Kamala Harris is precisely the vice presidential nominee we need at this particular moment in time. Being chosen to run alongside Joe Biden in the most consequential election of our nation’s history is a notable, glorious, glass-ceiling-shattering triumph.
Senator Harris hadn’t fully entered my radar until I saw her grill Brett Kavanaugh in the Supreme Court Senate Confirmation Hearings in 2018. Wow! She was tough, articulate, whip smart, and definitely someone to watch. Early last year, I eagerly read her memoir, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey (Bodley Head, 2019), and was wholly inspired by her compassion, work ethic, professional accomplishments, and steadfast commitment to social justice and public service.
Just two weeks after she was chosen to be Vice President Biden’s running mate, a new picture book biography, Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice by Nikki Grimes and Laura Freeman (Atheneum BFYR, 2020), officially hit shelves. Talk about perfect timing!
But then, everything about Kamala’s life story (her immigrant background, family history of political activism, impressive barrier-breaking, step-by-step rise in the ranks) suggests she was almost divinely destined to be the first African-American and first South Asian-American female candidate to run on a major party ticket during these turbulent times of systemic racism, economic inequities, public health crises, criminal injustices, and gender discrimination.
Thanks to Nikki Grimes’s succinct, artfully crafted free verse narrative, and Laura Freeman’s vibrantly gorgeous art, young people not only have an engaging overview of Harris’s life from birth to her withdrawal from the 2020 presidential nomination, but also an inspiring portrait of her character and true essence as a human being.
Grimes frames Kamala’s story as a conversation between a black mother and daughter. First grader Eve is upset because a boy in her class called her stupid for wanting to be President when she grows up. Eve’s mom says he’s wrong, and proceeds to tell her all about Kamala, a girl from right there in Oakland who hopes to be President one day.
Life is a story
you write day by day.
Kamala’s begins with a name
that means “lotus flower.”
See how her beautiful smile
opens wide, like petals
fanning across the water’s surface?
But you don’t see the flower’s roots. Her roots.
They grow deep, deep, deep down.
Let me show you.
Freeman’s beautiful double page spread provides a dramatic entrée into Kamala’s world, depicting her amidst pink lotus blossoms as a happy toddler, sensitive child, intent student, and an adult glowing with confidence. Grimes uses the floral/roots metaphor to great effect, as it prepares the ground for tracing the origins of Kamala’s ancestry, guiding principles and political aspirations. We sense this story will be an edifying blossoming, as we dig below the surface to learn how Kamala grew into the strong, determined leader, truth seeker, trail blazer, and role model she is today.
Young readers will especially appreciate the many pages devoted to Kamala’s early formative years: how her Jamaican father met and married her Indian mother in Berkeley before Kamala was born in Oakland, how they took her with them on civil rights marches, where she repeatedly heard words like “freedom,” “justice,” and “peace” even before she understood what they meant.
After her sister Maya came along, they enjoyed “faraway adventures together,/like visiting their grandparents in Zambia,” soon learning that “fighting for justice/ran in the family.”
But when Kamala was seven, her parents divorced. She moved with Maya and her mother Shyamala to a black working-class area in Berkeley called “the flatlands.” Like other black and brown kids there, Kamala was bused to school as part of California’s integration program. Kamala liked her time at Thousand Oaks Elementary as it gave her a chance to meet kids “rich and poor, black and white,” a valuable experience that exposed her to different languages and cultures.
Kids will relate to Kamala’s busy after school hours filled with homework, ballet classes, piano lessons and “Barbie playtime.” Her family frequented the Rainbow Sign cultural center, which celebrated “black art, music, books, and film.” There Kamala was inspired by talented creatives such as James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Nina Simone. Sundays, Kamala and Maya sang in the children’s choir, and Kamala learned the Bible, “that God asks us to speak up for those who can’t,/to defend the rights of the poor and needy,/like some lawyers do.” Maybe she could be a lawyer like her Uncle Sherman someday.
But soon it was time for another change, another challenge. They moved to Montreal where Kamala started middle school. Winter there was a startling contrast to warm and sunny California, and the girls had to learn French. Kamala wouldn’t return to the U.S. until she graduated from high school to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C.
She couldn’t wait to follow
in the footsteps of her heroes:
Constance Baker Motley,
Charles Hamilton Houston,
and Thurgood Marshall.
