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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – A River of Dust

 

A RIVER OF DUST

Written by Jilanne Hoffmann

Illustrated by Eugenia Mello

(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-10)

A River of Dust cover North Africa to Amazon.

 

 

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly
A Junior Library Guild Selection
An ALA 2024 Notable Picture Book

 

Before even opening up A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, I was dazzled by the dusting of gold on the title that I hadn’t noticed in photos.

Told from an engaging personified point of view, this picture book’s narrator introduces itself in the third spread. “I am dust, the dust of North Africa.” Readers are told that this dust connects continents and I, for one, was eager to find out how. The concept fascinated me; dust describing what an important role it plays in the ecosystem as it makes its way from “a ribbon of land spread between the Sahara Desert, to the north, and tropical savanna, to the south. Land that stretches from the Red Sea, in the east, to the Atlantic Ocean, in the west.” Wow! I never thought about dust this way before.

 

A River of Dust int1 millions of years ago.
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

 

The flow of Hoffmann’s lyrical prose shares just the right amount of information for young readers to absorb. The warm muted desert tones of Mello’s illustrations rendered digitally and filled with flora and fauna, combine with the text to convey the importance of dust in our world. Each spread shows movement as the dust is carried across the pages. Older kids will pick up details that may not necessarily resonate with Kindergartners yet there is still so much for them to glean.

 

A River of Dust int2 I come from the Sahel.
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

While all readers learn that much of the dust disappears in myriad ways along the journey from North Africa to the Amazon, they’ll also find out how crucial the remaining dust is. Its cargo, precious phosphorus, is vital for the “rain-washed, depleted soil.” It will nourish the trees and help maintain the ecosystem.

 

A River of Dust int3 I fly across the Atlantic.
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

I wanted to know more about this layered, lush, and poetic picture book because of the wide age range. I asked Hoffmann how she feels the book can meet the differing needs and interests of the youngest to oldest audience members. What she told me would be helpful for parents, caregivers, teachers, and librarians to incorporate into any reading. Its broad reach is what makes the book so appealing.

“I think that kindergarten through 5th grade can get things out of the book, at different levels of comprehension. When I read it to younger kids, I focus on how we’re all connected, and how two continents maintain their connections, despite being separated for a LONG time, something that littles understand, because they miss people in their lives who may live far away, or they remember what it was like to be left by a parent on their first day of school. And how they stay connected through phone calls, or letters, or even Zoom calls. I also talk simply about phosphorus, and how dust carries it, and how it’s a mineral like calcium and iron, things that their bodies need to grow and be healthy (and how every living thing on this planet requires those things).”

 

A River of Dust int4 the dust of North Africa
Interior spread from A River of Dust written by Jilanne Hoffmann and illustrated by Eugenia Mello, Chronicle Books ©2023.

 

Info-packed pages of backmatter complete A River of Dust with facts for the oldest and most curious of readers. Even if you’re not scientifically minded, there is something in these six pages for everyone. Hoffmann explained this to me.

“The older kids get more info about how scientists figured this out through satellites, info about plate tectonics, how scientific understanding continues to change/evolve, etc. So the book can be understood simply or in a more complex way. My educator guide provides a ton of different activities across the curriculum for K-5, including a PE game.”

Be sure to check out the helpful and detailed learning resources available on Hoffman’s website to access the impressive educator’s guides, activities, and more. Pick up a copy today and let your kids be armchair travelers on this illuminating journey alongside dust that never ceases to amaze as it educates.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Picture Book Review – Who Ate What? A Historical Guessing Game for Food Lovers

 

WHO ATE WHAT?:

A Historical Guessing Game for Food Lovers

Written by Rachel Levin

Illustrated by Natalia Rojas Castro

(Phaidon; $19.95, Ages 5-8)

 

Who Ate What cover international foods and locations

 

 

Who Ate What? A Historical Guessing Game for Food Lovers by Rachel Levin is such an engaging book kids may forget they’re learning! The book is organized chronologically from cavepeople through what food of the future may be. In each of the ten historical groups, there are 15 food objects that kids will have fun looking for, especially when they realize three of these items are “off the menu.” I couldn’t help but play along—and I missed at least one in each section! For example, I guessed that cavepeople drank milk but then, when I turned the page, found that early humans couldn’t digest animal milk. One of my favorite “on the menu” items was hedgehog. These prickly critters were eaten by ancient Egyptians, and baked in a manner (thankfully) that removed the spines.

 

 

who ate what int1 what did cave people eat
Interior spread from Who Ate What? written by Rachel Levin and illustrated by Natalia Rojas Castro, Phaidon ©2023.

 

Each section has interesting edge-to-edge illustrations showing life during that period masterfully rendered by Natalia Rojas Castro. I especially like how she handles silly items such as delivered pizza or “ew” things like human eyes.

 

who ate what int2 cave people ate acorns
Interior spread from Who Ate What? written by Rachel Levin and illustrated by Natalia Rojas Castro, Phaidon ©2023.

 

 

This nonfiction picture book educates, entertains, and (best of all) is enjoyable. Kids will gravitate to the pages about Vikings, ninjas, and pirates, but if you want to know which group ate snakes and which one ate flamingos, you’ll have to read the book.

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Picture Book Review for Grandparents Day – Mama Shamsi At The Bazaar

 

MAMA SHAMSI AT THE BAZAAR

Written by Mojdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani 

Illustrated by Maya Fidawi

(Dial BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar cover Grandmother and grandaughter walking to bazaar

 

 

Written by mother-daughter duo Mojdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani and illustrated by Maya Fidawi, Mama Shamsi At The Bazaar shares the loving bond between grandmother and granddaughter as they venture out to share a new experience together.

 

Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar int1 ready to go to bazaar
Interior spread from Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar written by Mojdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani, and illustrated by Maya Fidawi, Dial Books for Young Readers ©2023.

 

Getting ready to go to the bazaar with her grandmother for the very first time, Samira is afraid she’ll get lost in the crowd. Again and again, she tries to coax Mama Shams into letting her hide under the protection of her veil. “‘Let’s get in line, under your chador, you in front, me behind!’” But each time, Mama Shams responds with a resounding “Na, na, na” followed by an exaggerated explanation of how silly they might look to passersby. “‘I’d look like a fool with four legs below me just like a mule!” 

 

Mama Shamsi at the bazaar int2 Samira and Mama Shamsi near bazaar
Interior spread from Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar written by Mojdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani, and illustrated by Maya Fidawi, Dial Books for Young Readers ©2023.

 

Textually, this lovely rhyming interchange between grandmother and granddaughter adds much humor and whimsy, while also providing a place for young readers of all backgrounds to stay grounded in the story as Mama Shamsi suggests the different types of animals she may be mistaken for if she acquiesces to Samira’s wish.

 

 

Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar int3 Mama Shamsi tells Samira to use her eyes and ears
Interior spread from Mama Shamsi at the Bazaar written by Mojdeh Hassani and Samira Iravani, and illustrated by Maya Fidawi, Dial Books for Young Readers ©2023.

 

Visually, their conversation introduces readers to the bustling capital of Iran, Tehran. Fidawi’s expressive illustrations are wonderfully and thoughtfully detailed from home to city life during the 1960s/’70s, reflecting the time period author Hassani grew up there. My personal favorites include the seated vendor on the street, prayer beads in hand, and chai brewing on a portable burner next to him, a grandmother on the balcony of a nearby apartment hanging clothes to dry, and another vendor selling my favorite Iranian street food: steamed beets. When they finally arrive at the bazaar, Samira feels assured that with Mama Shamsi by her side, she is safe to enjoy and explore her new world. 

