Sunday, April 24, 2016

Megan's Brood, Book One

Megan's Brood, Book One
by Roy Burdine
illustrated by Shawn Mcmanus

One summer, spunky 6th grader Meg moves into a new place with her parents, leaving her friends and familiar environment behind. In the attic bedroom of the new house, she discovers something magical - a cocoon pulsing with light and tiny heartbeats of unknown creatures.

Over summer, the creatures hatch, ten in all, and seem attached to Meg. She enjoys caring for them while she tries to make new friends in the new place - a skateboarding, garage-band musician of a kid called Cutter, and a soft-spoken well-mannered bookworm like herself called Casper.

Being Book One of a proposed series, we get the background and the set up established over the first two-thirds of the book. Around the last chapter or so, things gather momentum when one of Meg's brood, named Thorn for his spiky scales, reveals his true predatory and controlling nature.

When Thorn binds her dad and friend at their camping night right before start of school term, so as to barter for his siblings, things get fiery hot, literally. But, Meg manages to kick Thorn into the flames, save her dad and friend and the rest of her brood. For now.

The handful of black and white illustrations by Shawn McManus ( sprinkled throughout the book are gorgeous and complement the text well.

Epilogue sets us up for more adventure when we learn that Thorn is not destroyed by the flames after all and inside him beats an angry heart.

It would be interesting to find out how Meg handles her brood as they grow and change and whether Thorn will act on getting his revenge.

Roy Burdine has worked as animation director (Dreamwork's Puss in Boots, Ultimate Spider-Man) and can be found at

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but the opinions expressed here are entirely mine.]

[image source: photographed from review copy]

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Bartholomew Quill

Bartholomew Quill: A Crow's Quest to Know Who's Who
by Thor Hanson, illustrated by Dana Arnim
published by Sasquatch Books

Bartholomew Quill was a crow long ago,
when all of the world was new.
When he bears and the bees
and the hares and the trees
were all learning to tell which was who.

Thus starts this book by acclaimed biologist Thor Hanson,which takes us on a lyrical journey back in time when our dear protagonist, Bartholomew Quill, the crow, wants to know who he is.

He flies around encountering various animals and compares features to see if he is one of them. At the edge of the ocean, he sees black birds like himself and asks if he is one of them. The bird answers:

I dive and I float in a waterproof coat
My diet is fish and crustacean.
We are both black and sleek, but you lack a bright beak,
so you cannot be my close relation.

And from the lovely illustrations by Dana Arnim, we know this is a puffin, not a crow.

As our Bartholomew encounters other creatures, he quickly realizes he cannot be one of them, until he sees someone very much like himself, only much bigger - the Raven.

Finally, he looks in nature's mirror - the still lake - as he flies over it and realizes he is a crow.

The ability of many species to recognize their own must have evolved somehow, but this story is set when the world was new, so, possibly Bartholomew has not yet developed self-recognition/other-recognition.

One question that cropped up with the resident 7 year old is, at each stage, without introduction or explanation, how does Bartholomew know what that creature is that is different from himself. For example, after encountering the creature that soars and catches fish all day and has sharp eyes and pale head and tail feathers, we simply read that "Bartholomew thanked the bald eagle," which the young readers deduce from the illustrations but may be puzzled as to how Bartholomew arrived at that conclusion.

Back of the book has a "Get More Out of This Book" section that has some interesting suggestions.

Biologist Thor Hanson is renowned for his adult books about nature -- The Impenetrable Forest, The Triumph of Seeds, and Feathers. He won a PNBA Award and The John Burroughs Medal for Feathers, which was also a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Hanson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Switzer Environmental Fellow, and sought-after public speaker.

Illustrator Dana Arnim has a Certificate in Art from the Children’s Market from UW Extension and serves as Co-regional Advisor for the Western Washington SCBWI.

[Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book. The opinions shared here are entirely mine.]

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sona and the Wedding Game

Sona and the Wedding Game,
My Dadima Wears a Sari,
Monsoon Afternoon
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Yoshiko Jaeggi
Tiger in my Soup
by Kashmira Sheth
illustrated by Jeffrey Ebbeler

Being a big fan of stories with strong multicultural backdrop, when I came upon a handful of picture books by Kashmira Sheth, I ended up reading them back to back to my kids. Illustrations by Yoshiko Jaeggi effortlessly capture the magic of Indian culture.

