Category Archives: Uncategorized

PPBF – A Different Pond

I kept seeing references to today’s Perfect Picture Book in my twitter feed and lists of picture books about the immigrant experience. I knew it was one I’d like to feature here, even though I figured it’d been out for a while. I was so surprised to learn that it was published earlier this fall.

9781479597468Title: A Different Pond

Written By: Bao Phi

Illustrated By:  Thi Bui

Publisher/date: Capstone Young Readers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-8

Themes/Topics: immigrants; fishing; father-son relationship; Vietnam; family traditions.

Opening:

Dad wakes me quietly so Mom can keep sleeping. It will be hours before the sun comes up.

Brief Synopsis: A young boy and his immigrant father go fishing to provide dinner for the family.

Links to Resources:

  • Learn about Vietnam, the family’s country of origin;
  • Have you ever gone fishing? Did you catch a crappie or some other fish? What was in your tackle box? For a good listing of what you’ll need for fresh water fishing, including definitions and pictures of the items, check out this article from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for Young Naturalists.

Why I Like this Book:

A Different Pond is a beautifully-written, slice-of-life story that is a mirror into the lives of Vietnamese immigrants in the early 1980s. I loved the seeming simplicity of the story – a boy and his dad are going fishing. But there is so much more that the narrator reveals: they leave before sun-up, as the father is working a weekend job to earn more money; they fish for food, not sport; the dad reminisces about fishing in Vietnam with the brother who didn’t survive the war.

Like Last Stop on Market Street, A Different Pond is a window into a part of American life. Bui’s graphic novel-like illustrations help heighten the sense of immediacy and sense that the narrator, although a young boy, is mature for his age. I especially loved examining the endpapers that feature items that may have been found in a typical Vietnamese immigrant household in the early 1980s.

Both Phi and Bui immigrated to the United States as young children, as they recount in Notes at the end of the book. Photographs from their childhoods accompany the Notes.

A Note about Craft:

Phi’s choice of first-person POV draws the reader into the story, helping her/him feel as if s/he is part of the action.

As with Last Stop on Market Street, A Different Pond is many-layered. At its most basic, it’s the story of a young boy and his dad going fishing. We also learn, though, through subtle clues, that the family is not only recent immigrants, but that they are struggling financially. I found the reference to a “bare bulb” burning at the outset of the story particularly poignant and a wonderful example of showing not telling.

Learn more about Capstone Young Readers, an American independent publisher.

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

PPBF – Somos como las nubes, We Are Like the Clouds

While I often gravitate towards books about migration, I feel particularly drawn to the topic now, as I am in the process of a complicated, multi-phase move that has lasted almost two months – so far! And while I have not fled a violent or poverty-stricken situation, I, too, have hopes that this next, hopefully-forever home will be better. As I choose what to bring, and what to donate, I can’t help but wonder how those who truly flee must feel, as they leave behind everything, or close to everything, and take only what they can carry. To those brave souls, the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book:

9781554988501_1024x1024Title: Somos como las nubes We Are Like the Clouds

Written By: Jorge Argueta

Pictures By: Alfonso Ruano

Translated By: Elisa Amado

Publisher/date: Groundwood Books (House of Anansi Press)/2016

Suitable for Ages: 7-12

Themes/Topics: migration; poetry; bilingual (Spanish/English)

Opening:

Somos como las nubes

Elefantes, caballos, vaca, cuches,/ flores,/ballenas,/ pericos.

Somos como las nubes.

We Are Like the Clouds

Elephants, horses, cows, pigs,/ flowers,/ whales,/ parakeets.

We are like the clouds.

Brief Synopsis:

In this poetry collection, Argueta explores the hopes and fears that cause young people to leave Central America, the perils of the journey, and the arrival to the United States.

Links to Resources:

  • Argueta compares the young migrants to many animals and aspects of nature. What are you like? Why do you think the young migrants are like clouds?
  • Write a poem describing how you felt when you left somewhere and/or arrived someplace else;
  • Learn about Central America;
  • Learn more about why children flee Central America in a report by Unicef USA.

