Category Archives: Perfect Picture Books

PPBF – Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story

Today’s Perfect Picture Book is a new picture book that tells a story rooted in the past that sheds light on issues relevant today.

Title: Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story

Written By: Lesléa Newman

Illustrated By: Amy June Bates

Publisher/Date: Abrams Books for Young Readers/2019

Suitable for Ages: 5-9

Themes/Topics: immigration, Judaism, Ellis Island, mother-child relationship, bravery

Opening:

“Gittel, will you write to me from America?” Raisa asked.

Brief Synopsis: A young Jewish girl and her mother leave their Eastern European village, but when her mother’s health precludes her from boarding the ship to America, Gittel must journey alone to this strange and faraway land.

Links to Resources:

  • Have you moved to a new house, city, or country? How did you feel? List three things you miss from your old home and three things you like about your new home;
  • Raisa gives Gittel a rag doll to accompany her on the journey. What favorite item or items would you bring on a journey?
  • Interview an older relative or friend to learn about his or her life when s/he was young;
  • Are there items from the past that your family treasures? Ask why those items are important;
  • Gittel arrives to the US at Ellis Island. Learn more about Ellis Island and US immigration.

Why I Like this Book:

With longer text than most current fiction picture books, Gittel’s Journey reads like a story from the era in which it is based. Opening with a scene including a beloved farm animal and best friend, Gittel’s Journey follows Gittel and her mother as they leave their eastern European village and travel to a seaside port. There, Gittel’s mother is refused passage because she appears to have an eye infection. This denial reminded me of the current concern about measles in the US.

I think kids will empathize with Gittel’s fear as she leaves her mother and embarks on the journey to an unknown land. I think they’ll be curious about the candlesticks that Gittel brings with her. They also may be surprised to learn how the story ends and how she reunites with new relatives without the aid of computer databases or smartphone messaging.

As the debate about immigration continues today and as the history of prior waves of immigrants fades from memory, this is an important book for home and classroom discussion and libraries.

Bates’ muted color palette evokes an earlier era. The block-print boarders that surround each page and illustration reminded me of picture frames and contributed to the historical feel.

A Note about Craft:

In an Author’s Note, Newman shares that Gittel’s Journey is based on two true stories from her childhood: the journey of her grandmother and great-grandmother from the “old country” of Poland/Russia to America and a similar journey of a family friend, whose adult companion was denied passage due to health reasons. In an essay in the Jewish Book Council, Newman explains that she remembered these stories from her childhood and decided to write this historical fiction story when she saw images of Syrian refugees in boats. What stories from your past shed light on issues relevant today?

Visit Newman’s website to see more of her adult and children’s books.

Visit Bates’ website to see more of her illustrations. Bates illustrated My Old Pal, Oscar, that I reviewed a few years ago.

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 – Anya’s Secret Society

I saw today’s Perfect Picture Book featured in a list of new picture books and immediately was drawn in by the title and description. I think you’ll enjoy this one, too.

Title: Anya’s Secret Society

Written & Illustrated By: Yevgenia Nayberg

Publisher/Date: Charlesbridge/2019

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: left-handed; feeling different; conformity; Soviet Union; art; self-expression; imagination

Opening:

Anya was born in Russia, in the middle of winter.

Brief Synopsis: Left-handed Anya loved to draw, but conformity in the Soviet Union meant that she could use only her right hand for all tasks. Although she learned to perform other tasks with her right hand, she drew in secret at night with a society of great artists of the past.

Links to Resources:

  • Try drawing with the hand you don’t usually use to draw;
  • Learn more about the famous artists who were part of Anya’s Secret Society: Leonardo da Vinci , Rembrandt , and Michelangelo , who could create with both hands.

Why I Like this Book:

Using a very concrete example that I think even young kids will understand, Nayberg explores a universal issue: feeling different. Left-handed children who have tried to play sports or create art with their right hands will immediately understand Anya’s frustration. I think those of us who are right-handed will empathize with Anya, too, as all of us, I believe, have some trait that makes us feel different from others.

In Anya’s case, she hid the difference, conformed to rules, but maintained her unique left-handed drawing abilities in secret. As Nayberg notes, “The right hand took care of the world around Anya. The left hand took care of the world inside Anya.”

I think older kids will understand Anya’s desire to conform, to hide the difference, while at the same time creating an inner, secret world where her talent could flourish. This story also explores life in repressive societies, the need to fight conformity and oppression, and the relief felt by those, like Anya, who find freedom in a new society.

Nayberg accompanies her text with colorful, surrealistic, acrylic on illustration board and digital collage illustrations. I particularly enjoyed comparing the depictions of Russian and American society and viewing the wonderous animals that Anya imagined and that “her left hand could draw”.

