Category Archives: Perfect Picture Books

PPBF – When the Horses Ride By: Children in the Times of War

April is National Poetry Month, so I’ve chosen a poetry collection this week, by a wonderful writer, Eloise Greenfield, whose picture book, Thinker: My Puppy Poet and Me, I reviewed last year (and it’s now available for US readers to enjoy!).

Title: When the Horses Ride By: Children in the Times of War

Written By: Eloise Greenfield

Illustrated By: Jan Spivey Gilchrist

Publisher/Date: Lee & Low Books/2006

Suitable for Ages: 8-9

Themes/Topics: war; peace; dreams; imagination; resilience; diverse books

Opening:

I Think I Know

I think I know what war/ is all about./ Listen:/ This one was mad at that one,/ and that one was angry, too./ Then the others said,/ “Since you two are mad, we’re going to be mad at you.”/ Now, everyone’s mad/ at somebody else,/ and everyone wants to be right./ And how to decide/ who the winner is?/ They fight.

Brief Synopsis: A collection of 17 poems about children and war throughout history.

Links to Resources:

  • Write an acrostic poem in celebration of peace, using the letters in PEACE as the first letters of each line;
  • As a foreword to When the Horses Ride By, Greenfield quotes a portion of Langston Hughes’ “Dreams” (©1994, Estate of Langston Hughes): Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly. Describe or draw your dreams for peace;
  • Think about a time in your family, classroom, school or neighborhood when you or others were angry. What did you do? Think of 3 ways you could promote a peaceful resolution to this conflict;
  • Make and share a peace crane;
  • Celebrate National Poetry Month by reading & writing poems and participating in other activities in your school or town.

Why I Like this Book:

When the Horses Ride By explores a difficult topic, children during times of war. But rather than leaving readers feeling sad and hopeless, Greenfield uses free-verse poetry to explore children’s resilience and show us that even in terrible circumstances, there is hope of a better tomorrow. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the poems provide glimpses into the relationship of children to war from ancient China, through early American conflicts, to world wars, Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa, and the Gulf War of the early 2000s.

Teachers and parents will appreciate this great geographical and historical breadth and the inclusion of a diverse group of children and experiences. There’s also a wonderful range of feelings about wartime, including poems about being on the sidelines of war zones, being afraid in war zones, missing parents, understanding soldier parents who return home with injuries, and celebrating the end of war and apartheid.

I particularly enjoyed A Child Like Me, that encourages children to empathize with other children in other places who share the same “scary thoughts”. But “[i]f we laugh, our laughter will meet in the middle of the ocean, and we will be friends.”

Gilchrist’s colorful collages combine site and era specific details, including photographs, with images of children’s faces and child-like pursuits, including toys.

A Note about Craft:

Greenfield uses poetry to describe the many varied ways that war affects children and how children react to war. I think this medium enables Greenfield to explore this difficult topic in a way that doesn’t leave readers feeling hopeless. Using poems about different wars, both geographically and throughout history, also enables readers to distance themselves somewhat from the conflicts and to come to the realization that “surrounded by love” that takes them “through the danger days”, the children will survive with their wonder, wisdom, laughter and hope, as they “are the children…still”.

Greenfield is the author of almost 50 books for children, and has received many awards, including the 2018 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children from the National Council of Teachers of English. Read a 2007 interview by Don Tate in The Brown Bookshelf, including a discussion about When the Horses Ride By.

Visit Gilchrist’s website to see more of her award-winning books and illustrations.

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 – Lubna and Pebble

Regular readers know that I’ve read and reviewed many picture books from the past few years that recount the refugee experience. So when I saw reference in a recent Kidlit Frenzy post to one I hadn’t read yet, you can guess what I immediately did…

Title: Lubna and Pebble

Written By: Wendy Meddour

Illustrated By: Daniel Egnéus

Publisher/Date: Dial Books for Young Readers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: refugees; coping; friendship

Opening:

Lubna’s best friend was a pebble. It was shiny and smooth and gray.

Brief Synopsis: When a young girl and her father arrive in a tent city, the girl finds a pebble which helps her adjust to life in a strange location, far from the life and family she had known.

Links to Resources:

  • Do you have a beloved stuffed animal, pet or other favorite object? What do you like to do with that pet or thing? How is your pet or favorite thing the same as or different from Pebble?
  • Try making Taino petroglyphs, and learn about this ancient Caribbean artform;
  • Explore rock and pebble crafts and try making some of your own.

