Finding Magic in the Bayou

Maddy’s big sisters have warned her about going to Grandmère’s home deep in the Louisiana bayou. It’s boring, they say; there’s no TV, no mall, no microwave, and no indoor plumbing. Not only that, Grandmère’s a witch. Ten-year-old Maddy has a mind of her own, though, and anticipates adventures far from the glass and concrete world of New Orleans.  Bayou Magic by Jewell Parker Rhodes
The magic begins on the car ride to the bayou. When a firefly perches on the rim of the car door, Maddy’s imagination is fired; surely it’s some kind of sign.
Grandmère doesn’t look like much of a sage. She’s tiny, “bird-boned,” with “bright-white curly hair, luminous like the moon.”  Maddy and her grandmother settle into a cozy routine of humming together, collecting eggs from the hen, doing dishes, and sitting on the porch. As the days pass, Grandmère tells Maddy stories about her ancestors and teaches her important principles such as … respect yourself … pay attention … and leave space for imagination. Under Grandmère’s guidance, she will, over the course of the summer, discover her own power, her place in a long line of Lavaliers, and an enchanted land replete with helpful fireflies and mermaids.
Maddy gets to know the neighbors and makes herself at home in Bayou Bon Temps. “Folks, all colors, live in the bayou,” she muses. “Some are red-haired, some blond or brunette. A stew. They all feel like kin to me. Like a family I didn’t know I had.”
Perhaps best of all, she meets a wiry, energetic boy called Bear, and the two form a strong bond as they run around, get dirty, and explore the bayou together. Her adventure, or at least her imagination, takes off the day she sees a mermaid rise from the dark waters.
At first, Maddy reveals her secret to no one but Grandmère, who believes the girl has encountered the legendary Mami Wata, who followed imprisoned Africans forced to cross to North America in the dank holds of slave ships. Later, as an environmental disaster endangers the Bayou Bon Temps, Maddy calls upon her own powers, as well as help from fireflies and mermaids, to rescue the community she cherishes.
Middle-school girls with a fanciful flair will snap up this novel imbued with magical mystery and a young heroine’s hopeful imagination.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

Don’t miss Jewell Parker Rhodes’s thoughtful comments on diversity in children’s literature.
And see my previous post on Sugar, winner of the Jane Adams Peace Association book award, and check out the author’s Coretta Scott King honor book, Ninth Ward.Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes


The children come unto us

The stirring stories of two courageous children from Pakistan arise from the colorful pages of Jeanette Winter’s latest picture-book biography. Malala a Brave Girl from Pakistan Iqbal a Brave Boy from Pakistan by Jeanette Winter
Known for her award-winning children’s books featuring activists working for peace and justice, Winter (Nasreen’s Secret School, 2009), turns her clear eye to the valiant efforts of two who spoke out against a society that deprived young people of their right to an education (Malala Yousafzai) or the right to protection from exploitation (Iqbal Masih). Since the children faced violent consequences – Malala was shot, while Iqbal was murdered – the author/illustrator took an unusual risk with this book intended for a young audience.
As with her other works, Winter offers spare text, simple illustrations, and a hopeful tone. For Malala, a Brave Girl from Pakistan/Iqbal, a Brave Boy from Pakistan, she adds a pleasingly creative format: The reader can choose one story and then flip the book over to read the other. She introduces each child with a one-page note providing the essential context for his or her story, and follows that with the same quote from Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali writer and educator who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913: “Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them.”
Malala’s account will be more familiar to readers. Despite the Taliban’s efforts to prevent girls from attending school, Malala and her classmates rebel and keep going. To reduce their risks, the girls begin to travel to and from school in a van, but even then they are not safe. One day, a Taliban fighter stops the van and asks, “Who is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all.” In the author’s note, we learn the bullet went through Malala’s head and neck to her shoulder.
After the van takes her to the local hospital, she is transferred to other sites, where doctors succeed in saving her life. On her 16th birthday, Malala, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, tells an audience of world leaders: “They thought that bullets would silence us, but they failed …. One child, one teacher, one book, one pen, can change the world.”
Between the two stories lies a center spread showing each child on opposite sides, with a kite, symbolic of freedom, soaring toward the other. With eloquent symmetry, Malala, dressed in her pink and coral shalwar kameez, stands on a gray mountain peak and holds onto her kite, while Iqbal, depicted in a ghostly shade of gray, stands on a pink and coral peak and releases his kite. In the background, a golden crescent moon and rounded stars shine in a dusky purple sky.
Iqbal, we learn, loses his freedom at the age of 4, when his destitute parents borrow $12 from a carpet factory owner. The gruff owner tells the bewildered boy, shown holding a coral and purple kite, “No kites here!” and then drags him inside the dark factory and chains the child to a loom.
Trudging home one night, 10-year-old Iqbal sees a notice announcing a meeting about Peshgi, the loans that hold children in bondage. There, he learns that Peshgi has been outlawed and all loans forgiven. He rushes to the factory and shouts, “You are free! We are free!”
Not only does Iqbal head to school, he keeps spreading the news of freedom to other bonded children. Two years later, a bullet ends the brave boy’s life.
Showing an astute awareness that the story of Iqbal’s brief life might well have dismayed young readers, Ms. Winter has wisely paired it with the more uplifting one of Malala. In doing so, she provides adults with an exceptional opportunity to discuss with children the value of following one’s conscience and the need to stand up for justice, freedom and equality.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books.