Sona and the Wedding Game was a favorite as it gave a glimpse into an Indian wedding tradition practised in certain communities, (not all over India) -- the bride's sister must steal the groom's shoe at the wedding. There are several traditions, some more solemn, some more fun, practised by different communities across India, adapted to their own local customs. Sona is unfamiliar with this tradition and doesn't know how to go about it, but what are annoying cousins for, right?

Monsoon Afternoon captures the joys of monsoon season and the intergenerational bonding in a subdued way, while not being cliched.

My Dadima Wears a Sari is quintessentially Indian in that it talks about the beautiful attire that is just 6 yards of fabric, the sari. It can become an umbrella, it can become a pouch for collecting seashells, it can bandage up an injured knee... Having grown up with sari all around me, I have a deep love for the traditional sari, which I must admit, I don't wear often. Again, an intergenerational bond is established in the book via traditional clothing - viz., Dadima's wedding sari, the one she brought with her when she came to America, and she shows her granddaughters how to wear it.

Full of imagination and lovely illustrations, Tiger in my Soup is about a boy wanting his older sister to read to him. She refuses of course, busy with her own book and earphones. But when she serves him a can of soup for lunch, the steam rises as assumes the shape of... A Tiger. Jumping out of the soup, the tiger prowls about, wild and unpredictable, so naturally the boy defends himself with kitchen utensils, while the soup sits there getting cold. The sister finally caves in and warms up the soup in the microwave, and reads the book to him. Satisfied, the boy (and the tiger) settle down for imaginary wanderings.

[image source: Yoshiko JaeggiKashmira Sheth websites]

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Loos, Poos, and Number Twos

Loos, Poos, and Number Twos    
A Disgusting Journey Through the Bowels of History
by Peter Hepplewhite

"Awfully Ancient" books by Gareth Stevens Publishing can be quite a fun read for kids interested in fascinating events from history. Full of fun trivia, accompanied by cartoon illustrations, fact boxes, and sidebars, Loos, Poos, and Number Twos takes us on a Disgusting Journey Through the Bowels of History, as the subtitle claims.\

Starting with prehistoric times, we go through ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, ancient China, Medieval times, Tudor times, down to the Victorian loos.

Did you know that ancient Greeks had public loos in bath houses and gymnasiums but no private stalls for doing the business? Did you know the ancient Chinese even had a toilet goddess? We all let out a collective sigh of relief when we read about John Harrington's invention of the washing closet - the flushing toilet - during the reign of Elizabeth I. But without the sewerage system, what good is flushing?

Of course, when kids read the fascinating fact that on the International Space Station, the pee is recycled to drinking water and the poo is packed into capsule and fired into Earth's atmosphere where it burns up, thankfully, the gross-factor and the cool-factor compete closely to achieve a fine balance.

Glossary and More Information at the back makes this a perfectly fun book for readers of all ages who enjoy such trivia.

[image source:]

Sunday, February 14, 2016

10 Picture Books for Black History Month

Freedom is something kids don't think about much usually. What does it mean? Why is it important? How can we ensure that everybody is "free"?  These are some big questions I discuss with kids often, not just during the month of February each year. Much like, What does Peace mean to you? How can you make sure there is peace in this world as you grow up? Why should we strive for peace? comes up in our dinner conversations sometimes and it is instructive (and eye-opening sometimes) to hear kids' simple and naive suggestions.

Anyway, to chart a better future for humanity, it is always good to learn from the past - if only to try not to repeat the same mistakes again. In that spirit, we picked a handful of picture books to peek into some true life incidents and some fictional stories based on true life incidents set in America.

As to chapter books, there are so many on the subject. This month, the ten year old is reading Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock. The seven year old is reading Ranger in Time series by Kate Messner, and this month he is reading Long Road to Freedom to stay on theme.

Freedom in Congo Square  
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie

Lyrical and evocative, the books is a treasure. Slaves and free blacks count down to Sunday of each week when they can be "free" to gather in Congo Square in New Orleans to connect with their roots and culture and sing and dance and feel alive again in celebration of their African heritage.

