Category Archives: Uncategorized

PPBF – Nana Akua Goes to School

Before school lets out for the summer in my neck of the woods, I wanted to share a picture book from last year that features an annual ritual in many classrooms. It also brought back a pleasant memory of bringing a cousin to visit my elder daughter’s preschool. The teacher expected to greet a toddler. Instead, our cousin Adele is actually my husband’s first cousin and godmother, as well as a former teacher. Despite the confusion, my daughter, the teacher, and Cousin Adele thoroughly enjoyed the day! Hopefully, you’ll enjoy this Perfect Picture Book, too!

Title: Nana Akua Goes to School

Written By: Tricia Elam Walker

Illustrated By: April Harrison

Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: grandparents, difference, immigrant, school, embarrassment

Opening:

It’s Circle Time, Zura’s favorite time of the day. She scoots to a spot next to Theodore and crisscrosses her legs on the rainbow-shaped rug.

“Ready set?” Mr. Dawson says, looking at the children over his glasses.

“You bet!” they respond, and quiet right down.

“Next Monday is a very important day,” Mr. Dawson continues. “Each of you will bring your grandparents to school so they can share what makes them special.”

Brief Synopsis: Zura, whose grandmother hails from West Africa, is worried about what her classmates will think of the tribal markings on Nana Akua’s face.

Links to Resources:

  • Think of one or more things that make your grandmother, grandfather, or other older adult special. Draw a picture of that and give it to them;
  • Ask an older adult to name something that’s the same as or different than when they were children. Which do you think is better? Why?
  • Learn more about your family history;
  • Check out the Adinkra symbols and their meanings on the endpapers and practice creating them.

Why I Like this Book:

In Nana Akua Goes to School, Walker explores a very kid-friendly problem: being embarrassed by a relative and concerned that classmates or friends will make fun of something that’s different about them. Many picture books explore the issue of being different and how to deal with taunts or bullying because of it. But here the difference is one step removed – no one is making fun of Zura or bullying her. Rather, Zura is worried that her classmates will see the Adinkra symbols etched into Nana’s face and be scared of her or laugh, just as a child in the park and a waitress at a restaurant have done on other occasions.

With the help of her wise Nana and a favorite quilt that incorporates Adrinka symbols, Zura and Nana Akau face Zura’s classmates who, instead of being scared or laughing, find the symbols fascinating.

Nana Akua Goes to School is a wonderful book to explore difference and what makes each person unique, to remind readers to embrace their cultural heritage, and to not worry about what others may think. I love that readers also learn about the Adrinka customs and symbolism, including their meanings and pronunciations shown on the endpapers. Harrison’s detailed and colorful illustrations bring this loving pair to life.

A Note about Craft:

Walker has written a picture book about embracing differences, and she also includes a difference, the Adrinka face symbols, of which most readers will have little knowledge or understanding. I love, too, that wise Nana Akua compares the face etchings to tattoos, which may be more familiar to readers.

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 Cat Man of Aleppo

Today’s Perfect Picture Book is one that I’ve been meaning to read, and review, for some time. It’s set during the Syrian war, a conflict that I think we all thought would be history by now, but that, sadly, endures to this day.

Title: The Cat Man of Aleppo

Written By: Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha

Illustrated By: Yuko Shimizu

Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: Syrian Civil War, cats, compassion, animal rescue, non-fiction

Opening:

Alaa loves his city of Aleppo. He loves its narrow alleys and covered bazaars selling pistachios, jasmine soap, and green za’atar. He loves the boiled corn and dried figs offered on the stree.t Most of all, he loves the people of Aleppo. They are gentle, polite, and loving—like him.

Brief Synopsis: This is the true story of Mohammad Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver who rescued cats and helped orphans and others as war raged in the city of Aleppo, Syria.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about the history, culture, and geography of Syria (information is all pre-war) and Aleppo;
  • Have you ever visited a spice market or bazaar? Describe the spices you saw and smelled;
  • Ask an adult to help you bake Za’tar bread;
  • Learn more about Alaa’s efforts and the animal sanctuary that now exists on the outskirts of Aleppo;
  • Enjoy coloring the detailed coloring pages.

