PPBF – Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued

Regular readers know that I’ve read, and reviewed, several picture books by the author/illustrator of today’s Perfect Picture Book. So when I saw he had released a new picture book about such a difficult, but important, topic, you know I had to find and review it!

Title: Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued

Written & Illustrated By: Peter Sís

Publisher/Date: Norton Young Readers/2021

Suitable for Ages: 6-8

Themes/Topics: non-fiction, Holocaust, heroes, refugees

Opening:

Nicky was born in 1909, into a century full of promise.

Brief Synopsis: The story of a young Englishman and the 669 Jewish children he helped transport to England from Prague during World War II.

Links to Resources:

  • Read the Author’s Note about Nicholas Winton, how Sís learned of the “Winton Train” and about Vera Diamantova, one of the rescued children;
  • Learn about the Czech Republic, part of the former Czechoslovakia, where much of this story takes place;
  • Have you ever journeyed by train? Where did you travel & what did you see? Draw a picture of something you saw on your journey.

Why I Like this Book:

In lyrical language and with gorgeously detailed illustrations, Sís recounts the stories of two people whose lives intersected during World War II. Nicky, readers learn, grew up in England, and as a young man journeyed to Prague to meet a friend on vacation. While there, he realized the plight of young Jewish children, and used grit, determination, and even some of his own funds, to arrange trains to England and find foster families there. Vera, one of those children, “wrote in her diary every day” about her experiences in England.

In all, Nicky managed to fill 8 trains with 669 children and quietly ferry them from Prague, by then controlled by the Nazis, to London in 1939. A two-page spread filled with an illustration of 8 trains is powerful testimony to the many lives he helped save.

A modest hero who, in his own words, “did not face any danger,” and “only saw what needed to be done”, Nicky packed away the records of these children and never told anyone, not even his family, about these actions during the war. As the story ends, readers learn that this quiet hero and the now-grown children were reunited many years after the war.

Not only is Nicky and Vera a true story, but it’s one that introduces children to a type of hero different than the rampaging Super Heroes of comics and movies. Readers learn that heroes, like Nicky, can be quiet and unassuming, who see a wrong and use their time and talents for the greater good, to help as many people as possible.

An internationally renowned artist and illustrator, Sís fills the pages with detailed images of his native Czechoslovakia, the journey to England, and the reunion with several of the children in England.

A Note about Craft:

How do you craft a picture book for young children about an extremely difficult topic, the Holocaust, featuring an adult protagonist? Sís accomplishes this feat by introducing the quiet hero in infancy, spending a few spreads recounting his childhood, and then once he reaches adulthood, Sís introduces one of the young beneficiaries of Nicky’s heroism and tells her story. By focusing on both the hero and one of those saved, I think Sís makes it easier for children to empathize with those who Nicky saved and better understand the importance of this quiet hero’s actions. Note, too, that Sís refers to Nicholas Winton not by his last name, but by a child-friendly nickname, which, I think, makes him seem more childlike to readers. At 64 pages, Nicky and Vera is longer than the typical picture book, but I can’t imagine telling this story in fewer spreads.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Suitcase

For many of us, summer is a time to travel. Whether you travel by car, train, or plane, or even if armchair travel is the only trip in your immediate future, no journey is complete unless you carry something along, like the object featured in today’s Perfect Picture Book.

Title: The Suitcase

Written & Illustrated By: Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

Publisher/Date: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/2020 (originally published in Great Britain, Nosy Crow/2019)

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes/Topics: migration, differences, memories, kindness, empathy

Opening:

A strange animal arrived one day, looking dusty, tired, sad, and frightened.

He was pulling a big suitcase.

Brief Synopsis:

When a strange-looking newcomer arrives dragging a large suitcase, the animals wonder why he’s appeared and what he’s carrying in the suitcase.

Links to Resources:

  • Find a spare suitcase or an empty box and fill it with treasures. What did you pack? Why?
  • When you meet a new kid at school or in your neighborhood, how do you help them to feel welcome?
  • Host a tea party for your friends. Better yet, invite a few newcomers to join the party.

