Monthly Archives: June 2017

PPBF – The Treasure Box

I was browsing in a favorite bookstore recently, Books of Wonder in New York City, when a very helpful staff member brought today’s perfect picture book to my attention. Although it’s newly published in the US, its original publication date is 2013 in Australia. I love seeing how authors and illustrators from cultures outside the US approach storytelling. Today’s pair incorporates some interesting techniques that I think we all can use when writing and/or illustrating stories:

9780763690847_p0_v2_s192x300Title: The Treasure Box

Written By: Margaret Wild

Illustrated By: Freya Blackwood

Publisher/date: Candlewick Press/2017 (first published in Australia by Penguin/Random House/2013)

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: books, treasure, war, refugees

Opening: When the enemy bombed the library, everything burned.

Brief Synopsis: War rages, and an enemy destroys the library and its books and then orders everyone to leave their homes. Peter and his father flee, taking a treasure box containing one book with them.

Links to Resources:

  • Craft a treasure box out of a shoe box or other recycled carton by covering it with wrapping paper, labeling it or decorating it with precious pictures or “jewels”. What will you put in your box?
  • Think about what one or two things you would keep with you if you were traveling or moving house.
  • Do you have a favorite book? Why is it your favorite? What does it tell us about you?
  • Create a collage of pictures that describes you and/or your family: your interests, history and community.

Why I Like this Book:

The Treasure Box is a haunting but hopeful story about refugees that raises many interesting questions. The reader never learns who the enemy is or where and when the story takes place. In many ways, Peter and his father are like the mother and children fleeing in Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, or Zoe and her family in Fran Nuño’s The Map of Good Memories.: fleeing an enemy, we just don’t know who or when or where.

Unlike refugee stories like The Journey, or Margriet Ruur’s Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey, however, The Treasure Box doesn’t end when Peter is in a new country, removed from the war. Rather, after the war ends, a grown-up Peter returns to the city he had fled and even finds and returns the book in the treasure box to the restored library. Ending in this way enables readers and listeners to envision peace after the war. It also places the focus on the item Peter’s father chooses to save: not only does Peter survive but he also saves the one book that illuminates something about the ruined city’s culture or history.

Interestingly, neither the title nor the type of book is mentioned. We learn only that it’s loved by Peter’s father, more precious than jewels, silver or gold, and is “about our people, about us.” Whether it’s a religious text, a secular text or a history of a particular ethnic, cultural, religious or regional group is not revealed.

Blackwood’s soft pencil, watercolor and collage illustrations complement and further the text. In a blog post, Blackwood reveals that she created “each illustration in layers, cut out and stuck one upon the other like a paper diorama.” This multi-layered approach enables Blackwood to utilize book text in many spreads, highlighting the importance of the book in the treasure box and helping readers and listeners remember that the book accompanies Peter and his father on the journey, even when it isn’t otherwise visible.

TTB_4

Interior Spread reprinted from Blackwood’s website

A Note about Craft:

In contrast to the families portrayed in many of the refugee books I’ve read, Peter flees with his father only; there is no mention of his mother or any other female figure. My guess is that this is a deliberate choice, perhaps due to the nature of the saved book. Peter’s father may be a religious scholar.

I mentioned Blackwood’s collaged artwork and use of printed text above. Snippets of text appear on the front cover, blanket the end papers and appear as background on other spreads. Curious as to where and when this story was taking place, I googled some of the text to determine the language. I discovered that some is Slavic, some Hungarian, and some Spanish. I then read the “fine print” and learned this text is taken from foreign editions of Sonya Hartnett’s The Silver Donkey  (Penguin Australia, 2006), a World War I story that incorporates fables to highlight the importance of stories to culture, and Morris Gleitzman’s Once (Pearson Education, 2007) and Then (Penguin Australia, 2008), stories set in World War II that also highlight the importance of stories to culture. By integrating these texts into The Treasure Box, I believe Blackwood is adding emphasis to Wild’s thesis about the importance of the written word to preserve culture.

What references are you adding to the stories you write or illustrate?  What details can you provide that help contextualize your characters, problem, or solution, or that may set your story within a literary tradition.

See more of Freya Blackwood’s illustrations on her website.

Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books provides reviews of picture books by topic. While Susanna is taking a break for the summer, you can still check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

This past Tuesday marked the United Nations’ #WorldRefugeeDay. In many countries, programs to illuminate the plight of refugees are being held this week (19-25 June 2017), and designated #RefugeeWeek. But while the numbers of refugees is at an all-time high, the act of leaving one’s home to escape danger or to discover a better life elsewhere is not new. Today’s Perfect Picture Book puts this current refugee crisis into historical perspective:

9781554518951_p0_v3_s192x300Title: Stormy Seas: Stories of Young Boat Refugees

Written By: Mary Beth Leatherdale

Illustrated By: Eleanor Shakespeare

Publisher/date: Annick Press Ltd/2017

Suitable for Ages: 10-12

Themes/Topics: refugees, non-fiction, war, immigration

Opening:

At last, Ruth was free. She breathed a sigh of relief as she walked up the gangplank of the SS St. Louis. After trying to get out of Germany for two years, her family had finally secured passage on a ship headed to Havana, Cuba.

Brief Synopsis: Stormy Seas is a collection of five true stories about young people who fled their homelands by boat from World War II until today.

Links to Resources:

  • Leatherdale includes a Resources page in Stormy Seas, with links to organizations that work with refugees and organizations that maintain databases of refugee experiences;
  • Learn more about the Syrian refugee crisis
  • Read (or reread) the Paddington Bear stories and discuss how this orphaned bear must have felt as he left his home in Peru and traveled alone by boat to England, with a note around his neck, “Please look after this bear. Thank you.” (with thanks to Sun Hats and Wellie Boots for pointing out the connection between Paddington Bear and refugees);
  • Try drawing pictures of refugee children in a boat. What do you think the boat looks like? Is it large or small? New or old? What have the children brought with them? What would you carry if you were journeying to a new home?
  • Check out the artworks at Counterpoint Arts that have been designed to draw attention to the plight of refugees and/or created by refugees.

Why I Like this Book:

Stormy Seas is not a picture book that you’d pick up lightly to read to young children at bedtime. Rather, Stormy Seas is a timely resource written for school-aged children that puts the current refugee crisis into context and puts faces on, and tells the true stories of, five young refugees who left their homelands in boats during several periods of recent history. A timeline of earlier refugee streams also is included.

Ruth was an 18-year-old Jew fleeing Nazi Germany, whose ship was turned away from Havana harbor in 1939, but whose family found refuge first in Great Britain and then in the United States. Phu, a 14-year-old boy, traveled alone from Vietnam in 1979, and finally joined family in the United States. Thirteen-year-old Jose and his family fled Cuba in 1980 as part of the Mariel boat lift to Florida. Najeeba, an 11-year-old member of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan, fled in 2000 with her family via Pakistan and Indonesia to Australia.  Mohamed, a 13-year-old orphan from the Ivory Coast, traveled alone across northern Africa to Libya, where, four years after he started, he traveled across the Mediterranean to Italy in 2010.

Told in their own words with sidebars explaining terms and context, and accompanied by collaged maps, photographs, newspaper articles, illustrations, and timelines, these stories, “give readers insight into the courage and fortitude of individual boat refugees, and a better understanding of how political and cultural conflicts force children and families into these untenable situations.” (interview with Leatherdale, in School Library Journal)

Stormy Seas will be a valuable addition to home, school, and community libraries seeking to illuminate the refugee journey for children.

Watch the book trailer here

A Note about Craft:

Stormy Seas is a unique compilation picture book, unlike any of the stories the vast majority of us will write and/or illustrate. Like the stories we tell, however, Leatherdale’s text and Shakespeare’s images need to pull on readers’ and listeners’ heartstrings – the pair had to find the emotional core of each story. By sprinkling quotations through the text and including photographs of these refugees as children, I think the pair has done so. Anyone writing non-fiction and/or biographies will learn much from studying Stormy Seas.

In addition to emotional pull, Leatherdale highlighted a common theme, escape via boat, to tie the individual stories together, while also focusing on differences in the refugees’ experiences, to keep the stories from seeming repetitive. Anyone writing about multiple subjects can learn from her focus on common threads and unique facts.

Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books provides reviews of picture books by topic. While Susanna is taking a break for the summer, you can still check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story

I’m continuing to review picture books dealing with immigration themes and found a fairly-recent book that also celebrates Ramadan, the Muslim holy month occurring now. Truly a Perfect Picture Book:

9780884484318_p0_v3_s192x300Title: Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story

Written By: Reem Faruqi

Illustrated By: Lea Lyon

Publisher/date: Tilbury House Publishers/2015

Suitable for Ages: 6-12

Themes/Topics: Ramadan, Islam, fasting, immigration, moving home, acceptance

Opening:

“We won’t be needing this for a while,” said Lailah’s mother, hanging up Lailah’s lunchbox.

“Imagine! I won’t be eating lunch for a month!” replied Lailah with a twirl.

“I won’t have to pack lunch for a month!” said her mom with a bigger twirl.

