Going to Mecca


Written by Na’ima B. Robert, illustrated by Valentina Cavallini
Frances Lincoln, 2012.

Ages: 5+

Going to Mecca opens with the image of a family getting ready for a trip to Saudi Arabia, where they will be performing the Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca that is considered one of the pillars of the Islamic faith. We see the youngest of the three children waving goodbye to his parents and siblings. Still a baby, and not yet ready for the journey his family is about to embark on, he is staying with grandma.

Focusing on one family’s experience, Going to Mecca brings to life, with spare and evocative language, the long days of walking, the crowds (“…the city swells with pilgrims from all lands. From city and steppe, from island and desert, they all congregate…”), as well as all the places and sacred rituals of the Hajj, which for many Muslims is a once in a lifetime experience.

Cavallinni’s collage/mixed media illustrations convey the pilgrim crowd’s immensity and diversity in gorgeous high-angle perspectives—tens of thousands of people in all directions, different groups merging into one big river of humans.

The meaning of each of the sites visited and rites performed during the pilgrimage is explained in an end note that also offers highlights on the history of Mecca to help put the Hajj into context for those who may be learning about it for the first time. While the end notes are very helpful, the book might also have benefitted from a preface (at least in the case of non-Muslim readers, who may need a second reading, as it is, to fully absorb and appreciate it). Admittedly, this is a very small quibble with an otherwise beautiful, relevant and well-executed book.

Going to Mecca is a great introduction to the meaning and reality of the Hajj to Muslims. Non-Muslim children and adults alike will learn a great deal from it, and Muslim readers of any age will rejoice in seeing such a crucial element of their faith portrayed so beautifully and respectfully.


Starry River of the Sky

StarryRiverOfTheSkyWritten and illustrated by Grace Lin,
Little, Brown, 2012.

Ages: 8-12

Grace Lin’s new middle-grade fantasy, Starry River of the Sky, is a gem every bit as compelling as its companion, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and cut from the same bedrock too: it masterfully weaves Chinese folklore into a richly textured yarn about magic, unexpected connections and the power of stories to shape our lives.

When Rendi, after running away from home in anger, finds a job as a helper at an Inn, he finds the small, in-the-middle-of-nowhere village of Clear Sky and its inhabitants mysteriously odd and out of sorts. For starters, the moon seems to be missing. Then there is Peiyi, the innkeeper’s daughter, whom he loves to tease and whose brother has disappeared; an unhappy neighbor who argues all the time; Mr. Shan, who seems confused about his pet; and finally, Madame Chang, a mysterious and beautiful woman with a gift for storytelling.

While cursing his past and planning his escape from the village, Rendi is both captivated and haunted by Madame Chang’s stories, as well as by the stories the others around him start sharing. Instead of giving him answers, though, these tales seem to leave him with even more questions. Could these people and what they are revealing possibly be related to the missing moon and to the disappearance of Peiyi’s brother? Could they even be related to his own story?

The realism of the characters blended with familiar folktales (which appear in a different font, to differentiate them from the rest of the narrative) and well-placed fantastical elements allows readers to feel magically connected to Rendi and the world of Clear Sky. As the stories within the story start transforming the characters’ lives, we follow Rendi’s journey from anger and confusion toward compassion and understanding, and—reluctantly, at first—toward what he knows in his heart he must do.

With stunning full-color page illustrations sprinkled throughout, Starry River of the Sky is a beautiful, quiet, rich, and memorable book. Heartfully and skillfully executed, it is thoroughly enchanting––and a find at any age!

Sora and the Cloud

SoraAndTheCloudWritten and illustrated by Felicia Hoshino with Japanese translation by Akiko Hisa
Immedium, 2012.

Bilingual: English/Japanese

Ages: 3-8

Sora and the Cloud is award-winning illustrator Felicia Hoshino’s debut as an author. Featuring Sora, a little boy whose name means “sky,” this very delicate, whisper-like story in English and Japanese is about Sora discovering the world with the help of a fluffy cloud friend. And how appropriate that cloud and sky should come together!

While Sora and Cloud float around town dreaming up adventures, little Sora gets to see many familiar places (some readers will recognize the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Chinatown) and to learn more about his Japanese heritage. “Like a mobile in the breeze, Sora’s sky adventure spins all around him,” until he drifts gently into sleep and back down to earth, where more adventures await. The last page shows Sora and his family relaxing together under a big tree – the image of his little sister looking up to the sky and saying hello to a cloud fittingly pointing to the universality of children’s sense of wonder and boundless imagination.

