Christine Emery’s The Black Cloud Blues

The Black Cloud BluesWritten by Christine A. Emery and illustrated by Kellie R. Emery, The Black Cloud Blues does the important work of acknowledging childhood depression. In doing so it makes a valuable contribution to children’s literature. Kellie Emery’s deliberate illustrations provide access to the unnamed narrator’s feelings as he takes readers on a journey into his experience with depression.

The text opens: “There’s a black cloud hanging over me.” The young narrator stares at the reader with large eyes as a stormy background of violet, indigo, and black streaked with rain visually communicates his sadness. The reader learns that depression is passed down from the child’s father, grandfather, and even great grandfather. By identifying the narrator’s depression as rooted in genetics, Christine Emery gestures towards a shared familial history, subtly assuring young readers that feelings of depression are not uncommon.

The child tries to get rid of the cloud, a project explored through the remainder of the text. He visualizes outrunning the black cloud, blowing it away with a collection of fans, and moving it with a crane, all to no avail. This is a project he can’t undertake on his own.

The child thinks he will be sad forever and begins to play the blues. An image of him wearing sunglasses and a suit while playing the harmonica lightens the mood inside and outside of the text, but just a bit, just enough for the cloud to budge. The small movement provides space for something new to enter the boy’s world. A blue bird appears and offers to help. The bird begins jumping up and down on the cloud and is soon joined by other blue birds. The cheery birds destroy the cloud and the darkness dissipates.

The black cloud is replaced with a sunny sky and a brilliant rainbow. The young narrator takes in the view as his new friends surround him. He can smile and feel joy.

The text ends by telling children to connect with others when they feel sad and cannot escape the black cloud: “Now, whenever you are feeling sad and storm clouds are following you, make sure you tell somebody too.”

This is an important picture book that provides hope without suggesting an effortless path to happiness. It treats mental illness with dignity and children with respect. Even more, images and words share a harmonious relationship that make the narrator’s feelings accessible to even the youngest readers. The Black Cloud Blues will make a wonderful addition to personal and classroom libraries likely filling a gap on even the most carefully curated bookcases.

*The author provided me with a review copy.

New in ’19

Image result for new in  2019 textStay tuned for middle grade and young adult reviews in 2019. If you write socially engaged #MG or #YA literature featuring diverse characters, feel free to contact me with review requests at I’ll roll out several reviews in each category beginning January 1!

Terry Lynn Johnson’s Lost!

Terry Lynn Johnson’s Lost! is the first book in the Survivor Diaries series. Two recently introduced children vacationing with their families at a resort in Costa Rica get lost in the rainforest. They survive through will, wit, and a little luck.

In the first chapter, one of the two protagonists, Carter, a young African American boy, is interviewed by a reporter about surviving being lost in the Costa Rican rainforest. We learn that his friend and fellow survivor, Anna, a white girl who is older, taller, and stronger than him, will be interviewed the next day. Knowing the children survive alleviates a sense of doom in the chapters that follow, which pull us back in time six weeks to when Carter and Anna disappeared into the rainforest.

Carter and Anna are interesting, nicely developed characters. I appreciate the near equal attention paid to both characters, although it is a first-person narrative told from Carter’s point-of-view. The book is sure to appeal to both girls and boys. Anna is a brave, bold, seventh grader strong enough to give her father a piggy-back ride. Carter describes her as “taller and stronger than any girl I’d ever met.” Carter is younger, shorter, and has been diagnosed with anxiety. Throughout their short adventure, Carter develops strategies to manage his anxiety that he takes with him after the children are safely home.

Johnson folds a lot of interesting tidbits about animals and survival into the narrative, which encourages curiosity and invites further research. This early chapter book will make a great addition to classroom and personal libraries. It’s a fast-paced read likely to engage reluctant readers. The diverse racial and gender identities of the characters as well as their age difference invites readers to consider friendships based on things other than shared identities, in this case survival!

* Reviewed for the Cybils Awards.


Thank you!


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Elise Gravel’s You Can Be

You Can BeElise Gravel’s board book, You Can Be, subtly rejects gender stereotypes while introducing very young readers to a range of characteristics through images of diverse children embodying them.

Steely-blue and bright-red images leap off the glossy-white background of each page. The cover features the back of a young child with light-brown skin and long black hair running in a garden. It sets the tone for the text, welcoming young readers into the book to explore all the things they can be.

