Welcome to Andy’s Big Sack o’ Books. For the next few weeks, I will be relieving my wife of some of her book reviewing duties so that she can devote more time to her studies. In connection with her studies, I will be reviewing multicultural Golden Sower nominees and winners from the past ten years. And to be honest, I only offered to do these reviews so I would have an excuse to read some of the many cool books I discovered while helping her with her research.
Boxes for Katje, by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Stacey Dressen McQueen
Boxes for Katje, a story of international generosity,most assuredly did not leave this full-grown man teary-eyed. It’s just my allergies. I swear.
Written by Candace Fleming and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen, this colorful picture book is set immediately after the end of World War II. The people of Europe are hurting. Charities organize drives to collect and mail needed supplies overseas. One small box finds its way to Holland, where it is delivered into the hands of a young girl named Katje. Opening the box, Katje discovers socks, soap, and chocolate, which she shares with her mother and the postman. She writes Rosie a thank you letter and life goes on. Months later, another box arrives from Rosie, and Katje sends another thank you note in return. And then still more boxes arrive.
Not only will children be as excited as Katje upon the arrival of each package, but they should also enjoy exploring Dressen-McQueen’s jam-packed illustrations. Every page is a circus of color and action.
Boxes for Katje is a simple but moving story about helping others in need, even strangers. Funny thing about helping strangers – sometimes they become our friends. That’s what happened to Fleming’s mother, whose real-life boxes for Katje were the inspiration for this book.
This book made me nostalgic for the days of penpals. Sometimes life is not improved by technology, and penpals are a case in point. These days, chatting with someone from another country is as simple as going online. But where’s the fun in that? With “snail mail,” you get to fret and anticipate and wonder – not for minutes or hours, but for weeks. You get to experience the excitement and enjoyment of checking the mailbox every day, day after day. And then a letter finally arrives, festooned with exotic stamps and postmarks, in an envelope that’s not quite the same as ours, and you can just tell it’s traveled thousands of miles to get to you. And when you read your penpal’s letter, it’s not just words – it’s a letter that was once in the hands of another person on the other side of the world, and now it’s in yours.
Okay, I know I’m off topic here, but that’s what a good book can do! Is there a way for kids to find penpals these days? Well, it appears that there is. Do a Google search for “penpals” and you’ll find a number of websites that purport to help people find penpals. If you’re under eighteen, be sure you check with your parents before you register at any of these sites!
I Love Saturdays y domingos, by Alma Flor Ada, illustrated by Elivia Savadier
I Love Saturdays y domingos tells the story of a little girl who jumps back and forth between cultures every weekend – and loves every minute of it.
The nameless little girl has a father who is European American and a mother who is Mexican American. Every Saturday she visits her father’s parents – Grandpa and Grandma. And every Sunday she visits her mother’s parents – Abuelito y Abuelita.
And there you have the beauty of this story. The two sets of grandparents are very similar, and many of the same words are used to describe the girl’s time with each, which gives readers the opportunity to learn some Spanish. (Yes, I’m assuming most readers will be native English speakers, since the book is 90% English.)
There’s some interesting comparing and contrasting going on between the grandparents. The girl’s Grandma collects owl figurines. The girl’s Abuelita has chickens. Real chickens. The girl’s Grandpa and Grandma show her a movie about a circus. The girl’s Abuelito y Abuelita take her to a real circus. The girl’s Grandpa has an aquarium. The girl’s Abuelito takes her to the seashore. The two sets of grandparents are similar, which is good, because this teaches kids that people are people. And they’re also different, which is also good, because people are different — whether they come from different cultures or not. But I did find it odd that the European American grandparents are more into artificial things while the Mexican American grandparents are more into real things. But maybe the only value judgements here are my own, as the girl enjoys her time with both sets of grandparents equally.
I eventually began to worry that the girl’s two cultures were going to stay separate throughout the book, which I didn’t think would send a very good message, but the story ends with the girl’s birthday party, with both sets of grandparents teaming up to coordinate their gifts. So it was good to discover that the grandparents talk and interact and get along, and don’t confine themselves to their allotted half of the weekend.
It’s good for kids to see themselves in the books they read. But while there are a significant number of kids who occupy more than one culture, I suspect there aren’t enough children’s books that reflect this reality. I Love Saturdays y domingos is one book that does, and it teaches some good lessons and even some Spanish.
Henry’s Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Let’s start with the easy stuff.
Henry’s Freedom Box tells the true story of Henry Brown, who escaped slavery by having himself shipped north in a box in 1849.
The facts of the story are amazing. Ellen Levine keeps it simple, but she captures the highs and lows – from Henry’s loss of his family when they are sold to another slave owner, to his harrowing journey inside the box. The illustrations by Kadir Nelson are big and gorgeous. Unfortunately, perhaps due to a desire not to crop out or obscure any more of the illustrations than necessary, often the text is printed directly over the illustrations, which in some cases make the text difficult to read – and even to find! But this is a small quibble.
Now, I couldn’t help but feel that the book pulls a bit of a bait ‘n’ switch on its readers. The cover shows a young boy, and not being familiar with the story I expected the story to be about little Henry. But Henry doesn’t stay little for long, and soon he’s a married man with kids of his own. I am not complaining that the book begins Henry’s story when he’s young, as doing so gives readers a very somber moment when his mother likens the tearing of autumn leaves from their trees to the tearing of slave children from their families, foreshadowing Henry’s bleak future. And I think kids will be so absorbed in the story that they won’t care that the boy on the cover quickly grows into a man. So this too is a small quibble.
More at issue is that this is a very “heavy” book. I apologize for using outdated jargon, but that’s the word that comes to mind: heavy. Levine does not hold back when it comes to the disturbing details of Henry’s story. There’s the threat of beatings if he makes a mistake. There’s his wife and children being sold and sent away. There’s intentional burning of his hand with acid so he will be excused from work and won’t be missed while he makes his escape.
That brings us to the heaviest aspect of this book, which of course is that it’s about slavery. It’s a picture book; Amazon says that it’s for four-year-olds and up. Should four-year-olds be reading about slavery? Some would say yes. Some would say no. I think I’ll leave it at that, other than to say that I enjoyed my years of blissful ignorance concerning racism when I was younger. And yet I am well aware that such ignorance is a luxury that is not enjoyed equally by all. In other words, I suppose I would recommend not exposing our children to the ugliness of the world any sooner than necessary. While they can, I think kids should be allowed to think as little of skin color as they do of hair color. They’ll learn soon enough about who hates who and what stupid stereotypes have been imagined about each group.
Henry’s Freedom Box is an amazing story, and if you think your child would like it or benefit from it, and is ready for it, then by all means I encourage you to make it available.