skip to Main Content

Middle Grade Book Review – In the Beautiful Country

IN THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY

Written by Jane Kuo

(Quill Tree Books;  $16.99, Ages 8-12)

In the Beautiful Country cover

e

Starred Review – School Library Journal

Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade, In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.

I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.

The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:

I used to love school,

the place where I was the loudest girl in class.

Now I’m robbed of words.

Suddenly, I have nothing to say.

e

In the Beautiful Country int WandererHer family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.

I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:

e

e

e

I sit facing the flickering television.

This TV is twice as small as our old one.

Here,

in the land of more,

our world is so small.

Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.

Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,

as if not understanding English

was some kind of insult.

It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”

It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.

  •  Guest Review by Mary Malhotra
Share this:

Picture Book Review – The Welcome Chair

 

 

THE WELCOME CHAIR

Written by Rosemary Wells

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

(A Paula Wiseman Book; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Bookpage, Kirkus

 

Rosemary Wells introduces the reader to her family’s history in the telling of a rocking chair built by her great-great-grandfather. We travel with the author of more than one hundred books for children, and winner of the Christopher Award, on the road imagining where the chair may have traveled in The Welcome Chair with illustrations by the late Jerry Pinkney who has earned seven Caldecott Medals, five Coretta Scott King Awards, five Coretta Scott King Honors, five New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Awards, and the Original Art’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Learning about family history is so much fun, and reading the story of Sam Seigbert who was born in 1807 in Bavaria, and brought to life by Wells from a family diary, was quite fascinating. Wells’s great-great-grandfather was destined to be a carpenter, but his father insisted that he study the Torah to become a Rabbi like him and his grandfather. “It’s settled. You will not work with your hands like a country bumpkin.” But that was not what Sam wanted, so at age sixteen he cut off his sidelocks, so no one would bully the Jewish boy, and hiked north to find work as a deckhand on a freighter for three pfennigs a day. The captain noticed Sam could read and write and offered him a job logging inventory on the ship. When the ship docked, Sam “darts away across the Brooklyn docks into the screeching, shrieking, filthy, clanging, terrifying, ugly and beautiful young city of New York.”

 

The Welcome Chair int1
Interior illustrations from The Welcome Chair written by Rosemary Well and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, A Paula Wiseman Book ©2021.

 

 

Pinkney’s extensive experience led him to execute the illustrations with contour drawing and watercolor washes, and pictures using burnt okra Prismacolor pencils and pastels. It was a perfect choice to showcase the 19th century as Sam meets Able Hinzler, and his wife Klara, and is hired on to become the bookkeeper and apprentice carpenter for Hinzler’s Housewright shop. When Magnus Hinzler is born, Sam carves a cherrywood rocking chair for Klara to sit in comfortably with the word “Willkommen”  meaning Welcome in German across a panel. This is the start of the chair that had many lives.

As told by Wells, Sam moves to Wisconsin with the Hinzler family. “The rocking chair goes with them. One evening he meets Ruth and falls in love with her gentle laugh and green-gray eyes. When their firstborn, Henry, arrives Sam carves Baruch Haba—Hebrew for “Welcome”—right under “Willkommen,” into the chair’s panel so that Henry will know his heritage.

When Wells was ten, her grandmother showed her the diary that was written in spidery old German by Wells’ great-great-grandmother Ruth Seigbert and read it to her. She decided to write a memoir of the diary in the first half of The Welcome Chair that ends in 1918 and brought to life the rest of the story through stories she was told.

 

The Welcome Chair int2
Interior illustrations from The Welcome Chair written by Rosemary Well and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, A Paula Wiseman Book ©2021.

 

 

In 1863, Henry was killed in Gettysburg and his younger sister Helen eventually married Harry Leopold. They moved to New York, and you guessed it, the chair travels east by railway. When Helen hires Irish girl Lucy as the family seamstress, she gives Lucy the chair as a wedding present and the word “Failte”—Irish for “Welcome” is spelled out with brass letters.

We watch the clothing and people change, showing Pinkney’s research, along with the timeline. Years have now passed and the chair moves from trash on the sidewalk picked up by a junkman, to Santo Domingo nuns living in Newark, New Jersey who carve “Bienvenido” in Spanish into the wood. When the nuns pass away, the chair is placed in a rummage sale in 2010 where Pearl Basquet’s mother grabs it. “’Our Welcome Chair needs a new word,’” says Pearl.” Her father chisels “Byenvini”—the Haitian word for Welcome.

This is a beautifully told story tracing the history of what was, to the present of what could have been. If these walls could talk what would we know about old family heirlooms? Wells and Pinkney give readers a beautiful glimpse into the “what-if.” Grandparents can read this meaningful story to their grandchildren, and tell their family history to be shared from generation to generation.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

 

Share this:

Picture Book Review – My Two Border Towns

MY TWO BORDER TOWNS 

Written by David Bowles

Illustrated by Erika Meza

(Kokila; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Booklist, The Horn Book, Publishers Weekl

 

Two towns unite in a spirit of community, outreach, and transnational awareness through the compassion of a little boy and his father in David Bowles and Erika Meza’s My Two Border Towns. 

As he does every other Saturday, a boy living in South Texas prepares for a trip with his father to “[E]l Otro Lado”–a short ride to the other side of the border. He grabs his “special bag” of gifts before they leave; while on the road, he reflects on the items he’ll be giving to his friends.

 

My Two Border Towns int1
Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Once they’ve arrived, we see a warm and vibrant town, twin to the one where the boy lives, except for English which is “mostly missing” until  “it pops up like grains of sugar on a chili pepper.” Bowles’ fluid weaving of English and Spanish throughout the story also provides opportunities for further learning to those who want to dig deeper into the Spanish language.  Colorful and lively, Meza’s aerial and close-up illustrations of the setting are packed with details:  architecture, wall signs, street vendors, and facial expressions all have a story of their own. 

 

My Two Border Towns int2
Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Now that father and son are fueled up with breakfast from their favorite restaurant, it’s time to catch up with family and play a round of soccer. Grocery shopping and a visit to the pharmacist are next, but before they head home, Dad reminds his son of their last, “most important visit.” 

 

My Two Border Towns int3
Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

Having all his supplies ready, the boy makes a quick visit to his friend who, along with a long line of people, is waiting, uncertain about the fate of his future. There are “entire families from the Caribbean and Central America. Refugees, Dad calls them. Stuck between two countries.”

The thought and care the boy has given to his gifts is evident as he unpacks them “explaining [his] choices” for each one to his friend.  Though his visit is short, it’s always bookended by love for his friends and a yearning for their freedom.  

 

My Two Border Towns int4
Interior spread from My Two Border Towns written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, Kokila ©2021.

