Category Archives: Perfect Picture Books

PPBF – Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

I confess that the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book was not familiar to me. Nor did I know about the performance noted in the title. So I’m so happy that Margarita Engle discovered young Teresa and shared this heart-warming story.

Title: Dancing Hands: How Teresa Carreño Played the Piano for President Lincoln

Written By: Margarita Engle

Illustrated By: Rafael López

Publisher/Date: Atheneum Books for Young Readers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: music, refugee, immigrant, courage, biography

Opening:

When Teresa was a little girl in Venezuela, Mamá sang lullabies while Papá showed Teresita how to let her happy hands dance across all the beautiful dark and light keys of a piano.

Brief Synopsis: The story of how a young pianist, the “Piano Girl” Teresa Carreño, performed for President Lincoln and his family at the White House during the dark days of the Civil War, as the family was grieving the death of their son.

Links to Resources:

  • Teresa was born in Venezuela. Find out more about this South American country;
  • Teresa performed a song about a Mockingbird. Learn more about this bird;
  • Listen to the Mockingbird was a popular song in America in the mid-19th century. Listen to a recording of it;
  • Learn more about Teresa in the Historical Note and see the Curriculum Guide for further insights;
  • Teresa played the piano to cheer up President Lincoln and his family. What can you do to cheer up a friend, family member, or neighbor?

Why I Like this Book:

In Dancing Hands, Engle introduces readers to a famous 19th century pianist, Teresa Carreño. Readers learn that Teresa loved playing the piano as a young child in Venezuela, but that sometimes she “had to struggle” to play the “stubborn music”. Despite these struggles, Teresa persisted and became an accomplished pianist at a young age.

When Teresa was eight years old, her family fled conflict and sailed to New York City, where Teresa “felt lost”, lonely, and sad, especially as no one spoke Spanish and the US was embroiled in the Civil War. But when Teresa acquired a piano in New York, her life and playing skills improved. Soon, she was performing in concerts, culminating with a performance at the White House before President Lincoln and his family, shortly after the death of his son and during the bleak days of the Civil War.

I think any child who has felt shy speaking before strangers, nervous before a music recital or worried about a big game will relate to Teresa’s predicament. That a child could brighten a President’s life and bring comfort to him and his family is an important lesson for children and adults that young people, including those who are recent arrivals to a country, can make the world better by sharing their talents.

I also think Dancing Hands reminds readers that music has the power to soothe people in times of trouble, acting as a balm for creators, performers and listeners.

López’s mixed media illustrations reflect Teresa’s moods throughout the story, with bright, tropical colors prevalent when she was happy and darker blues and grays dominating scenes of worry and concern.

A Note about Craft:

Dancing Hands is a biography of a pianist who had a long international career as a professional pianist and singer. But Engle has focused solely on the start of that career, when Teresa was still a child, culminating with this one special performance for President Lincoln. I think by limiting the timespan and focus in this way, Engle has created a picture book that will appeal even to younger children and to which children will more readily relate. Also, by honing in on this one important performance early in her stay in the United States, Engle widens the subject of the book from just the story of a gifted pianist to include her journey as a refugee and immigrant who shared her talents and enriched her new home.

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

 

PPBF – Bijan & Manije: A Story from the Book of Kings

As the chill winds blow, I love reading stories from long ago that transport me to another time and place. I hope you agree that today’s Perfect Picture Book does just that.

Title: Bijan & Manije: A Story from the Book of Kings

Written By: Ali Seidabadi

Edited By: Nicolette Jones

Illustrated By: Marjan Vafaian

Publisher/Date: Tiny Owl Publishing Ltd/2016

Suitable for Ages: 4 and up

Themes/Topics: fairy tale, #ReadYourWorld, Persia, courage, hero

Opening:

Once upon a time the people of Iran and the people of neighbouring Turan were enemies. Turan was ruled by a tyrant, King Afrasaib, who made his subjects tremble and threatened the country next door. Iran was a land of colour and perfume and beauty, ruled over by good King Khosrow.