The poetry is powerful and concise. The rhyming couplets don't soften the reality.
The dreaded lash, too much to bear
Four more days to Congo Square.
The double page spread with various African instruments has swirling text that proclaims,
Grouped by nation, language, tribe,
They drummed ancestral roots alive.
The illustrations are a fitting and brilliant accompaniment to the text.

Freedom on the Menu
The Greensboro Sit-ins    
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue Lagarrigue

Told from the perspective of a little girl, who sees other little girls like herself able to do things that she is not allowed to, the story speaks to the kids in a more intimate way than it might have from a third person narration.

She longs for a Banana Split at this ice cream store as she watches another girl just like herself, having a purse just like hers, enjoying her own sundae.
All over town signs told me and Mama where we could and couldn't go. Signs on water fountains, swimming pools, movie theater, even bathrooms.
Everybody in Greensboro followed the rules. But not Auntie Gertie who often visits from New York. She says, "I am too old for such silly rules," and drinks from the "White" fountain.

The book unfolds the story of four black kids who sat at the diner and ordered food just like others and waited to be served. Inspired by Dr. King's peaceful protests, all they hoped to do was to remove the segregation.

Ellen's Broom
by Kelly Starling Lyons    
illustrated by Daniel Minter

Little girl Ellen knows that the broom is special. It is what made them a family back when her mom and dad jumped the broom to signify their marriage and commitment to one another, back before it was legal for blacks to register their marriage and raise a family like everybody else.

So, when finally their mom and dad and others were cleared to go to the courthouse and register their marriage, Ellen brings along the broom decorated with flowers, and watches her parents jump the broom again just for sentiment.

A slice of history told through endearing and charming Ellen's actions.

The Escape of Oney Judge
Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom    
written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully

Although quite a heavy subject matter, the book tries not to sugar-coat or sensationalize the event. Oney Judge's desperate longing for freedom is carried through the story, and how the norms of the time make it hard for Oney to truly be free. It is not that she was not well-treated, but, she was not entirely her own person.

While a bit long and wordy for a picture book, the fictional retelling of Oney's story is engaging and thought-provoking for kids.

Follow the Drinking Gourd
written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter

Sailor Peg Leg Joe helps slaves escape via the Underground Railroad, going from plantation to plantation in pre-Civil war south. He teaches them a song that he wrote which gives directions to safehouse and stops along the way that can lead them to freedom up north, by following the drinking gourd, which is the Big Dipper in the sky.

From Old Hattie to Little Isiah, a group of slaves, a family, escape one night, fearing for their lives, relying entirely on the elements and outside help to get themselves to safety. The story is gripping and the illustrations are bright and bold.

In the Garden With Doctor Carver
by Susan Grigsby
illustrated by Nicole Tadgell          

In this charming historical fiction, plant biologist Dr. George Washington Carver teaches how to replenish and restore soil that has been depleted by cotton plantations in rural Alabama.

The story, told through little girl Sally's voice, is engaging and uplifting. Dr. Carver even shows them a fun recipe or two about how to make wild weed salad, sweet-potato flour bread, and chicken from peanuts.

Sweet Music in Harlem
by Debbie A. Taylor    
illustrated by Frank Morrison

A famous photograph by Art Kane that captured all the musical greats of Harlem in 1958 was the inspiration for this story. That photograph where several jazz musicians posed on the steps of an old brownstone was in a t-shirt the author's husband was wearing.

Uncle Click, a skilled jazz trumpeter, is getting ready for being photographed but is missing his hat, his special hat that gives him his trademark look. So his nephew C.J. offers to find it for him before the photographer arrives so that his uncle can be his snazziest best for the picture.

Uncle says he went to the barbershop, the diner, and the music club previously so he must've left his hat in one of these places. C.J tries to track it down but fails. The photo gets taken anyway and it seems like the hat is all but forgotten when it turns up the next day nuzzled next to the brand new clarinet that his uncle gives as a present for his birthday. C.J. is thrilled when Uncle Click says, "You know, a jazzman like you is going to need a good hat. Besides, I am getting used to not wearing one."

These Hands
by Margaret H. Mason
illustrated by Floyd Cooper

Alluding to the old policy in 1940s and 1950s at the unionized factories in the north like Wonder Bread, Awree, and Tastee bakeries of not letting African Americans handle bread dough, claiming that white folks will not want to eat the bread touched by black hands, the fictional story talks about Joseph's grandpa whose hands could do almost anything so skillfully. Anything, except, bake the bread at the Wonder Bread factory.

