Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome

Langston lives in Bronzeville, a part of Chicago also called the Black Ghetto or the Black Belt. Langston and his father moved from Alabama one week after the death of his mama. They live in a kitchenette apartment at 4501 Wabash Avenue. It's a room with two beds, a table and two chairs and walls covered with newspapers to hide the holes but it does have running water and an indoor toilet. Langston attends Haines Junior High School while his father works at    .
A neighbour, Miss Fulton who teaches high school across town, lives above them and often asks Langson to help her bring groceries up the stairs.

Langston is usually the first one to get to school and sits in the front desk closest to his teacher, Miss Robins. His rundown shoes, overalls and the way he speaks marks him as poor and from the South, with some students calling him "country boy." Every day after school, Langston finds himself confronted by three boys, Lymon, Erroll and Clem but it is Lymon who mostly bullies him. Langston tries to ignore them allowing Lymon to push him around until he gets bored and leaves.

At home, Langston is sad, missing his mama's home cooking and life in Alabama.

One day after school, after helping carry out a box for Miss Robins, Langston manages to sneak unseen through the fence away from school. By the time he stops to catch his breath, he realizes he is in a strange neighbourhood with neat homes and large trees. On the corner is a large building called the George Cleveland Hall Library. Remembering that his mama once told him a "library is a place you borrow books", Langston decides to find out what it's like.

A lady who turns out to be one of the librarians,  leads him into the library, telling him he can borrow any book he wants. Langston, scanning the shelves, pulls a book with his first name on the cover. The words in the book resonate with Langston, and he stays until the library closes. When he returns home late Langston lies to his father about the library, telling him he was out playing with some boys.

Langston returns to the library the very next day and asks the librarian, Mrs. Kimble about the photographs of colored people on the walls. She tells him that they are authors from a lecture series held at the library and that the library is named for a prominent Negro physician. Langston returns to the section of the library containing "the book with the words from my heart."  When it comes time to leave, Langston learns from Miss Cook, the children's librarian about taking out books using a library card. Langston is overwhelmed at this prospect and signs out the book of poetry by Langston Hughes.

As Langston struggles to adapt to life in Chicago, the library and the poetry of Langston Hughes prove to be the lifeline he needs to move forward.


Finding Langston is a wonderful short novel, set in 1946 Chicago, chronicling a young black boy's struggle to adapt to life without his beloved mama in a strange city.

Langston misses just about everything that characterizes life in Alabama. In Alabama Langston had friends, and life was slower, the people more polite. Often Langston finds himself comparing Chicago to life at home in Alabama. "Streetlights shine through the window in the front of the room. In Alabama only lights I saw at night were the moon and stars. Sometimes so bright a curtain couldn't block them out...."

He finds the crowded busy city of Chicago difficult to get used to.
"Back home, we couldn't see a neighbor for miles. I'll never get used to people living on top of each other. I'll never get used to everybody knowing what time you get up in the morning and what you're cooking for breakfast. And everyone to busy to say a decent 'Mornin' when you see them on the street. Back home I had space to breathe. Had to walk down the road a ways to get to our nearest neighbor, but if somebody got sick, or was in need of a hand, folks were there to help 'fore you knew it. I knew I had to act right, because someone was always watching, waiting to get word back to my folks....."

Langston misses his friends and the sense of belonging. "Back home I had friends. Not a lot, but enough to make me fell like I fit. At lunch, outside, we'd play marbles together, sometimes climb the tree in the back of the school. No one laughed when I talked, or pointed at my run-over shoes and overalls."

But what Langston misses most is his mama. "But Mama made it seem like I was all she ever wanted. Like I filled her up. Like any more would have been too much. ...She loved me hard as she could till she left this world." Langston feels the loss of his mama keenly. "I close my eyes and try to picture Mama. I can still see her smile with the space between her teeth. Smooth brown skin and eyes that laughed along with her. Before I know it, the tears start and won't stop."

In an effort to avoid being bullied, Langston discovers a nearby public library that is open to all people regardless of the colour of their skin. And it is there that he discovers a book by a poet, Langston Hughes who has the same first name. At first, the coincidence of their same first names seems unimportant to Langston, who has no idea why his parents chose his name.

When he reads some of his mama's letters to his father, he comes across several lines of poetry,
"My black one,
Thou are not beautiful
Yet thou hast
A loveliness
Surpassing beauty."
Langston is moved by these lines but is certain they were not written by his mama who had no time to read, something she did before she was married, and definitely even less time to write poetry. When he signs out a book, The Weary Blues, by Langston Hughes, he finds a poem, "Poem 4: To The Black Beloved" that has the words he saw in his mama's letter. Langston begins to understand that his mama also loved the poetry of Langston Hughes. He knows his father doesn't know the words in her letter were from a Langston Hughes poem, a secret he decides not to reveal.
"She never told him that Langston Hughes made her heart sing the way he does mine. That she wanted to name her baby boy after the poet she copied in her letters."

Langston believes that his mama, in naming him after Langston Hughes whose poetry she loved, gave him a way to deal with the pain of her death and the loneliness of a strange city and ultimately to find a place to belong.

The library and poetry books also bring together Langston and his first friend in Chicago. When the boy who has been bullying Langston rips pages out of The Weary Blues, Clem retrieves all the pages and helps Langston explain to the librarian what happened.

Langston is an endearing character, whose struggles are portrayed in a genuine and affecting way to all readers by Cline-Ransome. In spite of his loneliness, his sadness over the death of his mama and the difficulties of fitting in, Langston stays true to his southern values of honesty, kindness and helping others. But he also begins to find those same values in people like Clem who has also suffered the loss of someone he loves and his neighbour Miss Fulton who shares his love of poetry.

Finding Langston is a truly beautiful story about loss, hope, starting over and belonging. It is about the power of libraries, and the written word and how books help us deal with life. It is as Clem says, after Langston explains why he likes poetry, " So the poetry you read is a way of putting all the things you feel inside on the outside."  Poetry and stories will always be a help to understanding both the joys and troubles of life.

Author Lesa Cline-Ransome offers some historical context in her Author's Note at the back, explaining the migration of hundreds of thousands of blacks from the South to cities in the North. The result for Chicago was the development of a rich cultural scene that included people like Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Gwendolyn Brooks and many others including the poet Langston Hughes. The library in Finding Langston is real. The George Cleveland Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library was built due to the efforts of Dr. George Cleveland Hall who wanted a library for the constituents of Bronzeville. Unlike libraries in Alabama in 1946, everyone was welcome. 

Book Details:

Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome
New York: Holiday House    2018
107 pp.

Friday, February 14, 2020

It Began With A Page by Kyo Maclear

Even as a small child, Gyo Fujikawa loved to draw. At the young age of five, she may not have yet known what she wanted to be but she knew she loved colours, line and "the feel of the pencil in her hand."

Gyo didn't have many friends when she was young and she didn't seem to be much noticed either. When her parents moved to a small fishing village near San Pedro, California, Gyo began to thrive. Although she still struggled socially at school, her beautiful drawings were noticed by two of her teachers, Miss Cole and Miss Blum.