Fans of Hoshino’s illustration work in A Place Where Sunflowers Grow and Little Sap and Monsieur Rodin will find the watercolors/mixed media inthis bilingual treat a treasure trove to pore over and marvel at. The double spread of cute ants busily moving around town, matching Sora’s impression of people as tiny ants when seen from up above, is priceless. It adds a touch of sweet humor to a story that is all warmth, delicacy and gentle embrace.

Sora and the Cloud soars in more ways than one, and is a perfect story to share with very young ones who are starting to look at the world with wonder and amazement.

The short Japanese phrases and cultural references sprinkled throughout the book are translated and explained in the end matter, where we also learn that a portion of the book’s proceeds go to the Japan Earthquake Relief.

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match

MarisolMcDonaldDoesntMatchWritten by Monica Brown, illustrated by Sara Palacios, with Spanish translation by Adriana Domínguez
Children’s Book Press, 2011 (as of 2012 an imprint of Lee & Low Books).

Ages 4-8

Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match/Marisol McDonald no combina is a perky bilingual tale about a mixed-heritage girl with a lot of spunk, by award-winning author Monica Brown (Waiting for the Biblioburro; Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People).

Inspired by the author’s personal experience as a Peruvian-American of European, Jewish and Amerindian descent, Marisol McDonald introduces us to a one-of-a-kind girl who defies stereotypes.

Stripes, polka dots and flower prints peacefully co-exist on Marisol’s outfit ensembles. In real life, however, her looks, clothes, playground games and food preferences seem to puzzle her friends, who love to say she “doesn’t match”.

Enchanting and quirky Marisol clearly marches to the beat of her own drums. And why wouldn’t she? After all, there’s nothing wrong with liking peanut butter & jelly burritos; wanting to play a game of soccer-pirates; or signing her first name in cursive and her last in print.

When a school friend challenges her, “Marisol, you couldn’t match if you wanted to!”, Marisol sets out to prove him wrong, dressing for school the next day in a single solid color, eating a “regular” peanut butter & jelly sandwich for lunch, playing a “normal” game of soccer… and feeling wrong all day long, until a thoughtful note from her teacher snaps her back to her old, cheerful, “mismatched” self.

Radiating joy and fun, Sara Palacios’ Pura Belpré Honor illustrations bring Marisol to life and convey the riches of her life and heritage. Children will enjoy looking for and finding clues in the pictures to all the different cultures, as well as to the story’s geographical—and very apt—setting.

Marisol’s lively story ends on a happy and sweet note, leaving readers with the important message that diversity is something to be embraced and celebrated.

Moon Mangoes

Moon MangoesWritten by Lindy Shapiro, illustrated by Kathleen Peterson
BeachHouse, 2011.

Ages: 4-8

The winner of a Moonbeam Silver Medal, Maui-based author Lindy Shapiro’s Moon Mangoes is an ode to children’s imagination and a meditation on parental love.

Sitting on the front steps of their “tiny blue house with olive green shutters”, Mama and Anuenue (Anu, for short) cuddle up just before bedtime. Facing the beautiful mango tree in the front yard, they engage in a soothing and poetic dialog, prompted by Anu’s “what if” questions.

“What if I ate up all those mangoes one by one, and I got so full that I turned into a mango tree?” begins Anu.

“I would bring you fresh, cool water to drink every morning. I’d gently pull out any weeds that block the sun…” answers Mama.

Anu continues her litany of “what ifs” by asking what would happen if, instead of a tree, she turned into a kolohe ilio (dog), a pulelehua (butterfly), a pua’a (pig), a mo’o (lizard), a honu (turtle), and, finally, the moon that shines on their mango tree. Anu’s imagination, like Mama’s love, knows no boundaries.

Mama’s answer to each question assures Anu that she would be understood, cared for and loved, “no matter what if”.

Patterson’s full-page illustrations, whose wispy surfaces seem to have been wind-swept, aptly chronicle the inquisitive girl’s imagined transformations––from child to different animals to silvery moon and back again.

This story will get a nod of recognition from parents; and any child who has ever snuggled with a loved one to imagine, read or listen to stories will enjoy the familiar feeling of connection and security the book conveys. Moon Mangoes’ many qualities make it a perfect choice for bedtime or lap reading.

