Smalls, Irene 1950-
(Full name Irene Jennie Smalls; has also written under the pseudonym Irene Smalls-Hector) American author of picture books.
The following entry presents an overview of Smalls's career through 2003.
Smalls has authored a series of popular picture books focused on African American children and their families set against such varied backdrops as Southern plantations during the era of slavery, New York's Harlem in the 1950s, and present-day urban neighborhoods. In her evocative texts, including Jonathan and His Mommy (1992) and Kevin and His Dad (1999), Smalls examines the playful and loving bonds between children and their parents, highlighting the importance of creativity, compassion, and tradition. Throughout her career, Smalls has been recognized for her nostalgic depictions of African American families and their culturally rich communities, as well as her portrayals of the relationships between adults and children within this context.
Smalls was born Irene Jennie Smalls on February 11, 1950, the daughter of Charles Smith and Mary Smalls. She was raised in the Harlem district of New York City, which would later become one of the recurring settings of her picture books. As a young woman, Smalls won the Miss Black New York State contest in 1967. She graduated from Cornell University with a B.A. in Black Studies and earned her M.B.A. in Marketing and Behavioral Science from New York University. In 1989 she married Derek C. Hector. Smalls held a variety of jobs after leaving college, including working as a model, actress, radio reporter, small business owner, and government worker. After her department in Boston's City Hall was eliminated, Smalls read an article about Little, Brown & Company Publishers and decided that she could become a writer. She arraigned a meeting with
Little, Brown's head of publishing, John Keller, and began pitching him ideas for children's books. Keller was intrigued by her descriptions of 1950s Harlem and encouraged Smalls to write about her childhood community. After six months of writing, Smalls returned with the manuscript for Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel (1991), her first picture book, and Little, Brown offered her a contract. Smalls has since won several awards for her children's works, including the Global Cultural Awareness Award from the International Reading Association in 1996 and the Children's Book Author of the Year Award from the Chicago Black History Association in 1999.
Smalls's first picture book, Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, is set in Harlem, New York, during the 1950s, which the author portrays with a sense of longing for the multi-ethnic community, an enclave of Southern-born African Americans that had not yet been affected by drugs and drug-related violence. Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel describes a summer day in the life of seven-year-old Irene, who awakens on a Saturday morning while the rest of her family is still sleeping and enjoys a variety of activities with her friends in the neighborhood. When she finds a nickel in the sidewalk gutter, Irene and her friends go to the local West Indian bakery and order the biggest raisin bun in the store, which they enjoy eating together while sitting on the curb. Smalls returned to 1950s Harlem with Don't Say Ain't (2003), which is set in 1957, the first year New York City Public Schools were integrated. Dawn, whose high marks on a test qualify her to attend an advanced integrated school, must cope with the cultural adjustments of her new arrangement. On the first day of school, she finds that she is dressed differently from the other girls, and the teacher, who is also African American, tells her not to say the word "ain't." A few days later, the teacher visits Dawn's godmother, and Dawn discovers that the two women are friends. When Dawn hears her teacher use the word "ain't" in social conversation with her godmother, she is at first confused; however, she soon comes to the conclusion that it is acceptable to say "ain't" at home, but better not to use it in other settings.
Smalls has also written several picture books set in present-day African American urban communities, most of them concerned with family relationships, particularly between children and their parents or grandparents. In Jonathan and His Mommy, a boy and his mother take a long walk around their neighborhood, enjoying the sights and the people in their community. Along the way, they try out a variety of different ways of walking, such as baby steps, giant steps, zig-zag walking, bunny-hops, backwards, slow-motion, and so on. On the way home, they take "Jonathan-and-his-Mommy" steps. In Dawn and the Round To-It (1994), Dawn asks her mother, father, and sister to play with her, but they are all too busy, promising that they will spend time with her when they "get around to it." Dawn cleverly solves this problem by drawing circles on pieces of paper and giving them to each member of her family, explaining that they now have "a round-to-it." The family members receive Dawn's message with compassion and immediately make time to play with her. Father's Day Blues: What Do You Do about Father's Day When All You Have Are Mothers? (1995) addresses the issue of nontraditional families when Cheryl Blues, who lives with her mother, grandmother, and aunt, is assigned to write an essay on "My Daddy" in preparation for Father's Day. In Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? (1996), Louise's family throws a party to celebrate the arrival of her new baby cousin. Louise's Nana, the eldest member of the extended family, arrives as the guest of honor. She gives each of the children a small gift, along with a bit of wisdom suited to each child's strengths and interests. Louise, however, is disappointed when Nana gives her a blank, crumpled-up piece of paper on which she instructs Louise to write whatever she wants. By the end of the day, Louise realizes that Nana's gift is the best one of all, because it recognizes and acknowledges Louise's creativity. In Because You're Lucky (1997), Jonathan's cousin Kevin comes to live with Jonathan's family. Although Kevin's sudden arrival is not explained, it appears that he has recently been orphaned. Jonathan at first resents and dislikes Kevin, whom he sees as an unwanted intruder into his life. He asks his mother why he has to share his room, his toys, and even his clothes with Kevin, to which his mother always responds, "Because you're lucky," explaining that Jonathan has all of these things to share, and Kevin does not. But after Jonathan and Kevin have a fight and Kevin goes to sleep in the guest room, Jonathan realizes that he misses the companionship of sharing with his cousin, and the two boys make up and become friends. In Kevin and His Dad, Kevin spends a whole Saturday together with his father while his mother is off doing other things. They clean and do small repairs around the house, play baseball together, and go to a movie.
Despite her continuing emphasis on exploring the dynamics of urban neighborhoods, Smalls has additionally published a number of historical picture books, focusing on African American children raised during the era of Southern slavery. These works highlight the small pleasures of family, community, and holiday celebrations that the slaves enjoyed in their environment of daily hardship. In Jenny Reen and the Jack Muh Lantern (1995), a young slave girl is cared for by Sister Louisa while her parents are out working in the plantation fields. Sister Louisa warns Jenny about a mythical fiend in slave folklore called the Jack Muh Lantern, who terrorizes children on Halloween. When Jenny gets lost in the woods, she finds herself face-to-face with the Jack Muh Lantern, but is able to escape by following the advice of Sister Louisa. In Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus (1996), Irene Jennie faces a sad and lonely Christmas Day because her parents have to work at a banquet on another plantation. However, Irene's mood is lifted when a traveling troupe of slaves arrives to provide holiday entertainment. Smalls explains in an author's note that this element of the story is based on a slave tradition called Johnkankus, in which slaves were entertained during the holidays with music, dancing, and masquerade by traveling performers. Irene's Christmas is made even better when her parents unexpectedly arrive home early. A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving (1998), also set on a plantation, depicts a corn-shucking party following the fall harvest. Each year, one boy is chosen for the honor of standing behind the fiddler and beating on the strings of the fiddle with straws as a form of musical accompaniment. Seven-year-old Jess makes it his goal to be this year's "strawbeater," but he must first fight for the position with a boy who is much bigger and stronger than he is.
Smalls's picture books have received mixed critical assessments, though most reviewers have applauded the author's skill at evoking a strong, positive image of African American family, community, and culture throughout her writing. In the Horn Book Magazine review of Irene and the Big, Fine, Nickel, the critic has stated that Smalls "joyfully creates a sense of time and place with colorful descriptions and dialogue, successfully integrating elements of African American culture." Smalls has also been praised for her portrayal of the bonds between children and their parents, grandparents, or godparents. Ilene Cooper has observed that the story and illustrations in Kevin and His Dad "convey the warmth of a father-son relationship in a way that will attract youngsters." Reviewers have also extolled Smalls's use of language and rhythm in such books as Jonathan and His Mommy, with Marie Orlando noting that "[t]he blank-verse text with repetition and rich imagery beautifully creates the sound and rhythm of the commonplace experience." However, Smalls has been criticized for what some have characterized as her awkwardly didactic storylines that are often static and lacking in dramatic effect. In her review of Louise's Gift, Karen James has argued that "the writing is often self-conscious and stilted." Similarly, a reviewer in the Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books has commented that "[Louise's Gift] is obviously well-intentioned, and it is refreshing to have some honest acknowledgment of the strain such a family change can be, but the book never reaches quite deep enough to be meaningful."
Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel [as Irene Smalls-Hector; illustrations by Tyrone Geter] (picture book) 1991
Jonathan and His Mommy [as Irene Smalls-Hector; illustrations by Michael Hays] (picture book) 1992
Dawn's Friends [illustrations by Tyrone Geter] (picture book) 1993
The Alphabet Witch [illustrations by Kevin McGovern] (picture book) 1994
Dawn and the Round To-It [illustrations by Tyrone Geter] (picture book) 1994
Ebony Sea [illustrations by Jon Onye Lockard] (picture book) 1995
Father's Day Blues: What Do You Do about Father's Day When All You Have Are Mothers? [illustrations by Kevin McGovern] (picture book) 1995
Jenny Reen and the Jack Muh Lantern [illustrations by Keinyo White] (picture book) 1995
Beginning School [illustrations by Toni Goffe] (picture book) 1996
Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus [illustrations by Melodye Rosales] (picture book) 1996
Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? [illustrations by Colin Bootman] (picture book) 1996
Because You're Lucky [illustrations by Michael Hays] (picture book) 1997
A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving [illustrations by Melodye Benson Rosales] (picture book) 1998
Kevin and His Dad [illustrations by Michael Hays] (picture book) 1999
Don't Say Ain't [illustrations by Colin Bootman] (picture book) 2003
I Can't Take a Bath [illustrations by Aaron Boyd] (picture book) 2003
My Nana and Me [illustrations by Cathy Ann Johnson] (picture book) 2004
IRENE AND THE BIG, FINE NICKEL (1991)
Bill Ott (review date 1 March 1991)
SOURCE: Ott, Bill. Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Booklist 87, no. 13 (1 March 1991): 1402.
Gr. K-3—It's Saturday, the sun is out, the sounds of Mahalia Jackson and Billie Holiday are wafting through the halls, and, for seven-year-old Irene [inIrene and the Big, Fine Nickel ], the world of 1950s Harlem is an open door to adventure. With Mommy still sleeping and the younger kids off with Godmother, Irene is on her own—and she doesn't mind a bit. There's so much to do: check in with pals Lula-belle and Lulamae, see how their mom's banana pudding is coming along, swap insults with the feisty Charlene, climb a few rocks, plant some seeds, and, Hallelujah!, find a nickel. It doesn't sound like all that much, perhaps, and the story does drag in places, but it's the fabric of the experience that makes Irene's day so joyous. Harlem in the fifties, as Smalls-Hector remembers it, is a true community—everything is shared, from the smells of food and sounds of jazz that fill the apartment buildings to the raisin bun that Irene buys with her nickel and offers to friend and foe alike. Being black is shared, too, but only as one more natural color in the rich canvas of daily life. In his first children's book, Geter produces paintings, full of deep reds, yellows, and greens, that are as inviting as a down comforter, drawing us into the easy openness of Irene's world. This is a nostalgic look at a less fractious time, to be sure, but it's also a reminder that occasionally the urban experience can foster community rather than alienation.
Diane Roback and Richard Donahue (review date 12 April 1991)
SOURCE: Roback, Diane, and Richard Donahue. Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Publishers Weekly 238, no. 17 (12 April 1991): 57.
Irene [in Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ] is a spunky African-American girl who "get[s] her own self up" one morning in New York's Harlem. The sunny Saturday stretches out before her, and she fills it up with the ordinary pleasures of a child's life: a hot drop biscuit, visits with neighbors, a singing game with a friend, planting seeds in a makeshift window box. When Irene finds a nickel in the gutter, she and her friends Lulabelle and Lulamae make a beeline for Miss Susie's West Indian Bakery: "We would like to buy the biggest raisin bun you have." Settling down with her friends for a curbside feast, "Irene was feeling seven and in heaven." Though they do little to evoke the 1957 setting, Geter's warm paintings impart a homey feeling that complements the nostalgic text. With its richly textured language, this debut picture book is a good choice for family sharing. Ages 4-8.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 1991)
SOURCE: Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Kirkus Reviews 54, no. 8 (15 April 1991): 539.
"Harlem [in the 50's] was a place where nobody locked the door, and you never questioned being black because there were a million people who looked just like you." Smalls-Hector's story [Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ], presumably based on reminiscence, follows Irene through one happy, event-filled Saturday: washing her face in the kitchen bathtub; going past the "toilet room" to a neighbor's apartment, where her twin best friends are among the 13 children and there's always delicious food to share; squabbling and then making up with another girl—"Charlene's people came from … down south, and they were church people"—(the traded insults are wonderfully mild); fearlessly playing in the park; finding a nickel and spending it on a bun big enough to share four ways. Like Howard's Chita's Christmas Tree (1989), this book lovingly recreates the secure childhood of an African-American child in the not-too-distant past. New illustrator Geter makes an outstanding debut, combining a warm palette, impressionistic use of light, a pleasing sense of design, and an affectionately realistic portrayal of the girls. The lengthy text is appropriate as a read-aloud or for young readers.
Lois F. Anderson (review date July-August 1991)
SOURCE: Anderson, Lois F. Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Horn Book Magazine 67, no. 4 (July-August 1991): 452.
Independent, seven-year-old Irene [in Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ] gets up early in the morning and begins an adventurous day in her Harlem neighborhood of the 1950s. She visits her next-door neighbor, hoping to get some of Miss Sally's homemade banana pudding. After settling for drop biscuits, Irene goes out to the street, where she meets several friends. They play games, chant rhymes, and "signify"—"'Your eyes may shine, your teeth may grit, but better looking is one thing that you will never get.'" But the most exciting event of the morning is finding a nickel in the gutter. "Irene ran over and grabbed the nickel. A whole nickel! It burned hot and rich in her hand. This nickel was enough to buy a raisin biscuit from the West Indian bakery." Irene and her three best friends share the bun and look forward to the further promise of that summer day in Harlem. The author joyfully creates a sense of time and place with colorful descriptions and dialogue, successfully integrating elements of African-American culture. The illustrator captures in glowing paintings a time of innocence and community.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date July-August 1991)
SOURCE: Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 44, no. 11 (July-August 1991): 276.
This day in the life of a seven-year-old [in Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ] seems purposively nostalgic in its re-creation of the 1950s Harlem setting: "The gutters of the street were so clean that you never saw anything in them, but this time there was definitely something there." The something is a nickel, and it's the closest the story comes to plot, as Irene and her friends share a raisin biscuit warm from the West Indian bakery. The ambiance, as Irene wakes up, fights with a neighbor, plays in the park, and shares the treat, is strong, and the warm, thick-textured paintings heighten a mood of high spirits: "Irene was feeling seven and in heaven on this summer day in Harlem." In spite of its occasionally self-conscious tone, the book may inspire some sharing of family stories and of pride in a black community heritage.
Ruth Semrau (review date December 1991)
SOURCE: Semrau, Ruth. Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. School Library Journal 37, no. 12 (December 1991): 102.
K-Gr. 2—An idyllic reminiscence of Harlem in the '50s [Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ], showing the human spirit that made this place welcoming and warm. Seven-year-old Irene is an independent youngster. Readers follow her through a summer Saturday as she visits neighbors, plays in the park and on city sidewalks, fights and makes up with friends, listens to the music drifting through open doors, and plants a fire-escape garden. The day's high point comes with the discovery of a nickel in the clean and normally empty gutter. Irene and her friends buy a raisin bun and, with the sharing of the food, cement their relationship. This is a quiet picture book with wide appeal; each spread includes a full-page oil painting illustrating the action and a page of fairly dense text. Geter's broad brush strokes are without outlines, letting the colors do all the work. Beautiful brown children are captured in rich tones and in natural poses, perfectly complementing the happiness described in the text. Irene's godmother sums up the story's sentiments best when she says, "God don't love ugly, bein' mean and fightin' is not the best thing to do." Amen to that.
Reading Teacher (review date February 1992)
SOURCE: Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Reading Teacher 45, no. 6 (February 1992): 453.
In Irene Smalls-Hector's Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel , Irene, an independent seven-year-old girl, wakes up early on a summer Saturday morning and goes out to see what is happening in her community—Harlem in the late 1950s. What she sees is a warm and loving community that values its children. The language of this book is that of a storyteller put to print—a perfect read-aloud for intermediate and upper grades. Strong, vibrant illustrations by Tyrone Geter make Irene's day come alive.
JONATHAN AND HIS MOMMY (1992)
Deborah Abbott (review date 1 October 1992)
SOURCE: Abbott, Deborah. Review of Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Booklist 89, no. 3 (1 October 1992): 338.
