The Chickens Build a Wall by Jean-Francois Dumont
The chickens on the farm have built a wall but no one else is quite sure why. It started when the hedgehog suddenly appeared in the middle of the farm. The chickens were all very concerned about this strange new animal that quickly curled itself into a prickly ball. But most alarming was when it had disappeared the next morning. Perhaps it was after the chicks and eggs! None were missing, but that didn’t stop the hens from accusing the hedgehog of eating their worms. The rooster decided that they could not stand by and have this continue happening, so they leapt into action and built a wall. It was not just a small wall, but one that grew so high that one could not see where it ended in the sky. Can this wall save the chickens? And what is it saving them from exactly?
Dumont tells a story about flighty chickens who jump to absurd conclusions immediately about a foreign creature. The hens are frantic in their reactions, going to such lengths to protect themselves from nothing at all. Readers will see parallels between gated communities and the chickens’ wall as well as the fast judgments made about people who are different from ourselves. This would serve as a very nice book to introduce for discussions about diversity and community.
Dumont’s illustrations have a wonderful silliness to them. The chickens are pop-eyed and always moving quickly. The hedgehog is still, low and quiet. The two set each other off nicely in both the illustrations and the storyline.
Translated from the original French, this book has a universal appeal and also a clever quirkiness that adds charm. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Ribbit! by Rodrigo Folgueiro, illustrated by Poly Bernatene
One morning, the frogs in the pond woke up to discover a very pink visitor among them: a little pink pig. They tried to ask the piglet why he was there, but all he would say was “Ribbit!” The other animals soon heard about the unusual pig and hurried to the pond to see him. All of the animals except the frogs found the entire situation hilarious, but the frogs were getting more and more angry. The animals went in search of the wise old beetle to ask his advice, but when they returned the pig was gone. All of the animals began to wonder what the pig had wanted all along and it wasn’t too late to find out!
Folgueira has created a book with the feel of a traditional folktale but one that also has the humor and feel of a modern story. Told in a clear voice, the book invites readers to wonder about what is actually happening in the book. Happily, the ending ends the questions, but until then there is plenty to think about.
Bernatene’s illustrations have bright tones and fine lines. The watercolor texture of the pages and the pictures add a welcome rustic warmth to the story that suits it well. She has also created one of the most engaging little pigs, with a merry grin and closed eyes formed out of just a few curved lines. Pink perfection.
This is a look at friendship and also at cultures and what happens when someone steps out of their own comfort zone and begins to explore new things. In the end though, it’s a delight of a read aloud that children will enjoy for just the story alone. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.
The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia
Aliya is different than the other kids in her class because she’s Muslim. She does all she can to fit in, but that means she doesn’t stand up to the kids who pick on her or even talk to the cute boy she likes. Then Marwa moves to their town and she is in the same grade as Aliya. Marwa is also Muslim and wears the hijab or head scarf. Marwa also does not just put up with the teasing of others and appears to Aliya to be much more confident than Aliya personally feels. Aliya starts to write letters to Allah which start out as just complaints at first and then lead to something more: action. As Aliya begins to deal with her own insecurities, she discovers that the world is much more accepting of differences if they are handled with confidence.
Zia has created a universal story with a Muslim heroine. Children of all faiths will recognize themselves in these pages. They will have struggled with teasing and bullying, they will have tried too hard to fit in, they will have not liked someone at first and then learned to like them. Zia incorporates details about Zia’s Indian culture, her faith, and her family traditions with great skill, handily defining things with skill and ease.
It is wonderful to see a young heroine whose life includes cute boys but is not driven by it. Faith, family and friendship are really at the heart of this novel, but Aliya is definitely a young girl too. She struggles with issues in a way that shows definite growth in a natural way. Zia writes with a wonderful lightness that makes this book an effortless read.
Filled with giggles between girlfriends, this book reveals the warmth of family and faith in a completely approachable and joyful way. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Peachtree Publishers.
Dreams around the World by Takashi Owaki
Meet thirteen children from around the world who are ready to share their dreams with you! Photographer Takashi Owaki traveled the world, including 55 countries on six continents and interviewed over 1400 children about what they wanted to be when they grew up. In this book, he shares the dreams of some of those children. Each child and their dream is accompanied by photographs, their age, name and country, along with a short paragraph about where they live. At the end of the book, all of the countries are shown on a world map. The book is a celebration of our diversity but also our universal dreams.
