Tag Archives: diversity

Book Review: Importantly Diverse Cast of Relatable Characters in Hello, Universe

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, trailer, kaleidoscope instructions, and author's bio.

This review contains minor spoilers.

We were lucky enough to have an ARC of Erin Entrada Kelly’s Hello, Universe show up at our store. Isabel Roxas’ cover art caught my eye, and then I enjoyed the first chapter or two that I read quickly on a lunch break, but it was the wonderfully diverse cast of minority and under-represented characters that made me hug the book to my chest and stuff it into my bag.

The story opens with Virgil Salinas, a Filipino-American. He is a self-described “grand failure” and it’s not till several chapters in that the reader discovers why: because he failed to talk to the girl that he is crushing on and with whom he believes he is fated to be friends. He is very shy and lonely. He is a black sheep in his outgoing family, teased and misunderstood by his parents and brothers, closest to his Lola (grandmother) and, of course, to his guinea pig, Gulliver.

The following chapter introduces us to Valencia Somerset. Valencia has been having a repeated nightmare. She is lonely too, isolated by her impairment (she is deaf in both ears and wears hearing aids to help her interact with the world) and her mother’s lack of understanding. Valencia wraps herself in observing nature, taking detailed notes in her notebook and hoping to be like Jane Goodall. She seeks solace in religion but lacks any religious schooling and so has pieced together her own religion, centering mostly on Saint Rene, a martyr who was deaf, whom the Canadians believed was hexing a boy instead of blessing him.

Next comes Kaori Tanaka, whom I suspect is Japanese-American from the name alone, a self-proclaimed psychic with colorful past lives, whose assistant is her younger sister, Gen.

Last of the POV characters is Chet Bullens, a bully from Virgil’s and Valencia’s school, who comes by his prejudices and fears of others honestly.

Because this book takes place at the very onset of summer vacation, the problems and drama of the book are less about school and more about family, friendships, and budding romances, personalities, and overcoming fears.

There is danger and action and heroism.

Virgil goes to rescue his guinea pig, and Valencia, Kaori, and Gen come to rescue him.  And to quote another book in another genre entirely, “There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other.

It wasn’t till after I’d finished the book and was pondering the title that I realized that what I’d taken as a writer manipulating a plot was meant to be a helpful and caring universe manipulating lives and interactions. That’s a clever way to hide a writer’s work in plain sight, Kelly. Every action the characters take is leading the three—Virgil, Kaori, and Valencia—towards friendship.

There are still choices that Kelly made that I don’t yet understand fully, even though I now am confident that she has a good reason behind what she does. Only Valencia’s chapters are headed with her name, every chapter but her last, which is called “Messages.” Every other character’s POV chapter is headed by a more traditional chapter title. Each POV character is assigned a particular illustration instead to denote that the chapter is from his or her point of view: a snake for Chet, Gulliver the guinea pig for Virgil, a songbird with her nest for Valencia, and an astronomy chart for Kaori. I didn’t actually notice till another reviewer pointed it out that Valencia is also the only one to have her POV chapters written in the first person, so close is the third person writing of the others.

I think it particularly important to have brave, strong, no-nonsense Valencia as a heroine and shy, quiet Virgil as a hero, no less so because he is so shy and quiet.  Though Virgil is changed by his experience, having gained more self-confidence from facing danger and his worst fears and at the end of the novel does stand up for himself both to Chet and to his family and does talk to Valencia, he is still shy, still quiet, and not faulted for being so–at least not by Valencia and it seems not by Kelly, who allows him to still mutter and avoid eye-contact.  This book is important for those who will see themselves in its pages, see examples of their cultures, of their struggles—and for those outside of those cultures to both recognize the unique perspectives and struggles of those others and to see their own struggles—of loneliness and shyness and hardheaded parents and feeling an outsider—in these characters from other cultures. Moreover, these were characters I enjoyed spending time with—all except Chet. I felt for them all, hoped for them all, enjoyed their perspectives and observations. I’ve already begun recommending it to readers who enjoy realistic fiction and school stories.

