Review: Memphis, Martin, and The Mountaintop

The Memphis Sanitation Strike in 1968, which led to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began with the death of two Black sanitation workers who were killed by malfunctioning equipment.  Dr. King provided a boost in morale, and brought national attention to the treatment of Black working men, but the strike itself was initiated by workers who were committed to safer conditions, a livable wage, and the recognition that they were men, and not expendable.



Alice Faye Duncan’s new book Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, begins at the very start of this historic event.  It’s based on the history shared with Duncan by Dr. Almella Stark-Umoja.  Her father, Revend Henry Logan Starks, was pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church in Memphis, a community organizer, and a strategist for the sanitation strike.

The story is told through the perspective of a fictional 9 year-old, Lorraine Jackson, whose father is a sanitation worker.  Through her young eyes we see the simple demands that the men and their families made — that their basic, decent, human rights be recognized.  It highlights the struggles the families made to see that justice was done.



Lorraine marched with her family and other sanitation workers through the streets of Memphis.  She saw the hardship that the strike caused her own family, the toll it took on her father, and the cruel stubbornness of the Memphis Mayor who refused to respect their call for justice.




Her life was forever changed when she heard Dr. King give his famous sermon, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”  When he was assassinated the next day, she sees the persistence of her father and his co-workers and their commitment to peaceful change. Duncan makes a point of honoring Coretta Scott King’s continued support that helped the discouraged sanitation workers endure the fight for their demands.




Christie’s illustrations add to the poignancy of the story.  The story itself is told in vignettes and poems that flow gracefully into one another.


This book is written on a level for ages 9 to 12, but it’s a great book for anyone who wants to peek back into the history of civil rights in America.  I was 8 years old in Memphis when it happened, so the story helped clarify my memory and understand even better what a profound thing happened in my city.

Duncan’s writing is compelling and flows gently through a hard story.  Through the eyes of a child, we see both the complexity and simplicity of an event that changed the course of American history.


Alice Faye Duncan is the author of multiple children’s books, including Honey Baby Sugar Child, which received an NAACP image award.  She lives in Memphis.  You can visit her at


R. Gregory Christie has illustrated more than fifty books for young adults and children. He has won a Caldecott Honor, A New York Times 10 Best Illustrated Books of the Year Award, an NAACP Image Award, and many other awards. You can visit him at , his Atlanta bookstore site that features autographed books for children.

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This is a beautiful book.  It shows how hard it is to change a stagnant system through non-violence, how hard every day people work to bring dignity and justice to life for everyone.  I highly recommend it.

Thanks for reading my blog.  If you like it, share it.  If you find a typo, please let me know and I’ll send you a thank-you postcard.


Julie Paschkis’ new book looks fabulous. Here’s her story on how it came into being:

Books Around The Table

Just out: VIVID- Poems and Notes about Color.

The spark for this book came in April of 2015 when I listened to a Radio Lab show about color. I already thought about color all the time. What a pleasure  it is to put one color next to another when I paint! But the podcast opened my eyes to the science of color. I painted this picture then.

Over the next 6-8 months I began writing poems about colors and squirreling away facts.When I had enough for a book I submitted with the manuscript with the sample illustration for RED. Laura Godwin at Henry Holt accepted it – hooray!

In the fall of 2016 I began to paint. But I had a bicycle accident and lost the use of my arm for 6 months. I was able to paint again in early 2017 and I struggled to find my way…

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Young Reader Review: Coming of Age Through a Snake

Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta

I found out about Mamba Point by Kurtis Scaletta (Knopf, 2010) through the blogger Jennifer Clark Estes who gives great book reviews on children’s books on A Mom’s World (   The premise that an anxious, awkward 12 year old boy created a new identity by finding a magical connection with a venomous snake was too good to pass over.  It turned out to be a remarkable, gentle story of reconnecting to nature and coming of age.

Set in the 1980s, 12 year old Linus Tuttle gets an opportunity to remake himself when his father gets a job at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia.  He’s determined to become a new cool Linus, but as soon as he gets off the plane, he begins to see black mambas, a rare poisonous snake, wherever he goes.  A local merchant tells him of the Liberian belief in “kaseng.”

“You might call it a totem.  That’s an American Indian word for the same thing.  Usually it is a tribe that has a kaseng.  There are leopard people, and bush-cow people, and dove people.  But some people have their own kaseng.  A person might be born with a strong connection to the mongoose or the frog.”

The black mamba is NOT a connection that Linus wants.  The same merchant tells him,  “If you do believe in it, and you do have a kaseng, you should not fear your animal.  They do not want to hurt you.  If you accept it, it will give you strength.”

In learning to accept his kaseng with the black mamba, Linus gets bolder, but also careless, and he has a hard lesson of responsibility to learn.  One man’s source of strength can be a source of danger for others.

Scaletta deftly handles the cultural differences between Liberians and Americans, between young and old, powerful and weak.  He doesn’t over dramatize or moralize; he tells a tale that leaves a lot of room for thought.  He builds a compelling story with humor, danger and insight, and doesn’t sacrifice good narrative for drama.