Brief Synopsis:

A tale from Persia featuring a boar-hunting young knight, a princess from an opposing kingdom, and their love that overcomes all obstacles.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the Shahnameh, a poem that gathered the “historical stories and myths of Persia” in the 10th century;
  • Write your own story that begins “once upon a time”;
  • Watch the book trailer.

Why I Like this Book:

Bijan & Manije features many elements found in classic fairy tales: monstrous creatures that terrorize helpless people; a brave, young knight; a quest to subdue the creatures; a cowardly general; a lonely princess; a tyrannical king; and a love that conquers all. But the setting, in ancient Iran and Turan, and the colorful illustrations lend an exotic air to the story, and they transported this reader into a fantastic world. I especially appreciated the loyalty of Princess Manije, who kept watch over the imprisoned Bijan, and her strength and courage as she helped Bijan escape and fled with him from her tyrannical father. No helpless female here!

I also enjoyed thinking about who the true hero of this tale is and what it means to be a hero. Is it Bijan, who subdues the monstrous boars? Or Manije, who defies her father and stays true to Bijan? Or is it the cowardly General Gorgin, who confesses that he led Bijan to the enemy lands? Or, perhaps, it’s the clever and courageous Rostam, who tracks down Bijan and helps the lovers escape? Maybe all of these are heroes who, by working together, help ensure the happy ending. I leave it for you to decide!

I think all children will enjoy this heroic love story, but children with a Persian heritage will truly love reading this tale set in the lands where their families lived and adapted from an ancient text.

With their jewel tones, Vafaian’s colorful and intricate illustrations are the perfect accompaniment to Seidabadi’s text.

A Note about Craft:

Bijan & Manije is a retelling of an older story into modern language, and then it’s been translated into English. Although the endnotes don’t reveal how or how much Seidabadi changed the story, I think updating an older story for modern readers is a wonderful way to preserve stories from the past and share a cultural heritage with children.

Read an interview with Seidabadi here and visit his Facebook page. Seidabadi is also the author of A Rainbow in my Pocket and collaborated with Iranian illustrator Vafaeian on The Parrot and the Merchant. Vafaeian is also the illustrator of Cinderella of the Nile.

Discover more books published by Tiny Owl Publishing Ltd , an independent publishing company in the UK “committed to producing beautiful, original books for children”, founded on the “belief that stories act as bridges – providing pathways to new experiences whilst connecting us to here and there”.

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

 

PPBF – Boat of Dreams

Today’s perfect picture book has been on my “to review” shelf for a while now, awaiting the right time to review it. It’s not about refugees, those affected by immigration bans, or even by an author from a region affected by war. But its haunting illustrations, focus on journeys, and ambiguous storyline make it a perfect read as leaves begin to fall in the northern hemisphere, nights grow longer, and imaginations run wild.

Title: Boat of Dreams

Written & Illustrated By: Rogério Coelho

Publisher/Date: Tilbury House Publishers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 4 and up

Themes/Topics: wordless, aging, dreams, journeys, imagination, fantasy, loneliness

Opening: (from jacket flap)

How does an old man with an umbrella come to live on a desert island, his only companion a seagull? Ho do a boy and his cat come to live in an apparently deserted city? Are the man and the boy separated only by distance, or also by time? Are they the same person – the boy dwelling in the man’s memory? Between them, in a stoppered bottle, floats a piece of paper on which the man draws a flying boat and the boy imagines himself aboard.

Brief Synopsis: A fantastical, wordless picture book in which an older gentleman draws a ship and sends it to a young boy who adds himself to the picture, and then visits the man.

Links to Resources:

  • Design your own ship;
  • Plan a visit to an older relative or friend. How will you journey there? What will you do once you arrive?
  • Draw a picture for an older relative or friend of something you’d like to do with her or him;
  • Start a “chain” picture, with each person in the chain adding something to the original artwork until, at the end, you have a masterpiece created by two or more persons.

