Refugee, by Alan Gratz
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press

I finally made it through the l-o-n-g waiting list at my library and had the chance to read this astonishing novel. And I am here to tell you — I rarely outright cry when I read a book, but I was weeping at the close of this monumentally human story.

Alan Gratz weaves together three distinct stories of young refugees which span almost 80 years of the 20th and 21st centuries. Josef, a Jewish boy evading the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to escape the Castro regime by raft in 1994. And Mahmoud, who with his family flees the civil war in Syria in 2015.

Children from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

The nightmarish worlds each of these children finds him/herself in are presented here with the grim reality of shock, despair, intense grief, paralyzing fear, the relentless onslaught of another and yet another horrific wave of violence, suffering, loss, distress. As we follow their escape routes, we are overwhelmed, aghast. Our hearts are crushed along with theirs. These are not narratives wherein everyone comes through nicely with merely a scratch, rescued in the 11th hour. No, they are stories based on real children, composites of true refugee accounts, and as such they are strewn with enormous tragedy.

Yet it’s these very stories, so bleak and monstrous one cannot fathom experiencing them, that we comfortable ones must face, hear, acknowledge, mourn, that motivate us to live with sacrificial love and empathy, that cause a welling up of longing to be one of the compassionate ones in our world.

Cubans flee Havana, August 1994

Are you saturated with bad news from the current daily news cycle and feel you cannot bear to read something dark and depressing? Take heart. Because in the darkest moments, that is when Gratz ushers in the sunstreaked twists that’ll leave you reaching for a tissue. It’s not the onslaught of evil that made me weep, but the moments when gutwrenching depths of love, tough-won tenderness, pierced-heart kindness, reach into the morass of misery to bring redemption, mercy, and rescue.

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary, 2015

Gratz hopscotches back and forth between the three narratives so that we track the journeys of all three families throughout the novel. He then orchestrates a final movement in which the disparate lives impact one another in surprising, profound ways. Here is the hard won kernel of hope, goodness, humanity, here at “the end of all things” as Frodo and Sam would say.

Obviously timely. Highly recommended for ages 13 through adult. Be aware — if my review hasn’t cued you in already — there’s a boatload of grief and violence here, so be wise in handing this to younger readers.


It’s no secret that autumn is my favorite season. I only wish we could spread it out much longer.

Grab some spiced cider, a cinnamon doughnut, and a batch of prime autumnal books and revel in all things fall!

Goodbye Autumn, Hello Winter, written and illustrated by Kenard Pak
published in 2017 by Godwin Books, Henry Holt and Company

Kenard Pak does it again! I loved his transition from Summer to Autumn (reviewed here), and this look at a world gradually moving from late autumn’s windswept branches to the first dustings of snow is equally gorgeous.

Pak’s pristine illustrations capture that nip in the air, the spare beauty of late autumn when fragments of color and life linger amid increasingly barren trees, dry seedpods, long shadows, shivering nights. I love that he focuses here on that bridge time rather than the full-on splendor of fall we find in most autumnal books. Outdoor rambling at its best for ages 2 and up.

In the Middle of Fall, written by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek
published in 2017 by Greenwillow Books

Kevin Henkes spins just two sentences into a lovely whirl of tumbling fall leaves and sprinklings of snowflakes in this cheerful ode to autumn.

Take notice! Drink in those riotous colors. Enjoy those frisketing squirrels. Soon that slight chill in the air will turn to brrrrr-coldness and we’ll arrive in winter.

Laura Dronzek’s bold shapes, close-up perspectives, and saturated colors envelop us in the cozy beauties of the natural world. Perfection for ages 18 months and up.

Full of Fall, written and photographed by April Pulley Sayre
published in 2017 by Beach Lane Books

April Pulley Sayre continues her superb run of nature-infused, photographic splendors that treat young children to the beauties of the outdoors accompanied by a dignified, rhyming text.

I love the way Sayre respects young minds with her work. There’s nothing juvenile or cutesy here. Just the glories of the woodlands in autumn to soak up with children as young as under-Two.  Two additional pages discuss the science of pigments, leaf structure, decomposition, and more, geared to ages 6 or 7 and up.