Because Gyo's family was not well off, continuing school was not an option but Miss Cole found money to pay for her schooling. So Gyo attended art school in Los Angeles. It was unusual in 1925 for a woman and an Asian American to attend college but Gyo was determined.

She decided to continue her studies in Japan. When she returned to America, Gyo created murals and art for magazine. In 1942, with America at war with Japan, Gyo was forced to stay on the East Coast while her family were forced to leave their home on the West Coast and sent to a prison camp. All Japanese were considered enemies, even if they were born in America as Gyo was. This time was a period of great sadness for Gyo and she found it difficult to create art.

When the war was over, Gyo began drawing in earnest again, this time with the intention of having books send a message. A book featuring babies from different races was initially rejected by the publishers but Gyo insisted that they needed to break the rules. She remembered all the times she felt unwelcome as a Japanese American. Her book was published and the stage was set for Gyo to make more art like this.


Gyo's are on her book Fairy Tales and Fables
Few people know about Gyo Fujikawa, a ground-breaking Asian American woman artist. Gyo  was born in 1908 to Hizoko and Yu Fujikawa. Interested in art at an early age, Gyo received a scholarship to study at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. She became part of the Nisei artist community in that city, that is young people of Japanese ancestry who were born in America to Japanese citizens who had come to the country. After completing her studies at Chouinard, Gyo spent a year travelling in Japan studying traditional art making techniques. She returned  to America to work at Chouinard in 1933, staying until 1937.  Gyo also began working at Walt Disney Studios in 1933, eventually moving in 1941 to New York City to work in the studio there.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, America declared war against Japan and all Japanese living in America were considered enemy aliens. Gyo's family did not escape the consequences of war, nor the government policies regarding Americans of Japanese heritage and were sent to a prison camp. Yu, Hikozo and Fred were first sent to Santa Anita Park racetrack and then onto a camp in Jerome, Arkansas. Gyo was restricted to living on the East Coast. Like most Japanese Americans, Gyo's family lost everything.

In the postwar years, Gyo worked as a freelancer, creating art for a variety of projects. In 1957 her illustrations appeared in a new edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. In 1963, she wrote and illustrated Babies which portrayed babies with different skin colours. With the success of this first book and second companion titled, Animal Babies, Gyo decided to focus on creating children's books.

Gyo's books were created with the idea that books could be so much more than just stories, that they could uplift and comfort people. Her focus on multiracial children in her books, aimed to send the message that people of different races are all part of the human family.  Although the civil rights movement was blossoming during this time, this was a very unique perspective for children's books and one which publishers were reluctant to tackle. Because of  Gyo and her family's experiences of racism during the Second World War, Gyo must have seen a need for children to be exposed to the idea that people of all skin colours should be treated equally.

Kyo Maclear tells Gyo's story with using simple text accompanied by the artwork of Julie Morstad. Morstad's illustrations rendered in liquid watercolour, gouache and pencil crayon, are stylistically reminiscent of Gyo's drawings.As both the author and illustrator mention in a note at the back, Gyo's art had a sense of delicacy about it. It is Gyo's use of fine lines to create her characters and her use of colour that give this quality to her art.

Maclear includes numerous photographs of Gyo courtesy of her family in the back matter of the book, but no pictures of her artwork. There is a detailed timeline of Gyo's life as well as a Selected Bibliography and a list of Sources. It Began With A Page is recommended as a read-aloud book and for anyone interested in art history.

Book Details:

It Began With A Page by Kyo Maclear
Tundra Books      2019

Monday, February 10, 2020

DVD: Harriet

Harriet is the cinematic dramatization of the amazing story of Harriet Tubman, a black slave who fled from Maryland, making an almost one hundred mile journey to freedom in Pennsylvania. Not content to be free, Harriet risked her life helping other slaves to freedom and working to end the evil of slavery in America.

In 1840, Araminty "Minty" Ross, a slave on the farm of Edward Brodess, has married a freedman named John Tubman. John arrives on the Brodess farm with a letter from a lawyer that he and Minty hired. Brodess's grandfather had willed that Minty mother be freed when she turned forty-five along with Minty and her sisters. But Minty's mother is now fifty-six and Brodess has recently sold her two older sisters to another farm. They give Edward Brodess the letter, requesting that he free Minty and her mother. Brodess is infuriated and orders John off his farm and Minty and her mother back to work in the fields.

Devastated, Minty runs into the nearby forest, and prays to God that he take Brodess because he is an evil man. Minty is followed into the forest by Brodess's son, Gideon who overhears her prayer.  Minty and Gideon played together as children on the farm, but now Gideon tells her that his father warned him about having a favourite slave. "Boy, having a favorite slave is like having a favorite pig. You can feed it, play with it, give it a name, but one day you might have to eat it or sell it."

Shortly after this Edward Brodess dies and Gideon takes over the Brodess farm. He promptly puts Minty up for sale. While chopping wood, Minty has a vision of  herself fleeing the Brodess farm to freedom. She has had this vision before but decides to act on it as her desire to be free has become so overwhelming. She meets John who shows her the flyer advertising her sale but he also tries to talk her out of running away.  Minty however is determined. She races to the field and sings goodbye to her mother and flees to her father's house. He tells her to go to the Reverend Green's home.

The Reverend Green tries to talk Minty out of running away but when he sees how determined she is he tells her she must be miles away from the Brodess farm by morning. He tells her to follow the North Star and when she can't see the star to follow the river. Minty is to follow the Delaware River and travel to Wilmington where she is to seek out a blacksmith named Thomas Garret.

Minty is pursued by Gideon,  his men and hounds until they finally meet at a bridge on the Delaware river. Gideon promises to not to sell her but Minty tells him  "I'm gonna be free or die." and she jumps. Gideon searches along the river but when he doesn't find Minty, he believes she has died. In fact, Minty survives the jump and is helped by a Quaker farmer in whose wagon she hides. Minty reaches  Wilmington, Delaware where she locates Thomas Garret who takes her in. After resting and recovering, Minty is driven by Garret, also a Quaker, to the Pennsylvania border and freedom. He tells her that Philadelphia is twenty-five miles north and to ask for the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society led by William Still. Garret gives Minty a card with Still's likeness so she will recognize him.

In Philadelphia, Still records Minty's name and asks her to take a new name in honour of her new-found freedom. She chooses Harriet Tubman. Still takes Harriet to a boarding house run by Marie Buchanon, who was born and raised free. Harriet is given a paid job as a maid but she finds herself lonely and deeply unhappy.

Harriet goes to see Still asking him to have his "angels" bring her husband and family out of slavery, however he tells her that this is too dangerous with so many runaways. Slave owners are frustrated, judges are working to help them and Congress is considering passing laws to help the South. Still is concerned that if Harriet returns to Maryland and is captured she will betray his network. However Harriet is determined and with the help of Marie who teaches her some basic etiquette and loans her a dress and a suit for John, she sets out. Harriet takes the train to Dover, Delaware using false papers identifying her as Dessa Dixon.

