Tanogram Hype Man

The Warlords Puzzle

The Tangram is so engaging that it doesn’t really need a picture book to entice kids to play. But, if you were seeking an over the top  introduction with a nod to medieval China (and a side of economic social justice) then this is definitely your book.

Virginia Walton Pilegard delivers The Warlord’s Puzzle  in a style often employed for Chinese folk tales. In this one, the ruler (warlord) has a problem (tangram) that no one (wise men, monks, and the affluent) can solve.  Enter the peasant fisherman’s son, to save the day and receive a lavish reward. It’s no shock that we wrap up with the moral of the story. (Just because you’re marginalized by the mainstream culture doesn’t mean you aren’t wise.)

Predictable? Yes. But given the application I have tasked this book with, this is a solid selection.

And here are a couple user friendly tangram sites.


National Geographic Kids



Going Global: Yakyu


Take Me Out to the Yakyu

As a kid, I would get sick with anticipation wanting to go to major league baseball games. There was something almost magical about the experience of being in the ball park: especially since I was accustomed to watching my favorite teams on TV. Thus, I reached euphoria when a player flipped me a beat-up ball during batting practice. Ah, the cheap thrills of youth!

This is the energetic world Aaron Meshon delivers to us in Take Me Out to the Yakyu, with the notable caveat that we are going to baseball fields in Japan AND the U.S. This is another fabulous tool to reveal to students that the world is so much bigger than the local community to which many of them are confined.

BTW: I like to follow this up with a little Google Earth tour from our team’s baseball field to Tokyo Dome. It’s a wonderful tool to transport students from the streets of our city around the globe; and demonstrate that we are but one tiny location in a vast world.


Invisible People

The Can Man

I never saw the “invisible people” at the library. They were not the quintessential smelly, sleeping in public with tattered clothing variety. Security moved “those people” out like they might infect the masses.

No, the invisible people knew how to blend in.  In retrospect, they were definitely there. But, I didn’t have the eyes to see them. After working with a couple of groups that aid the homeless, I know what to look for. But prior to this, they didn’t even exist in my world.

Not so long ago the homeless were invisible in picture books too. It took the efforts of a giant (Eve Bunting) to break that barrier. Her masterwork, Fly Away Home, remains the most balanced representation of homelessness to grace the market.

The Can Man is about more than just one invisible population. Oddly enough, biracial families are virtually nonexistent in picture books, and I’ve never seen a Black/Asian couple and their kids in a picture book before. So when I saw that “Tim”, the boy who befriends The Can Man, came from a biracial family I couldn’t believe it! I literally turned the pages back just to double check. Is this real?! Gratefully, yes. Yes it is, and it’s about time!

So what is the book about?

The Can Man is a heartwarming – if somewhat romanticized – story of homelessness and hope, minus the common issues that often  parallel homelessness: mental illness and drug  addiction.

What Laura E. Williams doesn’t deliver in hard realities, she makes up for by bringing invisible people to the printed page. While most students are not homeless, a growing percentage are biracial. The presence of positive representations of  lived experiences of these families within schools is a critical step in embracing and welcoming populations that often receive neither.

For the hard realities of homelessness, check Invisible People‘s videos and Dennis Cardiff’s chronicling at Gotta Find a Home.

Global Perspective


I won a bookstore gift card by answering a trivia question on a radio talk show. (Yes, I’m that much of a nerd.) So, I promptly trekked over to the store and brought Flotsam into my wordless picture book collection.

This is the story of an old camera.  An extremely old camera that travels the oceans by surreal means and eventually washes up where a boy is enjoying the sun and sand. Upon developing the film, he finds a picture of a child in another country holding a picture of yet another child. A magnifying glass reveals that this third child (in yet another county) is holding a picture of a fourth child in another country… and on and on it goes: stunning image after stunning image, country after country, generation after generation around the world and back into the 1800’s.

The global/historical perspective of David Wiesner‘s Flotsam is a marvelous doorway to talk about cultures with young children who are otherwise unlikely to venture beyond the borders of their country.  (And of course, because it’s a wordless picture book it’s perfect for teaching inferential meaning.)

They Called Her Moses

Moses - When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom

I taught for years when there wasn’t a suitable picture book tribute to Harriet Tubman.  Now that I have it, I’m not sure I can use it in school.

Harriet is one of those historic figures that trouble publishers. They could (and some do) tell her story without the spiritual aspects. But scrubbing her free of this side of her identity is like pretending Martin Luther King Jr. was not a reverend.  It’s just not honest to the historic record.

Carole Boston Weatherford does not make this mistake with Moses. Instead she makes Harriet’s spirituality the center of the story of her escape from slavery.  Thus, much of the book is a conversation with God; and perhaps this is just how Harriet would have had it.

I like this book, in part because Kadir Nelson‘s illustrations are nothing shy of amazing, but also because Harriet’s struggle to escape is so compelling. However, I’m not sure that I can use it in school with young students. The intersection of spirituality and public schools is awkward at best, and becomes a lighting rod at worst.

This year I’m going to pass  on Moses: probably like many publishers did. But, for an older audience, this would absolutely work; and this is certainly fair game for the private school and homeschool crowds.

A Slave Named Dave

Dave the Potter

The historic record doesn’t tell us much about Dave: which is not uncommon for those whose rights are trampled in the name of profit. What little we do know comes largely from the poems he wrote on the pottery he created: both of which make Dave remarkable.

I like this book. But, I almost panned it because it’s not  representative of the overwhelming majority of the historic American slave experience. Laban Carrick Hill leans heavily toward the romanticized side of slavery to tell the story of Dave’s extraordinary gifts. Thus his owner – and any signs of oppression – are completely absent.  However, because I’m balancing this account with other books depicting the horrors of slavery, Dave the Potter has a place in my classroom. But it couldn’t possibly stand alone.

As is often the case with Bryan Collier‘s work, his moving, well-researched illustrations alone were enough to make this book worth my time.

Under the Quilt of Night

Under the Quilt of Night

If you told me, “Hey! Check this out! I’ve got an awesome POETIC picture book on the underground railroad!” My reaction would be something like, “Hmm, you want me to bore my students death?!”

Don’t get me wrong. I legitimately enjoy poetry. As in, I’ve written a couple hundred poems. But few authors seem capable of producing poems that work well in the picture book market. Call me a doubter… because I am.

But forget about that for now; because Deborah Hopkinson and James E. Ransome delivered the exception to the rule. Under the Quilt of Night is historical fiction told from the perspective of a young girl as her family escapes slavery on the Underground Railroad.

Hopkinson and Ransome give us a sense of real danger as “the master” peruses her family with hounds and guns. But they balance this looming threat with the kindness of strangers, as good prevails and the family finds their way into the arms of freedom.