I Have Heard of a Land

Author(s): Joyce Carol ThomasIMG_4391

Illustrator/Photographer: Floyd Cooper

Publisher and Year: HarperCollins Publishers in 1998

Number of Pages: 26

Genre: Historical Fiction


This book is about an African American woman who is travelling westward to claim land in Oklahoma. It describes the challenges that African American pioneer women faced, like having to sleep in a sod hut with a saddle as a pillow, but it also illuminates the pride and freedom that they now have. The story is based on the westward movement in the 1880s, and more specifically, the author’s own family experiences while moving to Oklahoma.

The illustrations in this story both mirror and add to the text of the story. For example, the illustrations describe what the text is saying, but in more detail. Also, every illustration covers the entire page, there is no white space on any page, therefore, every image is unframed. This causes the reader to feel like they are there experiencing the westward movement with the characters. The colors of the images are all shades of brown which give an earthy and powerful mood to the story, but the darker shades of brown portrays a more serious and sorrowful mood. I also noticed that the main character is usually facing or looking to the right of the page which can symbolize her determination to keep moving until she finds her own piece of land.

This story can be used as a mirror to teach children about the Oklahoma Land Runs which allowed not only African Americans to settle and gain land, but also single women. I believe it could also be a window for children to begin to learn about the hardships that African Americans, especially females, were facing at this time in history. I also believe that it could be a mirror for African American females because not often are African American women depicted in literature as tough, hard-working, and independent. This story also touches on the idea of self-perseverance and personal journeys by the way that the main character never gives up on her westward journey even though she may face unexpected challenges along the way. Therefore, I believe this could function as a door to encourage children to always follow their dreams, but also realize that it will not be easy and it will take a lot of hard work and determination but it is worth it. All in all, this story is did a great job of retelling an often looked over event in history that gave African Americans and females the chance at freedom and opportunity.

Terrible Things: An Allegory for the Holocaust

IMG_4274Author(s): Eve Bunting

Illustrator/Photographer: Stephen Gammell

Publisher and Year: The Jewish Publication Society in 1989

Number of Pages: 28

Genre: Fiction


This story begins with a scene of animals in the woods, where everything seems to be going well until the “Terrible Things” come to the woods demanding to take different animals that have a specific trait like having feathers or being able to swim. The “Terrible Things” get away with taking the different creatures because none of the animals try to help the other ones because they do not want to make the “Terrible Things” angry with them. Therefore, group after group of animals are taken away by the “Terrible Things” until all the animals in the forest are gone, except for the one little rabbit who finally decides to go warn the other animals in the forest about what had happened.

This book is intentionally written as an allegory for the Holocaust, and therefore, this book can act as a window for children to learn about this tragic event from history. I also believe it can also act as a door to encourage children to stand up for others and to also question authority. This story shows the “Terrible Things” using coercion to assist in becoming more powerful, which illustrates how the Nazis gained their power in Germany in the 1940s. I believe that this story accurately depicts how the Holocaust occurred and how the people in Germany allowed it to happen, which was out of fear of questioning their authority figures and in hoping to save themselves. When first looking at this book, I noticed that the words are seen on both the top and the bottom of the pages, the “Terrible Things” are always placed at the top of the pages, and that there was no color used throughout the story. From page to page the text seems to be in a different location and I believe that this could represent the chaos that was occurring in the forest and the fact that nobody knew what was going to happen to the animals next. The illustrations within this text are extremely powerful because they are all black and white images and this lack of color exemplifies the dark and cold tone of the story. The images of the “Terrible Things” are always at the top of the page or above the other animals to symbolize their power and high status. I believe that the story itself is deep, but these images give another dimension and seriousness to the words being spoken.

The message that this story is trying to send the reader is that authority should be questioned because sometimes the reason they are powerful is because of the power the people have given them by not questioning them. I also believe that the story was also trying to explain the importance of standing up for others, especially those that do not have a voice.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington

FullSizeRender (3)

Author: Ramin Ganeshram

Illustrator: Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Publisher and Year: Scholastic Press 2016

Number of pages: 28

Genre: Historical Fiction


A Birthday Cake for George Washington is a fictionalized retelling of George Washington’s kitchen slave Hercules and his family. The story takes place on George Washington’s birthday and Hercules, his daughter, and the rest of the kitchen staff are making the president a cake but run into a problem; they have no sugar. They search the kitchen and decide to use the president’s favorite condiment, honey, as a supplement.

