Stella by Starlight

Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper is a nominee for the 2016-17 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

Stella by Starlight takes place in the segregated South during the Great Depression, and it doesn’t shy away from the racism, hatred, and fear that was so prevalent at the time. (Anyone who is paying attention would agree that these things are still prevalent.) But this book also emphasizes the power of family, community, faith, and courage in the face of adversity.

The book begins with Stella and her brother, JoJo, witnessing something disturbing in the woods next to their home late one night. They see men and horses in white robes. They see a burning cross. This sight can only mean one thing–the Ku Klux Klan. Stella and JoJo race home to tell their parents what they’ve seen, and the people in the community immediately come together to discuss what it might mean.

With the threat of the Klan looming over everything, the people in Stella’s community wonder what they can do to combat such a seemingly powerful force. They’ve always dealt with racism, but this feels much more sinister. When several men, including Stella’s father, decide to stand up for themselves in the voting booth, the threat becomes even greater.

Through all of this turmoil, Stella examines her own feelings through writing. Stella admits she’s not the best writer, but she practices late at night in the hopes of getting better. She has so many thoughts about what’s going on around her, and she wants to get them down on paper. She writes about her family, school, and community. She writes about the prejudice she experiences and sees around her. She writes about the people, both black and white, who come together and take a stand when times are hard. She writes about her hopes for the future.

Stella by Starlight is an excellent piece of historical fiction, and I hope that many teachers and students will use it to supplement their understanding of racism, both in the segregated South and in the present day.

I also see this book being used to help students with their writing…or whatever else they may be having trouble with. Stella freely admits that she is not a great writer and needs practice. Students need to see that it’s okay to make mistakes. What’s important is to keep trying and working to get better.

Librarians, teachers, and parents who want to explore themes like bravery, integrity, empathy, tolerance, and respect with their students should definitely take a look at Stella by Starlight. It’s an extremely powerful book that will stay with all readers long after they’ve finished it.

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent

A Spy Called James: The True Story of James Lafayette, Revolutionary War Double Agent, written by Anne F. Rockwell and illustrated by Floyd Cooper, will be released on November 1st, 2016.

This picture book tells the story of James Armistead Lafayette, a slave who served under French General Lafayette during the American Revolution. He was a double agent, and he was instrumental in Lafayette’s defeat of British General Cornwallis. James, underestimated and overlooked because of his status and skin color, was privy to conversations and information that he then passed on to American troops, at great personal risk.

Following the war, James had another battle to face–the fight for his own freedom. Since he wasn’t technically a soldier, he was not granted his freedom for service during the war. He appealed to the government, and, after General Lafayette himself appealed on James’ behalf, his petition for freedom was granted.

This easy-to-understand picture book is a necessary addition to any elementary school library. It definitely fills a void when it comes to studies of the American Revolution. Each year, my 4th grade students complete biography projects about famous figures from the war. Each year, James Armistead Lafayette is one of their choices. Until now, there have been no books–or at least no books they can comprehend–on this figure. I am thrilled to add this wonderfully written and illustrated book to my library’s collection.

Light in the Darkness

Light in the Darkness: A Story about How Slaves Learned in Secret, written by Lesa Cline-Ransome and illustrated by James E. Ransome, is a nominee for the 2015-16 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Light in the Darkness is a moving account of how slaves risked their lives to do something that most of us take for granted. They stole away in the dead of night, always looking over their shoulders for patrollers, to meet in pit schools. These schools, often nothing more than holes in the ground covered by branches, were led by older, literate slaves who taught others to read.

This book is an excellent addition to studies of slavery and how people knew that knowledge and reading were essential to being truly free. I think Light in the Darkness would be an ideal selection for Black History Month and American Education Week celebrations.

Light in the Darkness is a wonderful read-aloud for children of all ages, but some younger readers may need a bit more background information on slavery to really appreciate the story.

This Is the Rope

This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by James Ransome, is a nominee for the 2015-16 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

This Is the Rope is a moving tale of one family’s journey from rural South Carolina to New York City during the Great Migration. The story begins with a girl finding a simple rope under a tree. This rope would play a part in the girl’s move north, serving as a luggage tie, a clothesline, a jump-rope, a reminder of times gone by, and a symbol of how far one family has come and the bonds that hold them together.

For younger readers, I think This Is the Rope is useful for illustrating stories with one object tying events together. Pun intended. This book could serve as an example to follow when writing their own similar stories. I don’t know how much K5-2nd grade readers would understand about the Great Migration, but this book could also start discussions on why people move from place to place, the differences between living in rural and urban areas, or what life was like during the North and the South during different periods of time.