Why I Like this Book:

War is always a difficult topic in children’s literature, especially in picture books. But compassion in the face of adversity, and especially compassion for defenseless animals, is a very kid-friendly topic. By focusing on the heart-warming, and true, story of a man who rescued hundreds of cats left behind when their owners fled the war-torn city, Latham and Shamsi-Basha have written a picture book that enables children to learn about the ongoing struggles in Syria and to feel hopeful that people like Alaa are caring for the animals and people affected by the conflict.

I love how the story begins before war broke out and how the authors highlight what Alaa loves about the fascinating city of Aleppo, a city most readers will not have visited. While not sugar-coating the horrors of war and its effect on Alaa, the story quickly turns to the cats left behind, the cats with “lonely, confused faces” that remind Alaa of “loved ones he has lost”.

Once he meets a few of these cats, Alaa realizes that he can’t change the world and the situation in Aleppo, but that he can do something: he can take care of these abandoned animals. Starting small, with just a few cats, he soon expands his efforts, and gains support, both from people still in Aleppo and from people around the globe. An international not-for-profit now exists to support this work!

This is a wonderful lesson for children wanting to make a difference in the world of how one person can help others, and how they can do even more when they join forces and work together with others. From helping cats, readers learn that Alaa built a playground for children, dug a well, and helped feed people in need. By the end of the book, I felt hopeful that Alaa and people like him will help Aleppo return to its pre-war condition. And when the refugees return, hopefully someday soon, it’s comforting to know that the pets left behind will be there for them.

Shimizu’s award-winning, realistic, and very detailed illustrations bring Aleppo, Alaa, and the many cats to life.

A Note about Craft:

In an author’s note, Latham reveals that she was moved by the story of the cat man of Aleppo, but she was not from Syria nor had she ever visited the country, ie, she was not an #OwnVoices author. When she met a “striving children’s book author” who had emigrated from Syria and who had visited Aleppo before the war, Latham joined forces with Shamsi-Basha, and together they wrote the story.

Similarly, Shimizu, a Japanese illustrator based in the US, explains in an illustrator’s note, that she had never visited Syria. To make the illustrations authentic, she “spent half of the nine months I had to complete this book solely on research”. That The Cat Man of Aleppo is a 2021 Caldecott Honor Book is a testament to her diligence and attention to detail.

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 – Kiyoshi’s Walk

For the last Perfect Picture Book posting during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I want to feature a new picture book that is perfect in so many ways, and features an Asian-American pair.

Title: Kiyoshi’s Walk

Written By: Mark Karlins

Illustrated By: Nicole Wong

Publisher/Date: Lee & Low Books/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: intergenerational, haiku, poetry, nature, the senses, observation, Asian/Americans

Opening:

Kiyoshi watched his grandfather, the wise poet Eto, write a poem with brush and ink. The brush flicked across the page.

            The dripping faucet/Takes me back to my old home./Raindrops on frog pond.

The words made Kiyoshi smile. He wished he could make poems too. “Where do poems come from?” he asked.

Brief Synopsis: To show Kiyoshi where poems come from, his wise grandfather invites him to walk around the neighborhood with him.

Links to Resources:

  • Take a walk. What do you see? Close your eyes. What do you hear or smell? How do the sights, sounds, or smells make you feel? Draw a picture of what you saw and/or write about your walk;
  • Check out the Teacher’s Guide for more ideas.

Why I Like this Book:

An Asian-American grandfather and grandson enjoying time spent together. A stroll through an urban neighborhood, including a large, natural park. Haiku inspired by the journey. Detailed illustrations of the pair’s journey. What’s not to love about Kiyoshi’s Walk?

I can imagine a grandparent and grandchild reading this picture book together, using it as a springboard to their own shared adventures. With Father’s Day next month, it would make a perfect gift for a favorite grandfather.

