Monthly Archives: March 2017

PPBF – Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

As we’re at the end of Women’s History Month, I couldn’t help but choose a story about girls’ education in Afghanistan:

9781416994374_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan

Written & Illustrated By: Jeanette Winter

Publisher/date: Beach Lane Books (Simon & Schuster, 2009)

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes/Topics: Afghanistan, girls’ education, overcoming loss & trauma

Opening:

My granddaughter, Nasreen, lives with me in Herat, an ancient city in Afghanistan.

Art and music and learning once flourished here.

Then the soldiers came and changed everything.

The art and music and learning are gone.

Dark clouds hang over the city.

Brief Synopsis: Set in the late 1990s, during the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Nasreen’s Secret School is the true story of one young traumatized girl whose grandmother enabled her to attend a secret school for girls.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

From the Author’s note at the beginning of the book, in which Winter tells the backstory of Nasreen and the secret school for girls, to the end, when the narrating grandmother shares that her mind is “at ease”, I found myself holding my breath: both in hopes that the secret school would remain secret and that the knowledge Nasreen gained in the school would help her overcome the trauma she experienced. As Winter writes, “Windows opened for Nasreen in that little schoolroom.” Similarly, Winter herself opens windows to readers through her words and framed, brightly-painted illustrations about the obstacles girls and their caregivers have overcome to obtain education, the importance they place on education, and the worlds that books and education open for all of us.

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A Note about Craft:

Winter tells Nasreen’s Secret School from the point of view of Nasreen’s grandmother, the woman who enables Nasreen to attend school despite the Taliban threat. I think this is a good choice of narrator, as it distances the reader somewhat from the daily fears Nasreen must have felt, but it isn’t as far removed and potentially less empathetic as an omniscient or other third-party narrator.

In the Author’s note, Winter indicates that the Global Fund for Children contacted her to write a book about a school they support. The founder of that school, in turn, shared the story of Nasreen and her grandmother (changing names, for privacy and safety’s sake). This brings up an interesting question as to whether Winter filled in gaps and whether any of this “true” story has been fictionalized. Like Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, which is a refugee’s tale culled from interviews with several refugees, Nasreen’s story is filtered through interviews with both the Fund and the school’s founder.  Despite these filters, I think Winter and Beach Lane are safe to term this non-fiction, especially with the Author’s note about how she came to tell the tale.

Finally, there has been a lot of discussion in the children’s literature community about who gets to share a story. While I would love to read a first-hand account by an Afghani woman who attended a secret school for girls, the reality, I believe, is that for certain regions and topics, the existence of a well-written and illustrated picture book by any writer, regardless of background, is more important than who wrote or illustrated it, as long as the story is told with respect and empathy. Winter has a long pedigree in writing and illustrating empathetic picture books from many diverse regions, which makes her a wonderful choice to tell Nasreen’s story.

For another book by Jeannette Winter about girls’ education and brave children in Pakistan, see Malala/Iqbal: Two Stories of Brave Children (Beach Lane Books, 2014):

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

PPBF – The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet!

I chose today’s Perfect Picture Book because it’s a delightful folktale that has more than a few parallels to today’s political situation, because it pairs the words and artwork of two American immigrants, and because I’d like to think the fictional village in the story, La Paz, is somewhere in Cuba, a country I’m visiting for the first time in mid-March. This is a newly released book, but based on the reviews thus far, I think others agree that this is a Perfect Picture Book:

9780545722889_p0_v4_s118x184Title: The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet!

Written By: Carmen Agra Deedy

Illustrated By: Eugene Yelchin

Publisher/date: Scholastic Press/2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: rooster, hero, courage, singing, freedom, protest, oppression, diversity

Opening:

Once there was a village where the streets rang with song from morning till night.

Dogs bayed, mothers crooned, engines hummed, fountains warbled, and everybody sang in the shower.

Brief Synopsis:

After a silence-loving mayor bans singing in La Paz, a rooster appears and continues to crow despite the mayor’s many attempts to silence him.

