Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” is the song that crossed my mind as I read So Not Ghoul, the multi-layered picture book written by Karen Yin and illustrated by Bonnie Lui where the main character Mimi learns to embrace her uniqueness and cultural identity.
Mimi is a Chinese American ghost who haunts a school but feels constrained by the outdated demands of her ancestors. “Good Chinese girl ghosts must cover their faces with their hair,” says Baba, her father. Her other ancestors say, “They must stick out their tongues,” and the list goes on, much to Mimi’s dismay. She knows she must abide by their restrictions but …
what they all add up to is one “So not ghoul” ghost girl. Her ghoulmates seem to have what it takes to scare school kids. Mimi, on the other hand, dressed in an old Chinese gown from her great-great-great-great-great-ghost grandmother is told by the others she “couldn’t scare a scaredy-cat.” In an attempt to fit in, Mimi’s idea for a new look fails miserably. At school, she is bullied by the ghoul gang and the outfit also offends her ancestors.
The next day, the biggest ghoul bully, Lisette, appropriates Mimi’s original antique gown look, hoping she’ll be told she wears it better. Readers will cheer when the bully’s plan backfires. Not only does Mimi call Lisette out, but her ancestors “glow with pride” after she speaks up. She’s found more than her voice.
A happy ending ensues when at last Lisette looks inward (is that possible for a ghost?) and apologizes for her ghoulish behavior. Mimi and Lisette call a truce and now the new friends can focus their attention on the school’s open haunted house. Yin has filled the story with engaging wordplay and with conversation starters at many different levels. So Not Ghoul can be approached for bullying and prejudice, culture appropriation, diversity and bicultural pride as well as multigenerational families or simply a rewarding girl-power ghost story. Lui’s jewel-toned and textured art colorfully conveys Mimi’s moods, ideal for this spirited story!
Rosemary Wellsintroduces 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 inThe Welcome Chairwith illustrations by the lateJerry Pinkneywho 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.”
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.
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.
In the sweet picture book, Until the Blueberries Grow, it’s time for Ben’s great-grandpa to move—into a home he can care for on his own. But Ben is not ready to say goodbye. Maybe Zayde (Yiddish for grandpa) can stay until the blueberries grow . . . or the grapes are ripe . . . or the snow falls . . . or the flowers bloom.
From Kirkus: “Ben tries to convince his great-grandfather to stay in his house just a little longer as the two celebrate a yearly cycle of Jewish holidays together. This sweet story of family abounds with food, flowers, and quality time with loved ones.”
As a loving great-grandfather, Zayde always seems to find a reason to spend a little more time at home with his great-grandchild.
Until he can’t.
Sally Walker’s expressive art pairs perfectly with Jennifer Wolf Kam’s dialogue-driven storyline to depict a beautiful, multigenerational relationship between Ben and Zayde. This charming story would make an excellent introduction to Jewish terms and holidays, yet it’s the universal challenge of dealing with change that makes this story relatable to any child, regardless of religious affiliation.
“Trumpets, trombones, tubas, and saxophones sing louder, faster, faster, louder!
With help from her bisa (great-grandma), a young girl in Brazil prepares for Carnaval: bright costumes, feathers, flowers, and plenty of glitter. But bisa must stay home. As the girl hugs bisa goodbye, the music pulls her in. Excitement is everywhere, on every sight, sound and scent. But…
Carnaval isn’t the same without bisa.
With the blow of a whistle and lots of love, the girl will make sure BISA’S CARNAVAL is the best one ever!
Colleen Paeff: Hi Joana! Congratulations on the starred Kirkusreview for Bisa’s Carnaval! This book is receiving such a warm welcome. That’s got to feel good. What are you doing to celebrate the launch of your second picture book?