And see my prior posts on Winter’s other well-crafted books, such as Kali’s Song and Henri’s Scissors.

A Sister Accomplishes the Impossible

With its bracing plot featuring a valiant, strong-willed girl who breaks the spell that transformed her brothers into swans, the Brothers Grimm shaped a fairy tale strange and potent enough to lure aSix Swans illustrated by Gerda Raidt contemporary audience.
In fairy-tale fashion, The Six Swans plays out in the landscape of a widowed father and children cursed or left to their own devices. The narrative opens in a great forest, where the king, chasing a deer, strays from his companions and cannot find his way out. An old woman who approaches him turns out to be a witch. She will show him the way only if he will agree to marry her beautiful daughter.
Fear compels the king to agree to this condition, but troubles loom. When he meets the young woman, he does not fall in love with her, despite her beauty; in fact, he “could not look at her without a secret sense of horror.”
Readers, too, will distrust the new queen, depicted by illustrator Gerda Raidt as having a haughty posture, a callous expression, and ice-blue gowns. Some will likely agree with the king’s peculiar decision to shield his six sons and one daughter from the stepmother by taking them to live in a lonely castle hidden so deeply in a forest that the king must use a magic ball of string to find the path leading to it.
A cheerful double-page spread depicts a leafy, bucolic scene there, with the kinder scampering, fishing, or swinging on a tree. In the background, we see their secret home, a pale three-story abode with a slate-gray roof, resembling a grand chateau of the Loire Valley rather than a German schloss.
The illustrator’s other somewhat puzzling choices include her image of the children’s badminton rackets, which have been traced to British military officers serving in British India in the mid-1800s. And one cannot help but wonder why the daughter, in her high-waisted dress, and the sons in their sailor whites look so Edwardian.
Often, too, the colored-pencil drawings seem tame (in contrast to Anne Yvonne Gilbert’s glorious artwork for The Wild Swans by Hans Christian Andersen), missing the intense drama of unfolding events. The moment when the wicked stepmother, who has discovered the hidden castle, turns the boys into swans should teem with a sense of disaster. Instead, we see an image of the sister, the lone child indoors on that unfortunate day, looking merely surprised as her brothers sprout feathers and rise in the sky.
Despite these incongruities, the illustrator offers a rich, symbolic rendering of the daughter’s heroic decision to reject her father’s decision to take her to his home in favor of setting out alone to search for her brothers. Here, we see the girl boldly abandoning the idyllic estate and entering a foreboding forest, drawn with gloomy gray strokes and dark shadows.
When at last the sister finds her siblings in a robbers’ den, they tell her they may shed their feathers for only a quarter of an hour every night, and then they become swans again. The curse can only be broken if she agrees to speak not a word for six years and to sew them six shirts made of starflowers.
Some might wonder what starflowers are (in his famous Grimms’ folktale anthology, Jack Zipes chose the word asters), but the translator has offered a pleasingly literal translation of the German word Sternenblumen, which the Brothers Grimm used, and so feels authentic. One of only a relatively few picture-book versions of “The Six Swans” published, this edition is smoothly translated by Anthea Bell, whose acclaimed work includes the French comic-book series Asterix, as well as the middle-school fantasies of Cornelia Funke (Inkworld trilogy).
Although she faithfully follows the fairy tale’s spirit and pacing, Ms. Bell has lightened up the story by omitting some of the gory details that unfurl. A handsome young king happens upon the girl in the forest, falls in love, and the two marry, even though she never speaks to him. This so displeases his mother that she steals the baby the queen bears—and the next two— until finally, the king agrees to let his wife be tried for murdering the children. She refuses to defend herself and is condemned to be burned at the stake.
While the Grimms’ version offers stark poetic justice for the wicked mother-in-law when the brothers’ spell is broken and the sister finally tells her husband she has been wrongly accused by the woman, this version relates that the wicked one is “taken away and locked up forever.”
The Six Swans will inspire many young readers and caring adults who crave tales highlighting heroines who do not resort to violence to save the day.