Illustrations are gorgeous, and the ending is charming and uplifting.

White Water
Inspired by A True Story
by Michael S. Bandy and Eric Stein
illustrated by Shadra Stickland

A transformative look at the segregation in the south, the book follows little boy Michael who is determined to ask the kind of questions that need to be asked, and answered.

Based on author Bandy's childhood experience of being prohibited from drinking from a "Whites Only" fountain, the story explores Michael's obsession with finding out what the "White" water tastes like because the fountain that he is allowed to drink from has warm, dirty, rusty-tasting water, so surely, the "white" water must taste like sweet honey and hence it is forbidden for non-whites.

So, he gives in to curiosity and attempts to drink from the White fountain, but is startled by a vigilant white lady, and falls down. "Lying on the ground, all I could see was the pipe. I'd never seen it from that angle before. The same pipe fed both fountains! Two fountains. Two signs. But the same water in both!"

This startling discovery helps Michael reconsider how the rules are affecting his thinking. "The signs over the fountains had put a bad idea in my head. but they were a lie. If they weren't real, what else should I question?"

New Shoes  
by Susan Meyer
illustrated by Eric Velasquez

Ella Mae is excited to go to Mr.Johnson's shoe store with her Mama. Her brother's hand-me-down shoes don't fit and she needs a new pair. But, when they get to the store, Mr. Johnson wouldn't let her try on any as she is black, and proceeds to serve another white customer, a white girl who gets to try on pair after pair to pick out the one she wants.

Not to be dejected, Ella Mae teams up with her friend Charlotte and embarks on a frenzy of doing chores around her neighborhood to earn the odd nickel and "a pair of  outgrown shoes" - good and usable. When they have collected enough pairs of shoes through hard work, they set up a sale where all customers are free to try on shoes to their heart's content before picking the right one to take home.

The illustrations are gorgeous - the girls just pop out of the page - and the story unfolds with a lot of warmth amidst the heartwrenching reality.

What inspired the kids about this story is that while living through the reality of segregation and not being able to change it large-scale, the girls defy the subjugation and come up with their own small-scale plan of resistance through their entrepreneurship, winning a small triumph in their own way.

[image source: Multnomah County Library]

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Sy Montgomery's Animal Non-fiction Books for Children

Sy Montgomery's Brilliant Animal Books for Children

Quite casually, a few months ago, the seven-year-old and I were researching flightless birds of the world, trying to get past the well-known large birds like ostrich and emu and penguin and cassowary and kiwi. That's when we came across Kakapo, a nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot endemic to New Zealand.

Naturally, we wanted to learn more. So when I came across Kakapo Rescue: Saving the World’s Strangest Parrot by Sy Montogomery and Nic Bishop at the library, I brought it home hoping to read it with the younger child in installments whenever he is ready.

I did not expect the wild enthusiasm he showed for this book! And for a very good reason. The book is by Sy Montgomery, whose brilliant books have the right balance of information, drama, storytelling, and intrinsic beauty.

Fewer than 90, yes nine-zero-ninety, of these gorgeous, friendly birds remain in the wild on the remote Codfish Island off New Zealand's south coast. Sy and Nic journeyed there to record the work done, mostly by volunteers, to prevent these sweet birds from going extinct.

The photographs by Nic Bishop, along with an easy-flowing, clear, heartwarming account of their journey of discovery makes this book a huge favorite with me.

The shared experience of reading this to the kiddo and learning about the plight of these birds that were indiscriminately killed when humans took over and settled in its habitat made us so aware of the large impact we have on our environment simply by going somewhere and being where we never were before.

We ended up reading this book every single night and finished it within a week, coming out of it as if we had traveled to the place ourselves and seen and interacted with the individual birds ourselves. We felt the pain when one of eggs was destroyed, or didn't get fertilized. We couldn't help rooting for these naive and cuddly birds.

[Read an excerpt here]

We were hooked! I borrowed every other book by Sy Montgomery that was available at our library.

In Quest for the Tree Kangaroo, we learnt about this odd-looking creature that looks like a stuffed toy that was determined to stand-out: "Impossibly soft, with a rounded face, button eyes, pink nose, upright ears and long, thick, furry tail, the 25-pound animal hops like a kangaroo, carries babies in a pouch like a koala, and climbs trees like a monkey."

