#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 1!
(Update: I'm having to make all kinds of edits to this post because I forgot all the things I needed to mention, and besides correcting the giveaway deadline listed at the end of the post, I also wanted to mention that I shared an original poem for Thursday Thoughts last week, "Where I read"—check it out if you're interested! Now, back to the post!)
I never thought this day would come. When I joined #IMWAYR in March 2020, it was expressly for the purpose of having a place to share MG and YA book reviews. But as I have participated in #IMWAYR, I have seen review after review, recommendation after recommendation, of picture books. And some of them didn't seem like my thing, but some of them honestly sounded pretty good. And finally, with blogger after blogger after blogger showing me all of these wonderful stories, I caved.
My blog is still going to be largely focused on MG and YA books. But every so often, I plan to take some time and write mini-reviews of some of the picture books that have caught my eye as I have meandered through the blogosphere. I'm calling it Picture Book Pandemonium! And it begins today, so get excited!
Before we start, one quick note: normally I buy all of the books that I read, but spending so much money on such short books was not a route I personally wanted to go. So I registered for a library card, and I read these picture books as free e-books through the Libby app (from OverDrive) or the Hoopla app. Both of these apps have limited catalogs, so I chose a select few of the recommended picture books I've seen to review today!
A Big Mooncake for Little Star
Written and illustrated by Grace Lin
This book was not one I had seen recommendations of recently, since it is a couple of years old, but I decided to read it because—hello?—it's written and illustrated by Grace Lin. As in, wrote-one-of-my-favorite-books-of-all-time Grace Lin. Lin apparently has an abundance of varied talents—not only is she a Newbery Honor recipient for the writing in her MG novel Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but she is also a Caldecott Honor recipient for her illustrations in this book right here!
The story begins when Little Star and her mama, dressed in their outfits of yellow stars against the illustrations' pitch-black background, head to the kitchen to bake a big mooncake. Little Star's mama shelves the mooncake up high in the sky and tells Little Star not to touch it yet. I'll leave it to you to guess what Little Star (with her stuffed rabbit accompanying her) decides to do in this situation. But I will say that as someone—not saying who—snacks on the mooncake high in the sky, you can follow the advice at the end of the book and realize that the disappearing mooncake mimics the phases of the real moon.
I'm starting to notice that even within picture books, there are different age ranges, and this book is definitely targeted at the very youngest of readers, who will gobble this story right up (pun absolutely intended). It's a simple story with just a few sentences total, but Lin's illustrations are just gorgeous—against the black backgrounds, the varied shades of the mooncake, the mischievous expressions on Little Star's face, and the comforting clutter of the kitchen all jump out at the reader. Much of what you see is repeated across the pages, but that just gives you more time to pore over the illustrations. And of course, the story of mischief and tempting desserts is one young children will completely enjoy! This book would be a great gift to those in your life with rambunctious little youths, but it might not be a bad gift for yourself too!
Written by Kao Kalia Yang
Illustrated by Seo Kim
OK, so this is the kind of book I was thinking about when I imagined all the wonderful stories I was missing out on previously! The wonderful Cheriee Weichel at Library Matters recommended this story a few weeks ago (followed by the wonderful Myra Garces-Bacsal at Gathering Books), and I ended up buying myself a physical copy because I enjoyed it so much!
Change is a major theme in this story, which starts off when a young Hmong girl named Paj Ntaub (pronounced "ba ndao" as per the book) moves with her parents and grandmother (or Tais Tais) into a new green house. As the months pass and the seasons change, Paj Ntaub's mother gives birth to two young boys. Paj Ntaub wants to show her new siblings the treasures she has found in nature and the world, but they are still too young to appreciate them (or not eat them). But when tragedy strikes the friendly older couple across the street, Bob and Ruth, Paj Ntaub finds a beautiful new use for the treasures she loves.
This is just such a beautiful story—oh my goodness! This book is definitely a wordier story than the one discussed above, and author Kao Kalia Yang does a wonderful job speaking through Paj Ntaub's kind, childlike, poetic voice. We see some of the difficulties in getting excited about new siblings but struggling to connect with them while they are still little, and we also see how even the simple act of waving at neighbors can form meaningful relationships. Seo Kim's illustrations are, as Cheriee Weichel put it in her review, "drop-dead gorgeous"—the characters, the lush plants and landscapes, the peaceful changing of the seasons, and Paj Ntaub's treasures are all beautifully captured. I spent an enormous amount of time just zooming in and poring over the illustrations, and the illustration in particular of the autumn leaves was so beautiful that I audibly exclaimed! I love some of the little details tucked in about Paj Ntaub's relationship with her grandmother and about the Hmong culture, and the ending—which I won't spoil—was unexpected, beautifully drawn, and memorably lovely! I haven't seen as much praise for this book in the blogosphere as for other books, and that's an enormous shame, because this story is one you won't want to miss!
Written by Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrated by Floyd Cooper
After reading two largely-lighthearted picture books in a row, I decided to take some time and read this less-uplifting-but-necessary book, which has been recommended by many bloggers including the excellent Patricia Tilton at Children’s Books Heal.
Unspeakable, a nonfiction picture book, starts off by discussing the Greenwood community that existed in Tulsa, Oklahoma starting in the late 1800s. At a time when racial segregation was commonplace, Black people turned the typical segregation stereotype on its head by building a thriving and prosperous community here, full of bustling businesses, an excellent school system, and even some mansions for the particularly prosperous. But the arrest in 1921 of a young Black man from this neighborhood for a purported mild assault (as in: stepping on someone’s foot) caused White resentment to boil over, resulting in a massacre aided by police and local officials that killed hundreds of Black people, left thousands upon thousands without homes, and leveled—literally leveled—the Greenwood community. It took another 75 years before the Oklahoma government investigated this tragedy and brought it to the public’s attention in a meaningful way.