Meanwhile at the Brodess farm, Gideon wants to sell Harriet's brothers as the plantation is deeply in debt. Harriet returns to find her husband John, believing her drowned, has taken another wife who is now expecting their child. Devastated, Harriet questions God's purpose in all of this but soon discovers other slaves who do want to leave. Her father Ben takes her to house where her brothers Henry and Junyah as well as Henry's fiance, Jane and a young widow named Pheobe along with her baby are hiding. Robert joins them as well, leaving behind his wife and newborn daughter.

When Gideon learns that he has lost five slaves he is furious and threatens Harriet's sister, Rachel into revealing that it is "Minty" who is stealing his slaves. Gideon hires Bigger John to help him track and capture Minty and the slaves. But Harriet prevails, managing to lead all safely to freedom. Still is astonished at Harriet's success and decides to take her to meet the Committee, the officers and organizers of the Underground Railway.

Harriet soon becomes known as Moses in Maryland, although the slave owners have no idea who the slave stealer really is. She attempts to convince her sister Rachel to runaway but she refuses to leave because Brodess has sold her children. In Baltimore, Maryland Gideon learns from Bigger Lohn that Moses is actually is former slave, Minty Ross, now known as Harriet Tubman.

When Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act, allowing slave owners to track slaves in any state in the Union, Gideon and Bigger Lohn pursue Harriet to Philadelphia. With escaped slaves now in danger of being hunted down and brought back south, panic ensues. William Still insists that Harriet must go to Canada for her own safety. Before leaving, Harriet races to say goodbye to Marie, only to find her dying from a beating by Bigger Lohn. Harriet escapes to St. Catherines in Ontario, Canada.

With the death of her sister Rachel, Harriet returns to the United States to the home of Senator William Seward where the members of the Underground Railway are debating whether or not to continue the railway. Instead of helping slaves into free states they must now send them on a 500 mile journey north to Canada. But Harriet insists that they must continue and that likely only a war will end slavery now.

In 1858, Harriet returns to Dorchester County to free her parents and her sister Rachel's children. The group barely escapes with Gideon and Bigger John tracking them. Harriet stays behind to give her family a chance to escape and ends up confronting Gideon. She wounds him and fortells the future, that he and other young men will die in a war over slavery.  "The moans of a generation of young men dying around you in agony for a lost cause. For a vile and wicked idea. For the sin of slavery."

Epilogue: When the Civil War breaks out, Harriet becomes a spy for the Union and leads one hundred and fifty black soldiers in the Combabee River Raid, freeing over 750 slaves. Harriet did eventually remarry. She died in 1913 at the age of 91 years of age.


Harriet tells the story of Harriet Tubman, an African American woman who escaped slavery and who worked to save her family and others from slavery and end the evil of slavery.

The exact date of Harriet Tubman's birth is not known with a wide range of birth years being given. It is believed she was born sometime around 1822, in Dorchester County, Maryland,  to Harriet "Rit" Green and Ben Ross both of whom were slaves. Rit, whose mother Modesty came to America on a slave ship from Africa,  worked as a cook for Mary Pattison Brodess while Ben worked nearby on Anthony Thompson's plantation. Rit and Ben had nine children, Linah, Mariah Ritty, Soph, Robert, Minty, Ben, Rachel, Henry and Moses. Edward Brodess who was Anthony Thompson's stepson sold the three older girls, Linah, Mariah Ritty and Soph but when he attempted to sell Moses as a baby, Rit threatened to kill him.

Harriet was often loaned out to other plantations working in the fields. When she was thirteen she received a serious head wound that would affect her for the rest of her life. The injury resulted in her having headaches and seizures during which she seemed to experience vivid dreams or visions. Harriet believed these were from God and her faith in God became very strong.

Harriet's father Ben Ross was made a free man ins 1840 by Anthony Thompson's son who honored his father's wishes to free Ben at the age of forty-five. A lawyer hired by Ben discovered that Rit's former owner had stipulated that she would be manumitted at the age of forty-five, along with her children. However, the Brodess family refused to honour this and Rit and her children, including Harriet remained enslaved.

In 1844, Harriet still a slave, married John Tubman who was a free man. This meant that any children born to them would be slaves because the mother's status determined that of her children. When Harriet became ill in 1849, Brodess attempted unsuccessfully to sell her. After praying for Brodess to change his ways, and then changing her prayer that he be taken if he would not, Edward Brodess died suddenly. His death meant that many of the Brodess estate's slaves would be sold. This would break up Harriet's family forever and it was at this point that she decided to escape slavery.

Harriet Tubman ~ 1868 or 1869
Harriet's initial escape was in 1849, with two of her brothers, Ben and Henry but the three returned after her brothers expressed reservations about leaving. However, Harriet was not to be deterred and she escaped a second time. She was aided by the Underground Railroad, a network of "conductors" who were abolitionists helping slaves find safe houses enroute north to free states or to Canada. Harriet's journey from Maryland to Delaware and into Pennsylvania was about ninety to one hundred miles.

Once free, Harriet Tubman was not content to stay in Pennsylvania while the rest of her family including her husband were still slaves. Harriet made many journeys back to Maryland to rescue members of her family and other slaves, guiding them to freedom along the Underground Railway. Her work was made especially dangerous with the passing in 1850 of the Fugitive Slave Act which permitted owners to pursue runaway slaves even into free states and forced law enforcement in free states to arrest runaways.

The film Harriet is not entirely factually accurate in its portrayal of Harriet's life. For example, Harriet's main adversary, Gideon Brodess is entirely fictional. Edward and Eliza did not have a son named Gideon. Instead, the character of Gideon embodies all the evil of the white slave owners, their belief that they could own people and that black people were simply not human. Also fictional is the character of Marie Buchanon, although for the telling of the story, it's quite likely that someone like Marie would have helped Harriet adjust to life as a free woman in Philadelphia.

Harriet does capture the most important aspects of the character and life of Harriet Tubman, focusing on her work against slavery and the traits that made her so successful. Initially Harriet wanted to be free but once she escaped slavery, being free was not enough. She wanted other slaves, beginning with her husband and her family to also be free and this evolved into the overriding purpose of her life. She was so effective in rescuing slaves that she became known as "Moses", although initially her identity was unknown to the slave owners, who believed "Moses" to be a white abolitionist. Harriet would rescue at least seventy slaves over the period of thirteen years.

The portrayal of Harriet Tubman's efforts to help slaves in the film provides viewers with much insight into the character of this remarkable woman. She is shown as determined, courageous in the face of grave danger and with an intense faith that God would guide her every step. Thankfully director Kasi Lemmons did not play down the role Tubman's Christian faith played in her life. Harriet frequently explains to others the role of God in her life when confronted with what seems to be the impossible. When William Still asks, "Who'd you make the journey with?" Harriet tells him, "I left my husband and family. It was just me and the Lord."  Harriet explains to Still that the head injury she incurred from an overseer, "...just made God's voice more clear."