Brief Synopsis: A young Muslim immigrant is excited to fast for Ramadan for the first time, but finds it difficult to explain fasting and her religion to her new teacher and classmates.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn more about Ramadan in Laila’s Simple Guide to Ramadan;
  • Check out the Anti-Defamation League’s Teacher’s Guide to Lailah’s Lunchbox; 
  • Dates are eaten to break the fast after sundown each night during Ramadan; craft a date holder;
  • The evening meal during Ramadan is called an Iftar; find some Iftar recipes here;
  • Try making and sharing an easy, kid-friendly dish: watermelon chaat.

Why I Like this Book:

Lailah’s Lunchbox combines two themes well: explaining Ramadan and exploring the feelings of a child who recently has immigrated to a place where she is the only child in her class who fasts for Ramadan. Being different is difficult for kids (and adults), and I think Faruqi has done a wonderful job of capturing the emotional tugs of wanting to fit in to a dominant culture and upholding family, cultural, and/or religious values. I believe that feeling of deflation and difference is universal, and Faruqi has captured  it well. I also love the solution – which I won’t divulge here so as not to ruin the ending for those who haven’t read Lailah’s Lunchbox yet.

Equally important, Faruqi writes a positive story about Ramadan and fasting. As someone who grew up Catholic and hated Lent, with its notion of “giving up” and fishy Fridays coupled with a few “fasting” days, I loved learning about the spirit of community and sharing that pervades Ramadan.

Lyon sprinkles colorful mosaics throughout Lailah’s Lunchbox, including on the lunchbox itself. She also includes items that mimic the mosaics, such as the backsplash in Lailah’s family kitchen, the Iftar spread of colorful foods, a sign in Lailah’s new hometown of Peachtree, and the colorful splines of library books. Doing so reminds us that a part of Lailah’s Abu Dhabi home accompanies her to her new home in Georgia.

A Note about Craft:

In an Author’s Note, Faruqi indicates that Lailah’s Lunchbox is based on her own experience of moving from Abu Dhabi to Peachtree City, Georgia as a child. What childhood experiences inform your writing & how can you include universal themes in your personal story ?

In the opening scene, Faruqi deftly sets up the action in two ways: she focuses on the lunchbox, the holder of food, as a way into the story. By not jumping directly into the notion of fasting, an action that some young kids may not understand, she uses a familiar object to help explain it, before even mentioning the term. She also indicates with one repeated action the feelings Lailah and her mother hold about Ramadan and fasting – the characters “twirl.” Twirl connotes happiness, and the repetition of the action signifies community. Circling back, Lailah also twirls at the end of the story.

Lailah’s problem in the story is an internal one: she worries about how to explain why she is fasting to her teacher and classmates. None of her classmates question or bully her actions or beliefs, because she doesn’t reveal the what or why of her actions. Faruqi’s exploration of Ramadan and the emotions of someone who has moved thus remains free of external conflict, which I think is a plus.

Finally, at the risk of revealing the solution to Lailah’s problem, I can’t help repeating one of my favorite lines: Lailah felt safe among all the books.

Visit Reem Faruqi’s site here.

Learn about Lea Lyon here.

Lailah’s Lunchbox is a Notable Social Studies Trade Book For Young People 2016, a cooperative Project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council; a Featured Book of the Month of the Anti-Defamation League; an American Library Association Notable Book for Children 2016; won a Skipping Stones Honor 2016; and made the International Literacy Association Choices Reading List.

Tilbury House “is an independent publishing company founded forty years ago” that publishes “award-winning children’s picture books about cultural diversity, social justice, nature, and the environment.”

For a list of 99 children’s books about Ramadan, visit A Crafty Arab.

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 – My Beautiful Birds

The stunning cover of today’s Perfect Picture Book drew my eye on the library shelf. When I read the jacket flap, I knew that I had to read, and review it, as it takes places primarily at the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, a camp which my daughter visited when she volunteered with Syrian refugees in Jordan in 2013 and 2014. Without further ado, today’s Perfect Picture Book:

9781772780109_p0_v2_s192x300Title: My Beautiful Birds

Written & Illustrated By: Suzanne Del Rizzo

Publisher/date: Pajama Press

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes/Topics: Syria, refugees, birds, refugee camps, Jordan

Opening:

The ground rumbles beneath my slippers as I walk. Father squeezes my hand. “It will be okay, Sami. Your birds escaped, too,” he repeats. His voice sounds far away. I squeeze back, hoping it will steady my wobbly legs.

