Gathering titles for my culture-tour posts
is one of my favorite blogging tasks!
I especially love the increasing number of voices
having the opportunity to tell their own stories, share their own perspectives.
Today we are privileged to encounter another group of people, places, and cultures,
and learn how we can better appreciate the richness and diversity of humanity.
Watercress, written by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin
published in 2021 by Neal Porter Books, Holiday House
Driving down a dusty farm road in Ohio, two kids in the back seat, the old red Pontiac comes to a sudden halt. Mom and Dad have spotted something exciting — watercress, growing wild in a watery ditch. They all exit the car, parents doling out scruffy paper bags, instructing the kids to help them harvest this splendid stuff which they remember fondly from their childhoods in China.
The young girl clearly thinks this is a bad idea. It’s embarrassing, that’s what, to scrounge in muddy ditches for food. What if a classmate sees her as they drive past? Suppertime comes around, but she is unwilling to eat the cooked cress. The whole idea of scavenging for free food, free everything, is galling.
Until her mama begins to tell a story she usually keeps hidden, a story of suffering and famine during bygone days in China, and of loss and sorrow, and of gratitude for the sustaining grace of something as feeble as watercress.
This poignant, deeply-meaningful story lifts up the lives of immigrant families and the painful stories that shape us, that when told help others to understand us. Jason Chin’s gorgeous artwork casts a warm, nostalgic light on the Ohio portions of this story and a duskier, sepia-tone on the Chinese sections. His figures and their emotions are supremely human. It’s a gem to share with ages 5 and up. Adults will thoroughly appreciate this as well.
On the Trapline, written by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
published in 2021 by Tundra Books
Many of my favorite Indigenous reads have come out of the Cree nation in Canada, and here is another gorgeous, heart-expanding, fascinating account.
Living off the land “on the trapline” was a deeply meaningful, richly rewarding way of life for many elders in the Cree community. Their reliance on, connection to, respect for, and love of the land were knit into every element of their lives. Author David Robertson draws on this vibrant heritage to weave a story of one contemporary Cree boy visiting the trapline for the first time with his grandpa.
As his grandpa answers this boy’s questions we learn along with him what life was like a couple of generations earlier. The sweetness of family life, the bitterness of residential school, the beauty of the northern landscapes, the earthiness of the chores, all set the boy to wondering what it would have been like to grow up in just this place, in just this way. Robertson’s prose is eloquent in both what is said, and what is beyond words to say, while Flett’s artwork as always conveys beauty, quietude, warmth, and home. It’s a lovely, bittersweet ode to intergenerational connections, to the Cree people, and to their homelands. A gem for ages 4 and up.
Nana Akua Goes to School, written by Tricia Elam Walker, illustrated by April Harrison
published in 2020 by Schwartz & Wade
It’s Grandparents Day at Zura’s school which means each child gets to bring a grandparent and share what makes them special. Zura adores her Nana Akua and loves hearing her stories of growing up in Ghana, yet she feels a great deal of misgiving about bringing her to school.
That’s because some kids think Nana’s face is scary. It bears the marks etched there when she was a young girl, marks that her Ashanti people view as honorable. The kids in Zura’s classroom, though, might say something mean or laugh at Nana, and Zura can’t bear the thought of that. Nana Akua understands Zura’s hesitancy, but she also lives comfortably in her own skin. Tag along with her as she not only explains her culture to Zura’s friends, but finds a way to help them truly appreciate it.
I really love this book. I love the lively illustration work infused with homely textures and human dignity, and I love the story’s beautiful embrace of a misunderstood aspect of a number of African cultures. Although the author notes that these practices do not impact young Ghanaians any longer, here in Minneapolis, a city with a wonderfully large refugee and immigrant population, I do occasionally see younger people with tribal markings. I’m so pleased to see a book instilling understanding of this practice. Share it with ages 4 or 5 and up.
In My Mosque, written by M.O. Yuksel, illustrated by Hatem Aly
published in 2021 by Harper
What is it like to worship in a mosque? Come along with two kids — a boy and a girl — and find out!
Take off your shoes. Listen as the old men chant their prayers, or while the women read from the Qur’an. Spread out the prayer mats and hear the muezzin sing the call to prayer. Share in the charitable food drive as well as some after-prayer treats of naan and melon. Hear the at-homeness these children feel in their place of worship.
An afterword provides more information about mosques throughout the world and a short glossary of Arabic words. This is a great introduction for a large number of folks who have never set foot in a mosque, and I love how bright and friendly the illustrations are. I will say that the mosque depicted in this book is quite large and grand while many local mosques in communities around the world aren’t nearly as iconic as this. It might have been nice to depict more of a variety of mosques, but this does allow for a look at the soaring architectural details and stunning tilework unique to the Islamic world. All in all, it’s an upbeat, helpful book introducing the religious practices of our Muslim neighbors and friends. Ages 4 and up.
From My Window, written by Otávio Júnior, illustrated by Vanina Starkoff, translated by Beatriz C. Dias
published in Brazil in 2018; English edition 2020 by Barefoot Books
Tropical colors blossom and spread across the pages as we enter a Brazilian favela, which is essentially an economically-depleted, Brazilian district that operates outside of the government’s care. This uniquely Brazilian neighborhood could be seen as a squalid, depressing space, but to the child in this story, it’s home and as such it is portrayed as a neighborhood bursting with life, heat, neighbors, activity, resourcefulness, dreams, games, friends.