If you’re looking for a more engrossing reading experience, don’t miss the fabulous Naomi Lewis retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans, a slightly altered version of the Grimm brothers’ tale.

The brave sister sleeps in the woods in this scene from THE WILD SWANS, illustrated by Anne Yvonne GilbertAlso see my posts on Pullman’s anthology of Grimm folktales and on the dazzling Taschen anthology.

Martin and Mahalia Made Their Mark

That dynamic husband-and-wife duo otherwise known as the Pinkneys deliver a fresh, inspiring look at the Civil Rights Movement with their latest picture book, Martin & Mahalia: His Words Her Song. This vivid biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson reveals a significant friendship honed by common struggles, hopes, and strengths. Martin & Mahalia His Words, Her Song by Andrea Davis Pinkney

Author Andrea Davis Pinkney struts her storytelling stuff here, employing a warm, intimate tone of voice, a powerful yet simple evocation of segregation’s degrading effects on daily life, and a pleasing parallel structure that zeroes in on the two African-American heroes’ shared values and contributions to a more just society. For instance, she writes that “Martin SPOKE the gospel./PRAYED the gospel./SOUGHT the gospel./TAUGHT the gospel.” On the following page, she notes Mahalia “… SANG the gospel./WORKED the gospel./LED the gospel./SPREAD the gospel.” Not only that, the author injects a remarkable sense of movement: “Martin’s sermons and Mahalia’s spirituals told their listeners: YOU ARE HERE./ON THE PATH./COME ALONG./STEP PROUD./STAND STRONG./BE BRAVE./GO WITH ME./to a place,/to a time,/when we all will BE FREE.”

The synergy between her words and Brian Pinkney’s swirling, energetic watercolor paintings ensures a remarkable read-aloud experience, whether one-on-one or with a group. The book design choices to vary the size, font, and color of the typeface serve to pump up the story’s energy level. The illustrator reinforces the relevance of particular verbs (such as “sang,” “worked,” etc.) by encircling the subject with those same words.

Use this powerful picture book to launch discussions of the Civil Rights Movement, the power of peace and justice, and the continuing possibilities for positive change.

See also …

My prior post on Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America
and these links:

Do You Believe in Magic?

Known for her sprightly novels inspired by fairy tales (The Frog Princess series), E. D. Baker dips her pen into the strange Russian fairy tales of the bony old murderous Baba Yaga and brings forth a fresh, engaging tale brightened by humor and by an inquisitive, resourceful young protagonist.    Question of Magic

Twelve-year-old Serafina receives a letter from a mysterious great-aunt informing her she intends to give the girl a life-changing legacy. The unknown relative neglects to specify what she’s bequeathing or why she’s chosen Serafina instead of her two older sisters. As any spunky heroine would do, ’Fina soon sets off to claim her inheritance.

Upon arriving at the proposed site for receiving her inheritance, she encounters a bizarre environment: a cottage that can fly, a book that writes its own words, and a trunk full of squabbling skulls. Worst of all, there appears to be no way out.

Serafina quickly begins to question the value of this gift and longs to return home to her family and her dear Alek, whom she envisions marrying someday. Alas, reality has morphed: “Either she was losing her mind or all those people who had told her that things like magic and fairies weren’t real were actually wrong.”

Magic abounds in this well-paced novel. Yet Ms. Baker eschews the darkest elements of the old Baba Yaga tales: the capricious hag who kidnaps children; the hut’s ominous fence made of human bones, topped by human skulls; the woman’s ravenous appetite for tender human flesh. Nor does this author delineate a protagonist rejected by a hateful stepmother and her two heinous daughters. Instead A Question of Magic, with its vaguely Eastern European medieval setting, celebrates an unorthodox (for the era) heroine with plenty of curiosity, intelligence, and literacy, who dons the mantle of Baba Yaga and manages to help others rather than kill them.

As Baba Yaga, Serafina finds herself compelled to answer one, and only one, question from anyone who poses it. In precise detail, she is able to reveal the future, to solve crimes, or locate lost items—all in a voice that is not her own, but that of the wise Baba Yaga. Each time she responds, though, she grows a little older. Serafina cannot simply return home, as she does not know how to rid herself of this “gift” and must find a way to stop the aging before it’s too late.