Why I Like this Book:

Somos como las nubes We Are Like the Clouds is a beautiful collection of poems that explore the feelings of the children who undertake the arduous journey from Central America to the United States, often on their own. In an Author’s Note, Argueta explains that he “wrote these poems based on my experiences of working with these young people in El Salvador as well as in the United States.” It’s clear that Argueta “gets it”. His images and analogies transport the readers, so that they, too, feel as if they’ve undertaken the odyssey that thousands of young migrants have undertaken to flee poverty and violence in search of a better life.

This is a wonderful collection to share in families and classrooms. As an added bonus, the Spanish and English texts face each other, rendering them useful in language classes, too. And while the poems can be read separately, they hang together to capture the experiences of those contemplating the journey, those left behind, the journey itself, and the life for those who make it to the US.

Ruano’s paintings range from realistic renderings of the migrants’ experiences to surrealistic, dream-like images. Many are full- or double-page spreads, drawing readers into the realities of the migrants’ lives.

A Note about Craft:

How does one capture the experiences of child migrants, often traveling alone, fleeing the threat of violence and gangs and/or extreme poverty? These are such difficult topics for adults to comprehend. How can a writer make these experiences accessible to children without causing nightmares or overwhelming fear? One way is to soften the blow via poetry, to utilize lyrical language and analogize to the natural world. By doing so, I think Argueta helps children, and adults, empathize with the young migrants in a way a straight telling of the journey perhaps would not.

Not surprisingly, Somos como las nubes We Are Like the Clouds is published by an independent, Canadian children’s publisher, Groundwood Books. On their website, they state, “we are not afraid of books that are difficult or potentially controversial; and we are particularly committed to publishing books for and about children whose experiences of the world are under-represented elsewhere.” In addition to many other “difficult-topic” books, they published Migrant and Two White Rabbits – both about different aspects of the migrant experience.

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

PPBF – Miguel and the Grand Harmony

A true confession: I picked up today’s Perfect Picture Book before I realized it’s based on the Pixar movie Coco that released this week. Sometimes happy coincidences happen!

615U6mYKdwL._SX414_BO1,204,203,200_Title: Miguel and the Grand Harmony

Written By: Matt de la Peña

Illustrated By: Ana Ramírez

Publisher/date: Disney Press/2017

Suitable for Ages: 6-8

Themes/Topics: music, Mexico, family, #WNDB

Opening:

First comes the sound. A single string plucked or a note blown or beat rapped.

And suddenly I am. Where there is music, there is color.  And where there is color, there is life.

Brief Synopsis: A boy living with no music in his home longs for it and finally finds a way to play and share it with his family and community.

Links to Resources:

  • Discover the musical instruments used to create Mexican music;
  • Make your own Maracas, guitar or drum;
  • Listen to Mexican children’s music and poetry;
  • View the Coco trailer. How are Coco and Miguel and the Grand Harmony the same? How do they differ?

Why I Like this Book:

Miguel and the Grand Harmony is a lovely story that celebrates the roles of music and family in Mexican culture. Told from the point of view of the music itself (more about that below), La Musica embarks on an exploration of the many facets of Mexican music before introducing us to the main character, Miguel, whose great-grandmother, Mamá Coco, abhors music due to bad memories associated with it. Not surprisingly, in the end music triumphs, and even Mamá Coco is happy.

The illustrator, Ana Ramírez, also worked on Coco, and brings the exuberant colors of the film to the printed page. Read an interview with Ramírez, to learn more about this young, Latina Pixar artist.

A Note about Craft:

As mentioned above, Miguel and the Grand Harmony is told from the point of view of La Musica, the music itself. This enables Newberry Medal-winner de la Peña to explore the many facets of Mexican music and culture and tell the particular story of Miguel and his family, too. La Musica acts, in a way, as an omniscient narrator, which works well to provide a context and enrich the story.