Why I Like this Book:

With its haunting, sepia-toned, intricate images and ambiguous storyline, Boat of Dreams is a wordless picture book that has stayed in my mind long after each reading.

As the story begins, an elderly man on a seemingly deserted island finds an empty piece of paper in a bottle. He draws a detailed flying boat and launches his creation into the sea by setting it afloat in the bottle. When an unnamed young boy living somewhere in an unnamed city finds the picture on his doorstep, he adds himself and his sidekick cat to the image. Either dreaming while asleep or actually journeying in this fantastical tale, the boy and his cat visit the gentleman, hand him the completed drawing, and then depart, leaving the picture behind, fastened to the wall above the man’s bed.

Coehlo never reveals who the two characters are or whether they’re one person at different stages of life. We never know where the story occurs, or if the journey actually happens. But the reader does know that two seemingly lonely people come together to create a piece of art that reflects both of them.

I personally would like to believe that the boy and the older man are grandson and grandfather, separated by distance but drawn together by a love of each other and creativity. I view the story as a way to show how togetherness is possible, despite distance or possibly even political barriers.

What’s wonderful about Boat of Dreams is that it’s open to interpretation, so children reading it may come to a different meaning that speaks to them.

A Note about Craft:

Whether the title refers to an imaginary journey undertaken while asleep, whether the aspirations of the young boy culminate in the life of the older man, or whether the older man is reflecting on the hopes he felt as a boy, I think the title, Boat of Dreams, is an apt one. I also think Coehlo’s use of color to indicate moods, from sepia to shades of blue, serves as a tool to further his storytelling and alert the reader to important happenings in the story.

Visit Coelho’s website to view more of this Brazilian illustrator’s work.

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

PPBF – The Proudest Blue

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the publication of this picture book since I first learned about it in a blog post last year. It’s finally in print, and I’m happy to share it here.

Title: The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family

Written By: Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali

Illustrated By: Hatem Aly

Publisher/Date: Little, Brown and Company/September 2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: hijab, faith, Islam, sisters, bullying, rite of passage

Opening:

Mama holds out the pink. Mama loves pink. But Asiya shakes her head. I know why.

Behind the counter is the brightest blue. The color of the ocean, if you squint your eyes and pretend there’s no line between the water and the sky.

Brief Synopsis: When her older sister wears hijab for the first day of school, young Faizah is happy and proud, until some schoolmates use unkind words, and she must find a way to keep strong and true to her faith and family.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about hijab, the focus of this story, and the religious reasons for it;
  • What did you wear for the first day of school? Why did you choose that outfit? Draw a picture of yourself, a sibling, or a friend on the first day of school.

Why I Like this Book:

The Proudest Blue is a wonderful story of sisterly love, pride in one’s faith and religious practices, and the strength to be yourself. As Muhammad shares in an Author’s Note, she wrote this story so that young Muslim girls would see themselves in a picture book and take pride in their own choice of hijab, and to celebrate differences. I think she does this and more.

In Asiya, readers meet a young teen who celebrates her religious beliefs, her heritage, and her connection to her mother and older female relatives. She doesn’t follow blindly, however. Mama chooses pink, but Asiya desires the blue scarf. She wears it proudly.

Narrator and younger sister Faizah knows that blue is the color of the ocean and the sky, fit for a princess, like the sky on a sunny day, and a color that signifies strength. I especially loved how Faizah admires Asiya and looks forward to the day when she can wear hijab, too.

Aly’s colorfully vibrant illustrations change the focus from up close to further away and bring in an aspect of fantasy, as evidenced by the boat and blue waves in the cover illustration.

A Note about Craft:

Muhammad and Ali use first person point of view to tell this story. But the narrator isn’t the hijab-wearing Asiya, but her younger sister, Faizah. By letting readers experience this story through the eyes of Faizah, the authors add another layer to this coming-of-age story, the bond of sisterhood, and add a main character more relatable for the target picture book age group.

For an insightful review of this book, see Miss Marple’s Musings. This Perfect Picture Book entry is being added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!