Later when Still refuses to help Harriet bring back her husband, she warns him not to tell her what she can and cannot do. "God was watching but my feet was my own."  Marie Buchanon, curious about what it is like to hear God, questions Harriet about hearing God's voice. "Sometime it sting. Like a smack in the face. Other time it's soft. Like a dream...."

Cynthia Erivo gives a passionate and believable performance as Harriet Tubman. Joe Alwyn portrays the cold-hearted, relentlessly wicked Gideon Brodess who pursues Hattie, while Janelle Monae is an elegant, demure Marie Buchanon who believes in Harriet to the very end, even sacrificing her life for her. The film has some exquisite cinematic moments such as the glorious sunrise when Harriet arrives at the Pennsylvania border and is no longer a slave, and the dark, mysterious night shots as Harriet leads her groups of frightened slaves through darkened forests to freedom.

Harriet is a film worth watching and will encourage younger viewers to learn more about this remarkable African American heroine. Rated PG-13 with only a few instances of violence.

Harriet Tubman photograph from the Library of Congress:

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Light A Candle by Godfrey Nkongolo and Eric Walters

Ngama's village sits at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. One day he sees a car leaving his village. This is so unusual that Ngama races home to find out who the visitor is and why he came. He arrives to find everyone in the clearing at the center of the village. In the center is Ngama's father who is chief of their tribe. Someday, Ngama will take his father's place. Surrounding his father are the men with the women and children on the outside. Between the men and women are the older boys who are not yet grown. This is where Ngama stands. His friends tell him the men are discussing the mountain, which Ngama's people, the Chagga, consider to be sacred.

From his father Ngama learns that the visitor was the leader of their country. This leader has requested that they climb the mountain to mark their people's independence from rule by white men. Ngama's father tells him only the men of their tribe will climb the mountain to mark this historic event.

The next morning Ngama's father leads the Chagga men up the mountain. Each man carries food, water, a blanket and wood for the three day journey. Ngama, unhappy about being refused permission to join the men, decides to follow them at a distance.

Many of the men were veterans at climbing the mountain as they had often served as guides. When some of the men saw that Ngama was following, they advised him to return home but Ngama refused. As the men climbed higher it grew colder and the air thinner making it harder to breathe. But Ngama persisted. Soon all the men knew he was following them. Ngama's father refused to believe the boy following them was his son because he had told his son not to do this.

When the men reached the Uhuru Peak, the highest elevation in Africa, they set up a huge pyre. As Ngama's father was about to light it, he called to his son and had him light the fire because Ngama represented the future. The fire was bright as a candle and could be seen for miles. It represented freedom and the future.


Light A Candle tells the story of  young Tanzanian boy celebrating the independence of United Republic of Tanzania in 1961, located in East Africa. It gained independence from British rule in December of 1961. The peaceful transition from colonialism to independence was achieved through the efforts of Julius Nyerere who became Tanzania's first president.

Nyerere was born at Butiama, located on Lake Victoria. His intelligence and abilities were recognized by the Catholic priests who educated him despite his formal schooling not beginning until he was twelve years old. He was sent to study at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. Educated at Edinburg University in Scotland, Nyerere returned to the British colony of Tanganyika to work as a teacher. He soon left teaching, founded the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) party in 1954 and began working towards independence through the use of peaceful protests. Nyerere was first elected in 1958, representing East Province. He was successful in winning the 1960 general election and gaining independence for  his country the following year. Tanazania eventually was formed out of the amalgamation of two territories, the mainland of Tanganyika and the islands of Zanzibar.

Unlike Uganda and Idi Amin a decade later, Nyerere worked to establish a peaceful "Africanization" of his country while still respecting the European and Asian citizens in the country. He did this through socialist policies which ultimately were not successful economically and which made Tanzania dependent on foreign aid. Nevertheless, Nyerere unified his country and helped indigenous Africans begin the march towards self government.

The book's title, Light A Candle, comes from Nyerere's words before he became Tanzania's president. In Nkongolo's Afterword he writes that Nyerere, in words reminiscent of St. Francis, stated "The people of Tanganyika would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders, giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where before there was only humiliation."

Unlike the story in this book, the Uhuru Torch was actually lit by Lt. Alex Nyirenda. However, in Light A Candle the focus is on the journey towards independence as experienced by a young boy. Ngama, who represents the future of the the people of Tanzania, makes the hard climb up Africa's tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro with determination. The climb represents the country's journey towards independence. Despite all the hardships Ngama encounters, being poorly outfitted for the journey, the length of the journey, the cold, loneliness, lack of air, and being hungry, he succeeds. It is Ngama who lights the beacon representing freedom and peace, to be seen all over Africa. Independence, achieved peacefully is the message for the continent beginning to throw off the shackles of colonialism. Accompanying Nkongolo's simple text are the vibrant illustrations of Eva Campbell  rendered in oil paint and oil pastel on canvas. 

Light A Candle gives younger readers a simple version of a historic event that occurred almost sixty years ago. It reminds us that people everywhere have the right to their culture and traditions and to self government.

Book Details:

Light A Candle by Godfrey Nkongolo
Orca Book Publishers     2019

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Prehistoric Dinosaurs, Megalodons, and Other Fascinating Creatures of the Deep Past by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld

Prehistoric Dinosaurs takes readers on a journey backwards in time beginning with our own epoch, the Anthropocene.

Readers start with the Holocene epoch which began approximately 10,000 years ago and is the most recent in the Cenozoic era. During this time, humans evolved, the Earth warmed resulting in the retreat of vast ice sheets. This allowed humans to migrate and settle in most parts of the world.

The Pleistocene which began approximately 2.6 million years ago saw the most recent ice age. With climate cooling, ice caps formed at the North and South poles. There were interglacial periods when the climate warmed allowing forests and mammals to flourish. It was a time of saber tooth cats such as Smilodon. Prior to this, during the Neocene epoch (23 million to 2.6 million years ago), mammals began to dominate the Earth.

The Neocene was preceded by the Paleocene which began 66 million years ago. The climate was warm allowing large rain forests to grow and  new types of mammals to evolve. Early primates began living in the trees during this time.

Before the Paleocene, the Cretaceous Period saw the reign of the dinosaurs which were a very diverse group of animals. There were meat-eating dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurs, as well as plant-eating ones such as Spinops. Flowering plants or angiosperms also developed during the Cretaceous Period providing fruits as a food. In the sea, giant mosasaurs, turtles and ammonites flourished. Scientists have evidence that the Cretaceous experienced a mass extinction even that destroyed seventy percent of the life on Earth. The cause is believed to be an asteroid that crashed in what is now Mexico, resulting in the Earth being overwhelmed with dust and smoke, blotting out the sun. This catastrophic event is believed to be responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs.

It was during the Jurassic, 201-145 million years ago, that the largest land animals developed. These were the sauropods. During this time, the super continent known as Pangea began to break up. This began with the break up of North America from Europe and Asia and later Africa from South America.

