Week-end Book Review: The Oldest House in the USA by Kat Aragon and Mary Jo Madrid

Sunday, December 16th, 2012

Kat Aragon, illustrated by Mary Jo Madrid,
The Oldest House in the USA/La casa mas antigua de los Estados Unidos
Lectura Books, 2012.

Ages: 6-8

Perhaps the best thing about The Oldest House in the USA, in my admittedly biased opinion, is that the author got it right: the oldest house in the USA is in Santa Fe, New Mexico (not far from where I grew up), and nowhere in New England.

There is a tendency in the United States to propagate the myth of European “discovery” which would suggest that this land was all but uninhabited before the Mayflower arrived in Massachusetts in 1620.  This couldn’t be farther from the truth.  In fact, the oldest house in the USA was already 400 years old by then and had already endured its first serious remodeling project!

It was built, as the angels Teresa and Annie who protect it in Kat Aragon’s charming bilingual picture book, tell us, in 1200 by the original inhabitants of what is now Santa Fe: the ancestral Puebloans.  They lived in the house for more than 200 years before something mysteriously drove them away.  It remained vacant until the Spaniards came in 1598 and has been continuously inhabited ever since.

The angels provide the narrative, and Mary Jo Madrid’s lovely watercolor illustrations help us realize that the house has been many things to many people over its 800 year history.  The Pueblo people were living in the house again, for instance, in 1680 during the Pueblo Revolt when they managed to drive out the Spanish for a brief time.  When the Spaniards came back, however, in 1692 under the leadership of General DeVargas, they recaptured the house and installed the Spanish governor there.  DeVargas gave his name to the street the house sits on, and so it remains to this day.

The Oldest House in the USA offers readers a glimpse of a part of US history that is very different from the one that is usually packaged up for school children, one that is no less rich or interesting.  Most children will see architecture and customs completely unfamiliar to them depicted in the illustrations, which will open their eyes to the many possibilities contained in the history of the Americas when we take the time to look a little more deeply.

Abigail Sawyer
December 2012

Week-end Book Review: Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

Sunday, December 4th, 2011

Maya Soetoro-Ng, illustrated by Yuyi Morales,
Ladder to the Moon
Candlewick Press, 2011.

Ages 4 and up

“What was Grandma Annie like?” young Suhaila asks her mother about the grandmother she never met.  “Full, soft, and curious,” her mother replies.  “Your grandma would wrap her arms around the whole world if she could.”

For children who never had the opportunity to meet a cherished grandparent, the absence of that influential figure becomes a presence in their lives, intensifying the feelings their own parents have about their loss.  “Becoming a parent made me think of my own mother with both intense grief and profound gratitude,” writes Maya Soetoro-Ng in a note following the text of Ladder to the Moon. “I wished that my mother and my daughter could have known and loved each other. I hoped that I could teach Suhaila some of the many things I learned as I grew up witnessing my mother’s extraordinary compassion and empathy.”  In the case of Soetoro-Ng and her daughters, the grandmother in question has intrigued many people around the world as she is also the mother of U.S. President Barack Obama, Soetero-Ng’s older half-brother.

Since the beginning of the Obama campaign, journalists and politicians have wondered and written about this mysterious and unconventional woman, Stanley Ann Dunham, who died in 1995.  There is no question that she, a noted anthropologist and often single mother, had an enormous influence on the lives of her children and thus on history itself.  Her daughter’s dream story about the young Suhaila meeting her grandmother comes from a personal, family perspective that will resonate with any child in such a situation, as well as giving adult readers a new insight into this enigmatic figure.

Grandma Annie encourages Suhaila to use each of her five senses to reach out to the rest of the world. Together they find people in trouble: trembling in earthquakes, trying to outswim Tsunamis, and praying for peace.  Annie and Suhaila reach down from the moon to offer their solace and comfort as they bring these people up, making the moon brighter for all to see.

Yuyi Morales’ stunning illustrations bring diverse people together to share and connect on the moon.  In one scene, they tell stories around a campfire, each with a glowing circle of words around her head.  These lines, pulled from traditional narratives and the personal stories of Morales’ friends, represent six languages and four different alphabets.

Above all, Soetoro-Ng says of her mother, she was a storyteller.  Those stories have been the inspiration for much of the author’s own life; and with a story, she and Morales honor this posthumously famous woman in a deeply personal yet universal way.