Woody, Hazel and Little Pip, written and illustrated by Elsa Beskow
originally published in Sweden in 1939; first English edition 1990 by Floris Books

Swedish favorite Elsa Beskow created marvelous stories populated by all manner of fanciful woodland sorts — elves, fairies, gnomes, trolls, blueberry children, Frost Kings…

This story finds two adventurous brothers — Woody and Little Pip Acorn — gliding away from home on a whirling, twirling leaf, landing in a peck of trouble, and gamely making the best of it, trolls and all. Their friend Hazel hitches a ride on a neighborhood squirrel in search of them and runs into her own batch of escapades.

Unlike Peter Rabbit’s mama, Mrs. Acorn and Mrs. Hazelnut throw a party when these naughty children return! Charming as ever, this is a longer-than-usual picture book story for patient listeners ages 3 and up.

Our Apple Tree, written by Görel Kristina Näslund, illustrated by Kristina Digman
first published in Sweden; American edition published in 2005 by Roaring Brook Press

Capturing a pinch of the same elfkin vibe of Beskow, this Swedish story traces the life of an apple tree through one cycle of seasons, from winter snows through blossoms and straight on through to a golden-crusted apple pie. Yum!

Two tiny apple-elves who call this tree home are our guides on this quaint, gentle journey. A recipe for Apple Crisp is included. Ages 2 and up.

There are many more book-treasures for Autumn reading listed in my Subject Index. Enjoy!


Business first: We’ve got a winner for last week’s mystery giveaway. Congrats to Jena Benton! Please contact me at jillswanson61@gmail.com with your mailing address and I’ll get that off to you pronto.

This October marks the 500th anniversary of The Protestant Reformation, a historical circumstance that remarkably changed the world.

In 1517, Martin Luther, an obscure German monk, published his 95 theses in protest over key practices in the Catholic Church, setting off a chain of events that so turned the world upside down we remember him half a millennium later.

Wittenberg and other German towns have been pulling out the stops to commemorate Luther all year long, and this book was published in Germany in 2015, gearing up for the celebrations:

The Life and Times of Martin Luther, written by Meike Roth-Beck, illustrated by Klaus Ensikat, translated into English by Laura Watkinson
published in the U.S. in 2017 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
43 pages

It’s been translated and is available for American readers now, so with Reformation Sunday coming up in a few weeks, perhaps you’d like to find a copy.

I’ll talk about the art first because despite your fears of a dry, theologically-dusty tome, this is one beautiful book.

Klaus Ensikat is a brilliant German illustrator who has garnered some of illustration’s most prestigious awards in his lifetime of work, including the coveted Hans Christian Andersen prize in 1996.

Looking at these pages, you will immediately understand why. His technical precision, his painstaking, engraving-style line work, along with the subtly-tinted color palette and mastery of the medieval scene yield illustrations at once precise and soft, splendid and human. Every page in the book is rich with period detail and ambience. Plus, Eerdmans’ production team ensured that the whole book has the feel of something rather noble. Beautiful type, heavy, creamy paper, rich burgundy endpapers — beautiful straight through.

Author Meike Roth-Beck’s background in education is evident as she clearly, simply, engagingly, unreels the story of Luther. She colors in the background of Martin’s world and growing-up years, then narrates his entrance into monastic life, the questions that began troubling him, and the revelation he discovered while studying. She takes the time to explain the meaning of over a dozen of his 95 theses, quoting them and commenting on them, before continuing her account of the remainder of Luther’s life.

The book is geared for ages 7-11 I’d say, and as such does not explore Luther’s flaws or the long-term impact of the Reformation other than a somewhat overly-tidy paragraph. That quibble aside, it’s an unusually beautiful, informative record of the man and his main arguments that will be a happy find for many of your homes/schools/churches.

The African Orchestra, written by Wendy Hartmann, illustrated by Joan Rankin
published in 2017 by Crocodile Books, Interlink Publishing Group

That buzzing cicada? That crackle-snap of a seed pod breaking? The thunder of hooves as a herd of zebras races across the plains? The burbling of a brook freshened by a mighty rainfall?

All those sounds woven into the wild, vast, haunting, lovely, lush, bleak African landscapes, found their way into African musical instruments as humans invented ways to replicate nature’s songs.

Thought-provoking ideas, lyrical text, and marvelously inventive, artistic images capture the natural world of Africa and the emotion of its music. A brilliant concept and collaboration to muse over with children ages 3 and up.

