Posts Tagged ‘diverse children’s books’

I live in Minneapolis. Sure, it’s not nearly the global city that London is. Yet Minnesota is one of the top states in our nation for refugee resettlement, with refugees from 25 countries arriving here in just the past year.

Minnesota is well-known for its large populations of Hmong-, Somali-, and Liberian-Americans, as well as immigrants from the world over.

That means when I move around my city I’m likely to hear a lovely variety of languages, see clothing reflecting numerous cultures, find restaurants cooking up delicious ethnic foods. It’s one of the things I love about my home.

Having raised my children for some years outside of the U.S. — in both Quebec and West Africa — I have learned to highly value a multicultural mindset. This is easier in a place like Minneapolis than it is, for example, in the small northern Minnesota town where I grew up. There are ways, though, to increase our engagement with the world wherever we are, and one of those ways is: books. (You knew I was going to say this.)

It’s more important than ever to cultivate an attitude of boundary-less love in ourselves and our children if we want to build societies that reach out to one another with peace, kindness, and warmth. We can start simply by learning about other ways of life.

I’ve always been partial to books that open a window onto another part of the world and its fascinating array of cultures. There are dozens and dozens of these titles in the Marmalade archives already.

Over the past months I’ve been searching out more gems for you that present global cultures. My goal has been to publish a world tour of sorts for you to embark on at your convenience. Perhaps with summer’s lingering days and pushed-back bedtimes, this is a good time to launch off.

On my quest, I’ve been looking for quite particular kinds of stories. Not folk tales from other lands. Not books on the wildlife of different regions. Not fantastical stories. My search has been for at-least-somewhat-realistic fiction and creative nonfiction picture books that really help us see what life looks like for children growing up elsewhere.

I have researched and read stacks and stacks of books to find the ones I’ll be sharing. Although there are some regions sadly unrepresented at this point, and some unfortunate tendencies in the narratives of other regions which I’ll point out, overall I’ve been excited to see the breadth of coverage that’s available. 

Every “elsewhere” is someone’s familiar. As we share these stories with our children, I hope we can learn to savor differences and marvel over commonalities that mark the human race. I hope by tasting far-flung cultures via picture books, we can begin to approach differences in our own cities and neighborhoods with warmth and respect.

I’ll be sprinkling in posts most weeks throughout the summer with what I’ve unearthed. They’ll be grouped by region. You might try checking out a few titles and then seeing what more you can discover about that part of the world by cooking something yummy together, visiting an ethnic neighborhood in your city, listening to ethnic music…I would absolutely love it if you would share your ideas with us in the comments so others can be inspired along the way.

To start us off, I’ve got some unique atlases and dynamic birds-eye-view-of-the-world type books!  Get your bags packed and head out to meet the kids in the global tour, coming soon!

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Take a piece of prose.

Filter out all sawdusty, throat-clearing, bush-beating, throw-away words. That rich, full-bodied elixir remaining? That’s poetry.

Small but mighty.

Whether you’ve shied away from poetry in the past or cherish poetry like the scent of a spring peony, I invite you to check out these superb new books, plum full of the power of words.

First up, for the youngest among us…

The Owl and the Pussy-cat, by Edward Lear, illustrated by Charlotte Voake
poem first published in 1871; illustrations copyright 2014; first U.S. edition 2017 by Candlewick

Feast upon this classic, delectable verse accompanied by the gloriously swishy, Oz-ishly emerald, tropical illustrations by one of my favorite illustrators, Charlotte Voake.

What child can resist that beautiful pea-green boat, the moonlit guitar-strumming, a land sprouting up in Bong-trees, slices of quince and one mysterious runcible spoon?

Introduce children ages 15 months and up to the ticklish wonders of words, dancing rhythms, luscious colors with this thoroughly happy piece. It’ll nestle down in their minds and entertain them their whole life long.

Steppin’ Out: Jaunty Rhymes for Playful Times, written by Lin Oliver, illustrated by Tomie DePaola
published in 2017, Nancy Paulsen Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers

This collection of small poems for small people radiates charm, simplicity, and childish innocence. Wide-eyed, we step outside our door to discover, greet, soak up the sparkling pleasures of life. What a lovely breath of fresh air!

The glory of the ordinary is here. Library visits and Sunday pancakes. A dipping, diving elevator and snippety barber shop. Friends. Grandparents. Ants. Rainy days. Lin Oliver captures the grandeur of the small in her light, playful rhymes.