Joana Pastro: It’s so nerve-wracking sending our book babies out in the world. We never know how they’ll be received, so when we see an enthusiastic response from readers and from reviewers it’s a huge relief. And if it has a star next to it? Even better! To celebrate, today (Tuesday, 12/7 at 12noon EST) I’m having an Instagram live event with Carolina Coroa, where we’ll chat about BISA’S CARNAVAL and answer questions from whoever shows up. Then tomorrow (Weds., 12/8), I’ll be on Scholastic’s #BookParty on Instagram at 7pm EST. It’ll be fun! (See Instagram links below)
CP:That sounds great! Your debut picture book Lillybelle, a Damsel NOT in Distress was one of my favorite books of 2020. Does the launch process feel any different this time around?
JP: Awwww That’s so great to hear! I love my little LillyBelle!
The launch process feels different, but still not what I had dreamed it’d be. I had hoped to do both launches in person at a bookstore, but it wasn’t possible. Last year, I chose not to have a launch event, but because we were home, I was able to plan a three-month pre-order campaign, and I was a lot more active on social media.
This year, with kids back to in-person learning, and a lot of driving around, I didn’t have as much time on my hands. Like I mentioned before, we’re doing Instagram live. Having a virtual launch is great because I can have it with Carolina, my family, and friends from Brazil and all over the world, but I miss interacting in person. I hope my next launch will have the best of both worlds: virtual and in-person.
CP:When did you get your first glimpse of Carolina Coroa’s wonderfully vibrant illustrations for Bisa’s Carnaval? Did anything about the illustrations surprise you?
JP: The first glimpse was when my editor shared Carolina’s color palette research and character studies. I was in awe. I knew then and there that we had hit the jackpot when she accepted the job!
There’s so much to love in her work! I was surprised by her attention to detail on every spread: the costumes, the buildings, the Portuguese words . . . a guy playing harmonica on his balcony! So amazing. Oh, and she even named the whole family on her character studies. So cool!
CP: I love that! I really liked how, in the story, you mention that carnaval is a time when people can forget their troubles and you go on to list some of the troubles people might have. Was that part of the book from the beginning or did it develop over time?
JP: That was a suggestion I received from an editor who requested a revise and resubmit. She wanted the story to expand on the social-economic aspects. I believe her note truly helped elevate the story, and make it much better.
CP: What do you hope young readers take away from Bisa’s Carnival?
JP: From the cultural aspect, I hope readers will want to expand their horizons by learning more about Brazil and about other countries too, and that Brazilian-American children will see themselves in it, be proud of their heritage, and want to share this story with their friends.
From the family aspect, I hope both children and adults will be inspired to put their electronic devices aside, and spend quality time, and create new memories with their loved ones, especially the older ones.
CP: You were an architect before you started writing for children. Have you discovered any crossover between architecture and writing?
JP: Definitely! The creative process is very much the same. In both you get some sort of prompt, then you do a bit of research, you let it simmer for some time, and start drafting. Then you revise a thousand times because there’s always something you can make better. In the future, once it becomes a book or a building, you’ll probably find something that you would have done differently. I imagine this to be true in all creative areas.
CP: Do you have any favorite productivity tricks or anything you do that helps you to stay focused on your writing work?
JP: Whenever I notice that I’m not being productive and that I’m becoming frustrated with a project, I leave it alone. Allowing myself to rest, work on something else, or doing other unrelated activities is the best way to get the creative juices flowing again. The brain will be doing the work even when we’re not paying attention! When I finally go back to it, the roadblock is usually gone.
CP: What’s next for you?
JP: The Spanish version of BISA’S CARNAVAL comes out in 2022. I have two picture books that haven’t been announced yet, but I believe will publish in 2023 and 2024.
I’ve been focusing on writing chapter books, and I’m out on submission with a board book series that I absolutely love writing. Hint: I get to travel the world without leaving my desk! Fingers crossed!
CP: How exciting! Thank you so much for chatting with me, Joana. Happy book birthday!
JP: My pleasure! Thank you so much for having me, Colleen!
