Tag Archives: multiculturalism

Not My Girl

29 Jan

Today’s review is for Not My Girl, written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, published by Annick Press. It is scheduled for release on February 18, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of the book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Not My Girl book cover

In this beautiful picture book memoir, Margaret Pokiak-Fenton recounts her return to her family after spending two years at a Canadian residential school. When Margaret steps off the boat to return to her village, her mother uses her limited English to declare “Not my girl.” This is the beginning of Margaret’s journey of re-integrating to her familial culture after two years of assimilation. She finds that she has forgotten most of her language and fumbles at chores that used to be easy. Even her father’s sled dogs, with whom she used to share affection, treat her as an outsider. This is a moving story that opens a window to a troubling period of history. However, its uplifting ending will reassure children that no matter how much they grow and change–they can always return to the love of their family.

Although I had heard about residential schools for First Nations children, this was my first time actually reading about their impacts. While it seems that the staff at the school treated Margaret with kindness, her narrative reveals that they still caused unintended harm to many children. The pain of facing rejection by their families after returning as outsiders must have left psychological scars. I am thankful that she chose to share her story, thus giving younger generations the chance to learn about a piece of history that seems not to be discussed very often.

The writing has a plainness and clarity to it, which is punctuated by moments of poetic imagery. It’s a style that works well. The narrative voice captures the emotional tone of a 10-year old girl, overlaid with the reflections of a grown woman. Children should be able to connect with the voice of the child, while parents will appreciate the perspective of revisiting the past.

Grimard’s soft illustrations provide a beautiful complement to the story. The abundance of orange-tinted light in her pictures perfectly captures the feeling of Arctic winter, where the sun is always low on the horizon. At the same time it also creates a sensation of familial warmth. Most of all, I loved how deeply expressive the characters were. Every face evoked a strong emotional response. Whenever she drew Margaret as a sad young girl, I felt an ache in my heart. I love when an artist is able to elicit such a reaction.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. I’m giving it a full 5 stars for being such a powerful and moving work. It provides abundant opportunity to talk with children about history, Inuit culture, assimilation programs, geography, and family dynamics. The book is targeted to readers in grades 1-4, although I think it could be enjoyed by a much wider audience.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

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Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence

27 Jan

Today’s book review is for Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, written by Gretchen Woelfle, illustrated by Alix Delinois, published by Lerner Publishing. It is scheduled for release on February 1, 2014. I received a free electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence

While the American colonists were fighting for their independence from British rule, one woman was fighting for her freedom from slavery. Mumbet was a slave in the household of a wealthy Massachusetts man who was involved in the Revolutionary War. She hears him speak of all men being created equal and wonders if that includes her. When Massachusetts drafts its new constitution with those words, she decides to put the new law to the test. This beautiful picture book biography tells the story of the strong, proud woman whose court case set the precedent to abolish slavery in the state of Massachusetts.

Delinois’s illustrations set the tone for the story. The bold, saturated colors create a feeling of intensity. The angular and somber faces tell the audience that this is an important story. Each character’s body language reveals aspects of their personality. In the case of Mumbet, nearly always standing tall and looking out to the horizon, we see a woman of confidence, strength, and vision. I liked that the art wasn’t just visually pleasing, but added depth and nuance to the story.

The story itself is beautifully written. Woelfle was very skilled at paring down the narrative to be accessible to young readers, while keeping hold of the emotion of the story. I liked the way that she was able to make history come alive. While there are no records of precisely what Mumbet thought, writing the story from her perspective gave it a strong impact. Soon after I read it, I found myself sharing the story with my husband, because I’d found it so compelling.

For those who would like to expand their history lesson, there are additional resources at the end of the book. The first is the author’s note which explains how this story was preserved for posterity, what we don’t know about the story, and how Mumbet is now part of historical tours. The second resource is a selected bibliography which provides suggestions for books that might be of interest to readers who enjoyed this story and want to learn more on the topic.