Tomie dePaola needs no introduction. Eminently warm and friendly illustrations, with the marvelous diversity you’d expect from him; he makes each page sing. Perfect for preschoolers. I’ve reviewed an earlier volume by this team here.

Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market, poems by Michelle Schaub, illustrated by Amy Huntington
published in 2017 by Charlesbridge

The sun’s just rising. Wooden crates of plump tomatoes and bundles of basil are loaded into the pick-up as this farm-fresh crew heads out.

All the bustle of an urban farmers’ market — stalls laden with colorful produce, tables groaning under mouthwatering bakery fare, earthy mushrooms, fiddling buskers, speckled eggs — calls to us from these short poems and sunny, lively watercolors.

While you’re enjoying the events narrated in the poetry, there are also a couple of dogs whose antics are revealed throughout the day — great fun for children to spy on. It’s an enticing, cheerful collection and a great way to get motivated to visit the farm-fresh markets popping up all over starting now. Ages 4 and up.

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets, written by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes
published in 2017 by Candlewick

Take a look at that cover and you’ll get a taste of the explosion of wonder, the celebration of life that’s bound up in the pages of this stunning new collection.

Award-winning author Kwame Alexander here introduces us to twenty of his favorite poets —  a marvelously-diverse grouping as you would expect — by ingenuously riffing off of their famous styles, ideas, and ethos.

The innovative lowercase lackofpunctuation styling of e.e. cummings is adopted by Alexander in a blooming poem about shoes (but really companionship). A poem basking in the earthy loveliness of a Chilean forest echoes the subject matter of Pablo Neruda. An explosion of rainbow-sherbet color, a soaring joy, thunders from a poem expressing the indomitable spirit of Maya Angelou.

Twenty original poems; twenty homages to poets. Brilliant. But that’s not all, because the heartbreakingly-beautiful artwork of Ekua Holmes — Oh, I love her work!! — thrills, rejoices, commands every page. Excellent short bios of each poet take up six additional pages. A stunner for a wide age range — 6 through teens.

Emily Dickinson: Poetry for Kids, illustrated by Christine Davenier
published in 2016 by Quarto Publishing Group

One  of the poets featured in Out of Wonder, Emily Dickinson is an American treasure, a homebody with an outsized knack for observation, a naturalist who reveled in the beauties of nature surrounding her Massachusetts home, a gingerbread-baker who treated neighborhood children but kept herself mostly to herself.

This gorgeous volume of her poetry is part of a series from MoonDance Press and Quarto introducing a variety of poets to children. It’s arranged by seasons and includes almost 3 dozen of her small poems.

French artist Christine Davenier’s exquisite watercolors fill these almond-cream pages with gems of color, graceful line, fragments of fragile beauty, as well as exultant gladness. Beautiful layouts and typography add to the immense sensory delight. Several pages of explanatory notes aid in understanding the poems. Splendid for ages 8 and older.

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance, poems by Nikki Grimes, artwork by Cozbi A. Cabrera, R. Gregory Christie, Pat Cummings, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Ebony Glenn, Nikki Grimes, E.B. Lewis, Frank Morrison, Christopher Myers, Brian Pinkney, Sean Qualls, James Ransome, Javaka Steptoe, Shadra Strickland, Elizabeth Zunon
published in 2017 by Bloomsbury

This phenomenal volume is so powerful, I really just want to say nothing more but urge you to experience it for yourself.

An amalgamation of the ideas and energy flowing out of the Harlem Renaissance, the poetic mastery of Nikki Grimes, and the artistry of a roster of gifted African American illustrators — that’s what’s bound up in this small, thought-provoking book.

I had never heard of the Golden Shovel form of poetry. Even if I tried to explain it to you, the audacious difficulty of it and ingenuous nature of it will not really land on you until you experience it in poem after poem here. Suffice it to say, it is another of the elaborate structures of poetry which frame poets in, force them to chisel and plane and bevel their words to fit the form, all of which ramps up their potency, augments the ideas.

You can see by reading down the bolded words that the Golden Shovel form involves repurposing lines from others’ poems, using them as the framework for something new. Illustration by Frank Morrison.

Grimes employs that in her riffs off of a number of poems by Renaissance poets. The original poem stands alongside Grimes’ innovation. These are deep, rich pieces with themes relevant to real children living in this challenging world. They are accompanied by gorgeous artwork in a wide variety of styles.

