R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Hello, friends! Our book today is R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Frank Morrison, a gorgeous tribute to the iconic singer, songwriter, and activist.

This brief introduction to the life of the queen of soul begins with a young Aretha saying prayers at her bedside: “B-L-E-S-S-E-D” reads the header, the rhyming couplet that follows describing how she was raised in a home of faith and black pride. Each spread continues in a similar vein, using a one-word theme to describe the moment or period in Aretha’s life as she grows, develops her voice, stands up for equality, and becomes a L-E-G-E-N-D in her own time.

Beautiful. Aretha is certainly a luminary deserving of the picture book treatment, and while this is not a particularly comprehensive biography, it is a great way to introduce the Queen of Soul to young readers. Yet what it lacks in informational breadth, it more than makes up for in style; from a design standpoint, this title is a knockout. Morrison’s rich, vibrant illustrations are positively striking, each one a work of art in composition, light/shadow, and dynamics. The choices to spell out each spread’s header and end each line with an /ē/ sound (just like in the bridge of Franklin’s mega-hit “Respect), and even to make the book itself 12×12 inches (the standard size of an LP) are wonderful details that celebrate Aretha’s connection to and love of music. There is one spread that’s quite odd: one in which the break-up of Aretha’s parents is attributed to her father’s infidelity, accompanied by an illustration of Clarence Franklin smiling proudly over his children. The overall effect is rather strange and explaining the concept of being “faithful” might be an awkward conversation for young readers and their caregivers. But overall, this is a visually stunning ode to music royalty, and we both loved it. Baby Bookworm A-P-P-R-O-V-E-D!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

The Roots Of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Hello, friends! Our book today is The Roots Of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip-Hop, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Frank Morrison, a lush and beautiful ode to the art form.

It started with poetry, folktales, spirituals, and rhymes. Then came funk, providing the basslines and rhythm, then the Jamaican MCs and dub. Finally, it was all pulled together in the Bronx by DJ Kool Herc – and hip-hop was born. It spread across the country, then across the world, giving rise to street fashion, culture, dance, and – most critically – the music and verse. Now it is a worldwide nation of the faithful, those who feel the beat, hear the words, and are moved – ya heard?

Phenomenal. Using a flowing rhyme interspersed with onomatopoeic syncopated rhythms and drop-dead gorgeous urban-inspired art, this book takes both fans and newcomers through both the history and musical elements of hip-hop. Not only the music itself is explored; B-boy and B-girl dancing, street art, and other cultural elements both influential and influenced by the genre are showcased. Kid-unfriendly elements are skipped over (the East Coast/West Cost feud, the censorship wars, etc.), and the focus is primarily on East Coast and male rappers, though two spreads gloriously celebrate the original holy trinity of female rap: Salt n’ Peppa, TLC, and Queen Latifah. A wealth of backmatter and a foreword by Swizz Beatz are the cherry on top. The length was great, and JJ especially loved trying out the beats. Stylish, beautiful, informative, and fun – a must for music lovers of all ages. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Freedom In Congo Square (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Hello, friends! We’re wrapping up Black History Month tonight with the award-winning Freedom In Congo Square, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie.

They count the days. Each day, the unnamed slaves of a Louisiana plantation labor without rest under the watchful eye – and occasionally cruel lash – of their masters and overseers. Anonymous, featureless figures with bent backs toiling over crops, washbins, stoves and hearths. They tend the animals, harvest the fields, cook the meals, clean the house, even raise the children of their owners. Some disobey; they are beaten. Some try to run; they risk capture and far worse. So they count down to Sunday, the half-day every week when they are allowed to gather, slave and free black man alike, in Congo Square in New Orleans. They play music, dance, exchange information. It’s here they can remember their roots, it’s here that jazz will be born, and it’s here that they can, for a few short hours, taste life without servitude as free men and women.

Gorgeous and moving. The story is flawlessly laid out in elegantly simple couplets, introducing the oppressive lives of the slaves first to make the cathartic emotions of their precious freedoms all the more impactful. The text is honest without being sensationalist, presenting the themes and emotions plainly yet poignantly. The art is stunning – faceless black bodies work against backgrounds that nearly breathe with heat and exhaustion, giving way to the vibrant images of Congo square, where at last the figures are given features and life as they shake off their subjugation for a while. The length is great, and JJ liked it a lot. We highly recommend it, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved.

Gordon Parks: How The Photographer Captured Black And White America (Carole Boston Weatherford)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Gordon Parks: How The Photographer Captured Black And White America, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Jamey Christoph.

Gordon Parks nearly left this world as swiftly as he came into it; the doctor who delivered him saved him from stillbirth. And while his entrance into life was dramatic, being born into the US in 1912 limited his prospects – his white teacher memorably told her all-black classroom that they would be “nothing but waiters and porters”. Gordon was not satisfied with the status quo. Seeing a moving photo essay on Dust Bowl migrants, he bought a camera for $7.50 – the best purchase he ever made. From there, Gordon’s talent was obvious, and he was hired by magazines, companies, and the US government. Gordon used his work to document the unfair treatment of black Americans. He would go in to write books, compose music, and direct films – and it all started with a $7.50 camera and a talent that could not be denied.

Very interesting! Parks is someone who feels like he should be a household name, but is often overlooked in the discussion of great photographers (I encourage you to check out his work, he was astoundingly ahead of his time). While he is possibly best-known for his film Shaft, I like that this story focuses on his early life and work, showing how he overcame prejudice to follow his dreams and abilities, then turned around to use to that opportunity to bring awareness to the struggles of others. The text is great, moving swiftly while still exploring what Gordon’s life and work was like. The art is wonderful too, creating defined, vibrant characters and environments while also interpreting Park’s photos for young readers. As I mentioned, there is a stillbirth shown on the first page, and while Parks survives, it may take some explaining for younger bookworms. The length is fine, and JJ really liked this one. We recommend it, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!