About 252 million years ago, the ancestors of dinosaurs and other reptiles were evolving. At this time dinosaurs were small, inhabiting most areas of Pangea.

The Permian period (299- 252 million years ago) saw the formation of the supercontinent called Pangea from the collision two great land masses. At this time there were amphibians, reptiles and pre-mammals. Most were predators who ate other predators.Although there were many plants, they were consumed mostly by insects. The end of the Permian is characterized by a great extinction resulting from an extended period of widespread volcanic activity. It is believed over ninety percent of life on Earth was destroyed.

Before the Permian, the Carboniferous was a time of giant trees and towering ferns. These lush forests were filled with many different arthropods, amphibians and the first reptiles.From 419 to 359 million years ago, the Devonian period saw the development of the first trees and forests, the first insects and spiders and the first four-legged animals such as salamanders.  Prior to the Devonian, during the Silurian (443 to 419 million years ago), temperatures on Earth were slowly rising, allowing new life forms to develop. The first fish with jaws developed allowing predation to occur, as well as the evolution of eurypterids ("scorpion-like arthropods) which could grow to be very large.

In the Ordovician (485 to 443 million years) most life existed in the oceans. Snails, clams, nautiloids, trilobites and conodonts as well the world's first fish lived in the water. This period was characterized by the expansion of coral reefs across the world. The period before the Ordovician is called the Cambrian and this era saw the explosion of life on Earth. This sudden increase in life forms is called the "Cambrian Explosion". Trilobites, a primitive arthropod, dominated the Cambrian period which is sometimes referred to as the "Age of Trilobites".

Finally, the period before the Cambrian is known as the Ediacaran, some 4.6 billion to 541 million years ago. The amazing story of life on Earth began during this time and little is known about the creatures who lived during this phase.


In Prehistoric Dinosaurs, Megalodons and Other Fascinating Creatures of the Deep Past, author Zoehfeld has chosen to tell the story of life on Earth beginning with the modern epoch of the Anthropocene (which we are now living in) and moving backwards through time to the very beginning. This makes it difficult to fully understand how life developed from simpler forms to more complex ones, how the climate and the land masses changed over time and how catastrophic events shaped life and the world afterwards. Therefore, it is recommended that readers start at the back of this book and read backwards to the front! Reading in this way works superbly, making the timeline of events more logical and understandable.

Zoehfeld's simple text gives readers a good understanding of the changes that occurred through each period and there are detailed, full colour illustrations which provide a sense of what the Earth may have looked like during each time period as well as the creatures that could be found in the seas and on land. The author includes many interesting facts for each period, and sets aside small areas on each page to explain certain events or to provide more details. For example, there are short, simple explanations of how coal formed, supervolcanoes, how dinosaurs walked, mass extinctions, ice ages and many other topics.

This book was produced in association with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A more concise title with a more engaging illustration on the cover is also recommended. Overall, an  interesting presentation of the development of life on Earth. However, the claim on the book's back cover, "What's the best way to see the past? From the present, of course!" didn't work for this reader!

Book Details:

Prehistoric Dinosaurs, Megalodons, and Other Fascinating Creatures of the Deep Past  by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld
Greenbelt, Maryland: What on Earth Publishing   2019
45 pp.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Encounter by Brittany Luby

Encounter tells the story of a meeting between two people from very different worlds long ago. The story begins on a morning in which the "sun rose to light all Creation." Creation includes seagull, mouse, mosquito, crab and other animals as well as two men, Fisher and Sailor.

Fisher awakes on the edge of the forest by the sea to the new day, gets into his canoe and paddles out into the ocean planning to let out his nets. Out on the ocean, Sailor awakes too, with plans to explore this new world. He lowers a boat and rows toward shore. Fisher sees Sailor and wonders if his eyes are playing tricks on him. Sailor realizes this unknown land is not new and empty.

Pulled by the tide, they land together on the beach. They greet one another in their own language but cannot understand what the other is saying. Sailor tries to explain his journey with a picture in the sand. When he becomes hungry, he eats one of his biscuits and offers it to Fisher. But Fisher would "rather chew wood". He in turn offers Sailor sunflower seeds. Sailor spits them out, thinking he "would rather eat pebbles".  But Fisher shows him how to open the seed's shells.

The two go swimming to cool off from the hot summer sun. They see beluga whales in the bay. As night approaches, each must return to their lives, and the two say goodbye, hopeful they can meet again.


Encounter is a story about two people from different lands and cultures meeting for the first time and finding ways to build the beginnings of a friendship. As Luby whose heritage is from the Anishinabeg, explains in her historical note at the back, the story "is based on notes kept by Jacques Cartier, a real French explorer, on his first expedition to what is now known as North America. Cartier anchored his ship in what we now call Gaspe Bay, in 1534. While Mi'gmaq territory included this region, records suggest that they shared fishing grounds with Stadaconans in the sixteenth century. " For Luby, "imagining an open and friendly meeting between a French sailor and a Stadaconan fisher" was the vehicle for showing that people from very different cultures can find common ground.

This message is presented throughout the picture book through the various animals who watch the encounter. Although Fisher notes that he and Sailor do not sound the same, seagull observes that they both cast long shadows. The mosquito likes that they both taste delicious, crab notices that they both "found a shell to suit them" and beluga decides that they both together "make a strong pod". 

Sailor and Fisher's encounter was similar to that of Cartier's initial relationship with the Stadaconan fishers in 1534.It began as a mutually peaceful one. However Cartier took two Stadaconan men with him on the voyage back to France, returning them the following year. This was done against their will and was disrespectful and harmful to the Stadacona and their families. It was this arrogant sort of action that was to colour almost all future contact with Indigenous peoples in North America.

In her Author's Reflection, Luby writes, "By being a hand on Cartier's ship, Sailor helped to build a system that took resources from Indigenous peoples, like Fisher, and delivered them to Europeans." However, Sailor could not really have understood the effects of  his actions nor those of his country at the time. Luby and many others are looking at history through the modern lens of tolerance, openness and with a knowledge Europeans could not have had.  In the 1500's European explorers saw the world as something to be conquered. They had the mindset that their culture was superior. This would not be surprising since Indigenous cultures in North America were not as technologically advanced as Europeans and their cultures were so very different. They either did not recognize the harm they were doing or most likely were not concerned. Today most of us are no different: no matter how open and accepting we are towards another culture, we still hold the belief that whatever culture we live in is better than other cultures. Otherwise we would adopt those traditions and beliefs ourselves but we do not.

This doesn't take away from the wonderful message of Luby's picture book, that we should be open and respectful to cultures different from our own and that we act in ways that do not harm others. Her message is enhanced by the exquisite artwork of Michaela Goade. Rendered in watercolour, pen, ink and gouache, as well as digitally, the vibrant illustrations show the beauty of the land Sailor has "discovered" (and to him it was a discovery because it was something new and previously unknown) and the land that is Fisher's home.

