Don’t Spill the Milk by Stephen Davies, illustrated by Christopher Corr
Penda lives in a tiny village in Niger with her family. Her father has headed up into the grasslands with the sheep. Penda volunteers to take her father a bowl of milk and has to try not to spill any along the way. She puts the milk on her head and starts to walk. She has to walk along the sand dunes and between the dancers at the rainy-season mask dance. Then she takes a boat across the Niger River with the milk still on her head. After that she has to climb one last mountain and there is her father. She’s almost there when… You will have to read whether Penda delivers the milk successfully or not.
Davies has traveled extensively in Africa and carefully chose the setting of the Niger River thanks to its varied landscape and intriguing animals. All of the landforms in the book exist in this area as do the animals too, including the unusual and endangered pale giraffes. Davies writes with a lovely rhythm that moves the book along quickly. Penda speaks to herself as she walks, reminding herself to pay attention in couplets of natural verse.
Corr’s art is eye-poppingly bright with yellow skies, orange hills, and blue water. Against those bright colors, the characters wear even more color filled with designs. The book evokes the vibrancy of Africa and the bustle of its villages.
Expect small children to want to try to carry bowls of liquids on their own heads after this beautiful introduction to Africa. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Children Who Loved Books by Peter Carnavas
This celebration of reading and books features a family that depends on their books for all sorts of things. Lucy and Angus’ family is poor without a TV or a car, but they find everything they really need in books. But there can be too much of a good thing as they find out when their little trailer home just won’t hold any more. So they get rid of all of the books and clear out their tiny home. But things aren’t the same. The books that had taken up so much space also made the space between the family members smaller. Then one day, a book falls out of Lucy’s backpack and the magic of reading happens all over again.
There is no move to hide that this book is purely about the joy of books in one’s life and the positive impact that reading together can have on a family. Carnavas lets his message stand strong, which has positive and negative results. A more subtle approach would have been more satisfying, yet the bold message lets you use the book with younger children.
Carnavas’ illustrations are filled with stacks and piles of bright colored books. The family is clearly poor, but also clearly functional. The morning after they return to reading, the family is stacked on top of one another in a tiny couch. The quintessential image of a family coming closer together from reading.
Warm and cheerful, this Australian import will have book lovers smiling. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Kane Miller Publishing.
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman
Tara’s father is Jewish and her mother is East Indian, so Tara has mixed feelings about her upcoming bat mitzvah. Some of the kids in her Hebrew class even wonder if she is actually Jewish at all. Tara though is more concerned with whether she actually believes in God and if she doesn’t, does that mean that she can’t have a bat mitzvah? She also worries about what celebrating this side of her family says to the other side. So Tara decides to make sure that both sides of her family are represented by wearing a family sari that had been passed down for generations. Unfortunately though, the sari is accidentally burned and Tara has to figure out how to tell her mother about it. But that’s not the only complexity in Tara’s life. Her best friend Rebecca seems to be spending more time with another girl, someone that Tara doesn’t get along with. Her other best friend Ben-o seems interested in being more than friends sometimes but other times spends a lot of time with another girl. It’s up to Tara to navigate all of the confusion and make her bat mitzvah her own.
Freedman very successfully tells the story of a young woman dealing with two distinct family heritages. Happily, she doesn’t feel the need to build heightened angst about it, allowing Tara’s personal doubts to really drive this part of the story. Her family around her does not have the same feelings, sharing holidays with one another and enjoying the same foods, most of the time.
The book has a lightness of tone that makes the book very enjoyable. Freedman explores bullying with a perfect touch, but less successfully explores the underlying issues. Tara is a strong heroine who is far from perfect. She has a temper, responds physically at times, and can be too self-absorbed to really see what is happening with her friends.
Hurrah for a book with a brown-skinned girl right on the cover that explores her multicultural heritage in such a straight-forward way! Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
Max and the Tag-Along Moon by Floyd Cooper
When it’s time for Max to head home from his Granpa’s house, Max is very sad. But his grandfather reassures him by saying “That ol’ moon will always shine for you…on and on!” All the way home in the car, Max watches the moon as it travels along with them. When they get home though, the moon has disappeared and Max once again feels sad and misses his grandfather. As Max is alone in his bed that night, he looks out at the dark night with no moon. As he watches, the moon returns from behind the clouds and Max once again feels connected to his Granpa.
