Week-end Book Review: What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World, by Andrea Curtis and Yvonne Duivenvoorden

Saturday, April 13th, 2013

What's for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World, by Andrea Curtis, photography by Yvonne Duivenvoorden (Red Deer Press, 2012)Reviewed by Charlotte Richardson:

Andrea Curtis, photography by Yvonne Duivenvoorden,
What’s for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World
Red Deer Press, 2012.

Ages: 8+

What’s for Lunch? uses a comparison of school lunches around the world as a jumping off point for a wide-ranging discussion of food issues presented in a poster-like layout. Yvonne Duvenvoorden’s attractive photographs of the lunches will draw children in, as will Sophie Casson’s appealingly goofy illustrations. Children will learn not only about the varieties of foods served in schools globally but also about their presentation…

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Week-end Book Review: A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master

Saturday, March 30th, 2013

A Beautiful Lie by Irfan Master (Albert Whitman, 2012)Reviewed by Charlotte Richardson:

Irfan Master,
A Beautiful Lie
Albert Whitman, 2012.

Ages: 11+

Irfan Master sets his ambitious debut novel, A Beautiful Lie, in India just before the 1947 Partition. Gathering tension on the national scene is seen through the eyes of Bilal and his three friends, who live in a thriving market town. Bilal’s father is dying, and the boy determines to protect him from the ugly truth of India’s division. Already half an orphan since his mother’s death, his only sibling is an unreliable older brother, so politically involved that his infrequent visits bring danger–and potentially the taboo truth–to the fragile little world Bilal has created for his father in their humble two-room home…

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Week-end Book Review ~ The Great Race: An Indonesian Trickster Tale by Nathan Kumar Scott and Jagdish Chitara

Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Reviewed by Charlotte Richardson:

Retold by Nathan Kumar Scott, illustrated by Jagdish Chitara,
The Great Race: An Indonesian Trickster Tale
Tara Books, 2011.

Ages: 3+

With The Great Race, Tara Books continues its stellar presentation of picture books illustrated by talented indigenous Indian artists. Nathan Kumar Scott retells the simple Indonesian trickster tale, a version of the tortoise and hare story. The traditional craft of illustrator Jagdish Chitara, a Waghari textile artist from Ahmedabad, is painting ritual cloths that celebrate the Mother Goddess in brilliant white, red and black. He uses the same ancient techniques and colors to depict the many stylized animal characters in this endearing folk story, his first secular project…

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Week-end Book Review: Fog A Dox by Bruce Pascoe

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Reviewed by Charlotte Richardson:

Bruce Pascoe,
Fog A Dox
Magabala Books, 2012.

Ages: 10+

“A story of courage, acceptance and respect,” Magabala Books rightly claims of masterful storyteller Bruce Pascoe’s latest YA novel, Fog A Dox. Set in the Australian bush of southwest Victoria and written in Pascoe’s captivating bush vernacular, the story begins with Albert, an old woodsman (“tree feller”) who brings home three orphaned baby foxes, then coaxes his Dingo mix dog, Brim, to nurse them along with her own pups…

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Week-end Book Review – Gandhi: A Manga Biography by Kazuki Ebine

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

Kazuki Ebine,
Gandhi: A Manga Biography
Penguin Books, 2011.

Ages 10-14

Award-winnning animation artist Kazuki Ebine’s Gandhi A Manga Biography appears at first glance to be an ideal meeting of form and content that will appeal greatly to young adult readers. The greyscale-illustrated book provides an easily digested overview of Gandhi’s life, including specific events in South Africa and India that tested and strengthened his resolve to resist all temptation toward violence. Ebine’s project is something of a ground breaker for a genre that is often associated with aggressive action stories.

