WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? (2015) is a love letter to all Nina Simone accomplished and all she wanted to be and all she had to leave to the side. It also lifts the veil of idolatry that so many mythic entertainers live under. For viewers who know Nina Simone as the High Priestess of Soul, her lifelong desire to play Bach and be known as a classical pianist will be a surprise. For those who know her as a civil rights activist, her time being abused and being abusive will come as a shock. But what the documentary shares is that Nina Simone — Eunice Waymon — was a deeply talented woman with passions and disappointments and aspirations that she managed to massage into popular culture and activism. What Happened, Miss Simone is a love letter to the whole of Nina Simone, not a romantic vision of her legendary status. 

With archival footage of Simone’s performances and interviews interspersed with interviews from her daughter, husband, bandmates, and friends, the documentary gives a well-rounded view of the legend that includes making her seem at once towering and all too human. Throughout it all, the documentary feels in awe of Nina Simone and sometimes minimizes her faults by wrapping them in explanations of the hardships, both personal and institutional, that Simone endured. Unfortunately, this awe mutes Simone’s struggles with mental health and some of her more violent outbursts, even those that caused injury to others. This disservice to Simone’s full story casts a fuzzy lens over the entire documentary, which is the opposite of how she lived.

Despite this, the visual use of Simone’s journal entries creates an effective contrast to various pieces of the documentary. When Andrew Stroud (Simone’s husband and manager) talks casually about their relationship, lines from Simone’s journal that detail the beatings and her conflicted response to them are displayed on the screen. When Simone’s friends discuss her declining mental health, more journal entries appear showing erratic handwriting and jittery, confused language. Seeing what Simone’s thoughts were helps the audience decide how deeply they want to consider the information shared in the interviews. For example, Stroud’s attitude becomes callous when we realize he doesn’t take ownership of his abuse towards Simone. And what could seem like manipulation for profit when Simone’s healthy declines, seems to be concern borne out of friendship when we see the uneven thoughts straight from her journal. 

The civil rights work Simone took an active part in, and that she left for Europe and Liberia out of frustration, is detailed in photographs as well as through interviews. However, there are also less direct methods used. The closeness of Nina Simone to Lorraine Hansberry, the Shabazz family, and others like Stokely Carmichael is also highlighted. The footage of her performances in honor of Lorraine Hansberry and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. after their deaths are especially affecting. The performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” is heart wrenching, and Simone’s rendition of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” written and performed just days after the MLK assassination is powerful commentary, especially considering the documentary had shared earlier that Simone didn’t believe non-violence had any place in ensuring civil rights for Black Americans. 

It feels strange to admit to enjoying What Happened, Miss Simone? because of the frustration and deep sadness wrapped up in her genius throughout her life. It’s like watching a car wreck in slow motion. However, it is extremely satisfying – and entertaining – to watch Nina Simone perform and share unabashed opinions and to hear those close to her share memories. Lisa, Nina Simone’s daughter with Andrew Stroud, gives at once poignant and vague commentary. Her comments about her mother’s abusive behavior in Liberia contrast with her sadness about both her parents’ penchant for violence. Also, her sometimes seeming detachment from her mother is softened by concern about how the drugs for Simone’s bipolar disease affected her mental and physical acuity. So, it feels somehow wrong and strange to have enjoyed the film, but it’s difficult not to be drawn in to Nina Simone’s passion and verve, despite the complications and pain with which they are paired.

What Happened, Miss Simone? can easily be used in group or education venues whether it’s for Black history, women’s history, music, or mental health. Whether as a whole or in segments, Nina Simone’s life and personality easily lends itself to discussions about all of those topics. For prejudice reduction in particular, Simone’s assertion that she was punished for her controversial song “Mississippi Goddam,” and was blocked from record deals and gigs because of it, sets up discussion of whether tangible racial prejudice or the perception of it is more powerful, more damaging. And if it matters in the end. 

Highly recommended.

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? is available on Netflix, and for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime and Apple/iTunes.

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Review: WHEN THEY SEE US (2019)

The limited Netflix series about the Central Park Five, WHEN THEY SEE US, is harrowing to watch, and infuriating to contemplate. To be honest, I felt sick to my stomach and had to stop watching several times; I even considered not continuing the series. Truly, it was my guilt as a middle-class white woman that kept me from turning away to suit my own comfort. So, if the filmmaker Ava DuVernay wanted to make sure that this story reached those who should have been paying attention with a more human gaze all those years ago, it was successful at least where I am concerned. Further, as with so many other stories in recent years, seeing WHEN THEY SEE US will hopefully create an expectation of justice over reckless punishment and fairness over aimless revenge. 