****

Kelly, Erin Entrada. Hello, Universe. New York: Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Erin Entrada Kelly, Greenwillow Books, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

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People of Color in My Books from 2016

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After last year’s jarring realization, this year I started a list of books with POC (people of color) and another list of books with a person explicitly not white in the role of a main protagonist in order to track my own reading and hopefully improve upon the lack of diversity of characters in 2015’s list of books.  This year I read 44 out of 168 books (26%) where any person of color is included, either as a protagonist or a background character, a sort of abysmal quarter but more than 2015’s 23% if only barely.  Only 16 of those 44 (36% of all books with any POC or 9% of the all the books I read) have a person of color in a starring role, less than half.  In some cases, as in Mike Cuarto’s Little Elliot books, the protagonist’s role is taken by an animal or usually inanimate object, but in most cases the POC play background characters to a white character’s story or share a stage where no one is given a spotlight within the pages (for the most part, the covers of such books feature white characters).

A coworker and I both realized recently that the majority of toddler books feature exclusively animal characters–or characters that are usually inanimate objects, like peas.  64 of 168 books (38%) that I read this year are in this category of books with no human or humanoid characters.  That means that in 2016 I read more books with completely non-human casts than ones that include even one POC.

Excluding these books that exclude humans and humanoid characters, the total percentage of books with POC rises to 42% but still does not hit even the half mark.

I have this year more actively sought out books with POC as protagonists, but I have not held–I’m sorry to say–to my November resolution to read books only about POC, women, or other marginalized groups.  (There’s a good new year’s resolution for me.)

This is the list of this year’s books that included POC.  Books where a POC is a protagonist are bolded.  Books where a POC is a secondary character, one with a speaking role, and more than a background character but still not a protagonist are underlined.  Books which arguably have no protagonist, where for example, a different character is featured on each page have a + sign beside them.  Books first published this year have an asterisk, because those are the ones that could be considered for the most recent round of awards, and because those are the books that were probably in some way effected by the current cultural climate.

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

Teen (Ages 13-19)

Riordan as always has done a great deal to bring up the number of books that I’ve read with POC protagonists and characters.  The surprise aid has come this year from Disney, which not only set a story in Polynesia with an entirely POC cast of characters, but also even in their story about fish in the Pacific, where few human characters were at all present, they were sure to include POC, and in the books mentioned above, I think POC accounted for at least half but maybe 100% of the human characters present.  Santat, Curato, and Beaty should get honorable mentions for always including POC among their casts, and Beaty a shout-out for having this year’s picture book feature an African American girl.  Bildner and Parsley both deserve shout-outs as well for multiple books with POC protagonists.  I want to give a shout-out to Gassman too for having an African American on the cover of a book with a quite diverse cast where it would have been possible, as several others chose to do, to feature the white characters on the cover.

I also want to give a mention to Maggie Stiefvater.  I’ve begun to suspect that in her Raven Cycle many if not all of the people in Blue’s house are African American, but I can’t yet swear to it.

I want to give another shout out here to Elizabeth Bird, who recently published a list of picture, easy, and early chapter books published in 2016 with diverse casts and diverse main characters on The School Library Journal‘s blog.  This is a fabulous list, and fabulously organized.  Check it out.

Have I misrepresented any books?  Feel free to discuss below.  Sometimes–particularly in picture books–it can be difficult to determine a character’s race (sometimes probably intentionally so, and I appreciate that too), and sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether a character’s role is large enough to merit a place as a secondary character rather than a supporting or background character.

Book Reviews: Why Is There So Little Racial Diversity Among Protagonists?

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I’m no expert, and I’m not sure I’m even remotely eloquent when discussing race and racial disparity, but I couldn’t help noticing how few books that I’d read in 2015 had any characters of anything other than “white” skin—or maybe I noticed more how many were unnecessarily white—and how many of those that had some mention or appearance of a person of color still had a white person in a position of power or (and) importance, how many illustrators and writers had defaulted to white for their protagonists. Even being fairly generous, allowing even books that mentioned vaguely and offhandedly the existence of people of color within their worlds or having people of color appear as background characters in the illustrations, I come up with a mere 26 out of 111. Admittedly, 38 of those 111 dodged the question of race by excluding humans altogether, favoring instead only anthropomorphized animals or objects so that the count is really more like 26 out of 85 (just over 30%) with 3 more books of those 85 dodging the question another way: Todd Parr in It’s Okay to Make Mistakes by illustrating his characters in colors so outlandish (purple?) that I’m hesitant to assign them any race, Virginia Burton in Katy and the Big Snow by making figures so small that it’s impossible to tell whether her characters are bundled against the cold or darker skinned, Jack McDevitt in Eternity Road simply escaping on a technicality (I don’t remember the mention of anyone of color, and I didn’t make note of any in my review… but I feel certain there must be someone—this is post-apocalyptic America!).

