Posts Tagged ‘Cuba’

Refugee, by Alan Gratz
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press

I finally made it through the l-o-n-g waiting list at my library and had the chance to read this astonishing novel. And I am here to tell you — I rarely outright cry when I read a book, but I was weeping at the close of this monumentally human story.

Alan Gratz weaves together three distinct stories of young refugees which span almost 80 years of the 20th and 21st centuries. Josef, a Jewish boy evading the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Isabel, a Cuban girl whose family attempts to escape the Castro regime by raft in 1994. And Mahmoud, who with his family flees the civil war in Syria in 2015.

Children from Ravensbruck Concentration Camp

The nightmarish worlds each of these children finds him/herself in are presented here with the grim reality of shock, despair, intense grief, paralyzing fear, the relentless onslaught of another and yet another horrific wave of violence, suffering, loss, distress. As we follow their escape routes, we are overwhelmed, aghast. Our hearts are crushed along with theirs. These are not narratives wherein everyone comes through nicely with merely a scratch, rescued in the 11th hour. No, they are stories based on real children, composites of true refugee accounts, and as such they are strewn with enormous tragedy.

Yet it’s these very stories, so bleak and monstrous one cannot fathom experiencing them, that we comfortable ones must face, hear, acknowledge, mourn, that motivate us to live with sacrificial love and empathy, that cause a welling up of longing to be one of the compassionate ones in our world.

Cubans flee Havana, August 1994

Are you saturated with bad news from the current daily news cycle and feel you cannot bear to read something dark and depressing? Take heart. Because in the darkest moments, that is when Gratz ushers in the sunstreaked twists that’ll leave you reaching for a tissue. It’s not the onslaught of evil that made me weep, but the moments when gutwrenching depths of love, tough-won tenderness, pierced-heart kindness, reach into the morass of misery to bring redemption, mercy, and rescue.

Syrian refugees cross into Hungary, 2015

Gratz hopscotches back and forth between the three narratives so that we track the journeys of all three families throughout the novel. He then orchestrates a final movement in which the disparate lives impact one another in surprising, profound ways. Here is the hard won kernel of hope, goodness, humanity, here at “the end of all things” as Frodo and Sam would say.

Obviously timely. Highly recommended for ages 13 through adult. Be aware — if my review hasn’t cued you in already — there’s a boatload of grief and violence here, so be wise in handing this to younger readers.


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So many women are told their dreams “simply can’t be done.” Today, meet a drummer, a mathematician, a primatologist and others, who persisted and realized their dreams.

Plus a tribute to mothers: In our heart of hearts, we often feel overwhelmed at this epic task — nurturing healthy human beings for our world. Women’s History Month would not be complete without celebrating motherhood.

drum dream girl cover imageDrum Dream Girl:How One Girl’s Courage Changed Music, by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Rafael López
published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Hot pepper oranges and Caribbean blues saturate the pages of this poetic celebration of Millo Castro Zaldarriaga, the first female drummer in Cuba. As a young girl, the varied drums’ beats tantalized her, but it was taboo for women to play them.

drum dream girl illustration rafael lopez

Winner of the 2016 Pura Belpré Illustration Award, the gorgeous artwork in this book explodes with color and Cuban culture, while the text dances along lithely. Superb introduction to Millo, who became a world-famous drummer, and another example of the odd restrictions women have had to overcome with the help of a key insider. Ages 3 and up.

ada byron lovelace and the thinking machine cover imageAda Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine, by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu
published in 2015 by Creston Books

Ada, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, was a brilliant mathematician. From childhood she was mesmerized by numbers and the inventions made possible by their calculations. Ada was a child of privilege, yet had to overcome family dysfunction, a crippling illness, and her society’s conviction that math was no place for a woman.


Wallmark’s introduction is intriguing and accessible, and Chu’s handsome artwork immerses us in Ada’s world. Read about the woman who wrote the first computer program with ages 5 and up.

paiute princess cover imagePaiute Princess: The Story of Sarah Winnemucca, written and illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray
published in 2012 by Frances Foster Books, Farrar Straus Giroux

Sarah Winnemucca was not a princess. And her name was not really Sarah. Yet by assuming an identity the White world invented, she was able to wield her strengths for the good of her Paiute people.