Book Details:

Encounter by Brittany Luby
Toronto: Tundra Books      2019

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee

Seventeen-year-old Jo Kuan has been working in Mrs. English's milliner's shop as a milliner's assistant for the last two years for a measly fifty cents per day. However, before she can ask for the raise she so desperately needs, Jo is fired by Mrs. English because she's Asian and a "sauce-box" who expresses her opinions about what a client would look best in. Not only that but Mrs. English has spoken with the sixteen other milliners in Atlanta, effectively blacklisting Jo from being hired.

Nevertheless, when Mrs. Bell arrives to have a special Chinese knot embellishment placed on her hat, Jo is made to make the embellishments. Unbeknownst to the Bells, Jo and Old Gin live beneath the Bell's house in what used to be cellar to hide runaway slaves. A listening tube, disguised as a vent allowed those in the basement to hear what was happening in the upstairs.

While Mrs. Bell and Mrs. English are haggling over the price of Jo's work, Miss Melissa Lee Saltworth and Miss Linette Culpepper, whom Jo has nicknamed Salt  and Pepper arrive. The daughters of "merchant aristocrats", Miss Saltworth is being courted by Mr. Quackenbush, the son of a financier who lost his fortune backing Confederate dollars"

That night Jo listens as the Bells discuss the dire circumstances of their newspaper The Focus. It has lost readers after the Bell's son Nathan published an editorial against segregating Atlanta's streetcars. They need two thousand new subscribers by April or they will be forced to close and move to New York. This means Jo and Old Gin will likely lose their home too. The Nathan, the Bell's son questions what their newspaper is lacking and his mother states that it is an advice column. Their competitor, The Trumpeter has Advice from Aunt Edna and Mrs. Bell believes that an "agony aunt" column would help greatly.

The next morning, Jo attempts to find work but is unsuccessful. That night she decides that she will be the Bell's "Aunt Edna", writing an advice column for women, anonymously in order to help the Bell's newspaper obtain more subscriptions. Jo writes a letter to Nathan offering her services and sends along her first column which advises women to boldly ask a man to the Payne's eight-furlong race to be held in March in support of the Society for the Betterment of Women. She takes the pseudonym, Miss Sweetie, " temper the more provocative nature of the articles..." she will be writing.

While looking for another pair of gloves after losing one when she ran into Nathan Bell and his dog Bear, Jo discovers a man's navy suit, wool coat and shoes. Old Gin returns home and tells Jo that Mrs. Payne will see her about a job as a weekday maid for her daughter Caroline. However Jo is not happy about this because Caroline was always nasty to her when she was younger. She spent her childhood at the Paynes first as a playmate to Caroline and later on working for them as a maid until she was suddenly let go over two years ago. Jo reluctantly agrees, hoping that finishing school has taken the nasty edge off of Caroline.

At the Payne's home Jo settles in as Caroline's maid, working during the week, maintaining Caroline's quarters, her wardrobe and accompanying her when she goes out. Caroline however has no intention of having Jo follow her everywhere. On their first outing on horseback, Caroline tricks Jo sending her to look for a dropped handkerchief, which allows Caroline to secretly meet her lover, Mr. Quackenbach. Mr. Q as Jo calls him happens to be Melissa Saltworth's beau. Afterwards, Caroline threatens to have Jo fired if she reveals her secret but Jo counters with the threat to reveal her dalliance to Miss Saltworth. Her request is to be treated better by Caroline.

Upon returning to the Payne estate, Jo is disturbed to find Old Gin with Billy Riggs, a man with a nasty reputation as a "fixer". Old Gin tells her that one of the Chinese owed Billy's father money and warns her to stay away from him. Old Gin begins spending most of his days and nights at the Paynes helping Jed Crycks train the new Arabian stallion Merritt brought back to the estate.

At home, Jo discovers a partially made red silk garment which leads her to believe that Old Gin is working on finding her a husband. Meanwhile her Miss Sweetie column has become very popular, leading Mrs. Payne to buy extra copies of The Focus for her women's group, the Atlanta Belles. Jo decides to hand deliver her next column to the Bells. When she puts on the wool coat to run her errand,  she discovers a note addressed to "Shang" and signed with the letter "e" in the pocket.  Jo questions Old Gin about the letter and learns that Shang owed Billy's father a great deal of money. However he refuses to tell her anymore. This mystery and the inconsistencies in Old Gin's story leads Jo to wonder if Shang might be her father. As Jo works to unravel the mystery of her past, Miss Sweetie's fame grows and the hunt is on to discover who is behind the provocative column that is having unexpected social repercussions across Atlanta! Eventually Jo uncovers the identity of her  parents, Old Gin's connection to the debt to Billy and devises a plan to wipe out the debt.


The Downstairs Girl is a novel with a strange plot. Set in 1890 Atlanta, Georgia, The Downstairs Girl incorporates the themes of racial tension, women's rights, class and identity. The novel, while historical fiction, is also part mystery and a coming of age story. Despite these many themes the wit of main character Jo Kuan, a seventeen-year-old who is half Chinese, half Caucasian makes this novel an enjoyable and intriguing read.

In 1890 Atlanta, racial discrimination is common towards black citizens. The Reconstruction Era in the southern United States is over and the southern states are back to governing themselves. Although black men were given the right to vote by the passing of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, many obstacles were enacted to limit this right in many states. At this time women were also unable to vote, but were beginning to agitate for greater involvement in society and for more rights. Women were beginning to see themselves as having a greater role in society and in the political process. Somehow Lee manages to incorporate bits of all these themes into her story, through her varied cast of characters.

For example there is Jo, who is of Chinese heritage, a talented milliner-in-training who is fired and blacklisted simply for being Chinese. There is also Old Gin, who turns out to be Jo's grandfather, who works at the Payne estate as a groom for years. There is Robby Withers, a black man who is a delivery man at Buxbaum's simply. But as Jo notes, "We all must abide by the rules, but some of us must follow more than others. Robby can be a deliveryman but not a clerk. Mrs. English would never have promoted me to milliner, just as Mr. Payne will never promote Old Gin to head groom. Like Sweet Potato and her twisted let, we have been born with a defect -- the defect of not being white. Only, unlike in Sweet Potato's case, there is no correcting it. There is only correcting the vision of those who view it as a defect, though not even a war and Reconstruction have been able to do that."

The character of Caroline Payne represents the privileged white class and the Southern gentry, but she is also used to portray the social restrictions placed on women. Caroline is a mean, thoughtless girl who is wealthy, lives in comfort and can go wherever she wants. However, her freedom is an illusion because her path is life is mostly determined by social convention. She is expected to marry a wealthy man. Despite the opening of the debutante season, Jo notes that Caroline doesn't want to marry and she begins to understand that Caroline's situation is just as constraining if not more so than her own.   "Caroline's scowling visage appears in my mind. With her wealth, every door is open for her. But maybe what she wants is not for doors to open, but for the walls to come down. When one grows up with walls, it is difficult to dream of a world beyond. Who knows what Caroline - what any of us -- could accomplish without the constant pressure to get married?" It is these observations that lead Jo to encourage her father to involve Caroline more in the family printing business which she appears to have an aptitude for.