Cooper takes a very simple story of grandfather and grandson and makes it memorable with his amazing illustrations. The story resonates with the connection of the two main characters and their love for one another. The symbol of the moon and its light connecting them makes the book luminous and almost magical. I appreciate a children’s picture book that is not just about an African-American child and family, but one that shows a loving male figure.
A large part of that magic are the illustrations that glow with the white-gold light of the moon. Cooper plays with light and dark throughout the book. Even on the pages without the moon shining, there are sources of light and shadow that are expressive and lovely.
A strong African-American family is celebrated in this picture book that would add another level to any moon-centered storytime. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel Books.
Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg
The author of All the Broken Pieces returns with a new verse novel. Serafina lives with her mother and father in Haiti. She and her best friend dream of becoming doctors in order to help save people like her baby brother who died. But Serafina’s family cannot afford for her to even attend school. Instead she has to work hard to help her mother who is pregnant with another baby. Serafina carries water for her family, empties chamber pots, sweeps the floor, and keeps the family fire burning.Her father is one of the lucky ones who has a steady job in the nearby city that he walks to every day. There is no extra money for anything though, even with his work. When a large storm comes, their small village is ruined and Serafina’s family moves to higher ground. It is there that Serafina’s dreams start to come true with her new garden and the money it brings. Then the earthquake strikes.
Burg tells a gripping story of a young girl with huge dreams living in abject poverty. Her family is strong and loving, just unable to lift themselves out of the poverty that surrounds them everywhere. Burg shares small details of life in Haiti, nicely weaving them into the poetry so that it is revealed in a rich and natural way. The Creole language is also used throughout the book, offering a rhythm and sound that enlivens the entire setting.
Serafina is a well-developed character. Many of the poems show her own inner feelings in all of their complex beauty. She is not a perfect character, sometimes showing stubbornness and jealousy, but that just makes her all the more compellingly human. And the verse throughout the book is lovely, evocative and very effective. Readers will know that the earthquake is coming and that also creates a tension that makes the book riveting.
This is a powerful look at the Haitian earthquake through the eyes of one extraordinary young woman. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
The Beginner’s Guide to Running Away from Home by Jennifer Larue Huget, illustrated by Red Nose Studio
This book is a humorous look at running away from home done in the format of an instructional booklet on how exactly to run away. First you have to find a reason for running away, perhaps a new baby, or your older brother can stay up later than you, or your mother threw away your candy wrapper collection. Then you have to pack, make sure to take plenty of snacks including gum, that way you won’t need a toothbrush. Then comes the farewell note. Make it sad enough that your parents will cry when they find it. Now you need to figure out where to live. Keep walking until you can’t see your house anymore, then stop for a snack. And think about living in the park forever, or if living with a friend would be better than at home. But don’t think about what you like about your family at all or you might find yourself running back home.
Huget’s tone is perfect in her text. She manages to be humorous about the situation but also not dismissive of the feelings that the child has. Her wording works very nicely aloud, making this a book that is best shared and giggled at together.
Red Nose Studio, the illustrators of Here Comes the Garbage Barge, continue with their signature 3-D figures. They use perspective very cleverly here, offering different levels of focus that show speed and point the eye to where they want you to look first. The result are illustrations that are unique and dynamic.
Thanks to the humor and the illustrations, this is a book about running away that is worth seeking out. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor is the new girl at school. She is different from everyone else with her bright red hair and men’s clothes. Park has gone to this school forever, he knows everyone on the bus and just wants to keep his head down and be ignored. But Park can’t ignore Eleanor when she is standing in the aisle and needs somewhere to sit. So he lets her sit by him. They don’t talk though, until he notices that she is reading his comics too. Their relationship slowly grows and they start talking together only about comics. Eleanor doesn’t want to talk about her horrible home life that had her kicked out of the house for a year. Park doesn’t want to scare her off by pushing. Little by little, this becomes a book about first love between two teens who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Little by little, this book steals your heart too.
I honestly don’t think I can voice how good this novel is. Rowell writes with such truth and passion through the entire book that it makes your breath catch at times. She does not turn away from the most horrible parts of being a teen, bullying, family crisis, the stumbles on the way to a connection. These are the moments that cast the others in such light, that make the others shine and dazzle.