Why I Like this Book:

As the story begins, a strange creature arrives carrying a large suitcase. Three friends, a bird, a rabbit, and a fox, question the creature about the contents of the suitcase, which, readers learn, includes a teacup, a table and chair, and even the stranger’s home and surrounding area. Not trusting that all of that could fit in the suitcase, the doubting friends decide to break it open when the creature falls asleep and discover what’s really inside.

I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that there’s a reason that I included a tea party activity, and that the wordless spread that follows the creature’s awakening may bring tears to your eyes (it did for me).

Naylor-Ballesteros’ pen, ink, pencil, and watercolor illustrations are simple renderings of the characters and appear primarily against white backgrounds. The reader doesn’t really know where the action occurs, just that the strange-looking newcomer has arrived and that his teal coloring and cucumber shape are in sharp contrast to the yellow- and red-hued animals. To avoid dialogue tags and speech bubbles, each creature’s dialogue matches its hue.

Perhaps because of the pared-down illustrations or the simple, limited text, The Suitcase read like a fable to me. Despite the age range noted, I can easily envision children in elementary school role playing this story and discussing how they would feel if a newcomer arrived; whether they would want to examine a stranger’s belongings if given the opportunity; whether they would stop a friend or relative from doing so; and what they thought of the stranger’s reaction to the animals’ behavior.

While the newcomer in The Suitcase appears to be a refugee or migrant, it’s not entirely clear from the story, and it avoids including the difficult backstory that often appears in stories about migrants and refugees. And because of this fuzziness, this story easily could be about any newcomer that looks or acts differently – anything, really, that might cause the original inhabitants to feel distrustful.

The Suitcase is a picture book that I’ve enjoyed reading multiple times, and that I highly recommend for home and classroom libraries.

A Note about Craft:

Rather than populating this story with humans, Naylor-Ballesteros creates an anthropomorphic world with a newcomer differentiated by color and shape. I think choosing animals rather than humans to tell this story adds a fable-like aspect to it. It also gives it more universal appeal, as it avoids rooting the story in a particular place or time.

Note that the title places the emphasis on the newcomer’s belongings and highlights the connections between our possessions and ourselves.

Naylor-Ballesteros utilizes a double-spread dream sequence mid-story to share the newcomer’s backstory. This flashback, while unusual in a picture book, effectively conveys to readers that the newcomer has fled his former home, creates empathy in readers, and provides the perfect set-up to the story’s climax that appears after one of the better page turns I’ve experienced in a picture book recently.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – My Day with the Panye

The setting of today’s Perfect Picture Book has sadly been in the news quite a bit lately. But I think this picture book will brighten your day and show the strength and resilience of the Haitian people.

Title: My Day with the Panye

Written By: Tami Charles

Illustrated By: Sara Palacios

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: Haiti, multicultural, childhood milestones, market, Caribbean

Opening:

In the hills of Port-au-Prince, Manman’s voice, sweet like mango, sings to the sky.

“Fallon,” she calls. “Would you like to go to market with me?”

“Yes!” I say.

My little sister, Naima, cries, “Me too!”

“Another time, pitit. Your day will come, but today it’s Fallon’s turn.”

Brief Synopsis: Young Fallon yearns to carry the market basket, the panye, on her head as her mother and the other women in the family do.

Links to Resources:

  • Try carrying an empty basket or a book on your head. Is it easier to carry the basket when it’s empty or full? Is it easier or more difficult to carry it as you walk along a flat sidewalk? A grassy hill? A rocky path?
  • Learn about Haiti;
  • What activity or task that older siblings or your parents do that you look forward to accomplishing when you get older? Draw a picture of you performing this task or activity;
  • Visit a local farmer’s market and try these fun activities while there;
  • Find more activities in the Teachers Guide.

Why I Like this Book:

Sprinkled with Haitian vocabulary and featuring colorful illustrations, My Day with the Panye features a young girl, Fallon, who tries to emulate her Manman and carry the panye to the market. Like a child’s first bike ride or first day of school, this is a story about a childhood milestone. But this milestone may not be familiar to most children. Carrying a basket on one’s head probably doesn’t even appeal to many children, or even adults. But Charles’ depiction of this task, its importance, its dignity, and the joy and love it shows for the entire family, will quickly dispel any negative thoughts about it.