Riparia’s River

Riparia's RiverWritten by Michael J. Caduto, illustrated by Olga Pastuchiv,
Tilbury House, 2011.

Ages: 8+

Riparia’s River is author and ecologist Michael Caduto’s story of a community coming together to bring the river they love back to its natural, clean state.

Upon finding their favorite swimming hole full of slimy, smelly stuff one summer day, a group of young friends decide to follow the riverbank upstream to find out why. From a woman named Riparia, whom they find “surrounded by the arching branches of ancient trees”, they learn about the ways in which a nearby farm has been unintentionally affecting the river’s health, and come up with a plan to set things right.

Riparia gives the river voice by showing the kids how it responds to the process of human and natural disturbance. That she quietly and mysteriously disappears after showing them may leave some readers wondering… Who was she, really? If a river could talk, it is likely it would sound like Riparia.

Many of the solutions currently offered to our environmental challenges seem to rely upon a faith in the power of education, community and the human spirit, and that is precisely the message Riparia’s River conveys so well. Out of concern for their river, a group of children inspires a community to come together to restore and protect the body of water they all rely on and benefit from. Together they move the farm’s fence and transplant “wildflowers, shrubs and trees between the river and the new fence-line”to create a buffer zone.

Pastuchiv’s soft, fuzzy watercolors feature undefined characters that serve the text well. By making the children look vaguely generic (albeit clearly multicultural in their complexions), the illustrations reinforce the idea that they represent all children; that their river could be our river; their efforts, ours.

As more and more people these days learn about the importance of living in harmony with nature, this book provides a timely opportunity for parents and educators to talk to children about the role humans play in the creation of environmental imbalances—in particular those related to river habitats and their ecosystem—and how we can all be a part of the solution.

At story’s end, the children head out to the now clean swimming hole, and readers are presented with “The Fauna of Riparia’s River,” a list of birds, animals, reptiles and insects that appear throughout the book, as well as an invitation to find them all.

Day of the Dead / Dia de los muertos

“We celebrate our ancestors on the Day of the Dead / with offerings of flowers, sugar skulls, and bread”, begins El dia de los muertos/ The Day of the Dead, a bilingual picture book written and illustrated by Bob Barner and translated by Teresa Mlawer (Holiday House, 2010).

This book, with its illustrations of smiley and spirited skeletons, makes for a great introduction to the holiday for young children as a day of happy remembrance in honor of loved ones who have passed away. Its simple and well-crafted rhymes will peak kids’ interest and curiosity about the special foods, music, commemorative altars and parade that the celebration encompasses.

For more stories featuring endearing, not-scary-at-all skeletons, check out Yuyi Morales‘ Just a Minute Señor Calavera, a counting book and trickster tale about Señor Calavera’s (Mr. Skull) failed attempts to “take” Grandma Beetle with him.


HomeWritten, illustrated and designed by Nina Sabnani
Tulika, 2010.

Ages: 4-8

Home, Nina Sabnani’s new and ingeniously designed interactive book, is shaped like a house with a peaked roof. As a blurb on the back cover explains, the book’s design was inspired by the Kaavad, a portable wooden shrine made of many hinged panels and used by traditional storytellers in India to tell local myths and folktales. As is the case with the Kaavad, the idea behind Home is to “reinforce inter-connections within [one’s] community and to establish [one’s] own space in it.”

Home appeals strongly to both the eye and the imagination. Structurally, it’s designed to open and close, somewhat like a real house. Over a center panel, two tri-fold accordion panels unfold to the right and to the left as one “enters” the house. There is a second set of panels on the back side of the “house.” Each panel opens to reveal a few words and Sabnani’s bright renditions of an assortment of people and animals and the many different places and ways in which they live.

Readers can push open a cut-out window in the center panel of the book as they explore “the world” beyond them and ponder their own place in it (the window reveals either one or another of the panels, depending on the panels’ placement). Another great thing about this Home is that no keys are required to enter. Readers can come into it any way they please: through the front door, back door, the window… But regardless of how they enter, they’re likely to be staying a while, for, fold after fold after fold, they will be inspired to talk about their own ideas of family and home, and to put the book’s various panels and images together into stories of their own.

As interactive books go, this one takes the trophy for offering the right combination of learning and fun while stimulating thought and imagination. Highly recommended.