I also can imagine the fun a teacher or librarian can have with this book, including with older children, as they discuss how one find’s inspiration in everyday occurrences to create poetry or art.

I especially love the answer to his initial question that Kiyoshi shares near the end of the story, that poems come from what we experience outside ourselves, including the sights, sounds, and smells of the environment where we are, and from our hearts. As Eto confirms, “they come from the way the two come together.” Such a beautiful conclusion to this journey of discovery.

A Note about Craft:

In Kiyoshi’s Walk, Karlins combines an intergenerational journey with a blueprint to finding inspiration and writing haiku. He invites readers to slow down, to observe the natural and human-made world around them, and to use these observations as a springboard to creativity. He even includes several haikus as examples for budding poets. These many layers add up to a wonderful new picture book, sure to inspire creativity among its readers.

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 – Zonia’s Rain Forest

As warm temperatures and sunny skies finally have reached the northeast US, I’m enjoying the local flora and fauna, much like the main character in today’s Perfect Picture Book relishes visiting her rain forest friends.

Title: Zonia’s Rain Forest

Written & Illustrated By: Juana Martinez-Neal

Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: rain forest, social activism, #OwnVoices, nature, Amazon

Opening:

Zonia lives with those she loves in the rain forest, where it is always green and full of life.

Brief Synopsis: Zonia, a young indigenous girl, enjoys playing with the animals in the rain forest. But when she discovers an area filled with tree stumps, she realizes that she must do something to protect the forest, her friends, and her way of life.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out these rain forest and Amazon facts;
  • Zonia meets several animal friends in the rain forest. Draw a picture of one of them or of an animal that you like;
  • Find more resources in back matter and in the Teachers’ Guide.

Why I Like this Book:

Filled with gorgeous illustrations of the rain forest and the many creatures that inhabit it, Zonia’s Rain Forest is a wonderful introduction to this fascinating ecosystem. Our guide is an endearing young girl, Zonia, who is Asháninka, the largest Indigenous group living in the Peruvian rain forest. She begins her day with her loving Mama and new baby brother, in a scene that will resonate with readers, even if the setting may be foreign.

At the end of an idyllic day greeting and playing with many different Amazonian creatures, the reader learns that the rain forest is in danger. The bucolic setting and fascinating creatures are under threat, as we see in one gloomy spread featuring gray tree stumps. In text, we learn that Zonia is frightened. The illustration, a stark contrast to the other scenes, shows us the problem.

But Martinez-Neal doesn’t prescribe a specific solution. Rather, she reminds us that one child and her community can answer the forest’s cry for help, and that we all must do so.

I love the open-ended conclusion to this story. I also love that it features a main character whose background and culture are probably new to most readers.

Martinez-Neal created the colorful illustrations on banana leaf paper using woodcut prints, ink, and pencils. A translation of the story into Asháninka, a note about the Asháninka people, some facts about, and threats to, the Amazon rain forest, and a gallery of Zonia’s animal friends complete this lovely picture book. It’s perfect, I think, for families with new siblings, those who care about the environment, those who want to learn about other cultures, and for classroom use.

A Note about Craft:

Author-illustrator Martinez-Neal includes a blue butterfly in each spread. I think she does so to show that Zonia is never alone in the rain forest, to provide a butterfly’s eye view at times, and to add a glimmer of hope to one particularly bleak spread. Younger children can also try to spot the butterfly in each illustration.

At the end of the story, Zonia notices that the forest needs help. Her mother wisely remarks that it is speaking to Zonia, who agrees to “answer” it, as we all must do. But neither wise Mama, Zonia, nor even Martinez-Neal indicates how to help the forest. It’s an open-ended conclusion which, I think, will provide a perfect jumping off place for teachers and other adults to discuss ways we can help the rain forest, its inhabitants, and the environment generally.

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 Jar

As a serial mover, I’m drawn to tales involving someone who moves houses. Today’s Perfect Picture Book is one of the more lyrical and beautiful recent ones.