Brief Synopsis: After a bomb destroys their home, young Sami and his family flee Syria and settle in a refugee camp. But Sami worries about the pet birds that can’t accompany the family, and only finds emotional solace when he discovers new birds at the camp.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

My Beautiful Birds is a beautifully written and gorgeously illustrated book about a young boy coping with the loss of pets and home and adapting to life in a refugee camp. While the subject matter is understandably somber, Del Rizzo’s images of birds flying up to the sky and escaping, or others appearing in the camp to console young Sami, leave the reader with a feeling of hope, that Sami, and the refugee children he represents, will survive the ordeals and live a better life in the future.

Using a combination of Plasticine, polymer clay and other mixed media, Del Rizzo’s illustrations are the perfect compliments to the story. While they are detailed enough to convey emotion well, because they appear as theatrical vignettes, they provide some distance for the reader from a story which tackles a difficult subject.

Watch the Book Trailer:

A Note about Craft:

On the book jacket, Del Rizzo states that she “came across the article of a boy who took solace in a connection with wild birds” at the refugee camp and was inspired to write My Beautiful Birds. Similarly, author Margriet Ruurs saw the artwork of Syrian artist Nizar Ali Badr on Facebook, and was inspired to write Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey. Authors and illustrators, what article, headline in your news feed, or tweet has inspired a story?

Birds play many roles in this story: as a link to the past; as a reason to hope for a better future; and as metaphor – “Like feathered brushes they paint the sky with promise and hope of peace.” Birds play a role in Francesca Sanna’s The Journey, too, also as metaphor for the migratory journey of the refugees, fleeing to a place of safety and greater emotional security.

See more of Suzanna Del Rizzo’s work here.

Established in 2011, Pajama Press is a “small literary press” in Toronto, Canada, producing “all formats popular in children’s publishing across a fairly broad range of genres.”

My Beautiful Birds is a 2017 Junior Library Guild selection and has received favorable reviews in, among others, The New York Times Book Review.

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 – Why Am I Here?

I found today’s Perfect Picture Book at my local library. Regular readers know that all of the books I’ve reviewed this year have involved refugees, people and stories from areas affected by the US travel ban, and migrants, especially from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Today’s Perfect Picture Book doesn’t exactly fit within these parameters. It is, however, a book first published outside the US. I also think it promotes so much empathy for refugees and migrants that it almost is a book about them. I hope you agree!

9780802854773_p0_v2_s192x300Title: Why Am I Here?

Written By: Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen

Illustrated By: Akin Duzakin

Translated By: Becky Crook

Publisher/date: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers/2016 (first published by Magikon in Norwegian/2014)

Suitable for Ages: 5-9 (or older)

Themes/Topics: empathy, compassion, imagination, philosophy, social justice

Opening:

I wonder why I am here, in this exact place.

Brief Synopsis: A young child journeys to many places, asking what it would be like to live as s/he sees others living.

Links to Resources:

  • Become Globe Smart, and learn about life in other areas of the world;
  • Draw a picture of a person or place that you have visited.

Why I Like this Book:

Why Am I Here? is a book that begs to be read, and reread. Many of us have a child who has asked questions non-stop, who has stumped us time and time again with one three-letter word: WHY. While I think of the “why” stage for younger children more than for the school-aged kids for whom this book is written, curious children, and adults, never stop wondering.

Rather than wondering just about the natural world, Why Am I Here? invites us to consider differences in time, place, and social circumstance. In one poignant spread, the narrator asks what it would be like to live in a large city, alone, “on the street or under a bridge.” Similarly, the narrator wonders what it would be like to leave home as a refugee, to survive a natural disaster and be without food or water, or to labor as children do in other places in the world.

This is an introspective book, sensitive and thought-provoking. But while many of the places and peoples visited are suffering, the overall tenor is positive and hopeful, in large part, most likely, due to the dreamy, peaceful watercolor illustrations that help soften the reality of the words.

HEJH-Øy_båt.R-210x210

Interior spread, reprinted from Duzakin’s website

HEJH-By.R.W_edited-1-210x210

Interior spread, reprinted from Duzakin’s website

A Note about Craft:

Why Am I Here? has an other-world feel to it, in part, I think, because the “I” in the story is alone and identified by neither name nor gender. I think this helps readers identify better with the narrator and imagine themselves in his or her situation.

In Reading Picture Books with Children, Megan Dowd Lambert invites readers to contemplate the Whole Book when sharing picture books with children. In Why Am I Here? the text appears solely on the left side and the illustrations, looking like landscape paintings, appear on the right side of the gutter. This invites the reader, I believe, to think about the words before seeing what the words imply. For an introspective book, when author, illustrator and editor want the reader to contemplate the text, I think this is a wonderful technique that adds to the reading experience.

Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen is a Norwegian freelance jouralist and children’s author.

Akin Duzakin is a Turkish illustrator living since 1987 in Norway.

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!