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2021 MN STAR OF THE NORTH Nominees (Part 1)

I read fewer picture books than I did when my own children were in the target age group. However, I LOVE good picture books and I use them often when teaching theatre to students from pre-school through 12th grade. They are a fantastic tool for developing character, for discovering and building basic story structure and experimenting with language and vocal character choices.

The MN Star of the North Award is the younger counterpart to the Maud Hart Lovelace Award for students in grades 3-8.

Nominees are chosen with students K-Grade 2 in mind.  If a student PreK-2nd Grade reads (or has someone read nominees TO them) 8 of the 10 nominated books then he/she is eligible to vote for the Award!  All the nominees are backlist–although usually only by 1 – 3 years. Online voting takes place in March.

I always find diversity in the Star of the North nominees, which I am constantly looking for both as a reader and a teacher. I also find gems from authors I wasn’t familiar with as well as books from some of my favorite authors that I have missed. (I get ridiculously excited when a book I love shows up on the nominee list!)

Below I have written my take 5 of the 10 nominees–to be followed by the second half of nominees in the next post.

UNDER MY HIJAB by Hena Khan; Illustrated by Aaliyah Jaleel

There really isn’t a plot. It’s a collection of pictures of different women in different situations wearing their hijabs in their own unique style interspersed with pictures of the same women engaged in activities at home with uncovered heads. A young Muslim girl observes them all and dreams about the ways in which she will wear her hijab–and how she will express herself through it.

I liked the buoyant spirit of the book and the illustrations are exquisite, dovetailing perfectly with the tone of the text. The book succeeds in portraying Muslim women and girls and the tradition of wearing the hijab as strong and beautiful. It clearly makes the point that although the hijab is traditional it is just as varied and unique as the individual women who wear them.

I wanted more from this book–and having read other work by Khan, I know she is capable of it. The young girl’s observations and imaginings have the potential to be impactful, but without any character development that opportunity is lost.

This is a great choice if you are looking to include a Muslim-centered theme and introduce the explanation of the hijab tradition and a positive representation of Muslim culture into your classroom or your home library.


SNOWMAN – COLD = PUDDLE by Laura Purdie Salas; Illustrated by Micha Archer

I loved this collection of poetry and nonfiction nature science–and I did not expect to. Salas perfectly blends science and poetry, highlighting the way the two disciplines complement and support each other. The language of the poems is playful and imaginative. The factual content is clear without being at all condescending. The illustrations are vibrant and diverse in their human, animal and natural representations.

The author describes the book perfectly:

The equations in this book explore the reasons for the changes we see in the spring. These combinations of words and symbols are science. But they are also something more. They compress big ideas into small phrases, using unexpected or playful language. And they ask you to look at common things in a new way. They are poetry.

Some of my favorite poetry/science equations from the book:

nest + robin = jewelry box

1 dandelion + 1 breath = 100 parachutes

sky – day = stories [constellations]

Perfect for pre-school and early elementary classrooms or at-home read-alouds.

POTATO PANTS by Laurie Keller

I thoroughly enjoyed this book! This is one I had read before it was listed as a 2021 SOTN nominee and I’m thrilled to share it! (I have an individual post about this book specifically if you’re interested in more information about it.)

Lance Vance’s Fancy Pants store has potato pants on sale for one day only and “once they’re gone, they’re gone.” Potato very much wants a pair of potato pants. This story details Potato’s desire, the obstacles in his way, his attempts to problem-solve and the final pages where he does achieve his goal.

Full of emotion and fun, wacky characters as well as clever language (and a few puns!), Potato Pants has LOTS to enjoy. Like all the best picture books it provides a visual feast, a tightly plotted story and lots of springboards to talk about feelings, forgiveness and empathy. This one is a delightful read-aloud or independent reading choice!

MISUNDERSTOOD SHARK by Ame Dyckman; Illustrated by Scott Magoon

The tone and spirit of the story are lively and mischievous. The illustrations are bold and fun. It is the story that let me down. Bob is a sea creature filming his live TV show Underwater World with Bob. Shark interrupts his broadcast repeatedly, seemingly on the verge of behaving as a shark would(attacking and/or eating a small fish, a baby seal, a human)–not something Bob wants to capture on live TV, lest he traumatize his audience.

Every time Bob calls this to Shark’s attention he claims he is “misunderstood”: he was not intending to do what Bob thought; it was something much more innocuous. The book is confusing. In all instances (EXCEPT ONE) Shark is NOT really misunderstood by anyone; his explanations are clearly attempts to manipulate the thinking of the other characters. So the ONE sequence where he does appear to be legitimately misunderstood, makes NO sense in the context of the story since he reverts to the other behavior immediately afterward.

Either the plot is meant to be consistent and the illustrations for that one sequence (at beach with humans) are completely opposite of the author’s intent–or the apparent premise makes no sense. Either premise (Shark is actually misunderstood OR Shark is claiming to be misunderstood when he is not) would work with the bright, fun illustrations, which are full of character and deeply engaging on their own. As it is, I wanted to like this book. But I did not. It left me confused about both the plot and the characters–even after I had re-read it a few times in an effort to correct that. Disappointing.

GOING DOWN HOME WITH DADDY by Kelly Starling Lyons; Illustrated by Daniel Minter

This book is a treasure! A simple story about an African-American family’s annual reunion that resonates on a much deeper level.

It starts quietly, gently with Lil Alan setting off for a long car ride with the rest of his family to his great-grandmother’s home where they will join the rest of their extended family for the annual reunion day celebration. The cooler of snacks in the car, leaving in the dark/grayness of pre-dawn, nodding off in the car, then waking to brilliant sunshine, the journey solidly underway–all evocative for me of family road trips.

Once arrived, Lil Alan and his family participate in traditions like tractor rides and “love-made” food. They tell old, familiar stories about Pa (Lil Alan’s great-grandfather), who has passed on, and about Lil Alan’s father and his brother as children. Lil Alan watches and listens and really FEELS his place in the long chain of family that binds them all together. He embraces this knowledge both intellectually and viscerally. As he contributes his gifts (cotton, pecan, dirt) to their special celebration time the story builds to a crescendo, maintaining it in the moments they “try to make the night stretch on forever,” playing games and laughing “until our hearts explode with joy.”

The final paragraph lowers the reader gently back to the ground. We take a deeper breath and are smiling and grateful (and a little in awe) of the experience. Rich illustrations replete with character and depth are a perfect match for this fantastic independent or read-aloud choice at home or in a classroom!



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