From the moment I saw the rhyming title and the vibrant cover, I knew this would be a picture book filled with joy. I loved the many similes, such as “laughter louder than a rooster’s crow”, “walking like they have gold in their shoes”, and “heart sinks like a shooting star.” And who can resist grinning at the image of Manman’s smile that is “banana-wide”? Charles’ descriptive language is so much fun to read and reread.

I also love the emphasis on tradition that is evident in the story. A repeated phrase, “little by little the bird builds its nest. Not everything is learned fast”, is, the readers learn, one that has been passed down from Manman’s mother. I also think it’s a very child-friendly saying, as, I think, many children are familiar with the steps a bird must undertake to build a nest for its family.

My Day with the Panye will be a welcome addition to home and school bookshelves.

A Note about Craft:

In an Author’s Note, Charles informs readers that this picture book is set in Haiti, her husband’s homeland, and explores a Haitian tradition of women carrying a market basket on their heads. As Charles notes, this tradition dates back to “ancient times” and is evident in many other parts of the world. But because of her familiarity with Haiti, Charles sets this story on this beautiful island where “pride, love, and joy still shine through” despite the many difficulties that have beset Haiti and its people.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

I’m sticking with the theme of boats, as I think summer is the perfect time to read about them. I hope you agree!

Title: The Paper Boat: A Refugee Story

Written & Illustrated By: Thao Lam

Publisher/Date: Owlkids Books/2020

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes/Topics: refugees, journey, Vietnam, ants, wordless, kindness

Opening: n/a

Brief Synopsis: A wordless picture book recounting an escape from Vietnam.

Links to Resources:

  • Tell a story about your family or an adventure you’ve had using only pictures;
  • Learn about the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam;
  • Watch Lam’s YouTube video about the making of The Paper Boat and check out the Author’s Note;
  • Make your own paper boat.

Why I Like this Book:

In this wordless picture book, Lam recounts a story handed down by her mother depicting the family’s journey from Vietnam. In the first frames of the story, ants crawl among family treasures and attack food set out on a table. A young girl sees the ants drowning in soup, and she rescues them.

As symbols of war proliferate outside the family’s home, the girl and her parents flee first to the safety of tall grasses, and then, following a trail of ants, to a boat. Before departing in that boat, the girl and her mother construct a paper boat to save the ants who helped them find the sea.

Leaving one’s homeland to seek safety is difficult for children to understand. And depicting the horrors of a sea journey isn’t easy in a picture book. But by focusing on the kindnesses shown by the young girl and by the grateful ants, Lam makes the topic more kid-friendly. In addition, rather than portraying the humans’ journey in the crowded refugee boat, Lam instead focused on the ants’ journey in the paper boat, before returning, at the end of the story, to a reunion of the ants with the young girl and her family in their new home, safe from the soldiers of their homeland.

I especially love the last spread, that shows the family that fled Vietnam in one apartment surrounded by other apartments filled with many multicultural families.

Lam’s colorful cut-paper collages include so many rich details. The Paper Boat will be a wonderful addition to school and home libraries that is sure to prompt many discussions about why families flee their homelands, how they journeyed to their new homes, and what awaits them there.

A Note about Craft:

I don’t often review wordless picture books as I find that I often need text to follow the storyline. But Lam’s visual narrative, arranged in graphic-novel style with several vignettes to a page, reads like a film, unfolding seamlessly. And I think this particular story works better as a wordless one given the many questions the subject matter undoubtedly will raise in young readers.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Old Boat

With a heat wave raising temperatures across much of North America, I think it’s time to head to the water this holiday weekend. So grab an oar or sail and enjoy this week’s Perfect Picture Book!

Title: The Old Boat

Written & Illustrated By: Jarrett Pumphrey & Jerome Pumphrey

Publisher/Date: Norton Young Readers, an imprint of WW Norton and Company/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes/Topics: boats, nature, intergenerational, fishing, pollution, aging, ecology, home

Opening:

Off a small island, an old boat rode the tide.

