Monthly Archives: December 2017

PPBF – Grandma’s Gift

I couldn’t think of a better holiday book to feature this year, as I’ve been focusing on the stories of refugees, migrants, and generally those making journeys from areas of conflict or poverty and trying to navigate new lives. I look forward to continuing to focus on picture books dealing with these themes in 2018.

This is the last post of 2017, as I journey to South America later today to spend the holidays in Brazil with our son-in-law’s family and friends. Happy holidays dear readers. I hope you receive a special gift this season, too!

GGcoverTitle: Grandma’s Gift

Written & Illustrated By: Eric Velasquez

Publisher/date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books/2013 (originally published, Walker & Company, 2010)

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: Puerto Rico; intergenerational; art; holiday foods; journeys


“Feliz Navidad, Eric!” My teacher walked me to the classroom door, where my grandmother was waiting to take me back to her apartment for my winter break. I used to spend all my school vacations with her so she could take care of me while my parents worked.

Brief Synopsis: Eric helps his grandmother prepare a special Puerto Rican food for Christmas, and she accompanies him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to complete a school project.

Links to Resources:

  • A Teacher’s Guide provides several ideas, including identifying gifts or other items kids value and describing and discussing them;
  • The narrator’s Grandma hailed from Puerto Rico. Find out more about this US territory;
  • Eric and his grandmother visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they viewed Diego Velázquez’ portrait of Juan de Pareja. Try drawing a portrait or self-portait;
  • Grandma makes pasteles, a traditional Puerto Rican dish. Try making pasteles using Velasquez’ recipe and/or make a holiday food that is important in your family or culture.

Why I Like this Book:

I love the many layers of this holiday picture book. Not only does Grandma’s Gift include heartwarming intergenerational interactions, but it also features two journeys of discovery: Grandma shares La Marqueta with Eric, and he helps her navigate a trip out of El Barrio to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, they discover a famous painting that Grandma remembered from her Puerto Rican school days and that Eric realizes was “painted by someone we might see walking around El Barrio.”

Velasquez is an illustrator-author and his realistic, detailed paintings bring the words to life. Particularly poignant is a double-page spread showing Grandma and Eric starting up the grand steps to the Museum while men who clearly are more comfortable there face them, arms folded, as if to indicate that Grandma and Eric are not welcome to enter. I think this spread could generate some wonderful classroom discussions about how our body language makes others feel and how someone entering an unfamiliar institution may feel.

A Note about Craft:

Grandma’s Gift was published seven years ago, and it’s interesting to note a few differences from works published today. While there is inclusion of Spanish text, in italics, the text is much longer than much of what is included today, and the translations appear in parentheses directly afterwards. The word count generally is higher than that of today’s picture books, too.

Grandma’s Gift would pair well with Last Stop on Market Street (Matt de la Peña/Christian Robinson, 2016).

Visit Eric Velasquez’ website to see more of his books and illustrations. Grandma’s Gift was awarded the Pura Belpré Medal for illustration in 2011. I reviewed Grandma’s Records last week. These two would pair nicely for classroom discussion, too.

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 – Grandma’s Records

Even though it first was published over 15 years ago, I chose today’s Perfect Picture Book because I think it still is timely, especially as so many Puerto Ricans escape the post-hurricane Maria devastation of their beloved island home.

Grandmas-recordsTitle: Grandma’s Records

Written & Illustrated By: Eric Velasquez

Publisher/date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books/2004 (originally published, Walker & Company, 2001)

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes/Topics: Puerto Rico; intergenerational; music


Every year, right after the last day of school, I’d pack a suitcase with my cool sketchbook. Then my dog, Daisy, and I were off to Grandma’s apartment in El Barrio. Because my parents worked, Grandma’s apartment was my summer home.

Brief Synopsis: The young narrator and his grandmother share a love of Latino music and attend a special concert together.

Links to Resources:

  • A Teacher’s Guide provides several ideas, including oral history and memoir-writing projects;
  • The narrator’s Grandma hailed from Puerto Rico. Find out more about this US territory;
  • Back matter includes the lyrics to Grandma’s special song, “In My Old San Juan” (En mi Viejo San Juan) by Noel Estrada (1918-1979) in English and Spanish, and a note about the musicians who appear in the story. Listen to En mi Viejo San Juan in a video that features photographs from the 1920s;
  • Describe a visit or an experience you shared with a grandparent or elderly family member or friend. How did you feel about the visit or experience? How do you think s/he felt?

Why I Like this Book:

Grandma’s Records is a feel-good exploration of the ties that bind generations and of Puerto Rican music and culture. I love the details that Velasquez included, especially that Grandma “even made me get a haircut” before attending a show. I think this detail will help kids understand the importance that Grandma, and the narrator, placed on the concert.

Velasquez is an illustrator-author whose realistic paintings add rich details to the story. I especially like that he pictured Grandma in pink house shoes, something adults of a certain age may remember their own mothers or grandmothers wearing.

A Note about Craft:

First published in 2001, Grandma’s Records has a much higher word count than most picture books published today. The story still resonates, though, and I think it would make a wonderful read-aloud to older elementary students. I also think it would be an interesting exercise for picture book writers to determine what they would cut to align better with today’s word count norms.

Velasquez wrote Grandma’s Records, an autobiographical tribute to his Puerto Rican grandmother, utilizing first-person point of view. I think this works well for this reflective, personal story and, as mentioned under “Links to Resources” above, could be a great mentor text for classroom memoir writing exercises.

Visit Eric Velasquez’ website to see more of his books and illustrations.