You can pursue the idea of nature-inspired music with these brilliant guides to classical music:

Listen to the Birds, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Cecilia Verela, translated from Spanish by Heléne Roulston and Sabrina Diotalevi
first published in Spain in 2010; English edition 2013 by The Secret Mountain

Amazing Water, music selection and explanatory notes by Ana Gerhard, illustrations by Margarita Sada, translated from Spanish by David Lytle
first published in Spain; English edition 2016 by The Secret Mountain

Gerhard chooses 20 classical selections for each book, with themes and sounds that convey birdsong and water respectively.

For example, Vivaldi’s “The Goldfinch and Saint-Saën’s “Aviary” from The Carnival of the Animals are included in Listen to the Birds. Schubert’s Trout quintet and “Alla Hornpipe” from Handel’s Water Music are included in Amazing Water.

Background for each piece is provided which might be best read by a parent to dole out judiciously, as well as brilliant listening notes that accompany the included CD, drawing children’s attention to specific aspects of the music and explaining how these reflect the subject. There are also brief bios of each composer and a glossary of musical terms, and all of this is presented on pages dominated by joyful illustrations.

This is a great resource for homeschooling families, for example, who could putter through one volume over a 20 week period with children as young as 3 or 4.

There is one other title in this series, Simply Fantastic, which explores fantasy-oriented musical selections.


Rain has perhaps a tarnished reputation of late with the devastating hurricanes and floods across the globe.  Images of rainfall have been connected with misery. 

Today’s rain-soaked books are saturated with jubilation, imagination, humor, tenderness.  I think they’ll put a smile on your face and buoy your spirits. Take a look:

This Beautiful Day, written by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Suzy Lee
published in 2017 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster

Simplicity, imagination, liveliness, contentment, love.

Richard Jackson and Suzy Lee tap into the truly good things in life in this joyful shimmy through a day with three siblings, their mom, and a sprinkling of neighborhood friends.

It’s full on rain to begin with, but a swizzle of music, the sheer happiness within their hearts, and the downright juiciness of life means a little weather can’t keep these guys down. Out they go to revel in rain. Their exuberance is catchy. Friends come a-running. Soon enough, clouds drift away and a radiant sun splashes their world with warmth and light. It’s a beautiful day, all right.

Jackson’s text pops with joy and movement. Lee’s playful line dances, swishes, stomps, leaps merrily. Her brilliant use of color starts us out with calm, graphite sketchiness, adds spritzes of energizing raindrop-blue, diffuses warm summer-green as the day and action heat up. I adore this book. The outdoor play. The magic of imagination. The relaxed affection.  The sheer gleefulness. Picture book perfection for ages 2 and up. Don’t miss it!

Rain, written and illustrated by Sam Usher
first U.S. edition 2017 by Templar Books, Candlewick Press

Previously Sam Usher has introduced us to this boy and his granddad in a world blanketed by a mighty snowfall. (Find that review here.)

Today, it’s raining, and once again, this little fellow cannot wait to get out and play in it. To “catch raindrops, splash in puddles, and look at everything upside down.” And once again, Granddad says they’ve got to wait.

Waiting is hard business, and when an epic rainstorm is flooding the world outside your window, forming puddles big as seas, creating watery worlds enchanted as Venice — well, it is very trying. But he is one patient kid.

When Granddad is finally ready to venture out, it’s clear the waiting did not wither our boy’s imagination one bit! What an adventure the two of them have on a simple walk to the postbox! Another blast of imagination and intergenerational companionship from Sam Usher. Vibrant illustrations to linger over and even textured raindrops on the book cover! Ages 2 and up.

The Cow Said Meow, written and illustrated by John Himmelman
published in 2016 by Henry Holt and Company

One shrewd cow observes that with merely a “meow” a marmalade cat is welcomed out of the rain and into the snug dry house. Hmm.

Standing there in the driving rain, clearly not amused, the cow gives it a try. “Meow,” says the cow. Bingo! The old lady, whose thick glasses clearly are not helping her see straight, opens the door and ushers Ms. Cow inside, as quick as that.

Next, an alert pig gives it a try. Then an eagle-eyed chicken. How many animals does it take before the cat decides things are out of control? Zany fun for ages 2 and up.

