#IMWAYR: Picture Book Pandemonium, Part 7!
I got my COVID booster shot (Pfizer) on Friday, and I had quite the reaction on Saturday—fever, aches and pains, exhaustion, basically everything except a sore throat or runny nose (thank goodness—I hate sore throats). I will say, the symptoms are obviously better than getting COVID. Anyway, I'm doing better on Sunday, which is when I'm writing this post—I tried to write it while I wasn't feeling well, but I was having thoughts like, "Pandemonium is such a long word—do I have to type it out?" And that seemed like a good indicator that I needed to write this another day!
***Content warning for this section*** Also, I do want to acknowledge the various enraging things that have happened this week in the world. The Kyle Rittenhouse decision is extremely infuriating and disappointing and just adds to the number of atrocities White people can get away with. And yesterday was Transgender Day of Remembrance, and an article I read about it said, horrifyingly, that at least 45 transgender or gender-nonconforming people have been killed in 2021, the most of any year. (I also saw an alarming statistic in a book I was reading that 41% of transgender people attempt suicide—as in, 2 of 5 transgender people attempt suicide—so how we got to a place where our priority is keeping transgender people out of sports is beyond me.) I hope all of us can keep working to ensure our mindsets are open and accepting of others. ***End of section***
Moving from that complete downer to the reviews of the week, I have not had time to read any longer books, so I crammed in three picture books that I am reviewing now, all from Libby.
Before we dive in, just a reminder that if you're reading this on Monday, it's the last day to enter in my Holiday Picture Book Giveaway! Make sure to click on the link to read the details and enter.
OK, now let's dive into the reviews!
Written by Kao Kalia Yang
Illustrated by Khoa Le
Preview the illustrations on Amazon (Click on the book cover and choose the Kindle preview—the hardcover preview has way less illustrations to look at.)
I feel like I've seen tons of people recommending this story, but the only ones whose reviews I recalled seeing are Myra Garces-Bacsal at Gathering Books and Linda Baie at TeacherDance! After having read another picture book written by Kao Kalia Yang, A Map into the World (which was absolutely incredible), I pretty much couldn't help but want to read this one too!
This book, based to some extent on author Kao Kalia Yang's own experiences as a Hmong refugee, is narrated by a young girl named Kalia. It's hard to describe the plot, because this book is more of an exploration of different things—primarily of Kalia's grandmother, a woman with just one tooth remaining who survived hardship and hunger as a child. The hardship isn't quite over for Kalia's family—they are still impoverished, and Kalia grows frustrated at the ways the family is forced to save money (all of which intertwine with the cheap, hard foods the family purchases that Kalia's grandmother, with her one tooth, is unable to eat). But Kalia's grandmother is a caring, spirited woman who cares for her grandchildren as much as they care for her, and when Kalia grows frustrated that her family cannot afford braces to "fix" her smile, her grandmother shows her that there is more to beauty than just appearance or cost.
Unsurprisingly considering A Map into the World, The Most Beautiful Thing is also a truly spectacular read! It's rare that I read picture books where the words are even remotely as striking as the illustrations, but Kao Kalia Yang's first-person narration in this story holds its own and nicely complements the illustrations with its poetic, thoughtful, and detailed yet simple style. Here's a quote from Kalia, talking about her grandmother, that stood out to me when I read the book:
I squeezed her feet in my arms and pulled them close to my heart, a hug for the hard road she's walked to get to me.
Isn't that lovely? Yang depicts elements of her experiences that might be unfamiliar to her readers—how Kalia and her family caring for their grandmother (that's why Kalia has her grandmother's feet in her lap anyway) is not a chore but a privilege, how Kalia's family has to resort to eating a soup of greens and actual bones because meat costs too much, even how Kalia's family (being Hmong) uses Hmong words that might be difficult at first glance for readers to pronounce but that are essential to their culture. Because Kao Kalia Yang understands that she can make her experience hopeful without sugarcoating it, she doesn't shy away from any of the "unfamiliar" elements of her story, helping to inspire empathy in readers of any age. Peaceful, radiant, detailed illustrations by Khoa Le are both vital to the story and wonderful to look at, and the mixture of unusual page layouts that hammer home the emotion and more traditional spreads of day-to-day life make for a story that is both relatable and impactful. The illustration style actually reminds me a lot of A Map into the World, even though the two books have different illustrators—the major differences in this book are some of the more unusual layouts, and the somewhat-increased use of brighter colors and darker page backgrounds. Just like A Map into the World, The Most Beautiful Thing is one of the reasons I got into reading picture books in the first place—it is a thought-provoking, insightful, and meticulously crafted tale that will resonate with readers for a long time to come.