Literature provides an opportunity to walk the world as someone else and with someone else without ever having to leave the couch.  Literature seeps into minds and hearts.  It can teach us when face-to-face conversation is difficult or impossible.  In a time of too-present, too-rampant racism, the disproportionate examples of white protagonists narrows the world’s (fictional worlds’) vision and silences the very voices that literature can and should promote, that could alter our minds and hearts.

This all said, I did not in 2015 seek out diverse literature.  I read what I wanted, what intrigued me, what I had at the house without giving any thought to the races of the protagonists–other than to be excited when I did stumble across a a person of color as a protagonist (especially in picture books).

But that’s just it:  I shouldn’t have to seek out diverse characters.  Our fictional worlds as diverse as our own, and it seems to me that publishing still has a ways to go to make that so.

I hope you find this survey and these statistics as eye-opening as I did.

So WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR?

Well….

Samurai Santa by Rubin Pingk. Simon & Schuster, 2015.

Christmas comes to the ninja dojo. All the characters then are Japanese, but all this really does is reinforce stereotypes. Do children realize that ninjas and dojos are historical aspects of Japan? Is there anything historically accurate about this dojo? Little here could build cultural awareness.

Here they are, in the background where a white person—or a non-human character—is the protagonist.

Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts. Abrams, 2007 and 2013.

There are children of several races in the class, but Iggy and Rosie are both Caucasian.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Aladdin-Simon & Schuster, 1973.

Every main character—every speaking or named character is white, but there’s mention of an “old man” from Kingston, Jamaica, “his skin very black and his hair very white,” who gets one line of dialogue recorded in a letter that the protagonist receives from his brother (129) and when the Old Ones are magically joined together across/outside of time, Will sees “an endless variety of faces—gay, somber, old, young, paper-white, jet-black, and every shade and gradation of pink and brown between” (232). So, yes, Cooper acknowledges a variety of races and skin pigmentations and does not exclude them from power, but they are not her characters or actors or focus.

Little Elliot, Big Family by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2015.

The protagonists are a small, white, rainbow-spotted elephant and a mouse, but the city scenes show a racially diverse population, all depicted as loving family units.

Library Mouse: Home Sweet Home by Daniel Kirk. Abrams, 2013.

There is some racial diversity among the children seen entering the library, but the story focuses on two mice.

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

Again, there are a few POC within the crowds of the city but the protagonist is a non-human… thing, and his soul mate is a light-skinned brunette.

Little Blue Truck Leads the Way by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. First published in 2009.

There are POC in the city scenes of this book, but an anthropomorphic truck is actually the protagonist. The mayor of the city is lighter skinned too.

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

This is the story of a Caucasian family, but Stella’s class is ethnically diverse and the family of at least one classmate is multiracial.

How to Dinosaurs Say Merry Christmas? by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Mark Teague. Blue Sky-Scholastic, 2012.

Dinosaurs are the protagonists (main characters anyway) in this story, but there is some variation of skin tones among the humans in whose homes the dinosaurs seem to reside. Honestly, this one may be a stretch, but I think Teague made a conscious effort at least.

Now they are characters! But still only side characters, not protagonists.

A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 5: A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Bantam-Random-Penguin Random, 2013. First published in 2011.

Martin’s world is fairly wide, and there are different races and skin tones within the world. Some of those characters like Missandei become important to—or maybe friends with white protagonists. Most darker skinned people are side characters in the extreme, mentioned mostly as slaves. … Really, Martin? In that respect at least the television show has been better. Surprise! Most of the characters you thought were dark-skinned—Grey Worm, Xaro Xhoan Daxos, Salladhor Saan—are probably not. The Dothraki are “copper skinned” though, and several Dothraki have been characters.  Khal Drogo may have been a protagonist–but not in this book.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 2: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. DAW-Penguin, 2013.  First published 2011.