I think of it as I watch people around me, what their kaseng might be, what animal identity would give them power.  Especially since it is the Halloween season, when everyone is trying to find to find some alter ego, or magical spirit, to slip into — we’re all in search of something to strengthen us against the coming winter harshness.

I think it’s a wonderful story of coming to know your strengths and limits in the larger world.  There’s an intangible quality to it that provides a bit of metaphor for understanding human relations to the animal world, but also the first world to the third world.

Scaletta was born in Louisiana and grew up in several states and foreign countries, including Liberia.  His website is here:

If you’re looking for a good, snaky story for the season that’s not all creepy and morbid, this one will feel perfect.

Children’s Book Reviews: Cloud Tea Monkeys and Stand Straight

One of my great pleasures when I wander through the library is to go to the staff picks display in the children’s section.  I still feel the same delight as I did when I was a child and faced a shelf of face-out picture books.  I used to tease my kids that I only had them so I could keep reading “children’s” books.   The truth is I had kids to prove to myself that some of the contentment that eluded my family of origin, but I found in books, could be replicated in real life.  Through a series of fortunate events, I was able to do that by having two extraordinary children.

Now that they are in their mid to late 20s, I can no longer use them as excuse to read children’s books.  I’ve aged enough to realize I don’t even need an excuse, the stories, the pictures and the windows into the wondrous world are good enough reasons.  If you haven’t picked up a picture book, a fairy tale or a young adult novel since you were “age appropriate,” I strongly suggest you rush over to the children’s section of your library and reacquaint yourself with happy endings.

I’ve felt for years that some of our best artists and illustrators are in the children’s section.  From simple pen and ink drawings to gorgeous paintings to illustrations that rival the illuminated manuscripts of ancient books, the art available for us in these books is truly inspiring and uplifting.

My favorite book of the moment is Cloud Tea Monkeys by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, illustrated by Juan Wijngaard (Candlewick Press, 2010).

This story is based on the many tea picking stories and legends from the Himalayan region, but is a new tale all its own.  There’s a fine modern sensibility that gives you a sense of how we are all connected, but it has an ancient feel to it.  A mother earns her living for herself and her young daughter picking tea under the watchful eye of a cruel overseer.  The daughter, Tashi, accompanies her mother to the tea plantation but she passes the day with a friendly group of monkeys who live on the fringes of the plantation.  Tea picking is a delicate business that requires strong tall women who can bear the weight of giant baskets and know how to discern the best leaves:

“…they found their places and began plucking the tender leaves and buds and tossing them over their shoulders into their big wicker baskets.  The rows of glossy green tea bushes curved into the distance like waves.  Tashi had never seen the end of the plantation.  Perhaps is had no end.  Perhaps it went right around the world.

Within an hour, the sun had sucked the mist up out of the valleys and hung it like a great gray curtain over the tops of the mountains.  Up there, on those wild mountaintops above the clouds, were things Tashi was afraid of:  big cats with jade green eyes and snakes like yellow whips.”

This is the kind of mesmerizing writing that elevates Tashi’s tale to the realm of myth, although it’s a fairly grounded tale of a child having to rescue her parent with the help of the natural world.  Tashi’s mother becomes ill and can’t work.

“Tashi knew that if her mother could not work, there would be no money.  With no money to pay the doctor, her mother would not get well.  If her mother did not get well, she could not work and there would be no money.  The problem went around and around.  It was like a snake with a tale in its mouth, and Tashi was frightened of it.”

Though the basket is bigger than her, she drags it the long distance to the plantation and begins to pick leaves, only to be mocked to tears by the plantation overseer.  She seeks solace with her monkey friends and that friendship proves to have more magic in it than Tashi can imagine.  Her simple acts of kindness and friendship with the animals result in a miracle for her and her mother.

Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham are a husband and wife team.  One writes in the attic and one in the basement, but they meet in the middle to turn out tales like this, the seed of which was planted when Graham was researching tea.

The book is elevated further by the stunning illustrations by Juan Wijngaard, an illustrator from  New Mexico, who has illustrated more than 30 books.  The use of full color plates with pen and ink insets in the text give the book wonderful charm.  His skill with expressions is precise and moving – from the pensive face of Tashi as she contemplates her mother’s illness to the wonderfully funny faces of the Royal Tea Taster when he discovers the Cloud Tea.

I check lots of books out of the library and one’s that I find especially beautiful or touching, I buy for my own personal library.  This goes on the buy list.  I can’t wait to share it.

I also checked out Stand Straight Ella Kate: The True Story of a Real Giant by Kate Klise and illustrated by M. Sarah Klise (Dial Books for Young Readers, 2010).

It’s a great book about Ella Kate Ewing who lived from 1872 until 1913, and reached a height of 8’4”.   What caused her lots of grief in her early life became a way for her to prosper as an adult.  She was part of traveling shows and circuses.  She became wealthy and autonomous at a time when few women enjoyed such freedom.

There are fascinating statistics and illustrations on the end papers.  My favorite is an “actual size” drawing of her hand.  This is a great book for anyone of any age feeling awkward about their size and it made me want to read a more detailed biography of the lady who is still known in Scotland County, Missouri, as the Gentle Giantess, and has a large, reflective lake named in her honor.

Keep reading!