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 – A Different Pond

I kept seeing references to today’s Perfect Picture Book in my twitter feed and lists of picture books about the immigrant experience. I knew it was one I’d like to feature here, even though I figured it’d been out for a while. I was so surprised to learn that it was published earlier this fall.

9781479597468Title: A Different Pond

Written By: Bao Phi

Illustrated By:  Thi Bui

Publisher/date: Capstone Young Readers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-8

Themes/Topics: immigrants; fishing; father-son relationship; Vietnam; family traditions.


Dad wakes me quietly so Mom can keep sleeping. It will be hours before the sun comes up.

Brief Synopsis: A young boy and his immigrant father go fishing to provide dinner for the family.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about Vietnam, the family’s country of origin;
  • Have you ever gone fishing? Did you catch a crappie or some other fish? What was in your tackle box? For a good listing of what you’ll need for fresh water fishing, including definitions and pictures of the items, check out this article from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for Young Naturalists.

Why I Like this Book:

A Different Pond is a beautifully-written, slice-of-life story that is a mirror into the lives of Vietnamese immigrants in the early 1980s. I loved the seeming simplicity of the story – a boy and his dad are going fishing. But there is so much more that the narrator reveals: they leave before sun-up, as the father is working a weekend job to earn more money; they fish for food, not sport; the dad reminisces about fishing in Vietnam with the brother who didn’t survive the war.

Like Last Stop on Market Street, A Different Pond is a window into a part of American life. Bui’s graphic novel-like illustrations help heighten the sense of immediacy and sense that the narrator, although a young boy, is mature for his age. I especially loved examining the endpapers that feature items that may have been found in a typical Vietnamese immigrant household in the early 1980s.

Both Phi and Bui immigrated to the United States as young children, as they recount in Notes at the end of the book. Photographs from their childhoods accompany the Notes.

A Note about Craft:

Phi’s choice of first-person POV draws the reader into the story, helping her/him feel as if s/he is part of the action.

As with Last Stop on Market Street, A Different Pond is many-layered. At its most basic, it’s the story of a young boy and his dad going fishing. We also learn, though, through subtle clues, that the family is not only recent immigrants, but that they are struggling financially. I found the reference to a “bare bulb” burning at the outset of the story particularly poignant and a wonderful example of showing not telling.

Learn more about Capstone Young Readers, an American independent publisher.

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 – Somos como las nubes, We Are Like the Clouds

While I often gravitate towards books about migration, I feel particularly drawn to the topic now, as I am in the process of a complicated, multi-phase move that has lasted almost two months – so far! And while I have not fled a violent or poverty-stricken situation, I, too, have hopes that this next, hopefully-forever home will be better. As I choose what to bring, and what to donate, I can’t help but wonder how those who truly flee must feel, as they leave behind everything, or close to everything, and take only what they can carry. To those brave souls, the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book:

9781554988501_1024x1024Title: Somos como las nubes We Are Like the Clouds

Written By: Jorge Argueta

Pictures By: Alfonso Ruano

Translated By: Elisa Amado

Publisher/date: Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press)/2016

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes/Topics: migration; poetry; bilingual (Spanish/English)


Somos como las nubes

Elefantes, caballos, vaca, cuches,/ flores,/ballenas,/ pericos.

Somos como las nubes.

We Are Like the Clouds

Elephants, horses, cows, pigs,/ flowers,/ whales,/ parakeets.

We are like the clouds.

Brief Synopsis:

In this poetry collection, Argueta explores the hopes and fears that cause young people to leave Central America, the perils of the journey, and the arrival to the United States.

Links to Resources:

  • Argueta compares the young migrants to many animals and aspects of nature. What are you like? Why do you think the young migrants are like clouds?
  • Write a poem describing how you felt when you left somewhere and/or arrived someplace else;
  • Learn about Central America;
  • Learn more about why children flee Central America in a report by Unicef USA.

Why I Like this Book:

Somos como las nubes We Are Like the Clouds is a beautiful collection of poems that explore the feelings of the children who undertake the arduous journey from Central America to the United States, often on their own. In an Author’s Note, Argueta explains that he “wrote these poems based on my experiences of working with these young people in El Salvador as well as in the United States.” It’s clear that Argueta “gets it”. His images and analogies transport the readers, so that they, too, feel as if they’ve undertaken the odyssey that thousands of young migrants have undertaken to flee poverty and violence in search of a better life.

This is a wonderful collection to share in families and classrooms. As an added bonus, the Spanish and English texts face each other, rendering them useful in language classes, too. And while the poems can be read separately, they hang together to capture the experiences of those contemplating the journey, those left behind, the journey itself, and the life for those who make it to the US.

Ruano’s paintings range from realistic renderings of the migrants’ experiences to surrealistic, dream-like images. Many are full- or double-page spreads, drawing readers into the realities of the migrants’ lives.

A Note about Craft:

How does one capture the experiences of child migrants, often traveling alone, fleeing the threat of violence and gangs and/or extreme poverty? These are such difficult topics for adults to comprehend. How can a writer make these experiences accessible to children without causing nightmares or overwhelming fear? One way is to soften the blow via poetry, to utilize lyrical language and analogize to the natural world. By doing so, I think Argueta helps children, and adults, empathize with the young migrants in a way a straight telling of the journey perhaps would not.

Not surprisingly, Somos como las nubes We Are Like the Clouds is published by an independent, Canadian children’s publisher, Groundwood Books. On their website, they state, “we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial; and we are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.” In addition to many other “difficult-topic” books, they published Migrant and Two White Rabbits – both about different aspects of the migrant experience.







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!