A Note about Craft:

Anya’s Secret Society is based on Nayberg’s own experiences as a left-handed artist growing up in the former Soviet Union. Rather than writing an autobiographical picture book, Nayberg creates a character, Anya, with whom children may more readily identify. She also focuses on one aspect of her experience, hiding her left-handedness, to explore the universal feeling of being different and the desire to hide that difference. Are there times in your past or features that make you feel different than others? Could these be the particulars to help you explore that universal feeling?

Visit Nayberg’s website to see more of her work, including the illustrations for Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank (Nancy Churnin, Creston Publishing/2019)

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 Book Tree

Earlier this week, people across the globe marked World Book and Copyright Day, “a celebration to promote the enjoyment of books and reading. Each year, on 23 April, celebrations take place all over the world to recognize the magical power of books – a link between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures.”

When I read today’s Perfect Picture Book, I thought it would be perfect to feature this week – I hope you agree!

Title: The Book Tree

Written By: Paul Czajak

Illustrated By: Rashin Kheiriyeh

Publisher/Date: Barefoot Books/2018

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes/Topics: books; reading; power of words; activism

Opening:

Nestled in the branches of a tree, Arlo opened his book and breathed in.

Beginnings were always the best part. They smelled as if anything were possible.

Brief Synopsis: When Arlo’s book falls and hits the mayor in the head, the mayor destroys all of the books, but books, like ideas, have a way of reemerging.

Links to Resources:

  • Dress up as a favorite picture book character – see some ideas here;
  • Discover many times and places to read books in this “Share a Story Reading Star” challenge; Where else, and with whom, do you enjoy reading?
  • Create a character (is s/he big or small, short or tall, an alien, beast or child?) and write or draw a picture about that character;
  • Create a  book garden by planting flowers, fruits or vegetables featured in  books that you love;
  • Share your favorite book with family, friends or classmates.

Why I Like this Book:

Czajak uses humor and fantasy to explore in a child-relatable way a very serious topic: The desctruction and banning of books. What happens when books disappear in a society? Per Czajak, recipes aren’t in cookbooks, so food becomes bland and boring, story time at school becomes nap time, the theaters close without plays to perform, and kids become bored. Adults know many other things happen, too, but these examples are things that kids can understand.

I like Czajak’s very visual way of showing children how ideas spread and how our actions can produce change. As the mayor observes, books “act like seeds, which grow into ideas, and ideas turn into questions.” And as Arlo shows, the opposite is also true. He turns his ideas into stories which nourishes the book tree and helps it grow. In the end, even the mayor can’t resist the allure of books and reading.

Kheiriyeh’s fanciful, brightly-colored collage and painted illustrations further the whimsical tone of The Book Tree. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of book blossoms with text in multiple languages that highlights the importance of books from around the world.

A Note about Craft:

Czajak’s text is rich with gardening imagery, including smells. A book page reminds Arlo of “a dandelion seed drifting on a wish.” A writer is a “book gardener”. Books spread “like pollen in the wind”, and, as the book tree flourishes, “the town blossomed.” Including this imagery draws readers into the story and helps us believe in the possibility of a book-bearing tree.

Visit Czajak’s website to see more of his books. Iranian-born, US-based Rashin Kheiriyeh is an illustrator of numerous children’s books including Two Parrots, Ramadan, and Saffron Ice Cream, her debut as author-illustrator.

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 – Renato and the Lion

I’ve had today’s Perfect Picture Book on my “to review” shelf for a while. Hearing the news about Notre Dame Cathedral made me think of it, and review it today.

Title: Renato and the Lion

Written & Illustrated By: Barbara DiLorenzo

Publisher/Date: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group/2017

Suitable for Ages: 5-7

Themes/Topics: war; art; national treasures; refugee; imagination; intergenerational story

Opening:

Renato loved his home in Florence, Italy. He loved the people there. And the food there. But he especially loved the art there. It was everywhere.

Brief Synopsis: A young boy worries about the fate of a stone lion in his hometown of Florence, Italy, as the Nazis invade during World War II, and he and his family must flee to America.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the coloring pages with background information about Renato and the Lion;
  • Visit a museum or sculpture garden;
  • Create your own sculpture.

Why I Like this Book:

In Renato and the Lion, DiLorenzo tells a gentle story that deals with difficult topics in a child-friendly way. Set in Florence, Italy during World War II, the story features young Renato and the stone lion sculpture in the Piazza della Signoria that he loves. Although readers see soldiers patrolling the streets and although Renato’s father vocalizes his fears, the focus is on Renato, his love for the lion, and the steps he, and his father, take to protect the lion from harm.