For those seeking an intergenerational, diverse, sweet, and/or humorous story with a touch of social-emotional learning, this picture book ticks off all of the boxes. A recommended read for National Grandparents Day and year-round.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Middle Grade Nonfiction Book Review – Who’s Got Mail?

 

WHO’S GOT MAIL?
The History of Mail in America

Written by Linda Barrett Osborne

(Abrams BYR; $22.99, Ages 10-14)

 

 

Who's Got Mail cover assorted US stamps

 

Starred Review – Kirkus

 

REVIEW:

Long before there was email, there was V-mail. Short for “Victory mail” it was a system used during World War II as a way to save space for delivering other items, such as military supplies and equipment. This is just one of the many fascinating bits of information presented in Linda Barrett Osborne’s latest offering, Who’s Got Mail?: The History of Mail in America.

 

Who's Got Mail cover int pg5 intro
Interior spread from Who’s Got Mail? The History of Mail in America written by Linda Barrett Osborne, Abrams BYR ©2022.

 

Divided into ten chapters, the pages are cleverly designed to look like stamps themselves, with perforated borders. With photographs punctuating almost every page, it is very easy for middle-grade readers to remain interested in this nonfiction book and want to learn about the history of America and its postal service.

Although there is much to praise the USPS for throughout its long history, the author herself is to be praised for not shying away from addressing their treatment of African Americans and women, who each have a chapter dedicated just to them. Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans are grouped together in their own chapter as well, depicting clearly the discrimination that these minorities faced within the hierarchy of employment.

 

Who's Got Mail int pg129 women in the post office
Interior spread from Who’s Got Mail? The History of Mail in America written by Linda Barrett Osborne, Abrams BYR ©2022.

 

But it is not just the large issues that are written up so vividly. The small details are just as noteworthy. For example, this Canadian reviewer was truly surprised to learn that mail is delivered six times a week in America (as opposed to five times a week in Canada.)

Back matter includes a timeline beginning in 1753 with the British government appointing Benjamin Franklin as the deputy postmaster general of its colonies, to the present day, with the delivery of free in-home COVID-19 tests, and the signing of the Postal Service Reform Act into law by President Joe Biden thereby canceling USPS’s large debt.

 

Who's Got Mail int pg159 Asian American Firsts_
Interior spread from Who’s Got Mail? The History of Mail in America written by Linda Barrett Osborne, Abrams BYR ©2022.

 

In keeping with the subject matter of the book, both the jacket and the front and back covers are decorated with a variety of images of stamps courtesy of the National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution’s, 4000+ collection adding much information and interest. One celebrates abolitionist Harriet Tubman; another pays tribute to the Pony Express, which lasted for nineteen months beginning in 1860, using relays of riders on horses to deliver the mail.

A selected bibliography and index round out this must-read for both young (and old) history buffs who want to read about a unique and captivating subject.

  •  Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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An Interview with Wombats are Pretty Weird Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ABI CUSHMAN

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR OF

WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD

(GREENWILLOW BOOKS; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird cover four wombats

 

 

PUBLISHER SUMMARY:

Wombats might be pretty weird, but they’re pretty awesome, too! Wombats Are Pretty Weird is funny, kid-friendly, and informative, and features sidebars, comic panels, extensive backmatter, and a map. Acclaimed author-illustrator Abi Cushman’s nonfiction debut contains everything anyone could ever possibly want to know about wombats!

 

INTERVIEW:

Vicky Fang: Abi, WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is such a funny and informative book! I love how you use humorous dialog and illustrations to introduce so much fascinating information about wombats! How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Abi Cushman: Thank you, Vicky! I’ve been obsessed with wombats ever since I studied abroad at the University of Melbourne in Australia in 2001. I learned on a guided hike that wombats are the only animals in the world that have cube-shaped poop. This very odd tidbit of information along with the fact that wombats are adorable quickly made them one of my favorite animals. 

But it didn’t occur to me to write about them in a book until 2018 after I’d written several other fiction picture books. I was thinking about the cube poop fact, and I thought it would be funny to make a little comic where a wombat makes a tower out of its cubes of poop (similar to how a kid would make a tower out of blocks) and then is just really proud of how tall it was. I wasn’t sure at that point if there was enough there for a book, so I did more research, gathered more weird facts about wombats, and gained momentum.

 

VF: I love that scene in the book with the cube poop tower! Hilarious. Could you tell us about your process in writing this book?

AC: I started with a lot of research about wombats. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, and read everything I could about them. Then I compiled the weirdest, most interesting facts. The next step was to see if I could make a joke about each fact. I have pages and pages in my sketchbook of facts plus doodles. I tried to come up with as many jokes as possible, and then and then really hone in on the funniest dialogue, facial expressions, and scenes. 

Once I was satisfied with the jokes, I worked on putting them together in a dummy (a rough mockup of the book) in a way that made sense and that would also build to a final scene with all the wombats together. 

 

Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample
Wombats are Pretty Weird Dummy Sample

 

 

VF: I love the addition of the snake adding color and commentary throughout the book. What made you decide to include the snake in a book about wombats?

AC: Adding the snake was a way for me to put a stand-in for the audience in the book. He could react and make comments that the reader was thinking when learning about these very weird animals. And this animal character had to be something other than a wombat. After all, the wombats wouldn’t consider themselves weird at all. In their world, it’s strange when poop is round. I chose a snake specifically because I wanted an animal that could technically live in the same area as a wombat, but was vastly different from them. 

 

WAPW burrowing marsupial spread
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: Your illustrations do such a wonderful job of balancing humor and information. You’ve written funny books before (SOAKED! and ANIMALS GO VROOM! are so good!), but what was it like writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time?

AC: Writing and illustrating non-fiction for the first time was a wonderful challenge. For this book, which includes factual information but also talking animals and other silly stuff, it was very important to me that kids didn’t think the facts were made up. One of the things I was very careful about was to ensure the narration was factual and accurate, and then have the wombats and snake react to those facts in the illustrations and speech bubbles. That way there was a clear separation.

For research, I consulted science journals and talked to wombat experts to verify and ensure the way I phrased things was correct. It was pretty wild to me that my work entailed being knee-deep in these dense scientific papers, trying to distill the information and make sense of them, and then using that to make the best poop joke I could.

For the illustrations, I wanted them to be very accessible and fun, but I also wanted them to show a decent resemblance to actual wombats and to clearly convey scientific information where appropriate. So I used a lot of references. I looked at photos of wombats’ feet, watched videos of them moving, and really studied the differences between three species. Then I drew them using hair dryers and wearing party hats.

 

VF: Can you talk about how you approach humor? Do you have any tips for writers who want to write funny books?

AC: The books I find funniest always contain a bit of absurdity. So that’s something I like to play with a lot in my books. For this book with weird animal facts, it was a chance to push the absurdity in the actual facts to a higher level. 

