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 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

Amid sand and dust, a treasure awaits

The morning after a desert storm, the old guide Issa heads out with his donkey and discovers a startling sight: an infant, stashed in a narrow cave. Her eyes look like black pearls, and she wears a cord around her neck, where the shape of a half-star dangles. Issa cannot understand the letters hammered into the gold. Mysterious Traveler by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham
Even though he is old, Issa feels compelled to take care of the foundling he names Mariama. In time, he teaches her to decipher the “maps made by the stars, the shimmering paths through the hills, the weather foretold by dawns and sunsets, the messages on the wind, the stories told by stones.”
The girl Mariama accompanies her “grandfather,” as people call him, as he leads travelers and traders through the desert. Then Issa becomes blind, and he despairs, wondering who will pay for his services now that he can’t see. The girl offers to be his eyes and learns how to describe the details that will enable Issa to “see” the world. She is so adept at this that Issa continues to be revered as an unparalleled desert guide.
One day, though, three strangers arrive, one of whom will turn out to have a special connection with Mariama and who will transform their humble habits.
This gentle, hopeful story shines with polished language, a suspenseful plot, and light-infused, earth-colored paintings by the remarkable illustrator P.J. Lynch. While the authors specify no specific setting, an afterward notes they were inspired by reading about the ancient town of Timbuktu, in Mali, and of a famous blind guide. Middle-school students will uncover an entrancing world in Mysterious Traveler.

For upper-elementary school nonfiction set in Africa and elsewhere, see …
Elephant Quest by Ted and Betsy LewinTooth and Claw Animal Adventures in the Wild by Ted LewinHow Much Visiting Markets Around the World by Ted Lewin

A Haunting Tale of a Tail

Tailypo A Ghost Story by Joanna C. GaldoneEven if Halloween didn’t occur in October, there’s something about the longer nights, the bright moons, the musty smell and crackle of decayed leaves that makes a scary story ever so appealing — at least to some children. Some of the choicest hail from the world of well-honed folktales.

One of the most memorable ghost stories from folklore might well be the odd little story Tailypo, as retold by Joanna Galdone. We hear of an old man living in a hut deep in the woods. The hungry man goes hunting with his three dogs but captures just one scrawny rabbit. Still hungry, he’s thrilled when he spies some animal scurrying around his shack. Surely, the reader thinks, he’ll be able to catch it. Yet, we discover, somewhat uncomfortably, he comes up with only its tail. Without further ado, the woodsman cleans it, cooks it and gobbles it up.

Then things get really strange. In bed, the old hunter hears an eerie voice: “Tailypo, Tailypo, where is my Tailypo?”

Twice, we hear that haunting refrain, and twice the hounds chase off the ghostly creature, but the third time, the creature bursts in before the dogs return from their futile chase. Galdone’s simple yet energetic paintings show the stubborn spirit in a whirlwind of vengeance. Warning: This story sounds simple, but if read with the drama it deserves, it has the power to scare many a child, so don’t share this with younger, impressionable ones. For those, consider Creepy Carrots or Room on the Broom or The Gruffalo.

For more scary folktales:

Dark-Thirty Southern Tales of the Supernatural by Patricia McKissackEchoes of the Elders by Chief LelooskaScary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

Blessings Keep Flowing

Blessing Cup by Patricia PolaccoA quarter-century after the publication of The Keeping Quilt, readers can rejoice that prolific author/illustrator Patricia Polacco has delved again into her family history and graced us with a companion piece to her beloved picture book.

Using the same first-person narrative technique she used in her earlier book, Polacco takes us back to the humble shtetl in Russia where her ancestors lived before they immigrated to the U.S. To evoke that earlier time, she gives us a multitude of realistic drawings done in pencil and markers and tellingly reserves bright reds and blues for such significant details as the tea set, great-grandmother Anna’s scarf (which, in The Keeping Quilt, shows up in the quilt’s border), and the flames that destroy their temple.

Forced to flee their village, the family can bring only a few items: Papa’s sewing machine, his tallis and holy books, the menorah, and the shofar. Mama lovingly packs the brightly painted tea set that was a special wedding present. She recalls her generous aunt’s message inside: “This tea set is magic. Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God.”

As they continue their arduous journey from Russia, Mama reassures her children by reminding them: “We shall always know love, and as long as we are together we shall never be poor.” They sleep in cold barns, share bread, and pass the cup from one to another.

The bitter cold, however, ravages Papa’s lungs, and as they enter a new town, he can pull the family’s cart no longer. Mama runs to find a doctor, who, wondrously, offers to make him well and to welcome the family into his own home. In time, Papa heals, and Dr. Pushkin pays their passage to America. Mama wonders how they can somehow repay him for his kindness.

She settles on the perfect gift: the precious tea set — minus one cup so the family can still have its blessing.

The family reaches the U.S. at last, but the story does not end there. The symbolic journey Polacco explores is authentic and memorable: How does a family shares its true wealth–its treasures of love, culture, faith, and heritage? Children ages 8 to 12 can find much to ponder in this richly told story. As can we adults.

