The Wakame Gatherers by Holly Thompson
Holly Thompson tackles the difficult subject of war with grace and beautiful writing in The Wakame Gatherers. The book begins with a little girl saying, “My name is Nanami—Seven Seas—and I have two grandmothers from two different seas: Gram from Maine, and Baachan, who lives with us here in Japan.”
Gram visits Japan, and several pages are dedicated to descriptions and illustrations of the beaches of Maine and Japan, with particular focus on the local color of Nanami’s Japanese hometown. As a translator between her two grandmothers, Nanami helps them compare and contrast their two lands, learns about hooking and preparing seaweed as she takes care to “[use] the right language with the right grandmother.”
Then comes conflict: not in the present, but seeping through from history. The illustrations become dark and ominous as Baachan reminisces about the war. Nanami continues to translate, and understands, “when my grandmothers were my age they were enemies, their countries bombing each other’s people.” The two old women, through their shared granddaughter’s translation, apologize for their countries’ past actions, and in the space of two pages, a feeling of peace and happiness is restored as they return to wakame gathering.
With exquisite illustrations and vivid descriptions, The Wakame Gatherers brings together two cultures by not just acknowledging similarities and differences, but addressing the past. Of additional educational value at the end of the book are a fact sheet about wakame, a glossary of Japanese phrases, and three wakame recipes.
Recommended: Highly recommended. Ages 4-8.
My Nose , Your Nose by Melanie Walsh
My Nose, Your Nose is a little picture book with just a few words per page, talks about more than just noses. “Daisy’s skin is brown, Agnes’s skin is white, but they both have cheeky pink tongues!” And so it goes, with skin, hair (texture and color), length of legs, and eye color. Simple and colorful illustrations depict many children who look similar besides the differences in skin, hair, and nose highlighted in the narrative, teaching children (and reminding parents) that we’re all the same beneath it all.
This would be a great book for a daycare so that during story time all the babies, toddlers and children can feel included. For children who aren’t exposed to diverse families during daycare or social gatherings, this would be a great way to prepare them for seeing people who look different from them as they grow up.
My only nitpick here, which is a personal one, is the lack of Asian representation in the text and illustration. That doesn’t stop me from recommending the book, however.
Recommended ages: 0+
Book Reviewer: Yu Han Chao
Music, Music for Everyone by Vera B. Williams
In what may be considered the third of Vera B. Williams’ “Rosa” series, Music, Music for Everyone, Rosa’s new found accordion hobby and relationship with her Grandmother continue. When Rosa’s Grandmother grows ill, Rosa and her friends try to make her feel better. They finally decide the best way to help her recover is to fill the coin jar again, by raising money as a musical band. After practicing and finding a party to play at, their performance not only brings Rosa’s Grandmother a sense of joy, but it also brings their families and the neighborhood even closer.
The illustrations in this book are as fun as those in Williams’ A Chair for My Mother and Something Special for Me. While the characters do not seem as physically active in the artwork as they were in the previous books, the art is still appealing. In this book, Williams used color as a strong medium to convey the emotional tone of the story, with scenes that seem gloomier than others painted darker colors. The illustration I liked the most was the two pages of family and friends dancing at the anniversary party. I even found myself spending a couple of minutes trying to see how each character was dancing. The artwork also included a wide range of ethnicities, which I thought I added to this story’s theme.
Family bonds is the primary theme of this story with music being used to bring each family closer, especially Rosa and her Grandmother. The story’s subtext conveys the importance of being able to use your own talents to help others and maybe bring people closer. Just as the other two Rosa stories are more female oriented when it comes to the characters, Music, Music, for Everyone, is focused more on female familial relationships than other relationships. However, the characters’ gender only adds to the overall strength of the story that all people would enjoy.
Recommendation: Recommended; ages 5+
Reviewer: Warren Stokes
Dear Primo: a Letter to my Cousin by Duncan Tonatiuh
Comparing Cultures, A Review of Duncan Tonatiuh’s “Dear Primo: a Letter to my Cousin”
This epistolary children’s book not only fills a much needed niche in the narrative for children living in America, it gives us a glimpse into a different kind of family structure, a family structure whose existence is an arbitrary border away.