Joana Pastro is an architect who became a children’s book author. Her debut picture book, LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz, was published by Boyds Mills Press (now Astra Kids), in 2020. Her second book, BISA’S CARNAVAL, illustrated by Carolina Coroa, will be published by Orchard Books on December 7th, 2021. Originally from Brazil, Joana lives in Florida with her husband, her three extremely creative children, a rambunctious Morkie, and a needy Maltipoo. You can find her on Twitter @jopastro, Instagram on @joanapastro, on her website at www.joanapastro.com
THE STAR FESTIVAL, also known as the Tanabata Matsuri, takes place in Japan on the seventh day of the seventh month. It is celebrated on July 7th in regions following the gregorian calendar and August 7th of the lunar calendar.
I researched many beautiful landscapes and images, knowing that one would eventually become the backdrop of my story. Which were my top choices, and how did I choose?
Hanami Matsuri, the Cherry Blossom Festival, takes place in the Spring determined by the sakura, or cherry blossom, forecast in particular regions. Sometimes performances and tea ceremonies are performed under the trees, but the main activity is to picnic under the pink-blossomed sky.
Hina Matsuri has many names, the Japanese Doll Festival, Girl’s Day, and the Peach Festival, due to the time of year that it’s held-March 3rd. Originally, dolls made of paper and straw were sent down a river to set misfortunes adrift. In modern times, fancier dolls displayed inside homes invite prosperity and happiness.
Yuki Matsuri, the Sapporo Snow Festival, is celebrated in Hokkaido, a colder region of Japan. Famous for its ice sculptures, this modern-day festival began in 1950 when a group of high school students sculpted snow figures in Odori Park. Contests are held every February and attract visitors from all over the world.
The festival that became the backdrop to my story is equally beautiful to all of these mentioned. It was the folklore behind the Star Festival that drew me in. Orihime and Hikoboshi, two star-crossed lovers, forbidden to see each other but once a year, cross the Milky Way bridge and meet on the day of the Tanabata, offering a parallel to Keiko, my main character, crossing a sea of celebration to find her Oba or grandmother.
In a few days, you can celebrate the Tanabata Matsuri in your home or town. Gaze at the stars and make a tanzaku (paper wish) to hang on a tree.
Written by Chitra Soundar
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
Every fall I celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights, better known as Hanukkah, which lasts eight days. But there is another Festival of Lights celebrated by Hindus called Diwali that is “celebrated across five days,” depending on where one lives. This year Diwali begins on Sunday, October 27 so I wanted to share this new picture book about the holiday called Shubh Diwali! written by Chitra Soundar and illustrated by Charlene Chua.
From the very first pages when “Grandpa watches the waning moon. The festival is coming soon,” readers feel a sense of anticipation knowing that something wonderful is about to happen. Chua’s cheerful and brightly colored artwork depicts preparations underway as a multi-generational Indian family tidies their home in the days leading up to Diwali. I love how we see everyone involved, even the adorable dog, eager for the celebration to begin.
Told in rhyme, Shubh Diwali! introduces youngsters to the numerous holiday customs such as hanging bunting made from mango leaves, creating striking Rangoli art (“traditional floor decorations and patterns made from rice flour and colored powders”), and wearing new clothes. There’s plenty of storytelling by elders, in this case recounting tales of gods who “fought evil against all odds,” as well as time together with the whole family to reflect when hymns are chanted and bells are rung. Of course there’s also a lot of eating and playing because, well because that’s what happens when there’s a houseful of kids and adults!
The picture book is filled with a diverse group of friends and neighbors who are invited to share in the lovely and meaningful Diwali rituals such as lighting the lamps, exchanging presents and candy, and watching brilliant fireworks light up the skies. I learned in the interesting back matter that on the third day of this festival, which happens to be when the New Year is celebrated, people “offer food and support to those less privileged than themselves.” Also the fifth day, called Bhai Dooj, is devoted to brothers and sisters getting together to “celebrate their love for one another.”
I recommend sharing this charming picture book with children so, like me, they can learn about Diwali and its beautiful traditions. There are many holidays based on the lunar calendar and it’s a good idea to expose kids to as many as possible in order to gain a greater understanding of different cultures at home and abroad and maybe make our world a little smaller.