One of the many plotlines in the novel involves Jo's search into her past. All she knows at the beginning of the novel is that she was abandoned by her father and that she was left in the care of Old Gin. However, there are soon hints that not all is as it seems. "Wondering about my parents is a strange kind of agony, an itch that I can't help scratching until it causes pain." The revelation of the identity of her parents is devastating to Jo but she decides to show her mother that she won't be bound by the chains of shame but will live life on her own terms. Jo is determined, resourceful and forthright, with dreams of becoming more than what society tells her she can be. She represents the struggle for both women's and civil rights.

The Downstairs Girl is recommended for older readers because of some sexual innuendo as well as a scene involving male nudity in a house of prostitution. Those familiar with Lee's writing will find The Downstairs Girl similar in tone to her other novels with their unique settings

Book Details:

The Downstairs Girl by Stacey Lee
New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons Ltd.     2019
374 pp.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species by Sabina Radeva

Up until the mid 19th century, it was generally believed that all life on earth was created within the last few thousands of years,  at the same time and had generally remained unchanged. However some scientists began to consider that animals may have changed over time to their present form.

Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who enjoyed observing the natural world. During a voyage around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin began to form ideas about life on Earth based on his observations which he accurately recorded.

After twenty years of writing and researching, Darwin published those ideas in 1859 in a book titled, On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection. He defined species as "groups of living things that look alike and can have babies together." Members of a species might have "variations" such as different colouring but overall they resemble each other. A perfect example are pigeons which Darwin believe descended from the rock pigeon but now have many variations.

Variations can occur through domestication, from specialized breeding programs. For example, farmers can breed cows who make more milk. In the natural world, variation also occurs. Darwin had visited the Galapagos Islands and noted that finches on the island had variations in the shape of their beaks, allowing them to eat specific kinds of fruit. For example, some finches had large beaks for cracking open large seeds, while others had long and sharp beaks to eat only cactus flowers.

Although animals and plants can often easily reproduce and have numerous offspring, it is difficult to survive in the wild. Those best adapted are the ones who succeed. Many adaptations help a species survive and over time small adaptations add up leading to new species better adapted to a new environment.

Darwin did not know how life began on Earth but he believed, based on his observations, that life on our planet is constantly adapting and changing. He called this process "natural selection" which "makes living things better adapted to where they live. Once animals with more useful traits appear, they will compete and replace those that are less adapted."  Darwin also believed that all living things were interconnected in a vast tree of life.

His theory, unique and earth-shattering in the 19th century, also led scientists to ask even more questions? If this process was happening, where was the fossil evidence for the transitional forms as adaptations led to more significant changes? Darwin felt that this could be explained by the fact that the creation of fossils is a difficult process requiring a perfect set of conditions. Animals must be covered quickly by sediment when they die in order to be preserved and even then the soft parts of animals are rarely fossilized. The conditions for fossils to be preserved must be ideal.

Natural selection also works on instinct, or how animals inherently behave. Darwin also believed that migration, that is a species moving from one area to a new area, also plays a role in change. Darwin also noted that embryos, the very first stages of new life, all show common features suggesting a common beginning. The process of evolution continues today as all life on earth adapts to the constantly changing world.


Author Sabina Radeva presents a picture-book adaptation of Charles Darwin's famous work, On The Origin of Species. Radeva who has an M.Sc. in Molecular Biology from the Max Planck Institute, was intrigued by an illustrated copy of On The Origin of Species. However, she realized that most people would never read it because of the dense text. Having switched careers and now working as a graphic designer, Radeva was still interested in combining her science background with her talent as an illustrator. She felt that children could better understand the concepts in Darwin['s theory through the use of pictures.

The author admits to leaving out "some information from Darwin's original text because the concepts were too difficult for young readers." but this works to the benefit of the topic of the book. Overall this picture book gives a good summary of Darwin's big idea, that life on Earth is constantly adapting and that this is through a process named natural selection. Radeva presents the basic parts of Darwin's theory, explaining how he came to develop it through his observations. And therein lies the lesson of the book: Radeva believes that from Darwin's story, "...children can learn the power of observation and recognize how curiosity about the natural world can lead to incredible discoveries." In an era where attention is focused almost entirely on the virtual world, Radeva's book, and Darwin's story are reminders that the natural world is full of discoveries waiting to be made.

Radeva avoids most of the controversy surrounding the theory of evolution but does explain some misconceptions surrounding evolution in a separate section at the back of the book. Appropriately titled Misconceptions, she explains what evolution is and is not. In the Appendix, Radeva explains DNA and genes, inheritance, variations and mutations, natural selection, epigenetics ( relatively new field of study in which lifestyle and life events have an effect on gene expression) and comparative embryology. There is also a Glossary and a Recommended Reading section.

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species is a good starting point for young readers (Grades 1 to 6) to explore evolution and natural selection. To learn more about Charles Darwin and his amazing voyage, young readers are directed to One Beetle Too Many: the Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky.

Book Details:

Charles Darwin's On The Origin of Species by Sabina Radeva
New York: Crown Books for Young Readers     2019

Friday, January 10, 2020

When We Became Humans: Our Incredible Evolutionary Journey by Michael Bright

When We Became Humans traces what scientists be current theory of the evolutionary journey of humans from primates in this book for younger readers. Michael Bright begins by defining a number of terms that readers will encounter in book: hominins, hominids, mammals, primates and halplorhines as well as explaining the nomenclature for assigning names in biology.

From there readers will begin their journey with the earliest known primate fossils from approximately 65 million years ago. These fossils tell us that
Moving on to the Age of Apes, readers learn about the theory that the ability to see colour may have evolved with the eating of fruit.

Questions such as How Do We Know Who Our Ancestors Were?, Why Walk Upright? are asked. Bright also touches on the use of DNA analysis in archeological exploration.

The skeleton of Lucy, a female from the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis (which was discovered in 1974) is over three million years old. It is possible that Lucy was one of our ancestors. The story then moves from Lucy to Homo habilis, "handy man" who lives during the Pleistocene (about 1 to 2 million years ago).  The use of fire and of more sophisticated stone tools to hunt and butcher food occurred soon after, around 1 million years ago.  Homo erectus, "upright man" was the hominin who is considered to have made great evolutionary strides. Homo erectus had a much larger brain and is considered to be intelligent and "more human like than any who had gone before."  Their bodies were considered to have proportions similar to that of modern humans.

The section on Neanderthals, a hominin who lived between 430,000 and 250,000 years ago, but who is not believed to be our direct ancestor, explores how they might have looked, the type of tools they used, what they ate, where they lived and what eventually happened to them. This then takes the reader to modern humans, Homo sapiens who appeared some 300,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are believed to have evolved out of Africa and then traveled throughout the world to  Western Asia, Europe, Australia, and eventually to the Americas.