Ages 3-5. Stepping out takes on a whole new meaning in this simple, elegant picture book [Jonathan and His Mommy ]. Jonathan and his mother explore their urban neighborhood on a stroll. But it is no ordinary walk—their steps are punctuated with zigzags, giant and baby steps, bunny hops, fast and slow steps, and ballet, crisscross, reggae, and backward steps—and all the time the two talk about what they see and what they think. Children drawing with chalk on the sidewalks and playing ball, adults sitting on porches and in parks, and workers fixing the streets are all part of this city scene. Finally, worn out, Jonathan and his mother amble home with normal steps. The color paintings, highlighted in rich blues and greens, have a textured look, making you feel a part of a neighborhood bursting with the sights and sounds of friends and everyday life. The obviously strong and happy relationship between mother and child, sharing an activity every child and parent can duplicate, expresses joie de vivre.
Marie Orlando (review date November 1992)
SOURCE: Orlando, Marie. Review of Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. School Library Journal 38, no. 11 (November 1992): 78-9.
PreS-K—A young black child and his mother take a walk around their urban neighborhood [in Jonathan and His Mommy ], turning the trip into a game as they go. Zigzagging, giant-stepping, hip-hopping, racing, and then in slow motion, they wander through the streets and parks. Ballet, crazy criss-cross, and reggae finally give way to backward steps to the places they've been until, tired and happy, they take "Jonathan-and-Mommy steps" all the way home. The blank-verse text with repetition and rich imagery beautifully creates the sound and rhythm of the commonplace experience. Soft-toned double-page spreads portray an urban panorama that is at once realistic, non-threatening, and filled with the movement of the imaginative play. The gray cityscape is softened with muted blues, brick reds, and variegated greens, all reflected in the woman's patterned dress and the chalk rainbow drawn by children in the street. The bond between mother and child is evident on every page, making this a great book for one-on-one sharing; the generous visual scope and delightful cadence also make it a wonderful group read-aloud.
Publishers Weekly (review date 9 November 1992)
SOURCE: Review of Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Publishers Weekly 239, no. 49 (9 November 1992): 83.
Far be it from this African American youngster and his mother [in Jonathan and His Mommy ] to saunter down the street just any old way. They first "zigzag walk" and then take "big giant steps and talk in loud giant voices"; sometimes they glide along in "slow-motion steps," discussing "molasses and birthdays and how long they take." This playful ritual shows a tender, affectionate mother-son relationship, made all the more fun by the parent's willingness to join in this original perambulation. Hays's (Abiyoyo) soft pastels capture the sights and feeling of urban life as the two pass stores, a park's fountain and graffiti-covered walls, pausing to dance by a building stoop. Smalls-Hector's (Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ) lively, melodious language gives a joyful sense of this shared experience; particularly inventive is the manner in which the protagonists' conversational gambits match their gait of the moment. Mothers and offspring alike will delight in the final picture, as down the street these characters meander, appropriately taking "Jonathan-and-Mommy steps" toward home. Ages 4-8.
Horn Book Magazine (review date November-December 1992)
SOURCE: Review of Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Horn Book Magazine 68, no. 6 (November-December 1992): 719-20.
The author of the handsome Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel has written a second story of love and community with this account of a child's afternoon adventure [Jonathan and His Mommy ]. Jonathan and his mother, "walking and talking," set off from their apartment to enjoy each other and their multi-ethnic, urban neighborhood. They play a game which involves changing their steps to match each other and their mood. They take "crazy crisscross steps" in front of a construction site and "sloow-moootion" steps in front of a graffiti-covered wall. Throughout, their joy in being together is infectious. The rhythmic language is poetic, and Smalls-Hector skillfully uses repetition to create "verses" for each part of the game. Michael Hays's illustrations glow with a predominance of yellows and gold. Jonathan and his mother are the center of each illustration, while the background is just slightly out of focus, allowing the reader an intimacy with the events of the story. The combination of text and illustration is a true celebration of the love and security of family and neighborhood.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date January 1993)
SOURCE: Review of Jonathan and His Mommy, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 46, no. 5 (January 1993): 157.
No wonder Jonathan likes "to go walking and talking" with his mom [in Jonathan and His Mommy ]. She's the kind who doesn't mind taking zigzag steps, big giant steps ("I say, did you see / That humongous mammoth among us?"), itsy-bitsy baby steps, racing steps, slow-motion steps, ballet twirls, crisscross steps, reggae steps, backward steps, and, finally, Jonathan-and-Mommy steps all the way home. Let the comfortably rounded, imaginative mother here be an inspiration to us all. She'd better be; once kids get a look at this book, they're going to turn every walk into a dance of their own. The poetic text turns a situation into a story through homely details and cumulative rhythms, which are picked up and further developed in Hays' designerly urban murals. While the characters are African-American, the scenario is the envy of every child.
DAWN AND THE ROUND TO-IT (1994)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1994)
SOURCE: Review of Dawn and the Round To-It, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Kirkus Reviews 57, no. 10 (15 May 1994): 707.
Like Ann Herbert Scott's Sam (1967), Dawn [in Dawn and the Round To-It ] wants someone to share an activity with her; but Mommy is too busy, Daddy has a meeting, and her older brother and sister have plans to meet friends. Each is willing do what Dawn suggests, but only "when they get around to it." Woefully, Dawn turns to her sucking finger and blanket but then gets a delightfully creative idea: Making four pictures featuring circles, she gives them to her family. "It's a round to-it!" she tells Mommy, "Now can we play?" Fortunately, like Sam's, this African American family immediately takes the point and responds with good humor and evident love. The way Dawn takes the initiative in solving her problem is wonderfully refreshing, and Geter's bright, broadly rendered paintings reflect the characters' feelings with unusual sensitivity. A warm family story that should be around for a long time. (Picture book: 4-8)
Publishers Weekly (review date 30 May 1994)
SOURCE: Review of Dawn and the Round To-It, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Publishers Weekly 241, no. 22 (30 May 1994): 54.
"Dawn always got up early in the morning," begins this tale about an African American girl [Dawn and the Round To-It ]. "Dawn dawning at dawn is what Dawn's mother called it." Early or late, Dawn never seems to fit into anyone else's schedule. When she entreats her parents or her older brother and sister to play with her, she is invariably brushed off with laments of other obligations and promises to make it up to her, if they "can get around to it." Then "Dawn had a wild idea, a crazy idea." She draws round faces to present at appropriate moments: "'It's a round to-it,' Dawn explained. 'You always say you will play with me when you get around to it, and now you have one.'" Smalls's (Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel ) wordy text fails to kindle either humor or pathos (the drawn-out "punch" line packs no wallop), and overdoes tenderness (the parents respond with instant tears and high emotion). Geter's illustrations reflect family warmth, but they, too, are solemn. Ages 3-6.
Mary Harris Veeder (review date July 1994)
SOURCE: Veeder, Mary Harris. Review of Dawn and the Round To-It, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Booklist 90, no. 21 (July 1994): 1956.
Ages 4-6. Dawn gets up at dawn, ready to play [in Dawn and the Round To-It ]. Mom has a busy day and promises time "when I can get around to it," a refrain used later by everyone else in the family. Dawn is so discontented that not even her sucking thumb tastes as good as usual. Only when she hits on a special drawing project—she creates her own round to-it—is she satisfied. The joke about the round to-it might need to be explained to very young listeners, but the idea of a child's being excluded when everyone else rushes off to work won't be unfamiliar. Geter's broad, acrylic brush strokes convey the warmth of the African American family's casual interactions during the morning, a period that may be the only family time.
Harriett Fargnoli (review date September 1994)
SOURCE: Fargnoli, Harriett. Review of Dawn and the Round To-It, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. School Library Journal 40, no. 9 (September 1994): 199.
PreS-Gr. 2—Smalls's messages—to pay attention to children, to make a place for family, to stop and smell the roses—have been presented in many guises, including Nancy Carlson's Take Time to Relax (Viking, 1991), but her approach [in Dawn and the Round To-It ] is a fresh one. Dawn, who wakes at the crack of dawn, begs for attention but is put off by her siblings and parents who say they'll comply when they "get around to it." The little girl becomes tired of waiting and comes up with a creative way to get their attention: she makes four simply drawn circles, "round to-its," which she hands out to her otherwise engaged family when the time is right. Geter and Smalls's work is a perfect match. His warmly colored oils bleeding off the page are juxtaposed with the beautiful, well-paced prose. The daubed and stroked paintings evoke an unhurried mood needed for Dawn's side of the story. Her beaded, corn-rowed hair showcases her African American heritage. This beautiful, quiet, impressionistic piece suggests that it's not just "quality time" that's important, but any time. Dawn's round-to-its are sure to make adults sit up and take notice, and give children insight into creative problem solving.
