Category Archives: Perfect Picture Books

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!

PPBF – The Map of Good Memories

I thought I’d kick off Memorial Day weekend with a book from across the Pond, from Spain, to be exact. What does Spain have to do with Memorial Day, you ask? Probably not much, as there doesn’t seem to be a comparable holiday there. But Memorial Day is about remembering, and it’s also the “official” start of the summer vacation season, at least here in the United States. Both relate in certain ways to today’s Perfect Picture Book.

First, today’s Book is about remembering. It also reminded me of a special vacation journey I took one summer with my two older children when they were 4 and 6 (my husband met us mid-trip). We traveled among several German, Czech and Austrian cities by train. While I kept a written diary, the girls drew pictures of their favorite activities each day – a kind of Book of Good Memories.

May you make and remember many good memories this Memorial Day weekend and on your travels this summer. And now, today’s Perfect Picture Book:

9788416147823_p0_v2_s192x300Title: The Map of Good Memories

Written By: Fran Nuño

Illustrated By: Zuzanna Celej

Translated By: Jon Brokenbrow

Publisher/date: Cuento de Luz/2016 (Spanish edition also available)

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Themes/Topics: refugees; war; home; maps; remembering; saying farewell

Opening:

Zoe had lived in the city since she was born. But now, because of the war, she had to flee with her family and take refuge in another country.

Brief Synopsis: As her family prepares to flee the war-torn city of her birth, Zoe maps out the favorite places where she has spent the happiest times of her life.

Links to Resources:

  • Map your classroom, home, city or favorite picture book;
  • Learn mapping skills; a good resource to learn is a newly-published picture book, Mapping My Day, written by Julie Dillemuth, illustrated by Laura Wood, and published by Magination Press (2017);
  • When you travel, keep a “favorite places” diary by drawing a picture each evening of someplace you enjoyed seeing or something you enjoyed doing;
  • In the Author’s Note, Nuño states that The Map of Good Memories is “about saying farewell.” Think about what or to whom you would say “farewell” if you were traveling or moving house.

Why I Like this Book:

This is a poignant story about treasuring the little things you enjoy about the place where you live. On the eve of her family’s departure, ten year-old Zoe looks back at all of the happy times she has enjoyed in her hometown.

Unlike other refugee books that focus on the journey (The Journey and Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey come to mind) or a better life ahead, The Map of Good Memories focuses on the past, on the positive aspects of life in Zoe’s home city before the war. Most of these are small, everyday occurrences that kids will relate well to, like going to school, visiting the library and bookstore, playing in the park, and enjoying favorite films in the movie theatre. As Zoe maps out the special memories of her childhood, she finds a special surprise and comes to the realization that these memories will always be with her, wherever she lives, and that someday she will return.

I love this hopeful message for refugee children. I also think it’s a good reminder for all of us that places that currently are wracked by war or other disasters have a history, and potential future, that are peaceful and positive.

Celej’s soft, watercolor images impart a sense of peacefulness and reflection to the story, and will encourage multiple readings.

Images and text about the war are few, so this is a wonderful book to share with kids who are moving for other reasons as well.

Source: Cuenta de Luz

 

A Note about Craft:

Interestingly, neither Nuño’s text nor Celej’s illustrations clearly reveal the setting or era of The Map of Good Memories. While the city appears European and while most people depicted are fair-haired Caucasians who wear neither veils nor headscarves, the time period is not obvious. In a review reprinted by Barnes & Noble, one reviewer guesses World War II. I’d guess the Bosnian conflict instead, given that Zoe is portrayed in jeans in one scene and wearing a bike helmet in another. Regardless, by not naming the conflict or even the city, I think Nuño makes the action more immediate: this could happen anywhere, at any time, to any of us.

Even though they leave two key elements of the story vague, Nuño and Celej weave many small details into The Map of Good Memories. For instance, not only does Zoe remember many films she enjoyed at the movie theatre, but Nuño mentions “the candy counter, the big seats, the lady who showed you to your seat with a flashlight…” Despite this detailed description, he leaves room for the illustrations, with bookshelves “full of real treasures” that Celej then fills in with dreamy characters surrounding Zoe as she reads. Nuño also leaves the depiction of the theatre to Celej, who completes it with a marquee heralding The Wizard of Oz, a brilliant cultural reference, as, after all, “there’s no place like home.”