For example, one of the facts in the book is that there are three species of wombats: the southern hairy-nosed wombat, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the bare-nosed wombat. And I just thought the names were pretty silly. So I wanted to play with that idea of hairy (or unhairy) noses and push it further into absurdity by having two of them talk about nose hair styling to the annoyance of the bare-nosed wombat. 

e

WAPW hairy and bare noses
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

 

I think with humor, you have to let yourself be pretty vulnerable. I put everything I think is funny into a story and then show it to people with the full knowledge that a lot of the jokes will absolutely not land. But I have NO IDEA which ones those are. The trick is to put the weirdest, totally out-there jokes into your story and then see how many you can get away with.

 

VF: That’s such great advice, and it has clearly paid off for you. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?

AC: I hope this book will get kids excited about wombats and animals in general. There is so much in the natural world that is bizarre and captivating. Kids have a natural curiosity so I think it’s our job as authors to foster and encourage it. I also hope kids come away with the idea that being weird is a good thing. It’s what makes all of us special and unique. And finally, I just hope kids laugh and find this enjoyable to read. 

 

WAPW multiple joeys
Interior spread from Wombats are Pretty Weird written and illustrated by Abi Cushman, Greenwillow Books ©2023.

 

VF: I love that. I feel like you’ve definitely accomplished those goals with this book and kids are going to love it. So what’s next for you?

AC: I am currently polishing up the next book in the “[Not So] Serious Guide” series. This follow-up to WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD is all about the very strange, very tough FLAMINGO! And I’m happy to report that Joey the snake is back to experience it all with the reader. This book is scheduled to release in the summer of 2024.

I also recently finished illustrating a wonderfully clever book written by Charlotte Offsay called THE QUIET FOREST. This book will be released in March 2024 from Paula Wiseman Books. It’s about a very mischievous mouse who starts a chain of chaos in a formerly quiet forest, and it involves a lot of very disgruntled forest animals. It’s a ton of fun, and I’m really excited about it. This was the first time I illustrated a book I didn’t write, and it was fun to see how Charlotte’s words and my pictures came together.

 

VF: Those both sound fantastic! I look forward to seeing them next year. Thank you so much for sharing your journey for WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD with us. I’ve learned so much from chatting with you and from getting a peek at this hilarious book!

AC: Thanks so much for the interview, Vicky! This was fun. And I’m looking forward to chatting with you again later this summer about your upcoming book, THE BOO CREW NEEDS YOU!

VF: Looking forward to it too! Thank you again for sharing your insights with us today, Abi!

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Click below for a local indie to purchase signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.banksquarebooks.com/book/9780063234437

Publisher’s Page: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/wombats-are-pretty-weird-abi-cushman

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AbiCushman

IG: https://www.instagram.com/abi.cushman/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AbiCushmanArt

Author/Illustrator Website: https://abicushman.com

 

Author-Illustrator Abi Cushman Photo credit: P.A. Smith

AUTHOR-ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Abi Cushman is the author-illustrator of SOAKED! (Viking, 2020), ANIMALS GO VROOM! (Viking, 2021) and WOMBATS ARE PRETTY WEIRD (Greenwillow, 2023).

She has also worked as a web designer for over 15 years. She runs two popular websites of her own: My House Rabbit, a pet rabbit care site, and Animal Fact Guide, which was named a “Great Website for Kids” by the American Library Association. Did you know that wombat poop is cube-shaped? You do now! (And no, you’ll never un-know that.)

Abi lives in a small Connecticut beach town with her family. In her spare time, she enjoys running, playing tennis, and eating nachos. (Yes, at the same time.)

She is represented by BookStop Literary Agency and is a proud member of the Soaring 20s, a group of picture book authors and illustrators who debuted in 2020/21.

 

INTERVIEW BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You!. You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

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Children’s Picture Book Review – My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me

MY GRANDPA, MY TREE, AND ME 

Written by Roxanne Troup

Illustrated by Kendra Binney

(Yeehoo Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

My Grandpa My Tree and Me cover granddaughter grandfather sit beneath pecan tree

 

There’s a timeless, feel-good quality to Roxanne Troup’s debut fiction picture book My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me, illustrated by Kendra Binney. After finishing it, I wanted to sit back and imagine myself in the bucolic surroundings where the story takes place.

Binney’s appealing artwork transported me to a pecan orchard for the first time where the action unfolds as a little girl spends time with her grandfather and narrates, “My grandpa planted a tree for me on the day I was born.” She also tells us that, despite having an orchard full of pecan trees, Grandpa’s favorite tree is that particular one, thus establishing the strong bond these two characters share.

 

My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me int1 girl and grandpa spreading mulch
Interior spread from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

Through changing seasons starting in winter when it’s pruning time, and the annual growth cycle of the orchard, we learn how pecans mature and are harvested. At the same time, the special relationship between the child and her grandpa exudes from the warm, muted illustrations coupled with Trout’s lyrical prose. I especially felt that each time I read the lovely repeating phrase “But not my tree.” In spread after spread the young girl describes how the other pecan trees are treated en masse as part of the commercial harvesting process, while hers receives individualized care from her grandpa. Together the two tend to her tree with love and respect which also serves as a metaphor for their relationship.

 

My Grandpa My Tree and Me int2 prepping pecans for harvester
Interior illustrations from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

At last, when the husks open, it’s harvest time. The joy is palpable on the page. Then “Grandpa attaches a padded arm to his tractor. It hugs the trees’ trunks and shakes until leaves and twigs and pecans rain down.” When it’s her turn and with Grandpa there to savor the experience, the girl uses a long pole to make the pecans drop. The orchard’s pecans will be collected by the harvester for sale but the girl’s pecans will be baked into a scrumptious pecan pie. And, not to spoil the beautiful ending, suffice it to say that Troup and Mother Nature’s miraculous cycle of growth delivers a delightful and very satisfying dénouement in this touching layered tale.

 

My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me int3 eating pecan pie time
Interior illustrations from My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me written by Roxanne Troup and illustrated by Kendra Binney, Yeehoo Press ©2023.

 

 

Troup, who is not a newcomer to writing, knows how to tell an engaging and tender story while infusing interesting information into it, clearly owing to her extensive nonfiction background. The pacing of My Grandpa, My Tree, and Me moves forward easily like the seasons in the orchard. There’s a soothing rhythm to the language that makes the book an ideal read any time of the day, including bedtime. Did you know that pecans are considered a native nut to North America? Find an All About Pecans note detailing the history of the commercial pecan industry along with a helpful glossary in the back matter.

Download a free teacher’s guide here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

NOTE: I’m thrilled that Roxanne is a reviewer at this blog so subscribe today so you don’t miss her thoughtful coverage.

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An Interview with Ishita Jain – Debut Illustrator of The Forest Keeper

 AN INTERVIEW WITH ISHITA JAIN

ABOUT HER ILLUSTRATOR DEBUT

THE FOREST KEEPER:
The True Story of Jadav Payeng 

(NorthSouth; $18.95, Ages 5-9)

 

the forest keeper the true story of jadav payeng cover Jadav in forest

INTRO:

I’m honored to have been invited to host this NorthSouth Books interview exclusively in the U.S. Elena Rittinghausen, Zurich-based editor of NordSüd Verlag/NorthSouth Books recently spoke with Ishita Jain, debut illustrator of The Forest Keeper written by Rina Singh, (on sale April 18 and available for preorder now), and the timing couldn’t be better as we approach Earth Day 2023.

 

INTERVIEW:

Elena Rittinghausen: What part does nature play in your life? How would you describe your relationship with nature? For you personally, what is the main lesson we can learn from this true story?