This is a great book for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, a unit on the Revolutionary War, or discussion on the history of slavery in the United States. I’m giving the book 5 stars for being engaging and educational. It’s an excellent resource for teaching kids about history, and it’s a beautiful book to boot. It would be an excellent addition to any library, classroom, or home.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Netta and Her Plant

16 Jan

Happy Tu B’Shevat! Today’s book review is for Netta and Her Plant, written by Ellie B. Gellman, illustrated by Natascia Ugliano, published by Kar-Ben Publishing. I purchased a copy of this book for my daughter’s library.

Netta and her Plant book cover

One Tu B’Shevat (the Jewish New Year for the trees), little Netta plants a seedling at her pre-school. She brings the plant home and cares for it with love and devotion. A seasons pass, Netta and her plant grow up together. This is a touching story about nurture and growth that celebrates the life cycle.

I’ve been working to add more books with Jewish themes to my daughter’s library, to keep her connected to her heritage. When I saw this book while searching on Amazon, I was immediately drawn to it. The cover art was beautiful and the story would give me opportunity to introduce my daughter to a new holiday.

The narrative prose is gentle and easy to read aloud. There’s a nice structure to the writing, too. The story is told in an episodic structure, with a repeated refrain of “The plant grew. Netta grew.” The structure helps to reinforce the idea of the seasonal cycle, growth, and renewal. Word choices are age appropriate and sentence structures are varied. I appreciate that it doesn’t talk down to children.

I fell in love with the illustrations. Initially I had some reservations about the style, but each time I read with my daughter, I find myself liking the pictures more and more. The images look to be drawn in pencil and then colored with heavily textured colored pencil. There are many beautifully rendered hand-drawn patterns on the clothing of various characters. The characters’ wide-set eyes give the impression of kindness and friendliness. Despite their simple facial features, Ugliano manages to convey great emotional depth on her characters.

This book is a wonderful choice for Jewish parents who want to help their children stay connected to their culture and traditions. It’s also a great choice for other parents who want to expose their children to other cultures. At the end of the book there is a small glossary of Hebrew words used in the text, as well as a short explanation of Tu B’Shevat. It’s also a great way to encourage children to value and feel a deeper connection to the natural world. I’m giving the book 5 stars. It’s a beautifully executed work that can be enjoyed by both parent and child.

You can find more information about this book on Goodreads.

My Grandfather’s Masbaha

14 Jan

Today’s book review is for My Grandfather’s Masbaha, written by Susan Daniel Fayad, illustrated by Avery Liell-Kok, self-published through Author House. I received a free paperback copy of this book through a First Reads giveaway on Goodreads, with the expectation that I would post an honest review.

My Grandfather's Masbaha book cover

My Grandfather’s Masbaha begins with a little boy, Adam, throwing a temper tantrum when his friends all go home and he’s left with nothing to do. As his hyperbole grows, his Jidoo (grandfather) starts to laugh. Then he pulls out a string of prayer beads known as a masbaha to help Adam count his blessings. At first he is reluctant to share his grandfather’s perspective, but by the end he is able to understand.

Like many self-published works, this book would have benefited from an extra round of editing. There were numerous typographical errors, however, it was the writing style itself which I felt could use refining. First of all, the descriptive language has a lot of redundancy–“more and more”, “redder and redder”, etc. These sorts of repetitions don’t add to the story, especially since there is still plenty of other descriptive language. Next, I found a lot of the dialogue to feel stunted and unnatural. In particular, I thought that the lack of contractions in the first couple of pages felt awkward–it made me think of Data in Star Trek. Finally, a lot of the dialogue tags were also poorly written. In an attempt to add variety to her language, the author sometimes made odd word choices such as “chimed Adam.” I think of bells as chiming, but not so much children.

The illustrations were servicable. They were a bit flat and amateurish, but they did accompany the story well. I just wish there had been more dimension to them. The black outline and flat color style just didn’t work for me. Jidoo was depicted with some pretty good facial expressions, but in contrast, Adam’s seemed lacking.