Brief Synopsis:  

A young boy and an adult journey in an old boat, viewing both the wonders of the sea and the growing problem of ocean pollution. As the boy becomes an adult, he ventures further, is shipwrecked on a new island, and cleans up the trash on the shore and in the waters.

Links to Resources:

  • Take a ride in a boat – either in the sea or on a river or lake;
  • Have you visited the beach? What did you see? What did you do? Draw a picture of a day you’ve enjoyed at the beach;
  • The Pumphrey brothers used stamps constructed from recycled plastic to illustrate The Old Boat. Try these printmaking ideas;
  • Help clean up the beach and enjoy some beach clean-up games as you do so.

Why I Like this Book:

Using sparse text and full-spread, earth-toned, printed illustrations, the Pumphrey brothers have crafted a multi-layered picture book about a family, the sea, pollution, and finding a home.

As the story begins, a boat that’s already old carries a young boy and an adult, presumably his father or perhaps a grandparent, as they fish and dream. Both characters have dark skin. By midbook, the boy, now an adult, fishes alone until, after a storm, the old boat capsizes and sinks. In his newly adopted home, the young man “turned the tide” on the pollution problem by collecting trash on the beach, in the shallow waters, and even in deeper waters. This charming, quiet picture book has an allegorical feel to it that will appeal, I think, to younger children. The opportunity to discuss the changing relationship between the boy and the aging fellow sailor, the man and his environment, and the growing problem of ocean pollution will appeal to older children and adults.

A Note about Craft:

From the cover illustration, it’s clear that a young boy is at the heart of this quiet picture book. Or is he? For as the first and last lines make clear, it’s the old boat that takes center stage. It’s the boat that ties the first half of the picture book, featuring the young boy and an adult bobbing, fishing, and dreaming on the seas, to the second half, featuring the now-grown man, on a new island, working to clean up the beach and the surrounding waters. Has the boat chosen this place? Have the actions of the boat spurred the man to an epiphany, that he must spearhead the battle against ocean trash? Neither the text nor the illustrations answer these questions, but they do nudge readers to think about our relationships with each other, with our possessions, and with the environment.

And speaking of relationships, note that both brothers wrote and illustrated The Old Boat. Also note the long time span of the book, something that generally is difficult to accomplish in a picture book, even one, like this, quite a few pages longer than the typical picture book.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Ten Beautiful Things

We’re embarking on another intergenerational journey in today’s Perfect Picture Book. And it involves one of my favorite themes – moving. Enjoy!

Title: Ten Beautiful Things

Written By: Molly Beth Griffin

Illustrated By: Maribel Lechuga

Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge/2021

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: journey, intergenerational, moving, loss, beauty of nature

Opening:

Lily ran her finger across the Iowa map. An X marked Gram’s house on an empty patch of land. Lily’s new home.

Brief Synopsis: Lily’s Gram invites her to find ten beautiful things along the road as they journey to Lily’s new home.

Links to Resources:

  • Take a walk or a bike or car ride and find ten beautiful things. Why do you think they’re beautiful?
  • Try one or more of these 9 road trip games that don’t involve a smart phone or other screened device;
  • Find more resources in this Activity Kit.

Why I Like this Book:

Ten Beautiful Things is a story about a journey undertaken by Lily and her Gram to Lily’s new home, where she’ll live with her grandmother. The reader learns at the outset that the house sits “on an empty patch of land” (emphasis added). Lily feels hollow inside. It’s clear right at the get-go that Lily isn’t happy about her new home. Who would be? Something clearly is amiss.

But Lily’s wise Gram doesn’t focus on what’s wrong. She doesn’t pass the time with idle chatter or platitudes like, “everything will be alright.” Instead, this wise Gram invites Lily to redirect her attentions, to focus outside herself, to find ten beautiful things along the highways and byways of their journey through Iowa.

Many of these beautiful things involve nature, like a young calf, the rising sun, or a gurgling creek. Others are human-made, like a crumbling barn or windmill blades gleaming in sunshine. What they have in common is that they invite Lily to fill the hollow spaces in herself with the beauty that surrounds her.

