Thursday, February 28, 2008


HOW I LEARNED GEOGRAPHY by Uri Shulevitz (Farrar Straus & Giroux)
Displaced by the events of WWII, Shulevitz's family found themselves reeling against the unfamiliar backdrop of Turkestan (now Khazakhstan) , sleeping on a dirt floor, with no toys or books and worst of all, no food for a very hungry little boy. In a scenario reminiscent of Jack and the Beanstalk, the author's father goes at last to the bazaar to buy some bread, but instead returns with a large map. "'I had enough money to buy only a tiny piece of bread, and we would still be hungry,' he explained apologetically. 'No supper tonight,' Mother said bitterly. 'We'll have the map instead.'" Though stomachs continued to growl, the effect of the large map hung on the wall was transformative. This title is a loving tribute to a father's foresight, and to the nourishing power of imagination. A brief and affecting endnote includes the only surviving photo of the author during that time period, and a map and cartoon drawn by the man who would someday become a Caldecott honoree many times over.

I have to confess, when I read this book, a tiny piece of my heart began to crumble at the panic-worthy prospect of how many children might not be exposed to this title because it is a picture book. In these treacherous (and hopefully numbered) days of Every Child Left Behind and testing and general climate of needless academic posturing, we have so often marginalized the art form of illustrated books into "baby books," counting words and pages and reading levels with meticulous Orwellian scrutiny and determining what is too easy to the point that we have discarded the value of the what the author is trying to convey at its heart. Picture-book nonfiction affords educators such a marvelous opportunity to integrate reading into all subject areas while managing time-constraints, while busting the nefarious "baby book" myth that stigmatizes children and keeps them from reading books they can actually understand and enjoy. What impressed me most about this particular historical vignette is that it is perfect for removing that stigma; it's not a children's book or a grown-up book, it is an offering, a memory, a representation of an author with something to share who, in this instance, relates it even more effectively and immediately than the celebrated Peter Sis who often creates within the framework of similar themes. Though younger children will appreciate the vibrant artwork of the Caldecott-winning talent and sympathize (and in some cases empathize) with the deprivations of the hero, older children need this book integrated into their social studies program for its simple, hopeful message: the world awaits. Let's hope that applies to the world of picture books as well. (7 and up)

Also of interest:
Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses longing to read free!

THE CASTLE ON HESTER STREET by Linda Heller, illustrated by Boris Kulikov (Simon and Schuster) In an energetic 25th anniversary reissue, Grandpa enthusiastically recounts his arrival to the Golden Medinah of America with some hyperbole, only to be corrected by a more literal grandmother. This charming immigrant tall tale and intergenerational classic is graced with good humor, good history and new, Chagall-inspired illustrations. (6 and up) Also wonderful and in the same vein is MY NAME IS NOT GUSSIE by Mikki Machlin (Houghton Mifflin), one of my all-time favorite books on the subject of immigration, in which reminiscences of a hundred-year-old grandmother's experience as a Jewish Russian immigrant girl shine via first-person POV, each vignette funny, frightening and moving in turn. The storytelling voice is so personal, turning the last page of the book is truly like saying goodbye to a only complaint, if I might be a "kvetch" like Tante Feindele in the story, is that it left me wanting more, hundreds of pages worth! As it stands, it is a perfect read-aloud for older children, with an especially attractive layout: each double-page spread offering on one side a two-column anecdote and on the other a detailed watercolor. Sadly, it is out-of print, but happily, since we live a hundred years later than Gussie's landing at Ellis Island, we can find used copies easily on the internet. (8 and up)

THE ARRIVAL by Shaun Tan (Scholastic) In the new wave of graphic storytelling in the vein of the beloved HUGO CABRET, we have this thoroughly amazing Australian import, in which a new immigrant traverses a surrealistic and futuristic landscape. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the series of wordless frames capture the stories and emotions of thousands of new arrivals: feeling lost, haunted by memory, struggling to decode language, feeling part of a larger machine, and the relief and support offered by friends and loved ones who can make any new place feel like home. The lack of specificity of countries or groups makes this all the more universal. A beautiful artistic feat in sepia tones and with such resonating and original elements of fantasy, to turn these pages is like getting to read a dream. I can't wait for this to come out in paperback so I can buy a classroom set; there is so much to discuss, and to share this with a class is really preparing them for the future of books, and for the moral imagination required for globalization. Wow. See it to believe it. (9 and up)

I think of immigrants as new and brave explorers, so I am combining themes here:

TRAILBLAZERS: POEMS OF EXPLORATION by Bobbi Katz, illustrated by Carin Berger (Greenwillow) "Imagine an earlier time...there are no maps. The globe is blank. What lies behind the mountain, beyond the sea, beyond earth's atmosphere? Who will risk life itself to find out?" What a boon to elementary educators to have this marvelous and extensive collection of sixty poems, consistently excellent, arranged chronologically and listed by explorer in the contents, across all cultures, from Queen Hashteput to Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela, from Ibn Battutato Henando Cortés, Mary Kingsley to Bessie Coleman, with brief prose biographical notations for each entry in the back. The author's own experience with children shines through, as she knows how to hook 'em: how can one resist reading "The Plan of the Mongol Commanders," or experiencing "Dawn at the Cosmodrome"? New teachers, heads up: you can build a year-long unit around this baby. (8 and up)

EXPLORER: A DARING GUIDE FOR YOUNG ADVENTURERS by Henry Hardcastle (Candlewick) This is the book Indiana Jones would have had as a child. With fold-outs, pop-ups, letters and plenty of solid "training" and real survival skills, lost treasures and explorers-who-have-gone-before, fans of novelty books will find themselves well-outfitted to traverse across deserts, beneath the sea, into the jungle, across polar ice caps and through ancient Egyptian tombs. Unusually attractive engraving-style illustration and a palette worthy of faded maps make this endeavor especially fetching. More then a gimmicky guide, this book is genuinely exciting and informative...honestly, I have not had this much fun or covered more territory since the comic digest adventures with Huey, Dewey and Louie. (7 and up)

Links are provided for informational use. Don't forget to support your local bookseller.


Anonymous said...

You are wonderful, Esme!

Anonymous said...

I am glad you are back and writing on a regular basis again...I will need to start checking your blog on a weekly basis again myslef...Thanks for all the hints and thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Great to see you have included THE ARRIVAL in yoru list! His offical website is:

Anonymous said...

Great blog....Thanks for all the hints & thoughts.....!

Alice Nicolotti Perotti said...

The autor of "The arrival" made another wonderfull book without word, the "The red tree",I love this Guy!
Wonderfull blog, and so interesting information... thanks Esme!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for these book suggestions. I am preparing a booklist on immigrant experiences for our upcoming children's literature conference on diversity here in York, PA. It will be paired with a five-day Penn State summer graduate class for teachers. I can't wait to see the Uri Shulevitz book!

La Liseuse

J Cebrian said...

I'm delighted to see an updated list. I'm starting to gather books for a summer book club I do at my elementary school. Read it, rate it, pass it on. Thanks for giving me some great titles to check out. I'd be lost without you.


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