In Saving the Ghost of the Mountain, Nic and Sy are on an expedition among Snow Leopards of Mongolia. "Prowling along ridges, slinking below skyline, the snow leopard is as invisible, yet as powerful, as the wind, and as elusive as a ghost." Collaborating with Snow Leopard Trust scientist Tom McCarthy and his team in the Altai Mountains of the Gobi Desert, Sy and Nic try to learn about and save an animal they can’t see—before it becomes a ghost for real.

Among the "Scientists" series of books, the kid loved Octopus Scientists -- no surprise there as Octopus is an all-time favorite for him. From its ability to totally camouflage and blend into its surroundings, its ink, its beak, to its tendency (mama octopus) to starve and die after its eggs hatch, everything about them is curious and intriguing. Sy and Keith Ellenbogan take us along for a underwater wild ride in this book.

One of my personal favorites is The Man-eating Tigers of the Sundarbans by Sy Montgomery. It is poetic and heart-wrenching and fearsome and hopeful all at the same time.

Currently, we are reading Encantado: The Pink Dolphins of the Amazon.

Next on our list: Snowball the Dancing Cockatoo. Our library does not have it, so, I'll be looking for a used copy to bring home sometime soon.

[image source: Sy Montgomery's website]

Sunday, January 03, 2016

3 Awesome Animal Picture Books

Egg: Nature's Perfect Package 
by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
published by HMH Books for Young Readers, March  2015

Trademark cut-paper collage on stark white background with crisp, precise nuggets of information make Jenkins's books perfect for animal-non-fiction-loving young readers.

The book is all about eggs as the title suggests: little eggs, big eggs,, where to lay eggs, how many to lay at a time, egg consumers, egg protection, egg packaging, egg carrying, incubation, and getting out of the egg... all are laid out with plenty of animals showcasing their techniques and ideology.

Everything needed to create a new living creature: The Egg.

[image source: HMH Catalog]

How to Swallow a Pig
Step by Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom
by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page
published by  HMH Books for Young Readers, September 2015

A recent top favorite book for the seven year old, he rattles off fascinating facts about animals from this book that surely caught my interest and attention.

Like how a Capuchin monkey smears itself with millipede after rolling the said millipede in its mouth to get it to release its toxins. Why does it do that? Well, that's nature's own insect-repellent right there.

Or, like how smart a crow is that it chooses a stop light and plants its hard-to-crack nut on the road and waits for a car to go by and crush the nut open.

Or, as the title suggests, swallow a whole pig after squeezing it to death as a python does.

The tongue-in-cheek format of the book and the clever presentation is sure to fascinate the curious-minded child, and maybe incite them to imitate these creatures.

[image source: HMH Catalog]

Unusual Creatures
A Mostly Accurate Account of Some of Earth's Strangest Animals
by Michael Hearst
Artwork, Diagrams, and Other Visuals by
Arjen Noordeman, Christie Wright, and Jelmer Noordeman

published by Chronicle Books,  July 2014

"Unusual Creatures is a rich and fantastic book of charming imaginary animals who... what? They're real? I'll be under the bed." -- Lemony Snicket.

That quote on the cover had me chuckling right away.

The book starts out by explaining the biological classification in a kid-friendly way, with the mnemonic:

Kids Place Candles OFoot Gravy Sausage

↠ Kingdom ➢ Phylum ➢ Class ➢ Order ➢ Family ➢ Genus ➢ Species.

I was hooked right on that page, and so was the kiddo.

The book is laid out alphabetically, starting with Axolotl. "Mama, did you know an axolotl can regenerate its body parts, even its heart? We had an axolotl in our classroom last year, remember? They are so cool!" And we learn that the name axolotl comes from the Aztec language, most common translation being "water dog".

Each double-page spread focuses on one animal. The informational text and related diagrams, with K-P-C-O-F-G-S laid out next to the animal's common and scientific name, plus a full page illustration of the animal with a scale to show its size makes it easy to digest the information in small chunks and marvel at nature's creativity.

Turn to any page at random, and you are sure to find a fascinating and rather unusual creature like Barking Spider, or Giraffe-necked Weevil, or Hammerhead Bat, or or Long-eared Jerboa, or Magnapinna Squid, or Sea Pig, along with some unique but slightly well-known creatures like Echidna, Honey Badger, Platypus, and Slow Loris.