 

A must-have for caregivers and educators, My Two Border Towns opens doors to conversations about kindness, empathy, duty, and the complexities of immigration.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Share this:

An Interview with Darshana Khiani Author of How to Wear a Sari

 

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH

DARSHANA KHIANI

AUTHOR OF

HOW TO WEAR A SARI

ILLUSTRATED BY

JOANNE LEW-VRIETHOFF

(VERSIFY; $17.99, Ages 4 to 7)

 

How to Wear a Sari cover

 

 

SUMMARY

Being a little kid isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes, it’s downright annoying. When the fashionable main character of How to Wear a Sari tires of being treated like she’s TOO little, she sets out to prove to her family that she can do ANYTHING she puts her mind to . . . including putting on a colorful, twinkly, silky sari. Sure, they’re long and unwieldy—but that only means her family will be even more impressed when she puts it on all by herself. Naturally, there are some hiccups along the way, but she discovers that she’s not the only one in her family who has set out with something to prove, with hilariously chaotic results. That’s what photo albums are for!

 

INTERVIEW

 

Colleen Paeff: Hi Darshana! Welcome to Good Reads with Ronna. Your adorable debut, How to Wear a Sari, came out last June. What have been some of your favorite moments from the past four months?

Darshana Khiani: First I’d like to say thank you so much for having me. My favorite part has been hearing from parents about how their little ones loved seeing someone that looks like them (Indian character) in a book. My 4yr-old niece has taken her book to school four times already. Seeing the book face out at my local library was wonderful too. I love it when people send me pictures of the book in the wild. A surprising sighting was one from the Harvard Coop!

 

CP: That sounds wonderful! All of it! Joanne Lew-Vriethoff’s illustrations are so vibrant and full of motion. Did you include art notes on your manuscript since a lot of what happens in the story isn’t in the text? 

DK: I try to leave room for the illustrator as much as possible. However, I do like to put humor in my stories where the setup is in text and the punchline is in the art, so I do use art notes when required. For example, the page before the climax says “remember not to run” and after the page turn is a wordless spread where the main character takes a colossal spill, so I had to have an art note for that. In the final spread, the text simply says “you now have a spot in the hall of fame album”, but it is the art note which specifies what types of photos the album contains.

 

How to Wear a Sari int1
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: What did you think the first time you saw the illustrations? Did anything surprise you?

DK: It was such a wonderful, unexpected surprise. I thought my first look would be a sketch of a scene or characters instead it was the full book in black-n-white sketches. I loved seeing the story come to life. When viewing the colored art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the illustrator had made the extended family interracial. 

 

CP: Yes, I love that! Do you remember the first time you wore a sari? Did you have any of the same problems as the girl in your book?

DK: I think the first time I wore a sari was for my cousin’s wedding. I was 18 at the time. I’m fairly sure several elder female relatives helped me drape it. I’m still not very good at wearing a sari. If I have trouble draping a sari, what would it be like for a young girl? That was the seed for the story.

 

How to Wear a Sari int2
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: You work full-time as a computer engineer. Do you find yourself using some of what you’ve learned as an engineer in your writing life? And vice versa?

DK: Surprisingly, yes! I am frequently requested to review docs or sit in on dry-runs of training presentations where I find I am giving big-picture feedback. The things we learn about good writing regarding keeping the reader engaged, knowing what your main story thread is, and having the right level of detail (not too much or not too little) are important anytime you are trying to convey information to someone. On the flip side, having worked in a company full of deliverables and deadlines helps me respect the business side of publishing. Though I will say things are so much slower in publishing than in the field I work in. That took getting used to. I also had to learn to set my own deadlines. I’ve realized I work better with external accountability. 

 

CP: With a full-time job and a family, your writing time must be very valuable. How do you make the most of your time in the writer’s chair? Do you have any favorite productivity hacks?

DK: Balancing writing, work, and family is a constant juggling act. Over the years I’ve learned to find blocks of time whether it be early in the morning, during the lunch hour, or late at night. When the kids were little, I frequently took my writing stuff to their gymnastic and swim practices, or I would visit a coffee shop while they were at a birthday party. Currently, there is a lot going on with the family that has greatly reduced my writing time. To keep things going I set aside two hours early Saturday morning and meet online with a writing buddy. This keeps me accountable and moving forward. As for productivity hacks, I try to set up my desk area and computer the night before, so the next morning everything is ready to go. I try to stay off of social media and email until after I do the morning writing.

 

CP: Those are all great ideas. I especially like the thought of having a writing buddy you meet with online. I love checking the South Asian Kidlit lists on your website. What made you decide to create those lists and have they benefited you in any way?

DK: Back in 2016, I was writing a blog post on South Asian Kidlit literature only to realize I was unaware of the current writers and illustrators. I figure if I as an Indian person didn’t know these books existed then how would others? So I set out to spread the word. The benefit to me has been it gives me something to talk about when meeting with booksellers and librarians. It’s easier for me to pitch my South Asian Kidlit newsletter and the benefits of it instead of directly talking about myself.

 

CP: It’s so much easier to pitch other people’s books than it is to pitch our own! When did you know you wanted to write books for children and how did you go about getting started?

DK: In my mid-30s after I had my two daughters, I knew I wanted to do something more, something that allowed me to directly connect with people. I was reading tons of picture books to my kids and fell in love with them. They were short, funny, and I loved that they could be about nearly anything. I also thought how hard can it be to write? Famous last words. Well, it took me over ten years but I did it and I’ve loved every moment. Some of the groups and writing challenges that have been critical to my writing journey are Storystorm (formerly PiBoIdMo), 12×12, SCBWI, Making Picture Book Magic course, my Cafe Invaders critique group, my PB Debut Marketing Group the Soaring ’20s, my agent, and librarians, bookseller, and writing friends I’ve made along the way. I love that my family and friends have been so supportive and cheering me on. It really does take a village.

 

How to Wear a Sari int3
Interior spread from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: Is there anything you wish you’d known back when you first started writing for children?

DK: Write, write, write as much as you can. This is one area I still struggle with as I love to revise but hate first drafts. I had a slow start in the first few years, where I would work on only one or two manuscripts over and over again. In the beginning, it should be about experimenting and trying lots of different types of stories because there is something to learn from each one of them. 

 

CP: Any favorite books from the past year?

DK: Too many. Here are some of my favorite reads from the past year. THE DOWNSTAIRS GIRL by Stacey Lee is a YA historical fiction novel set in 1890 Atlanta that is so smart and sassy. I can’t wait for the TV adaption to be released. FIREKEEPER’S DAUGHTER by Angeline Boulley was such a wonderful read. I love books where I’m learning about another culture, in this case, the Ojibwe people. In picture books, your book of course THE GREAT STINK is so engaging and informative. YOUR LEGACY: A BOLD RECLAIMING OF OUR ENSLAVED HISTORY by Schele Williams is gorgeous and empowering. I love her approach to the topic of African-American history. 

 

CP: Aw! Thank you, Darshana. That’s so nice. I’ll be adding the other books to my TBR list! What’s next for you, Darshana?

DK: I am really excited about my next book I’M AN AMERICAN which is scheduled for Summer 2023 by Viking. In it, a classroom of students discusses what it means to be an American and the values we share. Each student, of a different ethnicity, tells a short story from his or her own family about their American experience.  

 

How to Wear a Sari int5
Interior art from How to Wear a Sari written by Darshana Khiani and illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff, Versify ©2021.

 

CP: What a terrific idea. I can’t wait to read it! Thanks for the chat!

DK: Thank you so much for having me. It was a joy talking with you. 