This lengthy, fascinating account by award-winning author and illustrator Deborah Kogan Ray introduced me to an amazing person I had never heard of, who worked tirelessly for justice for the Paiute.

paiute princess illustration deborah kogan ray

She was a controversial figure, accepted fully by neither white culture nor her own people. I think that is often the case for peacemakers caught in the middle, searching for the best compromise this world offers. A beautiful, thought-provoking read for ages 8 and up.

irena's jars of secrets cover imageIrena’s Jars of Secrets, by Marcia Vaughan, illustrated by Ron Mazellan
published in 2011 by Lee & Low Books

Irena was a young Polish Catholic woman when World War II broke out and with horror she witnessed the beginnings of the Holocaust. As a social worker, she gained access to the Warsaw ghettos, smuggling in aid for two years until it became clear that Treblinka was in store for all who remained.

irena's jars of secrets illustration ron mazellan

Read the story of how this intrepid woman risked her life to smuggle 2500 children out to safety, and find out what role was played by two glass jars hidden under an apple tree. A riveting account with rich, atmospheric paintings, for ages 5 or 6 and up. Obviously, extermination camps are a part of this narrative, so use your judgement as to the appropriateness for young children.

florence nightingale cover imageFlorence Nightingale, written and illustrated by Demi
published in 2014 by Henry Holt and Company

Demi’s characteristically elegant treatment of her subjects turns here to Florence Nightingale, another child of privilege who used her life to benefit the poor and broken in the world.

florence nightingale interior by demi

Demi traces her life from her birth in Florence, Italy, (I never knew that is how she got her name!) through her calling as a young woman into nursing — an objectionable life for a proper lady, careful study of the care of patients, and blossoming as a leader and innovator in nursing care. It’s a brilliant account, never bogging down yet covering a vast amount of information, accompanied by intricate, appealing illustrations. An inspiration for ages 5 and up.

me...jane cove imageMe…Jane, written and illustrated by Patrick McDonnell
published in 2011 by Little, Brown and Company

This tender story tells of Jane Goodall’s childhood love of the great outdoors and all the wondrous natural world around her. The entire, sparkling account spins out just a few thoughts, like candy floss, magically endearing us to this dear girl, until with one turn of the last page, she is all grown up, living out her dream in Africa.

me...jane illustration patrick mcdonnell

Charming and engaging for children ages 2 and up, the story is followed by a bio written for ages 8 and up, and a wonderful, the watcher cover imagepersonal message from Jane about the opportunity for each of us to make a difference in our world. If you want to learn more about her, follow this up with another excellent account focusing more on her long work in Tanzania:

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, also published in 2011 by Schwartz & Wade and ideal for ages 3 and up.

lullaby for a black mother cover imageLullaby (for a Black Mother), by Langston Hughes, illustrated by Sean Qualls
published in 2013 by Harcourt Children’s Books

Langston’s dark-cherry sweet lullaby, a mother singing to her little dark baby, her little earth-thing, her little love-one, is marvelously illustrated in Sean Quall’s rhythmic, contemporary styling. Twilight purples and midnight blues infuse  the pages, anchored in strong shapes, textures, and inky blacks.

lullaby for a black mother illustration sean qualls

A note about Langston Hughes informs us about his sweet connection with words during a childhood of fractured relationships. Qualls conjectures about the comfort Hughes believed a mother’s lullaby could bring to a lonely boy. Read this with children ages 2 and up, and invent your own lullaby to speak your love.

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miracle on 133rd street cover imageMiracle on 133rd Street, by Sonia Manzano, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
published in 2015 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers

A riot of color, an array of cultures, and a generous helping of neighborliness shine in this swizzling story from New York City. 

José and his mami and papi are originally from Puerto Rico. And every Christmas, Mami is homesick. To make matters worse, this year’s traditional pork roast does not fit in her oven. Oh, for a big, sunny, Puerto Rican yard to roast the Christmas pig in, she thinks.

miracle on 133rd street interior manzano and priceman

So, Papi boxes that roast up and sets out with José for Regular Ray’s Pizzeria where ginormous ovens await. Along the way, these two meet neighbors and friends galore who are not looking very merry. But as they return, the heady aroma of olive oil and garlic beckons one and all to share in their feast, until an apartmentful of DiPalmas and Santiagos and Wozenskys and more are happily celebrating together.