Abigail Sawyer
December 2011

Week-end Book Review: Tiger and Turtle by James Rumford

Saturday, November 26th, 2011

James Rumford,
Tiger and Turtle
Roaring Brook Press, 2010.

Ages 4+

Tiger and Turtle live in the same forest and stay out of each other’s way.  They may not always agree, but they have learned there is no use arguing or fighting.  After all, “a tiger’s claws could not harm a turtle’s shell any more than a turtle’s feet could outrun a tiger’s.”  Then one day, the tiniest of flowers drifts down from the sky and changes their relationship forever.

Turtle wants to eat the flower, but Tiger has other ideas, and, while they may not be able to hurt each other (at least not very easily) they can sure fight over a flower!  For instance, Tiger can swipe at the flower and send it soaring out of Turtle’s reach.  And Turtle, once she is angry enough, learns that biting Tiger’s leg is actually pretty effective.  The two go back and forth escalating their efforts to control each other and gain the flower.  It seems as though disaster will surely befall them both, but at the last minute, we learn there was never anything to fight about as Tiger and Turtle narrowly escape a gruesome fate—together!  It is no surprise at all that after this, Tiger and Turtle move beyond mere tolerance to become the best of friends.

This gorgeous book, with a strong message about resolving conflict and the futility of fighting is, perhaps fittingly, dedicated to the author’s brother.  It is likely that the sibling relationship is the first place many children learn such lessons, and they will doubtless relate to the silliness and extremes Tiger and Turtle go to, to get their own way.  The art, inspired by Indian and Pakistan designs for shawls, rugs, and jali windows and rendered on handmade Chinese paper, is simply beautiful.  Indeed, gazing at Rumford’s warm colors, transcendent designs and the boldly drawn yet slightly dreamy Tiger and Turtle is likely to make anyone feel peaceful and at ease.  A book that can bring children to laugh, dream, calm down and think about important lessons is certainly a treasure.  Parents and children, perhaps for different reasons, will both want to reread Tiger and Turtle many times.

Abigail Sawyer
November 2011

On Traveling Libraries and Heroic ‘Book People’: Inspiring children’s books about getting books to people in remote places and difficult circumstances

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Abigail Sawyer regularly reviews books for us here at PaperTigers, and she’s also, in her own words, “a lifelong library lover and an advocate for access to books for all”, so who better to write an article for us about “unconventional libraries” and the children’s books they have inspired. Abigail lives in San Francisco, California, USA, where her two children attend a language-immersion elementary school and are becoming bilingual in English and Mandarin: an experience that has informed her work on the blog for the film Speaking in Tongues. I know you’ll enjoy reading this as much as I have.

On Traveling Libraries and Heroic ‘Book People’: Inspiring children’s books about getting books to people in remote places and difficult circumstances

My sons and I paid our first-ever visit to a bookmobile over the summer.  For us it was a novelty.  We have shelves of books at home and live just 3 blocks from our local branch library, but the brightly colored bus had pulled up right near the playground we were visiting in another San Francisco neighborhood (whose branch library was under renovation), and it was simply too irresistible.  Inside, this library on wheels was cozy, comfortable, and loaded with more books than I would have thought possible.  I urged my boys to practice restraint and choose only one book each rather than compete to reach the limit of how many books one can take out of the San Francisco Public Library system (the answer is 50; we’ve done it at least once).

The bookmobiles provide a great service even in our densely populated city where branch libraries abound.  There are other mobile libraries, however, that take books to children who may live miles from even the nearest modern road; to children who live on remote islands, in the sparsely populated and frigid north, in temporary settlements in vast deserts, and in refugee camps.  The heroic individuals who manage these libraries on boats, burros, vans, and camels provide children and the others they serve with a window on the world and a path into their own imaginations that would otherwise be impossible.

Shortly after my own bookmobile experience, Jeanette Winter‘s Biblioburro (Beach Lane Books, 2010), a tribute to Colombian schoolteacher Luis Soriano, who delivers books to remote hillside villages across rural Colombia, arrived in my mailbox to be reviewed for Paper Tigers.  I loved this book, as I do most of Winter’s work, for its bright pictures and simple, straightforward storytelling. Another picture book, Waiting for the Bibiloburro by Monica Brown (Tricycle Press, 2011), tells the story of Soriano’s famous project from the perspective of one of the children it serves, whose life expands beyond farm chores and housework thanks to Soriano and his burros.