Why I Like this Book:

Lubna and Pebble is a poignant new addition to the growing array of picture books that explore the refugee experience. Lubna’s story begins as she and Daddy land on a beach at night. Meddour leaves unstated the location of that beach, the origin of the ship, the reason why Lubna and Daddy left, and the fate of other family members. Instead, Meddour focuses on Pebble – the first thing Lubna finds and, along with her Daddy’s hand, something that Lubna knows would “keep her safe” at the refugee camp. Like a good friend, “Pebble always listened to her stories” about her brothers, home and war. “Pebble always smiled when she felt scared.” In short, Pebble was her “best friend”.

When a new boy arrives at the camp with “no words”, just “blinks and sneezes and stares”, Lubna knows what to do: she introduces him to Pebble, who elicits a smile from Amir. Lubna also knows what to do when she learns that she and Daddy have found a new home which means leaving Amir. I won’t spoil the ending, except to share that Lubna finds a way to comfort Amir, as only a friend can.

I really appreciate Meddour’s exploration of how a child who has lost almost everyone and everything finds comfort in an object, even a hard object like a pebble. I can envision many interesting conversations with even young children about what they find comforting and/or joyful, and what it means to find a true friend.

A Note about Craft:

Even before I knew the topic of today’s Perfect Picture Book or had seen the cover, I knew from the title that I had to read it, as I just had to know what, or who, Pebble was and what type of person, pet or object would be named “Pebble”. By personifying an object – using the object name as a proper name (the pebble v Pebble) and painting on a smile, Meddour makes Pebble into a character, encouraging readers to view Pebble as Lubna does.

I think it’s also interesting that Pebble is a new object, or friend, rather than a comforting relic from Lubna’s past. Doing this, I think, shows a break from the past, a new beginning that, hopefully, will help Lubna separate from the horrors she has experienced. And a pebble, unlike a rock or a stone, reminds me of stones I find at the beach, that are tossed around in the sea, tumbled until smooth, and cleansed of their hard-edged past, as, hopefully, the young refugees, Lubna and Amir, will be.

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 – Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

I was so happy to find this new #OwnVoices picture book biography at my local library in time to share it with you during Women’s History Month.

Title: Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré

Written By: Anika Aldamuy Denise

Illustrated By: Paola Escobar

Publisher/Date: Harper (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: librarians; storytelling; biography; Puerto Rico; bilingual – Spanish and English

Opening:

It is 1921. Pura Teresa Belpré leaves her home in San Juan for a visit to Nueva York/Words travel with her: stories her abuela taught her. Cuentos folklóricos Pura retold in the shade of a tamarind tree, in Puerto Rico.

Brief Synopsis:

Planting Stories recounts the life and achievements of the extraordinary Pura Belpré who was the first bilingual assistant at the New York Public Library and who shared the stories of her childhood with the children of her adopted city.

Links to Resources:

  • Ask a relative or older adult neighbor or family friend to share stories from their childhoods or from the places they grew up;
  • Make and share stories using puppets;
  • It’s spring! Time to plant a garden! Still too cold where you live? Visit the conservatory at a local botanical garden or even a florist.

Why I Like this Book:

In Planting Stories, Denise shows how one person’s idea, to share the stories of her beloved abuela from her homeland, Puerto Rico, grew into books and story hours for Spanish speakers in New York City, helped welcome this new population into libraries, and grew into a legacy of bilingual literature. I loved learning that Pura Belpré brought the Puerto Rican folktales that she’d learned from her grandmother with her to New York. I think this notion of using aspects of the past to enrich the future is an important one to share with kids. I think that kids will be surprised to learn that one librarian could have such a lasting impact on children’s literature, especially as, I suspect, most of them would not recognize Pura Belpré’s name. Finally, I think Planting Stories includes several themes that teachers and librarians can use in classrooms, including the importance of children seeing their own cultures reflected in books, the use of non-italicized Spanish terms sprinkled in the English text and how we can figure out meaning through context, the many things we can learn from elderly relatives and friends, and how newcomers can enrich their new homes.

Escobar’s vibrant and detailed illustrations help provide context to Pura Belpré’s story and further Denise’s analogy of stories growing like plants with many flowers evoking Pura Belpré’s tropical Puerto Rican childhood.

A Note about Craft:

Like seeds, stories can grow and multiply, as Denise shows us in Planting Stories. Although gardens and plants aren’t always the first images that come to mind when we think of libraries, I love this analogy, as it shows connections between storytelling and finding one’s place in the world, be it the natural world or an unfamiliar city. What analogies can you use in your writing to tie a story together or to help readers better understand or relate to its subject?