Ishita Jain: I consider myself a part of nature, all humans are, even though it’s easy to forget it in our fast-paced lives. I grew up in New Delhi and now live in New York, both of which are big, urban cities, yet I have been fortunate to spend a lot of my childhood and my present days in the midst of greenery.

 

The Forest Keeper endpapers
Endpapers by Ishita Jain from The Forest Keeper by Rina Singh, NorthSouth Books ©2023.

 

When I moved to NY, I was often homesick, and trees and parks became a source of comfort to me. I love going on long walks and it is fascinating to watch the seasons turn in my neighborhood. The same tree that is lush green turns to a fiery red in the fall and is then almost unrecognizable in the winter. Watching all these visceral changes in natural things around me has made me far more open to change and evolution within myself.

I am often told that individual acts matter very little when it comes to changing the world- that it all comes down to corporations and government policies. I don’t entirely agree, and this story is a reminder that no matter how small you are, you matter and even if you can’t change the world, you can change your world around you.

 

The Forest Keeper wholebook Page 05
Interior spread from The Forest Keeper written by Rina Singh and illustrated by Ishita Jain, NorthSouth Books ©2023.

 

ER: You’ve lived in the US for some years now. Did it feel special to go back to illustrating a story set in India?

IJ: It’s interesting, the longer I live in the U.S., my sense of identity of being Indian and thinking of India as my home only grows stronger. So, in some ways, it didn’t matter where I was when I illustrated this book. Though I did illustrate some of the trees for the endpapers while I was in India, and to be drawing a neem tree when there is one right outside your window makes the process so fun!

 

The Forest Keeper wholebook Page 11 Jadev watering plants
Interior art from The Forest Keeper written by Rina Singh and illustrated by Ishita Singh, NorthSouth Books ©2023.

 

ER: What was your first thought when you received our e-mail asking if you wanted to illustrate for a Swiss publisher?

IJ: This is my first picture book and when I got the email from you, I thought it was wild that someone was asking me to do this because I have very few drawings of kids, or even people in my portfolio! I am so grateful that you took that chance because I enjoyed the process, and it was a huge learning curve for me.

Funnily, the first time when I traveled outside of India was to Switzerland. I was 10 or 11 and my grandparents took me with them to Lucerne and I have very vivid memories of that trip. I used to spend all the loose change from the day on ice creams and for years, if anyone I knew went to Switzerland, I would jokingly ask them to bring me an ice cream. I was very close to my grandfather and I think he would have been thrilled to know that I got to work with a Swiss publisher!

 

The Forest Keeper wholebook Page 16 hungry elephants smashing huts
Interior spread from The Forest Keeper written by Rina Singh and illustrated by Ishita Jain, NorthSouth Books ©2023.

 

ER: How did you approach the illustrations? Which technique did you use? Did you look for specific references for your images?

IJ: I love working analog and all the pictures are done in ink and watercolor. For this book, I also did my thumbnails as loose little paintings. It was important for me to get a sense of the color, texture, and mood in the sketch phase to be able to proceed to finals. I also made a tiny dummy to flip through to get a sense of the page turns and the visual pacing of the story.

 

The Forest Keeper Ishita Jain's thumbnails
Ink and watercolor thumbnails by Ishita Jain from The Forest Keeper by Rina Singh, NorthSouth Books ©2023.

 

In some illustrations, all the elements are painted separately and then stitched together digitally. This gives me the flexibility to make changes without having to start from scratch.  Other times I just go for it and love embracing the unpredictability that comes with watercolor.

India is huge and very diverse in terms of its people, its culture, and its geographies. I am from Delhi, which is quite far, and different, from Majuli. I did extensive research and referenced movies, news, documentaries, and the work of photographers from Assam and the northeast to make sure that I understood the flora and fauna, the physical features of the locals, their attire, and the visual geography of the region. I also looked for videos about the Brahmaputra floods, time lapses of bamboo growing, and travelers’ videos of Majuli to get a sense of the overall environment.

Ishita Jain's Studio
Studio of The Forest Keeper illustrator Ishita Jain

 

ER: Would you like to illustrate picture books in the future?

IJ: Without a doubt, yes!

Thank you Elena Rittinghausen and NorthSouth Books for this exciting opportunity to introduce Ishita Jain and her artwork to readers here in the U.S.

 

Click here to order a copy of The Forest Keeper today

Click here to read an interview with The Forest Keeper author Rina Singh

Get a teacher’s guide here.

 

Jain Ishita ©Anirudh-Garg 2021 sRGB
Photo of illustrator Ishita Jain ©Anirudh-Garg, courtesy of NorthSouth Books

ILLUSTRATOR BIO:

Ishita Jain is an illustrator from Delhi, India, though she is now based in New York. She is an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India, and the MFA Illustration as Visual Essay Program at the School of Visual Arts, New York. Ishita loves to draw on location and enjoys documenting the people, places, and stories that surround her. Her work is inspired by day-to-day moments and the wonder that comes from being around nature. The Forest Keeper is Ishita’s first picture book. Find her on social media here: @ishitajain24

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Vicky Fang Interviews Elisa Boxer, Author of Hidden Hope

 

VICKY FANG INTERVIEWS ELISA BOXER,

AUTHOR OF

HIDDEN HOPE: 

How a Toy and a Hero
Saved Lives During the Holocaust

(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Hidden Hope cover girl with toy duck

 

Starred review – School Library Journal, Booklist

 

INTERVIEW:

Vicky Fang: Elisa, HIDDEN HOPE is such an inspiring book. I love that you’re able to share a story that is so historically rich in such a compelling way. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

Elisa Boxer: Vicky, thank you so much. Great to be here with you. The idea for this book began when I first saw this photo on Yad Vashem’s website:

 

Wooden Toy duck Credit Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection
Wooden Toy Duck Credit Yad Vashem Artifacts Collection

 

Yad Vashem is the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel, and this hollowed-out wooden duck is part of the artifacts collection. When I learned that this duck was made with a secret compartment to hide documents from the Nazis during World War Two, and that the French Resistance worker who used it to smuggle those documents was a teenager, I knew this was a story I wanted to tell.


VF: It’s such a fascinating story! In addition to writing children’s books, you’re also a journalist. How does your background as a journalist affect your work as a children’s book author?

EB: I definitely combine the two on a daily basis. Whether it’s doing research, conducting interviews, writing a narrative, distilling complex issues down to manageable bits of information, or zeroing in on areas of emotional resonance with the audience, the processes with journalism and book writing are very similar. And the result, telling a (hopefully) compelling story with a strong emotional takeaway, is always my goal.

 

VF: I would say you’d definitely succeeded with HIDDEN HOPE. In the backmatter, you also talk about your personal connection to this topic … could you share a bit about that?

EB: My personal connection is two-fold: Both sides of my family are of Eastern European descent, and relatives on each side were killed during the Holocaust. As both a journalist and an author, I definitely feel compelled to help shine a light on these atrocities. But also, growing up, I often felt like I had to hide my Jewish voice because my childhood was filled with so many personal and hurtful incidents of Antisemitism. I wasn’t strong enough back then to stand up to hate; to expose injustice. So in a way, I suppose I’m making up for lost time. When I first saw that picture of the duck, it struck me that here is this artifact, in an international museum, on display for all to see. And yet it was never supposed to be there, according to Hitler’s plan. If anything, it was supposed to be in his intended “museum of an extinct race.” As were all Jewish artifacts and all Jewish signs of life. So on a personal level, as I mention in my Author’s Note, I want to help bring more and more stories like this out of the darkness and into the light.