Horn Book Guide (review date fall 1994)
SOURCE: Review of Dawn and the Round To-It, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. Horn Book Guide 5, no. 2 (fall 1994): 291.
When five-year-old Dawn [in Dawn and the Round To-It ] asks her parents and siblings to play with her, they are always too busy and usually answer, "When I can get around to it." But Dawn has a solution: she presents each of them with a drawing of circles—her idea of "a round to-it." A delightful and thoughtful picture of childhood in a busy, loving household is revealed in the comforting watercolors.
EBONY SEA (1995)
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date February 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Ebony Sea, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Jon Onye Lockard. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 49, no. 6 (February 1996): 204-05.
"And the waves kept rolling, to and fro, to and fro. Swoosh, swash, swish, swoosh, swash, swish, splish, splash, splish-splash, splatter." This onomatopoeic chorus [in Ebony Sea ] projects an oddly lighthearted tone for a story of mass suicide, when an entire shipment of Ebo people who have survived the Middle Passage walk silently into the Wateree River rather than submit to the horrors of slavery. The witness is a boy named Benriver who, "because he was part spirit could not go into the water … with them." This explanation may raise more questions than it answers in a picture book that tries to condense a complex historically grounded legend. Since the facts are not cited in an informational source note, listeners have no way of distinguishing fact from fiction here—whether, for instance, the "African queen" who leads the group ("In her Ebo beliefs an African who dies goes back home to Africa") comes from history or imagination. Other problems arise from the text itself: how did Benriver, newly arrived, understand an old slave's comforting words spoken in English? Why did the slave masters stand back and watch while their investment sank in irons? The art serves to further the mythical aspects of the story more than underscore its historical basis. Melodramatic colors characterize the compositions, and larger-than-life figures represent the heroic Africans, while the whites are cartooned with comedic proportions that break the tragic tone of the text. On one page, Benriver appears to be a boy in Auntie Louisa's arms; in the next picture, with no passage of time indicated, he seems to be a young man. Parts of the narrative are lyrical enough to move listeners and the art shows potential illustrative power in some of the portraits, but the overall effect—despite a romanticized vagueness of factual detail—is more polemic than poetic.
Carol Jones Collins (review date July 1996)
SOURCE: Collins, Carol Jones. Review of Ebony Sea, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Jon Onye Lockard. School Library Journal 42, no. 7 (July 1996): 86.
Gr. 3-6—Most tales about slavery in this country tell of narrow escapes to freedom or of the bravery of individual leaders. Few of those aimed at youngsters are as chilling or as poignant as this one [Ebony Sea ]. Small's lyrical narrative has a mythological feel to it; it captures the utter despair that must have gripped Africans when, upon landing on American soil, they recognized that they were doomed to a life of drudgery and toil. Some accepted life in chains, but others chose death. Smalls tells the story of a group of Ebos who drowned themselves rather than live in captivity. Lockard's bold paintings, depicting strong brown bodies emerging from the slave ship and then trudging slowly and relentlessly, with dignity, to their watery graves, are both beautiful and haunting. This book is important because it informs readers about the kinds of terrible choices slaves had to make and shows that no one choice was any better or braver than another.
FATHER'S DAY BLUES: WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT FATHER'S DAY WHEN ALL YOU HAVE ARE MOTHERS? (1995)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 June 1995)
SOURCE: Review of Father's Day Blues: What Do You Do about Father's Day When All You Have Are Mothers?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Kevin McGovern. Kirkus Reviews 63, no. 11 (1 June 1995): 787.
[Father's Day Blues is a] much-needed remedy to a growing social concern, aptly reflected in the subtitle, "What Do You Do about Father's Day When All You Have Are Mothers?"
Cheryl lives in a household with three female role models, each a strong, distinct personality. When her teacher assigns a Father's Day writing project, Cheryl confronts her feelings about her missing father. Smalls (Dawn and the Round To-It , 1994, etc.) avoids racial stereotyping by creating a second African-American character from a so-called nuclear family; the illustrations place Cheryl in a comfortable, middle-class environment—appropriate, since the problem of absentee fathers permeates society. McGovern (Smalls's Alphabet Witch , 1994) once again achieves startling success. The austere drawings emphasize human figures and faces, communicating a wealth of character through the precision of facial expression.
Bibliotherapy that reads like a family drama, a relevant story told with honesty, clarity, and humor. (Picture book: 5-8)
Hazel Rochman (review date July 1995)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Father's Day Blues: What Do You Do about Father's Day When All You Have Are Mothers?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Kevin McGovern. Booklist 91, no. 21 (July 1995): 1884.
Ages 4-8. Cheryl, an African American child [in Father's Day Blues ], confronts her sadness about her absent father when she tries to write a class composition for Father's Day. The art here is a bit stiff, but the story is realistic, and the characters are strongly individualized. Her loving mother reassures Cheryl that her daddy's absence is not her fault. By the time Cheryl reads her composition to the sympathetic teacher, we have seen that, in fact, people are different, families are different, and love is what makes a family. The best way to get across the message of acceptance is to show a variety of families in all kinds of stories, but for those who also want something more direct, this is an honest, sensitive treatment.
JENNY REEN AND THE JACK MUH LANTERN (1995)
Hazel Rochman (review date 1 September 1996)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Irene Jennie and the Jack Muh Lantern, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Keinyo White. Booklist 93, no. 1 (1 September 1996): 137.
Ages 4-9. Great for reading aloud, this Halloween story [Jenny Reen and the Jack Muh Lantern ]is told with rhythm and shivery immediacy in a poetic, colloquial voice. A story based on African American folklore and oral histories, it's set in slavery times, "the hardest of hard times," but there [is] still joy "because there [are] children." Jenny Reen's daddy and mommy work all day in the cotton fields, and she's cared for in the slave quarters by Sister Louisa, who loves her and who warns Jenny Reen to watch out for the foul fiend Jack Muh Lantern. Lost in the woods one day, Jenny Reen is suddenly chased by the wild-looking creature that rolls its googly google eyes around in their bloody red sockets, but she escapes when she remembers a trick that Sister Louisa taught her. White's stylized oil paintings in brilliant colors show the toil and hardship, the woods where fearful monsters loom in the shadows, and the smiling child at home with those who love her.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date December 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Irene Jennie and the Jack Muh Lantern, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Keinyo White. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 50, no. 4 (December 1996): 152.
This authentically scary African-American story [Jenny Reen and the Jack Muh Lantern ] centers on Jenny Reen, a young Southern slave whose parents work the fields while she stays with Sister Louisa, "the slave quarter roots woman." Shortly before All Hallows' Eve, Sister Louisa tells Jenny Reen about the Jack Muh Lantern that has "great googly google eyes and no lips, just a big wide gash, open from ear to ear" and that "leads you into the bogs and marshes and leaves you there to slowly sink and slowly die." Of course, Jenny Reen soon encounters the creature and outwits him by remembering Sister Louisa's advice. Except for a slowish beginning—which makes slavery sound prehistoric ("Once upon a time, when the great mountains were high, before they were pebbled apart into the sandy beach that we are standing on today …") and has Jenny Reen asking, out of the blue, "when will I'se be free?"—the narrative is economical and powerful, with an inevitable momentum to the sequence of events. The paintings feature heavy brush strokes, deep hues, accurate drafting, plain compositions, and amorphous shapes more suggestive than definite. Both art and text successfully stimulate the imagination, so gear your presentation for kids who have a firm enough grasp on the difference between fantasy and reality to handle things that go bump in the night.
Starr LaTronica (review date December 1996)
SOURCE: LaTronica, Starr. Review of Irene Jennie and the Jack Muh Lantern, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Keinyo White. School Library Journal 42, no. 12 (December 1996): 106.
K-Gr. 2—While her mother and father work in the cotton fields [in Jenny Reen and the Jack Muh Lantern ], Jenny Reen is left with Sister Louisa, the slave-quarter roots woman who tells her stories about Jack Muh Lantern, who terrorizes children on Halloween. The very next day Jenny encounters the creature, but remembers the woman's advice in time to save herself. White uses a variety of intriguing perspectives in his rustic, impressionistic oil paintings, rendered on canvas in vivid colors, thus emphasizing the dramatic elements of the story. Close-up portraits of the characters are expressive but inconsistent, with background figures in fields and groups returning from their labor executed with a minimum of brushstrokes. Jenny Reen seems almost contemporary in her bright red jacket and her mother looks stylish for having spent the day picking cotton, yet the cruelty of slavery is illustrated through details in the text and in Sister Louisa's response to Jenny Reen's question, "… when will I'se be free?" The words and phrases chosen are as colorful as the palette, with the use of dialect reserved for dialogue only. Sources are scrupulously noted and an author's note establishes the context for the story.