The dramatic tension builds as Serafina inevitably grows lonelier, older, and with her increasing notoriety more vulnerable. She wonders if she’ll ever see her family and her beau again. If that sounds gloomy, fear not.

One of the novel’s major themes highlights the importance of helping others and helping oneself. The skulls, rather than threatening her become friendly and frequently comedic after Serafina cleans and polishes them. Her kindness to a talking cat results in her gaining crucial information; and after she befriends a giant, he returns to vanquish the enemies of her family and friends. Her ability and willingness to teach a friend to read, in turn plays a surprising part in enabling her to pass the Baba Yaga role on to another.

A Question of Magic, with its likable heroine, its swiftly moving plot, and a romantic resolution will no doubt get passed along from one preteen girl to many another.

Reprinted with permission from The New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Fairy Tale Comics: “Baba Yaga” (
and my review of The Cabinet of Earths and of Follow Follow: A Book of Reverso Poems.

A Fine Day for a Walk

Make room on your bookshelves for one more duckling book this spring. Eva Moore’s Lucky DuckliLucky Ducklings by Eva Moorengs: A True Rescue Story has the feel and look of a modern classic. At the same time, the plot derives from events that occurred in Montauk, NY, in 2000, when the community came together to save some hapless little ducks.

As this charming picture book relates, nature does not exist solely in the country. “The Duck family lived in a pretty pond in a green, green park, in a sunlit little town at the end of a long, long island.” The illustrator Nancy Carpenter beautifully evokes the setting with her muted, watery palette, achieved with charcoal and digital media.

“It’s a fine day for a walk!” Mama Duck proclaims. With simple, rhythmic language, Ms. Moore takes us along with Pippin, Bippin, Tippin, Dippin, and Little Joe as they make their way past overflowing trash cans, head off the curb, and follow Mama over the storm grate. Mama steps across easily, but, oh, my, the ducklings fall through! That could have been the end of the story, the author notes, but, thankfully, it didn’t stop there.

Plenty of folks pitch in to help the little ones; an observant bystander notices what happened and calls for help. Firemen and a tow-truck driver are able to save the ducklings and reunite them with their mama.

The afterward, too, shows how the community prevented other small animals from the same predicament: they replaced the storm drain grate with a new one with smaller openings.

Evocative, simple, and memorable, Lucky Ducklings makes for a fine read-aloud for ages 5 to 7.

Also see …

Make Way for DucklingsJust Ducks by Nicola Davies Ugly Duckling retold and illus by Jerry Pinkney

Armed with a Conscience

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slave owners to capture runaways anywhere in the U.S., not only brought terror and pain to countless people. It presented a daunting challenge to those who listened to their conscience when it told them slavery was evil. The Price of Freedom: How One Town Stood Up to Slavery reveals the true story of hoPrice of Freedom by Judith and Dennis Fradinw the people of Oberlin, Ohio, risked their lives and, in some cases, their freedom, to save John Price, who had escaped from Kentucky.

The dramatic picture book, brought to life with gripping, realistic paintings by Eric Velasquez, describes how “rough looking” men keen on getting a reward, pulled guns on John and abducted him. As they drove the wagon toward the nearby town of Wellington, John noticed an Oberlin College student walking down the road. John called out that he was being kidnapped. The student kept walking and seemed not to hear him.

Soon, the kidnapper pocketed his ill-gotten money. The Kentuckian Anderson Jennings, who had paid the reward, squirreled away in the attic of Wadsworth’s Hotel with John Price until they could board the next southbound train.

Back in Oberlin, things were not so quiet. That student had raced to town to announce that slave catchers had their friend John Price. In no time, hundreds of citizens — young and old, men and women, rich and poor, black and white — clogged the road on the way to Wellington.

“Bring him out!” they chanted as they reached the hotel.

Anderson Jennings stood on the balcony and refused, saying the law was on his side. Anyone helping a slave escape could be thrown into jail, he reminded the crowd.

The train arrived, but Jennings dared not board.

Then a dozen bold men entered the hotel and made their way upstairs. The men fought, and one fired a gun (that missed). They rescued John just in time.

From there, the abolitionists’ network of safe homes known as the Underground Railroad led John Price to freedom.

The Price of Freedom, by Judith Bloom Fradin and Dennis Brindell Fradin, presents an exciting, little-known episode in our nation’s history. Highly recommended for ages 9 to 12.

For more thrilling nonfiction and historical fiction, see my post on Carole Boston Weatherford
and these titles …

Abe's Honest Words by Doreen RappaportHenry's Freedom Box by Ellen LevineFreedom River by Doreen Rappaport

Unspoken by Henry Cole

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