Charlie, the Mexican-American boy living in New York, experiences life as an assimilated child: basketball, pizza, and video games; while his cousin, Carlitos, a village dweller in Mexico, experiences a similar but different experience: his sport is soccer, his cheese is found in a quesadilla and his games are found in the beauty of his natural environment. The two kids’ lives mimic one another; one is associated with the other in a way that would be interesting to a child, if cliche for adults.
Children like familiarity which is provided through Charlie’s perspective, but children also respond to new sounds, so the sprinkling of Spanish is welcomed. Familiar Spanish nouns like perros (dogs) and gallo (rooster) are introduced as captions or interjections which provide intertextual experience; you and your child could spend extra time on the page isolating those words and building a small vocabulary.
But the most amazing part of this book is beyond the words: the illustrations! These full-page, hand-drawn, hand-colored images are warm with the color of earth when we experience Carlitos’ narrative and steely cool when Charlie’s sterile city scene is set. The boys are boxy and asymmetrical with profile-facing, round heads in a style reminiscent of Mayan art. The boys are modern versions of their ancestors: a mixture of animal and human, earth and man; even their spirally fists are imaginative.
This book presents two cultures which overlap and exist on the same continent. Two cultures positioned in contrasting contexts: different settings in the same family.
Recommendation: Highly recommended, ages 4 – 8
Book Review by: Rachelle Escamilla
Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron
Carolivia Herron’s Nappy Hair tells the story of Brenda, a dark-skinned girl with a massive bush of kinky, untamed hair towering above her slender frame. The true protagonist in this story is Brenda’s hair, which takes on a vivacious life of its own as Brenda’s elder, Uncle Mordecai, shares with the rest of the family at a picnic the colorful and rhythmic story of how Brenda ended up with all that nappy hair. Setting this book apart from other stories that I have read that are designed to affirm positive self-image in Black children, Nappy Hair does not present the main character as having a problem with either who she is or her hair’s texture. Sure, there were other characters who express disapproval of her tightly coiled hair—namely, members of the Heavenly choir who are present during her creation. They pitied her hair to such an extent that they have the audacity to reproach God by asking:
“Why you gotta be so mean, why you gotta be so willful, why you gotta be so ornery, thinking about giving that nappy, nappy hair to that innocent little child?”
Nevertheless, even at the very beginning of the story, Brenda exudes confidence —her head is always held high, she wears a wide smile, and she refuses to allow family members to tame her maverick coils with brushes, hair spray, and broken-toothed combs.
For centuries, hair has been a sensitive issue in Black communities in the United States, and with the recent revitalization of a natural hair movement committed to the ethos of expressing black pride by embracing afros, locs, and braids in lieu of hair relaxers and other chemicals, Herron’s Nappy Hair (which was published in 1997) remains a relevant teaching tool for parents, mentors, and educators. This book presents a clever call and response narrative that may be shared with boys and girls of all races and hair types to encourage them to love how their hair naturally grows from their scalp and to encourage an appreciation for how they may be different from others but equally as beautiful. When I first read this book to my third grade class five years ago, the students laughed in derision at the title and at how Uncle Mordecai was describing Brenda’s hair. In the community where my students were growing up, “nappy” was a cruel word that connotes the polar opposite of good and beautiful; and, they would often use the term to make fun of each other. However, through a read-aloud with them, they realized Uncle Mordecai’s comments about Brenda’s hair being nappy were not derogatory at all. In fact, at the very end of his story, he proclaims:
“I got me at long last this cute little brown baby girl…And she’s got the nappiest hair in the world.”