Owaki’s photographs are the heart of this book, especially the full-page image of each child looking directly into the camera. The writing itself is simple, speaking to how Owaki met the child and the family they live with. The smaller images with each story also help give context, showing activities and the environment. My only quibble with the book is that it would have been nice to have the map done in a smaller way with each child to help with understanding the geography.
Originally published in Japan, this is a book that celebrates our world and the beauty of dreams. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from One Peace Books.
John Jensen Feels Different by Henrik Hovland, illustrated by Torill Kove
John Jensen lives in Norway. He lives in an apartment, eats cereal for breakfast, brushes his teeth, and takes the bus to work. But he feels different than everyone else and knows that people are looking at him because he is different. He notices that no one else wears a bowtie, so he changes and wears a regular one. But he still feels different. John Jensen decides that the real problem is his tail, since no one else has a tail like his. So he ties it up and hides it, but all that results in is not being able to sit comfortably and losing his balance. In fact, he loses it so badly that he falls and has to go to the doctor. Thank goodness that Dr. Field turns out to be just what John Jensen needs, a friendly doctor who is also an elephant.
Told in a deadpan voice, this book is pure delight. John Jensen is obviously different, since he’s an alligator. But the book never gives that away except in the illustrations. Instead, it is told as if he is just another Norwegian on the bus. The tension leading to the realization builds and is only partly fixed by the appearance of the elephant towards the end. The book ends shortly thereafter with no sudden realization by John Jensen, just an acceptance that he truly is different. I loved the fact that there was no culminating event at the end, because it made the book really work as a vehicle to talk about all sorts of differences even if you are a human too.
Kove’s illustrations add to the deadpan humor of it all. There are marvelous touches like Camus’ The Stranger as bedtime reading, and the fact that absolutely no one on the bus is actually looking at John Jensen. The illustrations are a large part of what really create the strong Norwegian setting that permeates the book.
Translated from Norwegian, this is a striking picture book in so many ways. It will be one of those books that children shout at thanks to the deadpan nature and the lack of reveal, and I love sharing those books with kids. After all, we all feel different and even a bit green and scaly at times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
The Hueys in The New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers
All of the Hueys are the same. They are all white ovals with skinny, stick legs and arms. They even acted and thought the same, until one day when Rupert knitted himself a sweater. It was a bright orange sweater with zig-zags and it made him stand out from all of the other Hueys. Rupert was very proud of his sweater, but the other Hueys often reacted in shock and horror at it. Rupert went to talk with Gillespie, who was also intrigued by being different. Gillespie knitted himself a sweater just like Rupert’s and that way they could both be different together! Slowly, the other Hueys started to accept that Rupert and Gillespie were different. In fact, they embraced it, and everyone knitted themselves orange sweaters just like Rupert’s. Now everyone was the same again, until Rupert decided to try a hat!
There is something completely winning about these little creatures that Jeffers has created. So much of this book depends on the images, the style, and the feel. Jeffers manages to create a community that is completely homogenous but not cult-like or frightening. Instead it’s a community that has tea, hangs pictures, and seems very friendly. Even their reaction to Rupert’s sweater is never angry, more one of disbelief, shock and even some tears.
The writing is light and merry, keeping the entire book positive. Jeffers has cleverly created a book that speaks to creativity and being your own person, not being afraid of leaving the crowd, but also one about what happens when your idea is taken over by the crowd. The answer? Do something else!
A great pick for a bedtime read, the book is a smaller format than many picture books and will not work well with a large crowd. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel Books.
The Pirates Next Door by Jonny Duddle
This book first came to my attention when it won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize in the UK. It is the story of a girl living in a neighborhood where all of the lawns are neat and tidy, until the pirate family moves in next door. They arrive complete with pirate ship, treasure chests and barrels of grog. There is a pirate boy named Jim Lad, his parents, his grandfather, and his little sister, Nugget. Jim Lad and the girl quickly became friends, but the rest of the community was not as welcoming to the pirate family. Rumors spread quickly about all the nasty things the pirates were up to and the fear was that if one pirate family lived there, then more would come. But this pirate family is only there while their ship is being repaired, so soon Jim Lad is off again, leaving behind a touch of pirate treasure for everyone.
Duddle has written a child-friendly book about segregation without ever using the word or focusing on that concept. It is a book about people who are different from you moving into your neighborhood. Happily, the pirates expect to be shunned to a large degree, and just live their lives the way they always would. They are unapologetic, make no efforts to fit in, and then disappear, but not without making a real impact and changing people’s minds.