Visit Denise’s website to discover her other picture books. Per the jacket flap, Paola Escobar is a Columbian illustrator, working and living in Bogotá.

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 – Ayobami and the Names of the Animals

I saw this picture book last fall on a “best illustrated” list, and the title and cover intrigued me. Thankfully, my local library has a copy, and I’m able to share it with you.

Title: Ayobami and the Names of the Animals

Written By: Pilar López Ávila

Illustrated By: Mar Azabal

Translated By: Jon Brokenbrow

Publisher/Date: Cento de Luz SL/2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: education; literacy; overcoming danger; persistence; war; jungle animals

Opening:

When the war finally came to an end, the teacher went from house to house, telling everyone that the children could go back to school the next day.

Brief Synopsis: When a young African girl, Ayobami, becomes lost on her way to school, she promises the animals she meets in the jungle that she will write their names for them, if they let her pass.

Links to Resources:

  • Ayobami meets several jungle animals on her walk to school. Learn about African jungle animals;
  • What jungle animal do you resemble most? Take this fun quiz to find out;
  • Ayobami was happy to return to school to learn to read and write. What makes you happy at school? What subject do you most want to learn?
  • Compare your journey to school with Ayobami’s journey. How are they the same? How are they different?

Why I Like this Book:

In fable-like prose, complete with talking animals who long to learn their names, Ayobami and the Names of the Animals features a determined young girl who convinces the dangerous jungle animals she encounters that she will write down their names for them if they allow her to pass. Not only will young children learn the names of several African jungle animals, such as crocodile, snake, and mosquito, but I think they will appreciate Ayobami’s tenacity as she negotiates with each animal in turn to reach her goal of learning to read and write. Even young children will be able to follow along as they identify different animals and search the illustrations for the many hidden letters.

I love that Ayobami kept her promises and shared the literacy she gained with the animals by naming them – a sign of dignity or perhaps order that indicates the power of education to bring peace and stability to the world. I especially love López Ávila’s description of how Ayobami learned to read and write by learning “the letters of the alphabet”, learning “how to put them together to make sounds”, joining “the sounds to make words”, and mixing “the words together to make sentences.” The result? “And she heard the music that comes from making words.”

Azabal’s colorful illustrations include letters sprinkled throughout most of the illustrations. And don’t miss the lined yellow endpapers that include the cursive alphabets that many of us might remember from our school days.

A Note about Craft:

You’ll note from the Opening above that the main character does not appear in the first lines. In fact, she doesn’t appear until page three. I think López Ávila does this to give context to Ayobami’s story, to show how the education of one girl can restore order after the cessation of war.

Per the publisher’s website, López Ávila is a Spanish author and doctor of veterinary medicine.

Visit Azabal’s website to see more of her work. Ayobami and the Names of the Animals was a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book of 2018.

Cuento de Luz  is an independent publisher based in Spain that “publishes stories that take the imagination on a journey, help care for our planet, respect differences and promote peace.” It’s a certified B corporation, which means that it uses its business as a source for good, including by printing its books using special “stone paper”.

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 – Dangerous Jane

For International Women’s Day, I’m happy to share a fairly recent picture book biography of one of my all-time heroes.

Title: Dangerous Jane

Written By: Suzanne Slade

Illustrated By: Alice Ratterree

Publisher/Date: Peachtree Publishers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-10

Themes/Topics: biography; Nobel Peace Prize; Hull House; immigrants; settlement house

Opening:

Jane was born beside a sparkling creek on an Illinois prairie in a friendly town called Cedarville.

Brief Synopsis: The biography of Jane Addams who founded Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, led the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women to restore peace during World War I, helped displaced persons and refugees after the war, and was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the Teacher’s Guide to find discussion questions, a timeline, vocabulary crossword puzzle, simile writing exercise, and more;
  • Pair Dangerous Jane with primary sources from the era to discover more about Jane Addams;
  • Check out the back matter, including a timeline, more about “Dangerous Jane”, and a select bibliography;
  • Celebrate International Women’s Day in your classroom, library or home, with these resources.

Why I Like this Book:

In this cradle to almost-grave picture book biography, Slade constructs a compelling narrative to show how the losses Jane Addams suffered as a child and the poverty she saw then informed her life’s work. As Slade notes, “Jane promised herself- when she grew up, she would buy a big house to share with people in need.” Later, we learn that Addams founded Hull House in Chicago to help immigrants adapt to life in America. She then used the skills she’d honed helping “people from different countries live in peace at Hull House” to promote peace during World War I. Although her efforts were not immediately successful and although Addams was criticized for the work she undertook, ultimately “dangerous” Jane was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first American woman to be so honored.

