The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, illustrated by Don Tate – review & a SIGNED giveaway!


What a lovely marvel this book is.

This is a picture book biography of John Roy Lynch, who was freed from slavery at 16 and within ten years was elected to the United States Congress.  The book doesn’t try to cover Lynch’s entire life (though there’s great back matter including a timeline, suggestions for further reading, and detailed author and illustrator notes) but instead traces his childhood, early life, and the period he becomes involved in politics and a passionate promoter of the Civil Rights Act of 1865. It puts all of these events in Lynch’s life in the larger context of Reconstruction in America. And two key questions that come up when considering this book are: why Reconstruction and why John Roy Lynch?

I believe because this is a story from over 140 years ago that is still relevant in all the things that are happening around us every day. This is a story that will challenge young readers to think about America and opportunity and history in new ways. This is not an easy read – but it’s engaging, compelling, and perfect for starting discussions with kids. Not only do I believe children can handle tough discussions, I believe we owe it to them to teach them to think critically about hard issues. What I love about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is that it shows children a hard period in American history and doesn’t flinch away from it.  More than that, it asks the reader to think about how these systems of inequality impact the world we live in today.

Lots of this is due to Barton’s clear-headed and even-handed writing.  John Roy Lynch is not held up as a perfect person, instead he comes across as someone hungry to learn and honest at all costs.  He seems real.  We meet him as a young boy, enslaved and already clued in to the racket of slavery.  We follow him through his time growing up and gaining freedom in many senses of the word.  And as the reader learns about Lynch’s life, Barton also shows us what reconstruction was like – the great strides in freedom and equality that came for many African-Americans is shown alongside the fierce retaliation from white Americans.  This is no easy biography – by choosing to put Lynch’s life in context, Barton not only shows how truly amazing his life’s journey was but how brutal the backlash to Reconstruction was. (and slavery is also shown as a brutal institution perpetuated by white people, specifically in Lynch’s case his master’s wife, who hid behind Christian dogma. Again, this is a clear-headed choice which makes the narrative stand out and ring true.) This is a book that elicits discussion with kid readers:  what could have John Roy Lynch’s life and career looked like without the backlash against Reconstruction?

The other stand-out element in this book are Don Tate’s illustrations which, like Barton’s text, are clear-headed and sharp-focused.  Tate’s illustrations are beautiful, there’s that.  There are a few scenes-  Lynch standing on a hill in the silhouette of a sunset, Lynch orating to a crowd of mostly African-American men that are just beautiful and inspiring in the purest sense of the word.  But Tate’s illustrations are also very smart and, let’s be honest, brave. It’s brave to show the KKK in full terror mode on the ride in a children’s book, it’s brave to show black men being whipped and threatened during slavery and afterwards.  Brave because there are going to be many people who say, “That doesn’t belong in a children’s book!” and brave because there are going to be people who say, “Yes, racism was bad but there’s no reason to be so GRAPHIC about it.”  But Tate knows that’s a lie.  There IS a reason to show these things – because children deserve the truth, because John Roy Lynch’s story isn’t complete without this, because these are the things John Roy Lynch and his contemporaries lived through and it informs their struggles and their triumphs and kid readers should know and think about that.

Let’s take a look at some of my favorite illustrations.


This is a two-page spread looking at the reaction in Mississippi to the days after freedom.  I love how Tate has chosen to show the whole landscape here – the fury on the face of the white people, the sorrow on the face of the African-Americans.  There is a lot happening here, it’s not all easy to see, but it’s important. And again, this is a picture that shows the reader the depth and stakes of a story.  Great stuff.


I think this is one of the smartest pictures in the book – a class of white children learn in a public school … and in the background, we see a small window of John Roy Lynch listening and learning.  Tate lets readers see how Lynch was excluded from so-called public institutions but how his curiosity and hunger to learn were unstoppable.


Another favorite: Barton’s text talks about John Roy’s rise in both politics and his personal life.  This description of John Roy’s determination is perfectly illustrated by Tate, who gets across the charisma and force of presence John Roy would have certainly had to have.  And oh my goodness how fabulous is THIS image of African-Americans – an almost entirely African-American crowd is enthralled by John Roy – showing the reader a lot about the strides happening for African-Americans in the era, with John Roy Lynch leading the way.