Links to Resources:

  • Paint a rooster with plastic fork “paint brushes”;
  • Find more chicken and rooster art ideas here;
  • Learn and sing kids’ songs from around the world.

Why I Like this Book:

An allegory perfect for these unique times, The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet! is a humorous story pitting a very vocal rooster against a mayor elected to ease the annoying volume of a very noisy village. In words and pictures, Deedy and Yelchin show how the power placed in the mayor’s hands goes to his head. Signs admonishing “No Loud Singing in Public, por favor” evolve to “!Basta! Quiet, Already!” as the noisy village becomes “silent as a tomb,” with the words playfully shown on a tombstone. How strict were the laws? “Even the teakettles were afraid to whistle.” With analogies like this, even the youngest listeners will enjoy this story, while the adults chuckle, hum, and even, perhaps break out in song – “kee-kee-ree-KEE!”

Yelchin’s bright, colorful mixed-media illustrations, including seven full-page paintings, and three double spreads with only the word Kee-kee-ree-KEE, wonderfully complement and enhance Deedy’s tale, and breathe life into the village of La Paz.

A Note about Craft:

Deedy utilizes several techniques that render The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet! a wonderful mentor text for picture book writers, and will ensure that it is enjoyed again and again in both homes and classrooms:

  • She sets the story in the village of La Paz, “the peace,” and integrates several Spanish words into the text. Deedy does so in a way that draws readers into the story and helps readers understand the terms in context. Even the rooster is referred to as the gallito who sings despite the best efforts of the mayor, Don Pepe. Most Spanish terms are italicized, which will make it easy for children to find them and discover their meaning in the surrounding text and illustrations.
  • At the outset of the tale, Deedy lists many types of song that contribute to the noise, including animal sounds, heartwarming parental sounds, industrial sounds and natural sounds. People enjoy hearing some of these, while others, like a dog braying, could be considered annoying. I think by including such a broad spectrum, Deedy draws attention to what, later, is at risk, namely the vibrant hum of the community. She also adds a further layer to the story by providing a discussion opportunity about the many pleasant and unpleasant songs in a village or town.
  • Deedy skillfully utilizes repetition in the interactions between the Gallito and the mayor. Use of repetition bolsters the feeling of a traditional folktale and helps children anticipate the results of these encounters.
  • Finally, like all good folktales, The Rooster Who Would Not be Quiet! includes a moral. Who better to deliver this message than a lowly rooster.

I can’t help but conclude this review by quoting the Author’s Note in full:

Roosters sing at sunrise; they also sing at noon, sundown, and in the middle of night. Roosters sing when they please, and that’s all there is to that.

Much like roosters, human children are born with voices strong and true – and irrepressible.

Then, bit by bit, most of us learn to temper our opinions, censor our beliefs, and quiet our voices.

But not all of us.

There are always those who resist being silenced, who will crow out their truth, without regard to consequence.

Foolhardy or wise, they are the ones who give us the courage to sing.

So crow away!

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

PPBF – Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal

In celebration of the release of a new version of a tale as old as time, today’s Perfect Picture Book is a fairy tale retelling. But, as you will read, this is no mere “change this, update that, fiddle with the ending” version. Rather, it’s a window into many world cultures, and for this reason, I’ve chosen to review it as a Perfect Picture Book:

9780805079531_p0_v1_s192x300Title: Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella

Written By: Paul Fleischman

Illustrated By: Julie Paschkis

Publisher/date: Henry Holt and Company, 2007

Suitable for Ages: 5-10

Themes/Topics: fairy tale retelling, multiculturalism, Cinderella, folkart

Opening:

Once upon a time there lived a wealthy merchant whose wife had died. They had one daughter, gentle-eyed and good-hearted.

Brief Synopsis: The traditional Cinderella story, told with the details found in the many versions of this story handed down from around the world.

Links to Resources:

  • Substitute objects from your home or region for the objects that play a role in the traditional Cinderella story, e.g., if pumpkins don’t grow near your home, substitute something else that could turn into a coach, like a watermelon, coconut or even a basketball. How does this change the story – or does it?
  • Explore the World and find out about the many countries featured in Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal or explore other countries you’ve visited or want to visit.

