Another year of wonderful children’s book discoveries has me thinking about all of the things you can learn from a children’s book: inclusion, conflict management, respect, self-control, appreciation of beautiful things, storytelling. Everyone should read more children’s books.
Chirri & Chirra Series written and illustrated by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by Yuki Kaneko
There are currently three Chirri & Chirra books in this series. (Another is set to be released next spring and I am so excited!) Each book features two sisters who enjoy exploring the world around them on their bicycles. As they ride they stumble upon fantastical settings. In Chirri & Chirra: The Snowy Day, the sisters find a magical ice palace in the woods, full of animals playing games, reading books, enjoying delicious treats, and falling asleep under the stars in igloos. In Chirri & Chirra: In the Tall Grass, they are shrunk to the size of tiny bugs. In Chirri & Chirra, they enjoy a woodland concert as night falls. The illustrations add the perfect amount of magic and whimsy to these wonderful storybooks.
When Edmond and his friend George Owl are confronted by a stranger who seems so different from them, their fear takes over and they respond unkindly. After a night’s sleep, they realize they have unfairly judged The Thing and decide to make friends with him instead. Kindness and acceptance can change the world - and so can our kids. This is such a great book. And it doesn’t hurt that the illustrations are some of the most lovely and vibrant I’ve ever seen.
This is perhaps my favorite bedtime story. A mother and child walk home at the end of the day, passing neighbors’ windows on their way. As the child is being put to bed by her father, she imagines her neighbors’ nighttime rituals and drifts off to sleep. Akiko Miyakoshi creates a beautiful sense of community throughout the story - uniting everyone in the need for relaxation with family and friends, and sleep.
This is a wonderful introduction to Frida Kahlo, an artist whose life was plagued by illness and pain. Monica Brown manages to create an age-appropriate, but still truthful, account of her life from childhood to adulthood. She focuses on the ways that Frida used her art to manage her pain. It is powerful to teach our children that pain and sadness do not have to define us. We can take that pain and turn it into something beautiful. John Parra’s illustrations are beautiful and reminiscent of the spirit of some of Kahlo’s work.
Professional Crocodile is fantastic! The book follows an ordinary day in the life of a crocodile, from coffee and breakfast through his commute to work on the subway, all the way to the “office.” I don’t want to give too much of this book away because the first time I read it I was so surprised - and delighted - by the crocodile’s destination. The illustrations are incredible; each time I read the book I see something I didn’t see before and it gets better and better. Don’t miss this one!
Every Sunday Zaida brings Eli a bagel from their favorite bagel shop. He doesn’t realize how much he enjoys this tradition until his grandfather falls down and is unable bring bagels. Each day the next week, Eli brings chicken soup, books, chicken soup, and a dog friend to Zaida’s apartment to cheer him up. Then, on Sunday, Eli surprises Zaida and all of his friends with their bagel orders. This is a simple story, and I think that’s why I like it so much. So often, we take things, and people, for granted, assuming rituals will always stay the same and the people we love will always be around. Eli learns important lessons about independence, generosity, love, and appreciation.
MIDDLE GRADE BOOKS
This is one of the first books that I read in 2018, and I still love it. It is a beautifully written story about a boy and his fox. At the start of a war over natural resources, Peter is forced to give up his pet fox, Pax, and go live with grandparents while his father goes to fight in the war. He agonizes over leaving Pax at the edge of the forest and eventually decides to go and search for Pax. The narrative is split between the perspectives of Peter and Pax. Peter’s literal journey through the wilderness parallels his figurative journey through adolescence. He is ill-equipped to handle the loss of his beloved fox so soon after the loss of his mother and the emotional distance of his father. Along the way, he meets a kind woman who helps him to comes to terms with the jumble of emotions that he is feeling. This is an emotionally complex, and often very sad book, but Pennypacker tells the story with grace and maturity. If you’re looking for a book to introduce the topics of loss, environmental devastation, independence, and courage, this is a great one.
Set during World War II, The War That Saved My Life and The War I Finally Won are wonderful examples of historical fiction written for middle grade children. Ada is ten years old. She was born with a club foot, so her mother horribly neglects her and will not let her leave their small apartment in London. When the air raids start, Ada and her brother, Jamie, are evacuated to the English countryside in hopes that they will be kept safe. The woman who reluctantly takes them in, Susan, cares for Ada in a way that her own mother never has. She teaches her to read, empowers her, and values her. Throughout the course of the two books, Ada struggles to accept Susan’s love as the war worsens around them. She is an incredible example of a strong, independent, female character who perseveres through unbelievable adversity. After your kids read these books, make sure you read them too. They are so good!
Veera Hiranandani’s The Night Diary tells the story of two children navigating sweeping societal and cultural change: India’s independence and Partition in the summer of 1947. Nisha, a quiet and intelligent twin, is given a diary for her twelfth birthday and uses it to write letters to her mother, who died during childbirth. Nisha’s family is in a unique position. Her mother was Muslim and her father is Hindu. As India violently divides itself into India and Pakistan, Nisha tries to understand who she is and what it means to have a divided cultural heritage, all the while being forced to stop attending school and leave her home in fear of violence. This is a beautiful story about a quiet girl struggling to understand who she is in the face of violent discrimination and exile.
YOUNG ADULT BOOKS
In a year that saw many, many books published with lists of inspirational women, this is my favorite. Brazen is a graphic novel written and illustrated by French author Pénélope Bagieu. Her book is sweeping in its scope, covering women from Lozen to Josephine Baker to Leymah Gbowee to Christine Jorgensen to Nellie Bly to The Shaggs. Don’t know who all of those women are? Neither did I. This book introduced me to so many incredible women, and the graphic novel format is so engaging and entertaining. This inspirational book is great for teens looking for a little encouragement, or just in need of a fascinating read.
Darius Grover Kellner has never been to Iran. He has never met his Mamou and Babou, his mother’s parents. He has never seen Persepolis and The Gate of All Nations where Darius the Great, the fourth king of the Persian Empire, and his namesake, is honored. He works at a tea shop in Portland, Oregon, trying to survive high school, coping with his depression, and navigating the complicated landscape of his relationship with his father. Darius the Great is Not Okay is a beautiful book. Khorram’s knowledge of and reverence for Iranian culture provide the perfect backdrop to Darius’s struggles to fit into the worlds of his mother and father. Not only is this book a cultural education, but it is an emotional one too. Attitudes toward mental illness and depression vary throughout the world. Both Darius and his father struggle with depression, something Babou cannot understand. And the growing awareness of mental illness in the United States does not leave Darius feeling any more comfortable talking with his dad, despite the fact that they have much more in common than Darius realizes.
This book was recently recommended to me by a wonderful friend and I am so glad that I read it. Aristotle and Dante are fifteen-year old Mexican-American boys struggling to fit into traditional cultural gender roles that feel far removed from their lives in the United States. Ari’s family has experienced a lot of trauma - his father is a Vietnam war veteran, his brother is in jail - and instead of talking through it, they cover it in silences. When Dante meets Ari, he is beginning to to realize and understand his homosexuality. Throughout the course of the book, their friendship is tested but never wavers. This is an beautiful book about family, friendship, love, and making space to learn about who you are.