PPBF – Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border

I first learned of today’s Perfect Picture Book when I read a wonderful review last month on Jilanne Hoffmann’s blog. Thank you, Jilanne, for sharing this timely picture book.  After reading your review and the book, I just had to feature it here, too.

Title: Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border

Written By: Mitali Perkins

Illustrated By: Sara Palacios

Publisher/Date: Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Macmillan Publishing Group/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: border, family, separation, Latinx, grandmother, holidays, #OwnVoices

Opening:

Abuela stars in all of Mamá’s stories, but my only memory is a voice calling me “angelita.” We haven’t seen my grandmother in five years. But today is La Posada Sin Fronteras, and we are taking a bus to the border to meet her.

Brief Synopsis:

US residents María and her younger brother Juan haven’t seen their Mexican grandmother in five years, but they celebrate with her across a border fence on the holiday of La Posada Sin Fronteras.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about Las Posada, the nine-day festival leading up to Christmas, and La Posada Sin Fronteras (“The Inn Without Borders”) celebrated one day along the border between the United States and Mexico in the Author’s Note;
  • When you visit an older relative or friend, draw a picture to give to them;
  • Check out the additional resources on Mitali’s website.

Why I Like this Book:

Between Us and Abuela is a heart-warming story of love between family members separated by a border, and of one girl’s efforts to surmount the border to bring joy to her Mexican grandmother and her younger brother, Juan.

Despite the fact that the US-Mexican border has dominated the news these past few years, I had never heard of the tradition of La Posada Sin Fronteras and the comfort it must give to so many. And although stories about separated families have been in the media, including children’s picture books, I think Between Us and Abuela highlights aspects of this separation that aren’t apparent to many children or adults. For instance, María and her Abuela communicate on the telephone, but like other families separated by vast distances, María hasn’t seen her in person for many years. How must that feel? And what a wonderful discussion opportunity this presents to help children empathize with these separated families.

I also love that the children make presents for Abuela and when Juan’s gift doesn’t fit through the fence, María finds a way to deliver it. What a quick-thinking young heroine!

Palacios’ blue and sand-colored palette conjured up images of the California-Mexico border. I also loved the small details she included: the Christmas tree on the cover, signaling the time of year; Abuela’s photograph on the cover; and the gulls who can soar over borders and fences.

A Note about Craft:

When I first saw the title, Between Us and Abuela, I wasn’t sure whether “between” referred to a family bond, love or a physical barrier, especially as the subtitle references the border. In hindsight, I think “between” refers to all of the above! What a great way to draw a reader into this poignant story, by focusing on the bonds and love that is affected, but not severed, by a physical border separating this family.

Perkins’ shares this story using first person point-of-view. This helped me feel like I was right there, experiencing this family reunion. I also found myself brainstorming a solution with María to deliver Juan’s picture to Abuela.

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

PPBF- In a Cloud of Dust

With its cooler but not yet cold temperatures and the promise of multi-colored leaves on the trees, October can be one of the best months to take a bike ride. I think it’s also a wonderful time to read about bicycling, as featured in today’s Perfect Picture Book.

Title: In a Cloud of Dust

Written By: Alma Fullerton

Illustrated By: Brian Deines

Publisher/Date: Pajama Press/2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: bicycles, diversity, education, disappointment, compassion

Opening:

In a Tanzanian village, a little schoolhouse sits at the end of a dusty road.

Brief Synopsis:

When the bicycle library arrives at her school, Anna hopes to find a bicycle to ride to and from school, but she is too late to find a bicycle of her own.

Links to Resources:

  • Try drawing a bicycle or creating a bicycle with colorful accordion wheels;
  • Ride your bicycle to school and back, around a park, or in your neighborhood;
  • Learn about Tanzania, the setting of this story;
  • Read the Author’s Note to learn more about bike sharing and giveaway programs;
  • Discover more ideas in the Reading Guide.

