Nao grew up not fitting in in the United States, hoping to find a place that felt more like home in Japan. She had visited as a child, but now was going to be attending Japanese cram school. She moved into Himawari House, a house shared with several other students, all attending the school but at different levels. Nao discovers that fitting in isn’t as simple as a shared language, especially when she doesn’t speak it as well as she thought. Two of the girls who also live in the house have left their own countries to study in Japan. They all learn to find a way to connect with both Japanese culture and their own. Whether it is through shared food, watching shows together around a laptop, or reconnecting with family they left behind.
This graphic novel is wonderful. There is so much tangled in the stories of the three girls. Each of the teens is a unique person with specific experiences that led them to come to Japan, whether it was well-planned or almost a whim. They all face difficulties and handle them in their own ways, which tell the reader even more about who they are. Add in a touch of romance and their search for a place to belong becomes painfully personal and amazingly universal at the same time.
The art is phenomenal. From silly nods to manga style to serious moments that shine with a play of light and shadow to character studies that reveal so much in a single image of one of the characters, the illustrations run a full gamut of styles and tones. The language in the book is also fascinating, sharing the English mixed with other languages, changes in linguistic formats and the blank moments that happen when learning a language. It’s all so cleverly done.
A great graphic novel that explores finding a place in the world to belong. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Birrarung Wilam by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy (9781536209426)
Take a journey down the Yarra River near Melbourne, Australia in this Aboriginal picture book that celebrates native creatures and plants. Told using many words from the Woirurrung language, the book is a mixture of evocative language and poetic phrasing. Starting with a starry night sky, the picture book shows the path of the Birrarung as it winds along. It goes past trees where possums make their homes in hollow trees. Rain falls and the bright-blue fairy wren chases insects near his mate. Cockatoos fly past looking for pine cones and their seeds. Kangaroos gather where the river slows and platypus burrow with their babies. Ravens, pelicans, eagles, ducks and more fill the pages alongside the trees, water and river that create this unique ecosystem.
Because they use so many Woirurrung words, the book is almost a word game. The writing embraces the Aboriginal words, creating swirling and flowing lines of text that move like the river itself. Reading it aloud really lets the words sing out, evoking a place full of natural wonders. Here is the opening line to give you a taste of the style:
The illustrations done in acrylic show the various scenes along the river. They also allow readers to piece together what creatures and plants are being described in the text, finding the platypus, eagles and kangaroos. The illustrations are filled with Aboriginal art touches, the dots and patterns creating ripples of water, breezes and layers of earth.
Enchanting and full of wonders, this picture book is a resounding success. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
May has been left with her grandfather, Gong Gong, to spend the day. But she doesn’t speak any Chinese and Gong Gong doesn’t speak much English. They go on a walk together through Gong Gong’s Chinatown neighborhood. Her grandfather knows everyone as they walk by, but May can’t understand what they are saying or why they are laughing. May gets hungry and asks for something to eat, but her grandpa just pats her head. They go to a Dim Sum restaurant next, but Gong Gong spends the time chatting, not eating. Then they head to the grocery store and shop. May thinks they may be heading home to eat, but instead they play cards with Gong Gong’s friends in the park. When a pigeon poops on May’s jacket, she bursts into tears. But it turns out that Gong Gong has been paying attention all along and has just the right toy and dumpling to help.
This picture book celebrates the generations spending time together, particularly those from immigrant families who have language barriers. Told entirely from May’s point of view with little asides to the reader of her confusion and hunger, the book captures May’s unease with her grandfather and her belief that he doesn’t understand her at all. That is then flipped around, as the book resolves into a grandfather who has been paying close attention all along.
The illustrations beautifully depict Chinatown streets with many people out and about and colorful shops and signs. The scenes shine with sunlight, showing readers the warmth and friendliness of the community long before May truly feels it herself.
A lovely look at grandparents and finding connection across generations. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Kemala, the pangolin, loved everything that was new and different when they moved. There were new foods, new smells, new clothing to admire. But there was also a new language to learn. When Kemala headed to school, she realized that no one could understand her. So she curled into a ball in dismay. She stayed that way until recess, when she climbed high in a tree to get away from everyone. She sat on a branch cutting animals out of leaves, until Ana found her there. Kemala showed Ana how to cut leaves too, and Ana loved it even though she made a big mess. While Kemala didn’t want to go back to school at all, she steadily found herself learning a new language with Ana’s help, particularly through animals they cut out. Until finally, Kemala is brave enough to try talking to the entire class.