Why I Like this Book:

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal is a composite version of this popular fairy tale told by incorporating details from the many versions of the Cinderella story told throughout the world. As stated on the book jacket:

Once upon a time, in Mexico…in Iran…in Ireland…in Zimbabwe…There lived a girl who worked all day in the rice fields…cooked in the royal kitchen…tended the cattle…then spent the night by the hearth, sleeping among the cinders.

The girl’s name is Ashpet…Vasalisa…Sootface…Catskin…Cendrillon…Cinderella.

Her story has spanned centuries and continents, changing to match its surroundings. Now Newbery-winning author Paul Fleischman and illustrator Julie Paschkis braid its many versions into one globe-spanning tale, a hymn to the rich variety and the enduring constants of our cultures.

With vibrantly detailed folktale illustrations and book-ended with a charming picture of a mother and daughter reading the story together, Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal is a book to read, and re-read, again and again.

A Note about Craft:

Fairy and folk tale retellings are a popular genre, for readers and writers. When a familiar story is retold, the author must consider which parts to change to fit the time, place and intended audience. Often, the changes cause the new story to become popular only within a segment of potential readers: those seeking humor, perhaps; or those who desire a different ending; those desiring to read about a particular culture; or even those who love pirates, dinosaurs, or ninjas, to name but a few.

Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal differs from these retellings because Fleischman has not changed any of the original story but through his storytelling, he has highlighted what is the same and what’s different across various cultures. He has, in effect, opened a window into the various Cinderella versions and I believe he has achieved a story that will prompt discussion about what’s the same and what’s different in the many cultures highlighted.

For a lovely picture book that sets the familiar tale as old as time in an African setting, see Beauty and the Beast, H. Chuku Lee, illustrated by Pat Cummings (Harper Collins, 2014).9780688148195_p0_v2_s192x300

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

PPBF – The Jasmine Sneeze

I first learned of today’s Perfect Picture Book when I read a blog post last summer on the Picture Book Den, a blog written by an independent group of professional children’s authors based in the UK and Scotland that focuses on picture books (but does not review them).  In that post, Nadine Kaadan, the author/illustrator of today’s selection, addressed the issue of diversity in children’s books. While the post most directly addressed the UK market, I think the issue raised also is evident in the US market. In Kaadan’s words:

…even when there is an attempt by UK publishers to publish more inclusive and diverse books, they still fall into the danger of the single story. For example, looking at UK children’s books that feature Arab or Middle Eastern culture, I feel that there is an exaggerated focus on ‘cultural differences’ (in the name of cultural richness). Too many of these books strike me as quite orientalist, and seem to depict overly stereotypical clichés about Arab culture, such as the typical camels in the desert and fasting in Ramadan. Although these elements are very much a part of our culture, and the stories are absolutely worthy of publication, the problem is that they only present one aspect of who we are.

As I continue to feature picture books from areas experiencing conflict, relating the experiences of children fleeing those areas, and/or written or illustrated by persons affected by travel restrictions to the US and other regions, I will keep Kaadan’s words in mind and look for those universal aspects of the stories that reflect multiple aspects of the culture of the characters. And now, today’s Perfect Picture Book:

The-Jasmine-Sneeze-Cover-3-300x295

Title: The Jasmine Sneeze

Written & Illustrated By:  Nadine Kaadan

Publisher/date: Lantana Publishing/2016

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: cats, jasmine, sneezing, solving problems, Damascus, Syria, community, diverse books

Opening:

Haroun is the happiest cat in the world. He lives in Damascus, the city of a million and one cats. He spends most of his time sleeping on the marble floor next to the fountain in his favourite courtyard.

Sometimes he stays up late for a karaoke party with the other cats in the moonlight.

Brief Synopsis: Haroun the cat lives happily in Damascus, except it’s a city filled with jasmine flowers and he sneezes at the scent. When he tries to get rid of the scent, he sets off a series of misfortunes that he then must reverse.

