On a peaceful note

If you’ve ever heard the song “Christmas in the Trenches” by folksinger John McCutcheon, yChristmas in the Trenches by John McCutcheonou will remember it. It’s become part of my Christmas tradition after hearing it on a local college radio station in ’84. In his beautiful picture book Christmas in the Trenches, McCutcheon has adapted his touching song about the Christmas Truce of 1914 for older children. The story’s narrator is an elderly man named Francis, who tells his grandchildren of the unique Christmas he experienced as a young soldier in WWI.  The soldiers in the trenches were bored and homesick on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, they heard German voices singing Christmas carols. The English soldiers decided to join in on “Silent Night,” an act that inspired a German soldier to cross No Man’s Land with a white flag and a Christmas tree. The two sides called a temporary, informal truce. Sorensen’s atmospheric oil paintings highlight the unexpected night of peace with a double-page spread showing the soldiers and the battlefield. Included are an author’s note, music notation, and a CD with the title song and “Silent Night/Stille Nacht,” along with a reading of the story. This sensitive picture book won a 2007 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.

For older children who want to learn more about the event, show them Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting (Scholastic, 2009). Murphy gives an accessible overview of WWI and focuses on how peace was briefly restored when troops defied orders and met their enemies in the barren land between the trenches. Archival photographs, maps, and artwork help children understand the events.

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Polishing the Heart’s Mirror

Light suffuses this unusual picture book created by acclaimed author/illustrator Demi and poet Coleman Barks, celebrated for translating and popularizing the mystical writings of the 13th-century Persian poet known as Rumi.

Painting Heaven by al-ghazali, demi, coleman barks
With its golden cover flecked with small figures of painters and children dressed in rich hues of scarlet, emerald and violet, Painting Heaven: Polishing the Mirror of the Heart beckons readers to a numinous landscape. Based on a story in the renowned Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali’s The Revival of the Religious Sciences, this children’s book invites young and old to ponder the multifaceted nature of reality, spirituality, and beauty.
The seemingly whimsical plot springs from the visit of a Chinese painter to the King of Persia. Dressed in white and black, the foreigner makes the strange assertion that, unlike other artists, he can make heavenly paintings that “contain all the colors of the rainbow, and also no colors at all; they contain all the clouds in the sky, the sun and the moon, the planets and stars and everything on earth; but they also contain Nothing at all but the shining Light of Heaven!”
Intrigued by this extraordinary claim, the king proposes a contest. The Chinese artist will compete with five of the Byzantine kingdom’s best painters, and in six months they will all submit their work to be judged.
The ensuing contrast between the king’s chosen artists and the Chinese painter unfolds with humor and a sense of wonder. The Byzantine painters pile on the rainbow colors, images of the sun and moon, children and animals, and “everything on earth in perfect detail.” The Chinese man, however, asks for no colors and no brushes. Instead, he requests just polishing tools and cleaning rags and every morning, disappears behind a curtain to work all day. The perplexed king assumes the man must be crazy.
At the end of six months, the king encounters the expected—bright, gorgeous paintings by his kingdom’s artists—but also the unexpected splendor of the visitor’s work. Sharing the king’s surprise, readers will likely gasp as they view the Chinese man’s polished, sparkling work of art. Here, Demi delights her audience by showing the blissful visitor on a shimmering silver page reflecting the brilliant colors of the book’s opposing image.
Perhaps some will disagree with the king’s judgment, but Painting Heaven provides a singular opportunity for readers to glimpse the ancient wisdom of an Islamic philosopher who has urged humans to “polish their hearts” so they can appreciate both the visible and the invisible world.
Older readers, theologians and educators will appreciate the book’s inclusion of the translated story by al-Ghazali, a poem by Coleman Barks inspired by the tale, and passages from The Marvels of the Heart, Book XXI of The Revival of the Religious Sciences.

Reprinted with permission from the New York Journal of Books

See also SLJ’s “Teachers Find Many Reasons to Use Picture Books with Middle and High School Students” and these titles …

Rumi Persian Poet Whirling Dervish by DemiMuhammad by DemiMosque by David Macaulay

On the Road to Respect

Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah was born with just one leg in rural Ghana, but he defied people’s low expectations by bicycling 400 miles across the country and thereby raised awareness for disabled people in Africa and around the world.