I think children, teachers, and parents will appreciate how Slade ties the seemingly disparate aspects of Addams’ work into a cohesive narrative and how she relates it back to Addams’ childhood. By doing so, I think she helps children realize that they, too, can make a difference. I also liked that Slade focuses not just on Addams’ well-known settlement house work, but that she extends the story to include Addams’ peace-building efforts.

Based on a William Morris color scheme and incorporating the faces evident in contemporary photographs, Ratterree’s detailed illustrations help evoke Addams’ world.  Even young children will be able to follow along finding Addams, clad in green throughout the story, in each spread.

A Note about Craft:

The title of today’s perfect picture book intrigued me and caused me to pick it up. Reading the jacket flap, I learned immediately that Dangerous Jane is the biography of Jane Addams, whose work at Hull House I’d studied, and whose memoir about the same I’d read. I could think of many adjectives to describe Addams, but “dangerous” wasn’t among them. I was hooked! You’ll have to read the book to determine why this is such a perfect title – you may be as surprised as I was.

Dangerous Jane is a cradle to almost-grave biography. Writing Addams’ story in this way enables Slade, I think, to put the main events into perspective and encourages children to think that if the sickly, motherless Addams could found a movement and promote world peace, they can bring about positive change, too.

With such a long timeline, it could be difficult to follow the story. Slade provides repetition and repeats motifs which, I think, help tie the story together. Addams’ “aching heart” is one of those; asking questions, “What could she do?”, is another. Depicting Addams in a signature-green outfit, wearing her mother’s broach is a third, and I’m sure there are several I’m not highlighting here. What repetition or threads can you use to bring order to and help readers follow a decades-long story?

Visit Slade’s website to see more of the many non-fiction picture books she has written. Read a post by Slade at Picture Book Builders in which she shares why she wrote Dangerous Jane and interviews Ratterree.

Visit Ratterree’s website to see more of her illustrations and read a post in which she discusses her research for Dangerous Jane and interviews Slade.

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!

Perfect Picture Book Friday – The Patchwork Bike

I thought I’d celebrate the first day of March optimistically, as it’s the month when spring arrives in the northern hemisphere, and cyclists tune up their bikes in anticipation of the return (hopefully) of warmer weather. I hope you’re all able to hit the roads on your favorite two or three wheelers soon!

Title: The Patchwork Bike

Written By: Maxine Beneba Clarke

Illustrated By: Van Than Rudd

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2018 (first published in Australia by Hachette Australia/2016)

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes/Topics: bicycle; resourcefulness; play; poverty; imagination; North Africa; multicultural

Opening:

This is the village where we live inside our mud-for-walls home.

These are my crazy brothers, and this is our fed-up mum.

Brief Synopsis: The young narrator and her brothers in an unnamed village near a desert create a bike out of used items and take readers on a joy-filled journey.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

With its sparse text and roll-off-your-tongue language, The Patchwork Bike is a joy-filled read-aloud that will have kids wanting to build their own patchwork bike. The bike’s handlebar branches “shicketty shake” and “wood-cut wheels” “winketty wonk” when the children ride it. Who wouldn’t want to “bumpety bump” through the village under the “stretching-out sky”?

But along with this joy and exuberance, astute children and adults will notice that these children live in a “mud-for-walls home” and have a “fed-up mum”, perhaps because the kids use “Mum’s milk pot” (her only milk pot?) for a bell. And they make their bike not out of a purchased kit but from what most of us would term trash. I think the inclusion of these signs of poverty adds a rich layer to this story that makes this a perfect book for classroom or home discussion.

Van Than Rudd’s expressive acrylic illustrations on recycled cardboard add so many details to the text including picturing dark-skinned Mum with a head covering and robe, indicative of clothing from North Africa, including the initials BLM on the bike’s license plate in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement, and an image of the boys standing on an abandoned police car. Pointing out these details to children provides, in my opinion, a wonderful discussion opportunity. As Rudd relates in “A Note About the Illustrations”, “[t]o me, the kids painting ‘BLM’ on a bark license plate was their way of showing pride in what they had created out of limited resources and also linking themselves to a long history of rebellion.”

A Note about Craft:

In sparse, poetic text, author Beneba Clarke transports readers to an unnamed, probably North African village and describes the building of a bicycle out of used materials. Interestingly, she doesn’t mention anything that indicates a geographical region, except the existence of a “no-go desert”, nor that identifies the family as being from a particular race or religion. Instead, these details are left to the illustrator, Rudd, who brings this story to life.