The general plot of the book is fairly straight forward and would be a fine story if not for the ideologies presented by this story. This book has received a lot of criticism for both the way it is written and for the illustrations. Because of the breezy nature of the way Hercules’ family lives in the story, slavery is presented as an easy time for slaves where all the slaves were pleased to work for the president. The notion that there is a positive aspect of slavery is also presented through the illustrations in which all of the slaves are portrayed as smiling at almost all times. The only time the characters are not smiling is when there are no white characters present in the story.

FullSizeRender (4)

Both the text and the illustrations combine to create a book that ignores and erases the terrors and horrors of slavery. Because this book is a fictionalized retelling of a real slave family, it erases an important part of Hercules’s history. In this book, Hercules’s daughter often tells of how proud her father is to work for and be favored by the president. In reality, almost all slaves were oppressed and mistreated, even Hercules. Hercules’s real story is not one that should inspire hope to fair treatment of slaves because he eventually abandoned his family and escaped slavery, which goes directly against the books idyllic nature that these slaves were happy. It is possible that very few slaves could have lived a life that was not as terrible as typically depicted and rather as depicted in the story, but Hercules was not one of those slaves.

Overall, this plot of the book is not one that is inherently offensive, but the happy slave illustrations and erasure of the actual horrors of slavery leave A Birthday Cake for George Washington to have an offensive ideology.


Why War is Never a Good Idea


Author: Alice Walker

Illustrator: Stefano Vitale

Publisher/Year: Harper Collins, 2007

Pages: 28

Genre: Poetry


Without referring to any war in particular, Alice Walker in Why War is Never a Good Idea, poetically personifies war and its devastation. Walker depicts war as an unpredictable, out-of-control, blind, bad-mannered, gluttonous, and unwise force of man that is inconsiderate of the destruction it wreaks on innocent victims.

 Walker’s book certainly functions as a mirror for readers, especially children who have immigrated to the United States in search of safety and security, or felt firsthand the devastation of war (e.g. through death of a loved one, or flattening of one’s hometown). In addition, Walker’s poem introduces readers who have never felt the impacts of war to war’s many unknowing victims: a boy and his donkey, nursing mothers, ancient artifacts, pumas and parakeets, and civilians who are left to die from contaminated water. Walker’s picture book also calls readers, young and old, to not blindly support a tradition or concept (war) simply because it is old. For, as Walker comments: “Though War is Old / it has not become wise,” carrying with it a bundle of unforeseen consequences and striking at a moment’s glance (p. 16).

 Power rests in the personified hands of War, who acts without thinking, attacks without warning, and consumes without asking. The victims, both human and inanimate, are the unfortunate recipients of war’s havoc. Why War is Never a Good Idea shows lower-class native people (Asian, Hispanic, and African American) and their culture to be destroyed by war. While accurate, this depiction does not fully represent war’s devastation. Only on the final page of the book does a white family of three appear as a victim, individuals who will also have to drink the contaminated water. Non-White soldiers are not the only ones exploited by the war.

 The text communicates the differences between what war is and is not, highlighting how unforeseen consequences lie in this difference. The text also emphasizes the innocence of what war destroys, be it a boy dreaming of polenta and eggs for dinner, or a mother singing a lullaby to her baby. Weapons of war and destruction are illustrated realistically (compared to cartoon drawings) and described rather elusively. The photographs interact with hand drawn landscapes for a dramatic effect (e.g. wheel of truck ripping through the paper on which the village is drawn; little green soldier figurines sucked into a wave of grimy, contaminated water…). Images magnify how from all different angles—taste, smell, sight, and touch—war is bad and futile. Images also elaborate on the cruelty of war. All of the pre-war images of villages and natives are illustrated with a rainbow of bright colors to show their momentary peace and freedom. The colors turn more eerie and burnt as destruction ensues. Why War is Never a Good Idea promotes a global anti-war attitude, criticizes the unlimited power of war, and raises ethical concerns regarding the effects of war on victims.