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Culture Children's Books
Picture books can provide children an age-appropriate introduction to weighty and complex historical figures.
In The Tree in the Courtyard: Looking Through Anne Frank’s Window (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2016), Jeff Gottesfeld tells the story from the perspective of a horse chestnut tree that Frank mentions three times in her diary. Brown ink illustrations show Frank clinging to her father as soldiers invade and bombs explode. When the family hides in the factory annex, the tree catches glimpses of Frank journaling, peeking out a covered window, and even sharing a kiss with her friend Peter.
A more lighthearted picture book introduces young readers to American author Flannery O’Connor, known for her complexity. Acree Graham Macam’s The King of the Birds (Groundwood Books, 2016) describes O’Connor’s little-known childhood obsession with birds, particularly peacocks. Colorful illustrations depict a male peacock unwilling to display his plumage, despite O’Connor’s incessant coaxing—that is, until a peahen arrives.
Twelve-year-old Reena is skeptical when her family moves from the bustling city to a quiet Maine harbor town. There, she enjoys new freedoms, like unaccompanied bike rides. She also discovers the area’s belted Galloway cows. Reena and her brother Luke begin helping a quirky elderly woman and her ornery cow, Zora, and each slowly wins the children’s affection. Newbery Medal winner Sharon Creech’s blank-verse style and simplicity in Moo will appeal to reluctant readers. Another positive: Reena’s parents guide their children with humor, gentle prodding, and frequent admonitions to “be respectful.”
A Bird, A Girl, and a Rescue
Kiisa must face her fears as she begins life at a boarding school far from home. Her father bids her to remember the phrase “For such a time as this,” and to check her trunk for something “unexpected.” In it Kiisa finds Njili, a wagtail bird who provides companionship and delivers messages from home. The story takes a suspenseful turn when rebels attack the school and kidnap one of the girls. With Njili’s encouragement, Kiisa attempts a dangerous rescue and discovers forgiveness and redemption. This second book in the Rwendigo series is rich in African culture and action-packed adventure.
When the Sea Turned to Silver
A ruthless emperor and his soldiers raid Pinmei’s mountainside hut and kidnap her storytelling grandmother, Amah. Shy Pinmei and her mysterious cousin Yishan begin a whirlwind quest to find Amah, but first they have to find the emperor’s coveted “Luminous Stone That Lights the Night,” the key to her release. In the process Pinmei finds her own storytelling voice. A story rich in Chinese folklore and mythology, this follow-up to Lin’s previous award-winning novels delivers vivid illustrations and complex characters who understand their state as “poor mortals” and grasp the power of stories.
Peter’s father forces him to leave his beloved fox Pax in the wild when his father enlists in an unspecified war. Resentful, the 12-year-old begins a 200-mile trek to find the fox. Alternating chapters follow Peter and Pax as they encounter mishap, danger, and unintended friendship on a journey of self-discovery. Illustrator Jon Klassen shines, and Pennypacker’s fluid writing captures human affection for animals. The story’s harsh tone, especially when Pennypacker pits nature against humans, is a sour note.