City of Stories


Rukmini Banerji, illustrated by Bindia Thapar,
City of Stories
Read India/Pratham Books, 2008.

Ages: 4-8

In Rukmini Banerji’s City of Stories, a girl living in “one of the biggest, busiest cities in the world” can’t seem to find anyone to tell her a story. Everyone she asks is busy doing house work, reading the newspaper, playing games, running errands…

Things change, however, when Didi, a girl who seems “older than the children and younger than the teacher” shows up at school and, to the little girl’s surprise, says: “I can tell you story. What kind of story would you like?”. Didi’s gift as a storyteller has the younger one entranced. Soon the other children in the school join them and become absorbed by the vivid details of the many stories Didi tells  them, again and again– animal stories, tales of adventure and mystery, stories about lost treasures and what to do when you are scared…

Soon, children from neighboring schools come. Children who had left school come. Even adults gather around Didi. They all listen eagerly, and learn how to spin their own tales. Their contagious enthusiasm spreads throughout the city and pretty soon begins to disturb the pace of life for its inhabitants. People, young and old, can’t stop listening and telling stories. As stories weave their way into their lives, they start forgoing their responsibilities–and to disastrous consequences: the postmen stop delivering the mail; bus drivers stop driving their buses; restaurants stop making food…

Accused of “flooding the city with an ocean of stories” that brings it to a halt, Didi and the little girl she first met are summoned to the Mayor’s mansion to set things straight. The outcome of their meeting, proposed by Didi, a simple one: “Let there be one story in the morning and one story in the evening.” Life in the big city, now known as the City of Stories, resumes its normal course, except that everyone’s lives have been enriched by stories and transformed forever.

Bindia Thapar’s exquisite watercolor and line-drawing illustrations showing the faces of enraptured, colorfully dressed children and images of the hub-hub of city life, brim with energy and details.

City of Stories is a reminder about the universal power of storytelling. It makes for a pitch-perfect read aloud – in the morning or at night.

Nabeel’s New Pants


Retold by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, illustrated by Prioti Roy,
Nabeel’s New Pants: An Eid Tale
Marshall Cavendish Children, 2010.

Ages: 4–8

In this lovely cumulative tale, after a very busy day selling shoes at his shop, a shoemaker named Nabeel goes out shopping for gifts for his family. They will be celebrating Eid the next day, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and he wants to give each one of them something new to wear for the festivities.

Prioti Roy’s (What Shall We Make?) bright pen and ink illustrations show Nabeel selecting aburqa for his wife, a dupatta (wraparound scarf) for his mother, some bangles for his daughter. Upon noticing his patched pants, Hamza, the shopkeeper, suggests Nabeel treats himself to a new pair. The only pair available is four fingers too long, and Hamza can’t shorten them because he must close the shop to get ready for Eid. Nabeel buys the pants anyway, convinced that having them shortened won’t be a problem.

At home Nabeel hands out, one by one, the gifts he’s bought. He is thanked and, in turn, is asked if he’s picked something new for himself to wear. He tells each of them, separately, about the pair of pants and how they need to be shortened by four fingers. “Could you shorten them for me?” he asks one after another. And one after another they gently say no. There’s much to do to prepare for Eid: the biryani, sheerkorma and samosas need to be cooked, the baby needs to be tended to… There just isn’t enough time.

In true cumulative-story fashion, Nabeel’s interaction with each family member represents a link in the chain of events narrated. Little ones will be excited to find out what’s next and anxious to learn how Nabeel’s quest to have his pants shortened finally ends.

Underlying this delightful story, which makes for a perfect read-aloud, is a reminder of the real significance of Eid: it isn’t about what you wear, after all.

A glossary of Arabic words is included.



Nina Sabnani,
Tulika, 2010.

Ages: 4–8

Home, Nina Sabnani’s new and ingeniously designed interactive book, is shaped like a house with a peaked roof. As a blurb on the back cover explains, the book’s design was inspired by theKaavad, a portable wooden shrine made of many hinged panels and used by traditional storytellers in India to tell local myths and folktales. As is the case with the Kaavad, the idea behind Home is to “reinforce inter-connections within [one’s] community and to establish [one’s] own space in it.”