BEGINNING SCHOOL (1996)
Publishers Weekly (review date 17 June 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Beginning School, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Toni Goffe. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 25 (17 June 1996): 64.
Setting out to reassure apprehensive kindergarteners-to-be, Smalls's wordy read-aloud [Beginning School ] offers a rather prosaic account of a class's activities during the first days and months at school. The spotlight here is on Alicia, a good-natured African American child. In a typically flat passage, readers learn that "Alicia wasn't so sure she would have any fun in school. But her mother had told her she was a big girl now. Alicia knew that being big meant going to school." Alicia does just fine, easily making friends and kindly reaching out to a forlorn classmate who is having difficulty adjusting. After closely following the class's schedule for the initial days, Smalls (who has the teacher read the kids one of her previous books, Jonathan and His Mommy ) recaps some highlights of the fall, among them a visit to a museum, class pictures and a Halloween party. On the closing spread, Smalls covers all multicultural bases with a cursory rundown of the holidays celebrated in class: Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, the Puerto Rican Festival of the Three Kings, and Chinese New Year. The busy, consistently smiling youngsters in Goffe's cartoon art have more personality, and they convincingly pass along the message that school is definitely okay. Ages 4-7.
Virginia Opocensky (review date August 1996)
SOURCE: Opocensky, Virginia. Review of Beginning School, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Toni Goffe. School Library Journal 42, no. 8 (August 1996): 130.
PreS-K—Alicia queries her mother about what will happen during her first day of kindergarten [in Beginning School ] and what her mother will do while she is gone all day. The lengthy text gives a practically moment-by-moment description of the first and second days with shorter chapters about the third day, second month, and holiday time. While numerous common concerns about school are addressed in a reassuring manner, there is too much information for the intended audience. Drawings of the integrated class are expressive and interpret, but do not expand the text. A rather pedantic offering.
Horn Book Guide (review date fall 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Beginning School, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Toni Goffe. Horn Book Guide 7, no. 2 (fall 1996): 276.
The first day of school, with all its attendant excitement, is presented [in Beginning School ] from the point of view of Alicia, an African-American girl who joins a multiracial class.
Smalls (Father's Day Blues , 1995, etc.) includes many of the activities children can expect in the first few months of kindergarten: drawing letters and coloring shapes, singing songs, watching a snake shed its skin, birthday parties, Halloween, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, Three Kings Day, and the Chinese New Year are all presented. Alicia makes friends; by book's end, all the students are ready for vacation, while enjoying school and looking forward to coming back after the break. Goffe's watercolors reflect the happy, sweet tone of the text in this serviceable book for family and classroom.
IRENE JENNIE AND THE CHRISTMAS MASQUERADE: THE JOHNKANKUS (1996)
Ilene Cooper (review date 15 September 1996)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Booklist 93, no. 2 (15 September 1996): 251.
Ages 5-9. In the tradition of the McKissacks, Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (1994), this glowingly illustrated book [Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus ] puts a gentler face on life during slavery. Irene Jennie wakes up on Christmas day missing her parents, who have been loaned by the master to work on another plantation. She prays for their early return but also finds solace in the arrival of the wild paraders known as the Johnkankus. These slaves, who don feather masks and inventive costumes, dance and play their musical instruments to the delight of the other slaves, who revel in the extravagance of the moment. Then, happily, Irene Jennie's parents return home early, so she can enjoy the rest of the day with them. An author's note explains the Christmas event, the Johnkankus and its African origins—information that only barely allows the story to stand alone. Rosales' pictures are lovely, quiet in the moments when Irene Jennie is missing her parents, yet able to capture the frenzy that arrives with the dancers, acrobats, and musicians who make up the Johnkankus. Because it's Christmas, everyone here is smiling and happy, and the darker side of slavery seems very far away.
Publishers Weekly (review date 30 September 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 40 (30 September 1996): 91.
The Johnkankus festival, according to the author's note [in Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade ], was a kaleidoscope of color and song danced along the dirt roads of North Carolina (and other places in the South) as a special Christmas celebration for hundreds of slaves. Rosales ('Twas the Night before Christmas) brings young readers there with sharply detailed oil paintings that pulsate with jubilant energy. She saturates each canvas with a rich and earthy palette and gives life to shining, memorable faces. Smalls's lengthy text, however, possesses less flair. Unlike the heroine of Smalls's Jenny Reen and the Jack Muh Lantern (p. 85), who is also a slave, Irene Jennie sounds like Gone with the Winds' Prissy: "Buts Godmama, I'se gots no family on Christmas Day." Later, the author stretches the storytelling too thinly in her attempt to incorporate the fruits of her research, leaving readers with perhaps too much of a good thing. Ages 4-8.
Children's Book Review Service (review date October 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Children's Book Review Service 25, no. 2 (October 1996): 17.
Irene Jennie [in Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus ], a young slave girl, lives on a North Carolina plantation. Johnkankus is a parade traditionally celebrated on Christmas day by both blacks and whites. The celebration died out around 1863. Irene Jennie is saddened by her parents being out on Christmas. The joy and excitement of the holiday come to life with full-color illustrations that depict the singing, dancing, costumes and music while the story dances and celebrates with song. Irene Jennie finally gets her wish when her father and mother arrive home early. Rich in tradition.
Jane Marino (review date October 1996)
SOURCE: Marino, Jane. Review of Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales. School Library Journal 42, no. 10 (October 1996): 41.
K-Gr. 4—When Christmas arrives in the slaves' quarters of a Carolina plantation [in Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus ], Irene Jennie cannot feel the spirit because her daddy, "a fine fiddlin' man," and her mama have been "rented out" to a neighboring plantation. She's filled with sadness—until the Koners come along. The Koners are members of the Johnkankus troupe, which marches through the quarters on Christmas Day spreading cheer and singing and dancing in brightly colored costumes. By the end of the day, Irene's mother and father return, making her day complete. Although the parents' timely return seems a bit pat, it makes for an appropriately happy ending in a holiday book. According to an author's note, the Johnkankus was an 18th- and 19th-century tradition, believed to have originated in West Africa, in which as many as a hundred people would parade through the countryside. The parchment-colored paper with the text trimmed in red borders is paired perfectly with the oil paintings on canvas that portray a pretty, bright-eyed girl whose sadness turns to wonder as she is surrounded by the movement and color of the performers. Especially effective are the illustrations as she dances and imitates them, and those of the Koners themselves as their movements are emphasized by swirls of color that move and fly across the page.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date November 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 50, no. 3 (November 1996): 115-16.
"Buts Godmama, I'se gots no family on Christmas Day. 'Ceptin' you, of course," says a young girl [in Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus ] to the heavy-set cook who is taking care of her. Both are slaves (although that word is never mentioned in the story) on a North Carolina plantation, and Irene Jennie's parents have been "rented out" to help with a neighboring Christmas party. "Irene Jennie did not know if they would be back home before Christmas was all over or if they would ever come back at all" (a puzzling statement, since there's no indication that they've been sold). What dries her tears is the lively appearance of the Koners, a troupe of lavishly costumed dancers celebrating a custom that probably originated in West Africa, according to the author's source citation. Just as the Koners finish their serenade and Irene Jennie's sadness returns, her mother and father appear because of a miraculous early dismissal by the Massa. The two arrivals—first of the parade and later of the parents—seem to happen quite fortuitously. Outside of one illustration in which the protagonist is shown in tears, the romanticized paintings depict a cheery world of cozy interiors, picturesque clothing, and smiling faces. Like the special occasion reflected in Gershom Griffith's pictures for Courtni Wright's Jumping the Broom (BCCB 7/94), this exception to the generally oppressive life of enslaved African Americans becomes the rule when presented in a picture book of such limited scope. As with the McKissacks' Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (10/94), the effect of this glamorized evocation of Christmas in the quarters is oddly discomfiting.
Reading Teacher (review date December-January 1997-1998)
SOURCE: Review of Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Rosales. Reading Teacher 51, no. 4 (December-January 1997-1998): 311-12.