In an “Author’s Note”, Beneba Clarke relates that she included a child with a bike made from scrap pieces in a short story for adults. The image of that child and the experience of bike riding stayed with her and formed the basis of The Patchwork Bike. What characters or situations can you pull from existing manuscripts and repurpose into a new story?

Per Candlewick’s website, Beneba Clarke is “an Australian writer and slam poet champion of Afro-Caribbean descent”. For more information about Beneba Clarke, see a recent Picture Book Author feature in The Brown Bookshelf. This is her first picture book.

Also from Candlewick’s website, Rudd “is an Australian street artist and activist”. This is his first picture book. Read an interview with Rudd at Let’s Talk Picture Books.

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 – La Frontera: El viaje con papá~My Journey with Papa

I’ve had this picture book on my radar for a while and was thrilled to find it in the bilingual section of my local library. And now I get to share it with you!

Title: La Frontera: El viaje con papá~My Journey with Papa

Written By: Deborah Mills & Alfredo Alva

Illustrated By: Claudia Navarro

Publisher/Date: Barefoot Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 3-11

Themes/Topics: immigration; family; coyote; autobiography; bilingual

Opening:

When I was young, my family lived in the small village of La Ceja in central Mexico in the state of Guanajuato. For over 100 years, my family had lived there.

Brief Synopsis: A young boy, Alfredo, recounts the journey he and his father take from their home in Mexico to seek a better life in Texas.

Links to Resources:

  • Alfredo and his father travel by bus, inner tube, walking, and truck. Draw a picture showing one or more of these ways to travel. Can you think of other ways to travel?
  • Alfredo tells the true story of moving from Mexico to Texas and starting a new school there. Have you ever moved? Describe your journey and how you felt about it;
  • Check out the back matter where you can learn more about “borders and culture”, “immigration”, and “Alfredo’s story”;
  • Watch the book trailer -in Spanish with English text.

Why I Like this Book:

La Frontera tells the true story of a young Mexican boy, Alfredo, and his father as they journey from their home in south-central Mexico to a new life in Texas. As the story opens, Alfredo is happy at his home surrounded by a loving family, friends, and even a special donkey, Fernando. But Alfredo’s father worked in the pinyon pine trees with Alfredo’s uncle and grandfather. As the grandfather grew older, he was no longer able to work, the family’s earnings declined, and Alfredo and his brothers were “always hungry”. Because there was no other work in the region, Alfredo’s father sought a better life in the United States, bringing his eldest son, Alfredo, with him.

I think that by setting the idyllic rural scene and showing how the family’s fortunes changed, the authors help readers understand why someone would leave their family and home to undertake an arduous, at times dangerous, journey. I think it also helps readers empathize with Alfredo, and gives a name, and face, to immigrants. Although this true story occurred almost 40 years ago, I think it is relevant today as “illegal immigration” across the southern US border tops headline news.

While the details of the actual journey were eye-opening, including being swindled by the “coyote” smuggler, I found Alfredo’s descriptions of his first days at school most interesting. The reality of not understanding English, of feeling apart and alone, of missing Mama and siblings, are important, I think, for children to understand as they welcome non-English speakers to their classrooms. For new immigrants reading this story, I think it may be helpful for them to see how Alfredo slowly learned English and became “a Texan”, as it may encourage them as they strive to integrate.

Thanks, in part, to Reagan’s immigration amnesty, Alfredo’s story has a happy ending, as readers learn at the end of the story and in the back matter.

Navarro’s brightly-colored graphite, acrylic and collage illustrations bring a Mexican folk art feel to the story, reminding readers of Alfredo’s cultural heritage.

A Note about Craft:

In the back matter, readers learn that La Frontera is a true story about Alfredo and his father, and that Alfredo and a neighbor, Deborah Mills, wrote the story together. As a non-#OwnVoices author, I was intrigued and pleased to learn how a non-#OwnVoices author could help write this timely and important story.

I appreciate that Alva and Mills used first-person point-of-view to bring immediacy to the story. I also appreciate that the editors chose to use English and Spanish side-by-side to render La Frontera more accessible in schools and classrooms with both Spanish and English speakers. And I particularly appreciate the choice of a Mexican illustrator to show, in a way, that Alfredo stayed true to his cultural roots.

Barefoot Books is an independent publisher “founded by two young mothers in England in 1992 and based in Cambridge, MA” that publishes “books for children that encourage discovery, compassion, creativity and global awareness.” Its mission is to “share stories, connect families, inspire children”.

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!