[review] Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and Charlotte Riley-Webb

The first time I heard Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” I was confused. What was she . . . could she be . . . NO! . . . and then the awful realization that she was singing about lynching — one of the most horrific, unconscionable atrocities in American history.

Strangely enough, before I read Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and Charlotte Riley-Webb, I hadn’t really thought of “Strange Fruit” as a protest song, at least not the kind of protest song popular at Labor Union rallies à la Woody Guthrie, or sung in unison at 60’s civil rights marches or counterculture anti-war sit-ins. Protest songs roused and inspired people to stand up to social injustice; they unified, mobilized and galvanized.

Mister and Lady Day

Of course “Strange Fruit” did all of these things, but I think it should be in a category of its own. It shocked and outraged people, leaving many anguished and ashamed. It was, and still is, hard to listen to, and it was hard on the singer, as it brought to bear her own struggles with racism, violence, drug and alcohol addiction — all the ugliness she had experienced as an African American woman. Billie’s performances of “Strange Fruit” could be thought of as visceral theater. Singing it became an act of courage, as she was sometimes “verbally or physically harassed” afterwards.

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Chatting with Debbi Michiko Florence about Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen (+ a recipe)

Mochi? Did someone say ‘mochi’? Japanese sticky rice cakes have always been one of my favorite treats!

I’m so happy to welcome Debbi Michiko Florence back to Alphabet Soup today to talk about Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen (FSG, 2017), the first book in her brand new early chapter book series officially hitting shelves on July 11. It’s actually being released simultaneously with Jasmine Toguchi, Super Sleuth (Book 2). Double the goodness, double the fun!

I’d been keeping my fingers crossed ever since Debbi first mentioned working on Mochi Queen, hoping and hoping over the years that just the right editor would champion this heartwarming story about an 8-year-old Japanese American girl who wants to help her family make mochi for New Year’s. So, it was beyond thrilling to hear that flamingo-and-dessert-loving Jasmine, a spirited and determined royal mess maker, would not only have her own book, but her own series. And how much do I love that the first title in the series is about food? 🙂

Daifuku mochi (sweet bean filling)

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[review + author chat] Candice Ransom on Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten

Do you remember your first day of kindergarten?

Though I had the usual first day jitters, it turned out fine in the end. I loved my kind teacher Mrs. Fujimoto, painting on a real wooden easel, listening to funny stories, taking a nap on my new denim sleeping bag, and best of all — snack time with milk and graham crackers. 🙂

Reading Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten (Doubleday, 2017)  kindled such fond memories. Written by the delightful, diverting, kitty-loving Candice Ransom and illustrated by Christine Grove, this must-read picture book is absolutely adorable and officially hits shelves today.

Candice’s cat Faulkner loves the new book, which is her 137th!

It seems Amanda Panda (who loves the color brown, wants to be a school bus driver when she grows up, and can run really fast downhill), isn’t suffering from first day jitters at all. She knows precisely how her day will go: she’ll print her name “in big, important letters on the board,” build “the tallest block tower,” and run “the fastest of anyone.” After all, her big brother Lewis did all of these things, so why wouldn’t she?

All art copyright © 2017 Christine Grove

Well, she hadn’t counted on Bitsy — a diminutive, cutesy, head-to-toe-in-pink pest, who glombs onto Amanda as soon as they board the school bus.

For some reason, Bitsy is bent on being Amanda’s new best friend. But she takes the wind right out of Amanda’s sails, grabbing all the attention as she repeatedly beats her to the punch. Bitsy hogs blackboard space with her big annoying handwriting, builds a Kitty Castle that Ms. Lemon loves, and even contributes to Amanda losing a downhill race. With Bitsy as Head Princess, it’s definitely “the end of the world.” But Amanda has a plan.

She’ll go to second grade instead.

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[review] ‘Iwalani’s Tree by Constance Hale and Kathleen Peterson

Were you a daydreamer when you were growing up? Was there a special place you frequented to be alone with your thoughts?

Told as a gentle free verse poem, ‘Iwalani’s Tree is an enchanting story about a girl from O’ahu’s North Shore who has a special bond with an ironwood tree that’s her secret friend, muse, elder, and solace.

I like to lean on a low branch of a tree
that stands way way down the beach,
toward Ka’ena,
just on the spot
where the land becomes sand.

Some people call it a paina,
some call it an ironwood.
It has fuzzy brown bark,
a trunk strong and good,
and long willowy needles
that whisper in the wind.

She goes on to explain that the tree is a kind of refuge, a place to go “when the house is too hot/or my brother is bothering me/or the neighbors are making much too much noise.” She leans against its trunk and plays beneath its branches, carrying on conversations with the tree, who never demands or judges, only listens.

In the tree’s presence, ‘Iwalani’s dreams take flight. What better place than in the cool shade, with only the “Sounds of the sea and the sand and the waves and the wind,” the tree whispering as the wind tickles its needles?