What I did like about the book was that it gives children exposure to Lebanese culture. I enjoyed learning more about the masbaha and how different people use it for different purposes. There is even a page at the end that provides more information about the masbaha. I also liked how the story focused on learning to recognize one’s blessings.

Overall the book had a nice concept, but the execution was lacking. With stronger editorial oversight, higher quality illustrations, and professional design, this could be a great book. As it stands, though, it was a mediocre book whose biggest appeal is unusual content. I’m giving it 2 stars. Kids will probably like the story alright and enjoy being exposed to a new culture, but I don’t think it’s worth the money to purchase it.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

It’s a Feudal, Feudal World

20 Nov

Today’s book review is for It’s a Feudal, Feudal World: A Different Medieval History, written by Stephen Shapiro, illustrated by Ross Kinnaird, published by Annick Press. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

It's a Feudal, Feudal World book cover

It’s a Feudal, Feudal World is an innovative book that explores medieval history through infographics, cartoons, and lively text. It covers a wide range of topics, from life expectancy to siege methods. Throughout it makes a point to emphasize the contributions of both women and men, and to highlight the intercultural influences on the period. As a bit of a medievalist myself, I was thrilled to see how much detail was fit into such a short volume.

Shapiro clearly knows his material. Each page is filled with information to stimulate and engage young minds. It’s hard to find history dull, as presented by the author. That’s because all of the information is accompanied by jokes and bits of humor. The reason he’s able to include so much information is because rather than get bogged down in explanations of everything, he opts to use infographics to convey important data and ideas. After all, why read a description of a Viking longship when you can look at a diagram instead?

There’s an old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. I’d say that in this case, it’s absolutely true. Kinnaird’s illustrations give life to this history. His cartoons grabbed me from the beginning and made me want to keep reading. They also helped me to understand concepts, such as how mills could be powered by various sources. And I loved the image of the librarian chained to his books–maybe because I could relate a little.

The book also contains a glossary, selected bibliography, and index to enhance the ways students are able to engage with the book. It has a great design and format.

I think this would make a great addition to a classroom or library that serves grades 4-7. It’s the sort of book that I wish had been around when I was growing up. It looks deceptively simple–it’s mostly pictures, and many of those are cartoons. However, anyone who reads it is sure to come away knowing far more than when they began. I’m giving it 5 out of 5 stars. It’s always nice when a book is able to successfully combine education and entertainment.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Smelling Sunshine

9 Nov

Today’s book review is for Smelling Sunshine, by Constance Anderson, published by Star Bright Books. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Smelling Sunshine book cover

Smelling Sunshine celebrates the ritual of laundry day. All over the world, families wash their clothes and hang them outside to dry on the line. The experience can turn a chore into something fun. It’s a chance to celebrate being outside and bonding with one’s family.

I liked the concept behind the book. Hanging up laundry to dry on the line can be an enjoyable experience. It gives you a chance to be outside, connecting with the world. Anderson touched on these feelings in her book. Unfortunately the prose fell flat for me. To start with, the first 13 pages are just one clumsy, run-on sentence. By the time I reached the end of the sentence, I couldn’t remember how it had begun. After that, there are a series of awkward sentences–including one that wasn’t even grammatically correct. The only section that actually worked for me in terms of the writing was the very end.

On the other hand, I did like the illustrations. They are richly textured, full of beautiful patterns and vibrant colors. Anderson appears to use a combination of collage and painting to produce her images. It’s a nice technique. By blending the two mediums, she is able to create greater depth than collage alone could–while maintaining the fun play of pattern and texture. I also appreciate that she depicts a wide variety of cultures and traditions in the book, so that children can see that hanging laundry is something we have in common with people around the globe.