Title: In a Jar

Written & Illustrated By: Deborah Marcero

Publisher/Date: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 3-7

Themes/Topics: collecting, wonder, friendship, loss, moving

Opening:

Llewellyn was a collector. He collected things in jars.

Brief Synopsis: When a young collector finds a like-minded friend, they enjoy collecting together, until this new friend moves away.

Links to Resources:

  • Do you collect anything? Draw a picture of something you’ve collected and share it with a friend;
  • Collect a memory by writing about it or by photographing or drawing a picture of the event. If your memory involves a favorite food, try making the special food for your family or a friend;
  • Ask an adult to add beans, marbles, coins, or buttons to a jar. Try to guess how many fit;
  • Find a pen pal and exchange letters with them. Here’s a listing of organizations that encourage letters to people like astronauts, authors, seniors, kids in other countries, and more.

Why I Like this Book:

This heart-warming story features a young rabbit, Llewllyn, who collects ordinary items and some hard-to-capture natural wonders in jars. When he shares a jar filled with a gorgeous sunset with Evelyn, the two become fast friends. They collect so much together, and I think kids will love the spreads filled with illustrations of collected memories in jars.

But when Evelyn and her family move away, “Llewellyn’s heart felt like an empty jar.” Experiencing the loss of a friend or family member because of a move, change of schools, or even death is so difficult for kids. Especially in this year of loneliness and loss, I think this exploration of how Llewellyn and Evelyn deal with loss will comfort many kids, and adults. I won’t ruin the ending, but I will share that Llewllyn found a way to continue the friendship from afar, and even make a new friend.

From the stunning spreads with so many details in the many featured jars and the lyrical language, to the message of friendship and sharing, to showing kids how to overcome loss, In a Jar shines on so many levels and is deserving of the many starred reviews it has received.

A Note about Craft:

I confess that when I first saw the title of this book, I couldn’t imagine what it would be about, although the cover illustration of two rabbits surrounded by bluebells instantly caught my eye and beckoned me to read on. But collecting things in a jar is such a kid-relatable activity. The idea of collecting larger items, memories, or intangible things like rainbows, sounds, and the wind in a jar could also seem plausible to little ones. I can imagine them pouring over the illustrations containing jars of all shapes and sizes filled with all of the wonders of nature and more.

Upon reflection, I think Marcero also uses the jar as a metaphor for memory and emotions. Most poignantly, she compares Llewellyn’s heart to “an empty jar.” How beautiful is that!

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 My Mosque

As Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, draws to a close, I think it’s a perfect time to review today’s Perfect Picture Book.

Title: In My Mosque

Written By: M.O. Yuksel

Illustrated By: Hatem Aly

Publisher/Date: Harper Collins Children’s Books/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: Islam, worship, diversity, #OwnVoices

Opening:

In my mosque, we are a rainbow of colors and speak in different accents. As-salaamu alaykum – I greet my friends and newcomers too. Everyone is welcome here.

Brief Synopsis: A diverse group of children explores their mosques and welcomes others to explore with them.

Links to Resources:

  • Do you have a favorite place you visit? Describe with words and/or pictures what you do in that special location;
  • If you attend services or classes at a church, synagogue, temple, or other place of worship, describe in words or pictures how it’s the same as or different from a mosque;
  • Enjoy this coloring page;
  • Find more resources, including an interview with Yuksel about creating In My Mosque at Teaching Books.

Why I Like this Book:

From the first spread to the final spread of In My Mosque, readers learn that “everyone” is “welcome here”. Featuring a diverse cast of smiling children and their adults, readers follow along as children prepare for worship, hear “stories of living in harmony,” told by the imam, pray standing “shoulder to shoulder” with friends, and sometimes even “get distracted.” In addition to worshipping in mosques, readers also see that charity and community are important features. One character exclaims that “I hope it’s never time to leave!” Seeing the joy on everyone’s faces, it’s understandable why they want to stay.