Notably, Herron’s Nappy Hair also alludes to the profound obligation that adults have in shaping children’s self-esteem. In fact, the book conveys the message that children look to us for affirmation, reassurance, and to learn standards of beauty. Brenda was blessed with an Uncle Mordecai who spoke a life of rich heritage, strength, and beauty into her and her naturally kinky coils—a life that says you are perfect just the way you are. This book could serve as a springboard for parents and educators to engage in that same edifying dialogue with the children in their lives.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended; ages 6+ (with parental guidance to avoid misinterpretation) (buy)
Book Review by: La Tonya Jackson
Maxwell’s Mountain by Shari Becker
Maxwell’s Mountain features a little boy with an Asian-featured father and Caucasian-looking, redheaded mother. Maxwell sees a mountain near a new park, and goes on a mountain-climbing adventure. The illustrations are beautiful watercolor-and-ink, though the story, while it teaches some good lessons, could have been so much more.
The story could have addressed the diversity so lovingly depicted by the illustrations. If you have a mixed family, you and your child might enjoy seeing the representation of diversity here. It’s interesting that the author says nothing about Maxwell’s family and background, however—not only is this a missed opportunity, it feels like a multi-racial elephant in the room.
The actual morals tackled here also seem ambiguous. One lesson a child might learn from this story is to be prepared before undertaking a large task. Maxwell is determined to the point of obsession (“At dinner Maxwell saw mountains everywhere”) and does his research by (unrealistically) checking out all the books on mountain-climbing from the library and looking through them all in one night. He trains for his hike by repeatedly climbing up and down the stairs at home (depending on the age of your child, maybe not the safest activity to encourage). And the overt moral of the book is, “When he’s in trouble, a true outdoorsman uses his head.” The gendered “outdoorsman” and “he/his” throughout the book can be limiting gender-wise, and in the end, Maxwell doesn’t really use his head that much besides backtracking a little when he gets lost.
In conclusion, Maxwell’s Mountain features lovely and intriguing illustrations, though the story does not live up to its full potential. We might wish the world were post-racial and post-feminist, that race and gender are no longer issues we should give voice to for children when an obvious opportunity presents itself, but we’re not quite there yet.
Recommendation: 4-8 years. (buy)
Review by Yu-Han (Eugenia) Chao
Bintou’s Braids by Sylviane A. Diouf
Bintou’s Braids tells the story of a little girl who dreams of being pretty. To Bintou, this means having long, flowing braids with beads and seashells attached like those of the women in her West African village. However, in her culture, she is not allowed to wear such braids because little girls were expected to focus on play and learning instead of vanity. Throughout the story, Bintou seems to wander about on the outskirts of all the celebratory happenings in her village—primarily observing the events surrounding her brother’s baptism; but she spends a good deal of the story observing and longing to experience the fine details of the elegantly braided hairstyles that the women in her village wear. Soon, Bintou becomes central to the happenings in the village when she springs into action to save the lives of two boaters.
More than a story about hair, Bintou’s Braids shares a story about loving every step of your journey—in life and in hair. I appreciated the fact that her wise Grandma Soukeye was steadfast in ensuring that Bintou held onto her youth. Bintou did not get the hairstyle of her dreams that was promised by her aunt for being a hero, but in the end, the blue and yellow ribbons wrapped around her four hair knots with birds flowing from them made her feel like a pretty little girl—a smart and brave, pretty little girl.
Geographically, Bintou is worlds apart from little girls in the United States, but her story highlights cultural diversity as well as the fact that inasmuch as we are different we share similar concerns. Credit must also be given to Shane Evans whose artful illustrations with their golden tones and rich blues complement and enliven Bintou’s dreams and life.
Highly Recommended; Ages 6+ (The text may be a bit too wordy for younger children with shorter attention spans.) (buy)
Book Review by; La Tonya Jackson
The Toothless Tooth Fairy by Shanelle Hicks
When I first saw the cover of The Toothless Tooth Fairy, I thought, ‘Oh, the mixed girls’ version of Tinkerbell. This is the first original picture book I’ve read with a non-white magical being as protagonist. Many will see this as a simple and sweet story of a fairy’s generous heart enabling her to love her enemy and be seen as beautiful because of her kindness.
However, the tooth fairy characters are focused primarily on physical beauty. The protagonist’s name is Bella, which means “beauty.” The setting for this story is the fairies competing in a beauty contest. At the outset, the narrative states “Every tooth fairy was certain Bella was going to win. She was beautiful. She had long, curly brown hair, and her teeth were perfect,” This language coupled with all the other fairies’ hair styled in buns, pigtails, afro-puffs, ponytails, or pulled back, reinforces the concept that there is only one way to be beautiful—with long flowing hair—and only Bella inhabits that beautiful space.