I think anyone who has experienced a bad mood, a difficult situation, or even depression can relate to the relief, even if it’s temporary, found when they notice small pleasures: rain tip-tapping on a metal roof, a rainbow, or the swoop of a colorful bird near their window. Ten Beautiful Things is a reminder to kids and adults of all ages to “stop and smell the roses”, that regardless of how bad you may feel, there is beauty in this world.

Lechuga’s sweeping vistas provide the perfect backdrop to this tale. I can imagine children finding other beautiful things within these detailed illustrations, including several different species of birds which fly through the spreads.

Ten Beautiful Things is a lovely book for grandparents to share with their grandchildren, or for classroom discussions of difficult situations, like the loss of a loved one, a change in schools, or a difficult move.

A Note about Craft:

Griffin never states in the text why Lily is moving into Gram’s house. The reader also doesn’t know whether this is a temporary or a permanent situation. The reader knows merely that Lily is sad about the move. I think it’s helpful that Griffin doesn’t specify either the reason for the move or its duration, as I think children who may find themselves in a similar situation may be better able to picture themselves in the story and empathize with Lily.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Escape: One Day We Had to Run

In addition to being Father’s Day, at least in the US where I live, and the first day of Summer in the northern hemisphere, this Sunday is also World Refugee Day, as designated by the United Nations. So I just had to share a new picture book about those who escape difficult living situations.

Title: Escape: One Day We Had to Run

Written By: Ming & Wah

Illustrated By: Carmen Vela

Publisher/Date: Lantana Publishing/2021

Suitable for Ages: 7-11

Themes/Topics: refugees, non-fiction, heroes

Opening:

Cling

Don’t Let Go.

Hold tight. Never give up.

Brief Synopsis:

A collection of 12 true stories of refugees and migrants dating from 1745 through the 21st century.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the world map on the end papers that shows the routes of those who fled;
  • If you had to leave your home and/or family, what one or two items would you bring? Why?
  • Check out more kid activity and classroom ideas for World Refugee Day here.

Why I Like this Book:

Geared towards the older end of the picture book range, Escape: One Day We Had to Run features 12 refugees or people who helped facilitate others’ escapes. On each double spread, an action verb captions a short description of a particular refugee or helper, bringing these events from history to life and building readers’ empathy. Many of the people featured were unknown to me, and probably to most readers.

Readers learn that Bonnie Prince Charlie disguised himself as a woman to escape capture in Scotland in 1745. We’re introduced to a Chinese diplomat, Dr. Feng Shan Ho, who defied orders and offered visas to Austrian Jews during World War II. And we learn that stowaways following the North Star set out on the Underground Railway to escape slavery in the United States.

I love the breadth of the refugee experiences portrayed, with many different means of escape highlighted, a long history of escape revealed, and many different reasons for flight included. I think by doing so, Ming & Wah enlarge readers’ understanding of why and how refugees flee, who they are, and what they experience afterwards. I think this collection will be particularly valuable for educators.

I also love that the refugees’ experiences are not sugar coated, but each vignette ends on a positive note. From a Syrian refugee who clung to a dinghy but finally competed in the Olympics, to the father of a future marathon winner, and the authors of the Curious George picture book, the authors include that each of the refugees featured has thrived and contributed to society in some way.

Vela’s two-page spreads vary from dark, nighttime escapes to map-like illustrations that show how these brave refugees managed to escape.

A Note about Craft:

In a video posted on Instagram, the authors, twin sisters Ming & Wah, reveal that the genesis for Escape: One Day We Had to Run was the story they heard growing up of their nanny who escaped Communist China in the 1950s by swimming to Hong Kong. They included that story in this collection.

I love the inclusion of “We” in the title to draw readers in and connect us to the refugee experience.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Nana Akua Goes to School

Before school lets out for the summer in my neck of the woods, I wanted to share a picture book from last year that features an annual ritual in many classrooms. It also brought back a pleasant memory of bringing a cousin to visit my elder daughter’s preschool. The teacher expected to greet a toddler. Instead, our cousin Adele is actually my husband’s first cousin and godmother, as well as a former teacher. Despite the confusion, my daughter, the teacher, and Cousin Adele thoroughly enjoyed the day! Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this Perfect Picture Book, too!