Home appeals strongly to both the eye and the imagination. Structurally, it’s designed to open and close, somewhat like a real house. Over a center panel, two tri-fold accordion panels unfold to the right and to the left as one “enters” the house. There is a second set of panels on the back side of the “house.”  Each panel opens to reveal a few words and Sabnani’s bright renditions of an assortment of people and animals and the many different places and ways in which they live.

Readers can push open a cut-out window in the center panel of the book as they explore “the world” beyond them and ponder their own place in it (the window reveals either one or another of the panels, depending on the panels’ placement). Another great thing about this Home is that no keys are required to enter. Readers can come into it any way they please: through the front door, back door, the window… But regardless of how they enter, they’re likely to be staying a while, for, fold after fold after fold, they will be inspired to talk about their own ideas of family and home, and to put the book’s various panels and images together into stories of their own.

As interactive books go, this one takes the trophy for offering the right combination of learning and fun while stimulating thought and imagination. Highly recommended.


Autorickshaw Blues and Other Colours

AutorickshawBluesAndOtherColoursWritten by Sadhana Ramchander, illustrated by Ragini Siruguri with help from Taposhi Ghoshal,
Katha, 2008.

Ages: 3-6

Autorickshaw Blues and other Colours is a result of a collaboration between Sadhana Ramchander and her ten-year-old daughter, Ragini Siruguri.

Ramchander renders her daughter’s experiences and feelings through poems that provide insight into the mind of a young child discovering and interpreting the world around her. The book opens and closes with poems about riding the autorickshaw to school (a three-wheeled open-sided vehicle used as public transportation). The first poem tells us how much longer the autorickshaw takes to get there than a ride in mother’s car. The final one, titled “I don’t want to go in the autorickshaw!” details the transformation, in the course of several weeks, of her daughter’s experience of riding the rickshaw to school. The young girl goes from complaining about how crowded it is and how hard the seats are, to making commuting friends and finally refusing a ride in her friend’s family car in favor of the autorickshaw.

Less culturally specific topics are also explored. “My sister’s ice cream”, for instance, describes how little sister eats her ice cream cone (“She holds the cone in her left hand/Her eyes gleaming under the red hair band”). “Toothpastes: Red, Green or Blue”, is an ode to toothpaste and its many colors and flavors (“Some have stripes, green on white/To make my teeth sparkling bright “). There are also poems about sneezing, swallowing a seed and worrying that it will grow inside you, being afraid of the dark… All in all, there’s much fun to be had in the pages of this slim and accessible book.

Siruguri’s candid drawings of happy, dark-haired children (including one of her little sister biting the bottom of her ice cream cone), and of the crowded autorickshaw on its way to school add much to this fun-filled teamwork. Kudos to mother and daughter for bringing this creative project to life with so much gusto.

A Million Shades of Gray

Cynthia Kadohata,
A Million Shades of Gray
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2010.

Ages 9–12

Cynthia Kadohata (Cracker! The Best Dog in Vietnam) once again writes about the bond between an animal and its owner in the context of the Vietnam War. With A Million Shades of Gray she introduces us to Y’Tin, a thirteen-year-old elephant handler from the Rhade tribe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, and Lady, the pregnant elephant he swears to protect.

The story takes place in 1975, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The Paris Peace Accord signed to signal the end of the war has been broken and Y’Tin’s village is attacked by the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. The American Special Forces haven’t kept their promise to provide military support.

Following his father’s orders, Y’Tin flees into the jungle with Lady, where his resourcefulness and bravery are put to the test. Like the “million shades of gray” of the jungle itself, Y’Tin’s life is no longer black and white. Readers follow his thought process as he tries to come to terms with the fact that he may not be able to keep his promise to Lady: indeed, the heart of the book lies in Y’tin’s perception of the chaos around him, as well as his struggle to survive and protect his elephant friend.

The story reveals many moments of heartbreaking reality, such as when one of Y’Tin’s elephant handler friends is killed “for no reason”, or when Y’Tin is forced, after being captured, to dig a mass grave for the dead in his village.  For the most part, however, Kadohata’s poignant narrative rises above the violence and insanity of battle to focus on its emotional and psychological impact on Y’Tin, who is forced to grow up too fast and to deal with the horrors of war guided by little more than his commitment to his elephant.

Y’Tin’s ability to cope with all the hardships he faces, as well as the tough choices he is forced to make, are unthinkable for most of us, who are far removed from the realities of war. A Million Shades of Gray will touch the minds and hearts of mature young readers and older readers alike. A Note at the end of the book talks about the author’s research process and her inspiration for the novel, and as readers absorb the bigger picture, readers will be rooting for Y’Tin and Lady’s survival from beginning to end.