 

VF: Could you talk about your experience in writing this book? Was it hard to spend so much time on such a difficult topic?

EB: It’s so interesting, this question has come up quite a bit. People ask whether it’s been hard to write about such a dark topic. And while there’s no question that this was an unimaginably devastating time in history, the whole point of the Holocaust was to create a master race and erase the Jewish people from the face of the earth. And yet so many of us are here writing about it. We’re bringing these stories to light. We’re the descendants that were never supposed to be here. And not only are we here, we’re raising our voices to tell the stories that the Nazis never wanted told. There is something incredibly uplifting and empowering about that. I never want to stop doing it.

 

Hidden Hope int1 interior objects
Interior art from Hidden Hope written by Elisa Boxer and illustrated by Amy June Bates, Abrams BYR ©2023.

 

VF: What a wonderful message, thank you. Amy June Bates’ illustrations also do such a good job of highlighting the mood and the action of HIDDEN HOPE and I love that there’s an Artist’s Note in the end from her. What did you think when you first saw her illustrations?

EB: Oh I love Amy’s Artist’s Note too! And exactly about highlighting the mood and the action. I have been researching the French Resistance for years, and have so many images in my mind. But Amy has an incredibly unique gift for creating old-world style art that takes you back and makes you feel like you’re right there, in the middle of it all, riding along with Judith and the duck on the streets of Paris. I was in awe of her work from the time I first saw her preliminary sketches. Her art is so authentic that it makes the whole book feel like an artifact in itself. One of the most powerful details to me is the contrast of vibrant, saturated color from Judith’s beret with the more muted, cloudy, shadowy watercolor illustrations that so perfectly capture the somber feel of what was happening. A recent Booklist review highlighted one of my favorite spreads: “One particularly haunting spread casts the reader’s gaze through a jagged, broken windowpane to bear witness to soldiers’ cruelties.” I mean, the art on every page is extraordinary, but that scene really stands out.

 

VF: What do you hope young readers take away from this story?

EB: Initially, I wanted to tell this story because it’s so full of hope and intrigue and I wanted young readers to find inspiration in this little-known hero who was filled with determination in such a dark time. And I wanted this book to take its place alongside others that are opening up wider conversations about Antisemitism. But as I began really feeling into the deeper layers, which for me comes during the writing process, I began to realize that this is, ultimately, a story about the importance of never having to hide the truth of who you are. Although certainly nothing can be directly compared to the horrors of the Holocaust, I do think many of us have aspects of ourselves that maybe we feel unsafe showing to the world. I actually found myself asking some uncomfortable questions, like: “Where and with whom do I feel like I have to hide the full truth of who I am?” These aren’t always conscious questions. But I do hope one of the takeaways for young readers (and older ones too) is deciding to show up in any given situation as the most authentic version of who they are. Not hiding. Bringing their fullest selves into the world.

 

Hidden Hope int2 girl on bike
Interior spread from Hidden Hope written by Elisa Boxer and illustrated by Amy June Bates, Abrams BYR ©2023.

 

VF: I think that’s such a wonderful aspect of your books. You tell such specific and inspiring stories, but the themes are so big and universal. You’ve written a wide range of wonderful nonfiction picture books, from COVERED IN COLOR: Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom to SPLASH!: Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change. How do you find story ideas and decide which ones to pursue?

EB: With nonfiction picture books, I’m looking for that “YES!” in my gut that keeps drawing me back to the topic. I’m initially looking for inspirational people, places, or events that I find intriguing enough to spark my curiosity and make me want to dig deeper. And then there has to be something more. For example, with SPLASH! Ethelda Bleibtrey Makes Waves of Change, it was impressive that Ethelda was the first American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. But when I learned that she used swimming to help heal from polio, and that she got arrested for standing up to sexist laws that said all women had to swim with socks, I knew this story had the potential to inspire young readers to break barriers in their own lives.

With COVERED IN COLOR: Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s Fabrics of Freedom, I knew that Christo and Jeanne-Claude were a dynamic duo who created massive displays of public art like wrapped buildings and islands. But when I researched more about Christo’s background, I learned he grew up under Nazi rule and then under Communism. This fascinated me, how someone whose childhood was filled with so much suppression could dream up and generate these wild, large-scale, outside-the-box creations. And so this became a story about courage, and pushing the limits of what appears to be possible, and creativity that refuses to be contained. So with each topic, in order to pursue it as a book, there has to be the potential for a strong inspirational theme and emotional takeaway.

 

VF: So what’s next for you?

EB: Right now I’m looking forward to this book launching into the world on March 14th! I’m so happy to have heard from teachers around the country who will be incorporating it into their Holocaust education curriculum, and am looking forward to virtual author visits to support that.

Next year, I have four more books on the way: DEAR YOUNGER ME: What 35 Trailblazing Women Wish They’d Known as Girls (Rowman & Littlefield), THE TREE OF LIFE: How a Holocaust Sapling Inspired the World (illustrated by Alianna Rozentsveig, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books), BEAM OF LIGHT: The Story of the First White House Menorah (illustrated by Sophia Moore, published by Penguin/Rocky Pond Books) and one that hasn’t been announced yet. 2024 is going to be a busy year! Meanwhile, I’m working on more picture books, as well as a middle-grade novel and a middle-grade collective biography that I’m really excited about.

EB: Thank you so much for this interview, Vicky. And to Ronna, for hosting us. And to everyone who supports our books!

VF: Thank you, Elisa, for sharing your personal story behind this beautiful book, HIDDEN HOPE: HOW A TOY AND A HERO SAVED LIVES DURING THE HOLOCAUST. It’s been an inspiring conversation!

 

BUY THE BOOK:

Local indie for signed copies (type in the comments how you’d like the book inscribed): https://www.printbookstore.com/book/9781419750007

 

Author Elisa Boxer photo credit Melissa Mullen
Author Elisa Boxer Photo Credit: Melissa Mullen

AUTHOR BIO:

Elisa Boxer is an Emmy and Murrow award-winning journalist whose work has been featured in publications including The New York Times and Fast Company. She has reported for newspapers, magazines and TV stations, and has a passion for telling stories about people finding the courage to create change. She is the author of several nonfiction picture books including The Voice That Won the Vote, A Seat at the Table, One Turtle’s Last Straw, SPLASH! (a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection), Covered in Color (called “compelling from cover to cover” in a Kirkus starred review) and Hidden Hope (called “an important true account to add to all collections” in a School Library Journal starred review). Elisa lives in Maine, and has more children’s books on the way. Visit her at https://www.elisaboxer.com/

Links to social media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/eboxer

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Elisaboxer/

IG: https://www.instagram.com/boxerelisa/

Illustrator’s website: https://www.amyjbates.com/

 

INTERVIEWER BIO:

Vicky Fang is a product designer who spent 5 years designing kids’ technology experiences for both Google and Intel, often to inspire and empower kids in coding and technology. She started writing to support the growing need for early coding education, particularly for girls and kids of color. She is the author, and sometimes illustrator, of nineteen new and upcoming books for kids, including the Layla and the Bots series, Invent-a-Pet, I Can Code board books, Friendbots series, and the forthcoming Ava Lin series, Best Buddies series, AlphaBot, and The Boo Crew Needs You! You can visit Vicky at vickyfang.com.