This picture book paints a powerful portrait of a thriving community, the horrid injustice that destroyed it a century ago this year, and what every individual, young or old, can learn from the tragedy that occurred. Carole Boston Weatherford writes poetically and sensitively, introducing painful concepts in a manner surprisingly appropriate for younger readers. She does a truly excellent job spotlighting impactful facts about the community and massacre that draw readers further in. And her author’s note at the back, she provides valuable background information and real-life images that older readers will appreciate. Floyd Cooper’s illustrations are beautiful and varied, with photorealistic faces and other details making it clear that this tragedy is not make-believe—it is real. I particularly appreciated the illustration on pages 31-32, which I learned from the author’s note is modeled after one of the sculptures commemorating these attacks at John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park (these sculptures were themselves modeled after real photographs of the awful events). And Cooper’s illustrator’s note depicts his personal connection to the story and provides further background about the events. This story is a painful one, but I believe it is a valuable one in introducing unpleasant realities to younger readers so they are not repeated—and in educating older readers about an event not written about in most history books.
Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away
Written by Meg Medina
Illustrated by Sonia Sánchez
This book has been recommended by approximately every single blogger who exists since it came out in September, so I would have been utterly ridiculous not to take a look at it—especially since the author, Meg Medina, won the Newbery Medal a few years ago!
Daniela and Evelyn are the best of friends, and living across the street from one another has made that easy. They send objects in a basket to each other via a string hung between their windows, they spend plenty of time in each other's nearly-identical apartments and rooms, and they have carved out plenty of spaces for hide-and-seek or storing treasures. But now Evelyn is moving away, and the two friends have just one last day together before Evelyn leaves. But maybe, even after Evelyn leaves, staying connected won't be as hard as they think...
This is a wonderful story! First of all, I think it's no secret that moving is a huge stressor both to kids and to their friends, yet very few books actually take the time to acknowledge this. I can imagine tons of kids will be placed in situations similar to Daniela, with their best friend leaving, or Evelyn, leaving their best friend behind—and I think these kids will find hope in this story. Meg Medina's gentle writing from Daniela's perspective shows the pain of seeming to lose a friend but also the joy of the times the two friends have spent together. Moments such as Daniela and Evelyn using a cardboard moving box to pretend to be bus drivers act as beautiful depictions of children's imagination and creativity. Sonia Sánchez's illustrations bring this story to life, with their sketch-like nature and bright, changing colors adding a sense of energy to every page. Yet there is also a stillness to them, such as in spreads of the moving truck waiting among the autumn leaves outside Evelyn's home, that capture the melancholy of the story. Overall, this book is a tender and sweet portrait of the unbreakable friendship between two young children, and I can absolutely understand why so many other bloggers have been enjoying it lately!
Salma the Syrian Chef
Written by Danny Ramadan
Illustrated by Anna Bron
One #IMWAYR blogger whose posts I really enjoy reading, Myra Garces-Bacsal at Gathering Books, always has some thoughtful picture book reviews to offer up! She recently recommended this story, and it sounded too good to pass up, so I picked up my iPad and borrowed a virtual copy!
Salma and her mother have just migrated from Syria to the "Welcome Center" in Vancouver, Canada. With her father still waiting to leave Syria and her mother overwhelmed by learning English and searching for jobs, Salma wants to do something to make her mother laugh. And then it hits her—since neither Salma nor her mother has had Syrian food in a long time, Salma will cook foul shami (pronounced "fool shammy" as per the book) for her! Cooking is harder than it looks, especially in a new country, and Salma fears that she might be in over her head. But with a varied cast of characters at the Welcome Center by her side, Salma just might be able to succeed in her quest to make her mother happy!
This book was also an utter delight! I haven't had a chance to read as many books about migrants and refugees as I would have liked to, and like Myra Garces-Bacsal mentioned in her review, this story has a surprising amount of depth to it regarding these experiences. We see what it is like to be without certain family members, to try to overcome language barriers and a lack of certain products in the grocery store, and to try to find the beauty in an entirely new place that is nothing like where one used to live. Salma misses her father and her house back in Syria, but she musters up the courage to find the joy in her current situation and to help her mother, a kind and caring soul, feel better during this unpleasant situation. The individuals at the Welcome Center (all shown on the cover), whether young or old, refugees or volunteers, all take the time to help Salma accomplish her goal and keep her hopes up along the way. (And readers get to learn about each and every one of them—I just don't want to give too much away here!) Anna Bron's beautiful art is clean, detailed, and colorful, and she makes use of a variety of patterns and motifs that seem to reference art from countries like Syria. Overall, Salma the Syrian Chef thoughtfully and sensitively teaches young readers (and older readers) that the lives of refugees can have just as much joy in them as the lives of anyone else!
That's all for now! I hope you all enjoyed hearing about my adventures with picture books—I certainly enjoyed reading these wonderful stories! (Though I will try to keep these posts to 4 books instead of 5 in the future—this was a bit long!) Because I reviewed MG books two weeks in a row the last few weeks, I'm going to take another week off of MG books and review a YA book instead next week. See you then!
My favorite book of the week: A Map into the World
My second-favorite book of the week: Salma the Syrian Chef
*****Don't forget!***** Monday, June 14 (today for those of you reading this on Monday) is the last day to enter the Summer 2021 Book Giveaway! If you haven't already, go take a look at the selection of books I'm offering—there's incredibly good MG and YA books, a graphic novel, and even a few signed books, so don't forget to enter before the giveaway closes!