows’ Flight, by Hilary McKay
published in 2021 by Margaret K. McElderry Books
271 pages

In this second title, McKay weaves together the disparate lives of two boys from Berlin and two girls from England (plus one mutt of a dog) as once again they all come of age during a time of grievous conflict. The account spans the years 1927-1947. I appreciated the way McKay chose to include multiple perspectives on the war, including that of German soldiers who despised participating in it.

Any story honestly delving into the lives and losses, triumphs and suffering borne by individuals in both England and Berlin during this era is bound to carry with it a heap of bittersweet emotion and this story certainly does. McKay’s skill shines as she is able to infuse her narrative with both those painful realities and the sheer wonder of the ordinary, the strong threads of good humor, the relationships which provide us with ballast and determination. In the end, both of these rich stories shine a light on the invaluable gift of steadfast family and friends, the powerful attribute of seeking to find the goodness in others and love them.

This second volume jumps about in time and location which demands a confident reader. Note that there are family trees located at the end of the book to help keep track of who is who. I’d recommend the second volume to the same age group — 13 through adult.

The Winter War: A Novel, by William Durbin
published in 2008 by Wendy Lamb Books
231 pages

The Russian invasion of Ukraine bears eerie similarities to its invasion of Finland in 1939 when Stalin decided to make what he expected to be an easy grab of land in eastern Finland “for security reasons.” My grandfather had immigrated to the U.S. from Finland in 1902, along with thousands of other young Finnish men, in order to escape Tsar Nicholas’s heightened attempts to Russify the Finns at that time. My dad remembers his father’s hair turning gray over the course of this Winter War of 1939, he was so burdened for his family and countrymen as they fought against a much larger, stronger army with virtually no help from any other countries in the world.

Recent events and the courage of the Ukrainian people made me want to revisit that piece of history, and this novel provides a brief, fictional means of doing that. It’s the story of the war as seen through the experience of a young teenaged boy who becomes an Army skiing-messenger on the front lines in that brutally cold winter. In the end, the enormously stalwart, capable Finnish army, though only a fraction of the size of the Russian army, was able to hold them at bay, yet were forced to cede precious lands in the peace treaty.

As I said, there are copious poignant similarities in these wars and reading this book will give you insight into how many are feeling in the smaller Baltic states and Finland as they witness the war in Ukraine. Durbin includes graphic descriptions of devastation, injuries, and death so be aware of that. A lengthy afterward explains more and makes clear why there is little love for Russia by the Finnish people. I’d suggest ages 15 and up.


The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain, by Peter Sís
published in 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

I mentioned this book in my recent post with titles related to the war in Ukraine, but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Now that I have, I’ll just pop back in to say that this is a fascinating, illustrated memoir of Peter Sís’s life in Soviet-run Czechoslovakia from his birth in 1949 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ensuing fracturing of the Soviet Union.

Sís masterfully conveys the realities of living amidst Soviet repression, including the brief awakening of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the violent crack-down, via his brief text, journal snippets, and astonishing illustration work. It’s an informative and deeply personal look at life behind the Iron Curtain. Recommended for ages 14 thru adult.

All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, by Tiya Miles
published in 2021 by Random House
304 pages + extensive Notes

Winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2021. I’ve been looking forward to reading this account which springs from a poignant piece housed in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. — a cotton grain sack dating to the 1850s. On it is embroidered:
My great grandmother Rose
mother of Ashley gave her this sack when
she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina
it held a tattered dress 3 handfuls of
pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her
It be filled with my Love always
she never saw her again
Ashley is my grandmother
Ruth Middleton

Author Tiya Miles mines an enormous weight of understanding and heart-rending insight from this thin, worn cloth sack and its inscription, as she investigates the spaces, histories, anguishes, brutalities, laws, practices, stories, and lives contemporary to the women involved in the original gifting, passing down, and memorializing of this precious maternal act. Though Ashley’s and Rose’s personhood and lives are shrouded in unrecorded history, through their kinswoman, Ruth, their voices speak piercingly, meaningfully into our lives, consciences, and world today.

My heart was enormously moved by the exploration of Black motherhood in this book and the centuries of assault and grief borne by courageous, enduring, Black American women. I also learned a great deal of fascinating, sorrowful historic details about the significance of clothing, hairstyles, food, family — to those enslaved and to slaveholders — as well as the dark history of Charleston, South Carolina. Miles eruditely builds up layers of tangential realities all around Ashley and her mother, Rose, in order to usher these otherwise obscure individuals into the light. In so doing, she also succeeds in shining a light on ongoing injustices which require a reckoning today. I’d say this book reads with a somewhat scholarly tone, but is nonetheless stirring and accessible. Recommended to adult readers.


I’ll check in again next month with all the best of what I’ve read.
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