Including a glimpse into the many Renaissance treasures of Florence, a dream-like, magical journey through Florence at night, young Renato’s journey to America as a war refugee, and his journey back to Florence years later, Renato and the Lion touches on many themes that will appeal to children. These themes also make it a valuable addition to art and social studies curricula.

DiLorenzo’s soft, watercolor illustrations bring Florence and Renato’s story to life, and further the feeling of love and hope that run through the story.

A Note about Craft:

At its heart, Renato and the Lion is the story of a relationship between a boy and his beloved sculpture. But there are so many layers to this story! Readers discover Florentine artwork and learn about sculpture restoration. We learn how Italians protected precious art during World War II. We experience the fear and dread of leaving one’s home and venturing to a large, new city. We also accompany Renato and his granddaughter back to Florence decades later and are left with a feeling of hope that all ends well. These layers not only add up to a well-told story, but they help make a central problem of the story, war, more child friendly.

In an Author’s Note, DiLorenzo recounts the backstory that includes a family trip to Florence and a documentary about protecting artistic treasures during World War II. What inspires your stories?

Visit DiLorenzo’s website to see more of her award-winning artwork.

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 – Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank

I remember as a child being inspired by the words of the subjects of today’s Perfect Picture Book. As a child, and even as an adult who has taken more than my fair share of history courses, I didn’t grasp the parallels in their lives. I’m so glad that the author of today’s Perfect Picture Book saw these parallels, and wrote this book.

Title: Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank

Written By: Nancy Churnin

Illustrated By: Yevgenia Nayberg

Publisher/Date: Creston Books/2019

Suitable for Ages: 8-14

Themes/Topics: biography; the power of words; kindness; hope

Opening:

In 1929, two babies were born on opposite sides of the ocean. They never met. They didn’t even speak the same language. But their hearts beat with the same hope.

Brief Synopsis: The biographies of Anne Frank and Martin Luther King, Jr., both born in 1929, and the parallels of their lives and legacies.

Links to Resources:

  • Think of someone who shares your birthday or who was born in the year you were born. How are your lives the same? How do they differ?
  • Anne Frank is known to many because of her diary. Try writing (or drawing) a diary for a week, a month, a year, or forever!
  • One of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most well-known speeches begins, “I have a dream”. Do you have a dream? Describe your dream in words or pictures.
  • Participate in The Kindred Spirits Project, which encourages children and class rooms to discover and share what they have in common with children from other regions, schools or countries.
  • Find more suggestions in the Curriculum/Discussion Guide.

Why I Like this Book:

Utilizing parallel structure, Churnin explores the lives of two well-known historical figures born in 1929: Anne Frank and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the two never met, they shared life features, such as being born into loving families but facing hatred at an early age. For King, it was being shunned and being barred from “Whites Only” spaces because of his skin color. For Frank, it was being shunned and being barred from school, first in Germany, from which her family fled, and then in Holland, because of her Jewish faith and heritage. Both King and Frank found their voices as teenagers, King as an orator who spoke of “black and white children playing together in harmony”, and Frank as a diarist who reflected on “how light could brighten the deepest darkness”. Despite the challenges they faced, both remained hopeful of a better world. Frank believed in people’s innate goodness, and King believed in the power of peaceful protest to bring about justice for all.

Churnin traces the lives of these peace builders through to their untimely deaths. But rather than dwelling on their early deaths, she leaves readers with hope, as “no one could kill the way Martin inspired others”, and “Anne’s words will never die”.

Many children’s books have been written about the lives and legacies of Martin and Anne. By pointing out the parallels in their lives and in their hopes in the face of hatred, I think Churnin has brought a new perspective to both of their legacies that will empower children to view their own circumstances with hope and treat others with kindness and love.

Because Martin & Anne involves two storylines in distinct locations an ocean apart, the illustrations play an important role in bringing a sense of unity to the whole. Nayberg’s soft, earth-toned, stylized art works well to convey the worlds of both of these historical figures. Her inclusion of a brighter palette towards the end of the book left me feeling hopeful that King’s and Frank’s legacies will endure.

A Note about Craft:

Although children’s biographies of both King and Frank exist, Churnin brings new life to their legacies by showing the parallels in their lives. For those of us writing picture book biographies, this illustrates that finding a fresh way into a story, even if that way involves combining two biographies into one book, enables authors to explore even well-known figures and contribute to our understanding of them.

Visit Churnin’s website to read more about the inspiration behind Martin & Anne and see her other works.

Visit Nayberg’s website to see more of her artwork.

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 – 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!