Silence Seeker

Ben Morley, illustrated by Carl Pearce,
The Silence Seeker
Tamarind Books, 2009.

Ages 4–8

British author Ben Morley’s picture book debut, The Silence Seeker, handles the largely unexplored topic of asylum seekers with a feather-light yet sure-handed touch.

Next door to Joe’s house, in an unnamed inner-big-city neighborhood, a new boy and his family move in. Joe, a spectacled, friendly-looking young boy, immediately sees the new boy as a potential friend, and can’t wait to play with him outside.

When Joe’s mom explains that the boy is an asylum seeker, having never heard the expression before, Joe hears “silence seeker”. Knowing his neighborhood, as he does, like the back of his hand, he is convinced that he can help his new neighbor find some silence amidst the chaos of traffic jams, road work, and what not outside their door.

Joe invites the boy, who seems quite a bit older than he is (and we never get to know the boy’s name, where he came from or what brought him there), to follow him. He proceeds to take him to the quiet spots he knows of: the laundry room in the basement of his building; the bridge over the canal; even the dump… but everywhere they go, people are gathered, making noise. Silence is nowhere to be found.

However, even if they don’t realize it themselves, the quiet interaction between the two boys throughout the day seems to be, itself, the safe haven they search for. The picture of them holding hands – a plane flying above overhead – after sharing a jam sandwich, is very touching, and will likely convey to kids that sometimes the smallest gestures of kindness can make a world of difference.

The open ending, which has Joe waking up the next morning to the news that his newfound friend left with his family in the middle of the night, will leave readers of all ages with enough to imagine and interpret on their own.  It also makes for a perfect opportunity for parents to initiate a conversation about the difficult and uncertain situation of refugees and asylum seekers, and what they can do to offer a helping hand.

Children of War: Voices of Iraqi Refugees

ChildrenOfWarWritten by Deborah Ellis
Groundwood Books, 2009.

Ages: 12+

With Children of War, Deborah Ellis continues her admirable efforts to expose the effects of the Iraq war on children, this time focusing on the plight of Iraqi refugees.

Following the same format as she adopted for Off to War: Voices of Soldiers’ Children, where the children’s narratives were given center stage preceded only by a brief introduction that helps shed light on their individual stories, in Children of War Ellis interviews 24 young refugees, ages 8-19. A four-page general introduction contextualizes the conflict and the role of the U.S. in it for children and young adults, who, like the interviewees themselves, are likely to have very strong opinions about the war after reading all the harrowing accounts of violence witnessed and suffered.

In her brief introduction to seventeen-year-old Eva’s account, the author quotes some astonishing statistics: according to a trauma survey of Iraqi refugees in Syria, conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2008, “77% of the refugees had been affected by air bombardment, shelling or rocket attacks; 80% had witnessed a shooting”… and the list of horrors goes on. Eva herself reveals: “My whole life has been war. My mother was giving birth to me [during the war with Iran] when a missile hit the hospital.”

We learn that while a few of the young people highlighted have managed to flee to Canada or elsewhere, most have gone to neighboring Jordan, where they have been living in refugee camps, in dire conditions. Michael, age 12, says: “We were supposed to go to Australia, but Australia changed its mind and doesn’t want us. So here we sit, waiting.” His words illustrate the unbearable uncertainty and total dependency refugees face, in addition to other hardships such as loss of identity (both literally and symbolically), prejudice and more.

These young refugees’ lives have clearly been shattered, yet their hopes and dreams of returning home or finding a safe place to start anew, remain alive. While many express feelings of anger and confusion about a situation over which they have no control, their resilience seems to prevail.

A must, if devastating, read, this book really helps raise awareness of the vulnerable and heartbreaking situation of refugees, and is likely to inspire social justice-oriented readers to start advocating on their behalf.

Black and white photos of the interviewees and a partial map of the Middle East are included.

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya

BookCoverDonna Jo Napoli, illustrated by Kadir Nelson,
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya
Paula Wiseman/Simon & Schuster, 2010.

Ages 4-8

Nobel Peace Prize-winning Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai is the subject of Mama Miti, a picture book collaboration between Donna Jo Napoli (Bound, Ready to Dream) and Kadir Nelson (We Are the Ship).

