Love Wide as the World

Echoing through this gentle book is one small question that manages to encompass the Earth’s seven continents. How Far Do You Love Me?, by Lulu Delacre (Arrorró mi niño: Latino Lullabies and Gentle Games, 2004),was inspired by a game she played with her daughters. The author/illustrator demonstrates not only the long reach of love but also the power of simplicity.howfarcover-330

Delacre’s series of answers ushers readers into family scenes that range from the Vieques beach in Puerto Rico to the Grand Canyon, from Machu Picchu in Peru to the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania. Each setting features a double spread of pleasing pastel paintings of children and caring parents in their native land, which is identified by name at the bottom of one of the two pages. Delacre’s language is brief, lyrical, and resonant: “I love you to the crest of the desert/ where the wind sweeps sand from the dunes …/ to the fields of flowers/ that lace lavender through the air.” (The locales for these lines were the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt and Provence, France.)

Opening and closing this warm picture book are images of a mother and son, who responds, “I love you to the moon!” The story’s final image features a starry sky, with a small, violet spot image of the mother kissing her sleeping son while affirming, “And I love you farther than the stars, to the space beyond the space we know, where light becomes love that nestles deep, deep inside you.” Sweeping beneath that image is a bright-white swirl where the question is repeated in a wide range of languages. The author’s note and a map of the continents follow. Delacre has rewarded parents and young children with a stellar bedtime story.

Thanks to Lee & Low for providing a review copy.

Also see …

my review of Little Treasures, another picture book celebrating families around the world,
and this interesting interview with Lulu Delacre on Lee & Low’s website.


Discovering Home

Some of the best historical fiction for upper-elementary and middle-school children invites readers to ponder such themes as how culture shapes identity … the significance of friends and family … and how all people have the same essential needs for home, food, shelter, love and acceptance. Students can hear news reports about immigration almost daily, but they might relate more easily to vibrant novels featuring spunky young protagonists who must make their way in a strange new land.

Lowji Discovers America by Candace Fleming

Candace Fleming’s Lowji Discovers America shows just how far it is from Bombay to Hamlet, Indiana. Nine-year-old Lowji is used to …

  • a home on the 47th floor of an apartment building
  • the sounds of honking cars, rattling trains and rumbling double-decker buses
  • animals, even cows, running free in the city
  • lots and lots of relatives – and a best friend

Lowji’s adventures in small-town America start right away with a fainting pig, a potty-mouthed parrot, and a man as big as a mountain. Leave room for a belly full of laughs with this lively, good-natured novel.

Year of the Dog by Grace Lin
In her author’s note, Grace Lin notes, “Growing up Asian in a mainly Caucasian community was not a miserable and gloomy existence. But it was different. I wrote [The Year of the Dog] because it was the book I wished I had had when I was growing up, a book that had someone like me in it.” Pacy
and her sisters are the only Taiwanese-American children at school until … Melody arrives. The girls become friends, enter a contest together, share a crush on the same boy, and enjoy the same food. Pacy even finds her true purpose in life. What will you find here? A charming story of friendship, self-discovery and a girl’s connection to her heritage, all told in a direct manner and dotted with amusing ink drawings. The charm continues in Lin’s sequel, Year of the Rat.

King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli

For a darker, more dramatic plot, try Donna Jo Napoli’s The King of Mulberry Street. Nine-year-old Beniamino’s mother leaves him on a ship in Naples, believing he will have a better life in America. Sailing into the New York harbor in 1892, the abandoned Jewish-Italian boy has his first and only new pair of shoes and acquires a new nickname, “Dom.” What he lacks, though, would alarm nearly anyone coming to the U.S.: he knows no English, has no one to greet him, and has no place to sleep. He spends his first night in a wooden barrel in an alleyway. Quick-witted Dom soon learns to avoid the cruel padroni, men who force homeless boys into slavery to work off their debts. As he struggles daily, Dom recalls the wise proverbs his Nonna taught him. He makes new friends and creates his own job by selling sandwiches. Based in part on her grandfather’s childhood, Napoli’s novel prickles with conflict, historical context, and unforgettable characters.