This kindhearted story was written by Sonia Manzano, best known for her decades-long role as Maria on Sesame Street. Marjorie Priceman splashes every page with energy, warmth, and cheer with her hot-tamale, gladsome, effervescent illustrations. Great choice for ages 3 and up.

the christmas carp cover imageThe Christmas Carp, by Rita Törnqvist, pictures by Marit Törnqvist, translated by Greta Kilburn
originally published in Sweden; published in the U.S. in 1990 by R&S Books

Apparently, in Prague there’s an old tradition of cooking a carp for Christmas.

One goes to the Christmas market just before Christmas Eve, buys a fat carp from the fishmonger, hauls it home, and sets it to swimming in the bathtub. There its silveriness stays nice and fresh until it’s time for Christmas dinner. Oy.

This is the story of a little boy named Thomas and his Grandpa. Of Christmas bread and fish-shaped cookies and floating walnut-shell candles. Of carolers and the bridges of Prague and a carp bought by Thomas who he names Peppo which seems destined not to be eaten on Christmas Day.

the christmas carp illustration marit tornqvist

It’s a sweet story of a tenderhearted boy and his understanding grandfather, rich with the atmosphere of this beautiful, historic city. Marit Törnqvist’s delicately-hued, detailed watercolors envelop us in this place and these lives. An appealing, sensitive story for ages 5 and up.

la noche buena cover imageLa Noche Buena: A Christmas Story, by Antonoio Sacre, illustrated by Angela Dominguez
published in 2010 by Abrams Books for Young Readers

Nina is visiting her dad’s side of the family in Little Havana, Miami, for the Christmas holidays. No snowy Christmas scenes here. Instead,  palm trees and parrots and heat.

Her abuela welcomes her into a bustle of women cooking marinade with the old family recipe. Nina quickly becomes a part of the commotion, lugging jars of marinade from the spicy kitchen to her Uncle Tito’s yard where a bathtub and a barbecue pit await their 3-day, pig-roasting extravaganza.

la noche buena illustration angela dominguez

A backyard feast, the Rooster’s Mass, and all-night dancing under the stars make up the traditional celebration of La Noche Buena, the Good Night, Christmas Eve, the best night of the year for this Cuban family. Enjoy a welcoming, vibrant look at these cultural traditions with kids ages 4 and up.

a stork in a baobab tree cover imageA Stork in a Baobab Tree: An African Twelve Days of Christmas, by Catherine House, illustrated by Polly Alakija
published in 2011 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books

On the first day of this Christmas, my true love gives me a stork in a baobab tree. And on day five, he shows up with five bright khangas —  brightly-colored lengths of cloth used as wrap skirts, headdresses, baby slings, or what have you.

Travel around the continent via this traditional carol, gathering carvings from Nigeria, baskets from Ethiopia, dancers from Morocco, and learning a teensy bit about each gift as we go.

a stork in a baobab tree illustration polly alakija

There’s a nice variety of stops, although you’ll have to look in the Note from the Author to identify each place. In the text, they’re all referred to as “Africa.” That’s a small quibble with an otherwise intriguing, informative book, handsomely illustrated. Ages 4 and up.

baseball bats for christmas cover imageBaseball Bats for Christmas, story by Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak, art by Vladyana Krykorka
published in 1990 by Annick Press Ltd.

Inuit storyteller Michael Arvaarluk Kusugak grew up in what is now Nunavut, then Northwest Territories, where he and his family lived a traditional, nomadic lifestyle. 

This story offers a delightful peek into his arctic homeland. In 1955, when he was just seven years old, a beloved bush pilot arrives at Christmastime and delivers a bunch of…what on earth? Green, spindly things. No one is quite sure what they are for, but they come in quite handy for turning into baseball bats.

baseball bats for christmas illustration vladyana krykorka

Get to the bottom of the mystery, meet Michael and his playmates, taste the vastness of Repulse Bay, and learn the generous custom of Inuit gift-giving in this lovely story for ages 4 or 5 and up. The illustrations beautifully portray the handsome Inuit people, blue-cold landscape, and warmth of friendship.

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