Friday, March 30, 2012

Picture Book Review - Going Home by Eve Bunting

Picture books truly are a format that can work with any and all ages. For those who think they're only for the youngest child, I would counter that there are books that encompass the complexity and nuance of certain subjects every bit as well as chapter books or nonfiction. Of course, these selections need to be used with the right audience, but when chosen carefully, picture books shed new light on a topic or open up opportunities for critical thinking for children and adults alike.

A perfect example of this is the work by Eve Bunting and David Diaz. Never ones to shy away from a tough subject, Bunting and Diaz have produced some stunningly beautiful literary works. Their collaboration Smoky Night, written in response to the LA riots, won a Caldecott for its unique and dazzling illustrations, which underscore the tense, emotional plotline. One glimpse through this title and you'll see why it draws strong responses from its readers.

Going Home, their next book together, is a similar melding of thought-provoking text and complex, evocative illustrations. In the book, Carlos and his family are on their way home to Mexico for Christmas. The family hasn't been back since Mama and Papa left years before; though the parents are looking forward to going back, Carlos and his sisters really don't know what to expect. After all, California is home to them. It may not be perfect -- Papa and Mama must do backbreaking labor in the fields, and Carlos never seems to see the opportunities that immigration promised them -- but it's what the children know.

But now the world of their homeland begins to open up to the children. As they drive they see the land that their parents left behind, and it isn't what they expected. There is beauty here, lots of it: in the flowers and trees, in the buildings and little villages, in the faces of relatives and those who knew their parents, once upon a time. And most of all there is beauty in Mama and Papa, who come alive in this place in a way that Carlos and his sisters have never seen.

What Bunting and Diaz have created here is a masterful opening to any conversation about immigration and the experience of people who leave their home for another. We can approach this topic from a variety of ideologies, but one common root remains: the notion that finding oneself far from home is hard, no matter what the reasons are for leaving. For older children, pair this with a title like Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez; younger readers might be ready for Grandfather's Journey by Allan Say or La Mariposa by Francisco Jimenez, for a look at the immigrant experience.

Going Home by Eve Bunting and David Diaz, published by HarperCollins
Ages 6-10
Source: Library
Sample: "There is a wooden plow outside Grandfather's house. I remember when Mama and Papa saved the money for it. Later they also sent money for two oxen. I wonder where the oxen are and if we will be friends."

Bonus: Video interview with Eve Bunting from Reading Rockets

Friday, March 16, 2012

Picture Book Review - Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

Ah, birthday parties. Whether you lived through it yourself or via your own children (or both), most of us are familiar with the dynamic of birthday parties in elementary school. Who's coming and who's not, which of your friends are invited, what it feels like when you're included (elation!) and what it feels like when you're not (depression). For girls especially, this whole birthday party thing can take on a life of its own, and make or break you -- or so it seems.

In Big Red Lollipop, author Rukhsana Khan presents us with Rubina's dilemma: she's invited to her first-ever birthday party, but her mother insists she bring her little sister Sana along. Rubina protests, sure that her new friends won't understand, but Ami stands firm. Of course Rubina's friend says it's all right, but Sana doesn't know how to act at the party. Rubina's only consolation is the huge red lollipop that Sally's mom gives out as party favors. While Sana gobbles hers down right away, Rubina saves it for the next morning, dreaming all night about her sweet treat. But Sana manages to spoil that as well.

Rubina is so mad at Sana - about the lollipop, yes, but also for ruining Rubina's chances at being invited to more parties. Until Sana receives her own invitation to a party. . .

Lollipop is amazing on so many levels, and it is one of those rare titles that works for just about any child. In one sense, you have the sibling relationship: older sister plus pesky younger sister. The way Khan resolves the conflict is surprising, but completely perfect, and it speaks volumes about how we really should treat others. On another level, this is a story about fitting in: the cultural norms that Rubina's family is familiar with don't fit with the society they are living in. Rubina is caught between what the kids at school think is normal and what her mother wants her to do. And on yet another plane, this is a story about right and wrong - when doing what you want to do is not the best solution.

Wrap all that up in a multicultural package and you have a charming yet deep picture book. The illustrations by Sophie Blackall are beguiling in her signature fashion - colorful and energetic, simple and expressive, perfectly suited to Rukhsana Khan's story. I love the hidden depths that are hinted at in this one, something that the pictures really carry forth. There's a lot to think about here; this would be a perfect classroom pick as the possibilities for discussion are numerous.

Big Red Lollipop is the kind of book you need to read through more than once, for each time another aspect of the story reveals itself to you. Khan has given us a sensitive and thoughtful story that will make you laugh, and think, in equal measures. Don't miss this one!

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall. Published by Viking
Ages 3-7
Source: Library
Sample: "I beg and plead, but Ami won't listen. I have no choice. I have to call. Sally says "All right." But it doesn't sound all right. I know she thinks I'm weird."

Bonus: check out this interview with Rukhsana Khan at Paper Tigers

Friday, March 2, 2012

Nonfiction Review - The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman

Lately, Sprout's been kind of obsessed with the notion of family. He likes to talk about our family: who's in it ("Daddy, Mama, Maxie, me!"), our common traits, what we like to do, where we are going to go together. It's fun watching his understanding of family change. He knows that he has family he lives with, family he sees only sometimes, and family he doesn't get to see. And he's gradually learning that not every family looks like ours.

In The Great Big Book of Families, Mary Hoffman takes a good long look at what makes families different, and the same. Beginning with an acknowledgement that "in real life, families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes", Hoffman explores all the ways families can be unique. She starts by looking at who children might live with, and how those families may have come together. Small drawings along the edges of the page emphasize that everyone's family looks just a bit different from everyone else's.

She also looks at all the characteristics that set one family apart from another, beyond just who makes up the family. Homes, for instance: some people live in small houses, some in apartments, some in large houses. Some have no homes at all. Holidays are another point. Some families celebrate in big ways, some in small, and not everybody observes the same days. The list of categories goes on and on -- clothes, transportation, school,  even feelings -- and each category contains a wealth of rich detail in the illustrations by Ros Asquith.

It may take a bit of hunting to find The Great Big Book of Families in your local library. Ours is shelved in nonfiction, so you might try there, or with the picture books (it's kind of two things at once). Sprout and I read this together and he pored over each page; kids who like to study a lot of small illustrations, a la Richard Scarry, will find this worth a look. Best of all, for me, was the way that Hoffman and Asquith combine and recombine family structures, mixing skin colors, genders, ages, ability, and everything in between. The subtitle of this visually appealing book could well be "a joyful celebration of all kinds of families", because it surely is. We love it!

The Great Big Book of Families by Mary Hoffman, published by Dial Books for Young Readers
Ages 2-10
Source: Library
Sample: "Some people have lots of brothers and sisters. . . and uncles and aunties. . . and cousins. . . and grandmas and grandpas. And even great-grandmas and great-grandpas. But some people have really small families. You can be a family with just two people."