For Kids

May 01, 2001 9 min read
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ONLY PASSING THROUGH: The Story of Sojourner Truth, by Anne Rockwell, with illustrations by R. Gregory Christie. (Knopf, $16.95; grades 1-3.) Sojourner Truth is one of those people in American history whom many have heard of but can’t quite place. This distinguished picture book biography of the former-slave-turned-abolitionist should help remedy that situation, for it relates a remarkable story that children are not likely to forget.

Born at the end of the 18th century in a Dutch-speaking region of New York state, Truth—known for the first half of her life as Isabella—suffered the typical abuses of slavery: She was sold away from her parents at an early age, beaten, worked ragged, and forced to marry against her will. Then, in 1826, a couple who opposed slavery bought and freed her. With their help, she successfully sued a white man who had illegally sold one of her children out of state. The ruling not only reunited Truth with her son but also brought her fame. As Rockwell describes it, “People for miles around spoke of little else but how a former slave had taken a white man to court, and won.”

Several years later, Truth heard a voice telling her to speak out against the evils of slavery. Believing it was a message from God, she left her home and began traveling throughout New England, talking about her life as a slave to anyone who would listen. It was at this juncture that she gave up the name Isabella and started calling herself Sojourner Truth. “She wandered for many years, a tall, dark figure in plain gray clothes, wearing a white cap on her head,” Rockwell writes. “She’d stop for a while, say what needed saying, then move on. She was a sojourner, only passing through.”

Truth accomplished much during this time, but Rockwell mainly focuses on her early years, the period leading up to her “transformation.” The reason, she explains in an author’s note, is that this part of Truth’s story “moves me most.” It will move youngsters, too.

A longtime children’s author best known for her simple, informational picture books for preschoolers, Rockwell knows how to tell a story. Her clean, direct prose moves easily through the events of Truth’s life, lingering briefly here and there to relate a poignant anecdote. Although not a pretty story—Rockwell doesn’t spare readers young Isabella’s beatings and heartaches—it is certainly one that will hold kids’ attention and generate questions about the times.

Christie’s expressionistic, almost crude, full-page paintings add nuance and a striking edginess to Rockwell’s storytelling. The artist, who won the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration in 1997 for The Palm of My Heart: Poetry by African American Children, wants to convey the feel—rather than the true look—of the era. And he succeeds. Readers will come away from this well- crafted book with a strong sense of that difficult period and Truth’s remarkable life.

—Blake Hume Rodman

KIT’S WILDERNESS, by David Almond. (Delacorte Press, $15.95; grades 6 and up.) Almond, the author of Skellig, one of the most widely praised and unusual debut novels for young people published in the past 10 years, follows up with this story set in an English mining town much like the one in which he was raised.

Thirteen-year-old Kit Watson and his family have moved to Stoneygate to care for Kit’s grandfather, whose wife recently died. Formerly a thriving coal producer, Stoneygate and the surrounding countryside are now riddled with abandoned mines. Though the coal business is gone, the town is filled with reminders of former mining hardships such as the graveyard memorial to a 19th-century disaster that claimed more than 100 lives. Stoneygate’s residents are also descendants of the people who worked and, in some cases, died in the mines. Although Kit is a newcomer to the area, he is a member of one of these old mining families.

Shortly after the school year gets under way, he is drawn into a strange ritual conducted by John Askew, one of his classmates. Despite John’s tremendous talent as a draftsman, he is regarded by most adults as a lout because of his surliness and dark moods. During the ritual, he leads a group of children into an abandoned mine, where one of them is chosen to “die.” That child then stays in the mine for as long as possible after the others have left. When he emerges later, he tells his companions what “death” was like and what he witnessed.

This ritual is treated as a deliciously scary game, for which the kids make up stories to impress and frighten each other. But then, one day, it’s Kit’s turn. While he’s alone in the mine, he really does see something odd: shimmering, half-visible children, dressed in rags.

Later, as his grandfather tells stories that miners have passed down through generations, Kit begins to understand who it was he saw. He writes down the stories, and John illustrates one of them. But this collaboration and budding friendship is cut short when John runs away and hides in a mine to escape his abusive father. Kit eventually realizes that he must find a way to use the stories he’s recorded and their connections to the ghostly children to find and save John.

While many aspects of this tale sound bizarre, Almond handles the material with a straightforward grace that enables readers to tap into an ancestral part of their collective subconscious. At the same time, he’s managed to create realistic, present-day characters who refuse to be imprisoned by the past. Kit, in fact, discovers exactly what his grandfather means when he says, “It’s a magic place, this world.”