Emmanuel's Dream by Laurie Ann Thompson The engrossing picture book Emmanuel’s Dream opens with his birth: “Two bright eyes blinked in the light,/ two healthy lungs let out a powerful cry,/ two tiny fists opened and closed,/ but only one strong leg kicked.” With childlike, expressive mixed-media artwork, acclaimed illustrator Sean Qualls (Dizzy, 2006) reveals the precarious nature of the baby’s world: the father stoops in despair, while the concerned mother gazes at him, knowingly. Then we read how people in Ghana considered those with disabilities as worthless, or even as a curse.

The baby’s father abandons the family, but the mother, Comfort, graces her child with the name “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” She focuses on her son’s abilities rather than on his one shriveled leg. In time, the child learns to crawl, then hop, then climb coconut trees and fetch water. Mama Comfort carries him to school until he gets too heavy. After that, Emmanuel hops the two miles by himself.

Children will marvel at Emmanuel’s pluck and perseverance. When his classmates scorn him, Emmanuel decides to earn money to buy something special–a real soccer ball–and he earns their respect by playing with one leg and crutches. After his mother becomes too ill to sell vegetables at the market, Emmanuel moves to the big city of Accra to earn money to support his family. Two years later, he returns home, where his mother tells him from her deathbed, “Be respectful, take care of your family, don’t ever beg. And don’t give up.”

With his sharp mind and bold heart, Emmanuel concocts an unusual plan to honor her memory. He would show Ghanians he could accomplish a seemingly impossible feat: ride a bike nearly 400 miles across the nation. We see Emmanuel, his right leg tied to the bike frame and his left foot on the pedal, riding “up, down, across, and around his country, proudly wearing the colors of its flag on a shirt printed with the words THE POZO, or ‘the disabled person’.” And as he bikes, he attracts more and more attention. The children come to cheer; people with disabilities escape their stifling home to greet their hero.

In 10 days, Emmanuel proves his ability to accomplish his goal, but his journey continues. In the author’s note, Thompson points out that Emmanuel maintains a scholarship fund to help children with disabilities attend school, and he speaks to government officials and others about the need to pass laws protecting the rights of disabled citizens. Trust me; you’ll be glowing along with your audience as you share this inspiring, true story with children ages 6 to 9.

See also …

Helen's Big World The Life of Helen Keller by Doreen Rappaport

Before John Was a Jazz Giant by Carole Boston Weatherford and illus by Sean Qualls

Case for Loving The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and ill by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

 

On the Way to Empathy

How to spot beauty in all its motley habitats is the rare insight offered by a wise, patient grandmother in Matt de la Peña’s life-affirming picture book Last Stop on Market Street. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena
Young CJ and his grandmother leave their city church with its bright stained-glass windows to board a bus across town. As they travel, the child, feeling a bit irritable, peppers his grandmother with typically puerile complaints.
The boy objects to the rain, then to the lack of a family car, and even to this Sunday excursion with his grandmother. Yet each time he perceives something negative, Nana calls his attention to the positive aspects he’s overlooked. Rain? “Trees get thirsty, too,” she points out. And instead of a car, the two of them get to ride in “a bus that breathes fire,” with a driver who shares magic tricks.
The trip itself takes on deeper meaning, especially as portrayed by Christian Robinson’s bright, naïf images created with acrylics, collage, and digital enhancements. Along with CJ, readers will encounter an intriguing array of riders, ranging from a peach-colored guitarist, a gray-haired woman holding a jar filled with butterflies, the smiling caramel-toned conductor, the pale bald-headed fellow with green tatooes, and the sad-eyed businessman.
CJ has not lost his tetchiness yet, though. When a blind man boards the bus with his dog, the boy asks, “How come that man can’t see?”. The grandmother’s simple response is rich with symbolic beauty: “Boy, what do you know about seeing?”
Tellingly, the grandmother is not the only one with valuable insight to share with the child. The blind man and then the guitarist inspire the child to experience the world with sensitivity and exuberance.
As CJ and Nana reach their destination, readers finally discover it’s a soup kitchen. We have accompanied this pair from one side of town to the other, traversing different socioeconomic neighborhoods and arriving at a fuller appreciation of both humanity’s needs and its wondrous diversity. It’s been a magical journey.

Reprinted with permission from New York Journal of Books.

See also …

Nana in the City by Lauren CastilloMadlenka by Peter SisCastle on Viola Street by DiSalvo

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.