Mama Miti means “mother of trees” in the Kikuyu language of Kenya’s largest ethnic group, and makes for a perfect nickname for someone who “changed a country, tree by tree,” helping its deforested, dry landscape return to its natural green state.

Wangari became well-known in her homeland – and indeed the world over – for her knowledge of ecology and sustainable development, and for her work as founder of the Green Belt Movement. People would travel from all parts of Kenya for a chance to ask her advice on how to address their various challenges, such as dealing with sick or starving animals, streams which no longer provided drinking water, lack of shelter, and more. Planting a tree was what she always recommended.

“Plant them. Plant as many as you can,” she would say, handing them seedlings for themukuyu tree, which acts as nature’s filter to clean streams; for muthakwa wa athi, whose leaves cure gall sickness in cattle; for muheregendi, which makes good animal feed. Occasionally, she would also recommend they plant muringa, “for the pure joy of their white flowers.”  One by one they would return home and carry out her instructions. Their lives improved and their trees grew; and then “they shared new seedlings with their neighbors, who carried them home and grew their own trees.” An Afterword also provides a timeline that will help young ones understand this beautiful narrative within the wider context of Wangari Maathai’s accomplishments.

Visually speaking, too, this book speaks volumes. While much has been said about Kadir Nelson’s talent, I think nowhere is it more evident than in this book. His mixed-media art of oil paints and colorful printed fabrics make for illustrations that are bathed in light and easy to love. They are a beautiful tribute to the can-do spirit and resilience that Wangari Maathai and her fellow countrymen and women embody. Wangari’s portrait on the last page, for instance, has an aura of gentleness to it that makes one think of her as Mother Earth herself, offering protection. This is an awe-inspiring and glorious book all around!

A glossary of Kikuyu words and author and illustrator’s notes are included.


Suzy Lee,
Seven Footer Kids, 2010.

Ages 3–5

From a very early age children are fascinated with looking at themselves in the mirror. Suzy Lee’s new wordless picture book, Mirror, explores this universal childhood experience by introducing us to a young girl who beats boredom (or is it sadness?) by playing with her own reflection… until something unexpected happens.

Lee’s award-winning minimalist style of broad black brushstrokes with one accent color (in this case bright yellow) creates a great sense of movement in this book that is all about expression. On its skinny pages shaped like a mirror, making use of the gutter as the mirror surface, we find a young girl making faces in front of a mirror. She looks away, then directly into her reflection’s eyes; she sticks out her tongue… Soon she seems to have developed a full-blown relationship with her faithful reflection, playing exuberantly with it as they move closer and closer to each other. They get so close, in fact, that… uh-oh. She seems to have gone through the looking glass.

After a blank double-page spread that effectively creates tension, she’s back into view. But something doesn’t look right. She no longer controls her reflection, which seems to have acquired a life of its own. She doesn’t like it one bit, and finds a way to teach the “misbehaving one” a lesson. But at what cost?…

The book ends exactly as it started: with the young girl huddled on the floor, covering her face. No play mate in sight.

Suzy Lee’s books are so simple, and yet so sophisticated in their simplicity. This one is a rare gem, both on the surface and beyond.

I Like to Play


Marla Stewart Konrad,
I Like to Play
Tundra Books, 2010.

Ages 3-6

“I like to play, don’t you?” is the opening and closing sentence in this beautiful collaboration between Tundra Books and World Vision Canada, a development and advocacy organization dedicated to helping children, families and communities across the globe overcome poverty and injustice. With text by Marla Stewart Konrad, I like to Play is the latest book in the World Vision series of photo essays, whose aim is to communicate visually the ways in which children the world over are different and the same. The other titles in the series are Getting ThereMom and Me and Grand.

The book cover of I Like to Play shows a young child playing doctor, using a toy stethoscope. Inside, simple sentences about different forms of play are accompanied by striking images of smiley children dancing, skipping, jumping, flying kites, building with blocks, playing ball; children learning and growing and making the most of their environment and circumstances; children having fun and making sense of their world through play.

The photo credits listed at the beginning indicate the countries where the photos were taken and give an idea of the book’s scope: Armenia, Bangladesh, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Honduras, Indonesia, Malawi, Myanmar, Mongolia, Nepal, Peru, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

After reading and looking at all the photos, children will figure out for themselves that rich or poor, solo or in group, with store-bought or homemade toys, or with no toys at all, playing is something children do, no matter where, no matter what.

