Tag Archives: historical fiction

PPBF – Flowers for Sarajevo

As natural and man-made disasters continue to dominate the news, it’s difficult to remain hopeful. But today’s Perfect Picture Book shows that one act of kindness and beauty can spread, one person at a time:

FlowersforSarajevo_mainTitle: Flowers for Sarajevo

Written By: John McCutcheon

Illustrated By: Kristy Caldwell

Publisher/date: Peachtree Publishers/2017

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Themes/Topics: historical fiction, music, Sarajevo, Bosnian War, beauty, healing

Opening:

See that man in the floppy hat? That’s Milo. He’s my father. He can sniff out the best roses in all of Sarajevo. Many kinds of people come together here in our marketplace, looking for spices, meats, and bread. Sometimes they buy, sometimes they don’t. But almost everyone leaves with flowers. Milo’s flowers.

Brief Synopsis: Drasko, the son of a flower seller, experiences war firsthand in Sarajevo when a bomb detonates near the local bakery. He also experiences the solace of music when a noted musician plays a daily tribute to those whose lives were lost. Moved by the music, Drasko discovers a way to spread beauty himself in his war-ravaged city.

Links to Resources:

  • Listen to the CD that accompanies the book; how does the music make you feel?
  • A Discussion Guide is available from Peachtree;
  • Learn about Bosnia and Herzegovina and its capital city, Sarajevo;
  • How do you spread kindness and beauty? Some ideas to try include sharing artwork, homemade greeting cards or music with elderly or ill neighbors, family members or friends.

Why I Like this Book:

War is never an easy topic to address in picture books, but Flowers for Sarajevo does so in a way that empowers rather than traumatizes children. Rather than focusing on the bakery bombing and senseless killing, McCutcheon focuses on the actions afterwards that spread hope and beauty from one person to the next. By doing so, he shows readers how they can bring about positive change, whether after a personal or larger manmade or natural disaster.

Caldwell utilizes a muted palate and faded backgrounds, except for splashes of color on the flowers that draw readers’ attention to them.

A Note about Craft:

In an Author’s Note, McCutcheon, a storyteller and Grammy-winning musician, explains that he first learned about the cellist memorialized in Flowers for Sarajevo in a New York Times article. McCutcheon then wrote a song about Vèdran Smailovic, the musician, which is included in the book.

Rather than writing the story as non-fiction from an adult’s point of view, McCutcheon invented a child narrator, Drasko, who experienced Smailovic’s daily concerts and, moved by the music, spread beauty, too. By veering from the factual article and fictionalizing the story, McCutcheon renders it more kid-relatable.

McCutcheon further engages the reader by speaking directly to her or him. The story opens, “See that man…” The reader is thus on location with Drasko, and invited, in a way, to follow Drasko, his father, and the cellist to do her or his “own small part” to make the world beautiful.

In addition to the Author’s Note, back matter includes information about the Balkan peninsula and the Bosnian war, with further reading; the text and music for John McCutcheon’s song, Streets of Sarajevo, a short biography of cellist, Smailovic, and a CD.

Flowers for Sarajevo is a Parents Choice Gold Award winner.

Visit John McCutcheon’s website here. Visit Kristy Caldwell’s website here.

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- A Place Where Sunflowers Grow

Regular readers of this blog know that for the past several months, I’ve focused on picture books about refugees, migrants and areas affected by immigration bans – stories set in those regions and/or by authors and illustrators hailing from those regions. Today’s choice may seem at first blush to be a deviation from this focus. I’d argue, though, that the themes in today’s Perfect Picture Book, in particular forced relocation and finding hope through art, are illuminating to those trying to understand, convey to children or write about these difficult current issues. It’s also a lovely book about a difficult topic rarely addressed in picture books.

main_largeTitle: A Place Where Sunflowers Grow

Written By: Amy Lee-Tai

Illustrated By: Felicia Hoshino

Japanese Translation By: Marc Akio Lee

Publisher/date: Children’s Book Press (an imprint of Lee & Low Books)/2006

Suitable for Ages: 7-10

Themes/Topics: Japanese internment; World War II; historical fiction; relocation; bilingual; art; #WNDB

Opening:

Mari stared at the ground. It had only been a week since she and her mother had planted a handful of sunflower seeds outside their new home. Mari asked Mama, “Will these flowers grow as tall and strong and beautiful as the ones in our old backyard?”

Brief Synopsis: When Mari, a young Japanese-American girl, and her family are relocated to an internment camp during World War II, art and gardening help Mari adjust to the unfamiliar and harsh conditions.

Links to Resources:

  • For background about the Japanese internment, see Lee-Tai’s Introduction about the experiences of her mother and grandparents at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah;
  • See the comprehensive Teacher’s Guide;
  • The Topaz Museum opened last month and displays examples of artwork from the Center on its site. Lee-Tan attended the opening and blogged about it here.

Why I Like this Book:

This is the first picture book I’ve read about the experiences of Japanese-American children in the internment centers. Although I knew that the relocations and life in the camps were difficult, I had no idea of the efforts of Japanese-American artists to continue creating and sharing art with fellow internees, including the children. And although the internment is a difficult topic to explore with children, I love the resilience and hopefulness that are evident in this story.

The text is in English and Japanese, a fitting tribute to those Japanese-Americans whose first language was Japanese. Hoshino studied the artworks of Lee-Tai’s grandmother, Hisako Hibi, and she based some of her watercolor, ink, tissue paper and acrylic illustrations on Hibi’s work.

A Note about Craft:

At first blush, the title, A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, may seem a bit misplaced: this picture book is about Japanese internment during World War II, not gardening. But by utilizing this natural, floral motif, Lee-Tai enables the reader to hope, like Mari, that sunflowers, like those that grew in the backyard she misses, will bloom in the desert and peace will return to the world.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is a work of fiction, but it is based on the experiences of Lee-Tai’s mother and family during World War II. Both of Lee-Tai’s grandparents were artists and produced artwork while at the Center. Her grandfather ran the Topaz art school for part of the war, and her mother and uncle attended art classes there. With these many experiences to draw upon, why did Lee-Tai choose to write a work of historical fiction? And, for writers, why may we make the same choice? In an interview, Lee-Tai stated,

By creating a character that readers might relate to or feel empathy for, I hope this book will plant some seeds in readers: to steer clear of racial and ethnic targeting in their individual interactions with others, and to work towards a world that will not commit other atrocities targeting entire races or ethnicities.

A Place Where Sunflowers Grow  won the 2007 Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for younger children.

Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Books list provides reviews of picture books by topic. While Susanna is taking a break for the summer, you can still check out the other great picture books featured there!