Links to Resources:

  • Lantana Publishing provides education resources, including how to design tiles like those featured in The Jasmine Sneeze;
  • Learn about the geography and rich history of Syria before the current conflicts;
  • Discover jasmine flowers.

Why I Like this Book:

The Jasmine Sneeze is a sweet and humorous story of Haroun the cat with a sneezing problem who tries to solve it to the detriment of others in the community. There is a fairy tale quality to the story including a touch of magic with a Jasmine Spirit who punishes Haroun for his selfish mistreatment of jasmine plants.

I especially loved the setting of the story, Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, and Kaadan’s depiction and lovely watercolour illustrations of it as a city filled with winding jasmine vines, karaoke cats, tiled courtyards with fountains, and most importantly, a community that cares about the cats, the plants and one another. In many ways, the setting itself is a character as are the jasmine plants, several of which are depicted with eyes. This vision of Damascus is a refreshing reminder of the culture and beauty of Syria that will be more accessible again someday, hopefully soon.

A Note about Craft:

This is Kaadan’s first English-language picture book as author and illustrator. I love that she has written a story about a region that currently few of us will visit, that presents a universal problem and that highlights everyday features that a child would care about, regardless of where he or she lives. By choosing a non-human main character, Kaadan more easily fosters empathy and encourages readers to focus on the similarities of the situation rather than on what’s different about life in Haroun’s Damascus.

Interestingly, the conflict Kaadan sets up is between two positive features of Damascus, one of the “million and one cats” and the beloved jasmine plant, that, Kaadan informs the reader, is treated like a member of “family” and is watched over by a Jasmine Spirit. Only when these two positive aspects are in balance, when Haroun realizes that his sneezes should not be a reason to deprive his community of the jasmine plants, can the problem be resolved – a resolution that I think presents a positive message for children.

Learn more about Nadine Kaadan and her other books (to date, all in Arabic) on her website.

Lantana Publishing, an independent publishing company in the UK “producing award-winning diverse and multicultural children’s books”, has been nominated for the Bologna Prize for Best Children’s Publisher of the Year 2017.

While not currently available in bookshops in the US, you can order The Jasmine Sneeze from the Book Depository, which offers free worldwide shipping (payment can be made via credit card in US dollars).

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

Journey to Rutabaga Rock – a Journey in 48 Precious Words

In honor of THE Dr. Seuss, the incomparable Vivian Kirkfield is hosting the second annual 50 Precious Words contest on her blog. Hurry on over to read some short-&-very-sweet stories!

In Vivian’s words:

March 2nd is the birthday of the incredible Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Last year I put together a little contest based on Bennet Cerf’s challenge to Seuss to write a children’s book using only 50 words. And the classic Green Eggs and Ham was born. It’s true that the story has over 700 words…but only 50 unique words.

I thought it would be fun to try to write a story for kids with ONLY 50 words. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. I wondered if I could do it. And then I opened the challenge to everyone. Much to my surprise and amazement, there were 128 entries! A year has passed…and it’s time to DO IT AGAIN.

My 50-word story began as a rewrite of a purposely bland journey sentence for a lyrical language exercise. When I thought of journeys, I thought about one of my happy places, St. John, USVI, and a favorite hike we’ve done there, to Ram Head, part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

img_8155(spoiler alert: this is Francis Bay on the north shore of St John; Ram Head is on the south shore –
I couldn’t find any good photos in my library…)

 

Now, while Ram Head is a beautiful hike, the name wasn’t quite lyrical enough for the assignment. I took some writer’s license and thought first of Rooster Hill, but it didn’t quite roll off my tongue.

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(a favorite blue cobble beach on the Ram Head trail)

 

Then inspiration erupted and the name rose from my mind like lava turning to stone: Rutabaga Rock was born – an island in my brain.

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(Bubbly Pool with outcropping lava rock, Jost van Dyke, British Virgin Islands)

 

When I realized that we were no longer hiking but sailing to reach our destination, a certain theme song replayed in my mind with rough weather and a tiny ship tossed and lost.