 

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Picture Book Review – The Moon from Dehradun

THE MOON FROM DEHRADUN:
A Story of Partition

Written by Shirin Shamsi

Illustrated by Tarun Lak

(Atheneum BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

 

 

The Moon From Dehradun cover girl baby brother and doll

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

 

Inspired by the true-life events of the author’s mother, The Moon from Dehradun written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Tarun Lak is a powerful and poignant story of the 1947 Partition of India.

 

The Moon From Dehradun int art1 girl with doll while mother cooks
Interior art from The Moon From Dehradun written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Tarun Lak, Atheneum BYR ©2022.

 

Azra can hear the anger on the street just outside her home. “‘[People] are afraid,’” her Ammi says, “‘because our home has been divided ….’” Azra and her family have been living in Dehradun for generations. She tells her doll, Gurya, they will have to leave “‘in five days,’” but when Abba comes home frantic and distressed, it’s clear staying any longer will be far too dangerous. 

The book gracefully manages complex and difficult topics such as displacement and political unrest by filtering them through young Azra’s perspective. The focus is on her feelings:  feelings of fear in not knowing what’s to come, heartbrokenness for leaving Gurya behind in the rush to depart, and anger at her baby brother for “making” her forget to grab her beloved doll before leaving home forever. “My heart sinks like a stone in a well.” Azra expresses her grief in beautiful, lyrical language. The finality of the move and loss of home and place is gently emphasized by the refrain, “We cannot go back.” Lak’s use of muted colors in browns, pinks, and blues and sweeping scenes amplifies the sadness and confusion underway during the mass uprooting caused by the Partition.

 

The Moon From Dehradun int2 hurried departure for Lahore
Interior art from The Moon From Dehradun written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Tarun Lak, Atheneum BYR ©2022.

 

The long train ride leads Azra and her family to Lahore where friendly neighbors, familiar spaces, and a surprise discovery provide hope for a new home and new beginnings.  

Educational and inspirational, this book is a moving story of courage, hope, and resilience. 

Back matter includes a glossary, author’s note, and information about the Partition.

Click here for a Reading Group Guide.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – The River That Wolves Moved

 

 

THE RIVER THAT WOLVES MOVED:
A True Tale from Yellowstone

Written by Mary Kay Carson

Illustrated by David Hohn

(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99,  Ages 5-9)

 

 

The River That Wolves Moved cover wolves river fish in Yellowstone

 

The title of Mary Kay Carson’s new picture book drew me in: The River That Wolves Moved: A True Tale from Yellowstone. What?! How? I wanted to find out. Using the structure of “The House That Jack Built,” we learn why wolves are a crucial part of the ecosystem. Without them, elk overpopulate, overgraze, and, ultimately, cause muddied rivers to forge different paths.

Pages incorporate new lines while repeating what’s come before. Additional information is provided below the main text to paint a broader picture of each animal’s contribution to diversifying the environment.

 

The River That Wolves Moved int1 pack of wolves along river
Interior spread from The River That Wolves Moved written by Mary Kay Carson and illustrated by David Hohn, Sleeping Bear Press ©2022.

 

Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872. In the subsequent years, wolves were legally hunted, trapped, and poisoned by rangers and ranchers. By the early 1900s, wolves were gone. Facts are presented in a manner that kids can understand and, rather than seeing wolves as the bad guys, we learn they are helpful and necessary.

 

The River That Wolves Moved int2 walking along the riverbank
Interior spread from The River That Wolves Moved written by Mary Kay Carson and illustrated by David Hohn, Sleeping Bear Press ©2022.

 

The illustrations by David Hohn capture the beauty of nature through the eyes of a young girl and her grandfather. Evocative, warm art combined with the lyrical text make this important topic accessible for the youngest child, hopefully fostering environmental stewardship.

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Sydney Taylor Book Award 2022 Blog Tour – Dear Mr. Dickens Q+A

WELCOME TO DAY TWO OF THE STBA BLOG TOUR!

 

STBA22 Blog Tour graphic

 

FEATURING INTERVIEWS WITH

AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

&

ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE  

DISCUSSING THEIR

HONOR-WINNING PICTURE BOOK

DEAR MR. DICKENS

 

 

Dear Mr Dickens cover

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal
2021 National Jewish Book Award Winner – Children’s Picture Book
2022 Sydney Taylor Book Award Honor for Picture Books
Chicago Public Library Best Informational Books for Younger Readers 2021
The Best Jewish Children’s Books of 2021, Tablet Magazine


BOOK SUMMARY

In Eliza Davis’s day, Charles Dickens was the most celebrated living writer in England. But some of his books reflected a prejudice that was all too common at the time: prejudice against Jewish people. Eliza was Jewish, and her heart hurt to see a Jewish character in Oliver Twist portrayed as ugly and selfish. She wanted to speak out about how unfair that was, even if it meant speaking out against the great man himself. So she wrote a letter to Charles Dickens. What happened next is history. (Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

GREETING

Welcome to the GoodReadsWithRonna blog today, Nancy and Bethany. Congratulations on Dear Mr. Dickens being recognized with a Sydney Taylor Honor in the children’s picture book category! I’m happy to be able to talk to you both about Eliza Davis, Charles Dickens, and his history of negatively portraying Jewish characters in his writing and how that changed because of Eliza’s letters.

INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR NANCY CHURNIN

GoodReadsWithRonna: Nancy, you mention in your acknowledgments that Dear Mr. Dickens had a long, joyful journey. Please tell us more about when and why you decided to dig into this not well-known but enlightening correspondence which is the basis for the book

Nancy Churnin: When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to read whatever I wanted. The only time she questioned me was when I fell in love with the books of Charles Dickens. She couldn’t understand how I could like a writer that had created the ugly Jewish stereotype of Fagin in Oliver Twist. Didn’t I understand, she asked me, how that character fueled antisemitism, leading readers to believe that all Jewish people were liars and thieves like Fagin?

 

Dear Mr Dickens int1
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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She was right. Ugly Jewish stereotypes were part of what made people lack compassion for the Jewish people who were tortured and killed in the Holocaust – where we lost so many family members. These were the kind of images that made neighborhood bullies persecute her and other Jewish children growing up in New York City. I wished I could have written Dickens a letter asking him why someone who had so much compassion for children and the poor could treat the Jewish people with such antipathy. Flash forward to 2013, three years before my first book, The William Hoy Story would be published, when I was in the library researching baseball and I flitted around the computer screen, landing on an article about Dickens.

That’s when I found two lines in an article that mentioned Eliza Davis, a Jewish woman who wrote to him – just as I’d dreamed of doing!—and changed his heart, inspiring him to write his first compassionate Jewish character, Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend. I had to know more! But all the article had was snippets from one of the letters. I asked the librarian for help. She found three places that had the letters: the University of Southampton in England, where you had to make a special appointment to view them; and two places in the U.S., one of which was at the University of North Texas rare book collection, less than 40 minutes from my home.