I was moved, of course, by Soriano’s story, which got me thinking about another favorite picture book my children found at our branch library a few years ago: That Book Woman by Heather Henson (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008) is a fictionalized account of one family’s experience with the Pack Horse Library Project, a little-known United States Works Progress Administration program that ran from 1935-1943.  The Pack Horse librarians delivered books regularly to families living deep in Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.  In this inspiring story (more…)

Week-end Book Review: Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia by Jeanette Winter

Saturday, September 17th, 2011

PaperTigers is pleased to announce that Biblioburro: A True Story from Columbia by Jeanette Winter is one of the three books included in the Spirit of PaperTigers book set. For more information about the Spirit of PaperTigers Project, please click here.

Jeanette Winter,
Biblioburro: A True Story from Colombia
Beach Lane Books, 2010.

Ages 4-8

We have all met children with a never-ending hunger for books.  Some of them have shelves full of them, but it seems there can never be too many: the prospect of a new story always whets their appetite for more.

There are other children whose hunger for books goes much deeper.  These are the children who may read a single book over and over because it is the only book they have, children who dream about that book when they are not reading it and wish they had others.  Deep in the jungles of Colombia, some of these children’s dreams have come true thanks to the ingenuity and determination of Luis Soriano, a schoolteacher and avid reader who has devised a way to bring books to these isolated communities: The Biblioburro, a mobile lending library carried on the backs of two donkeys.

Each week Luis loads up books from his private collection and carries them from his remote village of La Gloria to even more remote villages in the Colombian jungle.  Luis and his burros, Alfa and Beto, endure heat, tiredness, and even bandits as they carry their precious cargo to people hungry for books.  When Luis arrives, he reads to the children before allowing each of them to select a new book and return their books from the previous week.  Then Luis returns home and reads his own book late into the night.

With characteristic simplicity and her signature bold, bright colors, Jeanette Winter tells the beautiful story of this man who has enriched the lives of hundreds through his efforts.  Children with an insatiable appetite for reading despite full shelves and access to local libraries will appreciate the tale of the Biblioburro that brings books to children who would not have them otherwise. The fact that Luis himself lives a simple life and is willing to endure inconvenience and even danger to bring books where there are none underscores the value and power of reading to those of us who have come to take it for granted.  Biblioburro is a heartwarming profile of one man who is making the world better in a simple yet profound way.

Abigail Sawyer
September 2011

Week-end Book Review: The Burmese Box by Lila Majumdar, translated by Srilata Banerjee

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

Lila Majumdar, translated by Srilata Banerjee and with an introduction by Subhadra Sen Gupta,
The Burmese Box: Two Novellas
Puffin Classics (India), 2010.

Ages 9-12

Lila Majumdar is one of India’s best loved children’s authors, and it is clear from reading the glowing introduction by accomplished writer Subhadra Sen Gupta that she has shaped the imaginations of Bengali-speaking children for generations. Translations of her exciting stories are long overdue, and fortunately, her granddaughter and translator Srilata Bannerjee agrees.

Reading The Burmese Box and Goopy’s Secret Diary (the other novella contained in the collection) as an adult is like rediscovering a long lost childhood friend that I never actually met. The stories are fast-paced and exciting with little time wasted on set-up and exposition for, as Banerjee states in a translator’s note, “no child appreciates long-term planning.” These stories take place over no more than a day or two (despite harking back, in the case of The Burmese Box, to a family legend more than a hundred years old) and are filled with plot twists, remarkably eccentric relatives, bungling grown-ups, and the accompanying confusion so natural to childhood.

In both stories, a boy protagonist of about 11 gets pulled into the intrigue of missing jewels and family legends. At first the boys are excited for adventure, but doubt settles in once it is too late to back out and the possibility of real danger looms. What will become of the treasure? Who are the thieves? Why don’t the adults see the obvious? And what exactly is going on here anyway?

The protagonists encounter dream advice from long dead ancestors, secret tunnels in dilapidated mansions, carnivorous cows, and plenty of shifty characters, but everything turns out okay in the end. It would seem that disaster is averted thanks to the innocence and integrity the young heroes retain. Grown-ups who might have mucked up the situation never receive the necessary knowledge to carry out their plans, and justice—no, not justice but something even more important, fairness—prevails.