As the page order is reversed (to left-to-right), the book will be an easy introduction to manga for readers accustomed to western page layout. Ebine’s skill as a draftsman is evident, particularly in his portrayal of Gandhi as he ages. Over the 192 pages of the story, Gandhi is taken from a precocious child through his education as a barrister in England to his appointment in South Africa, where his action on behalf of Indian civil rights inspires his growing conviction that only peaceful resistance has the moral force to overcome injustice, and finally to India, where he works with Nehru but fails to stop the political forces leading to the partition and to the creation of Pakistan.

Compelling as the story is, the execution is somewhat disappointing. Penguin’s second in its manga biography series (an earlier volume featured the Dalai Lama) badly needs an editor. The text is riddled with awkwardness, from the many instances of agreement error (Japanese doesn’t distinguish singular from plural) to amusingly goofy expressions. (My favorite is “When I first heard your speech, I was so inspired as if you boiled my blood.”) The only closing punctuation marks are exclamation points and question marks. The lack of page numbers is an inconvenience. Young readers expecting a deeper understanding of Gandhi’s life and moral development may find that in this case, the manga form is less adroit than usual at conveying story through image.

Despite these hindrances, manga enthusiasts will appreciate getting biographical information in a favored format, and Penguin’s effort to present Gandhi’s life and precepts to a generation of more visually-oriented young adult readers is laudable. Let’s hope the editorial glitches are worked out as the company publishes further inspiring lives in the manga genre.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

Week-end Book Review: A Stranger at Home by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, as told to author Christy Jordan-Fenton; illustrated by Liz Amini-Holms

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, as told to author Christy Jordan-Fenton; illustrated by Liz Amini-Holms,
A Stranger at Home
Annick Press, 2011.

Age 8-12

A Stranger at Home, sequel to the authors’ award-winning 2010 Fatty Legs, is the story of Margaret Pokiak-Fenton’s return to her Inuit family in northwest Canada after two years in a Catholic boarding school, where she learned English, ate different foods, and became unrecognizable even to her own mother. A collaboration between Margaret and her daughter-in-law, Christy Jordan-Fenton, the book captures the process of re-entry faced by anyone returning from life-changing experiences in another culture. In this book, those challenges are framed in terms of losses to the Inuit community when young people are educated in faraway boarding schools.

Unlike aboriginal Australians, who underwent similar difficulties, Margaret was not forced to leave her home on Banks Island. In fact, her father, who also had a boarding school education, had voiced reservations about her desire to leave home and learn English. He understood better than his wife how hard the transition back home would be for their daughter. Time does its healing for Margaret; she is aided by observing the alienation of another outsider in the village and by her growing compassion for his situation. In the end, she bravely agrees to return to the school to accompany her younger sisters so that she can protect them and ease their adjustment to the wider world.

Liz Amini-Holms has done the story a great service with her evocative paintings of the Inuit people in their traditional clothing and native landscape. Her soft, dark palette and slightly blurry images give an exotic yet emotionally intimate feel to the scenes she illustrates. Margaret’s family photographs add further visual documentation in an appealing presentation. Each is referenced alongside the relevant text by a small icon and a page number that indicates the corresponding full-size image in the back matter. Also included are a map of the Northwest Territories and brief biographies of the authors and illustrator. Where the text uses Inuit words, a colored box at the bottom of the page defines the term.

Young readers will find Margaret’s story both historically informative and heartbreakingly poignant.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

Week-end Book Review: The Garden of Empress Cassia by Gabrielle Wang

Sunday, November 13th, 2011

Gabrielle Wang, author-illustrator,
The Garden of Empress Cassia
Kane Miller, 2011 (first published in Australia, 2002).

Ages 8+

In illustrator Gabrielle Wang‘s debut as a writer for middle-grade girls, she introduces her heroine, Chinese-Australian Mimi, with a distinctly off-putting description: the girl smells bad. Her father, it turns out, runs a Chinese herb shop. Between his concoctions and her mother’s cooking, Mimi’s clothes and body are infused so distinctively that she’s known at school as Stinky Loo.