Title: Nana Akua Goes to School

Written By: Tricia Elam Walker

Illustrated By: April Harrison

Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: grandparents, difference, immigrant, school, embarrassment

Opening:

It’s Circle Time, Zura’s favorite time of the day. She scoots to a spot next to Theodore and crisscrosses her legs on the rainbow-shaped rug.

“Ready set?” Mr. Dawson says, looking at the children over his glasses.

“You bet!” they respond, and quiet right down.

“Next Monday is a very important day,” Mr. Dawson continues. “Each of you will bring your grandparents to school so they can share what makes them special.”

Brief Synopsis: Zura, whose grandmother hails from West Africa, is worried about what her classmates will think of the tribal markings on Nana Akua’s face.

Links to Resources:

  • Think of one or more things that make your grandmother, grandfather, or other older adult special. Draw a picture of that and give it to them;
  • Ask an older adult to name something that’s the same as or different than when they were children. Which do you think is better? Why?
  • Learn more about your family history;
  • Check out the Adinkra symbols and their meanings on the endpapers and practice creating them.

Why I Like this Book:

In Nana Akua Goes to School, Walker explores a very kid-friendly problem: being embarrassed by a relative and concerned that classmates or friends will make fun of something that’s different about them. Many picture books explore the issue of being different and how to deal with taunts or bullying because of it. But here the difference is one step removed – no one is making fun of Zura or bullying her. Rather, Zura is worried that her classmates will see the Adinkra symbols etched into Nana’s face and be scared of her or laugh, just as a child in the park and a waitress at a restaurant have done on other occasions.

With the help of her wise Nana and a favorite quilt that incorporates Adrinka symbols, Zura and Nana Akau face Zura’s classmates who, instead of being scared or laughing, find the symbols fascinating.

Nana Akua Goes to School is a wonderful book to explore difference and what makes each person unique, to remind readers to embrace their cultural heritage, and to not worry about what others may think. I love that readers also learn about the Adrinka customs and symbolism, including their meanings and pronunciations shown on the endpapers. Harrison’s detailed and colorful illustrations bring this loving pair to life.

A Note about Craft:

Walker has written a picture book about embracing differences, and she also includes a difference, the Adrinka face symbols, of which most readers will have little knowledge or understanding. I love, too, that wise Nana Akua compares the face etchings to tattoos, which may be more familiar to readers.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – The Cat Man of Aleppo

Today’s Perfect Picture Book is one that I’ve been meaning to read, and review, for some time. It’s set during the Syrian war, a conflict that I think we all thought would be history by now, but that, sadly, endures to this day.

Title: The Cat Man of Aleppo

Written By: Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha

Illustrated By: Yuko Shimizu

Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: Syrian Civil War, cats, compassion, animal rescue, non-fiction

Opening:

Alaa loves his city of Aleppo. He loves its narrow alleys and covered bazaars selling pistachios, jasmine soap, and green za’atar. He loves the boiled corn and dried figs offered on the stree.t Most of all, he loves the people of Aleppo. They are gentle, polite, and loving—like him.

Brief Synopsis: This is the true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver who rescued cats and helped orphans and others as war raged in the city of Aleppo, Syria.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the history, culture, and geography of Syria (information is all pre-war) and Aleppo;
  • Have you ever visited a spice market or bazaar? Describe the spices you saw and smelled;
  • Ask an adult to help you bake Za’tar bread;
  • Learn more about Alaa’s efforts and the animal sanctuary that now exists on the outskirts of Aleppo;
  • Enjoy coloring the detailed coloring pages.

Why I Like this Book:

War is always a difficult topic in children’s literature, especially in picture books. But compassion in the face of adversity, and especially compassion for defenseless animals, is a very kid-friendly topic. By focusing on the heart-warming, and true, story of a man who rescued hundreds of cats left behind when their owners fled the war-torn city, Latham and Shamsi-Basha have written a picture book that enables children to learn about the ongoing struggles in Syria and to feel hopeful that people like Alaa are caring for the animals and people affected by the conflict.