Everything about The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is special.  It’s a book that asks children to think big thoughts and ask hard questions about eras of history that are too often glossed over and about the era we live in now.  It’s ambitious, interesting, original and very beautiful.  It’s meant to be shared and discussed with kids and I recommend it as a first purchase for public libraries looking to enrich their children’s non-fiction collection and especially for elementary school librarians and classroom teachers working with 3rd-6th grades. It’s a great supplement for history lessons and will hopefully make young learners even more curious about our country’s history, all the parts of it – the amazing and hard ones.

Not just a copy but a copy signed by both Chris Barton and Don Tate.

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment on this blog by Friday, June 5th. 


The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is out now and if you can’t buy a copy, check one out from your library. If they don’t own one, request they add it!


Proposed Program: STEM Meets Diversity

I was brainstorming for summer reading when I came up with this program.  A lot of the inspiration came from What Color is My World? The Lost History of African-American Inventors by Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Raymond Obstefeld.

color my world

This book traces the history of several African American inventors who are not widely known.  As I was thinking about creating a STEM program for the summer I thought … why not make the STEM program based on the work of real scientists? (yes, this thought was helped by the fact my town is filled with ever so many real scientists and many kids here have scientist parents.  As they always say: the best place to look around for ideas is your own community!)

This could help the kids, especially school age kids, put the experiments and science into a real world context – hopefully making a stronger and more lasting impact on them. As you may know, I love putting things in a real world context as it is a way to show kids that learning really is all around them and extending learning beyond the library and beyond library programs.  So connecting STEM programs to actual scientists and actual discoveries and actual inventions seemed like the perfect fit.

And once I thought of that … I instantly thought of this book.  What if we created a STEM program that was based around real-life inventions and scientists … of color.

Some advantages:

  • kids probably won’t be familiar with these scientists and their work, so you’re not just repeating things about Newton they’ve heard twenty times already. New!  Exciting!  Interesting!
  • you INSTANTLY have another diversity program that also covers STEM programming: two areas most libraries are looking to develop in.
  • it’s chance to take on STEM in a new way  – when I was creating our ScienceFest week of programs, I found a lot of the same stuff.  WHICH IS AWESOME but this is a way to approach STEM from a whole new direction and expand STEM to cover history and biography too.
  • I relish any chance I have to educate caregivers too – this could be a great chance to explain to caregivers WHY you are having this program, HOW they can help have conversations with their children about diversity and discovery. We can be the facilitators and leaders in these conversations about diversity and this program, which will have hands on experimenting and FUN is a perfect gateway.

Here are a few inventors and experiment pairings:

And those are just a few – I am sure there are tons more.  My original idea was to call the program Colors of STEM, but when I thought of also adding (white) women who were lesser known inventors I realized it didn’t quite fit.  So, I don’t quite have the right name yet: maybe something about discoveries or diversity or broadening your STEM horizons.  I also thought you might do this thematically by month – so you could have Great African-American Inventors in February or Women Inventors in March.  That would be another way to make those celebrations and displays get active in your library.

So what do YOU think?  Have any great names for this program?  Have some good ideas of  inventors/projects you think could go together and fit the theme?  What are some ways you could expand your STEM programming to be more diverse or more real world relevant? Comment here or chat with me on Twitter

Oh and one thing I definitely know – you could wrap the series up (especially if you do it in summer…) with a water gun party. After all Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker, is African American! 🙂



Proposed Program: Meet the Music

It all started with Little Melba!


Little Melba and Her Big Trombone was one of my favorite books of 2014!  This swinging picture book biography (winner of a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for Frank Morrison, yay!) tells the story of Melba Liston, a girl in the 1930s who was told little girls couldn’t play trombones.  Of course, Melba picked that trombone up and mastered it – becoming the first woman to play trombone in big bands of the 1940s. After I read, and fell in love with this amazing book, I thought just one thing –


After jamming out to Melba Liston, I started thinking about how I could share this book in programs.  It’s a little too long to use in a story time, even one of our early readers sessions (which are geared at 4-7).  But I knew kids would love the illustrations and love the story of Melba’s creativity, determination, and successes.  So….where and when to use it?