Also as mentioned above, Miguel and the Grand Harmony is “inspired by Disney Pixar’s Coco”, and features the family from that film. Per the New York Times and NPR reviews I’ve read (I haven’t had the opportunity to see the film yet), death figures prominently in the movie, with ghosts and dia de los muertos celebrations taking center stage, and Miguel embarking on a journey to the afterlife. De la Peña has eliminated the fantastical afterlife and focuses, instead, on the community, Miguel’s family, and Miguel’s desire to experience music. By doing so, he enables Miguel to play more of a role in his own transformation. I also think this renders the story more universally appealing, and, I believe, will resonate better with young listeners and music and culture lovers.

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

PPBF – Malala’s Magic Pencil

When I first read the title and saw the jacket of today’s Perfect Picture Book, I couldn’t help but think back to my days at university in upstate New York. As I traveled back and forth to campus, I’d pass many dilapidated, rural houses. I recall thinking that if I could paint these houses, I’d somehow improve the lives of the inhabitants.

While I know that a coat of paint isn’t the answer to economic inequality or other social ills, I also understand the desire to magically make the world better, expressed so well in today’s Perfect Picture Book.

thTitle: Malala’s Magic Pencil

Written By: Malala Yousafzai

Illustrated By: Karascoët

Publisher/date: Little Brown and Company/October 2017

Suitable for Ages: 4-8 (and older)

Themes/Topics: female education; Pakistan; dreams; autobiography; social justice

Opening:

Do you believe in magic?

Brief Synopsis: The story of Malala Yousafzai, a proponent and symbol of female education.

Links to Resources:

  • If you had a magic pencil what would you draw?
  • Learn more about Pakistan, the country where Malala dreamt of a magic pencil, here and here, and see a map of Pakistan here.

Why I Like this Book:

As the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, Malala is a well-recognized young woman. Most of us probably know the story of the attack that led to her global fame, too. Malala’s Magic Pencil focuses, instead, mainly on her early years, when she was a young child like many others, focused solely on her own desires.

We meet a young Malala who discovered the idea of a magic pencil from a favorite television hero. She writes not that she wanted to change the world with her magic pencil, but rather she wanted to draw a lock on a door “so my brothers couldn’t bother me.” Even her first recognition of societal problems, a trash dump near her home, is expressed as a desire to get rid of an odor that bothers her.

We then learn that as she grows, Malala increasingly becomes aware of social inequities. Her use of the magic pencil evolves to include erasing “war, poverty, and hunger,” until, as she writes in a letter to readers at the end of the story, “when you find your voice, every pencil can be magic.” Shared by such a young woman who was a child so recently, I think this is a message that will resonate with young listeners. Despite some dark scenes, this is a gentle lesson for children that their voices and actions can help change the world for the better.

The ink and watercolor illustrations are stunning! Golden accents that reminded me of henna markings or South Asian artwork effectively conveyed me to Pakistan and the “beautiful Swat Valley” of Malala’s childhood.

A Note about Craft:

Malala’s Magic Pencil is an autobiography, told from the first-person point of view. I think this works well for this story, as it is Malala’s story and imparts a sense of immediacy to the action.

Malala also addresses the reader directly at the beginning of the story, “Do you believe in magic?”, poses a variant of the question at the end, and then answers it. Observant readers will note that the meaning of “magic” changes subtly during the course of the story. I think this could be an interesting classroom or family discussion topic, especially with older children.

Finally, rather than focusing on the theme of the book at the outset, Malala gently guides her readers to the conclusion that using words, your voice, to effect social action is magical. What object could you use in a story to introduce your themes?

Read more about Malala and the Malala Fund. For another picture book about Malala, see Malala/Iqbal: Two Stories of Bravery (Jeanette Winter; Beach Lane Books/2014)

Find out more about the illustrator team, Kerascoët.

For a picture book with a similar message of the power of changing the world via words and/or pictures, see When I Coloured in the World (Ahmadreza Hamadi/Ehsan Abdollahi; Tiny Owl Publishing/2017).

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

PPBF – Friends Forever

I found today’s Perfect Picture Book at Dussman’s, a large German book store with a large foreign language section in the heart of Berlin, where I’m visiting my son who is studying abroad.

I traveled to Europe last Monday at the last-minute (and with no picture books in my luggage), to support him and several of his friends following the tragic, unexpected death of his close high school friend and former roommate.