I love how the story begins before war broke out and how the authors highlight what Alaa loves about the fascinating city of Aleppo, a city most readers will not have visited. While not sugar-coating the horrors of war and its effect on Alaa, the story quickly turns to the cats left behind, the cats with “lonely, confused faces” that remind Alaa of “loved ones he has lost”.

Once he meets a few of these cats, Alaa realizes that he can’t change the world and the situation in Aleppo, but that he can do something: he can take care of these abandoned animals. Starting small, with just a few cats, he soon expands his efforts, and gains support, both from people still in Aleppo and from people around the globe. An international not-for-profit now exists to support this work!

This is a wonderful lesson for children wanting to make a difference in the world of how one person can help others, and how they can do even more when they join forces and work together with others. From helping cats, readers learn that Alaa built a playground for children, dug a well, and helped feed people in need. By the end of the book, I felt hopeful that Alaa and people like him will help Aleppo return to its pre-war condition. And when the refugees return, hopefully someday soon, it’s comforting to know that the pets left behind will be there for them.

Shimizu’s award-winning, realistic, and very detailed illustrations bring Aleppo, Alaa, and the many cats to life.

A Note about Craft:

In an author’s note, Latham reveals that she was moved by the story of the cat man of Aleppo, but she was not from Syria nor had she ever visited the country, ie, she was not an #OwnVoices author. When she met a “striving children’s book author” who had emigrated from Syria and who had visited Aleppo before the war, Latham joined forces with Shamsi-Basha, and together they wrote the story.

Similarly, Shimizu, a Japanese illustrator based in the US, explains in an illustrator’s note, that she had never visited Syria. To make the illustrations authentic, she “spent half of the nine months I had to complete this book solely on research”. That The Cat Man of Aleppo is a 2021 Caldecott Honor Book is a testament to her diligence and attention to detail.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Kiyoshi’s Walk

For the last Perfect Picture Book posting during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I want to feature a new picture book that is perfect in so many ways, and features an Asian-American pair.

Title: Kiyoshi’s Walk

Written By: Mark Karlins

Illustrated By: Nicole Wong

Publisher/Date: Lee & Low Books/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: intergenerational, haiku, poetry, nature, the senses, observation, Asian/Americans

Opening:

Kiyoshi watched his grandfather, the wise poet Eto, write a poem with brush and ink. The brush flicked across the page.

            The dripping faucet/Takes me back to my old home./Raindrops on frog pond.

The words made Kiyoshi smile. He wished he could make poems too. “Where do poems come from?” he asked.

Brief Synopsis: To show Kiyoshi where poems come from, his wise grandfather invites him to walk around the neighborhood with him.

Links to Resources:

  • Take a walk. What do you see? Close your eyes. What do you hear or smell? How do the sights, sounds, or smells make you feel? Draw a picture of what you saw and/or write about your walk;
  • Check out the Teacher’s Guide for more ideas.

Why I Like this Book:

An Asian-American grandfather and grandson enjoying time spent together. A stroll through an urban neighborhood, including a large, natural park. Haiku inspired by the journey. Detailed illustrations of the pair’s journey. What’s not to love about Kiyoshi’s Walk?

I can imagine a grandparent and grandchild reading this picture book together, using it as a springboard to their own shared adventures. With Father’s Day next month, it would make a perfect gift for a favorite grandfather.

I also can imagine the fun a teacher or librarian can have with this book, including with older children, as they discuss how one find’s inspiration in everyday occurrences to create poetry or art.

I especially love the answer to his initial question that Kiyoshi shares near the end of the story, that poems come from what we experience outside ourselves, including the sights, sounds, and smells of the environment where we are, and from our hearts. As Eto confirms, “they come from the way the two come together.” Such a beautiful conclusion to this journey of discovery.

A Note about Craft:

In Kiyoshi’s Walk, Karlins combines an intergenerational journey with a blueprint to finding inspiration and writing haiku. He invites readers to slow down, to observe the natural and human-made world around them, and to use these observations as a springboard to creativity. He even includes several haikus as examples for budding poets. These many layers add up to a wonderful new picture book, sure to inspire creativity among its readers.

This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!