a list of…five stories to transport you around the world

Orani: My Father’s Village, written and illustrated by Claire A. Nivola

Orani is a tiny village of narrow, cobbled  streets and 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 was fortunate enough to have a father born in that village, to which he trundled his family frequently throughout Claire’s childhood, crossing seas, driving along winding mountain roads, arriving to fond embraces by cousins and aunts and uncles.

This is Nivola’s 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 a place incredibly sweet, impossibly distant, with precision and fondness.  The jarring juxtaposition of her other world  — New York City — captures the curious experience of having two such disparate places which feel like home.

In a lengthy Author’s Note that accompanies her sparse text, Nivola gratifies us with many more intriguing details of her life, growing up the child of a talented artist, flitting back and forth between these two worlds.  This book is truly, stunningly beautiful, both in its artwork, and its rich, evocative language.  A lovely read for 6-years old through 100.

The Bicycle Man, written and illustrated by Allen Say

In post-war Japan, a small boy attends a little school, nestled on a terraced mountain, perched above the quiet waters of the harbor.  It’s the annual sports day, held each spring; a festive occasion.  Sporting red and white headbands, the children work together to decorate the playground with streamers, chalk the finish lines, and await parents hauling kettles of tea and lovely lacquer boxes filled with pickled melon rinds and egg rolls.  Finally, it’s time for the races to start.

There are running races , piggyback races, races for children, and races for teachers.  And there are prizes!  Exciting little boxes wrapped so beautifully, filled with goodies.   All this is expected on the annual sports day.

What isn’t expected, is for two American servicemen to show up.  “One of them was a white man with bright hair like fire, and the other man had a face as black as the earth.”  This is a little nerve-wracking, though they had no guns.  And what really, really isn’t expected, is the fabulous show these guys put on by borrowing the principal’s bicycle.  Such cleverness!  Such acrobatics!  The whole crowd of school children and teachers and parents go wild with enthusiasm.  Then, the day is over, and the soldiers politely take their leave.

This exquisite story of a moment of breathtaking connection, of a jewel of a day when two utterly different cultures mingled sweetly, comes from  master storyteller and illustrator, Allen Say.  It is a quiet story, despite the racing and cheering, seen from the distance of time.  Incredibly, Say manages to portray not only the experience of the narrator, but somehow also allows me to share the experience of  the Americans, their delight in goofing off on that bicycle, and entertaining the crowd, and mingling with the villagers, and creating a memory of goodness for this community.

Say’s pure lines and uncluttered scenes, fascinating details and soft colors,  bring the charming children, the beautiful Japanese landscape, and the towering American soldiers to life, perfectly.  We read this book so many times when my kids were young, my copy is worn ragged.  Highly recommended.

My Name is Sangoel, written by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock

Sangoel, a young, tall, Dinka boy, begins his life in Sudan.  When his father is killed in the war, he and the rest of his family flee, escaping the violence, making the long journey to a refugee camp.  Now, they are flying to America.  It is hopeful, and sad, and terrifying, all at the same time.

The assault of neon signs, bizarre escalators, and masses of people speaking English, is utterly overwhelming until kind Mrs. Johnson welcomes them and begins, piece by piece, to teach them how to live in this new place.  There’s a lot to learn:  how to cross a street, cook with a stove, answer the telephone.  Sangoel also has to learn to navigate school.  However, there’s one bit that Sangoel has to teach his friends, rather than learn himself — that is how to pronounce his name.  Sangoel accomplishes this in an extremely clever way!

This is a warm, hope-filled story that brings understanding to those of us on the welcoming side of a refugee’s journey.  It’s a fantastic collaboration between Williams, who has written a number of books we’ve loved through the years, and Khadra Mohammed, with her 20 years of experience working with refugees, and Catherine Stock, whose watercolors I rave about frequently here on Orange Marmalade.  A concluding Authors’ Note gives a bit more explanation about refugees and the Dinka in particular.  Insightful story that’s perfect for ages 4/5 and up.

Megan’s Year:  An Irish Traveler’s Story, by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Beth Peck

Megan Brady is a ten-year-old, red-haired Irish lass who belongs to a group of people, approximately 25,000-strong, known as Travelers in Ireland.

Following the same routine as generations of Travelers before them, Megan and her family move about Ireland throughout the summer, looking for odd jobs — a potato field to cultivate, a stable to muck out, a roof to mend.  Everyone pitches in to work, but it’s work in the fresh air, elbow to elbow with one another, with ponds to swim in, fiddlers by the campfires, and food to share with fellow Travelers, so for Megan, it’s a happy life.

When winter sets in, it’s off to Dublin where Megan’s family lives in a small, cramped house,  Daddy scrounges for jobs, Mammy sells old clothes, and Megan

Travelers from long ago.

goes to school.  School is not so easy for Megan.  She’s late getting there, so she’s behind her classmates, and as a Traveler, she’s the target of cruel, rude remarks.  Even her kind, understanding teacher can’t quite keep Megan’s mind and heart from wandering into the countryside that will be hers again, come summer.

This is a fascinating glimpse by a fabulous author into a small and dwindling culture.  A brief Author’s Note adds a little more information, and a glossary helps with some of the lingo used by Whelan to whisk us into Megan’s world. Beth Peck’s vibrant paintings fill the pages with warm summery scenes, family camaraderie, and the gold-striped caravan that Megan calls home.

Catch That Crocodile! by Anushka Ravishankar, illustrated by Pulak Biswas

Falguni Fruitseller is minding her own business, calling out to buyers, “Banana!  Guava!  Mango!”  When suddenly — there is a crocodile in her way!  Yikes!  All of a flutter, Falguni rushes off, yelling for help!  Can the Policeman catch him?  Nope.  Can the Doctor?!  Oh dear me, no!  How about that muscular wrestler, that Atlas-of-a-guy, can he do it?  Not a chance.  It’s up to little Meena, that very little girl walking by, selling her fish.  Can she do it?!?!  But of course she can.

This delightful story is written in fantastic, rhyming text that rocks and tickles like Dr. Seuss sprinkled with a bit of curry powder.  Excellent fun!  Meanwhile, the illustrations are bold, black and green, folk-art prints on khaki-colored pages.  There’s great lilt and strength to them that perfectly accompanies the energetic storyline.  Varied size fonts accent the exclamations of surprise and alarm as these villagers attempt to catch that crocodile!

This one will please preschoolers and up, who I bet will chant along with the story after just a few listens.

Here are Amazon links for all this global goodness!

Orani: My Father’s Village

The Bicycle Man (Sandpiper)

My Name Is Sangoel (Young Readers)

Megan’s Year: An Irish Traveler’s Story (Tales of the World)

Catch That Crocodile!