Upon opening the book, the first image to greet readers is a brown-skinned baby with curly tufts of hair and a sweet smile. The reader is invited to explore the “many ways to be a kid.” Each of the images that follow depict a child embodying a different mode of being ranging from funny to artsy and even dirty.

In one image a little blond boy with pale-white skin hugs a stuffed toy and cries while reading a book. The word “sensitive” is written at the top of the page. In another image a tan-skinned little girl in a super hero costume lurches forward in pursuit of excitement. The word “adventurous” at the top of the page permits little girls to engage in acts of heroism.

The last two images depart from these, but only to reinforce the text’s overall message. A gender-neutral outline of a child invites readers to imagine other possibilities for being. The text above the image assures children they can be “almost any way you feel like being.” But, the text below the image inserts some exceptions: “Except mean or rude.”

The final image obscures the gender of the character behind an astronaut ensemble. The corresponding text surrounds the child-astronaut: “You can just be yourself.”

I love this book. It’s perfect for little hands just learning how to turn pages. The bright images and simple text are sure to captivate even the very youngest audience. Toddlers will also appreciate the positive messages as they build a vocabulary to describe themselves.

I appreciated the diversity of Gravel’s characters as well as her disregard for gender norms. You Can Be offers very young children the freedom to explore a variety of characteristics. This a is a wonderfully affirming book.

* The publisher, The Innovation Press, provided a review copy.

The Beginning of Your Life Book Club

Episode 1 - Book ClubI love presenting my work on children’s literature at academic conferences. I never fail to meet amazing people who understand the importance of popular culture, including children’s books. I met Emily Akins at the Children’s Literature Association‘s Summer 2018 conference. Emily is an Editorial Director at Hallmark and in 2018 she won an award that provided her with a 6-month sabbatical from her job to pursue a personal project. Emily decided to research children’s literature and create a podcast: The Beginning of Your Life Book Club. She is already reaching a wide audience, but let’s help her reach even more people as invested in amazing children’s books as we are!

Courtney Carbone’s This Makes Me Sad

This Makes Me Sad, written by Courtney Carbone and illustrated by Hilli Kushnir, is one of several books in Rodale Kids’ Dealing with Feelings series. This easy reader does a great job teaching emotional literacy through simple sentences that build an accessible and engaging story about a boy and his lost dog.

The story is told in the first-person by a little boy who accidentally left the gate on his fence open, which allowed his dog, Kit, to escape. His parents try to reassure him that everything will be okay, but he is anxious and sad.

The text often takes a poetic turn, allowing children new and creative ways to visualize their emotions. For instance, the family drives around town unsuccessfully looking for Kit and the young narrator says: “The sun sinks in the sky./ My heart sinks, too.” A simple sentence pairing that eloquently captures and communicates the anxiety felt by the narrator. Later that night, the family is back home, and the narrator looks out a window at a stormy sky and says: “The raindrops look like tears on my window.” His sadness frames everything he sees. The family continues to look for Kit the next day. Seeing other people with their dogs makes the narrator’s insides feel “like ice cream melting in the hot sun.” Carbone prompts children to think expansively about their feelings in order to express their specificity.

Later that afternoon, the family looks for Kit in the local animal shelter. He is not there, but the narrator is slightly cheered by the idea of making the animals at the shelter happy by collecting supplies for them. Although keeping busy does not erase his thoughts of Kit, it helps redirect his attention. The family works together to collect supplies and then brings them to the shelter.

The young boy’s dog is eventually returned home, bringing him great joy. The story closes with the question: “What makes YOU sad?”

I love that this book gives children so many ways to articulate their emotions. It also allows for the simultaneous experience and expression of contradictory feelings. The narrator can feel good about collecting and donating objects to the animal shelter even as he feels bad his dog is missing. I also appreciate the subtle rejection of gender stereotypes. It is his father who comforts him when the narrator stares out a rain streaked window with tears streaking his cheeks. Even more, the story features a diverse cast of minor characters and the narrator and his family are racially ambiguous with skin tones that range from medium to light brown.

This is a great early reader and I plan on checking out the rest in the series!

* I received a review copy of this book and evaluated it in my role as a Cybils Awards Round One Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book Judge.