Director Ava DuVernay makes sure to keep the sympathetic gaze firmly on the victims even while showing them in contentious situations. When the camera watches the prosecution scheming and scrounging together a case and the police officers intimidating the accused, there is a cold desperation that emanates from the screen. And when one of the defense attorneys asks the Manhattan District Attorney to “Give them a fair fight,” the audience already knows it will be anything but fair. The sad fact is that WHEN THEY SEE US, along with other media treatments of the miscarriage of justice for these five accused, is the only fairness those involved can hope to receive. Justice, yes, but justice delayed and lives destroyed. 

Even so, the director’s bias in favor of the boys is not so deep that it demonizes the District Attorney and detectives wholesale. At one point, the audience is teased when the DA questions the legitimacy of the case against the boys. But then reputations, politics, and the scrambled need to protect a white woman’s virtue by any manufactured means necessary destroys any hope of that.  Just before the DA offers a plea deal, she tells Antwon’s lawyer, “It’s no longer about justice, counselor, it’s about politics. And politics is about survival. And there’s nothing fair about survival.” And that’s the crux of the film. The white power structure will sacrifice those with less power to maintain the appearance of safety and to solidify its own place.

The film isn’t just about the political and societal failings; it drills down to what we can all relate to in our own lives. The family tension entangled with love and fear is what makes this retelling unique. Granted, the dialogue is sometimes imagined, but the emotion behind decisions and the pain of a parent unable to protect their child is palpable. It’s frightening and daunting. DeVernay is able to layer the family tension with the courtroom scheming. One particularly sharp moment is when Korey, the only 16 year old of the younger teens, is pushed by the DA to affirm a statement that he has signed. Korey, agitated and frightened, admits that he cannot read the statement and that he didn’t write it. Again, this scene ought to have put doubt into the jury’s mind, but the DA appeals to the need to convict someone, anyone who is available. The juxtaposition of the counts being read with the boys’ moments of coercion with their responses is devastating. Again, lives destroyed. 

What is different about this story and the way it’s told is that it doesn’t linger on the years in prison (although that is addressed to some extent later), it focuses on the support and love – or lack thereof – of the boys’ families. The issues the CP5 face once they leave prison are another hurdle. “Rapist” becomes a term thrown at them when others are frustrated. They navigate the limited options for jobs and housing. They watch dreams dissolve when they are told felons can’t hold professional licenses. It’s awful — and yet there are moments of finding joy and pleasure interspersed with the frustration and heartache. A girlfriend, reuniting with family and friends, finding comfort in religion.

Korey Wise Innocence Project

The last episode focuses on Korey Wise’s experience. As the oldest of the boys, at 16, he was sent to prison with adults. The fear, the horrific beatings — one within an inch of his life — the isolation, and the deals he has to make to survive are portrayed in stark reality. Korey’s mental health, and the way he uses memories, regret mixed with hope, and his imagination to survive the relative, albeit traumatizing, safety of solitary confinement are highlighted. A caring guard, an apology from another inmate (who turns out to be the perpetrator of the Central Park rape), a refusal to play the “say you’re guilty” game of parole all keep Korey going. As with so many themes in this mini-series, small joys and maintaining hope are a big part of survival when the world is unfair. 

The first episode, which focuses on society’s need to punish as an outlet for rage as opposed to achieve justice, is most pertinent to current events. The casual and overt racism of the officers, detectives, and prosecutors fuels the injustice even as inconsistencies present themselves. Rationalizing away discrepancies becomes a game of cat and mouse, but the “mice” are children with families and the usual teenage hopes and desires. Seeing the dramatic portrayal of the interrogations and the challenges the boys’ families faced helps make this iconic story of injustice relatable. Seeing ourselves and our loved ones in this story is an invaluable tool for reform and empathy.

Highly recommended.

WHEN THEY SEE US (2019) on Netflix.

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Review: FINE by Rhea Ewing

As a comic about gender, Rhea Ewing’s FINE is pretty close to perfect. It is organized by topic, and the content is a collection of nuggets found in more than 50 interviews Ewing conducted over a decade. With painful and raw honesty, readers are also invited to discover the author’s motivations for the interviews and creating the book. Ewing reflects personally on answers they hear from people with great differences in views and experiences surrounding gender and how it affects their lives. It creates an effective, thoughtful, and comforting guide to anyone grappling with gender labels or wanting to support their loved ones.