 

DKhiani
Author Photo Credit ©Lisa Noble

BRIEF BIO

Darshana Khiani is a computer engineer by day and a children’s writer by night. She is a first-generation Indian American and enjoys writing funny, light-hearted stories with a South Asian backdrop. When she isn’t working or writing she can be found hiking, skiing, or volunteering. Darshana lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, two daughters, and a furry pup. How to Wear a Sari is her debut picture book.

 

 

 

BUY DARSHANA’S BOOKS HERE

Hicklebee’s for signed copies – https://www.hicklebees.com/book/9781328635204

Bookshop – https://bookshop.org/books/how-to-wear-a-sari/9781328635204

 

SOCIAL MEDIA LINKS

Website: www.darshanakhiani.com

Twitter: https://twitter.com/darshanakhiani

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/darshanakhiani/

TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@darshanakhiani

 

ABOUT INTERVIEWER COLLEEN PAEFF:

Colleen Paeff is the author of The Great Stink: How Joseph Bazalgette Solved London’s Poop Pollution Problem (Margaret K. McElderry Books), illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, and Rainbow Truck, co-authored with Hina Abidi and illustrated by Saffa Khan (available in the spring of 2023 from Chronicle Books).

Share this:

A review of The Magical Imperfect and an Interview with Author Chris Baron

THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT

by Chris Baron

(Feiwel & Friends; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

 

A Book Review, and Interview with Author Chris Baron

by Karol Silverstein

 

 

MagicalImperfect_CVR

 

Starred Review – Booklist

 

REVIEW:

In The Magical Imperfect, Etan has had trouble speaking since his mother checked into a hospital to get well, and his friends at school don’t know what to make of his silence. Baseball is about the only thing he can share with his father, but luckily, 1989 is looking like a good year for their Giants. Spending time with his immigrant grandfather, a shopkeeper in the local village, is much easier for Etan. Though his family is Jewish, their small hometown north of San Francisco is home to many refugees from various countries, so he’s exposed to many different cultures.

On an errand to deliver items for one of his grandfather’s fellow shopkeepers, Etan meets Malia, a girl who has severe eczema and began being homeschooled when the bullying at the local school became too much. These two outcast kids have an instant connection and build a moving friendship. Etan’s grandfather has a small supply of clay from “the old country,” which is supposed to have curative properties. Could the clay possibly cure Malia’s eczema? Etan wonders. Malia has tried many medicines and “cures” and is more interested in connecting with and learning from the nature that surrounds her, particularly the trees. Malia also dreams of singing in the town’s talent contest—unthinkable before she met Etan. As the talent show—and the World Series—draw closer, Malia practices her performance with Etan’s encouragement and Etan secures some of his grandfather’s “magic clay,” hoping it will help a particularly bad eczema outbreak Malia is experiencing. If only the scary tremors would let up…

As was the case in author Chris Baron’s 2019 debut All Of Me, the gentle unfolding of character and emotion through evocative verse is again on full display in The Magical Imperfect. The juxtaposition of Etan and Malia’s small tremors of growth with San Francisco’s devastating 1989 earthquake provides a potent metaphor for how life can shake you up but not necessarily knock you down. I worried a little that this book might delve into “magical cure/disability that needs to be fixed” territory that hampers many books with disabled and/or chronically ill characters and can actually be harmful to that community. But I don’t think that’s the case here. Etan’s clay isn’t really the magic fix he’d hoped for, and I believe both kids come to realize that acceptance and small victories are, in the end, what matter most.

Ultimately, the intertwined themes of love, culture, baseball and just a touch of magic . . . or is it faith? . . . make this a wonderful and wonder-filled read.

 

INTERVIEW:

Karol Silverstein: The Magical Imperfect is set around the time of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. How and at what point in the writing process did you decide on that time period? What led to this decision?

Chris Baron: This is a great question with a very twisty-turny answer. Let me see if I can straighten it out enough. Just like in All of Me, this book takes place in the Bay Area, where I went to middle school. This place is just a part of me. The setting lives in my heart—from the ocean to the redwoods and beyond.  I’d experienced earthquakes before, but somehow this one, in the middle of the World Series seemed to disrupt life in such an unpredictable and deep way. This story is all about the ways in which life is disrupted for the people in the story in unexpected ways by things that are beyond their control. Something as a big as an earthquake is terrifying, but it also has a chance to bring people together.

 

Karol: Baseball, music, food, and cultural traditions are wonderfully intertwined in your book. Can you talk about how you worked with these themes to tell Etan’s story?

Chris: Intertwined is actually a beautiful word for this. I think all of these things are intertwined in the story. When we hear a song, we feel the beat and hum the melody. We can remember the words no matter how long it’s been. Not only that, if the song has a special meaning to us, the music and the lyrics come together to fuel the memories that bind us together. I think it’s the same with cultural and sacred traditions, (which of course include food). The traditions, the tastes, the people—they become intertwined in who we are. They connect us. Even though Etan and Malia are from different cultures, and even though traditions might look different, they find that their values are actually intertwined.

As for baseball: Baseball is its own tradition—a symbol, an activity played at every level, and just a very fun game. For so many of us, baseball represents normal life, but it’s powerful enough to bring so many kinds of people together. For Etan, baseball is one of the only ways he can connect with his father. When things get tough, they at least can talk about baseball.

In 1989, when a unifying tradition like the world series was shaken by an earthquake, it caused many of us to feel scared and uneasy, but the quake also brought many people together. I tried to weave that into the backdrop of the story. There is so much news coverage from that day, and it’s fascinating to watch. I wanted to explore what it would be like for this close-knit town to experience this event together. I also have to confess that writing poetry about the earthquake was all-consuming. I think I wrote one hundred pages of “moments’ from the quake, but of course only a few made it into the book.

 

Karol: Both Etan and Malia have health conditions. What drew you to create characters with selective mutism and eczema, respectively? If you don’t have personal experience with these conditions, what type of research did you do?

Chris: Great question. I have the deepest respect and empathy for those of us who live with these health conditions. Both selective mutism and eczema are extremely complex.

I wrote about the life of an artist’s family quite a bit in All of Me. But there was one behavior that Ari didn’t express that Etan does in The Magical Imperfect. In the book, Etan stops speaking when his mother has to leave because of her severe depression. He didn’t choose it. His anxiety came on suddenly, and like most kids his age (and especially in 1989), he doesn’t know how to recognize it. In Etan, I am writing a character I know well—someone who suffers from anxiety. Because my mom is an artist, we moved all the time. Whenever I moved to a new town, a new state, a new school, I may have seemed calm on the outside, but inside of me was a storm of emotions: There was always joy and excitement of moving to a new place, new friends, new adventures, but of course it was all mixed together with the brutal pain of being taken out of one life (routine, friendships, and environment), and then suddenly dropped into another. I suffered from anxiety. I didn’t know how I would fit. For a kid, it can be a complete loss of control. Often, the way I reacted to this loss of control was to find something I could control. It was sometimes eating, but it was also something quieter. I found myself often unable to speak, so I embraced that. I stopped talking at school. I was quiet. I kept all my words to myself. Eventually, I found friends and teachers I could trust who helped me through it, and slowly the words came out.