At Howard, she enjoyed studying alongside students from America, Africa, and the Caribbean.
They reminded her of home
and the people she wanted to help,
the people she wanted to fight for.
This university would begin to teach her how.
How she thrived on that campus, getting elected as class representative for the Liberal Arts Student Council, competing on the debate team, interning at the Federal Trade Commission, researching the workings of government at the National Archives! She even joined protests on the National Mall on weekends.
Kamala was preparing to be
a woman warrior.
After Howard, Kamala returned to her home state of California to study law at Hastings. There, she was elected President of the Black Law Students Association and organized a job fair to help black graduates. When she didn’t pass the California Bar on the first try, she studied even harder and passed the second time.
Well on her way, there was no stopping her as she achieved many “firsts.”
Kamala was finally ready to climb
the mountain of her dreams:
First, Deputy District Attorney.
Next, the first female
District Attorney of San Francisco.
Then, the first black woman
Attorney General of California.
Peak by peak, she rose,
the second black woman
voted into the U.S. Senate.
Lawyer, prosecutor, Senator —
the little girl named “lotus flower”
had turned herself into a person
others could call on for help.
The book closes with Kamala announcing her Presidential run, then withdrawing from the race due to lack of funds. Grimes’s final stanza couldn’t be more prescient:
Will Donald and Shyamala’s daughter
ever get to call the White House home?
Only God knows.
Kamala Harris is still writing
her American story.
And with that, Eve’s mother reminds her daughter — and ultimately all young readers — that they, too, are still writing their stories.
As you can tell, Grimes covers a lot of ground, presenting a wealth of interesting details in pleasant-to-read lyrical verse that will appeal to all ages.
Kamala’s American story is rousing and relevant with today’s unprecedented efforts to elect more women to Congress, give voice to largely underrepresented minorities, and generally see women fill leadership roles traditionally relegated to men. Throughout the book, we see Kamala advocating, campaigning, and if necessary, protesting — always on the move, taking the initiative, making a difference. We see someone whose heart and humanity are in perfect balance with her keen intellect and progressive thinking.
Freeman’s illustrations are exceptional and emotive, bringing key events of Kamala’s story to vivid, breathtaking life. I especially love how she captured Kamala’s warmth and giving spirit, her beautiful smile and energy that radiates from within. More than merely drawing Kamala’s likeness, Freeman nailed many of the more subtle facial expressions I’ve seen so often in live interviews.
Her palette of vibrant colors is truly a visual feast, and with almost every page turn, we look at the faces of those Kamala has loved, lived, played, studied, worked, sang with and/or looked up to. Readers know, without a doubt, how much family and community have influenced her chosen path, one that is devoted to serving, supporting and defending the rights of others, and cultivating commonalities that will help unite us. It is no wonder her presidential campaign slogan was Kamala Harris: For the People.
One of my favorite illustrations shows Shyamala laughing with toddler Kamala in her arms. The little girl was fussing and when her mother asked what she wanted, Kamala said, “Freedom!” Grimes describes Shyamala’s reaction as a “waterfall of laughter,” and the joy on her face is palpable and infectious.
Remember the lotus flowers at the beginning? We continue to see beautiful pinks and shades of red throughout the book: Young Kamala in pink printed dresses, shirts, sweaters and hats; college student Kamala carrying a pink book bag, lawyer Kamala in red suits and dresses, and our final view of Kamala in a lovely rose pink blouse in front of the White House.
The gorgeous cover, showing a lotus blossom set against Kamala’s profile, reminds us that she was aptly named. In Eastern religions, the lotus symbolizes rebirth and enlightenment, what is immortal and divine in humanity, the realization of individual potential. She is both feminine and feminist, delicate yet strong.
Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice is more comprehensive than many other picture book biographies I’ve seen, a well researched title that checks all the right boxes. Readers will surely be inspired by Kamala’s fighting spirit and perseverance as she meets each challenge on her journey to self actualization. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter in her story will be like. 🙂
🍋VOTE FOR LEMON BARS 🍋
As if there weren’t enough reasons to love Kamala Harris, the girl also likes to cook! You may know that cooking Sunday dinner with her family is her favorite thing to do each week. She’s known to make a mean roast chicken, resourcefully using up leftovers for chicken salad and a savory soup broth. Perhaps you’d like some of her cornbread dressing or a little advice about turkey brining? Kamala is as comfortable in the kitchen as she is in the courtroom or Senate chamber.