I consider myself fortunate to have visited one of the famous mosques listed in the back matter, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. I recall feeling overwhelmed by the beauty and vastness of the space and filled with peace, akin to the feeling I had when I first visited Notre Dame in Paris. That Yuksel mentions other places of worship, churches, temples, and synagogues, is important, I think, especially as she also adds that in mosques, as in those others, “we pray for peace, love, and joy”.

Aly’s vibrant illustrations are filled with smiling faces of all shapes and colors and intricate tile work that visitors would find in mosques. Pigeons are visible in several spreads – young children will enjoy searching for them.

Informative back matter that includes further information about mosques generally, a glossary, and a listing of some famous and historic mosques rounds out In My Mosque, making it a wonderful choice for homes, classrooms, and libraries.

A Note about Craft:

In My Mosque is a concept book that explores the many facets of mosques, the Muslim places of worship. To help render this topic kid friendly and interesting to both adults and children, Yuksel and Aly feature a diverse cast of children and their adults so that readers can picture themselves in the mosques. Interestingly, the title uses first-person singular rather than plural, even though each of the children featured is a narrator. I think Yuksel, or perhaps the editor, chose to use the singular pronoun to help connect readers to each narrator in turn, to help it seem like we’re receiving a guided tour from one child.

Nowhere in the text does Yuksel mention that males and females worship separately. But she shows these parallel worshipers in alternating spreads. Even when it isn’t clear from the text whether it’s males or females worshiping, Aly continues the pattern and shows either boys, or girls, in each spread.

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 – We Are Water Protectors

For the last Friday of National Poetry Month and Earth Month, I couldn’t think of a better book to choose as a Perfect Picture Book.

Title: We Are Water Protectors

Written By: Carole Lindstrom

Illustrated By: Michaela Goade

Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press/2020

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: water, #OwnVoices, Indigenous Peoples, ecology, social activism

Opening:

Water is the first medicine, Nokomis told me.

Brief Synopsis: When a black snake arrives and threatens the water sources, a young girl finds courage to rally her people to fight it.

Links to Resources:

  • Are you a water protector? How can you preserve and protect water in your community? Even simple actions like using less water to bathe or while you’re brushing your teeth, or cleaning up litter near a pond or river bank, helps;
  • Discover more activities in the Activity Kit.

Why I Like this Book:

As the many accolades attest, including winning the 2021 ALA Caldecott Medal, We Are Water Protectors is an exceptional picture book. Lyrical text that draws the reader in, a compelling problem that causes the reader to cheer on the brave main character, seamlessly blending the traditions and beliefs of Native Americans with the contemporary problem of saving the planet, this book would be a must read, even without Goade’s stunning illustrations. Starting with the words of a wise grandmother and scenes of a baby in utero, the text and the illustrations later in the narrative pan out to feature the entire earth, surrounded by animals, and the recognition that we “are all related.” And “we,” not just the narrator and not just her people, can stand together and be water protectors.

Back matter includes further information about water protectors, a glossary, and an Earth Steward and Water Protector Pledge.

A Note about Craft:

After reading We Are Water Protectors, I felt encouraged and empowered to join the fight to defeat the black snake, and I think others will be determined to join the fight, too. How did Lindstrom call me and them to action? Using the immediacy of first-person point-of-view personalizes the problem and helps the reader experience the world, and the water problem, from her perspective.  Using the first-person plural “we” in the title and throughout the narrative, Lindstrom goes one step further and shows the reader how the problem affects all of us, and how we are all vital to the solution.

That Lindstrom’s lyrical text is paired with Goade’s illustrations that also draw on Native American imagery and culture renders this collaboration more than the sum of its parts.

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 Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom

With Earth Day this week, and National Poetry Month in full swing, I couldn’t resist sharing this Perfect Picture Book that includes poetry, gorgeous forest vistas, and even suggestions to help our forests.

Title: The Wisdom of Trees: How Trees Work Together to Form a Natural Kingdom

Written & Illustrated By: Lita Judge

Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press/2021

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes/Topics: trees, nature, community, ecology, poetry, botany

Opening:

A Secret Kingdom

I am a single beech,/ but I am not alone./Together with my fellow trees,/ we form a secret kingdom.