Eczema is very complicated. Most people have rashes that itch, but as my wife Ella deCastro Baron explains it, she has itches that rash. Ella has had extreme eczema off and on her whole life. Her memoir, Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment (2012) is all about a life lived with eczema. When we first got married, she had eczema that ravaged her body from head to toe. The triggering effects of the condition caused so many secondary problems: depression, insomnia, isolation, and hopelessness. If you know Ella, then you know that she is a luminous, hilarious person full of life. Watching her deal with chronic bouts of eczema has been some of the hardest parts of our life together (and still are at times). In The Magical Imperfect, Malia experiences a similar bout of eczema. It’s so bad that she is isolated from school because of the way other kids treat her and because of her own discomfort.

The healing process for both of these conditions is not simple magic. In each case, it’s a complex journey, but the hope itself leads to moments of magic that provide joy and healing from the most unexpected places.  That’s a big part of what I explored in the book.

I also want to note. Even though these conditions are integrated into my own life, I did more research than I expected. I know that these conditions vary from person to person, so I talked to many. I interviewed doctor friends about both subjects, and a few others who have firsthand experiences with these conditions. I also read Christina Collins’s stunning book, After Zero which I highly recommend.

 

Karol: The “magic” in your book is very much left up to your readers’ interpretation. Can you discuss what role you feel magic plays in helping Etan and Malia get to a better place emotionally by story’s end?

Chris: I know one thing I hope readers don’t take away—the idea that magic is some sort of cure for everything. Without too many spoilers, I would say that the magic in the story connects the many worlds of the characters. There is ancient magic from the worlds more connected to Etan’s grandfather and the other immigrants in town, but also hidden everywhere. This is the part I had the most fun writing. I think the magic is crucial for Etan and Malia—not because it cures things—but because it provides hope and makes it tangible in their everyday lives. The story is rooted in the idea that magic is all around us—that if we might only stop and listen—pay attention—we will see and hear the trees, or discover the ancient things living right beside us.

But also—I love trees—and I know that they are made of magic.

 

AUTHOR BIO:

Chris Baron is the author of the middle-grade novels in verse, ALL OF ME and THE MAGICAL IMPERFECT (2021) from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, a Junior Library Guild Selection. He is a Professor of English at San Diego City College and the director of the Writing Center. Learn more about him on Twitter: @baronchrisbaron, Instagram: @christhebearbaron, Facebook:  Chris Baron – Author, Poet, Educator, and on www.chris-baron.com.
e

WHERE TO BUY THE BOOK:

Click here to purchase from Run For Cover Bookstore
e

Click here to purchase from Mysterious Galaxy

 

Share this:

Picture Book Review – Watercress

 

WATERCRESS

Written by Andrea Wang

Illustrated by Jason Chin

(Neal Porter Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)   

 

Watercress cover

 

 

A Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection
Starred Reviews – BookPage, The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, The Horn Book, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

 

Andrea Wang and Jason Chin’s new picture book, Watercress, tells a story with that one word alone. This vegetable embodies a family’s experiences from the great famine years until today in the US. Wang’s spare, lyrical text shows us the range of emotions felt by the girl whose parents excitedly stop to pick watercress from the side of the road, much to the girl’s chagrin. Her feelings brew throughout the story until painful memories shared bring about an understanding.

 

Watercress int1
Interior spread from Watercress written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, Neal Porter Books ©2021.

 

Watercress int2
Interior spread from Watercress written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, Neal Porter Books ©2021.

 

Fans of Jason Chin’s gorgeous watercolor images will not be disappointed. The family’s many dimensions come alive on the page, reflecting today’s struggles and those long ago.

 

Watercress int3
Interior spread from Watercress written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, Neal Porter Books ©2021.

 

This book is relatable to people from immigrant families as myself, or any kid who’s been embarrassed by some things their family does—and who hasn’t?! Watercress is top-notch for its ability to convey a world of information and a wide range of moods.

 

Watercress int4
Interior spread from Watercress written by Andrea Wang and illustrated by Jason Chin, Neal Porter Books ©2021.

 

The text and illustrations are flawless. There’s even a secret book cover image once the paper cover is removed. The accolades for Watercress are merited. It is definitely one of my top 2021 picks.

 

Click here for an educator’s guide.

 

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2021 (asianpacificheritage.gov)

 

Share this:

Four Historical Fiction Novels for Tweens and Teens

FOUR HISTORICAL FICTION NOVELS

FOR MIDDLE GRADE AND YOUNG ADULT READERS

∼A Roundup∼

 

Free Clipart Historical Fiction for Four Historical Fiction Novels

 

 

TROWBRIDGE ROADTrowbridge Road cover for Four Historical Fiction Novels  
by Marcella Pixley

(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

A 2020 National Book Awards Longlist Selection
A Shelf Awareness Best Book of 2020
A Reading Group Choices Best Book of 2020
A Mighty Girl Best Book of 2020
Starred Review – Kirkus

Marcella Pixley’s middle-grade book, Trowbridge Road, opens with Jenny Karlo’s loud, beat-up car disturbing a sleepy Boston suburb. Jenny’s music and personality add to the unrest as she deposits her son, Ziggy, at Nana’s for an indeterminate stay. June Bug Jordan, the unofficial neighborhood watcher, takes this in from a safe distance. It’s 1983 and June Bug’s world has recently been shattered by AIDS.

Outcasts of sorts, June Bug and Ziggy (and Matthew, the ferret, who’s often perched atop Ziggy’s unruly red hair) meld into a comfortable friendship where their imaginations transport them from everyday troubles. Matthew’s antics add levity as the truths for both kids begin to unfold. While Ziggy’s grandmother and June Bug’s uncle are steady and trustworthy, other adults struggle with mental illness and domestic violence making them incompetent caregivers who provide love alongside complicated pain.

Pixley does an amazing job bringing such difficult topics to a middle-grade audience. Problems are laid out from a child’s viewpoint and not explained away—simple answers don’t exist. Filled with complex characters, Trowbridge Road delivers an emotional journey, proving hope exists even on the darkest days. My favorite scenes include ones where the kids lose themselves in larger-than-life, fantastic journeys. The escapism offers them moments of freedom to work through personal traumas.

This beautifully written book is one I recommend to friends. There’s so much here, you’ll want to read it again. I congratulate Pixley on her craft which brings to life endearingly flawed characters during an important historical time.

 

THE SUMMER WE FOUND THE BABY   The Summer We Found the Baby cvr Four Historical Fiction Novels
by Amy Hest

(Candlewick; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)

Starred Reviews – Book Page, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal

Eleven-year-old Julie Sweet and her six-year-old sister, Martha, are “summer people” at Belle Beach, Long Island, taking a break from the city with their writer dad. The book opens with the girls finding a baby left on the steps of the library and the story spins backward from there. Told from three viewpoints (the sisters’, plus that of their neighbor, twelve-year-old, Bruno Ben-Ali), the reader pieces together what happened to cause a myriad of events, including the breakup of Julie and Bruno’s friendship. World War II concerns are deftly incorporated, such as Bruno’s brother being drafted and the increasing number of funeral services for overseas casualties; a nearby army hospital also factors in.