Written by David Bowles
Illustrated by Erika Meza
I originally heard about this book after seeing it recommended by Michele Knott at Mrs. Knott's Book Nook, and I'm glad I took a look at it!
Every other Saturday, an unnamed boy and his father head across the border from the U.S. town they live in to another town in Mexico. They've got food to eat, errands to run, and fun to have (at least for the boy, in that last case). "This town's a twin of the one where I live," as the boy says, completely familiar despite being separated by an arbitrary border. And that border appears even more arbitrary when the boy and his father visit a family they know, who is waiting at the border trying to cross from Mexico to the United States for a better life. They're still waiting for the unjust system to move along and let them through, but in the meantime, the boy and his father do what they can to bring them a little bit of joy while they wait.
This book was an excellent read, and I can see tons of reasons why younger and older readers alike will enjoy it and learn a thing or two from it! Despite some of the heavy topics in the story, this book overall has a lighthearted tone that young readers will love—the unnamed boy who concisely narrates the story is fun-loving and full of energy (such as when he gets caught up in a soccer game with his cousins), and I imagine many kids will click with him quite well. The different locations in both towns and the detailed spreads of the towns as a whole both convey the cultures of these two towns and give young readers plenty of fun details to notice. The simplicity of the story's plot belies its depth and how well that depth is conveyed to young readers—not only do we see the strangeness of two towns with similar cultures being separated, as well as the outrageousness that the United States will not let people from Mexico in despite having the means to take care of them, but we also see how simple and intuitive it is for the boy and his father to take care of their companions waiting to enter the United States. They're friends—family, even—and it's pretty hard to argue with that, even if you've already heard the arguments by slimy politicians who've made this system in the first place. The illustrations by Erika Meza are varied in style, with bright colors and energetic layouts that will hold young readers' attention, as well as an attention to detail and beauty (such as in some of the watercolor spreads) that will speak to older audiences too. All in all, this book is a meaningful story that is both fun and accessible to younger readers, and I highly encourage you all to take a look at it!
Written and illustrated by Phoebe Wahl
Linda Baie at TeacherDance recommended this book over a year ago, but I finally got around to reading it, and I'm glad I did!
According to this interview (which Linda helpfully linked to in her post!), Phoebe Wahl drew from the experience of her partner and his son to write this story. Leo and his father live in a blue house that is a little old and a little worn, but they love it nonetheless. It's where they get to bake their pies and dance to music on the record player. But when their house is sold so it can be torn down and the land can be used for fancy apartments, Leo is crushed. As he and his dad pack up their lives and move into a new home, though, they realize that maybe the blue house still lives on, in a way—and maybe it doesn't take a certain kind of house to have wonderful experiences.
This is a really sweet story with a lot of depth to it! There are so many wonderful, meaningful moments packed into this story, as Leo and his dad live in the blue house, then prepare to leave, then make the best of their new home. And there's something very timely (even though this story has a timeless feel to it) about older homes being destroyed to make way for fancier, flashier things—it made me think of gentrification a little bit, and although there are a ton more implications to it that this story doesn't dive into, you could definitely pair this book with others on that topic as part of a larger unit or something. I also want to make two quick points, the first of which expanded after reading the interview I linked above, and the second coming entirely from that interview. First, it feels surprisingly groundbreaking to see a kid being raised by a single parent who is a father instead of a mother—I don't know if I can come up with another book where that happens. Phoebe Wahl discusses in the interview that she also wanted to depict a realistically loving relationship between these two characters (both male), which definitely helps combat some of the toxic norms about how boys and men should behave. And the second point: rather than expecting Leo and his father to just get over the pain of losing their house, or maybe to be sad but not angry, Wahl lets her characters feel and express their anger over the situation—which is not something you see in many kids' books, perhaps because parents don't like dealing with their kids' anger even when it's entirely justified and healthy. In fact, I'm going to link the interview again so you can see Wahl's thoughts on this (as well as the relevant page spread). Wahl's art has an intriguing style—it's detailed, multicolored, and almost cluttered but in a cozy, endearing way, lending plenty of emotion to the blue house and to Leo and his dad. I feel like this book could become a modern classic—it has one of those timeless, enjoyable plots kids will want to read again and again, along with art that seems unable to go out of style and clever narration, all of which makes it a great pick for pretty much any young reader!
That's all I've got for today—I hope you found something new and fun to read, and again, don't forget to enter in the Holiday Picture Book Giveaway if you haven't already!
My favorite book of the week: The Most Beautiful Thing