—Stephen Del Vecchio

THE BOOK OF THE LION, by Michael Cadnum. (Viking, $15.95; grades 6 and up.) During the Crusades, waves of European knights and other fighting men traveled to the Middle East on a mission: to “free” the Holy Land from Islamic rule. The second crusade (1189-1192), in particular, pitted England’s Richard I against Saladin, one of the greatest Muslim leaders. When Cadnum’s story opens, Edmund is a 17-year-old apprentice moneymaker who narrowly avoids punishment after his master is caught counterfeiting. Instead, the sheriff turns Edmund over to Sir Nigel, a local knight who soon sets off to join King Richard. Edmund’s way with animals, his physical strength, and his eagerness to learn the warrior’s craft quickly earn him the rank of squire in Sir Nigel’s band. Thanks to the immediacy and power of Cadnum’s descriptions, readers come to understand the mix of motivations—a sense of duty, for example, and religious faith-that drew men to this cause. But the author also exposes the brutality and greed that characterized many of the crusaders.

THERE COMES A TIME: The Struggle for Civil Rights, by Milton Meltzer. (Random House, $16.95; grades 4 and up.) Meltzer has crafted a brief yet hard-hitting history of the centuries-old struggle for civil rights in America. He reveals the deep historical, political, and economic roots of the civil rights movement, beginning with slavery and ending with the black-power causes of the 1960s. The narrative is enlivened with carefully selected photographs and quotations from the speeches and writings of prominent leaders and historians. And by showing how racism and injustice have shamed the United States in the past, Meltzer suggests that the struggle for civil rights is necessary for the advancement of all Americans, not just those who are victims of prejudice. There Comes a Time clearly establishes the civil rights movement as a fundamental aspect of our heritage, making this book essential reading for any young student of American history.

LIZARDS, FROGS, AND POLLIWOGS, by Douglas Florian. (Harcourt, $16; grades K-1.) The author-illustrator of Insectlopedia; Bing, Bang, Boing; and numerous other well-received collections of whimsical poems and simple paintings, Florian has some fun here with reptiles and amphibians. Each of these 21 poems includes a factual detail or two about a specific creature as well as something to laugh at. Some are several stanzas long, others a single sentence. Ironically, the shortest is titled “The Python": “With thirty feet to squeeze your prey, Python, you take my breath away.” Young children may look at Florian’s refreshingly unrefined watercolors—painted on brown grocery bags—and think to themselves, “Hey, I could do that,” which is probably part of his wide appeal.

AQUAMARINE, by Alice Hoffman. (Scholastic, $16.95; grades 4-8.) Hilary and Claire, both 12, have been best friends and next-door neighbors their whole lives. They’ve also spent every summer, for as long as they can remember, at the Capri Beach Club. But this tradition is about to end, as the Capri will soon shut its doors forever, and Claire is getting ready to move to Florida. So the girls are spending their last days together in glum anticipation of their parting. But one night, late in August, a freak storm washes all manner of sea life into the club’s pool. When Hilary impulsively dives into the murky seaweed- and-jellyfish-filled water, she finds Aquamarine, an adolescent mermaid who demands their help. She wants to meet the sweet and attractive young man who is the Capri’s only remaining employee. The girls rise to the occasion, discovering new strengths in themselves and each other. Even more important, they learn that separation does not have to put an end to a friendship.

THE SCARECROW’S HAT, by Ken Brown. (Peachtree, $15.95; grades K-1.) Although a relative unknown, this English author-illustrator manages to hit a home run just about every time out. And he doesn’t disappoint with this charming little volume. Like other picture books Brown has written and/or illustrated—check out The Wolf Is Coming or the brilliant King of the WoodsThe Scarecrow’s Hat is a chain-of-events story involving endearing animals that talk. It all begins when Chicken lets a friendly scarecrow know that she covets his old straw hat. Scarecrow lets drop that he’d gladly swap the hat for a walking stick to lean on, but unfortunately Chicken doesn’t have one. Badger does, however, and he tells Chicken that he’d trade it for a ribbon to tie his door open. Chicken, of course, doesn’t have a ribbon, but Crow does. And so it goes, from one animal to the next. Finally, Chicken meets Donkey, who is willing to exchange his blanket—which Owl desires—for a few feathers to shoo away flies. Well, feathers are something Chicken has, and she plucks three for Donkey to tie to his tail. Donkey, in turn, hands over the blanket, starting an amusing chain reaction that leads all the way back to Scarecrow. It’s a fun story, lavishly illustrated with Brown’s delightful, light-drenched watercolors.

ORANGES ON GOLDEN MOUNTAIN, by Elizabeth Partridge, with illustrations by Aki Sogabe. (Dutton, $16.99; grades K-2.) When famine hits China in the mid-1800s, Jo Lee’s mother, a widow, can’t feed both of her children, so she reluctantly plans to send her son across the Pacific to live with an uncle who is a fisherman near San Francisco. Before her son departs, she gives Jo Lee several cuttings from the family’s orange grove and instructs him to plant them when he arrives on Golden Mountain, a Chinese name for California. This outstanding book then follows Jo Lee—and his saplings—as he struggles to establish himself in a strange but bountiful new land. Although lacking dramatic drive, Partridge’s third-person narrative is loaded with fascinating historical, cultural, and personal details that will attract kids. The illustrations here are cut-paper collages; this medium tends to be stiff and lifeless, but Sogabe has a delicate touch. Her bright, vivid scenes gracefully complement the prose.

—Stephen Del Vecchio and Blake Hume Rodman


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