Eleanor and Park both narrate the story in turns. That decision was critical to this book, allowing each teen to talk about what they love about the other and the amazement they feel that someone likes them too. The two characters are so different, from such differing backgrounds. They are living people, ones who enter your dreams because you feel like they are part of you.
Her book is just like first love. It is stunning, honest and raw. It is unforgettable. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane, illustrated by Hoda Hadadi
Released October 8, 2013.
Lalla wants to wear a malafa just like the other women in her family do. Lalla tells her mother she wants to be beautiful just like her, but her mother says that a malafa is about more than beauty. Lalla tells her sister that she wants to be mysterious just like her, but her sister says that a malafa is about more than mystery. Seeing all of the women in their malafa, Lalla tells her cousin that she wants to be like all of them, but she replies that a malafa is more than that. Her grandmother too says that a malafa is about more than tradition. Finally, Lalla goes back to her mother and explains that she wants to be able to pray like her mother does. Her mother agrees, saying “A malafa is for faith." And the two face east and pray together in their malafa.
Set in Mauritania, this book celebrates the Muslim faith in a very beautiful way. Written in the second person, readers are invited to see themselves as Lalla and learn about her faith and her world. Cunnane writes beautiful descriptions of both the malafa themselves and also the community where Lalla lives. There are donkeys, camels, and other exotic things, but Cunnane goes deeper than that and paints a world with pink houses shaped like cakes and silver heels that click on tiles.
Hadadi’s art is jewel toned and filled with details. She has created a warm and loving community for Lalla to explore with the reader. The beauty of the malafa are shown, the colors of the rooms, and the tangible love of an extended family.
An accessible and beautiful look at a Muslim community that dazzles. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.
This Is the Rope: A Story from the Great Migration by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by James Ransome
Based on Woodson’s own family, this is the story of how one piece of rope serves as a symbol for the changes that came during the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural south to northern cities. One little girl tells the story of how her grandparents moved to New York City, using the rope to tie their things to the top of the car. The rope was used to tie up the drying flowers from their window boxes that reminded them of home. It was used by the little girl’s mother to tug her toys and play jump rope. It tied her mother’s belongings to another car when she went off to college. Then it was used for more jump rope with the little girl and in the end to support the banner for their family reunion. In the end, it was returned to the original grandmother in exchange for a new rope to jump with.
Woodson adheres to a strict structure in this book that really makes it feel like folklore, connecting it verbally to other histories, other migrations, other families. Each page begins with “This is the rope…” and then moves on to tell the next thing that the rope was used for in this changing family. Turning the pages, readers can see the time change and the opportunities progress.
Ransome’s illustrations are lovely. His paintings capture light and its movement as well as the family as they change. Most of them catch those fleeting moments of life, each connected by the symbol of rope. The result is a rich and warm series of memories.
Beautifully written and illustrated, this book captures a period of time not seen in most picture books and a story of one family’s history. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.
Rifka Takes a Bow by Betty Rosenberg Perlov, illustrated by Cosei Kawa
Rifka’s parents are actors in the Yiddish theater community, they work at The Grand and perform regularly. So Rifka has grown up behind the stage, seeing them transform into different characters. Sometimes they are so different, she isn’t really sure they are the same person. When she goes to work with them, she gets to ride the subway and have a snack at the Automat. She gets to look behind the stage and discover all of the illusions that go into doing theater. Then one day, Rifka is climbing a set of stairs behind the stage and accidentally steps out during a performance! What is a girl with acting in her blood going to do?
Written by a woman who herself grew up in the Yiddish Theater where her parents worked, this book captures the wonder of that lifestyle for a small child. Perlov also shows us the intimate details of that world with the tricks of the stage, the joy of viewing a performance from the wings, and the obvious charm of having parents who are theater people. This is a beautiful look at a world that has disappeared with the times.
Kawa’s artwork is very unique. It has a wonderful modern feel thanks to the interesting proportions of the heads and bodies of the characters. Perhaps the best touch are the little objects that dance in the air. Whenever people are performing or communicating, they are there and flowing between them. They offer a sense of the flow of this family and the flow that happens with the audience as well.
A joy to read, this book truly is a look at a lost world from the perspective of someone who actually lived it. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.