Sections of the book include Femininity, Masculinity, Race, Hormones, Housing, Language, and more. Certain interviewees return again and again with commentary included in multiple sections. What readers will realize, and likely recognize in themselves, is the struggle and journey towards an honest identity is rarely simple or easy. One particularly poignant section centers on the Queer Community and how it can be a joyful and life saving support network, but also sometimes exclusionary, especially for people who straddle identities or challenge established labels. Still, the overarching feeling throughout the book is one of gentleness, acceptance, and an embrace of people for who they are.

Readers should know that topics like gender and body dysmorphia, suicidal ideation, and harassment and bullying make appearances. The author includes footnotes in which they acknowledge the topics and direct readers to appropriate support and resources. In fact, there is a content warning and information for national groups like The Trevor Project, Trans Lifeline, and Suicide Prevention groups even before the introduction. The notes and further reading sections at the end are also helpful for those seeking more detail about what they’ve read in the book.

Rhea Ewing’s FINE is an impressive debut with a fresh and important viewpoint on a timely set of topics. Highly recommended.

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Review: Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne

JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA is a fast-paced middle-grade novel by Shakirah Bourne that blends the usual angst and challenges of middle grade stories (loss of a parent, best friend drama, questionable adults, feeling different) with mythology and magical threats to overcome. The main character is a wonderfully headstrong eleven-year-old who loves her father, cricket, and will do just about anything to protect one and play the other. Set in Barbados and filled with relatable conflicts, a full menu of entertaining characters, and a likable heroine with room to grow, the book will entertain readers as they root for Josephine to come out on top.

Josephine’s mother has been gone for almost five years, and within the first handful of pages we learn that “her heart skipped a beat and never found rhythm again.” We also learn Josephine’s Daddy had a long time of recovering, and that Josephine’s grandmother came from Guyana to care for her during that time. Now Josephine works to ensure that any possible girlfriends her father might bring home are scared away, keeping him as just a Daddy and nothing more. This exposition is shared smoothly and with just enough detail to help us understand where Josephine’s head is for the start of the novel. That sets up readers to enjoy the wild developments without dwelling on background. It also introduces us to Bourne’s skillful blending of the various areas of Josephine’s life throughout the story.

Ahkai is Josephine’s best friend and neighbor. He is introduced to the story as a co-conspirator, and Josephine shares that he is on the Autism spectrum and rarely speaks to anyone other than Josephine. Again, this is all shared naturally and without fanfare. This allows readers to hold this fact about Ahkai in the back of their heads as they get to know him, but it doesn’t take over his impact on the story. In fact, Ahkai’s friendship with Josephine is a joy to watch throughout the novel. In addition, his mother, Miss Mo, is an enjoyable and influential character without interfering too much with the children’s adventures. All the peripheral characters are developed and impressionable, and their importance to the story waxes and wanes in a believable way.

When Josephine’s Daddy, Vincent, brings home Mariss, his latest romantic interest, Josephine is shocked that she can’t be scared away with pranks and sour faces. Josephine’s suspicions grow when Mariss’ gifts and behavior start to interrupt the easy rhythm Josephine and her Daddy have created. When Mariss starts using saccharine nicknames and then moves in (!) after a short time, Josephine knows she needs to protect her family from this interloper whom she suggests may not even be human.

As with many middle grade novels, there are adventures that go well beyond what an eleven-year-old would normally experience. There are physical dangers, emotional trauma, and personal divides to conquer before the story can wrap up. The likable personality and daring-sometimes-silly antics of the main character as well as the people that surround her makes sure that readers will enjoy the book from start to finish. Readers should know there are scenes of near drowning, references to the death of a parent, infertility, and violent threats. The language is age-appropriate and wrapped in the context of typical middle grade conflicts and adventures. JOSEPHINE AGAINST THE SEA is a fun book with an undercurrent of serious topics and challenges.

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Review: The Stories Behind the Stories by Danielle Higley

THE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES by Danielle Higley delves into how some of our favorite classics came to be. Whether they were sparked by an author’s childhood or by a publisher’s desire to give teachers more science stories, each example shares history and anecdotes that readers will find fascinating. Highlights about The Boxcar Children, who went from shocking to classic, to inspiring and silly tales from second grader Dav Pilkey, whose teacher insisted that underwear is not funny, Higley makes sure we are reminded that challenged books come in all time periods and styles. Each book gets one to two pages of background, ensuring that there is just enough to pique interest in the detailed stories.