Then I thought waaaay back to one of my first summers programming – all the way back in 2009. That summer, I built a program around one of my favorite American artists – Jackson Pollock.  Specifically: we had a school-age program in the summer – it lasted about an hour and we were always looking for programmings.  I read the book Action Jackson and then we spread out paper, listening to some jazz and did Jackson Pollock proud.

The kids had a BLAST – I could actually see them splattering to the music – just like Jackson Pollock did. The book and the art and the music all came together in this tangible, memorable way. It was an awesome program

pollock(me, rocking it in 2009 with Action Jackson and the kid’s art. See how long I’ve loved my job?!)

I thought about Melba Liston’s music and then I thought about that paint splatter and summer and school age kids and combining different literacies and … then I thought about all those cool picture book biographies about musicians that it’s sometimes hard to find the right reader for and …

MEET THE MUSIC was born!

What’s MEET THE MUSIC?  Let’s look at a program outline!

  • When: Once a week during the summer programming blitz, when we have lots of kids and families coming in and looking for programs to share.
  • Who: School age kids – old enough to listen to longer stories and discuss them but still young enough to love picture books and being read to.  We’ll have it open to ages 7+.
  • Why: Developing multiple literacies (music literacy!  visual literacy!  multicultural literacy!) and giving a spotlight to some books that might get lost in the biography section.  Also – these biographies do a great job highlighting multicultural and diverse lives and achievements. (So many POC, heck yes! And two of the books I selected are Schneider Family Book Award winners, spotlighting disabled protagonists who were successful musicians.)
  • What: Every week we chose an artist!  We read a biography about them and then listen to some of their music. TA-DAH. That’s it, program done.  NOW you could build out from this.  You could encourage the kids to talk about the music afterwards: did it sound like they thought it would from the book?  Did the writer do a good job describing the music and the way it makes you feel?  How would THEY describe the music and the way it made them feel? What about the pictures?  How do music, words, and pictures all work together? You could extend that to an art activity – draw during or after the music.

I talked about this ideas with some of my favorite librarians at Midwinter – Kendra, Laura, and Cate (among others) and they each came up with ways this program might work in their communities.  Kendra thought about adding live music and turning it into a longer family program featuring community musicians.  THAT’S AMAZING! (see why I have the best PLN both online and when I get really lucky IRL?!)

And that’s another thing I love about this program – it’s flexible and it can grow and to fit YOUR library.

Don’t believe you have enough books to power this program?  More like you don’t have enough weeks to cover all the books.  Here’s just a few of the titles I thought of. Look at the genres of music they span! Look at the different faces and illustrations!

And, of course, the cute program name: kids will be invited to meet the musicians by learning about their lives through the text and then meet the music by listening to it.

I can’t wait to start the introductions!

WHAT DO YOU THINK?  This program is DEFINITELY read to be stolen and implemented at your library! Do you have modifications for the program that might work at your library or make it more engaging?  How about other suggested titles that might fit – I’m sure there are some awesome picture book biographies of classical musicians, for instance.  Do you think a program like this would be successful at YOUR library? Are YOU ready to meet the music?!

Leave me a comment here with all your thoughts or talk with me on Twitter.


Librarians & #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Have you supported #WeNeedDiverseBooks yet? What started off as a virtual movement has now become a full-fledged force.  Their fundraising drive met their goal in less than a month. (but you should still donate if you can!) The best part of the fundraising is that it backs up concrete, measurable results which will ensure that diverse books get out to a more children and teens.  Among the many cool goals, I have to admit my favorite is the one about funding not just an award but a grant for new writers – both named after the legendary (and beloved by me) Walter Dean Myers.  THESE are the kind of actions that need to be taken if we want to open up and PUSH the conversation/sales/and attention of diverse titles AND authors!