A Rainbow of My Own, written and illustrated by Don Freeman
first published in 1966; published by Puffin Books in 1978

Don Freeman’s work has nurtured generations of young children. This one is a gem. I love the vintage feel of not only the images, but also its quiet tone and the independence of the child exploring completely on his own with freedom. There is not a single other human in the story. No supervision and no need for companions, even. This is not something we see very often in more contemporary children’s stories and I miss it.

One little boy is off in pursuit of the rainbow he sees, intent on capturing it. It proves elusive, of course, but a surprise awaits him back in his own room, when sunlight beams through a fishbowl and dazzles him with a rainbow of his own.

Authentic, childlike perspectives, straightforward text, splashes of imagination, and Freeman’s iconic illustrations all make this a winner for ages 2 and older.

Home in the Rain, written and illustrated by Bob Graham
published in Australia 2016; first U.S. edition 2017 by Candlewick Press

Quintessential Bob Graham here, with this unusual story witnessing a small miracle on a sodden day. As with any Graham story, it is nearly impossible to encapsulate in a short review. His ability to capture the glory of the ordinary, the rich kernels of human experience,  consistently leaves me speechless. 

Francie and her mom are driving home from Grandma’s house, their small red car dwarfed by semis, smothered by dark rain clouds, battered by rain.

All around them, unbeknownst to them, living their quiet/loud/still/busy lives, others are experiencing the rain as well, but Francie and Mom are cocooned in their own world in the cab of the car. Francie’s baby sister is there, too, tucked safe inside of mama, waiting to be born. As they chat and munch a packed lunch, Francie wonders what the baby’s name might be. When will she have a name? she asks. Might it be Alice? Or Isabel?

The juxtaposition of a stormy rainswept countryside, the busy push and go surrounding them on the highways and at the gas station, with the private, childlike wonderings and maternal introspection; the flicker of inspiration in this pregnant woman’s heart — it’s so breathtaking and real and ordinary and tender and lovely. If you blink, you’ll miss it. Just like in real life. Another gem to enjoy with ages 5 and older that will speak at least as deeply to adults who read it.

What are your favorite books about rain?

I’ve got seven great new reads today. I’ll list them in order of difficulty with some snappy early readers coming first and a Mystery Give-Away at the end!

Barkus, written by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrated by Marc Boutavant
published in 2017 by Chronicle Books
45 pages

Nicky has a new dog named Barkus. He’s an exuberant fellow who clearly loves to stay with his young owner At All Times.

At school. In the snow. In a tent. Barkus vigorously leads the way to unexpected, chaotic, and warmhearted adventures. This book marks the start of a series so catch it on the ground floor.

The reading level here is about the same as the Mr. Putter and Tabby books but it’s a bit longer and isn’t formatted in a standard Easy Reader size. In fact, my library shelves it with picture books. It’s just that sneaky. Marc Boutavant is well know for his neon-bright cartoon-style illustration work. The look of these pages is 100% sunny.

Fergus and Zeke, written by Kate Messner, illustrated by Heather Ross
published in 2017 by Candlewick Press
52 pages

Another new series starts here, with a classroom-pet mouse named Fergus who loves school, loves the kids in his class, and even loves following the rules!

But when the class heads to the Natural History Museum and Miss Maxwell says mice can’t come along — well, that’s a rule even Fergus is going to have to break. Dinosaurs? Shooting stars? Butterfly gardens? That’s way too much to miss out on.

Find out what comes of Fergus’s clandestine outing in this thoroughly enjoyable read marked with great personalities, a clever plot, and appealing illustrations. The more muted colors here make this a great choice for older beginning readers.

Captain Pug: The Dog who Sailed the Seas, written by Laura James, illustrated by Églantine Ceulemans
first published in Great Britain, 2016; U.S. edition 2017 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
124 pages

Jolly adventure, a nice, satisfyingly-thick book crammed with energetic illustrations, and large-ish type make this a splashy step up from easy readers.

Pug lives with Lady Miranda (age about 6). He loves jam tarts, ice cream, sausage rolls, chicken drumsticks…you get the idea. A comfy life with plenty of food is the life for him.

Today, however, Lady Miranda is going on a paddleboat expedition and Pug is going along. Pug is fairly nervous around water, so when the time is right, he sneaks off to hunt for snacks instead and accidentally becomes trapped in a stranger’s picnic basket. A whole string of wild sea-faring adventures await Pug, with Lady Miranda in heroic pursuit, before the two of them land back home at No. 10, The Crescent. Excellent fun and again, it’s the start of a new series you won’t want to miss.