Clearing a path to peace

Sometimes a quiet story can achieve feats that rousing tales can’t. The Olive Tree, a simple yet subtle story set in contemporary Lebanon, offers no details or explanation of the 1975 Lebanese Civil War, but invites us to consider the lingering distrust among people and possible paths to reconciliation.Olive Tree by Elsa Marston

We learn from young Sameer how the house next door was empty for years. “The family who lived there had gone away during the troubles, because they were different from most of the people in the village. But now, thank goodness, the long war was over, and they were coming back.”
Beneath the ample branches of the old olive tree that grows on the other side of the wall, Sameer observes the neighbors as they return home. He notices the family has a girl named Muna, who was about his age. Sadly, neither she nor her family members show any inclination to become friends.
In time, the olives begin to ripen, and Sameer, as he does every year, sets out to gather those that have fallen in his yard. After all, they’re “the best olives in Lebanon,” his mother says. But one morning Muna sees him with a basket full of olives and complains: “Those are our olives, you know. Ours!”
Taken aback, Sameer points out that all the years they were away, Sameer and his family took care of the tree. “We have a right to the olives,” he says.
Muna insists that now that they’re back, they’ll take care of the tree and have all the olives. In his anger, Sameer leans over the wall and dumps his basket of olives into her yard.
Then one night a mighty storm descends and lightning strikes the tree, leaving a shattered stump and a broken stone wall. The children, confronting the loss of the precious old tree, discover they can put aside their differences and begin to live in harmony with each other and the land.
Ms. Ewart’s atmospheric, two-page spreads of naturalistic watercolor paintings flesh out the poignant story with realistic details. The mothers of both families wear the hijab; a goat, a donkey, and chickens populate the yards; and chairs have seats of woven bulrush.
With Elsa Marston’s understated story of conflict resolution, The Olive Tree is a valuable resource for teaching children to respect everyone.

Reprinted with permission of The New York Journal of Books.

See also …Sitti's Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye

Sami and the Time of Troubles by Florence Parry Heide Day of Ahmed's Secret by Heide and Gilliland

Another Wonder from Polacco

Once again mining her memories, Patricia Polacco presents a tender story of how she came to trust in her own abilities. As in previous picture books (Thank You, Mr. Falker and Junkyard Wonders), it’s a caring teacher who helps the young protagonist on her way to self-confidence. Mr Wayne's Masterpiece by Patricia Polacco

In Mr. Wayne’s Masterpiece, Trisha tells us how terrified she is to stand up and speak before an audience. In the opening scene, her teacher, Mr. T., gently encourages her to read her essay to the class. After some painfully silent moments, he relents and lets her return to her seat. Polacco’s full-page pencil-and-marker image of the wide-eyed, frightened girl reveals her inner turmoil and irrational fear.

Luckily, that teacher doesn’t give up; instead, he chooses a roundabout way to help Trisha get past her anxiety by getting her to help the drama teacher, Mr. Wayne, prepare for the upcoming winter play. At first, she helps paint the scenery flats for Musette in the Snow Garden,  jokingly referred to by its author –Mr. Wayne– as a masterpiece. As Trish spends more and more time building the sets, she hears the cast rehearse and learns the words to all the parts.

Soon, whenever an actor forgets or fumbles a line, Trisha becomes the prompter. She likes that role, especially since she doesn’t have to get out on the stage.

But when the girl playing the main character suddenly moves away, Trisha is confronted with a fearful choice: Does she replace the actor or let the play fall apart? Trisha finds she’s not really alone. Mr. Wayne works with her individually, praising her good memory and giving her pointers on breathing and moving. “Patricia, let the play take you.”

And that’s just what she does. Many older-elementary children, especially those experiencing stage fright or shyness, will relate to this joyous story with its triumphant protagonist. Teachers preparing to introduce a play will want to read this aloud in a group setting, and parents should pick this up if they want to reassure a child who’s afraid of performing before a crowd. And as usual, you can rely on Polacco to show classrooms resonant with personality and ethnic diversity.

See also …

my previous post on The Blessing Cupas well as the post on Junkyard Wonders and other anti-bullying books. And consider these books by Patricia Polacco:

Thank you, Mr. Falker by Patricia PolaccoThe Butterfly by Patricia PolaccoArt of Miss Chew by Patricia Polacco

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