A must-have for our bookshelf, along with every one of Steve Jenkins's books.

Watch video clippings of featured creatures at

[image source: Chronicle Books]

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Rules by Cynthia Lord

by Cynthia Lord

Left to herself, my ten year old may not have reached for this book. But, having read it myself, I wanted her to read it as well. I wanted to know if the book resonated with her, if anything touched her, if anything seemed incongruous to her in any way.

So, rather than wait for her to pick it up, I decided to read it aloud to her, a few chapters at a time. I believe that reading aloud is wonderful for any age, even for adults. Anyway, thus began this interesting journey of discovery together.

Twelve-year-old Catherine is the main character. The story is all about Catherine and her growing pains, wanting to fit in and be accepted for who she is.

However, Catherine has an autistic brother and so naturally, her life is inseparably intertwined with his. Add in a pair of well-meaning, well-intentioned parents who are doing the best they can, plus a new neighbor and potential friend, and a non-verbal teen in a wheelchair, the story is bound to get interesting.

Summer vacation has just begun. Catherine goes with her mom for her eight-year-old brother David's weekly Occupational Therapy session. That's where she meets 14-year old Jason. Her growing friendship with Jason confuses and rattles her. Through it all, Jason comes out as independent and strong and in the end, Catherine does realize that she truly values his friendship even if she feels quite awkward around him. We follow Catherine through this summer vacation where she discovers a little about herself and learns to accept herself, flaws and all.

Catherine is fiercely protective of her brother; she defends him from insults and taunts by others. It grates her when people stare at David. Her love for her brother is never in question. But, being a "normal" child, Catherine also resents David's special needs. She desperately wants a "normal" brother, one who would know to keep his pants on in public, one who knows not to open cellar doors in other people's houses, one who wouldn't scream or throw a fit if dad is a little late to take him to the video store, in short, one who would not embarrass her so much.

Older sisters with a younger brother, with special needs or otherwise, can easily identify with Catherine being called to 'baby-sit' her brother often when she would much rather do her own thing. Catherine's annoyance leads to her making up a list of "Rules" that David can follow to ensure appropriate behavior. Little brothers can be quite challenging to sensitive older sisters and this is the part that resonated most with the resident ten year old.

As it is written from Catherine's point of view, her parents do come across as a bit one-dimensional, but it is obvious that they are average working parents trying to make the best of each day.

The author states that she has an autistic son, and that her daughter was the inspiration for Catherine. Which makes many of the details realistic, reasonable, and believable.

While the book has two major characters who are disabled, the book is not about disability or disabled persons. How Catherine navigates her world, a world that is complex enough to stress her out, is what the book unfolds.

One objection that usually comes up about this book is that Catherine wishes her brother would be "normal" somehow; whereas, clearly he is who he is and she must accept him as such. David is somehow not humanized as much as Jason is in the story. Catherine finds herself uncomfortable around both of them, but Jason stands out as a well-developed character, whereas all we know about David is what Catherine tells us through her interactions.

However, as my ten year old pointed out, there is nothing wrong with Catherine wishing for her brother to be like who she wants him to be, however she defines "normal"... She just wishes she can connect with him in a deeper way and share sibling love and the joys of growing up together. As it is, she just barely manages her own pre-teen angst and to have to constantly defend and protect David can be draining for her.

The book definitely affected the ten year old, possibly in ways she is not be able to articulate at this time. Lives of all the Davids and Jasons out there is sure to get her thinking deeply about how people learn to live with disabilities in our world, and how the people around them can learn to treat them with dignity and respect.

The author does a wonderful job of balancing Catherine's needs and her expectations. Catherine is just a young girl, not a saint; she just has too much to process around her, and that overwhelms her; she is basically a loving, kind, and down-to-earth kid.

[image source: Author Cynthia Lord website]

Saturday, December 05, 2015

7 Inspiring Picture Books for Children

True life stories can be quite inspiring for the young. And stories set in parts of the world where life is so very different from theirs can be both educational and moving.

While many of these books are a few years old, the message remains relevant and meaningful for kids growing up in today's increasingly global world.