In The Summer We Found the Baby, Amy Hest, weaves together a fast-paced plot with levity, where stories at times overlap as we discover what each character discloses or conceals. Historical details take a backseat to friendship concerns, sibling squabbling, and familial issues. Seeing the happenings from three perspectives works well to uncover the kids’ fears and losses. This likable tale captures a few scenes in a summer where lives come together and move apart, and how, sometimes, specific moments bring about change. And, yes, we eventually unwind the mystery behind the abandoned baby.

 

Magic Dark and Strange cvr Four Historical Fiction NovelsMAGIC DARK AND STRANGE
by Kelly Powell
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

In the nineteenth century, grave robbers supplied medical schools with corpses. While this does happen in Magic Dark and Strange, Catherine Daly leaves home to take a respectable job at the city’s newspaper, knowing her family needs the income. Though at night, she earns a bit more digging up graves to briefly enliven the dead so they can spend a while longer with their loved ones. In exchange, for each hour granted, she loses an hour of her life. On a special expedition to collect a unique timepiece, she somehow brings a teen boy fully to life. Since he has no memory, they question who he is, why he died, and what resurrected him. Somewhat reluctantly Guy Nolan, the watchmaker’s son, houses the boy he names Owen and sets about seeking answers with Catherine. While a budding attraction develops between Catherine and Guy, their encounters focus more on mystery-solving than romantic interludes.

I knew I’d like this book from its first line: “Waking the dead wasn’t nearly so unpleasant as having to dig them up in the first place.” This sums up Catherine well: that she perform small magic is a given, but it’s hard work and she must avoid being caught by a watchman. The story’s turns will keep you guessing at Owen’s true identity, especially once the murders begin. Readers who appreciate historical details blended with fantasy will find this a fascinating read. I was unsure until the end whether Owen was innocent or hiding his dark past. See if your sleuthing can figure it out before it’s revealed.

 

LUCK OF THE TITANICLuck of the Titanic cvr Four Historical Fiction Novels
by Stacey Lee

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)
Available for pre-order now

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Connection

The Titanic sinks; I’ve heard many of the stories, but Stacey Lee’s YA novel, Luck of the Titanic, illuminates the unjust treatment of the few Chinese aboard that dreaded voyage. In reality, six of the eight Chinese passengers survived (whereas only 25% of the other passengers survived), yet, rare mentions “vilified them as cowards who took seats from women and children or dressed as women in order to sneak aboard lifeboats, all of which were unfounded rumors.” The US’s Chinese Exclusion Act in place in 1912 ensured that all of these men—who likely did not speak English—were shipped off within twenty-four hours of arrival, their stories lost.

From these facts, Lee weaves a tale about brother and sister acrobats, the Luck twins. Val makes an action-packed, stowaway entrance to join her brother, Jamie. Her haphazard plan involves finding and impressing the influential circus owner, thus gaining access to America. Yet, Jamie has given up such sensational aspirations. Strong-willed Val tries to right him to her course but, along the convoluted, shenanigan-filled way, discovers much about herself, family, and the meaning of true love.

This seven-day voyage sails by quickly. Val is an interesting character who quickly won me over with her endearingly persistent flaws. Knowing about the fateful iceberg didn’t make the plot any less suspenseful. Instead, the concluding chapters are nail-biters, through the unpredictable ending.

Lee’s book begins a much-needed conversation that will, hopefully, result in finding information about the actual Chinese survivors so their stories can be added to the history books. I appreciate the care with which she writes historical fiction and, previously, enjoyed her 2019 YA, The Downstairs Girl, set in 1890 Atlanta, which also tackles issues of inequality shown from a strong, female lead character’s perspective.

[ATTENTION WRITERS: Catch her Sat. April 10, in “Hitch Up Your Petticoats: Stacey Lee Reveals How to Write Historical Fiction.” Registration link here. Non-SCBWI members, email Natasha Yim at sfnortheastbay-ara@scbwi.org.]

 

Share this:

Middle-Grade Novel Review – The Elephant in the Room

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

By Holly Goldberg Sloan

(Dial Books; 17.99 Ages 10-14)

 

The Elephant in the Room cvr

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

In The Elephant in the Room, when middle-schooler, Sila Tekin’s mother is stuck in Turkey trying to get her immigration paperwork in order, the loneliness is almost unbearable for her and her father, Alp. Sila’s newly withdrawn demeanor prompts her school to pair her with autistic classmate Mateo Lopez in a special program that has the kids spending time together at the end of each school day. The point is to help both kids socialize more and, after a slow, silent start, they eventually begin getting to know each other.

Life changes dramatically for Sila and Mateo when Alp is hired to fix an old truck owned by widower, Gio, who lives on a non-working farm on the outskirts of town. Sila and Gio seem to form an immediate bond, even before they discover that Gio’s late wife was Sila’s beloved second-grade teacher. When an odd string of coincidences leads to Gio rescuing a young elephant named Veda from a failing circus, Sila and Mateo wind up with the most awesome summer job ever—caring for Veda. Sila connects to the young pachyderm on a deep level, realizing that, like her, Veda must really miss her mother. A reunion of either mother-daughter pair feels out of reach, but with a team of caring friends—maybe it’s not.

Author Holly Goldberg Sloan has another deeply heartfelt hit on her hands. Again employing the multi-POV device she uses so brilliantly, she lets readers see and feel the unfolding of these extraordinary events through various characters’ eyes. Veda’s POV is used sparingly but impactfully, and even the supporting animal characters—a flock of undisciplined flamingos, a ravenous bear, and a loyal dog—whose POVs we’re not privy to, are well-drawn, quirky, and fun.

Both kids are battling quiet storms within, which makes them interesting and empathetic. Gio is wonderfully complex. His desire to rediscover meaning in life, coupled with voluminous lottery winnings, propel him to take on caring for Veda, somehow feeling it’s something he has to do. His connection with Sila seems similarly fated, and their special bond serves as the glue for all of the characters. A story of hope, longing, love, and action, The Elephant in the Room will show middle-grade readers that things—people, animals, situations—are not always what they seem and that they’re not always as powerless over circumstances as they sometimes feel.

 

Click here to read Ronna’s review of Karol’s debut YA novel, Cursed.

Share this:

Kids Picture Books for World Butterfly Day 2021

 

WORLD BUTTERFLY DAY

∼A Roundup∼

 

 

 

 

This year World Butterfly Day is on Sunday, March 14 so we’ve rounded up three picture books
that will help kids learn about these natural beauties, why they matter, and how we can help them since the Monarchs especially risk going extinct.

 

Butterflies Belong Here coverBUTTERFLIES BELONG HERE: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies
Written by Deborah Hopkinson
Illustrated by Meilo So
(Chronicle Books; $18.99, Ages 5-8)

Blending story and facts, Deborah Hopkinson’s engaging 68-page picture book, Butterflies Belong Here: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies, takes us through a school year via girl new to the US. Just as monarch butterflies travel far, so did her family. The girl learns to read through books like her favorite one with a butterfly on the cover.