Even though the next sentence says, “the most beautiful thing about Bella was her kindness,” the first action we see from Bella, instead of this kindness that is supposed to be her greatest feature of beauty, is Bella smiling and showing off her flight skills to the contest judges. Although the book’s message is that kindness is more valuable than physical beauty, the prominent importance of physical beauty that conforms to a European ideal will obscure the message of kindness for the reader under 6. Furthermore, this will impress upon readers of all ages that kindness does not make a person beautiful; it only makes those who are already conforming to European standards of beauty even prettier.
In the narrative, Bella is a tooth fairy whose enemy causes her to fly into a wall and lose a tooth during a prettiest smile contest. So she can look perfect, Bella, in turn tries to steal a tooth from three of the kids on her list who will be losing a tooth soon. The text says she is going to borrow the tooth and leave an I.O.U. behind but her ‘borrowing’ entails pulling these children’s teeth from their mouths with thread and pliers. While her actions to get these teeth are funny, there are no direct repercussions for Bella’s thievery and no consideration of the way the two brown girls from whom she steals teeth will feel when they wake up without their teeth.
Ultimately, Bella fails to steal a healthy tooth. When Bella fails to steal a usable tooth, she still comforts Zelda, her enemy who seems to be crying but Zelda is not really crying—she just pretends to cry to get Bella’s attention then she taunts Bella in response to Bella’s kindness. Bella’s tears of defeat turn Zelda into a monstrous witch but Bella hugs Zelda the witch until Zelda becomes normal, and then a “most beautiful, nice fairy”. After this, the contest judges decide there are two beautiful winners of the contest—Bella who is balanced because of her powerfully kind heart and Zelda, her nemesis who is redeemed by Bella’s kindness.
While the nemesis, Zelda, is pink and red in complexion, costume, and hair, she has a Caucasian dominant phenotype and she is the only fairy other than Bella who actually speaks or takes any individual action in the story. Although the other fairies represent every continent’s nationalities and ethnicities, all the other fairies are a silent ensemble nearly melting into the background of the story.
Recommendation: If this story fits within your value system, it is unique and valuable for children of color to see themselves in books as leaders of magical beings.
Justice Pon di Road by Aliona Gibson
What I like about this book more than anything is the idea. A single mother who lives in the United States with her son Justice, takes him on a trip to her Jamaican homeland where he is immersed in a new culture and learns a new language. While they are walking along the roads (pon di road), they meet a variety of adult characters running businesses from small shops or road side stands. Justice gets to try new types of food and meet people who instantly adore him as he learns new phrases. The tone of the narrative voice is fun and I find it appealing that there are positive representations of entrepreneurial black Jamaicans, as well as positive representations of African Diaspora people with uncombed, natural kinky, coily hair and dread locks. Also, there’s a great historical timeline and glossary in the back of the book, which are valuable teaching tools.
What is not appealing is that the narrative is just too long for this story; the illustrations which look like prematurely exposed film photos are often eerie, the detail is difficult to see, and are often not well paired with the narrative. The discontinuity of the illustrations often occurs because one page of the narrative will go on and on and the only thing illustrated is the experience Justice had in the first paragraph or first sentence. I think if a teacher is looking for a way to make a history lesson on Jamaica or the Caribbean fun, sharing the first few pages of this book and the rich glossary and history section in the back with a classroom would be valuable. The simple tone of the narrative and the stroller riding toddler protagonist indicate that the story is targeted to ages 1-5 but the length and history section are more appropriate for ages 7-9. I don’t know if the narrative will hold the attention of either age group for its entirety but an adult who reads the book in advance and edits the story for their child’s attention span will share a unique story with their child and learn more about Jamaica than just the music with which we are familiar.
Recommendation: Recommended for educational purposes to adults who will work around the narrative. Ages 2-9.
Reviewer: Omilaju Miranda