Cuento de Luz, “based in Madrid, Spain but with an international outlook,” is a publishing company specializing in children’s literature, primarily picture books. Its philosophy is to publish stories that are “full of light that bring out the inner child within all of us. Stories that take the imagination on a journey and help care for our planet, respect differences, eliminate borders and promote peace.” Cuento de Luz is a B Corporation that uses “stone paper” in the production of its books – no trees, no water, no bleach.

Fran Nuño is the author of over 30 children’s books and owner of a bookstore in Seville, Spain.

Zuzanna Celej is a children’s book illustrator of Polish descent, educated and working in Spain.

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 Elephant’s Umbrella

It’s been a rainy spring in the northeastern US. I’ve found myself reaching again and again for my umbrella – a common response of people all over the world when it rains. A common response, I’d wager, in Iran, too, the country in which both the author and illustrator of today’s Perfect Picture Book live:

61w7a8KNDLL._SL160_Title: The Elephant’s Umbrella

Written By: Laleh Jaffari

Illustrated By: Ali Khodai

Translated By: Azita Rassi

Publisher/date: Tiny Owl Publishing Ltd/2017 (first published by Chekkeh Publishers, Iran)

Suitable for Ages: 3-8

Themes/Topics: sharing, elephants, umbrella, empathy, Iran, translated Picture Book

Opening:

The elephant loved his umbrella. Whether it drizzled or poured, he’d open his umbrella and walk into the rain, proud to ask anybody he saw to join him under it.

Brief Synopsis: The elephant loves and shares his umbrella. But when she’s whisked from his grasp, the umbrella ends up in the hands of less-generous creatures, a leopard and a bear.

Links to Resources:

  • Make and decorate a paper-plate umbrella; better yet, make two and share one with a friend;
  • Explore Iran, where both the author and illustrator live;
  • The leopard and brown bear in the story both want to eat under the umbrella. Host an umbrella picnic and serve weather-related foods: sun-colored grilled cheese sandwiches or lemon cookies or maybe raindrop blueberries;
  • See more illustrations from The Elephant’s Umbrella and other Iranian picture books in a 2015 gallery in The Guardian newspaper.

Why I Like this Book:

The Elephant’s Umbrella is a lovely story of sharing and generosity that, I think, will appeal to the youngest of listeners. I found the jungle scenes bright and engaging, and I think kids and parents will enjoy them, too.

Unlike other sharing books that posit sharing as a win for the recipient with the donor sacrificing something (think Rainbow Fish giving its beautiful scales to others), The Elephant’s Umbrella presents sharing as a win-win situation: when the Elephant invites other creatures to sit under the umbrella with him, he stays dry and he gains friends. He shows, in a sense, that by cooperating, we help not only ourselves, but we make the pie bigger, so that all can benefit.the-elephants-umbrella-1024x512

A Note about Craft:

At first glance, The Elephant’s Umbrella is a simple story of sharing. From the title and opening lines, it seems clear: a caring Elephant has an umbrella, loses her (Jaffari uses the feminine pronoun) to a leopard and then to a bear, and finally gets her back. But how? Did either the leopard or bear steal her? And who is the main character anyway?

In a brilliant twist that’s a lesson for authors, the umbrella is the star of this story. When the wind blows her away from the elephant, the umbrella asks first the leopard and then the bear of their plans. Becoming aware of their pride and greediness, the umbrella asks the wind to “take me with you!”

By flipping the story in this way, I think Jaffari adds another layer to what could have been a very simple story. It causes me to wonder how seemingly inanimate objects or non-human creatures, like natural resources or animals, feel when misused or mistreated, whether on the playground or in the wider world. I think this opens up great discussion possibilities with kids who so often anthropomorphise pets, toys, or other objects.

Tiny Owl Publishing is “an independent publishing company committed to producing beautiful, original books for children.” Tiny Owl publishes “a range of books from Iranian authors and illustrators,” including When I Coloured in the World, which I reviewed in April 2017.

Per a review in Outside in World, “Iranian author Laleh Jaffari is an author, translator and TV director and has written 25 children’s books. Iranian illustrator Ali Khodai…has illustrated over 80 books and has won many national awards in his home country of Iran.”

Books Go Walkabout reviewed The Elephant’s Umbrella here and Tiny Owl references other reviews here.

The Elephant’s Umbrella is available for purchase in the US with free shipping via the Book Depository.