The authors of books like Where the Red Fern Grows and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry are highlighted with personal inspirations and challenges as children, which will surely positively influence readers. Children will be tickled to learn how Fifi the Monkey became Curious George, how Where the Wild Horses Are become Where the Wild Things Are (they’ll also relate to the inspiration for the “things”!), and how a $50 bet helped create Green Eggs and Ham. The anecdotes and tales of story ideas are both simple enough for young readers to understand and interesting and detailed enough to hold the attention of their caregivers. THE STORIES BEHIND THE STORIES will ensure that each book mentioned will be read and re-read with a fresh perspective.

Highly recommended.

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Review: Your Life Matters by Chris Singleton

Chris Singleton’s beautiful picture book YOUR LIFE MATTERS is a masterful expression of reassurance and love. It begins with a frightening and direct set of circumstances that might make young children, especially young Black children, feel like the world does not appreciate them. The rest of the book answers “Does my life matter?” with a resounding YES! followed by example after example of how deeply the reader’s life matters “from the tips of your hair to the lengths of your toes.”

Each page matches a reason the reader’s eyes, hands, heart, strength matters with an illustration of a Black icon demonstrating the example together with children. The icons, which include Katherine Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Maya Angelou, Barack Obama, Tegla Loroupe, are not named in the images, allowing children to imagine the adults in their lives — or themselves — as the mentors. The words hold up all that is possible and deserved, whether it’s in front of thousands or comforting one person’s broken heart.

Taylor Barron’s colorful illustrations have one foot in folk art and another in modern storytelling. The powerful hues are balanced with the strong and whimsical lines to tell a full story on each page. Despite the simplicity, the faces are expressive and filled with the weight of history and hope. The images work together with the words to help ideas like “empowerment” and “affirmation” take hold and become truth.

This powerful picture book, YOUR LIFE MATTERS, is highly recommended for every home, school, and library.

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Review: Where Do Creatures Sleep at Night? by Steven J. Simmons

This lovely picture book will satisfy curiosity about what some of the most familiar animals do at night, making it a wonderful bedtime read! WHERE DO CREATURES SLEEP AT NIGHT? by Steven J. Simmons is a rhyming collection of vignettes that provides families downtime before bed. Readers travel to ponds and backyards, burrows and bowls, fields and toddler beds as they visit domesticated and wild animals at night. The beautiful illustrations by Ruth Harper are bathed in restful blues and golds depict animals playing during the day and settling down for the night. 

Each animal has a page devoted to the contrast between daytime activity and nighttime rest. While domesticated animals like kittens and dogs are included, the focus is on familiar woodland and backyard creatures like ducks, squirrels, and honeybees. In addition to the cheery rhymes and cozy bedtime scenes, the author includes kid-friendly facts about butterflies sleeping upside-down and that ducks sometimes sleep in a line with a watchful guardian on each end. 

As with any good bedtime book, the last couple of pages spotlight children resting and in bed with their pets. Where Do Creatures Sleep at Night? will definitely be a favorite to end the day.

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Review: ALLERGIC by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

ALLERGIC by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter is a graphic novel that addresses allergies to animals, and so much more. Maggie, the main character, is feeling alone at home and at school. Her parents are preparing for a new baby, her twin brothers have each other, and on top off all that, she’s in a new school. Everything starts from there and it is the likable Maggie’s optimism despite disappointment that powers through this story. 

Maggie’s birthday trip to an animal rescue for a dog turns into rashy, sneezing misery. Then a visit to the allergy center tells her she is allergic to anything with fur or feathers, and Maggie expresses anger and sadness, but then starts making a list of pets she won’t be allergic to. Thus starts her Pet Quests. She tries a fish, but she can’t hold it, and it quickly dies. He brothers fall in love with her lizard. A toad should not be handled, and definitely not cuddled with, and hedgehogs are illegal to have as pets. Maggie’s quest for a pet of her own feels impossible!

At school, she’s the new kid without anyone to talk to. Then Maggie’s allergies cause the class pet to be moved to another classroom, and worse, the whole class knows it’s because of her allergies. ALLERGIC expresses the mortification and agony of a ten-year-old perfectly. And as with many middle grade conflicts, Maggie’s pain gets better when she meets a new neighbor and experiences a fresh infusion of activity and friendship. And of course, new drama and conflicts. 

What ALLERGIC does thoughtfully and realistically is layer middle grade drama with a very specific challenge that is not often dealt with in novels. Maggie’s allergies to “fur and feathers” present very real restrictions to her life, especially when her new friend gets a dog. And the ways in which Maggie rebels against her allergies come across as true-to-life and relatable. Another effective aspect of Allergic is how Maggie and a boy named Sebastian educate each other (and the reader) about various types of allergies. 