I called the University of North Texas librarian who put me in touch with Professor J. Don Vann, a Dickens scholar that had found Charles Dickens and His Jewish Characters, a 1918 out-of-print book from Chiswick Press in England that contained the letters and donated it to the library. Don and his now late wife Dolores, invited me to tea to discuss Eliza Davis. That’s when I felt compelled to turn this story into a book that I could share with my mother. I had rejections at first from editors that didn’t think a story about letters was exciting enough. It didn’t fit into the usual biography template as it wasn’t the story of either person’s life, but rather an encounter that changed their lives and changed the way English people who read Dickens thought about the Jewish people. I visited The Charles Dickens Museum in London in 2014, deepening my research. But even when my career as a published author began taking off in 2016, Dear Mr. Dickens sat there, waiting, not seeming to fit into any category anyone wanted. It just seemed to be a story that needed to simmer and be revised as I grew more confident in my ability to tell the story the way it needed to be told.

Finally, in 2020, Wendy McClure, my then editor at Albert Whitman, asked if I had something new. She said, for the first time, she wasn’t looking for biographies, but stories about history-changing encounters and events. I pulled Dear Mr. Dickens out of the drawer and gave it to her. She loved it right away. So did her editorial team. It was acquired with dizzying speed for a manuscript that had been waiting years to dance at the ball. But it was worth every moment. Because Wendy and our illustrator, Bethany Stancliffe, really got the story. When it went to print, it said everything I had wanted and hoped to say. I couldn’t wait to share it with my mother. When I did, she held it in her hands and read it over and over. Her face softened. I felt an old pain dissolve as she forgave Dickens – and me. We hugged as she read this true story about how people can, sometimes, change for the better if you speak up, persist and then, when the person who does wrong makes amends, forgive.

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GRWR: We’re often told as children’s book writers to make the main characters kids but Eliza Davis is a woman and mother of 10 children. As an adult and Dickens fan, I found the information you shared about Eliza’s positive influence on Dickens fascinating. What do you think makes her a compelling character for young readers to learn about and what can they take away from the book?

Nancy: The most compelling stories for me are the journeys not of a person, but of a person’s dream. In most cases, those dreams start in childhood, so it’s natural to start the book with the character as a child. That’s not the case for Eliza Davis in Dear Mr. Dickens. She didn’t grow up dreaming of writing Charles Dickens a letter! But I had grown up dreaming that. I could put the urgency I felt as a child into what she did as an adult. I also did something I’ve never done in a picture book before. I appealed to young readers by starting my book in the second person: “Think of someone famous you admire. What would you do if that person said or wrote something unfair? Would you speak up? Would you risk getting that person angry? Eliza Davis did.” I believe these are questions that kids – and all ages – can relate to. I believe these are questions that can lead kids – and all ages – to speak up, stand up, and become upstanders when they see someone do or say something that isn’t right.

e

Dear Mr Dickens int2
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

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GRWR: When doing your research for Dear Mr. Dickens, was there one particular piece of information you uncovered (included or not included in the book) that has had an impact on you? 

Nancy: I hope people will read the Author’s Note which gives context to how important Eliza’s action may have been in historical impact. England was once one of the most hostile places for Jewish people. In 1275, centuries before Nazis introduced the yellow star, King Edward I decreed that Jews older than seven had to wear a large yellow badge of felt shaped like the tablet of the Ten Commandments on their outer clothing. Jewish people were segregated and had to live in restricted areas, were forbidden to lend money, and were unwelcome in trade guilds. In 1290, England expelled Jews who refused to convert; this was two centuries before the Spanish expelled their Jewish people during their Inquisition.

After Eliza Davis helped Dickens see the Jewish people with understanding and compassion, he not only created the kindly Mr. Riah, he advocated in his magazine for them to be treated fairly. Dickens wasn’t the only advocate for Jewish people, but his influence was enormous. Everyone from all classes, chimney sweeps to the Queen of England, read and revered him. Attitudes began to change during his lifetime. The Jews Relief Act of 1858 allowed Jews to serve in Parliament for the first time. I credit the change in English attitudes for the welcoming way that Great Britain opened its arms to thousands of Jewish refugee children during the Kindertransport at the start of World War II.

Eliza Davis wasn’t powerful or famous. All she did was write a letter. But speaking up and not backing down when justice is at stake can make a powerful difference. That’s what I learned from Eliza Davis. That’s what I hope young readers – and all readers – take to heart.

e

GRWR: Can you speak to your passion for writing nonfiction and also about sharing the stories of notable and in Eliza’s case less notable Jewish individuals?

Nancy: I love and read every genre and I hope, someday – maybe soon – to expand the type of books I write. But I’ll always pay homage to true stories — my mother’s favorite — because, as she’s told me, real people doing great things remind us that we can all do great things, too.

When I look for people to write about, I’m drawn to those who might not be known otherwise – such as Eliza Davis — or who have aspects of themselves that might not otherwise be known – such as Charles Dickens and his evolving view of Jewish people. I feel that every time I shine light on otherwise forgotten people, I’ve helped bring them back into our living, collective heart because it’s only when we have forgotten people or their deeds that they truly disappear.

 

Dear Mr Dickens int3
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

I’m honored that Dear Mr. Dickens was given a Sydney Taylor Honor because Sydney Taylor provided positive Jewish role models for Jewish children like myself at a time when they were scarce. At first, Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books were like a little island in a sea of books about non-Jewish characters or Jewish characters that were ugly stereotypes. But since the awards were founded in 1968, they’ve done enormous good in encouraging the creation of books with positive Jewish role models for kids that need Jewish windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. I’m grateful for this encouragement from the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee and for the Notable award for A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah (and for my 2019 Notable for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing). Now, with sons planning marriages and, I hope, with grandchildren around the corner, I feel more passionate than ever about the mission bring more Jewish stories into the world that fill children’s hearts with courage, hope, and determination to heal the world.

 

INTERVIEW WITH ILLUSTRATOR BETHANY STANCLIFFE

GRWR: Bethany, what struck you most after reading Nancy’s manuscript?

Bethany Stancliffe: I was immediately impressed with the wonderful portrayal of Eliza in this story. Nancy’s writing beautifully captured what it must have felt like to be in Eliza’s shoes.

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GRWR: How much research did you have to do to bring 19th century London, and in particular Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens, to life?

Bethany: It was important to gather a lot of visual references to make sure my illustrations were true to the characters and settings. Studying information and images documenting Charles Dickens and Victorian England was a significant step in the design process. There weren’t many photographs of Eliza available so it was a pleasant challenge to design her character in a way that conveyed her personality.

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Dear Mr Dickens Elizaandson int4
Interior spread from Dear Mr. Dickens written by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by Bethany Stancliffe, Albert Whitman & Co. ©2021.

 

GRWR: One of my favorite illustrations is the one where two scenes, Dickens in his home and Eliza in hers, flow together with sheets of correspondence. Do you have a favorite spread and if so, what about it do you love?

Bethany: Thank you! One of my favorite spreads to paint was the scene of Eliza and her son walking together to post a letter to Mr. Dickens. While I was illustrating this book I had a toddler of my own running around which really helped me appreciate that Eliza was speaking up not only for herself but for others who may not be able to do so for themselves.

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Thank you both so very much for taking the time to share your experiences working on Dear Mr. Dickens. I’m also grateful that many misconceptions I and perhaps others had about Charles Dickens have been cleared up and hope everyone will read the book to see how one person’s voice made such a powerful impact.

 

BIOS

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Author Nancy Churin Photo credit: Kim Leeson

 

Nancy Churnin is the award-winning author of multiple picture book biographies. The former theater critic for the Dallas Morning News and Los Angeles Times San Diego Edition, she’s now a full-time writer and peace negotiator between her dog and cats. She lives in North Texas.

