an exuberant global tour!…gorgeous stories from diverse cultures

I always have my eye out for excellent books ushering us into diverse cultures and places.
Today’s collection is crammed with stunning illustration work and riveting stories.
Welcome the world to your living room!

¡Vamos!: Let’s Go Eat, by Raúl the Third, color by Elaine Bay
published in 2020 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

I was jazzed to see this follow up to ¡Vamos!: Let’s Go to Market. Both of these books knock it out of the mercado with their fizzy artwork, jalapeño-hot energy and brilliant mixology of Spanish language/culture with enough English for us Anglophones to come along on the wild ride.

Little Lobo’s help is requested at el Coliseo where the luchadores are hankering for some good food before evening showtime. Off goes the gang to the food trucks to pick up a mouthwatering array of dinner options. A glossary of Spanish food vocabulary is included. Brilliant fun for ages 4 and up. A 2020 Pura Belpré Honor Winner!

Catch That Chicken, by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
published in 2020 by Candlewick

The team who gave us B is for Baby is back with another gem.  This story stars Lami, an expert chicken catcher if there ever was one.

Race around her West African compound on her epic chicken chases, then see how clever Lami can be at chicken-snatching even when she’s hobbled by a twisted ankle.  Joyous, lively, endearing. A perfect catch for ages 2 and up.

The Most Beautiful Thing, written by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le
published in 2020 by Carolrhoda Books

Minnesota-author Kao Kalia Yang’s exquisite portrait of her Hmong grandmother envelops us in tenderness, warmth, honor, and abiding affection. 

Yang’s vivid childhood memories glow like burnished brass as she tells of her Hmong upbringing, of caring for her grandmother, and of the ways this dear, elderly woman in turn enriched her life. Grandma’s stories of a tremendously difficult childhood in Southeast Asia etch empathy into little Kao’s heart, and her aged smile provides Kao with a lasting definition of beauty.  

I am so deeply glad to see such a beautiful story from a member of Minnesota’s Hmong community. The rich, dignified, evocative artwork from Vietnamese artist Khoa Le infuses the pages with elements of Hmong culture, Asian homelands, and deep love. A gem for ages 5 through adult.

A Sky Without Lines, written by Krystia Basil, illustrated by Laura Borràs
English edition 2019 by Michael Neugebauer Publishing Ltd.

Arturo loves maps, especially the lines where countries meet, where the two land masses are smooshed together as if greeting one another with a squeezy hug.

What he does not like, though, is the fact that these borders have been drawn to keep people separate. One line in particular, the one snaking between Mexico and the U.S., the one cutting off his father and brother from his mother and himself, is the saddest of all. If only he and his brother could meet in the sky, far off in space where there are no lines at all. Cayenne-warm, distinctive artwork rivets our eyes on every page of this poignant, hopeful narrative. Ages 4 and up.

Are Your Stars Like My Stars?, written by Leslie Helakoski, illustrated by Heidi Woodward Sheffield
published in 2020 by Sterling Children’s Books

This global tour, thrumming with vivid colors, explores the many ways people see the world the same, yet differently, from those in distant places.

When one child sees the blue around him it’s the wild ocean waves, while another child sees blue in the stone buildings of Chefchaouen, Morocco. One child’s red might be the apples in a Washington state orchard, while another’s is found in Chinese New Year’s lanterns.

The artwork in this book is stunning, warmly conveying a glorious array of cultures with beauty and dignity. The sophisticated concept is presented in a welcoming, child-centric fashion that will suit children as young as 3 or 4, yet speak to those much older as well. It’s a gem.

Under the Southern Cross, written and illustrated by Frané Lessac
originally published in Australia; first U.S. edition 2019 by Candlewick Press

G’day mate! It’s time for an Australian walkabout!

It’s a nighttime tour, popping in on folks from Tasmania to Darwin, Brisbane to Perth, after the sun’s gone down. Some watch a movie outdoors while others observe the uncanny Min Min lights in the Outback. Some observe loggerhead turtles hatching while others catch the unusual Staircase to the Moon reflected in the mudflats near Broome, Western Australia. All of it is done under the twinkling stars of the Southern Cross. Can you spot it on every page?

It’s a fascinating tour, one in which I learned an awful lot. Lessac’s iconic artwork brings enormous warmth and rich humanness to every page. Included are two pages of information about the constellation itself. A fabulous getaway for ages 5 and up.

Yusra Swims, written by Julie Abery, illustrated by Sally Deng
published in 2020 by Creative Editions

I’m guessing many of you remember the young Syrian woman in the 2016 Olympics who competed on the first ever Refugee Olympic Team, who as a teenager helped tow a disabled dinghy across the sea to Greece, saving her fellow passengers.

This is her story, written in brief quatrains, a streamlined, punchy approach to represent a person whose world was stripped away, whose life was reduced to essentials, whose courage focused her energy on one thing — survival.