There will be some challenges for children not familiar with Bengali culture and family relationships as the terms for different relatives are very complicated to those of us used to the English system. Nonetheless, the book kept my eight-year-old son (who preferred Goopy’s Secret Diary) enthralled. I had to wrest it back from him in order to write this review! Fortunately, explanatory notes are included at the end of the book along with biographical data, “Things to Think About”, and a translator’s note that is particularly special considering the translator’s relationship to the author. The Burmese Box is destined to become a classic once again, this time in English.

Abigail Sawyer
August 2011

Week-end Book Review: Dorje’s Stripes by Anshumani Ruddra, illustrated by Gwangjo and Jung-a Park

Sunday, August 7th, 2011

Anshumani Ruddra, illustrated by Gwangjo and Jung-a Park,
Dorje’s Stripes
Kane Miller, 2010/2011.

Ages 5-9

A small Buddhist monastery nestled in the mighty Himalayas is surrounded by a vast forest. “Everything about the place spoke of quiet beauty,” reads the first page of Dorje’s Stripes. Perhaps the most quietly beautiful aspect of the monastery is its most unusual resident: a Royal Bengal Tiger named Dorje.

When Dorje arrived, Master Wu explains, he was weak and had not eaten for days. Upon regaining his strength under the monks’ care, Dorje began hunting for himself again, but every time he returned from the jungle, he had one less stripe. Eventually, he was left with nothing but two little dark spots above his eyes, but this evening Cheekoo, the youngest monk, notices that a new stripe has appeared on Dorje’s shoulders! What could it mean?

Master Wu tells the monks that he entered Dorje’s dreams shortly after his arrival and learned that the tiger’s clan was disappearing as a result of greedy hunters attacking tigers for sport and also hunting their prey. The mighty cats who escaped slaughter were left to starve. Every time one of his clan died, Dorje lost a stripe. Dorje’s new stripe fills the monks with great hope as Master Wu reveals that he and Dorje discovered a female tiger that morning as they walked in the forest.

A note that follows this story, beautifully illustrated in lush watercolors by the Korean team of Gwungjo and Jung-a Park, explains the plight of the Royal Bengal Tiger, India’s national animal. Less than 1,500 wild tigers live in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans in Bengal today, having been hunted from a population of more than 40,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century. This powerful and majestic animal is now one of the Earth’s most threatened species, but the story of Dorje is one of hope. “Dorje only knew cruel men before he met us,” explains Master Wu, but just as the tiger – and perhaps eventually his clan – recovers under the monks’ care, so can future generations work to change the fate of this beautiful animal.

Abigail Sawyer
August 2011

Week-end Book Review: The Dog Who Loved Red by Anitha Balachandran

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Anitha Balachandran,
The Dog Who Loved Red
Kane Miller, 2011.

Ages 4-8

When Raja’s chewing habit puts him out of favor with her parents, Tanvi decides to take her frisky, red-loving dog to the park. There the pair meets Raja’s Dalmatian buddy, Champ, but the canines’ favorite (red) ball is nowhere to be found.

This second book by talented young illustrator and animator Anitha Balachandran (Mr. Jeejeebhoy and the Birds) tells of Raja the dog’s colorful adventure to rescue his favorite ball from the back yard of mean Mr. Mehta, the neighbor with yellow shorts, a violet gate, a silver car, brown flowerpots, a white sheet hanging on the line, and a blue garden hose he turns on dogs to chase them out of his yard.

Balachandran’s bright illustrations live up to her previous work in this book about color in which each color-word is printed in ink of that color and made to stand out so that children soon recognize not only the colors but the words for those colors as well.  Though it is a simple story that could take place anywhere, Raja and Tanvi’s world is distinctly Indian: Raja’s first chewing casualty is Mrs. Lal’s red sari shawl, for instance.

The Dog Who Loved Red is an inviting book for young children who will relate to the plight of naughty, messy, playful dogs and the kids who love them.  The characters and setting reflect diversity, though diversity itself is not a theme of the book, making it a fun story for learning about color and a wonderful addition to library shelves.

Abigail Sawyer
July 2011

Week-end Book Review: The Jade Bangle, The Koi Pond, The Missing Chopstick by David W.F. Wong

Saturday, June 25th, 2011

David W.F. Wong,
The Jade Bangle
The Koi Pond
The Missing Chopstick

Armour Publishing, 2004.

Ages 9-13

In this unusual coming-of-age series, David W.F. Wong tells the distinct stories of three different young Asians who stumble upon mysteries that change the way they view their own lives and give them a new perspective on the future.  Each of the titles stands alone as a solitary novella.  In fact, it is not the characters that tie the books together, but rather the structure and form of the stories themselves.