Heartwood Hotel: A True Home and Heartwood Hotel: The Greatest Gift
  written by Kallie George, illustrated by Stephanie Graegin

published in 2017 by Disney Hyperion
162 pages each

A miniature world populated by charming forest animals. A hotel-in-a-tree with root floor space for moles and voles, hibernation suites, branch floors for chipmunks, twig floors for birds. A kindly badger who hosts First Acorn Festivals, First Snow Festivals, and the wedding of the richest skunks in the forest! And one small mouse, Mona, who in a sudden storm is swept away from home and right into a new job as maid in the bustling hotel.

Are you hooked yet? If it sounds too sweet, add a pack of cruel, conniving wolves intent on gobbling up the hotel’s patrons, a bumbling bear, and a cloud of uncertainty over Mona’s future. That’ll spice things up!

These are wonderful stories that my girls especially would have adored at around age 8.  A bit of a tiny-animal-Downton-Abbey world with all the gossip and goings-on among the Heartwood staff, lots of charming description of acorn soufflés and moss carpets, a zephyr of kindness blowing through the entire story with just enough threats to keep the plot taut, and Stephanie Graegin’s impeccable, darling illustrations.

The vocabulary and style make these ideal for young-but-advanced readers. They could work for read-alouds for good listeners though there is more description and less action here. The next volume — a Spring story — is due out in February. Delightful for ages 6-10.

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes, by Mary E. Lambert
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press
256 pages

Annabelle, age 12, has a secret, and she’s established some very important rules in order to guard it.

Like the Five Mile Radius Rule: All friends must stay at least five miles away from her house at all times. And the No Nonessentials in the Bedroom Rule: Anything that hasn’t been used in the past seven days must leave the room. Boom. No exceptions.

The reason Annabelle has created these rules is straight-up survival, prevention of humiliation being absolutely essential to a 12-year-old’s well-being. Even more, staving off suffocation-by-toppling-piles-of-garbage is Survival 101… when your mom is a hoarder.

Annabelle’s life is peppered by competing challenges. She wants to protect her little sister yet appear normal to friends. She has to manage the coinciding thrill (He likes me!) and panic (He cannot come near this house!) of a new crush. Then there’s the growing disquiet over her dad’s and brother’s habits of distancing themselves from their dysfunctional home. When you juggle too many balls, what happens? Yes, it all crashes down in one grand disaster for Annabelle. Talk about a bad day.

When everyone you care about suddenly sees the ugliness inside of you, when the veneer of normalcy cracks and your shame is exposed, when adults you are counting on let you down majorly…what then?

I very much enjoyed Annabelle’s story. It’s such an unusual topic for a middle-grade novel, yet the sense of shame and lack of control over a parent’s dysfunction translates to a number of other situations and Lambert nails that turmoil. Annabelle’s growth stems from both external factors — a grandmother who steps into the chaos — and internal resources as she wrestles through a host of responses to her predicament and finds a way forward in honesty, coming to terms with what can change and what cannot change in her life.

No tidy endings here. But hope and a way forward. I recommend it for ages 11 and up.

And here’s the give-away!!

The Mystery of the Painted Dragon, by Katherine Woodfine
first American edition 2017 by Kane Miller
333 pages

This is the third in this breezy series following amateur detectives Sophie and Lil in their Edwardian world of London.

In this episode, an art show at the glittering Sinclair’s Department Store results in the theft of a priceless painting belonging to the King himself! Sophie and Lil band together with their old accomplices, Billy and Joe, and some new friends to uncover the villains in an adventure brimming with peril!

I’ve given away the first two books in this series previously, and thanks to the generosity of Kane Miller, I’ve got this third volume to give away today. If you haven’t read the earlier books, you’ll definitely be at a disadvantage starting at this point, but not completely lost as the mystery itself is self-contained. It’s a great choice for voracious readers ages 10 and up.

Here’s a link where you can purchase the other volumes if you’re interested. New copies are not for sale on Amazon. Meanwhile, leave a comment on today’s blog telling us what you’d most like for afternoon tea — a circumstance that often arises in these delightful mysteries! — and I’ll draw a winner a week from today. U.S. postal addresses only, please.

With our arrival in Europe, we’ve reached the end of our tour! 