From this point on, Bright focuses on modern humans, detailing the skills prehistoric humans developed to help them survive and thrive. These skills include becoming proficient hunters, developing glue, inventing the wheel, developing agriculture and permanent settlements, domestication of animals and the development of trade. As civilization developed, art, monuments, religious rituals and the written word were developed. How human evolution continues is an interesting and unexplored question.


When We Became Humans offers younger readers a good overview of how archeologists believe humans evolved over millions of years. It presents, in very simple format, the series of fossilized skeletal remains of hominins that have been discovered and insight they provide to archeologists. Bright not only describes these hominins and how they may have looked but also portrays how scientists believe they may have lived, and how their surroundings pushed them to adapt and learn new skills. For example he mentions how early hominins lived in warm climates but as they developed and began moving northward from Africa into Europe, the colder climate led them to learn how to build more advanced shelters.

When We Became Humans also portrays the difficulty that scientists have encountered in unravelling the puzzle of our ancestry. For example,  the hominin species, Homo heidelbergensis is believed by some scientists to be our most recent ancestor, but others believe that H. heielbergensis is the ancestor of the Neanderthals, while still others believe they are not a separate species at all. As Bright states, "The human story is so complex that nobody is sure who is right."

Many interesting facts and details are incorporated into the text. For example, details about how wolves were domesticated to become the dogs that ancient hunters used, or how "All modern Asian rice varieties can trace their origin back to the Pearl River Valley in China about 13,500 year ago." are just two examples of the many interesting and very relevant facts woven into the story of human evolution.

Bright helps his young readers understand how archeology draws from many other sciences to understand the past. For example he briefly explains how fossils are made, and how scientists use the rocks they are found in to date fossils. This helps archeologists understand new discoveries in relation to previous ones.

Readers learn that modern archeology utilizes modern technology such as CT scans and DNA analysis. The use of these tools provides scientists with information they might never have uncovered. "In a cave in Belgium, for example, there were no fossil skull fragments or other parts of a skeleton present, yet scientists were able to find minute amounts of DNA in the sediment of the cave floor -- probably from blood, pee, or poop -- revealing that ancient humans had once lived there."

Hannah Bailey's muted artwork illustrates many of the concepts Bright presents without detracting from the text. A chart of the Human Family Tree and a map showing the migration route of humans and our ancestors out of Africa close out the story. As Bright states, " The epic story of humans has been long and complex. The family tree is not a neat straight line from one ancestor to the next, but one of many branches and frequent dead ends." He notes that our recent chapter out of Africa, "features a cast of characters that constantly change as new discoveries are made." Those interested in human history and who wonder about how we came to be, are sure to find When We Became Human an engaging read.

Readers looking for more information on human evolution are directed to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website.

Book Details:

When We Became Humans: Our Incredible Evolutionary Journey by Michael Bright
Lake Forest, CA: Quarto Publishing     2019
64 pp.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Boy Who Grew A Forest by Sophia Gholz

A young boy lived on a large river island with his family and other families. He began to notice that with each rainy season more and more of his island home was lost to the rising river. His tree covered island was gradually being replaced by empty sandbars where nothing could live. Sometimes he saw animals trapped on the sandbars.

The boy told the village about what he saw and how the homes for the animals were being destroyed. The villagers told him that the way to save the animals was to give them new homes. To help him, they gave him twenty bamboo saplings.

He went to a large sandbar, too sandy for leafy trees to grow and planted all the saplings. Every day he faithfully watered the saplings, an exhausting task for a young boy. But soon the bamboo saplings grew into a bamboo thicket. To enrich the soil he brought in cow manure, earthworms and other living things to help the soil. The boy brought in new seeds from neighbouring villages and planted them. As the years passed and the boy grew up, a wonderful transformation occurred on the once empty sandbar.

A forest covering forty acres, filled with water buffalo, rhinoceros, gibbons, elephants, snakes and birds had grown on the once barren sandbar. When problems occurred such as the appearance of dangerous tigers in the forest, the boy who had now grown into a man found a solution. That amazing boy was Jadav Payeng.


The Boy Who Grew A Forest tells the true story of Jadav Payeng. Jadav was born into the Mising tribe in Assam, India. In 1979, Jadav saw many snakes stranded on a large sandbar on Majuli Island which is located on the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. The snakes were dying as there was no where for them to nest.

Every year during the monsoon rains the Brahmaputra River floods, resulting in severe erosion of its banks and Majuli Island, the largest river island in the world. The erosion which continues today, is so serious that scientists believe the island will disappear entirely unless action is taken .

Majuli Island, Assam India
In 1980, the Golaghat District forestry division began planting trees on two hundred hectares at Aruna Chapori. Jadav Peyand was part of this project. In 1983, when it was decided to terminate the project, Jadav decided to stay on, caring for those trees already planted and continued to plant more.

The result of his efforts is a forest named Molai, after Jadav Peyang that is now home to many varieties of trees including valcol, arjun, cotton trees, moj, silk trees as well as bamboo. The forest has attracted a variety of wildlife including Indian rhinoceros', Bengal tigers, deer, rabbits, monkeys and many different types of birds. The government of India first learned of Jadav's forest in 2008 when a small herd of elephants they were looking for, were discovered to have wandered into the area. The elephants have returned every year, staying for about six months to give birth to their young. Today Jadav, his wife Binita and their three children live in the forest. Jadav believes it is possible to save Majuli Island by the extensive planting of coconut trees. These trees would halt erosion and also provide some economic return for the over one hundred thousand people who live on the island. It would also direct them away from illegal and harmful activities like poaching.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest, tells Jadav's story in a straightforward manner capturing his determination and commitment to the reforestation of a small part of Majuli Island. Gholz's retelling is a bit misleading in that Jadav was not a young boy when he began planting trees (as shown in the picture book), but in fact a teenager of sixteen. Nevertheless, Gholz's portrayal highlights his determination to rehabilitate the Majuli Island ecosystem and and demonstrates that all of us have our own part to play in keeping our planet healthy.

Rejuvenation of the area was not without its own problems. The trees were in danger of being exploited by men who wanted to cut them down. The rhinoceros and tigers were in danger from poachers. Each problem was met head on  by Jadav and resolved; people who came to cut the trees were turned away, poachers captured by government officials.

Accompanying Gholz's text are the rich earthy illustrations of Kayla Harren in golden yellows, browns and greens, emphasizing the natural beauty of the Molai forest and its wildlife.

The Boy Who Grew A Forest is a natural fit as a debut picture book for Sophia Gholz whose father was a forest ecologist.It highlights the idea that everyone of us has a part to play in keeping our planet healthy. Children interested in the natural world will find Jadav's story encouraging and fascinating. They might find a short documentary made about Jadav Payeng, titled Forest Man to be interesting viewing. This documentary was made by Jitu Kalita, a wildlife photographer who discovered Molai forest and Jadav while scouting out new areas to film.

Majuli Island Map credit: 

Book Details:

The Boy Who Grew A Forest by Sophis Gholz
Ann Arbor, MI: Sleeping Bear Press     2019