Kvothe’s friends and teachers come from several regions of the world and have various racial identities and accompanying pigmentations. Kvothe himself is lighter-skinned, I think, because of the true red hair, but Rothfuss steers far clear of the trap that Martin falls into. There really aren’t slaves at this point in history, and the characters of darker skin that are here—Wilem and Master Kilvin in particular—have strengths and flaws and personalities and are not generally second class because of their skin color.  In fact, they are pretty awesome if I can for a moment be less objective, and Kvothe learns from and leans on both.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling. Scholastic, 2000.

There are a few ethnicities represented within the classes at Hogwarts, not as many as one could hope for, but the dark-skinned Dean Thomas is a friend of Harry’s; Lee Jordan, a friend of the twins’, is another character of African descent; the Patel twins go to the Yule ball with Harry and Ron; and Harry is crushing on Cho Chang, a girl of Asian descent. None of these are particularly main characters, though Cho gets a little more time here than in earlier books, this being the first book where Harry gets to tell her of his interest.

Here they are, slipping quietly into larger roles without any comment.

Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr and illustrated by Eric Carle. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 1996. First published 1967.

Carle’s classroom includes students of several races, but there’s no real protagonist here, though the Brown Bear is the title character. The teacher is Caucasian.

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2015.

Magnolia might be of Asian descent, I think, based on the illustrations, and there are a few POC in her class.

Intersellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood and illustrated by Meg Hunt. Chronicle, 2015.

The handsome prince is dark-skinned.

The Little Kids’ Table by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and illustrated by Mary Reaves Uhles. Sleeping Bear-Cherry Lake, 2015.

The family here is multiracial, and no one is upset or comments on it.

The Crown on Your Head by Nancy Tillman. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2014. First published 2011.

There are several races depicted in these wonderful illustrations, though in this book, the faces are obscured a little by glowing crowns.

Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013.

All right, Disney, you win this round. Tiana and Jasmine are both included in this book, though Jasmine’s brief appearance especially (to be fair every character here gets only a very brief appearance) seems more to propagate stereotypes than defy them.

Now we’re letting race inform our characters, but not focusing on race, cultural history, or current social issues.

Young Wizards, Book 9: A Wizard of Mars by Diane Duane. Harcourt-Houghton Mifflin, 2010.

I almost forgot about this one, and I’m terribly ashamed! Kit Rodriguez is Hispanic. His family occasionally slips into Spanish and keeps a few specialties—a soda that Nita particularly enjoys—in the refrigerator. He is a truly powerful, empathetic wizard—and a protagonist besides, with most of the weight on him in this book. His sister Carmela is especially good with languages, and though not a wizard herself has learnt the wizards’ Speech.

The Kane Chronicles, Books 2 and 3: The Throne of Fire and The Serpent’s Shadow by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2011 and 2012.

Sadie and Carter are biracial (though both sides of the family have roots in Egypt), and Carter in particular is mentioned as having darker skin. Walt, Sadie’s love interest and the Kanes’ partner in the fight against Apophis, is dark-skinned too. Carter’s love interest, Zia, is Egyptian.

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan. Disney-Hyperion, 2014.

Our seven heroes are of several ethnicities: Native American (Cherokee), Chinese Canadian, African American, Latino, and Caucasian—and yeah, there are three Caucasians in the group, but there are some excellent representations of different and rarely depicted ethnicities here, and Riordan lets their various heritages inform their characters and their backstories, their strengths and their troubles without I feel defining the characters by their ethnicities. Side characters are of different ethnic backgrounds too, including the Puerto Rican Reyna and her sister Hylla.

Here teaching understanding of racial experience or cultural diversity is the drive behind the story.

Pirate Queens: Notorious Women of the Sea by John Green. Dover, 2014.

There are female pirates here from all over the world.

Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

This is a story about the African American experience in Reconstruction America.

Sold by Patricia McCormick. Hyperion-Disney, 2008.  First published 2006.

This is a collection of poems documenting the experiences of a fictional Nepali girl taken to India as a sex slave. Many of the characters are Nepali or Indian, though the man who helps Lakshmi escape her slavery is American—though I don’t believe that his race is explicitly stated.