Five Alive for Cinco de Mayo

With Cinco de Mayo approaching, why not spice up your story time with a few appealing picture books that incorporate  choice Spanish words? Mice and Beans

Get the party started with the hilarious Mice and Beans by Pam Muñoz Ryan. A harried grandmother is preparing a birthday party for her young granddaughter, Catalina. So much to do! Several times Abuela misplaces items or forgets details and each time, she muses, “No importa!” Fortunately, she has a little help from an unlikely source — mice, those pesks she has always shooed out of her kitchen whenever she’s spotted them.

The plot’s sly humor and lively details, including the children’s beloved pinata, are captured with Joe Cepeda’s bright, energetic oil paintings. Read this with gusto; Mice and Beans includes a glossary and pronunciation guide to help with the Spanish words and phrases woven into the charming story.

Keep the lCat Who Came for Tacosaughs coming with The Cat Who Came for Tacosby Diana Star Helmer, another picture book with simple Spanish words and phrases, as well as a lively plot. “Mi casa es su casa,” a man and woman tell a stray cat that comes to their home and stays to share their tacos. Oh, what manners that cat has! Children love hearing how the adults patiently teach the impulsive cat how to eat like a human. Adults will appreciate the subtle message of how we should respect others.

For those looking for a more contemplative tone, consider Martín de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary D. Schmidt and illustrated with characteristic verve by David Diaz. Winner of the 2013 Pura Belpre Illustrator Award, this picture-book biography introduces children to the Catholic church’s first black saint in the Americas. Martin de Porres The Rose in the Desert

Martin was the humble child of a Spanish conqueror and an African slave. Growing up in the Lima barrios, he had a tender, spiritual nature. Yet, when he wanted to enter the Monastery of the Holy Rosary, the prior insisted Martín could never become a priest because he was “not of pure blood.” So Martín instead worked as a servant, mopping floors, cutting the monks’ hair, sweeping the chapel, all the while submitting to the brothers’ heartless prejudice against him.

Martín began to heal others — wounded dogs, desperate villagers, and eventually, the brothers in the monastery and even the Spanish royals, whom Martín tended after he had helped the poorest in the barrios. After 13 years of such service, Martín’s wish to join to the monastery as a brother came true.

Strange and wondrous stories followed Martín throughout his life. Some said he walked with angels or could appear in two places at once. Others said his lemon and orange trees produced fruit all year long. When he brought bread to the hungry in the barrios, the food seemed to multiply so that he always had enough.

The story of this “rose in the desert,” as his mother called him, is an uplifting tale of compassion and triumph. The author’s note supplies additional background information on Martín de Porres, born in 1579 and canonized in 1962. He is the patron saint of universal brotherhood, interracial relations, social justice, public education, and animal shelters.

See also …

Harvesting Hope The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen KrullDona Flor A Tall Tale About a Giant Woman ... by Pat Mora

Prepping for Fairy Tale Feasts

Stories often serve up scenes rich with food, and the relationship is reciprocal. Who better than Jane Yolen to serve up a spicy stew of both stories and recipes? Yolen and her daughter, Heidi E.Y. Stemple, have concocted an appealing collection of 18 recipes, including latkes, kugel and blintzes, complemented by an equal number of folktales. Jewish Fairy Tales Feasts by Jane Yolen

A long-awaited follow-up to their charming Fairy Tale Feasts (2006), this collection puts the spotlight on some of the many enchanting and thought-provoking Jewish folktales that have been passed down over the centuries. It gives young and old families an extra incentive to spend time together, creating meals, as well as telling stories. That’s not just nourishing, it’s entertaining!

One of my favorite tales in this collection is “And the Matzo Was Still Warm,” which Yolen adapted from a version by Asher Barash. Long ago in Mainz, a father leaves his son Jacob with a strange dying wish: “Never cross the River Danube.” Years after his father’s death, Jacob has married and has a family, but he yearns to go study the Torah with the revered Rabbi Judah. But, to do that, he must …. . Well, you guessed it.