Finding picture books set in contemporary Europe — without a WWII focus — is surprisingly challenging here in the U.S. You can read more of my thoughts about that in my earlier musings post.  Here’s what I turned up, scattered across the islands and on the continent:


Tobias Has a Birthday, written and illustrated by Ole Hertz, translated from the Danish by Tobi Tobias
originally published in Denmark in 1981; English edition published in 1984 by Carolrhoda Books

In fact, this is a story set in Greenland! That doesn’t involve medieval Vikings! Hurrah!

Tobias lives in Greenland with his family, and today he is 12 years old. What will transpire on this glad day?  Fetching ice to melt for making coffee. Making the rounds of the settlement to invite everyone to his party — a few at a time because the house can’t hold them all at once! Neighbors hard at work scraping sealskins, repairing sleds. Grandma’s stories of the old days.

Enticing gifts and a lovely playtime, rolling on oil drums with the other children. Unadorned text and minimalist illustration creates that spare, expansive feel of this windswept region. I adore this opportunity to peek into a most unusual life, and there are several other books about Tobias as well! Ages 3 and up.


Puffling Patrol, written and illustrated by Ted and Betsy Lewin
published by Lee & Low in 2014

Puffins who nest and raise chicks on Iceland’s islands have an odd challenge when it comes time to migrate in the fall. Lights of the towns can confuse the newest fliers, luring them to yards and streets where they become rather stuck. In order to fly, they need to launch themselves into the sea breeze from the cliffs.

The Puffling patrol is clusters of local kids who help biologists find these stranded birds and re-launch them. This fascinating and beautifully illustrated account is by the great team of Ted and Betsy Lewin. You can read my full review here. Ages 4 and up.


Welcome Back Sun, written and illustrated by Michael Emberley
published in 1993 by Little, Brown and Company

Along with being one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, Norway is also one of Earth’s places that receives precious little sunlight during the long winter months and heaps of it in mid-summer.

The little girl in this story lives in one of the deep valleys tucked at the foot of Norway’s majestic mountains, which means her town gets even less of the sun’s rays during murketiden — the dark time that descends and gloomifies her life after the jollity of Christmas. See the way she copes with it in this pretty little story. Although the characters are clothed in older, more traditional Norwegian garb, the challenges of darkness and the enormous gladness that comes with sunlight are as true as ever. Charming, for ages 3 and up.


Stina, written and illustrated by Lena Anderson
first American edition in 1989 by Greenwillow


Stina’s Visit — American edition 1991 by Greenwillow

Two of my favorite books set in Sweden are challenging to find but worth a search. Stina is a plucky, flaxen-haired girl who is lucky enough to visit her dear grandpa in his cottage by the sea every summer.  There, they arise early in the morning for coffee by glass-smooth waters, then head out in the wooden fishing dory to check Grandpa’s nets.

Stina ambles along the rocky coast collecting treasures washed ashore by waves, and the two of them eat fresh fish at the picnic table each evening. What a lovely set of days. 

Trouble comes when Stina decides to get an up-close look at the sea during a storm. She gets a bit more wet wildness than she bargains for.  Grandpa’s response to her calamity is one of my very favorites in children’s literature.

Her second adventure has her paying a birthday visit with Grandpa to his old friend Stretchit who regales Stina with quite the sea yarn! Both books reveal the exquisite beauty of Sweden’s islands through the pristine watercolor work of Lena Anderson. Ages 2 and up.


I See the Sun in Russia, written by Dedie King, illustrated by Judith Inglese
published in 2012 by Satya House Publications

Here’s this Satya House series once more, letting us tag along with Anton on his typical day growing up in Saint Petersburg.

Catch a glimpse of the strong role of the arts in Russian culture and the patriotism of Saint Petersburg’s people. See what the schoolchildren eat for lunch, and why Papa dreams of spending time at their dacha after a long day at work. A quiet, ordinary pace sets the tone for these realistic portraits of life for children around the world, which I love. They’re accompanied by mixed media collages including photos. Ages 3 and up.

R is for Russia, written by Valdimir Kabakov, photographed by Prodeepta Das
published in 2011 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Another great entry in this series, written by a man born in Siberia near Lake Baikal who has lived and worked in many different parts of Russia. View everything from chess to the underground railway, religious icons to Siberian tigers in this alphabetic tour of vast Russia. Great for ages 5 and up.