Her mother taught her how to cook during childhood. Kamala fondly recalls the wonderful smells that came from the kitchen whether Shyamala was stirring up a pan of bacon-fried apples, a pot of chicken masala or korma. One of Kamala’s first specialties was a plate of scrambled eggs, decorated with a cut-up cheese smiley face.
Everyone here in the Alphabet Soup kitchen especially loves that food is mentioned in Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice. During the time Kamala was bused to elementary school, she spent her afternoons at a neighbor’s house until Shyamala got home from work.
Mrs. Shelton, who lived two doors down, was Kamala’s second mother. She ran “day-care and after-school programs/with posters on the wall of Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman,” and was always encouraging Kamala to have confidence.
Once, Mrs. Shelton bit into a lemon bar
Kamala had made all by herself,
accidentally using salt instead of sugar.
“Oh! Delicious!” said Mrs. Shelton.
“Maybe a little too much salt,
but really delicious,” she said,
never pointing out Kamala’s total failure.
That day, Mrs. Shelton let Kamala walk away
feeling successful, feeling like
she could do anything.
What a wonderful thing to do! With mentors like Mrs. Shelton, it’s no surprise Kamala grew up to be kind, empathetic and supportive.
Naturally after hearing this story, Mr Cornelius was hungry for lemon bars, so he asked Kamala to help him whip up a batch. He used a recipe from one of his favorite cookbooks (it calls for only 1/4 teaspoon of salt), and this time, Kamala remembered about the sugar.
As soon as the lemon bars were cooled and dusted with powdered sugar, they scarfed them down quicker than you can say, “Vice President.” 🙂
- 1/2 cup butter
- 1/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 cup flour
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- lemon rind
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream first 3 ingredients and press in an 8-inch square pan. Bake 15 minutes at 350 degrees. Add together the beaten eggs, the sugar, baking powder, salt and flour. Then add the lemon juice and lemon rind. Pour over the crust and return to a 350 degree oven for 25 minutes. When cool, dust with powdered sugar.
~ from Cooking with Heart in Hand by Suzanne Winningham Worsham (Wimmer Brothers, 1987)
These days, Kamala regularly clips recipes from the NY Times when she’s not cooking her way through Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food. Cooking is a welcome respite from her busy schedule, a way of gathering friends and loved ones together, of making them happy. We love that her husband Doug wears goggles when chopping onions, and that her step daughter Ella makes the best desserts. She definitely adds that tried and true secret ingredient that makes every dish extra delicious. Do you know what it is? 🙂
KAMALA HARRIS: Rooted in Justice
written by Nikki Grimes
illustrated by Laura Freeman
published by Atheneum BFYR, August 25, 2020
Picture Book Biography for ages 4+, 40 pp.
*Includes Timeline of Events
♥️ Check out this wonderful review at TeacherDance
♥️ Enjoy this video of Kamala cooking Masala Dosas with Mindy Kaling. You will notice that she inherited her mother’s waterfall of laughter. 🙂
♥️ In this one she cooks bacon-fried apples and shares a beautiful story about Barack Obama winning the Iowa Caucus at the end.
♥️ Finally, here’s Kamala teaching Virginia Senator Mark Warner how to make a proper tuna melt in her own kitchen (after she saw him making a disastrous version by himself earlier).
🌺 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY 🌺
Mr Cornelius wants one lucky Alphabet Soup reader to have a copy of Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice. For a chance to win, please leave a comment at this blog no later than midnight (EDT) Wednesday, September 30, 2020. You may also enter by sending an email with KAMALA in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
Jone MacCulloch is hosting the Roundup at her lovely new website, where she has invited us to honor brave women or feature a math story. Check out all the interesting posts celebrating National Math Storytelling Day and National Brave Day. Enjoy your weekend, and as always, stay safe, be well, and wear your mask!
*Interior spreads from Kamala Harris: Rooted in Justice, text copyright © 2020 Nikki Grimes, illustrations © 2020 Laura Freeman, published by Atheneum BFYR. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2020 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.