Not surprisingly, Mimi is ashamed of her parents and her heritage and resentful of their strictness. Wang’s story takes her on a journey of discovery in which she and her parents become reconciled, she stands up for herself with a mean girl who taunts her, and she discovers her true talents as she grows into a more sensitive and fully realized character.

Mimi’s path is through art. A teacher gives her a beautiful box of Empress Cassia pastel crayons with the mysterious caution that they are powerful and she must not let anyone else use them. Taking the sidewalk outside her parents’ shop as her canvas, Mimi draws a miraculous garden that literally pulls people in. After their visits to the magical Garden of Empress Cassia, they return to normal reality with no memory of their trip but with a more appreciative sense of life and a more generous attitude toward others. It’s a healing garden, Mimi discovers.

Mimi’s mother takes advantage of the crowds the garden attracts to open a little tea house for visitors. Dad returns from attending his brother’s last illness and death a kinder, gentler man. A popular boy becomes Mimi’s friend. When the mean girl tricks Mimi and steals the pastels, the garden she draws sweeps her into a dark experience from which Mimi and her friends save her.

All’s well that ends well in this fantasy, but teachers and parents may have objections beyond Wang’s smelly introduction. Throughout the text, adult Chinese are quoted as speaking in pidgin-like English; a few initial quotes or scattered examples could do the job as well, without modeling muddled grammar. Wang‘s illustrated map of Empress Cassia’s garden in the back matter helps readers imagine Mimi’s adventures. While thoughtful readers may wish for better editing, The Garden of Empress Cassia nevertheless offers an exciting tale for young girls from any culture.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

Week-end Book Review: The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China by Ed Young

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Ed Young, author-illustrator, text as told to Libby Koponen,
The House Baba Built: An Artist’s Childhood in China
Little, Brown and Company, 2011.

Age 4-8 and up

Born in 1931 the fourth of five siblings, Ed Young spent the years of the great depression, Japanese occupation, and World War II in a magnificent environment thanks to his father’s building skills and negotiating acumen. The esteemed Young, a senior talent in the world of children’s literature, celebrates his baba’s loving care and his extended family’s safe passage through terrible times in this collage-illustrated memoir.

In exchange for building the house on a Shanghai property he couldn’t afford to buy (a safe suburb of embassy housing), Baba secured use of the home for 20 years. He designed a substantial two-story edifice with many outdoor spaces and even a swimming pool. (Empty most of the time, the pool was used for riding bikes.) Young’s large-format book with several fold-out pages incorporates many old family photographs, sketches of siblings and relatives, and detailed diagrams of the house that Baba built. At the close of the story, double foldout pages display a layout sketch of both floors of the house, with tiny images of people pasted in the various rooms. Thirteen rooms are depicted, plus outdoor decks and a rooftop playground.

Koponen shapes Young’s words into a lyrical account of family life, repeating the phrase “the house that Baba built” to poetic effect. Text is interspersed scrapbook-style amongst cutouts of Young’s sketches–household members on a see-saw, roller-skating on the rooftop, dancing in the large ground floor living room. Baba, who had received a graduate degree from the University of Michigan in 1917, was cultured and somewhat westernized, but like everyone in Shanghai, the family suffered food shortages and overcrowded conditions for many years. Bombs fell nearby towards the end, but the house withstood the attacks, thanks to Baba’s sturdy construction.

Back matter includes the location of the house on a contemporary map of Shanghai, a family time line from 1915-1947, and an author’s note describing his 1990 visit to the house and how this book came into being. A fascinating window into Shanghai history, Young’s heartfelt tribute to his baba will endear children yet again to his stunning visual imagery and, this time, to his personal story as well.

Charlotte Richardson
November 2011

Week-end Book Review: Mali Under the Night Sky by Youme

Saturday, June 18th, 2011

Mali Under the Night Sky: A Lao Story of Home
Cinco Puntos Press, 2010.