Brief Synopsis: A series of free-verse poems and informative sidebars explore the hidden communities, communications, and cooperation that help strengthen trees and the world.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

With gorgeous two-page watercolor illustrations, free verse poems, and informative sidebars, Judge introduces children to a world of trees. After the introductory poem of the opening, readers are asked to imagine the stories that ancient trees could tell. We then learn that trees have a “secret language” that humans can’t read or hear, that they communicate with each other to help trees live longer. How cool is that! What child wouldn’t be intrigued, especially when they learn that trees’ communication “begins deep underground.”

With catchy titles that invite reading and rereading, such as “How to Speak in Tree” and “Like the Bear”, the poems provide some basic information, like the role of fungal partners in communication and the role of hibernation. In sidebars that accompany these poems, Judge delves deeper, sharing the secrets of the “wood wide web” and the cork layers that form as temperatures drop to keep wood tissue from bursting like frozen water pipes in unheated houses.

Younger children can enjoy and learn some basic botany by listening to the poems and examining the detailed illustrations. Even the youngest toddlers can search for the birds and other woodland creatures in each spread. Older children and adults can learn much more from the sidebars and back matter.

I especially enjoyed the poem “We Are a Village” which reminds readers that a forest is comprised of a “diversity of trees”, each serving “a purpose in the rich fabric of life.” Just as diverse human communities are stronger and just as humans need each other, readers learn that “[t]ree diversity leads to healthier forests and helps multiple species of wildlife thrive by providing a wide range of food and homes.”

The extensive back matter includes an Author’s Note, further exploration of the topics covered, ways to help our forests, a glossary, sources, and more.

Whether for a home, classroom, or library, The Wisdom of Trees is a stunning resource that children and adults will find fascinating.

A Note about Craft:

Judge tackles a huge topic in The Wisdom of Trees, and she even shares some cutting-edge science. How does she make it accessible to children? I think she succeeds by dividing the subject matter into discreet topics, presenting basic introductory facts in each poem, offering more detailed information in the side bars and back matter, and completing the package with gorgeous illustrations of trees and forest animals. And to entice children to explore this wisdom, she begins in “A Secret Kingdom” where a single beech holds center stage. She then draws us in further by sharing that trees have their own stories and that we can learn about their communication by looking “deep underground”. What child or adult wouldn’t want to read on!

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 – Watercress

With Earth Day approaching, I had planned to review a picture book with a more overtly environmental theme. But when I read today’s picture book, I had to share it straight away. And as I mention below, there is an environmental theme if you look for it, one of the many layers of this Perfect Picture Book.

Title: Watercress

Written By: Andrea Wang

Illustrated By: Jason Chin

Publisher/Date: Neal Porter Books, a division of Holiday House/2021

Suitable for Ages: 4-8

Themes/Topics: immigrants, Asian-Americans, family, memories, family history

Opening:

We are in the old Pontiac, the red paint faded by years of glinting Ohio sun, pelting rain, and biting snow.

Brief Synopsis: Picking watercress for dinner becomes an opportunity to share some difficult family history.

Links to Resources:

  • Ask a parent, grandparent, or other adult to share a happy or sad memory from their childhood;
  • The family in Watercress prepares and eats sauteed watercress with garlic. Ask an adult to help you prepare a similar dish (note, fresh watercress is now available in some grocery stores);
  • Food and scent often bring back memories. Draw a picture of a happy time when you ate a favorite food.

Why I Like this Book:

In this gorgeous new picture book based on an incident from Andrea Wang’s childhood, an unnamed narrator recounts an afternoon when she unhappily helped her immigrant parents pick watercress by the side of a rural Ohio roadway. Wang sprinkles the text with descriptive adjectives  such as “biting”, “abrupt”, “jerking”, “rusty”,  and “dirty” that show the narrator’s distaste for the task and embarrassment that her family gathers food, rather than visiting a grocery store, as the narrator’s classmates do. But when the narrator’s mother recounts a difficult period from her past in China, the narrator tries the foraged watercress and realizes it is “delicate and slightly bitter”, much like her mother’s memories of China.