One area of concern for families who are animal-welfare focused is the beginning of the book when Maggie is searching for a new pet. While the animal rescue scene is unproblematic in its treatment of adoption, Maggie’s quick run-through possible animals on her list of “no fur, no feathers” pets doesn’t come across as responsible treatment of pets. Maggie’s brothers suddenly inherit two of the pets (a lizard and a hermit crab), and a fish dies and is flushed, and the (pregnant) mouse Maggie sneaks into her room is sold to a ten-year-old without supervision. Caregivers may want to preview the first part of the book and think about navigating conversations about responsible behavior when it comes to animals we welcome into our lives.

Overall, ALLERGIC is a wonderful story about adjusting and finding joy in different scenarios when we hit roadblocks. Highly recommended.

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Review: ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER by Tami Charles

“They say that matter is all things that make up the universe: energy, stars, space…If that’s the case, then you, dear child, matter.”

I’m not embarrassed to admit that the first line of ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER by Tami Charles brought tears to my eyes. It’s beautiful. Together with the accompanying illustration, of a pregnant Black couple cradling the mother-to-be’s belly, the words hold all the love and hope and expectation we give to our children. This powerful children’s book holds up children, especially Black and marginalized children, and assured them that their lives matter to the world.

From the personal and private opening image, the story travels to ancestors’ accomplishments and experiences. The child reading or listening to the book is reminded that their ancestors had hopes and dreams and always knew that “you matter.” Always.

Alternating between personal joys and painful moments, and then opening up to wider, monumental details, works beautifully in this picture book. Readers will both relate to and feel empathy for the examples given: having your name giggled at in class, receiving “big, bold, red” marks on your school work, watching tragic abuses on the news. And like a comforting pep talk after a bad day, the book bolsters the reader as “dreamed of, carried like a knapsack full of wishes” since the day the universe was created. It’s a beautiful, powerful, and loving quilt of assurances to wrap around children who may sometimes feel uncertain about their place in the world.

The stunning and colorful illustrations by Bryan Collier convey deep and profound emotion on every page. In an array of quilted collage (his grandmother was a quilter) and expressive illustration, the young boy at the center of the book is surrounded by colors and faces and patterns that celebrate his joys and comfort him in tougher times. The folk art style of the collage serves as a vibrant background for the detailed and realistic portraits of the characters throughout the book. The emotions in the illustrations that depict school incidents and response to Black Lives Matter are particularly powerful.

Tami Charles shares in the Author’s Note that she wrote ALL BECAUSE YOU MATTER to help families with young children begin conversations about the racial climate in the USA. The examples of the hurtful experiences children have, and more widely, the mention of taking a knee, and the listed first names of murdered Black boys and men are age-appropriate and allow families to choose whether to discuss the issues directly or more gently. Charles also shares that she wrote the book to remind children, “especially those from marginalized backgrounds,” that they all have generations of ancestors and accomplishments holding them up because they matter. Even in moments where they are made to feel small, they can be proud of who they are and where they came from because the matter.

Very highly recommended.

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Review: Swimming with Sharks (Wild Survival)

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS by Melissa Cristina Márquez is the #2 book in the Wild Survival series. As a stand alone story, readers do not need to have read the first book to enjoy this adventure. The Villalobos family has a television show that focuses on saving endangered animals and educating their audience about the wildlife and environmental concerns as they explore and discover as a family. The main character, 12-year-old Adrianna is passionate about sharks, and desperately wants to convince everyone to love them just as much as she does.

This novel takes place in Sri Lanka and centers on a rare Pondicherry shark that the family is sure is being kept in a restaurant’s tank as a tourist attraction. As the family and local scientists test the shark and plan a community event to celebrate sharks, Adrianna gets to know young people in the community and explores markets and local attractions. Added into the storyline are potential poachers, who have had past experiences with Adrianna, and overcoming fear of water and sharks. The fast pace and detailed descriptions of the country and people are infectious and fun. The characters are all likable and easy to relate to throughout the story.

SWIMMING WITH SHARKS is an easy read that will still challenge readers in content and with vocabulary. The family speaks Spanish and English during the novel, and there are several instances where Sri Lankan languages of Tamil and Sinhala are inserted into descriptions. It’s an age-appropriate adventure with informational inserts about various wildlife that is mentions. Readers will look forward to reading the next adventure thanks to the satisfying but cliff-hanger ending. Highly recommended for middle grade readers.

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