If you’re looking for a book about laundry that depicts positive parent and child relationships, then this would be an appropriate choice. However, due to my dislike of the prose, I can only give it 2 out of 5 stars. Like I said, the concept was lovely, but the writing didn’t deliver.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

The Other Bears

30 Oct

Today’s book review is for The Other Bears, by Michael Thompson, published by Star Bright Books. I received an electronic advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The Other Bears book cover

The Koala family is having a lovely day at the beach, happy to be called “bears”–until the other bears arrive. Mother and Father are suspicious. These other bears are different. The parents complain about the strange clothes, different features, and unusual cultural artifacts. The children, however, are delighted to meet new friends. They revel in new food, music, jokes, games, and stories. Finally, Mother and Father Koala see how happy their children are and decide maybe these visitors aren’t so bad, after all.

Thompson has written a wonderful little story about diversity and acceptance that will resonate with children and adults alike. His language is clear and accessible to his young audience. He repeats the same structural elements so that children can predict what will happen next. There are even occasional alliterative aspects that are fun to read. I think that kids will easily recognize how irrational and ridiculous the grumbling koala parents are being.

His illustrations are even better. Thompson has a lovely style–it’s light, bright, and clean. Images are lively and detailed. Each “bear” is attired in clothing representative of the human cultures that live in the same region of the world as they do. I especially liked the parkas and mukluks on the polar bears, and the bicycles of the sun bears. I just wish that the font selection for the text had better matched the illustration style. It felt a little pasted on.

This would be an excellent selection for a story time focused on tolerance and acceptance. It also provides an opportunity to discuss some of the cultures highlighted in the story. The Other Bears earns 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a great resource for parents or educators and has a wonderful message. I’m even willing to overlook how much it irritates me that people continue to include koalas and pandas on their lists of bears.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Here I Am

16 Oct

Today’s review is for Here I Am, story by Patti Kim, illustrations by Sonia Sanchez, published by Capstone Young Readers. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Here I Am book cover

Here I Am is a wordless book that tells the story of a young boy immigrating to the United States from Asia. The boy is overwhelmed by the new city at first; there are so many strange sights and sounds. He becomes sullen and reserved and spends most of his time staring out at the world from his apartment window. The only thing that brings him hope and joy is a seed that he brought over with him. Then, one day, while he is looking out the window, the boy drops the seed and a little girl picks it up. As a result, the boy ventures out into the city on his own to reclaim the seed. On the way he discovers that his new home is lively and full of great sights, sounds, and people.

To write this story, author Patti Kim drew upon her own experiences of being a child immigrant from Korea. This story isn’t autobiographical, but it she’s still able to call upon the personal to create a strong emotional response. Often in wordless books, we forget to credit the person who wrote the story, since in the end we only see the illustrations. However, it’s important to give credit where credit is due–in this case to Kim who created a story that would be powerful in any medium.

Which is not to say that the art of Sonia Sanchez didn’t elevate the work. To the contrary, it was Sanchez’s ability to capture complex emotions in her art that drew me into the story and kept me engaged. The way that she clusters multiple frames on the page creates such a great sense of mood. It’s a technique I haven’t seen used much, but it’s highly effective. Another touch that is nice is how signs appear to be in jibberish, but as the boy grows more familiar with his new country, they begin to most closely resemble English. Finally, I enjoyed the use of color. Early in the story, most of the colors are in the red and yellow range. But, once the boy ventures out and starts to engage with the world, a lot more greens and blues enter the page. It gives a real sense of the world opening up to him.

This book earns 4 out of 5 stars. It was emotionally resonate and provides a great resource for talking with children about immigrant experiences. My only real issue with the whole thing was that initially, I couldn’t decipher that the seed was a seed. Otherwise, I like that the book addresses the emotional side of immigration, and shows that just because someone is closed off, it doesn’t mean that they are not interested in friends.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

Book Review: Mishan’s Garden

12 Oct

Today’s book review is for Mishan’s Garden, written by James Vollbracht, illustrated by Janet Brooke, published by Wisdom Publications. I received an electronic copy of this book through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. The book will be released on Tuesday, October 15, 2013.