In several Twitter chats and interactions, I’ve noticed that people who don’t work in libraries are curious about how to – or even if they should – approach their (mostly public) librarians about stocking more diverse titles. I thought it might be helpful to have some tips on the best way to do this if you, a library user, want to interact with your librarian about the diversity in your library.  Now, of course, I can’t speak to every situation and you should use, well … approach your librarian as if that person has good intentions.  Because, 99.9% of the time, trust me when I tell you we do.  Librarians want to support diverse books.  We see.  We know.  More than you can imagine, we see the impact books have on children, we understand what it means when they find themselves in text.  We do.  And we want more diverse books and more diverse collections – but we’re limited by time and budget and staffing and a thousand little things that pull apart our days and responsibilities. That’s the reality of working in a public library in these times when everything from budgets to “so, hey eBooks are putting you out of business, huh?” presses in on us every single day.  But we care.  We do. Before you have any conversation with your librarian about diversity: try very hard (outside any previous experience that has given you cause to doubt) to presume good intentions. What else can you do?

Get to know your librarian!

We live for your questions.  We want nothing more than to talk to you about books.  We want to hear what you’re reading.  We want to recommend favorites.  And, most of all, we want to hear about what YOU want to see/read at the library.  Go ahead and ask the person behind the desk in the children/teen department what THEY are reading.  And, yes, ask them about diverse books

  • Be specific: “I’m interested in some picture books with African-American characters.”
  • Use examples of titles/authors you like: “I love the Lulu books by Hilary McKay. Can you recommend some others like that?”
  • Talk about what you want IN ADDITION to diversity: “My daughter loves books with action and adventure.  Can you recommend some diverse titles that would fit in with that?”
Once you have started this conversation, it will be easier to approach your librarian about requests or gaps you see in the collection. And, side bonus, you’ll get good recommendations.  Now, your librarian might not be some kind of machine that can spit out recommendations at the drop of a hat but here’s what questions like this do: indicate to your librarian that there is patron interest in these kind of books and let your librarian know that these are the kind of books they should be familiar with/able to booktalk and recommend. Say you’ll come back while they have time to compile a list, give your librarian a chance to do some research.

Submit your requests!

Almost all libraries accept patron requests.  This doesn’t mean they will buy everything yoyu request.  Budgets just don’t make that possible and neither do each library’s individual collection development policies, which vary from library to library but SHOULD be available to any patron that asks to see them.  But the point is … you are not inventing the wheel by asking if you can submit purchase requests.  DO NOT feel nervous, pushy, hesitant, or ashamed about submitting purchase requests. We get asked this often for more stuff than you could possibly imagine. Your library probably has a purchase request form on their website.  Here’s a few random examples:

If you feel hesitant about talking to a librarian about this, you can get to most online forms with a little bit of Googling or digging around at their website.  You can also ask in person for a paper purchase request – yes, those still exist.  (Well, in MOST libraries, I guess.)  As far as I know, libraries don’t “prioritize” one over the other.  BUT don’t just go spamming libraries with purchase requests if you don’t live there/have never even been to their library.  Most libraries require your patron info any way, so we’d notice. (and it doesn’t make us kindly inclined to your suggestions, trust.)

Now, that stuff might seem pretty self-evident.  But here’s the reason you got to know your librarian!  You can approach your librarian about WHY you want to purchase these books.  Sometimes the forms have space for this – fill it it!  But other times they don’t – but, hey!  You got to know your librarian!

How do libraries/librarians decide to buy books?  Well, it differs from library to library. But we all have (or should have) collection development policies.  These guide our purchasing decisions.  But so do other things.  Like budgets.  Like patron interest. (these elements can be built into collection development guidelines.) And, as you have no doubt heard countless times: libraries also use reviews and awards to help guide collection development.  That’s why those things matter, you see.

And that’s why you should use them to your advantage! Mention these lists.  Tell your librarian you’ll check out the award titles.  Award lists with patron interest?  Now that’s something a librarian can make a case for.  Not sure what lists to mention?  Luckily, I have some suggestions. For the most part, these are awards given by the American Library Association and its divisions (because this is, of course, the professional organization for librarians) but there are some others worth noting. Enjoy these handy direct direct links:

Coretta Scott King Award (lots of libraries carry these winners: but what about the Honor books?)
Schneider Family Book Award (for books that best embody the disability experience)
Pura Belpré Award (another good list to check on the Honor titles)
Stonewall Book Awards – Mike Morgan & Larry Romans Children’s & Young Adult Literature Award
Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature
American Indian Youth Literary Award
Amelia Bloomer List (feminist literature for ages 0-18)