Also consider the titles below and my post on The Junkyard Wonders

Keeping Quilt by Patricia PolaccoBabushka Baba Yaga by Patricia PolaccoPink and Say by Patricia Polacco

Birmingham, 1963

Fifty years ago today, four girls—Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, and Carole Robertsonwere killed when Ku Klux Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. Looking back at that tragedy, you can’t help but note the irony that this terrorist act led to results that were the opposite of what the killers had intended. Instead of obliterating the movement, it ignited it and led to the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. Birmingham 1963 by Carole Boston Weatherford

What a tight-wire challenge such a topic must be for a children’s book writer. Acclaimed author Carole Boston Weatherford, with characteristic sensitivity and awareness of her audience, has written of that tragedy in her beautiful and moving collection Birmingham, 1963Her free verse features the perspective of a fictional 10-year-old girl, who, along with her family, participated in the Civil Rights movement. The girl shares her observations of Martin Luther King’s speech at the March on Washington, her protests at whites-only lunch counters, and her arrest, along with hundreds of other young ones, in the courageous Children’s Crusade.

There are moments of simple joy, as when she’s allowed to drink coffee and when she puts on her shiny new “cha-cha” shoes. But on Sunday morning the church was blown to bits, except for a stained-glass window depicting Christ, his face obliterated. Four children murdered, nearly two dozen injured, a nation outraged at last.

“The day I turned ten
Someone tucked a bundle of dynamite
Under the church steps, then lit the fuse of hate.”

10:22 a.m. The clock stopped, and Jesus’ face
Was blown out of the only stained-glass window
Left standing—the one where He stands at the door.”

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This powerful book is enhanced by its simple design, small size, and its numerous, well-chosen black-and-white photographs. If you are looking for singular poetry for upper-elementary or middle-school students in hopes of initiating discussions of this tragedy or of the Civil Rights movement, you will find it here in abundance.

I’m excited to share the news that Carole has graciously offered to do 50 free Skype visits with K-12 classes or with college education classes. I can tell you from firsthand experience that Carole Boston Weatherford is a fantastic author, teacher, and presenter. When she visited my school library six years ago, she was vibrant, superbly prepared, and absolutely engaging with each of her three young audiences. Take her up on her offer while you can!

See also …   

 my prior post on Carole Boston Weatherford, featuring Freedom on the Menu


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What’s in a Name?

It’s a small but positive sign that many people have moved beyond that pinched phrase “tolerance for difference.” What a dull, diluted substitute for the richer alternative of cultivating a mind open to change, to difference, to the dazzling diversity of life. That, to me, is one of the most powerful transformations an education can bring about in an individual and, ultimately, in a culture. This openness, aligned with such traits as curiosity and a generous spirit, should not be confused with an unwillingness to grapple with complexity or evil. Rather, it’s a life-affirming approach that fully engages the whole person: intellect, body, emotions, and spirituality. Each school year offers excellent opportunities to set a positive, respectful tone. As Aristotle wrote, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

The Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Allen Say (Grandfather’s Journey) has once again found inspiration in his past and created a sensitive children’s book that adults can use to instill in children respect for all. His recently published The Favorite Daughter relates a story involving his own daughter Yuriko, as she grapples with her identity as a biracial child.

Her school year begins with an opportunity to share an early photo. In the midst of pages with realistic watercolor paintings showing the two going about their lives that week (her time to stay with Dad rather than Mom), Mr. Say includes an actual photo of his two-year-old blond-headed daughter in a cherry-red kimono from Tokyo. Yuriko gladly chooses this sweet photo to take to school. The next day, though, her joy has turned to self-doubt.

This is how she describes her rotten first Friday: “They said Japanese dolls have black hair. ‘Yoo-REE-ko in ki-MO-na!’ They sang it all day long. … And the new art teacher called me ‘Eureka.’ So everybody calls me that now … .”

The girl’s immediate response is to deny a major part of her identity: “I want an American name, Daddy.” She settles on Michelle. Rather than trying to dissuade her, Father suggests they go out and talk about it. She ironically chooses to eat at a local sushi restaurant, where, upon leaving, the friendly chef gives her a stash of chopsticks.

The next morning, he takes his little girl to the Japanese Garden at the Golden Gate Park, where Yuriko happens upon a sumi-e demonstration by an elderly expert in the art of Japanese ink painting. When he asks her name, I admit I held my breath briefly, hoping she would reply Yuriko, which, thankfully, she does. Then we discover the name’s appealing meaning: Child of the Lily.

The happy ending involves two bridges: one, Yuriko’s clever solution to an art project on the Golden Gate Bridge and the other, her own journey back to self-respect. The Favorite Daughter concludes with a lovely photo of the adult daughter in a pale pink kimono as she visits a garden in Japan. Use this eloquent picture book with grades 1 through 3.

As Fast As Words Could Fly by Pamela M. TuckFor older children (grades 4 through 6), consider the recently released As Fast As Words Could Fly, the debut picture book by Pamela M. Tuck and illustrated by the masterful Eric Velasquez. Winner of the Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, this historically based story about a gifted boy attending a formerly all-white Southern high school provides an interesting, relevant perspective in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Fourteen-year-old Mason Steele makes great use of the manual typewriter his dad gave him. He learns that keyboard, types Pa’s letters for the local civil rights group, and excels at his new school in Greenville, North Carolina.  He and his brothers, though, encounter hostility from the bus driver, the students, teachers, and even the principal.

One distinguishing aspect of this story is its clear depiction of the family’s activism and how that effort manages to bring about positive change. When Mason is fired without explanation from his after-school job of typing catalog cards for the school library, Mason’s dad gets on the phone with Golden Frinks, a field secretary for the SCLC. The next morning, Pa and other civil rights workers go to the Board of Education. Mason was rehired.

Mason goes on to participate in the regional typing tournament. “How can a Negro represent our school?” one student complained. Mason, dressed in a suit and tie, makes his own kind of statement by winning the contest. The afterward relates the personal and historical context for this inspiring story.

See also …
my post on One Green Apple, as well as my post on My School in the Rainforest: How Children Attend School Around the World.

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