The illustrations in this book really set it apart. They have that lush feel of cinematic animation. Each character has a unique feeling to them, effortlessly distinct and interesting. That’s true of the pirate family and also of the many elderly neighbors who gossip about them. The effect is rich and striking. The illustrations also use the color palette of cinema, with the dramatic lush colors, deep blues of night, and often playing with light and dark.
This exceptional book takes the appeal of a pirate story and weaves in social commentary with great restraint. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Kali’s Song by Jeanette Winter
Kali’s mother painted amazing paintings of animals on their cave walls. Soon Kali would be a man and so he started practicing with a bow and arrows. But on his first session of practice, he discovered that he could do something else with the bow: he could make music! Soon he was making music instead of practicing his shooting at all. When the day of the big hunt came, his bow was taut and his arrows sharp. The men and boys approached the huge mammoths, that were far larger and more impressive than Kali had ever expected. Kali forgot all about the hunt and just felt that he had to play the music he was hearing in his head. As he played, the mammoths gathered closer around him and the other hunters laid down their bows. Everyone realized that Kali must be a shaman to charm animals in this way. Even as Kali grew much older, he continued to play music on his bow.
Winter has created such a remarkable story here. It is a story without modern judgment about killing animals, which would be out of place in this book. Yet Winter does not turn entirely away from modern sensibilities either with this book about a young shaman who does not kill, but instead charms. It is a book that celebrates innate talents of people, relishes in inventiveness, and demonstrates a large heart for acceptance too. Kali is not shunned for being different, but instead embraced for it.
Winter’s illustrations are also very special. Framed with torn edges, the illustrations are filled with the texture of papers that mimics that of cave walls. The characters are roughly painted, just as his mother’s cave paintings are with additional fine details drawn on in ink. The result is a book that is a winning combination of rough and fine.
This picture book embraces differences, celebrates art and music, and does it all surrounded by stars and mammoths. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade Books.
Laundry Day by Maurie J. Manning
A young boy tries to sell shoe shines on the streets of New York City in a time before cars, when the streets are crowded with horses and carts. Suddenly, a red cloth drifts down from above. The boy looks up to see rows and rows of laundry drying above the street, so he starts to climb with the red cloth around his neck and his small cat following behind. As he searches for the owner, he meets people from all over the world. There is the Chinese woman who offers him a mooncake after he helps fold some laundry. A Ukranian woman with a wailing baby suggests he check with the Italian organ grinder who lives above her. A family of Polish little girls try to get him involved in their games. When he finally finds the owner, he has traveled the world in just a few buildings, sharing in treats, hearing a few words of their language. His high-wire antics add a little spice to the story and a wonderful play off of old films. This is an old-fashioned treat of a picture book.
Manning adroitly wraps international content in a comfortable package. The various cultures shown in tiny tastes here are done with a gentle hand and an eye to history. There is a feeling of merriment throughout this book, with never a fear that the boy will injure himself or that he will find anyone unkind on his adventures.
The illustrations too have a playful vintage quality about them. There is a freshness mixed with a timeless feel. The freshness comes from the cartoonish lines of the art and the comic-like panels used on some pages. It’s an inventive mix of modern and timeless.
This picture book mixes vintage and new, international and American into one wonderful diverse story. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Marshall Armstrong Is New to Our School by David Mackintosh
Marshall Armstrong is the new kid at school and he is very different from everyone else. His things are different. He looks different with his birdseed freckles and ears like shells. His arms are white with red bumps that he says are mosquito bites. He even eats “space food” for lunch! He can’t play during recess. He stays out of the sun. He doesn’t watch any TV. So when Marshall Armstrong has a birthday party, everyone is sure that it is going to be awful. But guess what, Marshall Armstrong’s house is different too! Different in some great ways!
Mackintosh has created a picture book that speaks to what makes someone different from the rest of the class. I really enjoyed the fact that while Marshall is different, so are all of the other kids in the class. This is not a homogenous student body, but even in a diverse group Marshall is certainly unique. Mackintosh reveals much in his illustrations which are quirky and modern, a striking mix of playful lines and bright colors.
The story is straight forward but also filled with humor. There are signals throughout that Marshall is a geeky kid (and I mean that in the best possible way, as mother to two geeks, married to another) and very modern. He may be in a class of more normal kids, but some of us more geeky parents will also see ourselves in Marshall, our stuff, our obsessions. It’s a lovely inside joke for those of us who were perpetually different like Marshall.
This picture book about being different takes the discussion beyond diversity and into a place where we are all different, just like Marshall. A great pick for sharing at the start of a new school year. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.