Book Reviews: April and May 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Dear Zoo: A Lift-the-Flap Book by Rod Campbell. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2007. First published 1982. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I missed this one, I think, in my childhood. A boy writes to the zoo for a pet, and the zoo obliges. A box arrives. Opening it reveals an elephant. He is too big, so the child sends him back. The zoo then sends a giraffe, but the giraffe is too tall. It continues like this, until the zoo thinks very hard and sends the child a perfect puppy. The animals are never actually named, so it’s a primer for a more advanced toddler, one who’s already learnt all the animals’ names. Or this can be a read-aloud book where the reader names the animals for the child. Precious. And a perfect use of lift-the-flaps.

****

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Follow the Little Fish by Olivier Latyk. Sandy Creek-Sterling, 2015. First published 2013 by Templar. Intended audience: 2 years.

This was a surprisingly fun bargain book. The foil fish on the cover caught my eye. The book is rife with onomatopoeias. The fish jumps from one unlikely body of water to another (a pool, a glass of water), and ultimately ends up in a drainage pipe, then in the ocean. The foil does not remain past the cover, but the colors are bright, maybe even a little too loud. With the onomatopoeias especially, this would be a lot of fun to read aloud.

***

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Hi! by Ethan Long. Appleseed-Abrams, 2015.

This is a board book primer of animal sounds (though some of these are less readily associated with their animals like “yak” and “slurp”) and two basic English words: “hi” and “good-bye.” The animals’ sounds are in rhyming pairs, so I suppose it makes sense to have the final pages be the human “hi” and “good-bye” but the switch to human seems abrupt after all the pages of nonsensical animal sounds. Had the book opened with the “hi,” the animals’ sounds would have seemed like responses. Pairing the animals with images of day and night might have implied a “hi” and “good-bye” meaning to the sounds. Most of the images are set during daytime with each animal in its natural setting. Each animal waves to the one on the opposing page. Perhaps they were all meant to be saying hello (that was my first assumption), or maybe they are paired hellos and goodbyes. Because there is a page with all the animals and the boy opposite and finally the boy’s “hi” and the mom’s “good-bye” to the reader, perhaps the context is meant to be the animals’ greeting one another training the boy to greet his mother in his own tongue, but that’s hazy at best. There’s just no way to know the meaning behind the sounds, and that disappoints me, but the colors are bright and the illustrations welcoming.

**

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Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer and illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown. Chronicle, 2015.

The illustrator, Holly Clifton-Brown, deserves especial commendation for this book. I like to think that the author was in on the wonderful diversity that the illustrator slipped into the background of the story, but I have no proof. Diverse ethnicities and diverse family situations are slipped quietly rather than obtrusively into the story, making it a more enjoyable read, and making the diversity seem less of an issue to be dealt with, as can happen when an author is too “preachy,” and more “normal” and acceptable.  Though an issue book, this did not read as one.

The story focuses on Stella and her two fathers. Minor characters include a boy with two mothers of two races and a boy raised by his grandmother while his mother is away at war, as well as families of a mom and a dad. The students are all of varying ethnicities. I’m glad the publishing world was ready for this book.

Using the dilemma of whom a girl with two dads should invite to a class Mother’s Day party, Schiffer discusses the normality of a family of two dads, how there’s still someone to kiss boo-boos and read bedtime stories and pack lunches and all the rest. Stella does not feel badly for having no mother in her life. She realizes that she has a wide family who act as her mother. Her solution, suggested by a friend, is to invite her whole family to the party, since they all act as her mother.

The story leaves an opening for continuation with the mention of Father’s Day and in the background of Stella’s happiness the boy with two mothers beginning to wonder whom he will invite to that party.

*****

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Happy Birthday to You! by Dr. Seuss. Random, 2003. First published 1959.

I have found the source of that oft quoted, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” Pop-ups add a spark of extra fun and excitement to this board book. This is a book really meant to be gifted and really only meant to be read once a year, and that is a sad thing, because it would be an inspiring anthem any day of the year. I appreciate this book more when separated from its title. The board book is abridged and less often mentions the festivities as birthday celebrations and makes it more universal; I actually prefer the abridged book over the original for its universality. Dr. Seuss’ rhymes always elicit a smile.

Maybe it’s not fair to rate Dr. Seuss (I couldn’t possibly give him a poor rating), but I feel as if this abridgement and pop-up deserves at least:

****

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Uh-Oh Octopus! by Elle van Lieshout and Erik van Os and illustrated by Mies van Hout. Lemniscaat USA, 2014.

The illustrations caught me on this one. Every page is beautiful and bright with rare realism. Every review I’ve read and even the descriptions posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble highlight the illustrations over the story.