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See the entire blog tour schedule on the AJL blog: https://jewishlibraries.org/2022-blog-tour/

Find more information about the Sydney Taylor Award here: https://jewishlibraries.org/sydney_taylor_book_award/

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Picture Book Review – Someone Builds the Dream

 

SOMEONE BUILDS THE DREAM

Written by Lisa Wheeler

Illustrated by Loren Long

(Dial Books for Young Readers; $19.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Horn Book, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

 

Lisa Wheeler’s latest picture book, Someone Builds the Dream, uses rhythmic lines to pay homage to the tradespeople who make things happen. For example, behind an architect are the workers who “guide the saws, plane the logs” because “someone needs to pound the nails.”

 

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Interior spread from Someone Builds the Dream written by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Loren Long, Dial BYR ©2021.

 

The structure reveals how tasks are accomplished while recognizing the workforces who labor possibly underappreciated or even unknown. Wheeler’s clever lines fit together like a well-oiled machine. Scenes finish with, “Someone has to build the dream,” drumming that message home, creating anticipation for the next repetition of this phrase.

 

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Interior spread from Someone Builds the Dream written by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Loren Long, Dial BYR ©2021.

 

 

The acrylics and colored pencil illustrations by Loren Long proudly show a diverse array of people. “Frontline” job positions are supported by those who “set the text, run the press, and load the reams” (for authors) or “tighten bolts, steer the crane, drive machines” (for the scientist creating cleaner energy sources). Long’s art provides a timeless feel and beautifully captures workers in action, bringing the story alive with movement.

 

 

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Interior spread from Someone Builds the Dream written by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Loren Long, Dial BYR ©2021.

 

This book succeeds on many fronts and would be a welcome addition to homes, schools, and libraries. We see that no one can do it alone and understand the importance of appreciating everyone on the team. Be sure to peek beneath the book jacket for a second cover image. Truly a five-star book in all regards.

 

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Without Separation

 

WITHOUT SEPARATION:

Prejudice, Segregation, and the Case of Roberto Alvarez

Written by Larry Dane Brimner

Illustrated by Maya Gonzalez

(Calkins Creek; $18.99, Ages 7-10)

 

 

 

Starred Review – Kirkus

 

I could not put down the nonfiction picture book Without Separation because, like the compelling but little-known case presented in the recently reviewed We Want to Go to School, this eye-opening account is about a civil rights case I had never heard about yet think everyone should.

Readers meet Roberto Alvarez on his way to school on January 5, 1931, just after the Christmas break. When the 12-year-old arrived at Lemon Grove Grammar School, “the principal told Roberto and other Mexican and Mexican American children that they did not belong there.” It soon became clear that the children were going to be segregated under the guise that the Mexican children didn’t understand English and were holding back white students.  

 

 

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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.

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I was stunned upon reading that the board of trustees of the school district had gone ahead and had another school built to separate these children. On top of that, they did it without telling the Mexican parents. They thought they were avoiding trouble this way but what they were doing was wrong or they would have been more transparent.

They may have thought that by going behind parents’ backs they could get away with their ploy but the inhabitants of the Mexican barrio knew better. Roberto’s parents had told him to come home if he were sent to the new Olive Street School, aka the barnyard.

That fateful morning, Roberto and a large group of other students refused to attend. While the school district tried to spin Olive Street School as a way to help the children learn English and American customs, Roberto, his parents, and other families knew the truth. This was a blatant and seemingly illegal attempt to segregate the students based on race.

 

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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.

 

Fortunately, the families quickly organized themselves. When they met with the Mexican consul, he connected them with a couple of lawyers to help them. “Roberto brought the situation in Lemon Grove to the attention of the California Superior Court in San Diego on February 13, 1931.” A lawsuit against the board of trustees of the Lemon Grove School District was filed stating how Roberto wanted to go to the same school as the white students, where he’d gone before the new year.

The school board felt overly confident about winning the case because San Diego’s district attorney was on their side, but mistakes were made. The D.A. tried to get the case dismissed but luck was not on his side.

 

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Interior spread from Without Separation written by Larry Dane Brimner and illustrated by Maya Gonzalez, Calkins Creek ©2021.

 

The judge ultimately ruled in favor of Roberto Alvarez who the school district tried to prevent from returning to the local school he’d previously attended. The law said the lead plaintiff (and therefore all the others affected) had every right to attend the Lemon Grove Grammar School “without separation or segregation.” This important case along with several others was cited “before the US Supreme Court when it made its landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (Kansas) decision of 1954 that outlawed school segregation.” And though the struggle recounted in Without Separation took place almost 91 years ago, the facts surrounding this case feel as relevant today when prejudice against the immigrant communities here in the U.S. continues and racial-based inequalities linger.

Author Brimner has written a timely and terrific book for today’s generation of children to gain greater insight into the power of community, commitment, and the change that even “one small voice” can make. Gonzalez’s gorgeous artwork, reminiscent of Mexican muralists with its bold lines and rich colors, helps bring this story to life.

Eight pages of interesting back matter go into more detail about the case including what happened to the principal Jerome J. Green. There are photos along with information about other similar lawsuits. I was happy to read how Roberto Alvarez became a successful businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist in San Diego before he passed away in 2003. It’s great that this book is available for families, schools, and libraries so readers can have a greater appreciation of the significant impact of Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Picture Book Review – 30,000 Stitches by Amanda Davis

30,000 STITCHES:

THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG

Written by Amanda Davis

Illustrated by Sally Wern Comport

(Worthy Kids; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

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For those of us who are old enough, the story of 9/11 will never be forgotten. Horrible images are etched in our minds. But if we look hard enough, we will find beauty from the darkness of that day. 30,000 STITCHES documents some of those moments. It is THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE NATIONAL 9/11 FLAG

SUMMARY

Author, Amanda Davis, takes us on a thoughtfully worded journey of kindness and healing. The first image of the flag, vibrant and whole, blows above the wreckage, displaying the strength of America. The fabric ages and the tattered flag is stored away in the shed of a home. Seven years later, another tragedy hits, this time a natural disaster in Greensburg, Kansas. 

Volunteers from New York bring the flag all the way to Kansas at the people’s request, a connection to those who suffered a loss. From fragments of flags that survived the tornado, the 9/11 flag is rebuilt, and its journey across the states begins. With each new piece, a new story is told and remembered, representing hope, kindness, love, and strength. 

FIRST IMPRESSION

Chills. And with every page turn—more chills! Illustrator, Sally Wern Comport, creates lush fabric-like spreads, stitching together frames and collaged images, layering colors and textures of the complicated yet beautiful stories. At the beginning of the book, her mixed-media illustrations present New York City in soft tones of gray and muted greens and yellow, contrasted with dark bold cutouts—firefighter figures.  

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Interior spread from 30,000 Stitches written by Amanda Davis and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, WorthyKids ©2021.

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The next page introduces the American flag in its familiar red, white, and blue. A few pages later, colorful images represent the uplifting message and diversity of the hands that stitched and mended the flag, and the hearts touched because of it.

 

CONCLUSION

The pictures and words of this book show humanity at its very best. 

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Interior spread from 30,000 Stitches written by Amanda Davis and illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, WorthyKids ©2021.

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There is a flag that connects the kids of today to the historical moment of 9/11. It stands thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall, as big as my recommendation for this book.

 

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