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(traffic jam @ White Bay Beach, Jost van Dyke, BVI, on a not-stormy day)

 

I completed the sentence rewrite, vowing to revisit the journey to Rutabaga Rock one day.

Voila! That day is here.  May I present a sentence-turned-poem:

Journey to Rutabaga Rock – a Voyage in 48 Precious Words

Picnics packed; dingy leaves dock –

Kids depart for Rutabaga Rock.

Winds whip waves, lashing at sail;

Kids’ knees knock as rains transform to gale.

Seas subside; sun shines at last.

Kids debarking – thankful journey’s past.

Picnics soaked! Salty, slimy feasts!

Kids contented – GOATS aren’t picky beasts.

PPBF -Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist

March is Music in our Schools Month– a time to celebrate the role music plays in enhancing life, the educational benefit of learning to appreciate and play music, and the composers and musicians whose works speak to us. As stated on the National Association of Music Education site:

The purpose of MIOSM is to raise awareness of the importance of music education for all children – and to remind citizens that schools is where all children should have access to music.  MIOSM is an opportunity for music teachers to bring their music programs to the attention of the school and the community, and to display the benefits that school music brings to students of all ages.

As both the subject and illustrator of today’s selection lived on both sides of the Mexican and US border and as their contributions to the arts enhance life for Mexicans and US citizens, I think this is a Perfect Picture Book to kick off MIOSM:

9781580896733_p0_v1_s192x300Title: ESQUIVEL! Space-Age Sound Artist

Written By: Susan Wood

Illustrated By: Duncan Tonatiuh

Publisher/date: Charlesbridge/2016

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes/Topics: music, composer, bandleader, Mexican immigrant, non-fiction, biography

Opening:

When Juan Garcia Esquivel was a small boy, he lived with his family in Tampico, Mexico, where whirling mariachi bands let out joyful yells as they stamped and strummed.

Brief Synopsis: Bandleader Esquivel! (1918-2002) composed and played music in his native Mexico where he rose to fame, and then gained prominence in the 1950s and 1960s in the United States.

Links to Resources:

  • Listen to music, make instruments, or try one of the many other activities suggested in the Esquivel!  Educator’s Guide
  • Listen to Esquivel!’s compositions, including music composed for short films
  • Learn about other musicians who immigrated to the US (David Bowie; George Harrison; John Lennon; Bob Marley, to name just a few)

Why I Like this Book: Esquivel! is a multi-sensory exploration of a talented but little-known composer, bandleader and musician who began his craft as a child, disabling the paper roll in a player piano at age 6 so he could play it; who combined traditional folk music and jazz with “space age” innovations, including the newly-invented stereo system; who pushed the boundaries of his craft by utilizing different instruments and sound combinations; and who built a fan base and successful career in his native Mexico and in the United States.

Like Esquivel! (who dropped his first names and adopted the name Esquivel!), Tonatiuh combines tradition, in this case the artistic style found in the Mixtec Codex, with collaged textures and photographs that are inserted via computer. The inclusion of psychedelic word-art and fashion from the 1950s and 1960s is particularly effective.

An Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note and Resources page are included.

A Note about Craft:

Esquivel! was a successful composer, bandleader and musician whose genre was “lounge music” and who liked art, fast cars, elegant clothes and “especially pretty women” – not generally the “stuff” of picture books! So how did Wood, with a background in music journalism, and Tonatiuh render this story kid-friendly?

  • Starting at the beginning when Esquivel! was a child & showing how his talents were evident then and how he worked to achieve success;
  • Focusing on the era when Esquivel! first achieved his lasting success, the 1950s and 1960s, and using language and images to place Esquivel! and his music in context – starting with the subtitle “Space Age…” and using similes to compare his music to era-specific items, e.g., it “sounded like a crazy rocket ride…”;
  • Incorporating similes that render the story understandable to even those who don’t understand musical composition:

He was an artist, using dips and dabs of color to create a vivid landscape. But instead of paint, Juan used sound. Weird and wild sounds! Strange and exciting sounds!

Esquivel! was a 2017 Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book. Esquivel! is also available in Spanish.

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