In The Jade Bangle, originally self-published in 2000 and the recipient of Singapore’s National Self-Published Book Award, sponsored by the US-based Writer’s Digest, twelve-year-old Annie hears the story of a family heirloom, in which she learns about the horrors of war and discovers some remarkable truths about her family. In The Koi Pond, thirteen-year-old Alvin finds an old key while helping his father realize his life-long dream of digging a koi pond in the family garden.  Unraveling the mystery of the key leads him to a lonely old woman with a story that changes young Alvin’s outlook on his future and the aging woman’s own perspective on her past.  In the longest of the three books, The Missing Chopstick, Kim returns home to Singapore after her first year of university in Chicago and unearths documents and newspaper clippings that lead her to uncover secrets about her life and the cruelty of the world, while solving the mystery of the single chopstick her mother had given her as a child.

All of the books are plot-driven and make for a quick and compelling read.  The intricate mysteries each young character pursues are filled with heartbreak, endurance, and the power of love to conquer all. Indeed Wong, himself a Presbyterian minister and the author of several spiritual works for adults, infuses each book with a subtle Christian message and references to the Bible without being heavy-handed or preachy.

Beyond the religious subtext, the books all celebrate the value of family love and loyalty, the importance of kindness, and the transformative power of forgiveness.  The books also reference important historic events such as World War II (The Jade Bangle), the plight of the Vietnamese “Boat People” who fled the war in their country during the 1970s (The Missing Chopstick), and the more locally relevant Bukit Ho Swee Fire of 1961 in Singapore, in which 16,000 people lost their homes in a single day (The Koi Pond).

This series is notable for featuring Asian youth on the cusp of personal transition who explore stories from a larger context that have an impact on their lives and the way they see themselves.  Wong has made history personal for his characters while giving readers engaging stories that will encourage them to think about their own lives and their ability to influence the lives of others for the better.

Abigail Sawyer
June 2011

Week-end Book Review: The Chinese Wonder Book by Norman Hinsdale Pitman

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Norman Hinsdale Pitman,
The Chinese Wonder Book
Tuttle Publishing, 2011.

Ages 9-12

Though little is known about Norman Hinsdale Pitman (1876-1925) today, his effort to bring Chinese folklore to Western readers continues to be influential.  Indeed Pitman, who taught at Chinese colleges and authored several novels and short story collections, brought these ancient tales to a new audience much as the Brothers Grimm preserved the fairytales of central Europe for generations to enjoy.  These tales, not unlike those gathered by the Grimms in Europe, are full of magic, mysticism, and a certain amount of gore.

Tuttle’s latest edition of The Chinese Wonder Book, originally published in 1919, includes the beautiful and highly detailed full-color illustrations by Li Chu Tang originally published in the book’s first edition and printed here on high-quality glossy paper.  There is also an engaging foreword by Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, associate professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, University of Notre Dame.

The tales include some of the best known fairytales of China, among them  ‘The Golden Beetle or Why the Dog Hates the Cat’, ‘The Strange Tale of Doctor Dog’ and ‘The Talking Fish’. Many of the themes and even the plots and characters resemble those found in Western fairytales: but these are not your cleaned-up, Disneyfied stories.  Happy endings are in short supply, and the brutality is every bit as intense as that of the original tales of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen.  At the same time, there is lighter fare to be found in stories such as ‘Bamboo and the Turtle’ and ‘The Mad Goose and the Tiger Forest’, stories which will be enjoyed by even very young listeners.

In these rich and exciting tales, virtue, including hard work and filial piety, is rewarded, and wickedness is punished, though the version of justice reflected in the stories is clearly of a particular time and place and may not resonate with children of today.  For instance, it may seem of little consolation to be immortalized in a famous monument after an unjust death (‘The Great Bell’).  On the other hand, when a lazy thief and would-be liar turns his life around rather than be turned into a duck (‘The Man Who Would Not Scold’), children and their parents will delight in the tale’s humor and theme of redemption.

The Chinese Wonder Book has served as an introduction to the folk tales of classical China for generations and remains Pitman’s best-known work.  This lovely new edition will sit proudly alongside other folklore and fairytale collections and open up the world of ancient Chinese stories to today’s readers and generations yet to come.

Abigail Sawyer
June, 2011