Why I Like this Book:

In a Cloud of Dust provides a window into life for children lacking transportation to and from a rural school in Tanzania. Readers learn that Anna, the main character, does her homework during the lunch break, as her journey by foot to and from school is so long that it’s dark by the time she reaches her home, a home without electric lights. When a “Bicycle Library” visits her school during the lunch break, the other students already have chosen all of these used bicycles. It’s clear that these children are excited about the bicycles and eager to learn how to ride them. But what about Anna? Her disappointment leaps from the page. What does she do?

If I were reading In a Cloud of Dust aloud to a group of children, I think I’d stop at this point and ask them what they’d do if they were Anna or if they were the other children. By including this universal feeling of disappointment at the heart of the story, I think Fullerton broadens the appeal and offers an opportunity to discuss what’s fair or not, how to handle disappointment, and how to be a true friend.

Because Anna overcomes her disappointment with the help of her friends, the story has a happy ending. I won’t spoil it by revealing how she overcomes this disappointment or the solution – you’ll have to read In a Cloud of Dust yourself!

Deines’ earth-toned illustrations transported me to Tanzania and expressed the emotions that the children felt.

A Note about Craft:

Fullerton utilizes spare, lyrical text to tell Anna’s story. By using few words, she enables the illustrations to do much of the storytelling, which added to the emotional appeal for me.

In a Cloud of Dust is a work of fiction based on bicycle lending and give-away programs that help those without access to transportation in places like Tanzania. I think by wrapping the information about these programs in a fictional account that includes disappointment and compassion, Fullerton gives a more complete picture of the importance of these programs to so many people throughout the world.

Visit Alma Fullerton’s website to see more of her works.

See more of Brian Deines’ artwork on his website.

Independent, Canadian publisher Pajama Press “is a small literary press” that “produce[s] many formats popular in children’s publishing across a fairly broad range of genres”.

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

PPBF – Wallpaper

I discovered today’s Perfect Picture Book while reading a blog post at Gathering Books. The title and cover intrigued me, and, luckily, I was able to obtain a copy through the interlibrary loan network (what would we do without it!).

Title: Wallpaper

Written & Illustrated By: Thao Lam

Publisher/Date: Owlkids Books, a division of Bayard Canada/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-7

Themes/Topics: moving, making friends, fantasy, courage

Opening:

Blah-blah, blah-blah-blah, blah-blah

Brief Synopsis: In this virtually wordless picture book, a young girl struggling to adapt to a new home and neighborhood discovers a fantastical world hidden under the wallpaper of her new bedroom.

Links to Resources:

  • Sometimes we all feel shy or afraid. What scares you? What do you do when you’re scared or feeling shy?
  • Design a wallpaper pattern for your bedroom;
  • Create a collage with wallpaper scraps.

Why I Like this Book:

Moving is one of the more difficult transitions anyone can undertake. And for a shy person, as the unnamed main character in Wallpaper undoubtedly is, it’s even more difficult. When she notices children playing in a tree house near her window and waving at her, the poor girl is too shy or frightened to wave back. Instead, she enters a world that she uncovers hidden within layers of wallpaper in her new bedroom. There she discovers a monster. A lively chase entails until the young girl discovers that if a monster can be a friend, perhaps the children in her new neighborhood can be friends, too.

Because it’s virtually wordless, Wallpaper will be a wonderful read together story that creates an opportunity to discuss overcoming the fear of something that is unknown or different, including moving to a new home, neighborhood and school. For those who haven’t experienced a move, it hopefully will help them empathize with new neighbors and classmates and welcome them.

Illustrated with bright, intricate collages, Wallpaper invites readers to marvel at what may lie hidden below the surface of wherever they may find themselves.

A Note about Craft:

I’m not an illustrator, and I’m always in awe of the emotions an illustrator can evoke via pictures. By limiting the text to a few sounds only, I think Lam enables readers to tell the story via their own words, and perhaps, in doing so, share what’s troubling them.

Visit Lam’s website to view more of her work.

Owlkids Books is a Canadian publisher that “publishes entertaining, unique, high-quality books and magazines that nurture the potential of children and instill in them a love of reading and learning — about themselves and the world around them.”

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!