British Isles

Katie Morag and the Birthdays, written and illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick
published in 2005 by The Bodley Head

I dearly love Katie Morag, the red-headed, gumptious gal in her Wellies, careening around the fictional Scottish Isle of Struay. There are many stories about her. This birthday extravaganza volume tracks through one year of the McColl family’s loving chaos and all the birthdays celebrated along the way.

There are lots of folks to celebrate — Katie’s baby sister Flora Ann is turning One, while Neilly Beag is 70 years young. Grannie Island, Granma Mainland, Liam, all the Big Boy Cousins…even the sheep and the dog have birthdays to mark.

For Katie, every day that is not her birthday is a pinch of agony. “WHEN will it be MY birthday?” she moans. Not to worry — it’s a lovely one when her turn comes.

I love the out-of-doors wildness of life on Struay and the mussy household of the McColls, so similar to the realistic untidiness of Shirley Hughes’ families. The blustering strength, simple creativity, and genuine affection between all these characters makes for bracing, happy tales.

Besides all that, you get some Jolly Extras in this book including clever birthday cards and crafts to make, and the recipe for a jim-dandy castle cake with plenty of biscuits and chocolate! It’s a treat for ages 4 and up.

All Aboard the London Bus, written by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Sam Usher
published in 2017 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

Dash around London seeing the sights with this energetic family.

 photo All Aboard the London Bus spreads 9781847808578_Page_12_zps28j525nq.jpg

Hop on the red double-decker bus, crane your neck to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, spot all the goings-on at busy Trafalgar Square, mind the gap on the Tube, give a cheer at The Globe, and for goodness’ sake don’t skip tea and scones in the afternoon! Vigorous poems introduce each scene while Sam Usher’s friendly, colorful illustrations spread a thrilling London upon these pages. Notes about each place on the tour are included so you can learn a bit more. Jolly good fun for ages 4 and up.

London Calls, written by Gabby Dawnay, illustrated by Alex Barrow
published in 2014 by Tate Publishing

Or, trot along with Pearl and Granny Rose on their whirlwind tour of London.

Rhyming text merrily skips along, zigging and zagging among charming illustrations of everything from the London Eye to the Tube to Kensington Gardens. If you love London, I promise you will like this little book. Ages 4 and up.

Megan’s Year: An Irish Traveler’s Story, written by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Beth Peck
published in 2011 by Sleeping Bear Press

Megan is one of approximately 25,000 “travelers” in Ireland. You might know them as Gypsies, a pejorative term which has been replaced by Roma or Travelers.

Catch a glimpse of her life over the course of a year as she and her family move about Ireland in search of seasonal jobs, listen to fiddling by the campfires on summer evenings, and cope with the unique difficulties of an itinerant lifestyle when it comes to schooling. It’s a fascinating account brought to life with vivid paintings. Ages 5 and up.

The Netherlands

Father, May I Come?, written and illustrated by Peter Spier
published in 1993 by Doubleday Books for Young Readers

The inimitable Peter Spier brings us to Holland in two parallel stories of the sea. On a North Sea island off the Dutch coast, the townspeople have for centuries rescued the crews of ships who ran afoul of sudden, ferocious storms and the tricky sandbanks and channels strewn along the coast.

Spier illustrates the account of one such rescue in 1687, and another rescue more than 300 years later, showing us as only he can the intriguing similarities and clear differences in not only the means of  ocean rescue, but the occupations, clothing, and lives of these brave citizens.  Strike a bell for courageous Netherlanders and pour over Spier’s fascinating panels. Several pages of more technical information about modern day rescue equipment and the history of coastal rescue efforts are included. Ages 5 and up.


A Walk in Paris, written and illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino
published in 2014 by Candlewick Press

Salvatore Rubbino graces every page of this travel guide to Paris with his charming, stylish illustration work. If you know M. Sisek’s travel guides to various world-class cities, you might think of this as an updated but similar idea.

Join a young girl and her grandfather as they stroll the boulevards, gaze down from Notre-Dame’s tower, eat at a bistro, goggle over pastries, meander in the Tuileries, gawk at the Eiffel Tower and ever so much more. Cram jam with Parisian particulars. Dip into this as much or as little as attention spans can manage, ages 4 to much older.