Age 6-9

In Mali Under the Night Sky, Youme beautifully renders the true story of Malichansouk Kouanchao, who, the flyleaf tells us, “walked from Laos to Thailand when she was five years old.” Bordered watercolor paintings capture the simple beauty of her early life in Laos—napping with her family, catching tiny fish in the rice paddies, making spicy traditional foods with her aunts—with key words translated into Romanized Lao as well as the original Lao script.

“But something was changing where Mali lived…Fighting in neighboring countries was bringing danger to the land and the people. Even the birds were disappearing.” Youme pictures a child at the edge of her house, the wide space beyond empty to the horizon. It’s not safe to stay any longer. After a leave-taking that includes the traditional tying of strings around the wrists of each departing family member, Mali, her parents and siblings cross the broad Mekong, offering ritual flowers and rice with prayers for safety. They are met the next day by soldiers and are imprisoned with other refugees. Things look dark, but the strings on her wrists remind Mali of her home, and when she tells the others her happy memories, “their hearts were safe…soag sai—blessings.”

The real Mali, now a beautiful young woman, is pictured on the front flyleaf along with an introduction to her present work as an artist and anti-war advocate. At the back of the book, one of her paintings is reproduced beside her message to young readers: “…when we share about where we have come from, we all find that our homes are safe in our hearts…” A further statement by Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Thavisouk Phrasavath describes the effects of war on children and how books like Youme’s about Mali are a balm to heal those traumas.

Cinco Puntos Press has made a significant contribution in publishing Mali Under the Night Sky. Its tender images and heartfelt words will touch children everywhere. While it ends with Mali in prison, young readers also learn of her subsequent success in life and dedication to healing the wounds of war. The book’s value to Laotian families in diaspora is of course incalculable.

Charlotte Richardson
June 2011

Week-end Book Review: The Grand Plan to Fix Everything by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Abigail Halpin,
The Grand Plan to Fix Everything
Atheneum, 2011.

Age: 9+

In her exuberant new book, The Grand Plan to Fix Everything, award-winning writer Uma Krishnaswami uses the novel form itself to deconstruct film-making, especially plot development. In the process she creates layers of plot fun for ‘tween girl readers.

Best friends Maddie and Dini are separated when Dini’s physician mom gets a chance to return to India for two years. Through internet and mobile phone technology and her dad’s computer skills, Dini stays connected to Maddie, back in the States, while she attempts to realize their dream scheme: to meet their idol, Bollywood “fillum” star Dolly Singh. Plot reversals abound, of course, but thanks to a conscientious postal worker, an Indian girl with a talent for sound effects, Dini’s tolerant if clueless parents, a bakery that puts chocolate in curry puffs, a singing electric car, and even a goat-herder, not to mention the characters and crises in Dolly’s career and love life, Dini’s dream of meeting Dolly more than comes true.

Dini knows that there is something mysterious about how everything works out in Dolly’s fillums, but orchestrating to her purposes the characters in Krishnaswami’s fictional Indian hill town, Swapnagiri (Dream Mountain), is a big challenge for an 11-year-old–even after Dini learns that Dolly is staying in the very same town. However precocious and however loyal a fan Dini is, she needs vision, luck, courage, energy—and kismet!—to realize her dream. Patterning herself on Dolly in her fillums, Dini aspires to have everything come out right, every dream come true.

Abigail Halpin‘s humorous black-and-white drawings and cover illustration give just the right amount of visual suggestion to young imaginations. Krishnaswami’s lively plot exudes entertaining references. No mention of Mumbai passes without reference to fillum people who still call the city Bombay, for example. Dini’s puzzlement about a grip’s role on a film becomes an extended joke. Her dad’s penchant for nifty phrases introduces homespun English idioms. As Dini follows Dolly’s musical advice to “Sunno-sunno, dekho-dekho” (listen-listen, look-look), she becomes part of the Swapnagiri community and everything does come out right. Krishnaswami’s brilliant, multilayered book will delight her readers. Younger ones will love the story for itself, while older girls will also appreciate her nuanced message, plot dissection, and linguistic in-jokes.

Charlotte Richardson
June 2011