Cassie has written a universal book about friendship, belonging and learning a new language. She wisely chose Esperanto as Kemala’s new language in the book. Esperanto is not associated with a specific country, so Kemala could be moving anywhere in the world. Cassie gives the entire story room to breathe a bit, offering time for Kemala to relax and start to learn in a very believable way. The connection with one specific kind friend is also great to see, as well as a tactile way for them to connect with one another without speaking at first.
The art is welcoming and friendly with all sorts of unusual animals in the class that Kemala joins. The choice of pangolin as a main character works particularly well, both her connection with her mother but also when she gets overwhelmed, the ability to just curl up protectively.
A great book to talk about language learners and welcoming new students to school. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group.
Though she set out to write a book about the Globe Theatre and Shakespeare himself, the author was quickly caught up in all of the ways that Shakespeare has impacted our modern language and wrote the book about the instead. The result is a book that is immensely engaging and great fun to read. It is still in so many ways a book about the bard, his work and his theater, but it is also a vibrant and fascinating book about language and how modern colloquialisms hearken back to Shakespeare himself.
Sutcliffe clearly tells the story of Shakespeare and his theater on one part of the page and then in a side note shown on a scroll on the other page she pulls words directly from her explanation and shows exactly how they connect with Shakespeare and his writing. So many of the words are surprising words like “fashionable” and “hurry.” Other phrases have interesting connections like “dead as a doornail” or “green-eyed monster.”
Shelley’s illustrations are playful and vibrant, showing the bustling London streets and the crowded theater jammed with people. Some pages show the Globe Theatre from above while another shows how the stage appeared from the audience on the floor of the theater. Care has been taken with each face even in the crowd, each person reacting in their own way to what is happening in the scene.
This book should generate lots of “excitement” and “amazement” allowing people to read about Shakespeare to their “heart’s content.” Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Follow three new students in the United States in this picture book. Maria is from Guatemala, Fatima is from Somalia and Jin is from Korea. The three students are all new to school and new to America. They face the same challenges in learning English and understanding the new culture they are in. There is a new language to learn, new alphabet to use, They feel alone, sad and confused. Steadily they start to use their new language to make new friends. They show others their culture and alphabet and they start to take chances and share aloud in class. They find their place in this new land.
O’Brien captures the challenges faced by children arriving from different countries and shows their universal feelings. The book is one that works in both directions, both welcoming children to classrooms and also providing American children with an understanding of what it feels like to be new and learning a new language. This book will be very helpful when new children from other countries join a classroom and can also be used as a discussion starter about emotions and feelings.
The art here is simple and welcoming. The children are shown in bright colors and the format is large enough to share with a class. The emotions are also drawn clearly on the page, allowing children to both read about how they are feeling and also see it demonstrated too.
This book celebrates diversity and new arrivals in the United States. It gives space for children to keep their own strong ties to their home cultures while also creating a new home here. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
A boy and his family adopt a dog from the animal shelter. The boy has a hard time choosing a dog and finally decides to take Norman, because he’s been there the longest. Norman was a stray and doesn’t really have a tail, more of a stump, but he can wag it along with his entire backside. Once they got home, they discovered that Norman did not follow basic dog commands at all. He just tilted his head sideways and didn’t do anything. The family realized that Norman was just not smart, but at least he was funny and friendly. Then one day in the park, a man was playing with his dog and Norman started to follow the commands! But the boy couldn’t understand a word of what the man was saying, he was speaking in Chinese. Norman spoke Chinese! Now it was up to the family to figure out how to communicate with their Chinese-speaking dog.
Adderson’s gently humorous text leads readers to simply believe that this is the story of a rather slow dog being adopted into a family. The twist of the language appears abruptly, changing the course of the book and the reader’s opinion of Norman in an instant. It works tremendously well thanks to the set up in the text before that. Perhaps the best part of the book is the family’s attempt to learn Chinese so they can speak to their dog. I love that the solution is changing themselves instead of changing Norman.
Leng’s illustrations have the same quiet humor as the text. They feel like glimpses of real life moments, unstaged and candid. Done in simple lines and quiet colors, they support the story and help tell it.
A celebration of diversity and differences in doggie form, this picture book is just as clever as Norman. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
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.