Crossing the Gotthard: The Longest Tunnel in the World, written and illustrated by Yvonne Rogenmoser, translated by David Henry Wilson
first published in Switzerland; English edition published in 2016 by NorthSouth

Embedded in the psyche of the Swiss are, of course, the Alps. Those of us who live on the flat midwestern plains do not grow up thinking about crossing mountain passes and waiting for tunnel congestion in order to drive just a few hours for a holiday.

But for centuries, those who live in the neighborhood of the Alps have encountered these magnificent obstacles to travel. The ways they’ve coped with one particularly vexing section, the Schöllenen Gorge, is surveyed here, brilliantly. Discover the attempts of Swiss travelers to surmount this section, from medieval times right up to 2016 when the longest tunnel in the world opened. The mountaineering and engineering of the Swiss are uniquely on display here, for ages 7 and up.


Olivia Goes to Venice, written and illustrated by Ian Falconer
published in 2010 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

Yes, I’ve tapped Olivia to give us a silly but cool glimpse of Venice. As always, Olivia is full of shenanigans that threaten the very foundations of this old city, but you’ll also get lovely glimpses of the canals, bridges, and cathedrals for which Venice is famous.

It is definitely a jolly introduction to this unique tourist-magnet of a city, with copious gelato consumed! Ages 2 and up.

Orani: My Father’s Village, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola
published in 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers

Orani is a tiny village of narrow, cobbled  streets, red clay-tiled roofs, dusky-green fig trees and drooping grape clusters, tucked in a sun-soaked, Mediterranean valley on the isle of Sardinia.

Clarie Nivola’s father was born in that village and brought his family there frequently throughout Claire’s childhood. This is her exquisite account of life in sunny Orani.  Of scorching sun and cool spring water; wedding dances and wild horse races; women baking bread in clay ovens and uncles offering ice creams at the cafe.  Accompanied by her achingly-beautiful artwork, Nivola paints a time and place incredibly sweet with precision and fondness.

The text is sparse, but a lengthy Author’s Note adds many more intriguing details. It’s a stunningly beautiful book both in its artwork and its rich, evocative language.  A lovely read for ages 6 to 100.


Island Summer, written and illustrated by Catherine Stock
published in 1999 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books

Mediterranean waters, moonlight-white houses rambling up sun-soaked, olive green hillsides. Yes, I could breathe easier here.

An island summer in Greece begins as the cold rains of winter end and the summer sun strengthens, soothing “angry waves into a flat shimmering sea and soak[ing] up the muddy puddles like freshly baked pound cake sops up melted chocolate.”

Watch ferryboats unload passengers, inns welcome summer folk, ladies in flowery dresses and children with sand buckets bask in sunshine, loll in hammocks, play soccer on the beach, and dance to fiddles by starlight.

The whole book is fragrant with the loveliness of this place, and this pace. Ages 3 and up.


T is for Turkey, written by Nilüfer Topaloglu Pyper, photography by Prodeepta Das
published in 2010 by Frances Lincoln Books

Discover Turkish tea, Henna nights, maras ice cream, a snack called leblebi, the chalky wonders of Pamukkale, an unusual musical instrument called the zurna, and more in this alphabetical sampler of Turkey, a country at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. Ages 5 and up.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Flowers for Sarajevo, written by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell
published in 2017 by Peachtree Publishers

You’re probably aware of The Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic, who in the midst of unspeakable terrors during the Balkan War, chose to step into the ruined streets with his instrument and create mournful beauty in one small square. Day after day after day. This fictionalized account allows us to experience that moment through the eyes of a young boy living amid the devastation.

This is less an account of Sarajevo per se than of the impact of beauty in the midst of wreckage, but it’s a glimpse. Perhaps it will entice you to learn more about the people of the Balkan region who have again been in he midst of so much upheaval due to the conflict in Syria. A CD with Smailovic playing the piece — Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor — is included. Ages 6 and up.

Traveling the world via picture book has been a great learning experience for me as I’ve delved into all sorts of different places people love to call home.

You can catch all the previous stops on the tour with these links:

Destination: Canada

Destination: The Caribbean and Mexico

Destination: Central and South America

Destination: West Africa

Destination: Central and South Africa

Destination: East Africa

Destination: Central Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa

Destination: Indian Subcontinent

Destination: East Asia

Destination: Australia, New Zealand, and Micronesia

A Sampler of Cultures

Buckle up for a World Tour

Musings: a world of swiss cheese

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