He crosses the river and winds up spending three years studying with the pious rabbi. But on Passover Eve, Jacob’s heart is heavy as he longs to return home to his wife and son. Rabbi Judah reads his mind. Alas, it’s impossible for Jacob to reach Mainz in time to be with his family for the seder.

Unexpectedly, the rabbi proposes that Jacob help bake the matzo. “After that, we will see what I can arrange to get you home.”

And what a short, strange trip back home, thanks to the rabbi’s miraculous gift.

Paired with the story is Heidi’s recipe for matzo brei. As with all the book’s recipes, she offers simple instructions, preceded by a list of ingredients and of necessary equipment.

Folks of all ages and faiths can find something to savor in this playful collection. As the authors note, “Recipes and stories are made more beautiful, more filling, more memorable by what you put into them.”

See also …

Fairy Tale FeastsNot One Damsel in Distress World Folktales for Strong GirlsSerpent Slayer and Other Stories of Strong Women by Katrin Tchana

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A Storyteller Who Woke the World

Diane Wolkstein, children’s author and storyteller extraordinaire, lived by the power of stories to touch the heart. The author of two dozen books, she reached audiences large and small with her deft timing, honed words, and her far-reaching taste for multicultural folktales. An obituary by Paul Vitello in today’s New York Times announced she died at age 70 while in Taiwan researching a book of Chinese folk literature.

I discovered Wolkstein’s work when I took a storytelling course at Syracuse in the late ’90s with the remarkable storyteller/librarian/teacher Kaye Lindauer. Throughout my decade as a school librarian I shared Wolkstein’s retellings of folktales, which never failed to elicit both laughter and lively discussions. Banza by Diane Wolkstein

A favorite for ages 5 to 7 was undoubtedly The Banza: A Haitian Story, brightly illustrated by Marc Brown, of Arthur fame. Part of the fun of the tale is the premise that Teegra, a tiger, and a goat named Cabree become dear friends after the night they both happen to take shelter in the same cave during a storm. In time, Teegra finds his family and gives his friend the special gift of a banza — a banjo, as most would say. The banza, according to Teegra’s aunt, “belongs to the heart, and there is no stronger protection than the heart.”

Then, by the river, Cabree confronts not one but TEN fat tigers. How can a kid with just a banza survive? Well, Cabree begins to make up a fierce little song to those “ten fat tigers ten fat tigers. Cabree eats tigers raw.” Listeners reap their share of fun by singing along with the simple lyrics. What child doesn’t love a story where the small one triumphs over big, ferocious enemies?

It’s a terrific tribute to the power of music, the power of words, the strength residing inside each of us.

Also see these folktales retold by Wolkstein:

Day Ocean Came to VisitSun Mother Wakes the WorldMagic Orange Tree and Other Haitian Folktales

Bringing in the Folktales

Turn your story time upside down with Janet Stevens’s bodacious Tops and Bottoms. This perfectly paced version of an African-American folktale begs to be read aloud. Children delight in hearing how the trickster Hare outwits lazy old Bear, who sleeps all day on his front porch and expects others to do the work.

Hungry Hare offers Bear a deal he can’t resist: Hare will work Bear’s land in exchange for half of the crops. In a wink, Bear accepts. Hare even offers to let Bear choose which half he wants — tops or bottoms. Adults, of course, can predict where this arrangement will lead. Hare and his family plant, water, weed, and harvest the carrots, radishes and beets. Since Bear chose the top halves, the hares get to keep what happens to be the better part in this case — the bottoms.

Bear insists on another chance. This time, he chooses the bottoms. Again, Hare does all the work, but the crops are different: lettuce, broccoli, and celery. Of course, Hare manages to get the tasty portion himself.

Even when the angry bear insists on having both tops and bottoms, Hare is able to trick him, as he plants corn and then gives Bear just the tassels and roots. Finally, Bear wises up and realizes if he’s ever to get a good harvest, he’ll need to do his own farming.

