a list of…five books about mingling cultures

A Country Far Away, story by Nigel Gray, illustrations by Philippe Dupasquier 

A young boy from the dry, hot, sandy lands of West Africa, and a young boy from the green-lawn, attached-garage suburbs of America (or Europe), tell us about their lives in this wonderful book.  More accurately, the boys tell us a little bit and some snapshots tell us a whole lot more.  Together, they offer a delightful, intriguing comparison of the two cultures. 

This book does almost all its talking through pictures. Each two page spread has only one short statement on it, such as, “Today was an ordinary day.  I stayed home,” or, “Today we went into town to do some shopping.”  These statements are set in the center of the page, dividing it in half.  Running along the top half of the pages are scenes from West Africa which illustrate that ordinary day or trip to town.  Running along the bottom half of the pages are scenes depicting the same activity as it is carried out in the U.S.  For example, an ordinary day in West Africa shows scenes from the boy’s village and pictures him helping to herd goats, while the ordinary day in the U.S. shows the boy’s neighborhood and pictures of him helping to wash the car. Both boys have ordinary days, which are extraordinarily different.   In the course of this book we compare chores, schools, bike rides, new baby arrivals, days of swimming and shopping, soccer games, and so on. 

The illustrations are joyous, colorful depictions of the boys’ lives, which are both made to look appealing.  The ingenuous means of comparing the two lives works very well.  We purchased this book many years ago when we were living in West Africa with our children, and happily concur with its portrayal of the similarities and differences between the two homes.

Dear Primo:  A Letter to My Cousin, written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh 

This book is similar in approach to A Country Far Away as it compares and contrasts two boys’ cultures – this time, that of cousin Carlitos, who lives in Mexico, and cousin Charlie, who lives in a large city in the United States.  These two cousins write letters back and forth, telling one another about their lives.  They talk about the neighborhoods where they live, how they get to school, sports, favorite foods, shopping, holidays, and more.   Once again, their lives consist of many similar activities, which are also delightfully different.  Carlitos rides his “bicicleta” to school past cacti, while Charlie hops on the subway.   Carlitos enjoys the mariachi troupes during local festivals, while Charlie watches the marching bands in the parades. 

The text is nicely brief, yet interesting, with colorful detail.  Each entry from Carlitos includes some Spanish words which are conveniently illustrated so that we non-Spanish-speakers can understand!   The illustrations are bright, fill-up-the-page, highly-stylized mixed media.  They are visually strong and attention-grabbing.  Mr. Tonatiuh was born in Mexico City and has spent his life living in both Mexico and New York City.  His voice and illustrations feel very authentic. 

The Journey, written by Sarah Stewart, with pictures by David Small

You don’t have to leave the country to find a new culture.  In The Journey, we meet Hannah, a young Amish girl whose life is centered on her family’s farm and their quiet, plain ways.  In a series of diary entries, Hannah describes for us her first visit to Chicago with her mother and their friend Maggie. 

We spent the entire day walking in and out of stores.  I wonder who buys all those things and where do they put them when they get home?”  Hannah writes on Monday. Each day is full of spectacular wonders – skyscrapers and aquariums, fashions and cathedrals.  At the end of the week, though, during her trip to the Chicago Art Institute, we see Hannah gazing at Monet’s famous haystacks, misty-eyed with longing for the sweet family and farm she’ll soon be greeting once again. 

The book is beautifully illustrated by yours-truly David Small.  We get a two-page spread with Hannah’s diary entry and a vivid picture of the day’s outing in Chicago, followed by a two page, wordless spread, illustrated in more subdued tones and depicting a kindred activity back on the farm.  When Hannah goes shopping, for instance, we see a glamorous department store and a pink-dressed, high-heeled saleswoman showing a flouncy, polka-dotted dress to Hannah, while the following pages show serene Aunt Clara in her apron, standing near her treadle sewing machine, working on a plain blue shift for Hannah.  Consistently, the Chicago pictures are more brash, detailed and colorful, while the farm pictures radiate a soft warmth and use simpler lines.  A beautiful study in contrasts.  Hannah sure enjoys her trip, but in the end, there is clearly no place like home.

How My Parents Learned to Eat, by Ina R. Friedman, illustrated by Allen Say 

This book tells the story of a charming romance between a young Japanese girl and an American sailor stationed in Japan.  Although the two are in love, they both harbor a secret fear:  eating dinner together.  For John does not know how to eat with chopsticks, and Aiko does not know the intricacies of knives and forks.  John’s days in Japan are almost over and it is imperative that they get this eating-together problem worked out if he is going to marry her, for goodness’ sake!  So they both set about secretly learning to eat.  John practices not letting his tidbits of meat fall into his lap; Aiko practices balancing her peas on her fork.  They are all set to accommodate themselves to the other’s manner of eating.  In the end, of course, they happily marry, and it is their daughter who tells us this tale, which explains why she eats, quite naturally, both ways. 

This is a sweet, gently funny story, and Allen Say’s always-beautiful illustrations complement it perfectly.  Mr. Say was born in Yokohama, Japan, and has written and illustrated many gorgeous books set in Japan.  I always enjoy his work.

Madlenka, written and illustrated by Peter Sis 

This is a very unusual book by a master-illustrator in which, once again, we don’t leave the United States, yet encounter many different cultures. 

Madlenka is a little girl who lives in New York City.  The pictures for this book begin on the inside of the book cover, where a far-off blue earth bears a tiny red dot showing us Madlenka’s location.  Page after page we zoom in closer and closer, seeing everything from an aerial view, until we arrive at Madlenka’s very window.  Madlenka, we learn, has a loose, wiggly tooth, and this exciting news just has to be shared with all her neighbors around the city block.  Madlenka’s neighbors have come from all over the world to make their homes in New York City.  We meet Mr. Gaston, the French baker, Mr. Singh, the Indian man who runs a newsstand, Mr. Ciao from Italy with his ice-cream truck, and several others as Madlenka spreads her news. 

The illustrations are completely out-of-the-box.  You have not seen anything like this.  Aerial views of Madlenka’s block are decorated with colorful bits and pieces from the homelands of her neighbors.  Elaborate shop windows open up to show us the amazing worlds and cultures these folks have left behind.  And always, there is perky little Madlenka in her pink clothes and lemon-yellow rain boots skippeting through the pages.  Differing scripts distinguish the greetings in all the various languages these neighbors speak.  At the end of the book, a globe pinpoints the countries all these interesting people came from.  This book is enticing; it got rave reviews from all my teen-and-above kids.  Check it out!