a list of…five stories featuring captivating cultures

Are We There Yet? story and illustrations by Alison Lester

Heading to the Land Down Under, this book is a grand geography lesson by popular Aussie author, Alison Lester.

Eight-year-old Grace and her family — Mum, Dad, and brothers Luke and Billy — decide to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the whole of Australia, visiting family and friends, and seeing all of its widely-varied people, terrain, and attractions.  It’s going to take them out of school for a whole term!  What could be better?!

After entrusting their pets to the care of Nan and Poppa, and hitching the camper trailer up to the Land Rover, they set off for 3 months of adventures.  Grace narrates the whole trip in this scrapbook-type account which is jam-packed with pictures and sprinkled with helpful maps.  We see bizarre sand formations and boab trees, Bungle Bungles and the Three Sisters, Uluru and the Great Barrier Reef, Thorny Devils and penguins.  Grace munches on fish and chips, as well as witchetty grubs.  She views Dreamtime drawings…and fireworks over Sydney Harbor.  Her family surfs, snorkels, camps, hikes, markets, fishes, rides horses, and goes sledding.  And they drive and drive and drive.

I love this fabulous, insider’s guide to Australia, and the happy, active, agreeable family we tour it with.  Lester’s colorful, warm illustrations of Grace’s family and her outstanding “snapshots” of Australia, are immensely attractive.  The only problem is:  Australia is so very far away!

Tap-Tap, by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock

The small, impoverished island country of Haiti has been much in the news since the devastating earthquake in January 2010 and the subsequent slow  recovery and cholera epidemic.  This story gives us a sunnier view of rural Haiti through the eyes of one small, determined, eight-year-old girl.

Sasifi is going to market with her Mama, something she has done often, but never as the stout, responsible girl carrying her own basket-load of oranges on her head as she is today.  As Sasifi walks along, she looks longingly at the brilliantly-colored tap-taps — the truck taxis of Haiti — and recommends to her Mama that they ride one.  Mama is too frugal, though, and they continue on foot all the way to the bustling market.  What a lot of intriguing things for sale!  Brooms and chairs, hats and sugar cane. 

When Sasifi’s Mama leaves her to tend the oranges while she does her marketing, Sasifi works hard and manages to sell all the rest of the oranges herself!  When Mama returns, she is so pleased with Sasifi, she gives her some coins to spend on whatever she pleases.  What will Sasifi choose?  Peanut candy?  Icy cold juice?  No, siree.  Sasifi buys two spots in a tap-tap so she and her Mama can have a thrilling ride home.  It turns out to be quite a squished ride…but a happy one, nonetheless.   And…along the way we learn why the trucks are called tap-taps!

Catherine Stock is one of my favorite illustrators.  Her watercolors are brilliant.. beautiful…well-conceived.  The landscapes and people and markets and tap-taps of Haiti are vividly brought to life on these pages, perfectly complementing this sweet, respectful story. 

Monsoon, by Uma Krishnaswami, illustrated by Jamel Akib

In northern India, the days are oppressive with heat.  Heat that shimmers in the air, and blisters the land, and weighs in the minds of the people like a heavy blanket.  And that is why the coming of the monsoon season is watched for and waited for like a gift from the gods.

The hot winds blow strong.  The noisy koel birds sing out their wild rain-welcoming songs.  The weathermen track the movements of the clouds.  But still the rain delays.  The tensions grow as the people wait.

Then, with wondrous, refreshing vitality, one day the clouds burst, and torrents of rain drive down from the skies onto the dusty earth and rejoicing people.  The monsoon has come!

This book is a brilliantly colorful portrayal of one modern Indian girl’s days anticipating the arrival of the rainy season — monsoon.  Her life is an intriguing mixture of what is familiar to us — TV, busy city streets, hopscotch, stories with Grandma — and what is foreign to most of us — tea stalls, spice merchants, statues of Ganesh, and Bollywood stars on billboards.  The bright illustrations, and the vivid details in the text, work together fantastically to transport us to this striking corner of the world.

Mama and Papa Have a Store, story and pictures by Amelia Lau Carling

Mama and Papa are Chinese immigrants, living in Guatemala City, and running a dry goods store where they sell everything from buttons and cloth,  to firecrackers, perfume and soy sauce.   Their lives are woven with threads from several cultures.  Papa does his accounts with an abacus, while Mama chats with customers in Spanish.  Mayan-Indian families come to purchase gloriously-colored thread for their weavings, while the Chinese bean curd seller brings fresh tofu for lunch, which also features corn tortillas.  It is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural life.

This story is narrated by a little girl, the youngest in her family, who keeps herself busy at the store, feeds the goldfish in their patio pool, coasts down her waxed tin roof on a cardboard sled, and buys sweets from the candy lady, whose wooden box is loaded with goodies.  It is a lively and very joyful look at her life, her family, and her neighborhood.  The text is deliciously sensory, and the watercolors are bursting with color and intriguing details. 

Amelia Lau Carling writes this as a Guatemalan-born child of Chinese immigrants.  Her parents fled China in 1938 when the Japanese invaded their village, and settled in Guatemala to run a general store.  These stories of her own childhood delighted her own children so much that she wrote them down for us, which is good news!  Because this is a gem of a book.

My Little Round House, written and illustrated by Bolormaa Baasansuren

Jilu is a little Mongolian baby, born into a nomadic family,  in his family’s ger.  This story follows Jilu through his  first year of life, a very ordinary year for a Mongolian nomad perhaps, but an unusually fascinating year for the rest of us!

Jilu is surrounded by love from his father and mother, grandfather and grandmother.  He grows up in the midst of the animals of the household — dogs and sheep, goats and camels.  These are the constants in Jilu’s life.  However, with each change in season, his parents pack up the household belongings, load them onto camels, and move on to another location — autumn camp, winter camp, spring camp and summer camp.  Just imagine moving house four times every year! 

In each place, Jilu’s mother and father set up the family’s ger, erecting poles and wrapping them in felt, leaving a hole at the top to let blue sky in, and cooking smoke out.  These homes are radiant with color — burning orange, magenta, emerald green.  Jilu is surrounded with dazzling color and patterns in his warm cocoon.  Inside the ger, the family eats their dinners of dumplings and fermented milk, cares for new lambs born in wintertime, and celebrates holidays together.  Outside, the vast grassy plains stretch to the sky.  In summertime, the warm sun invites Jilu to play, but in winter, the long, cold darkness means the family spends lots of time just sleeping.

This short, simple book by a Mongolian author/artist, describes Jilu’s life with interesting, though sparse, text.  The pictures, with their vivd, jewel-like colors and intriguing, authentic details, make the story pop with appeal and wonder.  An intriguing look at an unusual, hidden culture.

Amazon links are below:

Are We There Yet?
Mama and Papa Have a Store
My Little Round House