Non-ALA Awards
Jane Addams Peace Association Book Award (promoting peace, social justice, equality)
Ezra Jack Keats Book Award (for, among other things, portraying the “multicultural nature of our world”)
Lambda Literary (category for Children’s/Young Adult)
Américas Award (for portraying Latin America, the Caribbean, or Latinos in the United States)
Sydney Taylor Book Award (awarded by the National Jewish Book Award for Children’s Literature)
NAACP Image Award for Literature (categories for Children & Teen)

>If you have a blogger or website that you think gives particularly insightful and comprehensive reviews, you should feel free to talk to your librarian about that source too.  Maybe they’re familiar with them, maybe they’re not and they can add a new review source. For example: Debbie Reese has recommended lists on Native Americans in Children’s Literature and Twinja Reviews had a ton of lists for Black Speculative Fiction Month, including smaller press stuff which can be hard to find reviews of.

What about donations? Self-published stuff?

First, thank you for thinking of your library!  Now give us money.  Haha, just kidding.  Sorta.

The real first thing is: gifts are not free. When you donate something to a library, we have to take staff time and our own materials to process it and catalog it so it can be added to the collection.  Someone also has to decide if it belongs in the library collection, which goes back to using our collection development guidelines. So, that takes time and money and it’s time and money some libraries don’t have, which is why they may not accept donations and why you should ask what your library’s policies and procedures for donations/gifts are first.

Next is the self-publishing issue.  There’s a great conversation about self-published books, how they get reviewed, and what that means for libraries at The Horn Book.  There’s many people saying smart and thoughtful things there, but I will give you a little bit of my librarian’s perspective.  First, we just can’t circulate paperback picture books or easy readers.  They fall apart and they are not worth staff time processing them. If you want us to buy/add a picture book or easy reader?  It’ll have to be hardcover. Second, I have run the numbers.  In my library, I have STATISTICALLY seen that overall, the self-published books that were donated and then added to our collection circulate less than traditionally published books.  That is absolutely going to be a factor in my decision about adding titles. Does this mean we would never add self-published books?  No, of course not.  We have and will again – but it does mean that they are held to a higher standard. I don’t mean for this post to be THE ULTIMATE GUIDE ON HOW TO GET YOUR SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK IN LIBRARIES!!1 I don’t think that exists, for one thing, and every library will have a different set of guidelines and standards about this – because this is a new field and because every community is different. There’s also the issue of where libraries will be able to obtain your self-published title from and if their purchasing guidelines allow for them to buy from those services. And you know what that leaves you with, should you be wishing to urge a librarian to buy your self-published book/donate it?  It leads you right back to step #1: get to know your librarian!

And there you go!  Those are some ways you can really interact with your librarian (and your library shelves) when it comes to finding out about new diverse material AND requesting your library’s shelves grow even more diverse.  Just as we should speak up to the publishing world and let them know that, yes, we will buy and promote and be excited about diverse titles, that we want more to share with children and teens, so should we talk to librarians about this – and I mean this if you’re a library user or if you’re a fellow librarian reading this now.

What are YOU doing, fellow librarians, to make patrons aware of your diverse collection? What are you doing to EXPAND your collection? 

Do you make it easy for patrons to figure out how they can request titles, are you forms easily accessible? Do you do displays with the books face out for cultural heritage months?  Do you include diverse titles on your best books for fifth grade! recommended reading lists or your staff favorites?  Do you put your diverse titles face-out where patrons can find them browsing?  Do you booktalk diverse titles on school visits or when asked for recs?  Do you talk to your child/teen patrons about why this issue is important and impacts them?  Are you making a conscious effort to expand the doors and windows in your collection, to address gaps, to make sure your collection is diverse and TRUE to?

This is now in OUR hands.  Let’s do something about it.

If you have any questions – or even better suggestions – about how diversity in library collections and what you can/should do about it as a library user OR a librarian, I’d love to continue the conversation!  You can leave a comment here or talk to me on Twitter.  Let’s keep this momentum and this movement going – we owe to our patrons.