It’s as important for babies and toddlers to feel like their emotions are understood and validated as it is for them to learn how to express how they feel, whether it’s through body language or words. A Kiss Means I Love You, a picture book with photographs of diverse children and families in various emotional and physical states, does just this.
Ranging from a smile to coughs and sneezes, the formula of “a ___ means I’m ___” will help babies and toddlers expand their vocabulary for expressing themselves, and hopefully develop sympathy and empathy through seeing the different children in various moods and states in the book. Like Dr. Seuss’s My Many Colored Days, the simple words on each page may help a child feel their emotions validated and shared by others.
This book would be great for daycares, especially diverse ones—my daughter took it to school and the toddlers matched one another’s names to the children on the pages, seeing themselves in them. A Kiss Means I Love You makes a good bedtime story as well, ending with the familiar line (in a new order), “I love you…goodnight.”
Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao
Recommended: 2-5 years
Varsha Bajaj’s novel, Abby Spencer Goes to Bollywood presents the story of a bi-racial Indian-America girl who’s never met her father. She’s spent her life living in Houston, Texas with her mother being a happy, well-loved American girl who only knows one thing about her father: he is from India.
The story opens with Abby having an allergic reaction to coconut. After having to admit she knows nothing about the medical history of the father of her child, Abby’s mother realizes she needs to attempt to contact him, something she has not tried since she found out she was pregnant. After a very small window of waiting, she is finally able to contact her ex-boyfriend and as it turns out, he never received the registered letter she sent all those years ago explaining Abby’s existence. Abby not only has to deal with the shock that her father never knew about her—up until this point she believed he simply didn’t want to be a part of her life—but she also finds out he is a huge Bollywood star. The rest of the novel revolves around Abby traveling to Mumbai to meet her father and the other half of her ethnicity.
Due to unfortunate zoning laws, Reyna Fey becomes the new girl at school and misses her old life dearly. While at her old school she was not part of the most popular crowd, she did have a core group of friends who’d been BFFs most their lives. Reyna makes for a relatable teen character in that she has a lot of drama going on at home and school. Her mother was killed in a car accident 7 years ago and since then her father has been raising her by himself. But, his most recent girlfriend, Lucy, is becoming a permanent fixture in their household and Reyna is not coping well with that scenario. Reyna finds Lucy particularly intolerable because a few months prior to the beginning of the story, Lucy’s reckless driving caused a wreck that severely injured, and almost killed, Reyna’s dad.
Love, Lizzie: Letters to a Military Mom written by Lisa Tucker McElroy and Illustrated by Diane Paterson, tells a story written entirely in epistolary form in which nine-year-old Lizzy writes letters to her mother, who is deployed and fighting in a war overseas. In Love, Lizzy, Lizzy asks hard-hitting questions about patriotism and “how long does defending freedom take?” The reader follows Lizzy’s letters from June to May of the following year as Lizzy deals with missing her mother for holidays, her birthday, and school activities like Lizzy’s soccer tournament. Each letter feels personal to Lizzy’s character, but also resonates with the universal difficulties that any child missing a military parent would endure: the normalcy of their previous parent-child relationship changed into more complex feelings of uncertainty and anxiety over their parent’s safety.
Lizzy’s letters feel more intimate due to Paterson’s illustrations featuring pictures of Lizzy engaged in the activities of her daily life about which she is writing. There are also photos and doodles from Lizzy to her mother included in the letters that make Lizzy’s character more dynamic. The most interesting of these doodles are the maps that Lizzy draws, which start out small, showing the private space of her bedroom, and eventually grow broader and more global—until they feature the town, the United States, and a map of the entire globe. These illustrations make Lizzy’s story feel all the more personal by adding complexity to her character.
Love, Lizzy can be an important resource for any parent who is missing a loved one due to their military service. Not only is the story relevant to many American children, but the book also contains practical advice for military families whose children are dealing with the separation of a deployed parent.
Recommendation: Highly Recommended Ages 6-11
Reviewer: Erin Koehler
You’ve heard of Helen Keller, but do you know Belle? Helen Keller’s Best Friend Belle by Holly M. Barry is a furry tale (tail?) about Helen’s adventures with her childhood friend, an old setter named Belle. This children’s book is basically a diluted version of Arthur Penn’s 1962 biopic, The Miracle Worker. The readers are introduced to Helen at birth and quickly learn that an illness leaves her completely deaf and blind before she reaches her 2nd birthday. From that point on, her world is filled with soundless darkness that only her dogs can comfort her in for the next few years.
This is a story about finding peace. Many of the Children’s books which feature Latin or South American children leaving home often cling to the concept of acceptance. The characters yearn to be part of the new culture’s home, or they have a desire to accept their current state of life or accept that nothing will ever be the same.
Acceptance is a very complicated and almost jarring concept. In this book, Eduardo is moving, and he must come to terms with this movement. He feels confused when children are playing football with a brown, egg-shaped ball, while he understands futbol to be different. He has to constantly accept that this new world is different, confusing, unreal.