Wall-to-wall brickwork in fuschia, tangerine, and aqua; jungle-cious plants stretching their lively green leaves; richly patterned cloth hanging on clotheslines; tropical birds and bikes, bananas and palm trees, guitars and soccer balls create a kaleidoscope of color and life. There’s so much to observe in these pictures! Brief comments from our host-child tell how he experiences life. He mentions some of the difficulties he faces, but the primary focus is up-beat and joyful.
An afterword tells us a little bit about favelas and introduces us to the author and artist who have provided us this window onto another world. Excellent choice for ages 3 and up.
Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia
written by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy
first published in Australia in 2019; first US edition 2020 by Candlewick Press
Birrarung is the Woiwurrung word for “river of mists.” In English, this river is called the Yarra.
Wilam is the Woiwurrung word for “home.” And the Birrarung is wilam to many different, fascinating creatures.
Follow the Birrarung for a day as it winds its way in the Australian bush, through farmland, into the city, under bridges, and out into the ocean. Observe those who make their homes along its pathway — possums and fairy-wrens, cockatoos and wombats; pungent eucalyptus trees and lush tree ferns. Our Aboriginal guides narrate this journey with an abundance of Woiwurrung words in a sonorous, leisurely cadence. Pausing to consult the glossary, to understand these tongue-twisting sounds, helps us slow down, steep in the sights and melodies and sensations of a tremendously Other place, obviously loved by those who have called it home for thousands upon thousands of years.
Lisa Kennedy’s artwork amplifies the earthiness, solemnity, ancient wildness, and magical beauty of this place and those that dwell there. All together, it’s a phenomenally transportive experience. Recommended for patient listeners ages 4 and up.
Sweet Laba Congee, written by Qiusheng Zhang, illustrated by Chengliang Zhu
published in 2020 by Reycraft Books
The Laba Festival is celebrated in China “on the eighth day of the twelfth month of the lunar calendar.” One little girl named Yan’er is helping her grandma make the laba congee, a special porridge that’s traditionally eaten for the festival.
Yan’er helps gather all the ingredients, helps keep the wood stove supplied with firewood, and accompanies Grandma as she brings bowls of congee to worship their ancestors. She hauls the pot of laba congee around the village, delivering some to the oldest elders, then finally gathers with her family under the persimmon tree to enjoy some for herself.
There are a couple more important things to do with the congee that remains. You’ll have to read to discover what they are. Illustrated with warmth and beauty, narrated with clarity and interesting particulars, this book offers a fantastic peek into the lives of one Chinese family and their important traditions. It’s a treat for ages 4 and up.
Rocky Waters, written by Anne Laurel Carter, illustrated by Marianne Dumas
published in 2019 by Groundwood Books
Rocky Gaudet is a descendant of the Acadian fishermen who migrated to Prince Edward Island over 200 years ago. Here we travel back with him to his childhood days. As the youngest of seven he had to wait — impatiently! — to be old enough to leave school behind and head out lobstering with his dad.
Finally he’s grown big enough for a pair of fishing boots. Finally he can snarf down a bowl of hot porridge, then run down to the wharf, jump on board, and head out to sea. He’s got a lot to learn about how to stay safe on the boat, how to handle those pinchy lobsters, how to sort them for market.
I enjoyed this unusual story that opened my eyes to a group of people I’d never known about. Illustrations awash in wide open sea-vistas, the watery blues of wave and sky, and the gap-toothed smile of one very happy boy ushered me into this corner of the world. Fascinating for ages 4 and up.
The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built Their Own Soccer Field
written by Scott Riley, illustrated by Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien
published in 2021 by Millbrook Press
Koh Panyee is a small fishing village in Thailand. It’s built on stilts, resting atop the waters of a bay of the Andaman Sea. One young boy who grew up there, Prasit, tells us the story of how he and his buddies managed to overcome a veritable ocean’s worth of obstacles to have a soccer field of their own.
The way things usually worked was this: During a full moon, the tides would shift enough to expose a nearby sandbar. The boys would furiously paddle out there and squeeze in every minute of play possible until the waves overcame their soccer pitch and the game was done for another month.
These boys weren’t content with that amount of field time, however, so they put their heads together to craft an extraordinary solution — a floating field! Discover the ingenuous handiwork of these village boys and the heart and soul they took with them to their first mainland tournament in this energetic, inspiring read!
An Author’s Note provides more details and photographs of the actual project, completed in the 1980s. Great choice for ages 5 and up!
A Song of Frutas, written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Sara Palacios
published in 2021 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Finally, travel to Cuba with one young girl who is visiting her abuelo, and sing with them the names of all the juicy, tropical fruits on his traveling market wagon.
Singing is how all the vendors move their wares on these sun-dappled streets whether they’re trying to move tamales or herbs, yams or roasted peanuts. The more vendors, the louder Abuelo has to sing to be heard!
On New Year’s Eve, business is really hopping for Abuelo as everyone seems to want to buy a bunch of grapes. Twelve per person, to be exact. Discover why in this affectionate, jubilant story. The text is nicely festooned with Spanish words, while the artwork dances with heat and happiness. Ages 4 and up.
If you want more titles along these lines, and are a bit intrepid, you can navigate through hundreds of titles in my Cultures listings via the Subject tab at the top of the page.
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