Irene Jennie's slave parents have been rented out to a neighboring plantation [in Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade: The Johnkankus ], and she is not sure they will arrive home for Christmas. Her spirits are lifted by the music, dancing, and antics of Johnkankus revelers, slaves who parade through neighboring plantations in a huge traveling celebration. Instruments and costumes for Johnkankus are made from found objects, such as animal horns. Lively illustrations depict the warmth of a caring cook in the big house and the joyous Christmas celebration on an 18th-century coastal North Carolina plantation. The focus of the book is on the traditional masquerade parade (Johnkankus), which has origins in West Africa and is still celebrated in Bermuda and the Caribbean. Lyrics from authentic spirituals are interspersed throughout the book.
LOUISE'S GIFT, OR, WHAT DID SHE GIVE ME THAT FOR? (1996)
Publishers Weekly (review date 22 April 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Publishers Weekly 243, no. 17 (22 April 1996): 70.
When matriarch Nana arrives to formally welcome Louise's newborn cousin into their extended African American family [in Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? ], she brings each child a symbolic present: a small comb for the prettiest, a joke from a bubble-gum wrapper for the funniest. Louise is crushed when Nana hands her a crumpled piece of paper, saying, "I give you the gift of a blank page on which you can put whatever you wish." At day's end, after Louise has come up with just the right solutions to two dilemmas, she appreciates the significance of her gift when Nana instructs her to write the word "creativity" on her piece of paper. Communicating the affectionate bonds within Louise's family, Smalls (Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel , see p. 73) mixes occasionally syrupy phrases (in Louise's Harlem neighborhood, "every corner provided kinship and love") with colloquial dialogue ("Uh, she don't know what she's talkin' about," says Louise's mother upon the child's disappointed reaction to Nana's present). Presiding adults may be disconcerted by unfriendly allusions to race and class: the elders have taken the day off from their jobs as "cooks, maids and janitors"; later, when a truck is stalled, neighborhood adults laugh to see the "fancy people from downtown," i.e., whites, "sweating for a change." Far more consistent and joyful, Bootman's (Young Frederick Douglass) impressively realistic paintings prove particularly effective in capturing the nuances of Louise's changeable disposition: the eagerness of her grin, the slump of her shoulder, the bounce in her step. Ages 4-8.
Children's Book Review Service (review date June 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Children's Book Review Service 24, no. 11 (June 1996): 124.
Young Louisa is a member of an extended Harlem family [in Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? ]. There is a big party when Louisa's baby cousin is presented to Nana, the eldest. Nana, with pithy words of wisdom for each child, gives out unusual gifts. Louisa is told she can put what ever she wants on her gift, a rumpled piece of paper. She's furious until she realizes she has the gift of being creative. Strong family relationships, respect for elders and individual personalities provide the framework for the book. Large illustrations enact the text.
Karen James (review date July 1996)
SOURCE: James, Karen. Review of Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. School Library Journal 42, no. 7 (July 1996): 73-4.
Nana presents each of Louise's cousins with a gift [in Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? ] and a prediction for the future, but Louise is angry when all she receives is a blank sheet of paper on which she can put whatever she wishes. Later, after she solves some problems, she realizes that Nana has recognized her gift of creativity. Warm, realistic illustrations portray this spunky African-American girl and her family.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Kirkus Reviews 64, no. 15 (1 August 1996): 1158.
K-Gr. 3—When Louise's extended family gathers so Nana can welcome a new baby [in Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? ], the elderly woman brings special gifts for her grandchildren that look into their souls and project their futures. For Dawn there is a secondhand book; for Jimmy a joke from a bubble-gum wrapper; but for Louise there is only a blank piece of paper. Louise hates it, for it makes her feel like nothing, but Nana tells her gently that her gift "… is the sum of all those others but greater." And events prove that the girl has the gift of creativity. The story is somewhat contrived; two occasions for Louise to show her problem-solving ability just happen to occur one after the other, and the writing is often self-conscious and stilted. Still, Smalls does create the atmosphere of a strong and loving African American family with traditions that bind and enrich their lives. The watercolor illustrations generally fit the mood and setting. Nana is no frail old woman but a full-figured, vigorous, and commanding presence. There are a few misses. Louise, taunting a younger cousin, looks inappropriately sympathetic, and when a group of sidewalk gawkers is supposed to be laughing at a truck stuck under an overpass, all look solemn. Despite some flaws, the story speaks to the importance of family and its approval in a young child's life and to her need to feel special and competent.
Language Arts (review date November 1996)
SOURCE: Review of Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Language Arts 73, no. 7 (November 1996): 526.
It's a special day [in Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? ]. Louise's newest cousin is to be welcomed into the family by Nana, their grandmother, and Nana will bring each child a gift accompanied by a saying. Louise watches as her cousins receive their gifts—a shiny penny for Cheryl so she will be "rich in gold and in the spirit" and a ruler for Eric so he "will be tall, strong, and stand out in many ways." But when it is Louise's turn, she hates her gift. This is the story of how Louise comes to appreciate that gift and discover that she is, indeed, the special and talented child her grandmother saw all along. Smalls' story is a powerful one that celebrates the strength of strong family connection while at the same time celebrating the strength of the individual spirit.
Patricia J. Cianciolo (review date 1997)
SOURCE: Cianciolo, Patricia J. Review of Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For?, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. In Picture Books for Children, Fourth Edition, pp. 86-7. Chicago, Ill.: American Library Association, 1997.
It was traditional for Louise's kin to present new babies at a party to the eldest member for formal welcome into the family, so her cousin Kevin was presented to Nana, for she was the eldest. The people in this large extended family believed the eldest to be so wise she could look into a child's eyes and view his or her soul and future. On the day Kevin was welcomed into the family [in Louise's Gift, or, What Did She Give Me That For? ], Nana gave each of the children a special gift and a saying about their future. Louise was devastated and confused and angry with the present Nana gave her—a rumpled and blank piece of paper on which she could put whatever she wished. As the story progresses, Louise responds in a very special way to situations her age-mates and adults find themselves in. If the readers heed Louise's responses to these situations, they will grasp the significance of Nana's gift to Louise before Louise does. The expressive realistic illustrations, done in full color, artfully reinforce and extend the credibility of this fine story.
BECAUSE YOU'RE LUCKY (1997)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 1997)
SOURCE: Review of Because You're Lucky, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Kirkus Reviews 65, no. 15 (1 August 1997): 1229.
Jonathan's family must learn to adjust when orphaned cousin Kevin comes to live with them [in Because You're Lucky ]. At first Jonathan feels put out and jealous—he must share his clothes and room with Kevin; at school, the other students take to Kevin's friendliness instantly. When Jonathan asks, "How come I have to share my clothes? How come he gets to sleep in my bunk bed?" his mother answers, "Because you're lucky. You have a home, a family, so many things and so much love." After the boys fight, Kevin moves into the guest room (which wasn't mentioned as an option before) and they find they miss each other, eventually becoming inseparable. The story is well-intentioned, and Smalls's heart is in the right place—but the entire venture is stiff with lessons. Jonathan's mother offers textbook reassurances, but her perspective often overwhelms her son's. A teenage sister, Dawn, disappears after two pages, right after she and Jonathan have expressed, openly and without real parental comment, their dislike of Kevin. Hays's illustrations are colorful but static, adding to the atmosphere of bibliotherapy.
Hazel Rochman (review date 1 September 1997)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Because You're Lucky, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Booklist 94, no. 1 (1 September 1997): 135.
Ages 4-8. Like John Steptoe's classic picture book Stevie (1969), this moving family story [Because You're Lucky ] is about a foster child who is first an interloper and then a friend. Smalls tells in warm detail how Kevin came to live with his aunt Laura and her two children: "He came without a toothbrush or a toy. He came without a change of clothes, and he came without a mommy or a daddy." His cousin Jonathan wants Kevin to go away. When Jonathan asks why he has to share his clothes, his toys, and his bunkbed, his mother answers, "Because you're lucky." The cousins bicker, then gradually play together. Jonathan teaches Kevin how to use the family computer. Kevin shows Jonathan how to play spacemen and football. After a big fight, they separate and then realize how much they like being together—how lucky they are. Hays' double-page, realistic paintings set the story in a contemporary middle-class African American family in a tree-lined city neighborhood. Children will feel the drama of friend and enemy: the endearing outsider, the hostile cousin, the loving parent trying to make it work.
Dawn Amsberry (review date October 1997)
SOURCE: Amsberry, Dawn. Review of Because You're Lucky, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. School Library Journal 43, no. 10 (October 1997): 111.