Sometimes, when there’s a brisk wind (he makani Mālua), the tree “yowls scary sounds.” Then, ‘Iwalani also hears the mongoose, owl, hawk, and wild boar. She asks the tree what it does all day and night, and the tree, who “speaks” only when the wind blows, tells ‘Iwalani she dreams — after all, she has “legs to rrrrun down the beach/and arms to rrrreach for the sea.” ‘Iwalani thinks that’s silly, but soon changes her mind.

One night there’s a big storm and ‘Iwalani wonders whether her tree will be able to withstand the harsh conditions.

Huge white waves smash onto the sand.
A howling wind tears the leaves off trees.
Lightning cracks the sky open like a coconut.

The next morning ‘Iwalani frantically races down the beach, relieved to find her tree still standing, but something has changed. So much sand has been pulled away, that the tree’s big roots are exposed. They resemble “giant knees and feet.” Having lost so much of its needles, the tree’s branches now resemble “giant elbows and fingers” stretching toward the sea.

So the tree was right all along; it really can have legs to run down the beach and arms to reach for the sea! ‘Iwalani continues to observe how the tree changes with each succeeding storm, only too pleased to while away the hours in its company, dreaming and dreaming.

Communing with nature affords ‘Iwalani many peaceful hours of introspection and a fresh appreciation of the world around her.

Hale’s soothing lyrical verse (which seamlessly incorporates a few Hawaiian words), and Peterson’s lush and evocative jewel-toned illustrations, celebrate Hawai’i’s natural beauty and the ongoing reverence locals have for ocean and shore. I like how the artist’s pastel strokes give the pictures a marvelous texture. This story is also an ode to the child’s imagination, the power of dreams, and the freedom to be oneself.

The lulling, meditative tone makes this a nice bedtime book. In a noisy, competitive world where children are sometimes over-scheduled and raised to believe bigger, faster, and flashier are better, this quiet, contemplative story offers an opportunity for parent and child to slow down and reflect.

The tree’s branches bend and lean
over the beach.
Her shadow makes a pool of cool,
and her fallen needles float out
like Mr. Tanaka’s great green net.

A good introduction to free verse with its sensory detail and poetic devices such as personification, imagery, rhyme, rhythm, onomatopoeia, assonance and alliteration, ‘Iwalani’s Tree also has great curriculm connections with science and geography. The author offers teaching guides for each of these disciplines at her website.

I especially enjoyed reading this story, since it transported me to my warm and friendly home state. I could just about feel those gentle trade winds caressing my cheek and hear the tree whispering in the wind:

whaaaaaah shhhhh paaaaah
whooooshh aaaaaaaaahhhh

Quite hypnotic; it was easy falling under this story’s magic spell. I definitely felt calmer and more centered after reading it, and recommend it to those desiring a tranquil Hawaiian story with universal themes. Back matter includes information about the ironwood, legends about the ironwood and Ka’ena Point, and a pronunciation guide for the Hawaiian words used in the text. Don’t miss this rare gem!


written by Constance Hale
illustrated by Kathleen Peterson
published by BeachHouse Publishing, September 2016
Picture Book for age 4-8, 32 pp.
*Literary Classics Seal of Approval
**Study Guides for Poetry, Science and Geography available here.


Our fearless PF leader Mary Lee Hahn is hosting the Roundup at A Year of Reading. Drift over and check out the full menu of poetic goodness being served up in the blogosphere this week. Happy Weekend!

*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2016 Constance Hale, illustrations © 2016 Kathleen Peterson, published by BeachHouse. All rights reserved.

**Please Note: Some of the colors in the illustrations shown here differ from the book.

Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.
















[review] Poetry for Kids: Carl Sandburg by Kathryn Benzel and Robert Crawford

“Poetry is a mystic, sensuous mathematics of fire, smoke-stack, waffles, pansies, people, and purple sunsets. The capture of a picture, a song, a flair, in a deliberate prism of words.” ~ Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg has been called the “Voice of America” and the “Poet of the People,” and in this new poetry collection, young readers can easily see why.

Edited by professor and Sandburg scholar Kathryn Benzel and illustrated by award winning artist Robert Crawford, Carl Sandburg (MoonDancePress, 2017), is the third title in the marvelous Poetry for Kids series.

It contains 36 of Sandburg’s finest poems presented in two sections, Poems about People and Poems About Places. Widely anthologized favorites such as “Fog,” “Young Bullfrogs,” “I Am the People, the Mob,” and “Theme in Yellow” are featured alongside new-to-me gems, “Early Moon,” “River Roads,” “Harvest Sunset,” and “Haunts.”

click to enlarge

Just as he rode the rails across country, Sandburg’s verses transport us from farm to prairie to big city, expressing his wonder, pride, and reverence for the beauty and expansiveness of our great nation. As someone who lived the American dream, born of humble beginnings and having worked from a young age at many odd jobs (shoe shine boy, milk and newspaper delivery, porter, farm laborer, bricklayer, coal-heaver) before becoming a journalist, editor, poet, and Pulitzer Prize winning author, Sandburg became a champion of the American worker, translating his wealth of first-hand experiences and hard-won lessons into passionate free verse.

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