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  • 2020 Comstock Read Aloud Book Awards


    2020 Comstock Read Aloud Book Award Winner 

    Sulwe written by Lupita Nyong'o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, and published by Simon and Schuster, 2019. 

    Sulwe In a recent interview, author Lupita Nyong’o described how as a child she was surrounded by people who looked like her, but she did not see herself in the books she read. Based on Nyong’o’s personal experiences, Sulwe is the story of a young girl who is uncomfortable with the darkness of her skin. Trying to look more like her family and the people around her, Sulwe tries different remedies to change her appearance. Neither a change in diet, the use of makeup, nor an attempt to erase her darkness changes her skin color or her feeling of self-worth. It is not until a journey through an ancient story of magical sisters that Sulwe recognizes true beauty comes in all shades and colors. Through a blend of realism and mythology, Sulwe’s story delicately addresses the issue of colorism and how people may be discriminated against based on the shade of their skin. Sulwe is an empowering story that reminds readers that beauty is based on a person’s nature and character and not on their appearance.

    Readers between the ages of eight and eleven showed rapt attention when listening to Sulwe. Teachers noted positive comments from students; students stretching towards or pointing at the book, and in one case, spontaneous clapping. Aside from attention, teachers commented on the power of the message and how easy it was for students to understand. One teacher mentioned that it connected well with their school’s theme of “We are all different and that’s beautiful”. Another teacher commented that she felt the message was easily understood and that students could relate it to themselves. 

    Lupita Nyong’o is an Academy Award winning actress. Sulwe, her debut picture book, is a New York Times bestseller and won the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Children. Illustrator Vashti Harrison, is the author/illustrator of the New York Times bestselling book, Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History. She is also the recipient of the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor award for Sulwe.  (LOUIE LAUER)


    2020 Comstock Read Aloud Book Award Honor Books   

    Elvis Is King! written by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Red Nose Studio, and published by Schwartz & Wade Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2019.

    Elivs How did a poor boy from Tupelo, Mississippi rise to become king of rock ‘n’ roll, “the biggest star the world has ever known”? In this picture book biography, readers learn how singing eased the pain of Elvis’ young life “because there ain’t nothing better for the soul than singing.” The story follows the family’s move to Memphis and Elvis’ transformation as he creates his first records, changes his looks, and converts his nervousness to his iconic onstage shaking that “starts an AVALANCHE of screaming” from the teenage girls.

    An author’s note provides additional details about Elvis’ early life. Winter explains that the music industry was highly segregated. The foundation for Presley’s fame was being a white musician, singing “black music” for white teenagers. Even though he was famous, Winter notes that Presley was lonely all his life, pouring his feelings into his songs. “His music gave his original audience—mainly 1950’s white teenagers—the freedom to feel.”

    The illustrations by Red Nose Studio are as attention-getting as Elvis himself. The illustrations are photos of hand-built three-dimensional scenes. The inside book jacket details how the sets were “scratch-built” with readily available materials. Some of these include pieces of foam, cardboard, masking tape, wire, thread, and stick pins. The Studio used polymer clay to create Elvis with sculpted details made with old dental tools. The design of this book is truly noteworthy. The front book jacket shows a close-up of Elvis’ flipped up black hair with the back cover capturing a jittering Elvis onstage. The front book cover shows an empty folding chair, a broken-down guitar, and a glittering star. Inside the book jacket is a treasure trove explaining how the art was made. Librarians—do not tape down the book jacket to deprive readers of these visual surprises!

    Students ages nine through eleven especially liked how the story flowed. Winter uses headlines to introduce the main events of Elvis’ young life and then elaborates in poetic language. Students were especially interested in how someone so poor and unpopular could become rich and famous. Fifth graders commented that the story “made history into a really great book” and a fifth-grade teacher noted that this is a “unique biographical book to introduce young listeners to a legend.”

    Jonah Winter is an acclaimed author of many nonfiction picture books, especially biographies. He was born and raised in Texas. Chris Sickles, of Red Nose Studio located in Greenfield, Indiana, grew up on a small family farm where he learned to fix things with what was at hand. Besides his “puppets” and hand-built sets, he is passionate about motorcycles. (CAROL HANSON SIBLEY)


    Sergeant Billy: The True Story of the Goat Who Went to War written by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Kass Reich, and published by Tundra Books, a division of Penguin Random House, 2019. 

     sergeant billy Stories about animals who go to war intrigue intermediate age readers. In this true story set during World War I, soldiers from the Fifth Canadian Battalion borrow a goat from a young girl in Broadview, Saskatchewan. Billy provides comfort for the young soldiers as they train for war. They become so attached to their goat that they smuggle him aboard the ship to England and then to France to fight on the front lines. While the book has a light-hearted tone, readers do learn of the challenges of war—mud, foul food, and rats in the trenches. When Billy nibbles on some secret documents, the colonel places him under arrest and in jail for being a spy! However, when the soldiers become unhappy, bored, and grumpy, Billy is returned to his Battalion. Billy suffers as do the soldiers with trench foot and shellshock. For capturing an enemy and saving soldiers’ lives, Billy is promoted to sergeant and is decorated as a war hero. When the war is over, the soldiers keep their promise and deliver Billy back to his original owner.

    The cartoon style hand-painted artwork in muted tones of brown and green gouache help readers visualize the war setting. The beautiful red poppies on the endpapers are a reminder of how the poppy is a symbol of remembrance for the First World War.

    This story received high marks from readers in grades three through five. Students appreciated the book’s back matter, including photographs and information about Sergeant Billy after he returned home to Canada in 1919. One fourth grader commented: “If the author didn’t write this book, we wouldn’t know animals were in war.” A teacher noted that the story “got students interested in researching and reading other books about animals in wars.”  In fact, a perfect companion to Billy’s story is Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear, which was the recipient of the 2016 Comstock Read Aloud Book Award.

    Author Mireille Messier, a resident of Toronto, Canada, remarked: “I hope that readers will learn that service animals and military mascots like Billy played an important role in history. I also hope that this story will remind them of how strong the bond between humans and animals can be, even in wartime.” Illustrator Kass Reich has lived and traveled extensively abroad. Her work with children has inspired her to create picture books. She is now back home in Canada, living in Toronto. (CAROL HANSON SIBLEY)