Gr. 1-3—[Because You're Lucky is a] warm, realistic story about an African-American family. When Kevin comes to live at his cousin Jonathan's house, Jonathan is resentful of all the things he has to share—his room, his clothes, his mother, even his school. Jonathan excels in school and chess, while Kevin struggles with reading but likes sports and action figures. Gradually the boys begin to form a friendship by sharing their interests, and soon realize that there is room in the house for both of them. Children who have been in either Kevin or Jonathan's place will identify with the youngsters. The dialogue lacks the sparkle of Smalls's Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel (Little, Brown, 1991), but the text flows smoothly and works perfectly with the well-executed paintings, done primarily in soft blues, greens, and yellows. The relationship between the boys is convincing, although Kevin's relentlessly upbeat attitude is not entirely believable given that he arrived "without a toothbrush or a toy … without a mommy or a daddy." The most surprising aspect of the story is that the details of Kevin's background are never revealed, leaving readers to wonder what chain of events led him to Jonathan's door. Children will inevitably be curious about these details, and may feel confused by the lack of information. Nevertheless, they will take comfort in the story's overall messages of love, acceptance, and togetherness.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date November 1997)
SOURCE: Review of Because You're Lucky, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 51, no. 3 (November 1997): 102.
When Aunt Laura agrees to take in her nephew Kevin [in Because You're Lucky ], he is immediately assaulted with the selfish and rude behavior of her own two children, the teenaged Dawn and her younger brother, Jonathan. They "welcome" their needy cousin with "Momma, how come that raggedy little boy has to come and live with us?" and "It's not fair! How come I have to share my clothes? How come he gets to sleep in my bunk bed?" The extraordinarily patient mother replies, "Because you're lucky." Inevitably Jonathan and Kevin begin to enjoy the life they must share until a typical sibling-like blow-up results in Kevin's move to another room, "but Jonathan had trouble going to sleep. It had been a long while since he had slept in his room all by himself." Readers will get the ending they expect, where everyone is friends again and mother repeats the "Because you're lucky" mantra. Richly hued paintings depict the African-American family in stiffly posed scenes. The story is obviously well-intentioned, and it is refreshing to have some honest acknowledgment of the strain such a family change can be, but the book never reaches quite deep enough to be meaningful. For a lyrical picture book on the same theme, try John Steptoe's classic Stevie.
Horn Book Guide (review date spring 1998)
SOURCE: Review of Because You're Lucky, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Horn Book Guide 9, no. 1 (spring 1998): 48.
In this awkwardly written book, [Because You're Lucky ,] Kevin comes to live with his aunt and cousins for unspecified reasons. The cousins are unwelcoming and even mean at first, and though Kevin eventually makes friends with the younger boy, teenaged Dawn disappears after the second spread. The intended message of reassurance, delivered with a heavy hand by Aunt Laura, will likely be overwhelmed by the puzzling story line and stiff, flat illustrations.
A STRAWBEATER'S THANKSGIVING (1998)
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 August 1998)
SOURCE: Review of A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales. Kirkus Reviews 66, no. 16 (15 August 1998): 1196.
Expressive, beautifully colored realistic paintings depict the indomitable spirit of slaves after harvest when it was corn-shucking time [in A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving ]. Smalls (Because You're Lucky , 1992, etc.) evokes a night of celebration and the dreams of a seven-year-old boy, Jess, who fights a larger boy, Nathaniel, for the honor of being the strawbeater—helping the fiddler by beating on the instrument with straw during the dancing. A sleepy Jess is carried home by his mother at the end of the evening, her "manchild" who has the will and determination to survive anything—perhaps even slavery. Smalls conveys the festivities without idealizing them—there are patrollers accompanying the slaves to an event that, for all the dancing and eating, is work.
Shelley Townsend-Hudson (review date 1 September 1998)
SOURCE: Townsend-Hudson, Shelley. Review of A Straw-beater's Thanksgiving, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales. Booklist 95, no. 1 (1 September 1998): 129.
Ages 7-10. In a story based on slave narratives [A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving ], Smalls focuses on a description of a corn-husking party, when slaves were allowed one night of celebration after the harvest. In late November, the slaves join together from surrounding farms to shuck corn, to eat, and, finally, to dance. Each year, a straw beater is selected—a young boy who stands behind the fiddler with a pair of straws to beat the fiddle strings like a drum. The means of selection is a wrestling match. Seven-yearold Jess is determined to triumph over Nathaniel, who's always been chosen as straw beater. But Nathaniel is twice Jess' size, and the odds seem a mite slim. On the big night, Jess is thrown twice, and Sis Wisa, Jess' mom who watches from the sidelines, winces. But it's not over till it's over, and in one last-ditch effort, Jess grabs Nathaniel and hangs on for all he's worth. Finally, someone in the crowd shouts, "Can we git to the dancin'?" and the fiddler picks Jess. The warm, glowing illustrations contribute much to the impact of this remarkable story—a story that celebrates the determination of one small boy.
Publishers Weekly (review date 28 September 1998)
SOURCE: Review of A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales. Publishers Weekly 245, no. 39 (28 September 1998): 50.
Working from slave narratives, Smalls and Rosales (previously paired for Irene Jennie and the Christmas Masquerade ) describe a corn-shucking celebration at the close of the harvest [in A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving ]. Seven-year-old Jess has a goal: "I'se gon be strawbeater." Once all the corn has been shucked and the dancing begins, he defeats reigning strawbeater Nathaniel in a wrestling match, and so wins a place at Fiddler's side. There Jess takes hold of two straws and beats on the fiddle while Fiddler plays. Readers may get lost in all the relaying of logistics, and Rosales's paintings do little to clarify the action (opposite the text when Jess defeats Nathaniel, for example, Nathaniel towers over a struggling Jess). Ages 7-10.
Beth Tegart (review date October 1998)
SOURCE: Tegart, Beth. Review of A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Melodye Benson Rosales. School Library Journal 44, no. 10 (October 1998): 113-14.
Gr. 2-5—In this tale based on slave narratives, [A Strawbeater's Thanksgiving ,] Smalls presents little-known traditions and unfamiliar figures of speech. At the annual corn-shucking party, seven-year-old Jess longs to be the "strawbeater" who, according to the author's note, "stands behind a fiddler, reaches around his left shoulder, and beats on the strings while the fiddle is being played, in the manner of a snare drum." He must wrestle Nathaniel, a bigger boy, for the honor, and when he is chosen for his tenacity rather than his brawn, the festivities begin. There is dancing, singing, good-natured competition, and plenty of food. The storyline is somewhat stilted and would require some historical background to be fully appreciated. Rosales's vibrant, full-color oil paintings carry the emotion and spirit of the day. The bright, bold reds and browns add a sense of power and strength. This is not as satisfying as Patricia and Fredrick McKissack's Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters (Scholastic, 1994), but it helps to fill out the life stories of slaves and presents an interesting glimpse of a harvest celebration of the period.
KEVIN AND HIS DAD (1999)
Ilene Cooper (review date 15 February 1999)
SOURCE: Cooper, Ilene. Review of Kevin and His Dad, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Booklist 95, no. 12 (15 February 1999): 1076.
Ages 3-6. An African American boy and his father spend a day together at work and at play [in Kevin and His Dad ]. In a rhyme that has energy but also a tendency to turn singsongy, the text shows Kevin and his father cleaning the house (this is serious house-cleaning, from washing the windows to fixing the faucet) and then going out to play baseball, followed by a movie. Hays illustrates the events with pleasant oil paintings that seem suffused with light. Although neither the text nor the paintings are exceptional, both convey the warmth of a father-son relationship in a way that will attract youngsters.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 April 1999)
SOURCE: Review of Kevin and His Dad, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Kirkus Reviews 67, no. 7 (1 April 1999): 538.
There is something profoundly elemental going on in Smalls's book [Kevin and His Dad ]: the capturing of a moment of unmediated joy. It's not melodramatic, but just a Saturday in which an African-American father and son immerse themselves in each other's company when the woman of the house is away. Putting first things first, they tidy up the house, with an unheralded sense of purpose motivating their actions: "Then we clean, clean, clean the windows, / wipe, wipe, wash them right. / My dad shines in the windows' light." When their work is done, they head for the park for some batting practice, then to the movies where the boy gets to choose between films. After a snack, they work their way homeward, racing each other, doing a dance step or two, then "Dad takes my hand and slows down. / I understand, and we slow down. / It's a long, long walk. / We have a quiet talk and smile." Smalls treats the material without pretense, leaving it guileless and thus accessible to readers. Hays's artwork is wistful and idyllic, just as this day is for one small boy.
Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (review date May 1999)
SOURCE: Review of Kevin and His Dad, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books 52, no. 9 (May 1999): 328.
In this companion to Jonathan and His Mommy [Kevin and His Dad ], Kevin and his father clean house and then enjoy a day together. Domestic chores are given a playful twist: "First we take the vacuum and railroad the rugs— / choo, choo, coming through! / I love cleaning up with you," and "Next we fix, fix, fix the faucets, / squeeze, squeeze, squeeze the soap, / dunk, dunk, dunk the dishes." Though the scansion sometimes stumbles, the verse effectively uses alliteration, repetition, and rhyme to express emotion, provide dramatic movement, and give a sense of housekeeping's repetitiveness. Michael Hays' oil paintings are filled with complementary combinations of blues and oranges, accented by green. Soft, diffused light spills into each double-page spread, suggesting sunlight or the city's neon signs. The figures are realistic, but the drafting is inconsistent and often flat: the clearly drawn and warmly attractive picture of Kevin's father rubbing his son's head is followed by distorted drafting of the father at the movie theater and running with Kevin. Still, this may motivate young listeners toward the energetic completion of a few household chores.
Marian Drabkin (review date May 1999)
SOURCE: Drabkin, Marian. Review of Kevin and His Dad, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Michael Hays. School Library Journal 45, no. 5 (May 1999): 97-8.
PreS-Gr. 1—While Mom's away one Saturday, Kevin and his dad spend a companionable day together [in Kevin and His Dad ]. First, they clean the house, then they have a little batting practice in the park, and, finally, the guys enjoy an action movie followed by a snack and a walk home. The simple language and unobtrusive rhyme of the text is well matched by the soft, realistic illustrations in oils, which show an African-American father and son quietly savoring their time together. Good humor—and a bit of lighthearted silliness that transforms ordinary chores into something special and enjoyable—is shown in such recognizable bits of action as using a feather duster on the nose of their golden retriever, who manages to involve himself in every activity. Soft, sunny tones and large areas of color, applied thinly enough to show the texture of the canvas, convey the action, yet allow readers to focus on the affectionate interaction between father and son rather than only on the tasks being performed. With its easy, rhythmic language and readily recognizable activities, this is a good choice for storytime. And, of course, young dog lovers will follow everything that the golden retriever does.
DON'T SAY AIN'T (2003)
Publishers Weekly (review date 9 December 2002)
SOURCE: Review of Don't Say Ain't, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Publishers Weekly 249, no. 49 (9 December 2002): 84.
Smalls (Kevin and His Dad ) sets her choppy tale [Don't Say Ain't ] in 1957 Harlem. Dana is jumping rope with her best friends, Cindybelle and Ellamae, when her godmother appears and announces, "My baby's passed a test. Goin' to an advanced school!" When she sees her friends on her way to her new, integrated school on the first day, Dana hears Cindy-belle mutter to Ellamae, "She thinks she's better'n us cause she's goin' to that advanced school now." Dana, in her starched and pressed party dress, stands out from her classmates, who wear pleated skirts and sweater sets. Her teacher, also African-American, privately tells Dana not to use the word "ain't." But when the teacher visits Dana's home and says the forbidden word while chatting casually with Godmother, Dana immediately runs outdoors and makes peace with her pals. In the equally facile conclusion, Dana jumps rope to her own rhyme: "If you want to say 'ain't,' / So people won't faint, / And laugh and think you're quaint, / Just say it at home. / And when you roam, / Speaking proper sets de tone, / So folks won't moan, / And dat's that." Bootman's (In MyMomma's Kitchen) spare, lifelike oil paintings credibly convey the era and the heroine's emotions. Unfortunately, even the book's positive message cannot overcome the stilted storytelling. Ages 6-9.
Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 2003)
SOURCE: Review of Don't Say Ain't, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 4 (15 February 2003): 316-17.
Dana lives in Harlem in the 1950s and is smart—so smart that she is selected to go to an integrated school [in Don't Say Ain't ]. But it means being separated from her best friends. Her godmother insists she go to the new school in her best party dress but the other girls are dressed in skirts with matching sweater sets. Dana misses the "running jive and banter" of her friends and the teacher asks her not to use "ain't" in school. Her classmates ignore her but she has the gumption to answer the last math problem when no one else can. Although she does well in school, she has no friends and her best friends are never at the corner anymore. The last straw is her teacher's announcement that she will be visiting each student's home, and she will begin with Dana. When her teacher arrives, Dana discovers that her godmother and teacher are the best of friends and speak in the familiar language (replete with ain'ts) that she and her friends do. She and her two friends finally talk it out and while they're playing their favorite game of Double Dutch. Dana makes up a verse—"If you want to say ain't. So people won't faint, And laugh and think you're quaint, Just say it at home." The wonderfully realistic oil illustrations are reminiscent of the fifties (all of the girls wear skirts-even when jumping rope) but are static and posed. The verso title page includes a quote from The Trouble They Seen: Black People Tell the Story of Reconstruction wherein a Louisiana freedman says that his children should be educated so they can read to him and, since he trusts them, he will know it's true. Educators will find this useful for experiencing an historic time not often seen in books for this age level.
Hazel Rochman (review date 15 February 2003)
SOURCE: Rochman, Hazel. Review of Don't Say Ain't, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Booklist 99, no. 12 (15 February 2003): 1090.
Gr. 1-3—When Dana gets the highest grade on the city test and is accepted into the advanced integrated school, her godmother boasts about it in the inner-city neighborhood [in Don't Say Ain't ]. But Dana doesn't want to leave her old friends on the street, and she feels uncomfortable with the teacher and kids in her new school. The time is 1957, but the issues of class and prejudice are timeless, and Boot-man's handsome, realistic oil paintings capture both the period setting and one child's personal conflict. There's not much of a story (Dana learns to hold on to her roots even as she succeeds at school with "correct" English), but the immediate words and pictures will bring children up close to the individual characters. Most moving is the portrait of Dana's godmother: she embarrasses Dana in public ("She's goin' to grow up to be a doctor!") and nearly smothers the child with attention. Yet the best scene shows Dana teaching the older woman to read.
Alicia Eames (review date March 2003)
SOURCE: Eames, Alicia. Review of Don't Say Ain't, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. School Library Journal 49, no. 3 (March 2003): 207.
Gr. 2-4—Dana and her friends Cindybelle and Ellamae live in Harlem in the 1950s [in Don't Say Ain't ] where Dana's godmother reminds them, "Don't say ain't, children. People judge you on how you speaks!" When her goddaughter's high scores on a special exam provide access to an advanced, integrated school, the girl isn't quite as enthusiastic as Godmother. Children snicker when her teacher corrects her speech, while at home, her friends call her "Miss Smarty Pants." One day, her teacher announces plans to visit each student's home, and Dana is first on the list. When she arrives, Dana is surprised to learn that "… Godmother knew Mrs. Middleton's mother back in Charleston, South Carolina." However, she is absolutely stunned when her teacher exclaims, "Honeychile, I ain't gonna eat more than one piece of your famous peach cobbler." Confused at first by the woman's use of nonstandard English, Dana is smart enough to discover an essential truth. She reconciles with her friends and announces, "If you want to say 'ain't,' … / Just say it at home. / And when you roam, / Speaking proper sets de tone…." Engaging, richly hued oil illustrations effectively capture the characters and setting. The flap copy notes that New York City schools were first integrated in 1957, and Smalls portrays the advantages open to a select group of students with subtlety. This perceptive and useful title can be used to generate discussion on a variety of issues.
Bell, Barbara H., and Lester L. Laminack. Review of Don't Say Ain't, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Colin Bootman. Language Arts 81, no. 1 (September 2003): 77-8.
Comments that Bootman's artwork in Don't Say Ain't "beautifully supports the text."
Lehmann-Haupt, Christopher. Review of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel, by Irene Smalls, illustrated by Tyrone Geter. New York Times (5 December 1991): C22.
Evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Irene and the Big, Fine Nickel.
Smalls, Irene, and Ian Elliot. "An Accidental Author." Teaching Pre K-8 27, no. 8 (May 1997): 43-4.
Smalls discusses her publishing career and the inspirations behind her children's works.
Additional coverage of Smalls's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vol. 220; Literature Resource Center; and Something about the Author, Vols. 73, 146 .