Each page is dominated by arresting artwork. The muscular line, earthy palette, and somber tone strike just the right note for this taut account. An afterword tells a bit more about Yusra Mardini, one of the heroes of our time. Share this moving picture book with ages 7 and older.

A Story About Afiya, written by James Berry, illustrated by Anna Cunha
published in 2020 by Lantana Publishing

James Berry, OBE, was a Jamaican poet who spent his adult life in the UK. I have previously featured his poetry in a Christmas book called Celebration Song.

This book, published posthumously, contains his superbly imaginative piece about a little girl named Afiya. The text does not tell us where Afiya lives, but Brazilian artist Anna Cunha seems to reference Jamaica in her illustrations, so I like to think of Afiya as living there.

Afiya is the owner of a wondrous white dress that is imprinted each day by some lovely bit of nature she happens by. If she walks through a butterfly meadow, butterflies appear on her frock. If she splashes along the seaside, waves and fishes spangle her skirts. Each night she washes her dress, and every morning it is a clean white canvas again.

Cunha’s gorgeous artwork reflects the dreamy nature of the account with abstract landscapes and chalky textures. Her sumptuous palette and Afiya’s gorgeous, dark brown skin and hair honor the beauty of this little girl. It’s a fetching, dancing delight for ages 4 and up.

Little Thief! Chota Chor!, written by Vijaya Bodach, illustrated by Nayantara Surendranath
published in 2020 by Reycraft Books

In the dark of night, as Mama lays sleeping, a strange noise awakens small Anjali. Scoot-scoot she wiggles from under the mosquito net. Tiptoe-tiptoe she sneaks about the house, spies a wide-open door, scouts for what a thief might have snatched.

When Anjali realizes what’s missing, she opens up and roars at the top of her voice, “THIEF! CHOR!” Soon Mama and the neighbors are all a-bustle over such a shocking affair. It’s Anjali once again, though, who discovers the thief himself, and what a surprising thief he is!

Lovely details of Anjali’s Indian home, an engaging plot, and enormously bold, vibrant artwork make this a sure winner for ages 3 or 4 and up.

Grandmother School
written by Rina Singh, illustrated by Ellen Rooney
published in 2020 by Orca Books

In one small Indian village, the grandmothers finally have a chance to go to school, to learn to spell their names, count their market change, read for themselves.

Meet one of these aajis — grandmothers — and accompany her to school in her bright pink sari with her slate and abacus as she discover the joys of learning no matter her age.

This immensely loving, happy story is based on a real Grandmothers School in the village of Phangane, India. It is deeply gratifying that after a lifetime of restrictions from schooling and hard work on behalf of others, these women are being given this opportunity. Vibrant illustrations surround us with the cultural details of this area. A charming choice for ages 4 and up.

The Cat Man of Aleppo, written by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
published in 2020 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

In the city of Aleppo — once a flourishing community of aromatic market stalls, domed architecture, playful children; then a grim place of fierce warfare, bombed-out buildings, maimed civilians — lives a man named Alaa. 

Despite the shattering, long assault on his home town, Alaa has stayed on, assisting his people in any way possible. One of the remarkable tasks he has taken on is to care for hundreds of abandoned pet cats. This is the story of Alaa’s rescue efforts, of how they became a worldwide phenomenon, and of the way that has led to other modes of humanitarian relief for the precious people who remain in the city.

Winner of the Caldecott Honor in 2021 for its strikingly handsome illustration work, the book focuses on the joy and warmheartedness of Alaa and his loving assistance to his fellow Syrians, contrasted with about 4 double-page spreads depicting the war’s dire damage. It’s accessible to children as young as 4 years old. Notes from the authors and illustrator increase understanding for older readers and adults. 

Vy’s Special Gift, written by Ha-Giang Trinh, illustrated by Evi Shelvia
published in 2020 by Room to Read and The Peace Studio

Ivy is a little girl living in Vietnam during this particular moment in time when COVID-19 has caused severe food shortages in her city. Her mother and little brothers rely on her to make the journey to the rice distribution center and bring back enough for their evening meal.

The line at the “Rice ATM” is long today. Vy sees the fatigue of the old grandmas waiting in line, the overtired children waiting along with them, and she reaches out over and over with kindness. Offering a lullaby, a story, a chance to move ahead of her in line, Vy touches all those around her with love. But when her turn finally comes to receive some rice, there is none left. That will mean hunger for her own family tonight. 

Until Vy’s outpouring of love comes back to bless her. Written by a Vietnamese woman to showcase the realities in her homeland, illustrated by talented Indonesian illustrator Evi Shelvia, this book is a unique, authentic opportunity to see the ways the pandemic has affected others less fortunate than ourselves as well as to see the power of kindness and community. For ages 4 and up. It is only available digitally, and the author has generously made this story available for free at this link. Or you can hear it read for you on YouTube by Dr. Maya Soetoro-Ng, here