Royalties for the sale of the book go to support World Vision’s work with children.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan


Jeanette Winter,
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan
The Global Fund for Children/ Charlesbridge, 2009.

Ages 8–12

Following on from The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, about a librarian who risked her life to save books from Basra’s library during the war in Iraq, Jeannete Winter turns her attention to Afghanistan in this, her latest book. Dedicated to the courageous women of Afghanistan, Nasreen’s Secret School is based on a young girl’s encounter with loss and intolerance during the Taliban regime, and how attending a secret school for girls helps her regain hope.

When soldiers take Nasreen’s father away, her life starts to unravel: her mother leaves to go look for him, and so great is Nasreen’s pain, with only her grandmother left, that she stops talking. Forbidden, according to the Taliban’s rules, to attend school and to learn anything involving books and letters, she passes her days indoors, with no contact with the outside world. Eventually, against all odds and thanks to her grandmother’s foresight, Nasreen starts attending a secret school for girls: a one-room school functioning covertly in a private home. Little by little, as Nasreen makes a friend, learns to read and write, and finds history and adventure in the pages of her books, hope starts coming back into her heart: until, one day, she is finally able to talk again.

An author’s note at the beginning of the book, including facts and statistics about Afghanistan before and after the Taliban seized control, helps contextualize the narrative and lets readers know that the country was, in a not so distant past, a culturally and artistically rich place that had a much healthier and more generous attitude towards education and the rights of women.

Winter’s trademark art incorporates bright colors, folk-like motifs and images of doorways and windows to convey the power of knowledge and the possibility of transformation: from confinement to freedom, hopelessness to faith in the future. “Nasreen no longer feels alone. The knowledge she holds inside will always be with her, like a friend,” concludes her grandmother. Nasreen’s experiences stand for those of many other Afghani girls, and her secret school for the countless schools which sprang up throughout the country in defiance of the Taliban regime. Although Nasreen’s Secret School may not be an easy book to share with young children, it is definitely an important one. One which rewards those willing to venture into its uneasy waters.

Many Windows: Six Kids, Five Faiths, One Community

ManyWindowsRukhsana Khan, with Uma Krishnaswami and Elisa Carbone,
Napoleon & Company, 2008.

Ages: 9-12

Award-winning writer Rukhsana Khan teams up with authors Uma Krishnaswami and Elisa Carbone in Many Windows, a book about six children of different faiths sharing one community.

TJ’s narrative snapshots open and close the circle of interlinked stories. The new kid in town, TJ is anything but ready to make friends. On the contrary: unable to connect, he is suspicious of people’s motives, and ready to take down anyone who crosses him.

The other five kids in the book are friends, in and out of school. Deepa, Natalie, Jameel, Stephanie and Benjamin, whose religious backgrounds are different, love to play basketball together, but since their friend Bani moved away they have had to play it “two to three.”

Deepa misses Bani terribly; Jameel is suspicious of his uncle, who is visiting from Pakistan to celebrate Eid ul Fitr with his family; Benjamin finds the perfect birthday gift for his mother at Natalie’s family’s jewelry store and dreads going to visit his forgetful grandmother at the nursing home; and Stephanie gets to bring home a homeless kitten to keep as a pet… Through their stories, sometimes told in the first, sometimes in the third person, we get a glimpse of their lives and their religious and moral beliefs.

When Christmas Day comes, which Stephanie’s family celebrates, all the kids go help out at a Soup Kitchen. Even TJ has come to help. Or has he? TJ observes the group of friends: “They are a team even when they are not playing basketball.” His parents have gone out for Christmas dinner without him. He has really gone to the Soup Kitchen for the meal, but afraid of what his classmates will think, he doesn’t set things straight when they thank him for coming to help––and ends up helping indeed.

With chapters focusing on each of the six kids and an information section on the religious celebrations they observe (Diwali, Hanukkah, Buddha’s Birthday, Ramadan and Eid ul Fitr, Christmas), the book ends with the kids playing basketball––finally three on three again–– suggesting that TJ is finally ready to make friends and embrace his new community.

Many Windows is a book that will introduce children to the importance of being part of a community whose members respect and value one another––a gentle and crucial message our youth would benefit from finding in other contemporary stories.