I happened to flip the book open first to the last page, which got my feminist hackles up. So then I naturally had to read the story to see if my rage would be justified. Was it? I wasn’t entirely soothed, but I think it more just an odd little story than divisive propaganda. The story is this: The little octopus has a sweet pad in the reef, but one day comes home to find a too-big invader, its powerful, scaled tail sticking out of the entrance and its head hidden inside of Octopus’ home. The octopus runs away and asks all of the sea creatures for advice on getting rid of the invader, but Octopus is not comfortable taking any of the advice that they give. Ultimately, after he hears a mysterious voice asking what he would do, he goes to politely ask the invader to leave his home. The invader explains that it’s been stuck in the octopus’ cave for some time and asks for help freeing itself. Octopus again begs the help of the other sea creatures, and they free the invader, who turns out to be a classically beautiful mermaid. “‘Oh,’ Octopus blushe[s]. ‘If I’d only known you were a lady!  That’s different!’”  I don’t think the author intends to say that women or that beautiful women or that anyone to whom you’re attracted ought to be treated differently–certainly that’s not the book’s primary moral–but those messages could be found in that line.  Interspecies relationships are less taboo in picture books, but it still struck me as an odd ending and poorly worded as it did elicit that spark of feminist fury when read out of context. As a Dutch import, I am a little more willing to be lenient as well, expecting the book to either have been translated from its original language (and so putting the fault on the translator) or having been written in the author’s second language.

The illustrations deserve at least four stars. The story itself… maybe two, so:

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: August Picture Book Roundup

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As I settle into a loving friend’s apartment in a new city, I hope you will all forgive me that this month’s picture book roundup is being posted late.

Noodle Loves the Zoo illustrated by Marion Billet.  Nosy Crow-Candlewick, 2013.

I was really enjoying this touch-and-feel book until I got to the last page where I was thrown out of the illusion by Noodle liking to roar.  Pandas do not to my knowledge roar; humans (represented that the anthropomorphized panda here) roar in imitation of other animals only, and so what had been a message of loving animals was degraded, Noodle’s love suddenly seeming a mockery—though in retrospect I recognize that this reaction of mine seems a little irrational.

***

 Birthday Monsters! by Sandra Boynton.  Workman, 1993.

This book is probably primarily meant to be a once-a-year read or an “I don’t know what to get” birthday present for a young child, but Boynton writes amusing, rhyming prose, and there is a message about selflessness if you care to look for it.  The birthday monsters show up (too) early on the young hippo’s birthday, and they seem to be bent on making his birthday a great celebration, but the birthday monsters ruin the celebration with their greed and selfishness.  They leave, but return to tidy their mess so that the young hippo’s birthday ends on a high note with his house clean and his birthday things returned to him.

***

 Llama Llama and the Bully Goat by Anna Dewdney.  Viking Juvenile-Penguin, 2013.

I very much enjoyed the original Llama Llama Red Pajamas (I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads), but as important as this newest book in the series is for classrooms and indeed for all children who may encounter bullies (which is all children), I felt Dewdney’s style did not lend itself well to the subject matter, being simplistic and rhyming and fun, while the subject matter was one that is not fun at all.  Gilroy Goat disrupts the classroom and the playground by laughing at and ridiculing Llama and his friends.  His bullying escalates to playground violence.  Llama first stands up to Gilroy but when this fails to curb his behavior, Llama quickly tells his teacher, who puts Gilroy in time-out.  Gilroy returns, the teacher asks if he can be a friend, and Llama extends Gilroy one of the dolls that Gilroy had earlier ridiculed, which Gilroy accepts, playing nicely and participating in classroom activities thenceforth.  Gilroy and Llama part at the end of the day as unlikely friends.  Gilroy Goat perhaps learns his lesson a little too easily, but it is I suppose good to give young children hope that bullies can change (I believe that they can if I believe it is a harder thing for them to learn to curb such instincts than it is for Gilroy), and good to give children an example of how to go about dealing with bullies.  On a side note, Nelly Gnu is a returning character, I do believe, but I am glad to see Dewdney advocating friendship with the opposite gender.

***1/2

Good Morning, Good Night!: A Touch & Feel Bedtime Book by Teresa Imperato.  Piggy Toes, 2004.

