Book Review: The Year We Learned to Fly, written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael López

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DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael López’s highly anticipated companion to their #1 New York Times bestseller The Day You Begin illuminates the power in each of us to face challenges with confidence.

On a dreary, stuck-inside kind of day, a brother and sister heed their grandmother’s advice: “Use those beautiful and brilliant minds of yours. Lift your arms, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and believe in a thing. Somebody somewhere at some point was just as bored you are now.” And before they know it, their imaginations lift them up and out of their boredom. Then, on a day full of quarrels, it’s time for a trip outside their minds again, and they are able to leave their anger behind. This precious skill, their grandmother tells them, harkens back to the days long before they were born, when their ancestors showed the world the strength and resilience of their beautiful and brilliant minds. Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical text and Rafael Lopez’s dazzling art celebrate the extraordinary ability to lift ourselves up and imagine a better world.

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MY TWO CENTS:  As one of the people who experienced public education in the 1960s and 70s as a place that dimmed my imagination, I am grateful to Jacqueline Woodson for lifting up imagination as a source of empowerment. Her newest children’s book has many layers worth exploring. At face value its audience is children, yet in reading it as an adult, I learned a great deal about black folklore. 

On the last page of the book, the author writes about her inspiration for the story: The People Could Fly:  American Black Folktales by Virginia Hamilton. In order to do my book review justice and to honor the author’s inspiration, I secured two copies of The People Could Fly, the original collection of twenty-four stories published in 1985 and the picture book published in 2004 as a tribute to Virginia Hamilton who passed away in 2002. By reading this folktale and locating it in the context of American slavery, I was able to appreciate the rich legacy that Jacqueline Woodson’s book continues. It’s certainly not necessary to read The People Could Fly before reading Woodson’s story about a brother and sister who use their imagination to lift them out of boredom, conflict, and adversity, but it’s certainly well worth it. In Woodson’s tale, I enjoyed both the relatability of the sibling’s quandaries and message about the power of the mind to “free” us.

There is also a strong message about the role that grandparents and ancestors play in sharing folk wisdom.

The illustrations by Rafael López are spectacular. I am glad I have read this book and would recommend it to others.

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TEACHING TIPS: The Year We Learned to Fly would be a good entry to discussing American History, specifically the institution of slavery, to elementary aged students. In contrast, the picture book The People Could Fly (referenced above) seems more suited to middle school aged children or older.

I also see an opportunity to use the book to discuss strategies for dealing with conflict, boredom, and adversity by having students describe what they typically do in each situation and then imagining what they might do differently. 

In a lesson about family trees or ancestors, students can discuss what they’ve learned from the elders in their lives and talk about what valuable lessons they would want to pass on to future generations when they become ancestors/elders. It could be a good time to introduce the word “folklore” and/or “folktale” and discuss the role it plays in families and in preserving cultural traditions and identity.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR (from her website): Jacqueline Woodson is an American writer of books for adults, children, and adolescents. She is best known for her National Book Award-Winning memoir Brown Girl Dreaming, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles After Tupac and D FosterFeathers, and Show Way. Her picture books The Day You Begin and The Year We Learned to Fly were NY Times Bestsellers. After serving as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress for 2018–19. She was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 2020. Later that same year, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

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ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR (from his website): Rafael López is an internationally recognized illustrator and artist. His illustrations bring diverse characters to children’s books and he is driven to produce and promote books that reflect and honor the lives of all young people. Born and raised in Mexico City to architect parents, López was immersed in the rich visual heritage, music and surrealism of his native culture.

Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You written by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor focuses on differently abled kids working together to create a garden and became a #1 New York Times Children’s Picture Books Bestseller in 2019. It was honored with the 2020 Schneider Family Book Award from the American Library Association. The Year We Learned to Fly written by Jacqueline Woodson was a 2022 New York Times Bestseller. He also collaborated with Woodson on The Day You Begin which became a New York Times #1 Children’s Picture Books Bestseller and received the 2019 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award and National Cartoonist Society Book Illustration Award. His illustrations for Dancing Hands, How Teresa Carreño played the piano for President Lincoln written by Margarita Engle received the American Library Association, 2020 Pura Belpré medal. He also secured the 2016 Pura Belpré medal for illustration for Drum Dream Girl and the 2010 Pura Belpré medal for Book Fiesta. In 2017 he was awarded the Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators, New York Original Art show for his work on Bravo! Poems about Amazing Hispanics. In 2019 he created the American Library Association Latino Heritage Festival poster and in 2012 was selected by the Library of Congress to illustrate the National Book Festival poster. He is the recipient of the 2017 Tomás Rivera Children’s Book Award, multiple Pura Belpré honors and two Américas Book Awards.

His clients include Amnesty International, Apple, Atheneum Books, Charlesbridge Publishing, Chicago Tribune, HarperCollins, Henry Holt & Company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,  IBM, Intel, Lee & Low books, Library of Congress, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Penguin Books, Scholastic Books, Simon & Schuster, the Grammy Awards, United States Forest Service, United States Postal Service, The Washington Post and the World Wildlife Fund. His work has been selected into multiple juried shows with illustrations featured in publications like Communication Arts, the American Illustration Annual, Graphic Design USA and the Huffington Post.

He is a founder of the Urban Art Trail movement in San Diego’s East Village creating a series of large-scale murals that brought the community together. His murals can be found in urban areas, at children’s hospitals, public schools, under freeways and at farmer’s markets around the country. López’s community work with murals is the subject of the children’s book Maybe Something Beautiful, How Art Transformed a Neighborhood.

López was commissioned to create twelve United States Postal Stamps  including a series of five Mariachi  stamps featuring musicians dressed in the traje de charro, playing guitar, guitarrón, vihuela, violin and trumpet. He also created the  Latin Music Legend Series, Merengue stamp and a stamp celebrating an important legal case in equality of education, Mendez v. Westminster. His stamps have been featured on the cover of the commemorative stamp yearbook and exhibited at the Smithsonian. In 2008 and 2012 he was asked to create official posters for the Obama campaign to win the pivotal Latino vote. The illustrator lives and works in an industrial loft in downtown San Diego and at his home/studio in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Maria is the author of The Butterfly Series: Fifty-two Weeks of Inquiries for Transformation. The book was a finalist for the 2019 International Book Awards (Women’s Issues category), won Honorable Mention in the 2019 Reviewers Choice Award (Body/Mind/Spirit category), and won Honorable Mention in the 2020 Writer’s Digest 28th Annual Self-Published Book Awards (Inspirational category).

To sign up for her monthly blog post visit her contact page at www.mariaramoschertok.com

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