Mishan’s Garden is the story of a young girl, Mishan, who lives in a small village high in the mountains of Tibet. She is an innkeeper’s daughter and often helps him around the inn. Her father tells her that one day a beautiful garden will bloom behind the inn–and though she is doubtful, she starts to tend the land anyway. She also starts to tell the people who visit the inn what aspect of the garden they are like, such as the strong and mighty tree or the lilacs blowing in the wind. One day she goes out to check on the garden and falls ill. The villagers, who have grown fond of Mishan discover her lying on the ground outside and rush to help care for her. Then, something magical happens. It is a story about hope and seeing the best in people.

I had a couple of problems in reading this story. The first is that it smacked of cultural appropriation–a white man tells a mystical story about a young Asian girl who is wise beyond her years. Since there is no author’s note in the book stating that the story was adapted from a traditional tale, I’m going to assume that it’s purely of Vollbracht’s invention. While I love books that explore multiculturalism, this one just felt like someone constructing a stereotypical “Asian wisdom narrative.”

Which brings me to my second big issue, which is that this felt like a grown-up book disguised as a children’s book. It felt a lot like the stories in the Buddhist canon–the sort of stories that children might be able to understand, but aren’t actually targeted to that audience. Mishan uses rather sophisticated similes when speaking to her father’s customers. Some of the core themes of the book might be a little abstract for the usual picture-book-reading audience. While I don’t think that books should be “dumbed down” for kids, neither do I think they should be inaccessible.

Janet Brooke’s illustrations are a bit bland, as well. Many of them look like they could have been pulled from any picture book retelling of a story from China or Japan that was published in the last half a decade. Then there was the drawing of the garden that looked more like a concept sketch than a finished illustration.

When I request review copies for books, I look for books that I think I’ll enjoy. I wanted to enjoy this one–but I just couldn’t. There was too much that didn’t work. So in the end, I give it 1 out of 5 stars, because I just did not like it.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.

The Otter, The Spotted Frog & The Great Flood

11 Oct

Today’s book review is for The Otter, The Spotted Frog & The Great Flood: A Creek Indian Story, written by Gerald Hausman, illustrated by Ramon Shiloh, published by Wisdom Tales Press. This book is scheduled for release on October 31, 2013. I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The Otter, The Spotted Frog & The Great Flood book cover

In The Otter, The Spotted Frog & The Great Flood: A Creek Indian Story, accomplished storyteller and folklore scholar, Gerald Hausman offers a retelling of a Creek origin tale. In it, Spotted Frog warns all of the animals of a coming flood–but an otter, named Listener, is the only one to heed the warnings. This story is both entertaining and instructional. It encourages us to listen to nature and read the signs of Mother Earth.

Hausman manages to retell this story from a historically oppressed culture with sensitivity and respect. He uses a sort of stripped down prose that is popular in oral storytelling. Only the most essential information is transmitted, and descriptive passages are only used if they are needed to illustrate an important aspect of the story. Much of the tale is told through the dialogue between its characters. By using this simple style, Hausman is able to share this traditional story without imposing too much of his own personality upon it.

The story is accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Native artist Ramon Shiloh. Whenever water is present, you can see the influence of the Pacific northwest on his work–the bold, swirling geometric swaths of color give a sense of chaos and disorder in the world. Many of the images are presented as circles, which connects to the classic cosmological perspective of the earth as being bound and domed. Shiloh’s pictures not only convey the story, but also connect it to the larger American Indian traditions.

In his author’s note, Hausman explains how this is but one of a large number of great flood stories that occur across cultures. The theme of this one, like many others, is that “progress is from a lower world to a higher one… [where] there is light, and the possibility for greater and more abundant life.” This is a message that still resonates today. Only by reaching higher can we continue to grow as individuals and as a culture.

The Otter, The Spotted Frog & The Great Flood provides children with the opportunity to learn about the Creek people through their stories. At the same time, it gives them a chance to explore questions of prophecy, listening to nature, and human progress. I award it 4 out of 5 stars for its educational value as well as it’s thoughtful execution.

You can find more information about this book, including other reviews, at Goodreads.