While not about death or those dealing with the world-stage events besetting so many children, I believe today’s Perfect Picture Book is a touching reminder that loss, whatever its cause, has consequences, and that many rainy days elapse as we process our grief.

9783899557732Title: Friends Forever

Written By: Roald Kaldestad

Illustrated By: Bjørn Rune Lie

Translated By: Rosie Hedger

Publisher/date: Little Gestalten/2016 (originally published in Norse, Magikon Forlag/2014)

Suitable for Ages: 6-9

Themes/Topics: loss, moving, friendship, grief

Opening:

Two hundred and sixty-nine rainy days. He watches the leaves as they float and fall from the trees like the pages of a calendar. Two hundred and sixty-nine days. And whenever it rains, he misses his best friend.

Brief Synopsis:

A young boy misses, and reminisces about, his best friend who has moved from his neighborhood, and comes to terms with the separation.

Links to Resources:

  • The Main Character and his friend have buried an object that was special to them. Have you ever buried or set something special in a secret hiding place with a friend?
  • Has one or more of your friends or relatives moved away, or have you moved from friends or relatives? How did you feel? If you felt particularly sad or lonely, what did you do to feel better?

Why I Like this Book:

Friends Forever is a child-centric exploration of loss and the process of grieving and surviving a separation. In the story, the unnamed male main character mourns the loss of his female best friend who has moved away. He thinks of her especially on the many rainy days, which he has counted since she left. As life moves on for his family, the boy continues to think, and dream about, his friend, reminiscing about shared moments and wondering about her new life. But as the skies clear, a new girl moves into the friend’s vacant home, and the reader feels hopeful as the main character views her as a possible new friend.

Although Friends Forever is about a European child in a two-parent home, I can envision children who have lost loved ones to death or separation, or who have experienced traumatic events or moves, to find comfort in the story, much of which happens in the forests where the friends had played together.

With its higher word count and muted color palette, Friends Forever has an older feel to it. Lie, a graphic designer by profession, incorporates a 1950s esthetic, even as he incorporates modern touches, such as the father working on his laptop. While one may question the jacket illustration, which, incidentally was not the original cover in the Norse edition (see below), it brought to my mind the Lost Boys of Peter Pan or the books of my own childhood filled with “western” adventures that, today, seem insensitive.

A Note about Craft:

At 48 pages, Friends Forever is longer than the typical American picture book, with a higher word count as well. American writers may, in fact, wonder that so many extra details and side stories are included. I think Kaldestad was trying to capture the main character’s mood and resignation by drawing out the text, something that I don’t believe the typical American publishers would allow.

Interestingly, the original title, To hundre og Sekstini dagar, or, “Two Hundred and Sixty-nine Days,” is a title that I don’t believe a US publisher would use for a picture book, and even the German publisher has changed it.

Friends Forever is told from the point of view of the child left behind. We learn, though, that the friend who has moved also misses him by the inclusion of packages she sends him.

For more images from Friends Forever, visit Lie’s website.

Friends Forever is available in the US and was reviewed by Kirkus in 2016.

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

PPBF – Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote

My pick for today is not the tale of a refugee nor does it cast a spotlight on a place experiencing conflict. It does, however, shed light on the Spanish-language author equivalent to Shakespeare, and offer hope and insights to those experiencing personal and/or societal conflict or pain.  I hope you agree that it’s a Perfect Picture Book:

MiguelsBraveKnight_mainTitle: Miguel’s Brave Knight: Young Cervantes and His Dream of Don Quixote

Poems Written By: Margarita Engle

Illustrated By: Raúl Colón

Publisher/date: Peachtree Publishers/October 2017

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes/Topics: imagination; poetry; historical fiction; hope; resilience

Opening:

Happiness

When I close my eyes,

I ride up high

on a horse the color of moonrise!

But then I open my eyes,

and all I see is Papá, selling

the last of the horses from his stable—

Brief Synopsis: Through free-verse poetry, the life and dreams of young Miguel Cervantes are explored, offering a clue into what inspired the writing of Don Quixote, the first modern novel.