Four Feet, Two Sandals
by Karen Lynn Williams & Khadra Mohammed
illustrated by Doug Chayka

Relief workers bring in used clothing and shoes to a refugee camp. Everyone scrambles to get what they need. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled to find a perfect sandal. However, she is a bit upset when she finds another girl holding the other matching sandal.

Soon Lina befriends the other girl, Feroza, and they decide to take turns to use the pair of sandals.

Warm colors and double page spreads bring the terrain closer to the readers, while the words portray the hope and courage and strength of the refugees around the world who live in constant uncertainty and fear.

Teacher's Guide

[image source: Author Karen Lynn Williams website]

Razia's Ray of Hope
One Gir's Dream of an Education
by Elizabeth Suneby
illustrated by Suana Verelst

Razia Jan, born in Afghanistan, moved to the US when she was a young woman. She worked as a tailor and raised her kid in a small town in MA. When Razia felt the need to connect people from her new home in America with people in Afghanistan, especially after Sept 11, 2001, she looked for ways to make a difference.

She finally left US and went back to Afghanistan where she felt she can make a difference by educating the girls there who are usually sidelined and subjugated. She started the Zabuli Center for Girls in the middle of seven villages that never had a girls' school before.

Gorgeous illustrations transport the reader to the culture and country, while the carefully chosen words explain the complicated nature of relationships and priorities for families in that part of the world. Glossary introduces us to Dari words.

[image source: Author Elizabeth Suneby website]

Malala Yousafzai
Warrior with Words
by Karen Leggett Abouraya
illustrated by L.C.Wheatley

Winner of Nobel Peace prize 2014, Malala is not an unknown figure today. Her belief that every child has a right to education has inspired many children and adults around the world including governments and policy-makers.

To think that a simple act of going to school can be dangerous in some parts of the world was rather unbelievable for my kids when we read this story. And that she would be shot in the head while riding a bus with other kids was even scarier.

The book is a kid-friendly story of her life so far and how she started the Malala Fund to give girls hope for a better life through education. Malala's courage and determination shines through the story.

[image source:]

Emmanuel's Dream
The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah
by Laurie Ann Thompson
illustrated by Sean Qualls

In Ghana, West Africa, a baby boy was born:
Two bright eyes blinked in the light,
two tiny fists opened and closed,
but only one strong leg kicked.

Born with only one strong leg, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah did not let his disability define him. He cycled an incredible 400 miles across Ghana to spread his message: disability does not mean inability.

After his mom died, Emmanuel came up with a plan. He wrote to the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego, CA, who sent him bike, plus helmet, shorts, socks, and gloves! He went door to door for further support and hired a taxi to follow him with water; he got a camera and had his friends make the video.

Through bustling Accra, over rolling hills, through rain forests and across wide muddy rivers he pedaled on for 10 days, wearing the colors of his country and a shirt printed with the words "The Pozo" or "the disabled person."

He didn't stop there, though. His continued efforts and activism inspired the Ghanian Parliament to pass the Persons with Disability Act which ensures equal rights for all the citizens, disabled or not.

[image source: Author Laurie Thompson website]

One Plastic Bag
Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia
by Miranda Paul
illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon

In Njau, Gambia, people simply started trashing the plastic bags, dropping them where they please and going about their way, not paying any heed to the environmental impact of their action. Bags accumulated in ugly heaps, catching water and breeding mosquitoes, strangling gardens and suffocating livestock.

Isatou Cessay could not sit by and watch this. She decided to do something about it. She collected these discarded plastic bags, recycled them into beautiful utilitarian purses. Soon other women joined in and she showed them how to make purses, which they then sold for a fair dalasi. Soon, she had made enough money to buy a goat for their family.

One day the rubbish will be gone and my home will be beautiful, thinks Isatou...

[image source: Author Miranda Paul website]

One Hen
How One Small Loan made a Big Difference
by Katie Smith Milway
illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes

When kids ask how can one little thing make any difference, this is the story that can inspire them about how a small help can make a huge difference in someone's life.

Set in Ghana, the story is about how Kojo, a microentrepreneur, takes the small loan of one hen and ends up building a poultry farm. Based on a real person, Kwabena Darko, who changed his community and is helping others do the same, this is a story as much about perseverance and determination as it is about generosity and resourcefulness.