Review by Ronna Mandel
Read a review about another book illustrated by Charlene Chua here.
As all budding young chefs and their parents know, it’s not easy getting a recipe just right. In the new picture book, Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, these delicious dumplings are Amy’s nemesis. There are a lot of things that can go wrong; luckily, Amy’s Chinese-American family has got it down and will teach her step by step.
High-spirited Amy will appeal to kids who like expressive, relatable, and funny main characters (à la Fancy Nancy). Amy is skillful at many tasks—including eating bao all day—but it’s frustrating that her bao just don’t turn out right.
Charlena Chuacaptures Amy’s personality in the lively illustrations, from silly expressions (trying to tie her shoes while brushing her teeth) to earnest ones (focused on pinching the dough just right). Throughout, a cute white cat follows Amy’s escapades.
Kat Zhang’s uplifting story shows that imperfection tastes just as good and, with a little bit of ingenuity, kids can solve their problems by trying something new. Amy’s resourcefulness left me smiling; kids are amazing.
The book concludes with a time-consuming (3+ hours) but mouth-watering, in other words worth it, recipe for bao that I tested with my daughter. We appreciated the tip about cooking a spoonful of filling before making the dumplings—great advice which allowed us to adjust the flavors. Enjoy!
MY NAME IS WAKAWAKALOCH!
Written by Chana Stiefel
Illustrated by Mary Sullivan
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $17.99, Ages 4-7)
With My Name is Wakawakaloch!, Chana Stiefel has written a story that will resonate with so many children as it has with yours truly, someone with a name that people rarely pronounce correctly. I’ve been called Ronnie, Rhoda, Rona and Rhonda (always sung back with the Beach Boys’ “Help Me” for effect), and Ronald. It means so much to me when people actually hear my name and repeat it correctly. So when I received my review copy of Stiefel’s new picture book I was eager to read what the main character, plucky, pig-tailed Wakawakaloch, had to deal with. And when I did, it cracked me up.
Even readers who have an easy name to pronounce should get their hands on a copy of My Name is Wakawakaloch! because it’s a great way to step into someone else’s shoes (although everyone’s barefoot in this picture book!) to understand the frustration that this adorable main character feels. Set in the Stone Age featuring funny “Flintstones”-like artistic touches from illustrator Mary Sullivan, this charming picture book also invites read-aloud opportunities, especially when it comes to saying the hysterical names that Stiefel’s made up.
When classmate Boog in Sabertooth Safety Class hollers “Look out, Wammabammaslamma!” Wakawakaloch shouts back, as she constantly has to, “That NOT my name!” I relate to the young Neanderthal’s rage, remembering all the different things kids called me in school. Also worth noting – these are cave kids conversing so the grammar or lack thereof really adds to the read-aloud experience. Sullivan’s illustrations of the characters wonderfully and whimsically portray a full range of emotions and actions at play throughout the story (and don’t miss her endpapers, too).
When the exasperated Wakawakaloch expresses to her parents how much she wishes she had a different name, one that could be found on a T-shirt, they don’t even get what a T-shirt is which I totally love. So will young readers. Stiefel doesn’t mention key chains, but that’s another unusual name story!
Wakawakaloch’s folks send her to the local Elder called Mooch who has a sharp sense of humor despite stinking “like rotting mammoth poop.” She tells him her troubles and he in turn tells her she needs to be a backwards seer in addition to a forward thinker. She leaves Elder Mooch more annoyed than satisfied but as she tosses and turns in bed that night, a vision on her cave’s walls sheds light on what the Elder was talking about. Her ancestor and namesake was brave and heroic and now it’s time for Wakawakaloch to follow in her footsteps. What her newfound wisdom leads to will be a spoiler if I spell it out, but suffice it to say it fits this entertaining story to a T! Kids will laugh along with Wakawakaloch, not at her, while also appreciating that while a simple name may be nice, sometimes something special can be found in one that’s a bit more complicated and uncommon, or maybe I should say both on the (cave) wall as well as off the wall?
Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here for a review of another book illustrated by Mary Sullivan on this blog.