The text alternates between the girl’s journey from one spring to the next with her school class and that of the monarch butterfly. As seasons pass, she hopes to see a monarch but realizes that she may not. Monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed but butterflies have a hard time finding it. “Some people think of milkweed as a useless weed, so they’ve used chemicals to keep it from growing in fields and on farmland. In other places, climate change has been causing droughts that make it difficult for milkweed to grow.”

I can empathize with the girl as she realizes that the “problem is so big, and butterflies are so small.” Though uncomfortable standing in front of her class, the girl gains their support in planting a monarch way station which “needs at least ten plants, with two different kinds of milkweed, and nectar flowers.”

Throughout, Meilo So’s uplifting art enlivens the girl’s growth as she enacts the librarian’s words, “It’s surprising what such a tiny creature can do,” demonstrating the power when we come together as conservationists and activists. Monarch butterflies traverse up to 3,000 miles, from Canada through the US to Mexico. They do not recognize borders, seeking only safe passage to survive from one generation to the next.

Beyond being a heartfelt read, Butterflies Belong Here is a call to action, providing notes in the back matter on how to help by involving your community. This book belongs in your classroom or home, just as these beautiful pollinators belong in our lives.

 

Winged Wonders coverWINGED WONDERS: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery
Written by Meeg Pincus
Illustrated by Yas Imamura
(Sleeping Bear Press; $17.99, Ages 7-10)

Meeg Pincus’s nonfiction picture book, Winged Wonders: Solving the Monarch Migration Mystery, investigates where these beautiful butterflies travel, sweeping from Canada through North America, then seemingly disappearing. In 1976, through the work of people from all walks of life, the fact that millions of monarchs overwintered in Southern Mexico’s oyamel groves were finally officially documented because of tags placed on the butterflies.

Kids will enjoy how everyone pitched in: Fred the Canadian scientist, Norah a master organizer of collected data, plus thousands of “science teachers, backyard gardeners, and other curious souls.” The search unravels in a series of questions that figure out this fascinating migration. I appreciate that the back matter points out “history depends on who tells the story—Mexican poet and environmentalist Homero Aridjis asks: ‘Did the white scientists really “discover” the wintering sites that people in Southern Mexico knew about for centuries?’”

One of the book’s final questions, “So, who can make a difference for monarchs today?” is answered in Yas Imamura’s evocative art. The concluding “How to Help the Monarchs” section provides the shocking statistic that “habitats for monarchs are declining at a rate of 6,000 acres a day in the United States.” Steps we can do to help include planting pesticide-free milkweed (the only food the caterpillars can eat) and nectar plants for the butterflies, learning and educating others about the need for conservation, and treading more lightly on our planet—“use less plastic, electricity, water, chemicals; eat more plant-based, local foods.”

 

Hello Little One coverHELLO, LITTLE ONE: A Monarch Butterfly Story
Written by Zeena M. Pliska
Illustrated by Fiona Halliday
(Page Street Kids; $17.99, Ages 4-8)    

Zeena Pliska’s picture book, Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story, shows the monarch butterfly life cycle through the eyes of a newborn caterpillar surrounded by the color green until Orange (a monarch butterfly) soars into view. A friendship grows with the caterpillar wanting to see and know everything while Orange provides gentle guidance. The expressive art by Fiona Halliday zooms in close, providing detail and personality.

Kids will enjoy this relationship story—barely realizing it’s also educational! While much of the book is uplifting, the truth of a monarch’s short existence is handled delicately, with Orange honestly saying they will not be back. The loss is acknowledged and mourned but the main character goes on, boosted by the remembrance of their time together.

I like the circular nature of the story and how personification makes the text accessible to even the youngest kids. Back matter includes detail about the stages: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and adult (butterfly). Check under the book jacket for a second cover image.

 

Click here to read a review of another wonderful butterfly book.
Share this:

Children’s Picture Book Review – The Day Saida Arrived

THE DAY SAIDA ARRIVED

Written by Susana Gómez Redondo 

Illustrated by Sonja Wimmer

Translated by Lawrence Schimel

(Blue Dot Kids Press; $17.95, Ages 4-8)

 

The Day Saida Arrived cover

 

 

Originally published in Spain, The Day Saida Arrived is a powerful story of friendship and love that bridges the gap between cultural differences.

The book begins by looking at the issue of immigration through the lens of a classmate whose heart is stirred with compassion to befriend a new student from Morocco. Reading the sadness and silence in Saida’s “large amber eyes,” the narrator sets out to find her friend’s words, thinking Saida has lost them. But after a discussion with her parents, the narrator realizes Saida indeed has words-yet she doesn’t want to “bring them out.” They are “different from the words” used in her new surroundings. The narrator’s father explains to his daughter: “In Morocco, … yours wouldn’t work either.” 

The Day Saida Arrived int4
Interior spread from The Day Saida Arrived written by Susana Gómez Redondo, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer, and translated by Lawrence Schimel, Blue Dot Kids Press ©2020.

 

Once the narrator understands this all-important lesson of seeing herself in the other person’s struggle, she sets out to help and learn from Saida. Together, in this reciprocal relationship, the two friends share a wealth of new words. Double page spreads of Arabic and English words playfully interact. Some are easily remembered, some are “carried off by the wind,” while those that were forgotten earlier return like “good weather.” In fact, throughout the pages we see graceful Arabic and bold English letters flying about, blown by the wind like butterflies, “sometimes look[ing] like flowers and other times like insects.” The illustrative theme of nature is beautifully consistent, comparing the process of language acquisition to the ebb and flow of the natural world. 

 

The Day Saida Arrived int7
Interior spread from The Day Saida Arrived written by Susana Gómez Redondo, illustrated by Sonja Wimmer, and translated by Lawrence Schimel, Blue Dot Kids Press ©2020.

e

Through poignant scenes and lyrical language, we see the girls’ mutual respect and friendship blossom. In trust and appreciation, they exchange stories and treats from each other’s culture. A side by side spread of the English and Arabic alphabets in the backmatter extends the opportunity for readers to learn.  

A touching story that breaks boundaries, The Day Saida Arrived is a wonderful addition to the school and home library.

Find book resources including a Teacher’s guide and a coloring page here.

Here’s an interesting interview with the book’s translator Lawrence Schimel
Read about author Susana Gómez Redondo here.
See more art from illustrator Sonja Wimmer here.

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

  • Click here to order a copy of The Day Saida Arrived.
    e
  • Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!

e

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share this:

Picture Book Review – The Homesick Club

THE HOMESICK CLUB

Written by Libby Martinez

Illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon

(Groundwood Books; $17.95; Ages 4-7)

 

The Homesick Club cover

 

 

Written by Libby Martinez and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon, The Homesick Club expresses the longing for home and connection. 

Mónica and her best friend, Hannah, share a special bond: they are both immigrants.