Links to Resources:

  • Check out the Teacher’s Guide, including a Vocabulary Puzzle Game, Windmill drawing activity, and poetry prompt;
  • An Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, Historical Note, Biographical Note, and “Don Quixote, a Cultural Icon” provide context;
  • Create your own windmill;
  • Young Cervantes was a dreamer. What do you imagine when you dream? Who are you and what do you do? Write a poem setting out these ideas (“When I dream…,” or “Sometimes I imagine…”, or, the prompt suggested in the Teacher’s Guide, “In my daydreams, I…”).

Why I Like this Book:

Miguel’s Brave Knight is a beautiful book – both the free verse poems exploring young Cervantes’ fears and dreams and the gorgeous water-colored pen and ink illustrations that accompany the text. While many children may not know firsthand the story of Don Quixote, I think they will be keen to learn more about this seminal book after reading Miguel’s Brave Knight.

In addition, by juxtaposing young Miguel’s family circumstances with his dreams and writing, I think Engle’s poems will speak to children who themselves are experiencing family or societal hardships firsthand. In “Hunger,” Engle writes, They even took our beds and plates./ Where will we sleep?/ How will we eat? Reading these words, I can’t help but picture children living in impoverished households with one or more caregiver incarcerated, those whose parents face deportation, and refugees. Thankfully, Engle also posits in “Comfort,” the spark of a story…/A tale about a brave knight/ who will ride out on/ a strong horse/ and right/ all the wrongs/ of this confusing/ world.

A Note about Craft:

Engle, the Young People’s Poet Laureate, wrote Miguel’s Brave Knight as a series of free verse poems, told from a first-person Point of View. I think this works well for a fictionalized biography (fiction, because Engle shares Cervantes’ thoughts and feelings), especially of an author.

In an Author’s Note, Engle shares that she visited the windmills of Spain as a teen with her family, grew up surrounded by the images of Don Quixote, and “wrote Miguel’s Brave Knight to show how the power of imagination can be a great source of comfort and hope in times of struggle and suffering.” What draws you to write or illustrate a story and what further themes can you pull from that story?

In Reading Picture Books with Children (Charlesbridge, 2015), Megan Dowd Lambert champions the whole book approach, and counsels that everything about a picture book can help tell the story. In Miguel’s Brave Knight, the endpapers are particularly relevant, and readers are treated to an imaginative surprise when they peek under the jacket cover.

Learn more about Margarita Engle and Raúl Colón. See my reviews of Engle’s All the Way to Havana and Bravo!: Poems about Amazing Hispanics.

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

Monster! A Halloweensie Tale

Happy Halloween! That day when all things pumpkin flavored, scented and colored rule; when every dog who has ever shared our home cowers under covers as the doorbell rings again, and again, and again; and when writers of picture books converge like a coven of witches and warlocks to stir 100 words into Halloweensie treats for kids of all ages.

The rules as stated on Susanna Hill’s site are simple: 100 words (not including the title); kid-friendly; using the terms monster, candy corn (counted as one word), and shadow. Entries are linked at Susanna’s site – read as many as you dare! I double dare you to comment on as many as you can! I trust you won’t be disappointed – they’re much more satisfying than anything you’ll find at the bottom of a treat bag.

And now, without further adoooOOO..

MONSTER! (100 words)

Jeremiah whispered, “I vant to drink your blood.”

But then he bumped into Jessy’s desk. Milk spilled across her homework.

She yelled, “Monster!”

“No! I’m not!”

He stumbled down the stairs, smashing into Gran’s favorite planter. CRASH!

She cried, “Monster!”

“No! I’m not!”

Jeremiah tripped and toppled the candy corn dish.

Jimmy hissed, “Monster!”

“No! I’m not!”

Lips quivering over bloodied fangs, Jeremiah squinted at his blurry shadow.

“What do they see that I don’t?”

He sighed. “Everything.”

Jeremiah straightened his cape, grabbed a sack, and put on his thick glasses.

“I’m no Monster! This Vampire vants to trick or treat!”