I was pleasantly surprised by this book.  Each set of touch-and-feel pages shows the day of a particular baby animal, first upon rising, then, opening the flap, upon sleeping, with each animal sleeping beside a parent.  The story is told in rhyme and ends with the day of a toddler.

****

The Way I Act by Steve Metzger, illustrated by Janan Cain.  Parenting, 2010.

Barnes & Noble classifies this as a “growing-up” book.  It’s a message book rather than being plot-driven, meant to both teach and reinforce laudable qualities in a child and also to build that elusive self-esteem.  I was not overly thrilled with this book, first because I don’t necessarily like the implied opposite idea that a child is somehow worth less when they do not exhibit these listed traits, some of which are less attainable or teachable than others—or so it seems to me, though I’m no parent—and also because the language and style did not seem to quite suit the illustrations, which while colorful were not particularly memorable.

*1/2

An Elephant and Piggie Book: Can I Play Too? by Mo Willems.  Disney-Hyperion, 2010.

Elephant Gerald and Piggie decide to play catch.  A young snake asks if he too can play.  They try to include the snake, but the snake is unable to join them because he does not have arms.  The snake is ready to give up, but Piggie will not.  The friends find a new way to play catch so that they can include the armless snake.  This is a book that encourages the inclusion of new friends, different friends, and shows readers that there are sometimes unconventional ways to solve a problem and be sure that everyone has fun.  All these beautiful messages are of course delivered with Willems humorous dialogue and illustration style, which I love, and his keen insight into the world of children.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Review: Multiculturalism in All in a Day

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I have had so many requests since I started working at Barnes & Noble for multicultural children’s books, and the honest and sad truth is that there are really only a few and fewer that we keep on the shelves, so I was excited to come across All in a Day, which all but defines multicultural. It tracks eight different characters in eight different countries through a 24-hour cycle. In an attempt to weave the depictions together, a ninth character, who is stranded on an uncharted island, is introduced as the narrative voice. He calls out to the other eight, describing what they are doing at a given point and pleading for rescue from the island where he has been shipwrecked. There’s no explanation for how these messages are transmitted or received.

This book is the product of ten author/illustrators, including such famous names as Eric Carle, the Dillions, Raymond Briggs (others I assume are well known too, though I don’t recognize their works). Each character is done by a different illustrator from a different country. Theoretically, cultural and art school differences are apparent in the illustrations alone, but the average days of these characters more clearly explore cultural differences, where the British boy sleeps in a bed and the Japanese girl sleeps on a mattress on the floor beside her parents, the American boy is sent to bed while his parents celebrate the New Year while the Chinese boy stays awake to set off firecrackers and watch the fireworks. The illustrators compare dreams too, specifically those of a Kenyan boy and the Russian.

The sparse text can be difficult to follow, particularly as the narrative character is set out of line of the others and is the most washed-out, making him difficult to see, and it almost assumes some prior knowledge of the cultures, which I found difficult. The characters are not labeled with their names but with their countries and the current time and can only really be labeled by the narrator who will mention either their country or what they are doing. Not all of them are named on the first pages either, so there are strangers whose lives the reader is following, some of them strangers almost through the whole of the book. This is a book I had to read twice to grasp, and I would have liked to have read more and with more focus when I could digest the book. Its illustrations are its main feature and I think would benefit from some thorough exploration.

In the back of the book are two pages of further explanation and facts for older readers, which I didn’t get to read. These included explanations of how the earth’s rotation creates daytime and night and some information about how timezones work.

This will not be my first choice for a multicultural book (it reminds me of Mirror by Jeannie Baker, which I think is easier to follow, though maybe because that covers only two cultures, and I do not know that Baker has the intimate knowledge of both cultures that these illustrators have with the cultures that they are depicting), but I do certainly appreciate how many cultures the authors capture in a brief 32 pages and the narrator’s attempt at a humorous and cohesive narrative.

***

Anno, Mitsumasa.  All in a Day.  Illus. Gian Calvi, Leo Dillon, Diane Dillon, Ron Brooks, Eric Carle, Raymond Briggs, Akiko Hayashi, Zhu Chengliang, Nicolai Ye. Popov.  New York: Puffin-Penguin, 1999.  First published 1990.

This review is not endorsed by Mitsumasa Anno, any of the illustrators, Puffin Books, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.