Mónica is from Bolivia and Hannah is from Israel. Together they form The Homesick Club, complete with a handmade sign they display on their lunchtime table illustrating their favorite memories from their respective homelands.  Mónica yearns for the mango trees, green vines, and the “family of hummingbirds” that she and her grandmother would feed every morning. Similarly, Hannah misses the warm weather, sandy dunes, desert whistling wind, and a neighborhood tortoise. Their conversations highlight how different aspects of a landscape make it a unique and special place called home.
e

Interior artwork from The Homesick Club written by Libby Martinez and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon, Groundwood Books ©2020.

e

When they meet their new teacher, Miss Shelby, they discover she too is far away from her home, Texas. Ironically, as Mónica and her teacher discuss their different backgrounds, they discover how much they have in common. Mónica’s beautiful transitions from English to Spanish echo Miss Shelby’s “soft and slow” voice, “like…words…stuck together with syrup.” They miss similar things from back home, too:  a “big and wide” sky that displays an abundance of stars as well as hummingbirds. Mónica misses seeing them since the big city noise “probably scares them away.” Miss Shelby longs for her favorite hometown dessert, hummingbird cake, “sooooo sweet, like the flowers that hummingbirds drink from.” Gibbon’s bright and friendly illustrations include rich detail that expresses the individual personalities of each character. 

e

TheHomesickClub int2
Interior artwork from The Homesick Club written by Libby Martinez and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon, Groundwood Books ©2020.

e

In honor of her beloved hummingbirds and a budding friendship with her new teacher, Mónica prepares a surprise to share with everyone during Show and Tell. Through this kind gesture, she is able to bring a little bit of home back to both of them and to us readers who are gifted with the recipe at the end of the story. 

e

TheHomesickClub int3
Interior artwork from The Homesick Club written by Libby Martinez and illustrated by Rebecca Gibbon, Groundwood Books ©2020.

e

A great conversation starter on issues of diversity and geography, The Homesick Club reminds us that though we may look different and come from different parts of the world, we have many experiences connecting us. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookiane
    e

    e
    Click here to see How To Bake Hummingbird Cake with Author Libby Martinez
    e
    Click here to order a copy of The Homesick Club.
    e

    Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
    e

    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/19/20

Share this:

Picture Book Review – Catching Thoughts

CATCHING THOUGHTS

Written by Bonnie Clark

Illustrated by Summer Macon

(Beaming Books; $17.99; Ages 3-8)

 

Catching Thoughts cover

 

Thoughts flow in and out of the mind of this picture book’s main character, a young girl. It’s usually no big deal until this one unpleasant thought not revealed to the reader begins to follow her everywhere in Catching Thoughts, written by Bonnie Clark with illustrations by Summer Macon.

It isn’t always easy to understand why our minds think about what they do. Macon’s visual of a dark blue balloon and gray tones depict the negative thoughts that the girl can’t control. “After a while, the thought followed me everywhere I went. It tripped me up when I wasn’t expecting it.” The little girl is tripped up by the string holding the dark balloon, showing the reader what happens inside the mind. The idea of how easily we can be consumed by just one sentence playing out in our heads will resonate with so many children (and adults).

 

CatchingThoughts layout rd5
Interior spread from Catching Thoughts written by Bonnie Clark and illustrated by Summer Macon, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Clark uses an engaging first-person narration that helps us empathize as the main character “tried to unthink my unwanted thought. But that just made me think about it more!” Readers see noise cancelling headphones over the girl’s ears with her arms firmly crossed, and her eyes closed, as the dark balloon floats by her side demonstrating how this attempt is not silencing the thought.

The girl becomes angry with the dark balloon (her unwanted thought) and her yelling and crying do not make the balloon float away. “It seemed like there was no more room in my head for anything but the one horrible thought. I had to do something.” Her frustration is palpable.

Macon’s dark balloon is much larger than the girl, as its string wraps around her body. The simple drawing powerfully expresses how the girl is feeling. She decides to take control, smiles at the balloon, and simply says “Hello!”

 

CatchingThoughts_Layout
Interior spread from Catching Thoughts written by Bonnie Clark and illustrated by Summer Macon, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

I like how the page turns from shades of gray artwork to colorful pastels, as the main character begins to catch new thoughts and feels empowered. In doing so she catches the orange and blue balloons thus releasing the dark balloon to fly high in the sky. Catching the pink balloon with a net, while colorful butterflies are flying by, she “held on tight to thoughts that were TRUE, and embraced thoughts that were EXCELLENT.”

A frown turns to a smile as she dances with joy, with the many colorful balloons floating throughout the town. Macon conveys her personal love of paddleboarding, which you can tell brings her calmness. She paints the young girl peacefully relaxing on her paddleboard sipping a drink as she “collected thoughts that were CLEAR and CALM.” My own body relaxed with this drawing reminding me that I, too, need to get back out on a paddleboard.

 

CatchingThoughts layout colorfulballoons
Interior spread from Catching Thoughts written by Bonnie Clark and illustrated by Summer Macon, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Clark’s gentle approach teaches the reader that when you catch positive thoughts, negative thoughts become much smaller. “And whenever that old thought tries to come back into vie … I can just say Hello, and politely ask it to leave …” Ahh, that line alone put a smile on my face. This book takes an important and tough topic and puts it into easy-to-understand words and illustrations. It’s a great tool for parents to help guide their children during these isolating Covid-19 times, when many of them may not be physically seeing their friends and teachers. This must-read for anyone struggling with anxiety and weighed down by unwanted thoughts offers compassion and shows how to actively catch and replace all the negatives with positives.

Read an insightful interview with author Bonnie Clark here.

 

  • Review by Ronda Skernick Einbinder

 

Click here to order a copy of Catching Thoughts

Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog and its team of passionate kidlit reviewers, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate link above. Thanks!

Share this:

Picture Book Review – The Arabic Quilt by Aya Khalil

THE ARABIC QUILT:
An Immigrant Story

Written by Aya Khalil

Illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan

(Tilbury House Publishers; $17.95, Ages 5-9)

 

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

The Arabic Quilt, written by Aya Khalil with art by Anait Semirdzhyan, is a thoughtful picture book that sensitively conveys the experience and emotions of any child who has ever felt uncomfortable with or ashamed of a second language spoken, or other customs practiced and foods eaten, at home whether a recent immigrant or not. When my husband’s family moved to America from Israel in 1955 they chose to speak only English and, while I understand their motivation of wanting to fit in, it’s sad my husband never learned Hebrew, or Yiddish and German for that matter, all the languages of his parents.

The main character in this story is Kanzi whose family is newish to America, hence the sub-title. When she later introduces herself in class at her new school she says “I am Egyptian-American. I love to swim. I love to write poetry.” But also on her first day of third grade she deliberately leaves behind a kofta (meatball) sandwich so that her somewhat less typical meal wouldn’t stand out. Much to her dismay, Kanzi’s mother shows up at school with the forgotten lunch and embarrasses her daughter in front of classmates when calling her an affectionate name in Arabic. This part resonated with me even though I never had that exact experience. But who cannot relate to that awful feeling of being ‘the other’ in some situation during their school years whether it was from being teased for crying, being un-athletic, wearing glasses, or having an uncommon background?

The Arabic Quilt interior1
Interior spread from The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story written by Aya Khalil and illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan, Tilbury House ©2020.