Beyond the rollicking plot, this Caldecott Honor book excels with bright watercolor illustrations bursting with energy and personality. Stevens notes “the original artwork was created on paper made by hand from carrots, corn, potatoes, beans, radishes, tomatoes, and even a pair of gardening pants and shirt.” Another surprising technique she employs is the orientation of particular pages from top to bottom instead of side by side. When the storyteller turns that book vertically, children will, for instance, see Bear on the top page as he waits for the top halves of the crops, which we know to be root crops. Then, we see Bear on the bottom as he anticipates getting the bottom halves. What an ingenious way to reflect the sly humor of a crowd-pleasing folktale! Just perfect for ages 7 to 9.

Friendship matters more than gold, as Baba Wague Diakite reveals in his lively retelling  of a West African folktale set in his native Mali. In The Magic Gourd, the rabbit Dogo Zan rescues a chameleon and is rewarded with a magic gourd that fills with whatever its owner wishes. Eventually, the greedy king learns about the gourd’s magic powers and steals it. Using another gift from his friend the chameleon, Dogo Zan is able to recover his treasure. Just as important, the scrawny critter manages to teach the king a lesson in generosity. The bold ceramic paintings provide humor, as well as lovely images of traditional motifs of Mali. Pick this heirloom-quality story if you’re looking for appealing and “heart-healthy” fare for a rousing read-aloud for ages 7 to 9.

Here’s a hilarious tale about a small girl with a big talent. Sweet little Isabelle, the youngest in the family, comes up with a special way to help with the planting and harvesting.

With visions of all the good stuff to come — carrot juice, carrot stew, carrot relish, and carrot pudding — each family member nurtures a carrot seedling. Papa tends the plant, Mama weeds around it, brother Abel waters it, and Isabelle … sings. And that’s what makes the plant grow and grow and grow.

At last, it’s as tall as Papa Joe, but it seems impossible to pull out of the ground. Only when they all work together can they harvest the carrot that will supply a bounty of tasty treats.

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s a riff on the Russian big turnip folktale, but I prefer this charming version for children ages 5 to 8. The Giant Carrot illustrates the value of cooperation, while it also implies we should respect everyone, no matter how tiny. And that’s not all; it offers opportunities for multiple curricular uses. Science teachers can use this title in a unit on plant life, and reading teachers might employ it to teach the skill of predicting, or cause and effect. No matter the intention, you’ll reap plenty of fun with this good-natured story.

Simms Taback and His Bright Creations

Without Simms Taback’s books, the land of children’s literature would look less colorful, less lively, less creative. One of my favorite stories to tell young ones is the old Yiddish tale of “Something from Nothing,” in which a tailor takes his worn-out coat and makes a smaller garment out of it, and on and on until there’s nothing left (in my version) but a story, which can last forever!

After telling that story, I’d read the group Taback’s cheerful Caldecott-winning Joseph Had a Little Overcoat, holding up each page with its fun die-cut hole so the children could guess what Joseph would make next. This lively picture book, illustrated with watercolors, gouache, pencil, ink and collage, provides a banquet of buttons, bright scraps of fabric, petite photos of flowers, all popping out from the pages’ dark background. Listeners get to peep through smaller and smaller holes, as the items — a vest, a tie, etc. — diminish in size.

Based on the Yiddish song “Hob Ich Mir a Mantl,” or “I Had a Little Overcoat,” which Taback loved as a boy, this book belongs in EVERY child’s school or home library. Not only does it make for a rousing read-aloud, its evocation of Eastern European shtetls provides a link to a rich culture. And the message of making the most of whatever you have is a timely and important one for us all. Educators or parents can tap this little treasure for lessons in recycling, music, social studies, art, and reading, especially in teaching the skill of prediction. Taback includes the lyrics to the song that inspired the story.

Sadly, Simms Taback died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday. He has bequeathed us his bright, unforgettable books to share with children:


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