Reading Watercress will help children of immigrants, and other children, too, better understand the hardships their parents may have endured. With its Asian-American main character, reading and discussing Watercress is a wonderful way to encourage empathy for people of Asian descent. And as someone who grew up in a family in which money was often tight, Wang’s discussion of hand-me-down clothes, “roadside trash-heap furniture”, and “dinner from a ditch” resonated with me. I think it will resonate with children in households dealing with financial issues today, too.

Finally, the discussion of famine in China when the narrator’s parents were young may help children realize that climate change and its effect on weather systems and crop yields can affect some regions disproportionately. Perhaps this will lead to greater understanding of climate migration and empathy for those most affected by climate change.

Chin’s soft, earth-hued illustrations are gorgeous and wonderfully detailed. Interweaving scenes of China with scenes from the narrator’s life adds so much to the reader’s understanding of why foraging for watercress may not be as bad as the narrator first portrays it.

A Note about Craft:

In a note from the author, Wang reveals that Watercress is based on a childhood memory. Although the story is fiction and although Wang’s mother did not share her sad memories of life in China with Wang as a child, it’s clear that the feeling of being different is very real for Wang, and because of that, I think she is able to convey that very effectively.

Although not poetry per se, Wang uses very lyrical and emotion-filled language – Wang truly writes from the heart! Using first person point-of-view, it’s clear that the unnamed narrator views picking watercress as an unpleasant task, and she clearly is embarrassed by her heritage and ashamed of her family’s situation until she realizes what they’ve endured to survive.

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 – I Am the Storm

April is Earth Month and National Poetry Month. So I thought this is the perfect time to showcase today’s Perfect Picture Book. I hope you agree!

Title: I Am the Storm

Written By: Jane Yolen and Heidi E.Y. Stemple

Illustrated By: Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell

Publisher/Date: Rise x Penguin Workshop, an imprint of Penguin Random House/2020

Suitable for Ages: 3-5 and older

Themes/Topics: natural disasters, resilience, nature

Opening:

When the wind howled and blew, loud as a train,/ we had a party in the basement with Grandma, reading books and playing games with the flashlight.

Brief Synopsis:

In a series of fictional vignettes, young children and their families experience and survive natural disasters.

Links to Resources:

Why I Like this Book:

In I Am the Storm, four young children and their families survive four different natural disasters. With short, lyrical text and repeated phrases, Yolen and Stemple show what each family does as the natural disaster rages. And after the disasters, because, as the authors reassure readers, these disasters always stop, the children help clean up and help others, mimicking the disasters with their actions, “howling and blowing like the wind,” tossing “big handfuls of snow”, swaying “like a slow beautiful flame”, and returning home. Addressing readers, the authors acknowledge, “It’s okay to be scared.” But they remind readers, too, that they can be “strong and powerful” like nature, and afterwards, calm.

Illustrated with an inclusive array of characters and representing a variety of settings, I Am the Storm is an important book for kids who live in regions where natural disasters are prevalent, which is many places these days, or who are dealing with the aftermath of natural disasters or any type of traumatic event (which is most of us, after this COVID-dominated year).

The Howdeshells use sweeping, earth-toned double-page spreads to show both the disasters and the calmer scenes afterwards.

A Note about Craft:

With four distinct main characters facing four different natural disasters, in four varied settings, how did Yolen and Stemple tie these disparate stories together and craft a cohesive picture book? Using the same format for each, disaster strikes and families hunker down and amuse themselves together, followed by post-disaster clean up, with a repeated phrase “as…always do,” the authors show the resilience of each main character. And by acknowledging that it’s okay to be scared, and showing how these kids, and the readers, possess storm-like qualities, they offer hope to readers that they, too, will overcome these temporary disasters.

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!