 

The theme of Khalil’s story feels current and fresh. No one apologizes for their differences and should not have to. The Arabic Quilt honors Kanzi’s family’s history and language which is empowering, and no one does it better than Kanzi’s teacher. I love how Mrs. Haugen knows just what to say and do to comfort her upset student after being teased, “Oh Kanzi, being bilingual is beautiful.” In fact, the story not only features Arabic words throughout, but Khalil’s included a helpful glossary at the end.

Mrs. Haugen suggests Kanzi bring the handmade quilt into school and, following the positive response, announces a special project. Kanzi and her mother will write the students’ names in Arabic and then Kanzi’s classmates can design their own paper quilt pieces. Even the class across the hall is inspired by Mrs. Haugen’s project that celebrates Kanzi’s Arabic language. The book aptly ends with Kanzi composing a poem to her parents where she thanks her parents for encouraging her to be proud of her unique language and how, like the assorted pieces of her teita’s quilt, language can actually bring us together.

The Arabic Quit int2
Interior art from The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story written by Aya Khalil and illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan, Tilbury House ©2020.

 

One of my favorite Semirdzhyan illustrations depicts Kanzi writing poetry following her difficult first day while reassuringly wrapped in her cherished quilt from her teita (grandma) far away in Cairo. Another is the happy faces of the children admiring the finished paper quilt, the look of contentment on Mrs. Haugen’s face, and the pure joy on Kanzi’s face. The book’s art brings added warmth to this already meaningful story, and the ample white space allows the focus to be on the students, their interaction, and ultimately their own collage quilt that binds the kids in class together. Kanzi’s individual story is now woven into theirs, separate yet together. Between its important message of accepting differences, and being proud of one’s culture and language, The Arabic Quilt would make a welcome gift for Eid or for anyone eager to expand their child’s multicultural horizons. I recommend this lovely debut from Aya Khalil and hope you get a copy for yourself or for your child’s school from your local indie bookseller today.

  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Click here for a classroom guide.

Also recommended for Eid is Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices, edited by S. K. Ali and Aisha Saeed, with illustrations by Sara Alfageeh, Amulet Books.

Share this:

Picture Book Review – A Doll for Grandma

A DOLL FOR GRANDMA:
A Story about Alzheimer’s Disease

Written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Illustrated by Samantha Woo

(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

A Doll for Grandma cover

 

Written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, A Doll for Grandma captures that unshakeable bond between a little girl and her grandmother, a bond that tenderly adapts to the changes brought on by Alzheimer’s disease.

ADollforGrandma int1
Interior art from A Doll for Grandma: A Story About Alzheimer’s Disease written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Kiera and Grandma enjoy each other’s company and have a lot of fun together. From painting nails to knitting to baking “special occasion” molasses cookies based on an old, family recipe, Kiera learns a lot from Grandma. So it is strange when, seemingly all of a sudden, Grandma starts behaving in ways outside of her usual character.

 

ADollforGrandma int2
Interior art from A Doll for Grandma: A Story About Alzheimer’s Disease written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Through a child-centered, gentle tone, Sharkey’s direct language addresses these changes. “Grandma’s brain is forgetting how to remember,” Kiera’s mother explains. For Kiera, the differences in who Grandma was and who she is now are painfully evident. Most touching are the small, subtle changes. Grandma’s long and “shiny” painted fingernails that once made a “rat-a-tat-tat sound on the table” are merely “bare and … short.” “No more rat-a-tat-tat.” I admire the book’s honest portrayal of the challenges in letting go and accepting the new reality of Alzheimer’s.

 

A Doll for Grandma int4
Interior art from A Doll for Grandma: A Story About Alzheimer’s Disease written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Yet, despite these challenges, Kiera discovers a way to be present with her grandmother by gifting a doll to Grandma. Kiera brings her own doll during her visits, and the two connect, nurturing their dolls in pretend play. Woo’s colorful illustrations contribute to this connection by focusing on the facial expressions of the characters, driving home the point that what matters most is the emotional bond the characters share as they engage in positive sensory experiences together. A helpful discussion in the back matter by author and advocate Judy Cornish provides a wonderful tool for parents, caregivers, and teachers.

A powerful story and important resource, A Doll for Grandma brings clarity and healing to families struggling to find connection with that special person living with Alzheimer’s disease.

•Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Share this:

Kids Picture Book Review – The Heart of a Whale

THE HEART OF A WHALE

Written and illustrated by Anna Pignataro

(Philomel Books; $17.99; Ages 3-7)

 

The Heart of a Whale cvr

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal

Whale sang a song of happiness and hope, day after day, night after night for his ocean friends. But even with the roaring waves above him, Whale thought how quiet and lonely the sea could be in award-winning and best-selling author and illustrator Anna Pignataro’s lyrical picture book The Heart of A Whale.

 

TheHeartofaWhale int1
Interior spread from The Heart of a Whale written and illustrated by Anna Pignataro, Philomel Books ©2020.

 

Gorgeous watercolor illustrations of blues and greens take the reader through the ocean floor as Whale sings “a cheerful symphony for a sad urchin,” and “an orchestra for a ballet of ocean flowers.” Yet as he buoys spirits, bringing magic and wonder to the other sea creatures, Whale wonders why he has no song to fill his empty heart.

 

TheHeartofaWhale int2
Interior spread from The Heart of a Whale written and illustrated by Anna Pignataro, Philomel Books ©2020.

 

Whale sings while swimming through “the seagrass taller than the forest and through the wild and tangled undergrowth.” But even with all the sea creatures and sounds around him he feels “how quiet the sea could be at times.” Pignataro illustrates Whale curled up in a fetal position with only the blue ocean by his side. The reader feels the sadness Whale is holding deep inside, even if on the outside he is surrounded by millions of sea creatures. But as he lies alone he lets out a sigh.

“His sigh drifted away like a wish,” and Pignataro’s illustrations change to a sea of big fish and small fish in varied shapes and sizes gathering together for Whale. The sigh passes “over dreaming turtles and forgotten treasures and reaches other whales in the sea “all the way to the whale with the empty heart.” Pignataro touches the reader further by illustrating the pink heart alone in the whale.

 

TheHeartofaWhale int3
Interior spread from The Heart of a Whale written and illustrated by Anna Pignataro, Philomel Books ©2020.

 

The tender wordless spread of Whale meeting another whale while smiling at each other brings optimism. Following an eager page turn, the next page spread reveals the two whales together singing about “happiness and hope, magic and wonder” and the reader knows Whale’s heart is full.

 

TheHeartofaWhale int4
Interior spread from The Heart of a Whale written and illustrated by Anna Pignataro, Philomel Books ©2020.

 

This sweet book of friendship and kindness is a great read for both parents and teachers. It introduces young kids to the importance of empathy, and how we should remember that even if someone looks happy on the outside they may feel lonely on the inside. Children can never hear the message enough of how we must all look out for each other. Pignataro’s poetic language and lush illustrations invite discussion between adults and children on the importance of listening, and understanding the emotions of others, a social emotional lesson one is never too young to learn. This book belongs on every preschool and kindergarten classroom bookshelf, and would be helpful in some higher grade classrooms as well.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

Click here to read another review by Ronda.

 

 

 

 

 

Share this:
Back To Top