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 Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story

I discovered today’s Perfect Picture Book in the bookstore at the New England SCBWI 2017 conference this past April. The gorgeous stitched illustrations and evocative title drew my attention even before I saw the tag line, a refugee’s story. Interestingly, it’s not one I’ve found on any of the many lists of picture books about refugees…yet!

As this is the story of a grandmother and grandchild journeying together, with their love and the strength of the female community so prevalent throughout the tale, I thought this is a Perfect Picture Book to feature for Mother’s Day:

9781563971341_p0_v1_s118x184Title: The Whispering Cloth: A Refugee’s Story

Written By: Pegi Deitz Shea

Illustrated By: Anita Riggio

Stitched By: You Yang

Publisher/date: Boyds Mills Press/1995

Suitable for Ages: 3-8 (per the publisher; I’d say older)

Themes/Topics: refugees, Hmong, needlework folk art

Opening:

After Mai’s cousins moved to America, Mai passed the days with Grandma at the Widows’ Store, watching the women do pa´ndau story cloths. She loved listening to the widows stitch and talk, stitch and talk – mostly about their grandmothers’ lives in China a hundred years ago. All Mai could remember was life inside the refugee camp, where everyone seemed to come and go but her.

Brief Synopsis:

With the help and encouragement of her grandmother and the women stitching, and selling, Hmong story cloths, Mai learns this traditional art and shares the tale of her losses.

Links to Resources:

  • Shea provides a Curriculum Guide on her website and there is a Glossary and Foreward that provide Hmong words and story background;
  • Learn about the Hmong peoples and culture;
  • Learn about Hmong embroidery and try some embroidery stitches;
  • Learn about Southeast Asia, including Laos and Thailand, the setting of The Whispering Cloth;
  • Create story pictures about your life or the life of an older relative or friend.

Why I Like this Book:

As is evident from the synopsis, the refugee in today’s picture book hails not from the Middle East, Africa, or Central America. Nor is Mai’s story a contemporary tale. Published over 20 years ago, The Whispering Cloth is the story of a young, orphaned Hmong refugee living with her grandmother and dreaming of a better life. Tragically, while the setting and ethnic group are different, this story is as relevant today as when it was written. And while children like Mai may now be settled in the US and have children of their own, I believe that learning what they experienced is important for all of us. Reading The Whispering Cloth together may even help these survivors share their experiences with children and grandchildren.

The bond between Mai and her grandmother is another reason I like this story. That older women have talents and traditions to share with grandchildren is a valuable facet of this tale.

Finally, I love how the arts are at the heart of The Whispering Cloth: as a way to earn money by selling the pa´ndau story cloths and as a means to both tell and process the horrific experience of losing parents, fleeing home, and living in a refugee camp. The folk art pa´ndau is also central to Hmong culture, making it particularly relevant to the story of Hmong refugees. This makes me wonder about the folk art traditions of current refugees: whether the children are learning them, whether they serve as therapeutic outlets, and whether they are surviving the transitions to new homes and cultures.

The Whispering Cloth includes scenes and references that might prove upsetting to younger children (blood, soldiers and bullets figure in the embroidered story). However, they are integral to the story, and the combination of rich watercolor and embroidered artwork may soften the potential impact of these troubling details for younger children.

A Note about Craft:

Authors and illustrators know that we must find the kernel of a story, the nugget at its heart that helps the story resonate with readers. But how do you identify that nugget? At least when writing a story set in a particular place or describing a particular culture, I think the nugget must provide insight to that place/culture. Additionally, it must play a significant role in the character development and story outcome. I think the nugget in The Whispering Cloth is the Hmong pa´ndau. Its centrality in the text and illustrations provides a window into Hmong culture, a culture about which many readers may be unfamiliar. It also acts as a mirror, for those who journeyed through the refugee camps and beyond, as they share this story with their children and future generations. And mastering the techniques enables Mai to remain tied to her traditional culture while earning the money necessary to escape from the refugee camp.

Neither Shea nor Riggio is an #OwnVoice author or illustrator, but a Hmong artist, You Yang, rendered Mai’s story as a pa´ndau, adding richness and authenticity to this story.

Pegi Deitz Shea is also the author of a middle grade book, Tangled Threads: A Hmong Girl’s Story (Clarion, 2003), that follows Mai as she starts a new life in Rhode Island.O8Sg9_KvFq0C

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!