For older students, This Is the Rope is a simple yet powerful introduction to the Great Migration, which is something that is often glossed over in some history classes. This book could start discussions on why many African Americans chose to move north during post-Reconstruction America, the conditions in the South that forced them to move, and how much work is still to be done to achieve racial equality, not only in the South but also across the nation.

Hey, Charleston! The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band

Hey, Charleston!: The True Story of the Jenkins Orphanage Band, written by Anne Rockwell and illustrated by Colin Bootman, is a nominee for the 2015-2016 South Carolina Children’s Book Award.

An ideal book for studies of jazz music and South Carolina history, Hey, Charleston! introduces readers to Reverend Daniel Joseph Jenkins and his work with orphans in and around Charleston.

Reverend Jenkins saw that these children needed care and education, and, knowing that he would need money to meet those needs, he devised a plan to create the Jenkins Orphanage Band. He asked the community to donate instruments that had been gathering dust since the Civil War, and he and his boys polished and repaired them. Local musicians came in to give lessons, and the band was born.

The Jenkins Orphanage Band traveled through the U.S. (and even to England) raising money to care for even more kids. And they did. They also spread joy through music and did their part in creating what we know as ragtime and jazz music.

Hey, Charleston! is an important book for those interested in books on overcoming adversity. It demonstrates how hard work, kindness, and love for one another can create something truly great even in tough circumstances. I also think this book ties into music and South Carolina history standards at both the elementary and middle school levels. It is a powerful picture book that, at the very least, belongs in every South Carolina library.


Tyrone “Li’l T” Roberts has wanted a dog forever, but he never quite expected to get one the way he did.

On the way to church one Sunday morning, Li’l T’s dad hits a scraggly, old dog with the car. Even though the family doesn’t have the money to take care of this injured dog, Li’l T is convinced that this dog, who he names Buddy, is meant to be his. With the help of some folks at church, Buddy gets the help he needs, and even though the dog loses a leg, he gains a home with Li’l T.

Li’l T sacrifices a lot to make Buddy a part of his family. He sells his GameBoy so that he has money to buy food for Buddy. He starts mowing lawns so that he can keep caring for his dog. He spends hours talking to Buddy and trying to convince this dog to make the most of his second chance at life. Buddy may only have three legs, but Li’l T knows his dog can do just as much as any four-legged dog around.

Li’l T and Buddy are the best of friends, but something is about to happen that could tear them apart forever. A hurricane named Katrina is bearing down on New Orleans, and the family has to leave everything behind…including Buddy. There’s just no room for him in the family car. Li’l T wants to stay behind with Buddy, but his parents won’t hear of it, so they leave Buddy in an upstairs bathroom with enough food and water for the next couple of days. Surely the storm won’t keep them away more than two days, right?

No one is prepared for Katrina’s path of destruction. This monster of a storm even hits the family’s refuge in Mississippi, and Li’l T soon learns that there isn’t much left of his home in New Orleans. Flood waters have destroyed much of the city, and there may not even be a home to return to.

Immediately, Li’l T thinks of Buddy. Is his dog still locked up in the bathroom? Is he wondering why Li’l T hasn’t come back for him? Has Buddy been rescued, or did Katrina claim one more victim? Li’l T isn’t sure what’s going on, but he’s determined to find out what happened to the dog that became his best friend.

It’s not always easy to keep moving when so much has been taken away from you. Li’l T and his family have lost so much because of Katrina, but they’ve still got each other, and Li’l T has the hope that he will be reunited with Buddy one day. But will their reunion be everything that Li’l T expects, or will he realize that sometimes the only thing you can do is move on?

Read Buddy by M.H. Herlong to see how tragedy brought two friends together, tore them apart, and taught one young boy what true courage and sacrifice really mean.

Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington

Fifty Cents and a Dream: Young Booker T. Washington, written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by Bryan Collier, is nominated for the 14-15 South Carolina Picture Book Award.

Fifty Cents and a Dream is an inspiring story about a young Booker T. Washington. It introduces young readers to this important figure, his early life as a slave, a worker in salt mines, his first days in school, and, eventually, a young man who journeys hundreds of miles just for the chance to go to college. He finally arrives–with only fifty cents in his pocket. Even then, he must work day and night to make his dream a reality.

This book shines a light on the power of words, dreams, and persistence. Booker T. Washington never gave up on his dreams of becoming an educated man, even when it would have been easier to quit. He persevered and became not only a college graduate but also a writer, professor, and leader. He founded the Tuskegee Institute and paved the way for many young men and women who would come after him.

In addition to being an excellent book to use in Black History Month celebrations, I think Fifty Cents and a Dream is a fine addition to any public, classroom, school, or personal library. It shows readers the power of dreams, but it does emphasize that those dreams won’t become a reality without a great deal of hard work and commitment.