Beatrice's Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter is a similar story where Beatrice receives a goat, Mugisa, as a present, much like Heifer  Project International has been doing. Milk from the goat helps the poor family of six hope for a better life. And eventually, it even allows Beatrice to go to school as she dreamed., a non-profit empowers children to become social entrepreneurs to make a difference in the world.

[image source: One Hen Inc.,]

The Red Bicycle
The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle
by Jude Isabella
illustrated by Simone Shin

Bicycle can be the best mode of transportation in many parts of the world where unpaved roads and rough terrain discourage motorized transportation between remote villages. Bringing crops and goods to market is made easier with just pedal power.

When Leo in North America outgrows his bike, he wants it to be something more than just a pile of metal tossed in a junkyard. When he talks to his bike shop owner, he learns of an organization that collects used but good bicycles, fixes them up and sends them across the world to those who cannot afford one or have access to one but certainly need one for local transportation.

Thus begins the journey of "Big Red", Leo's bicylce, which ends up with Alisetta in Burkina Faso where she puts it to good use hauling goods to the market and watching over her family's sorghum field. When Big Red's spokes break and Alisetta knows not what to do with it, along comes Boukary who can fix anything. Can he squeeze yet another use out of Big Red? Of course!

Boukary attaches a trailer to the bicycle and it becomes a makeshift ambulance with a stretcher and belt for keeping patients safe when transporting them to the nearest clinic. Haridata loads the medical bags, water, blanket on La Grand Rouge as she calls the bike, and rides ready in case she runs into someone needing medical aid.

Back of the book has information section titled, What You Can Do To Help.

[image source: Author Jude Isabella website]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard: The Sword of Summer
by Rick Riordan

The typically snarky, devil-may-care attitude of boys jumping into the fray wasn't impressing my ten-going-on-fifteen year old daughter much. Why is there so much fighting, bloodshed? Why is everyone trying to destroy everyone else? And why are there these impossible quests that make no sense? Those were her questions.

So, I wasn't holding out much hope for her to devour Magnus Chase now at 10.

I, of course, *had* to read it. Not just because I adore the fatalistic Norse mythology too much and was curious about Riordan's take on it, but also because I wanted to be entangled in a well-spun yarn.

Exposition aside, the book flowed smoothly towards a common end: Reclaim Sumerbrander, Re-bind Fenris, Cast Surt back to Muspelheim, and thus postpone Ragnarok! All in a day's (week's?) work for a dead demigod -- son of Frey, nephew of Freya - elevated to the status of einherji, by mistake (i.e., Odin's design.)

The characters are diverse and colorful - from a deaf elf, Hearthstone, who has suffered much to gain rune magic, a fashion-conscious dwarf, Blitzen, a Muslim Valkyrie demigod daughter of Loki, Samantha al-Abbas; to the re-imagined slightly-gross and gassy, loud-mouthed Thor who rides a cart drawn by two goats, the book continues the theme of Percy Jackson by twisting our accepted notions of Norse mythology and noble characters. I liked that Sam and Magnus are not instantly attracted to each other to become love interests.

As always, my objection has been that the odds are stacked up disproportionately against our heroes in an effort to make their victory seem all the more meritorious. There is always the looming deus ex machina, which is unavoidable as the book is all about deus (dei) and their machinations.

On the one hand, we want more kids to enjoy reading for pleasure, therefore, be it graphic novel or grisly adolescent entertainment, we should embrace any and all such reading materials. However, I can't help but wonder if Magnus Chase books can do with a bit more of the sublime -- a smattering of veneration, and a little less of the flippant impertinence -- not just to mythology and life, but to the style of presentation as well.

Magnus Chase comes across as just another good kid who has suffered much pain, possessing certain super powers by birthright, learning to master them and use them for worthy purposes. He is witty, has a self-deprecating charmness about him, and has that stubborn streak of zero-self-preservation which lets him plunge to death if he believes that's the right thing to do.

There is plenty of gore and carnage which is mitigated by the fact that in (Hotel) Valhalla, they rise up again and do it all over again. Cousin Annabeth Chase makes an appearance at the beginning and the end, but, Book Two: The Hammer of Thor, promises to include her in a larger capacity. Epilogue leaves us speculating wildly about Loki's plans and Uncle Randolph's secrets.

[cover image: Rick Riordan website]

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