Soon the unreal becomes real: the hillsides turn color “…the color of the sun” (12), the trees began to lose their leaves and stand like skeletons (13), and the winter comes with all of the anticipation of Christmas. The book reels forward, moved by the rich, dark illustrations and the comforting, and repetitive call of Eduardo, whose acceptance of this world is suspended in disbelief, and he repeats “No se puede” (that can’t happen).
Despite the title’s suggestion, the story is not driven by the concept of Christmas, but by the treasure within a secret box which can only be opened at Christmas. As time moves on, Eduardo’s hard reality begins to smooth. He learns and grows. Eventually he accepts the changes around him. Acceptance is no longer an indicator of difference, abruptness, or shock; acceptance begins to smooth into peace. And on the last page, the reader is given a very strong, and comforting message of peace.
Reviewer: Rachelle Escamilla
Age group 2 – 9
One thing that is important to do when considering books for your children, is to consider the wholeness of a book. Not only should we encourage books which highlight diverse stories, we should also encourage innovation and cultural understanding. “Just Like Home / Como En Mi Tierra” satisfies the first, but is lacking in the latter.
The story follows a girl who emigrates to the United States from Mexico (assumed). The girl is anywhere from 4 – 9 years old, but her age and the age of the intended audience is not specific. The unnamed girl observes the world around her and makes comparisons: this is like home, this is not like home. The English is translated into Spanish and there is a glossary in the back.
However, there are a lot of mistakes. Namely, the title of the book in English is correctly capitalized, but the Spanish is incorrectly capitalized, which sets a very awkward tone for the book: as if the Spanish portion of this story is just tossed in for good measure. There is an air of laziness in the construction of the story and the illustrations. The book feels and looks like those 50 cent books your mom bought you from the pharmacy rack in 1985 and although some of my favorite children’s books came from that same rack, this book has unremarkable characters, sloppy illustrations, and was even offensive in one moment.
On page 20 the unspecified female character is not included in the school yard games. On the next page she says “Not like home,” comparing the exclusion to her life back “home” (again, unspecified OTHER place), but the illustration is what bothers me: Children playing with a pinata. On pg. 20 they are in a school yard, on pg 21 she is playing at a party with a pinata. If this unspecified girl was at a party in America with her family, she WOULD play with a pinata, but the pinata in this specific comparison seems to be working as some kind of cultural indicator which is pinpointed through an overused and lazy stereotype. The pinata, although a staple in Mexican-American and Mexican parties alike, is not some kind of cultural marker as exclusively “Mexican.” It isn’t necessary to toss tacos, sombreros, or pinatas into a book just to pinpoint the “other” culture. If it is contextually relevant, sure, but in this case it is not. “Not like home” should have been a caption for an image which depicted the girl playing in her school yard back home.
In the end, I like to encourage books which use English and Spanish; books which present children of color and their struggles; books which encourage new representations of cultures with a deep awareness of that culture; I want you to buy books that are not just doing these things on a shallow, let’s-just-get-a-brown-kid-on-a-page, kind of book, but books whose goals are deeper and more rooted than that.
Recommendation: Not Recommended; Ages: 3-7
Reviewer: Rachelle Escamilla
In addition to portraying families of various ethnicities, All Families are Special shows just about every kind of family: children raised by grandparents, same-sex parents, widower, absentee parent, adoptive parents, unmarried parents, divorced parents, remarried parents, immigrants, and a family with pets. It goes beyond simple listing, however, and addresses the universal sad times and happy times that all these families can experience.
Reading and hearing about all types of families can help readers become more open-minded, and any child who’s part of one of the familial structures listed will feel included and validated. A further value to this book is that it shows that these diverse families go through a lot of the same experiences. Child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim wrote of the value of fairy tales and children’s literature—they help children clarify their emotions and recognize their difficulties. This value is present in All Families Are Special, which reminds children that “When there are bad times, families help each other to feel better” and “When there are good times, families enjoy them together.”
Recommended: 5-8 years
Book Reviewer: Yu-Han Chao
December 13th, Atlanta, Ga: African Biracial Orphan Author Launches Two Family History Picture Books
Nigerian-Hungarian Author Theresa Mamah has lived in the United States since she and her twin were orphaned at 13-years-old. The daughter of a Nigerian father and Hungarian Mother, Mamah knew Nigeria as home and Hungary as a destination for maternal-side family reunions and vacations. Preserving the family stories from both sides of her family has been the passion driving her creative endeavors and culminated in the publication of two children’s books, Ice and What the Baby Saw.
She introduces both to the United States Reader at the book Launch, on Saturday afternoon, December 13th where she will be reading from, and signing copies of both books. Full information is on the featured poster and you can RSVP for free to attend. The book launch is from 1pm-4pm. Take your children out for an afternoon of literary fun featuring stories of international, intercultural focus
RSVP for book launch.