Illustration by Shadra Strickland

Short bios of each of the Renaissance poets and each illustrator, background on the Harlem Renaissance, and an explanation of the poetic form round out the volume. Highly recommended for ages 10 to adult. Many children will want to try their hand at this poetry form, I’m sure.

Many more wonderful volumes of poetry are listed in my Titles index — it’s the last section entitled Poetry and Lyrics.

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A friend of mine recently related that she had been stopped cold one day when her four-year-old daughter declared, “Girls can’t be heroes. Only boys can.”

This shocked young mama promptly sewed her daughter a cape and held a Hero Day. Together they found lots of ways that even a four-year-old could be a hero-in-training.

Little girls (and boys) pick up the most unfortunate things at such early ages from the ocean of air they live in called our culture. One of those is, sadly, a feeling of limitations on what girls are allowed to dream of doing and becoming.

Enter this gem of a book chock full of heroic women.

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls, compiled by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, illustrated by sixty female artists from around the world
published in 2016 by Timbuktu Labs
203 pages

One hundred, one-page stories of heroic women are gathered in these pages and I am telling you, your heart will burn with gladness as you read them! Women from ancient times and in the news today. Women from all corners of the globe and every race.

Illustration by Elizabeth Baddeley

 Dancers and doctors and film directors. Spies and scientists and war heroes. A race car driver. An orchestra conductor. And my personal favorite, a poet/baker. 

Cora Coralina, Poet and Baker, illustration by Elenia Beretta

The stories are super short. Each takes about a minute to read. They’re written with a hint of the fairy tale about them. Once there was a curious girl…or Once upon a time there was a girl who…making them tasty as can be for a bedtime snack.

It is no small feat to capture these women’s lives and contributions in such a short passage, retaining her individuality, highlighting something that glints with fascination, and reading not like a wikipedia article but rather an enticing sneak peek at a life you’ll certainly want to explore further. I thoroughly enjoyed reading my way through the whole volume but be aware that these are far from in-depth. That’s how we get 100 of them!

Miriam Makeba, illustration by Helena Morais Soares

Accompanying the stories are a-ma-zing full-page portraits created by an international collection of women artists. Oh, their work is stunning. I love the variety of styles and immense strength exuding from each one.  Riveting. 

At the close of these accounts there’s space for the book’s owner to write her own story and draw her own portrait. A brilliant touch. 

I’d peg this book for ages 7 and up. There is one account of a young, transgender girl, but beyond that there is no discussion of sexuality. Issues such as depression, violence, child marriage, the Holocaust, are softened with tact. It was funded by crowdsourcing and is not available through Amazon. You can order a copy by heading to their website here, and I hope many of you will.  

Margaret Thatcher, Serena and Venus Williams, and Michaela DePrince, illustrations by Debora Guidi.


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The Journey, written and illustrated by Francesca Sanna
published in 2016 by Flying Eye Books

I’ll just tell you right from the start — this stunning book is one of my all-time favorites of 2016. 

The plight of the refugee.


How hardhearted would a person have to be to not feel the anguish, the immense loss, the tearing away from home, perhaps forever; the distress, misery, vulnerability, and abject terror that heaves itself upon ordinary people — 

Turkey syrian refugees kurds

young moms leading small, forlorn children;

elderly men and women straggling away from villages which sheltered them all their lives; traumatized ones still in mourning; desperate, anxious, young men, fleeing the threat of conscription into armies requiring unspeakable violence.


Not a world any of them imagined being a part of.

And yet…the images and stories engulfing our world in the past several years are so relentless and overwhelming. Their sheer volume threatens to numb us against this grief.

Francesca Sanna’s phenomenal book, however, brilliantly, incisively sets us in the midst of just one family plunged into war, to experience along with them their chaotic nightmare.


A loving family. The encroaching darkness of war spills into their lives like black ink flooding across a cherished picture, overtaking them.


A father gone. A heartsick mother gathers her children to flee. Covert, exhausting, staggering — the phases of their journey unfold like ominous scenes from a Hitchcock film.


Sanna’s gorgeous images — her minute figures set against an enormity of obstacles — set our nerves on edge. By contrast, the palpable love and togetherness of this mother and her children tenderize and warm our hearts. I was staggered by her work, the way she captures the tumult and emotion of the refugee experience.


This image of the mother weeping after her children are safely asleep is superb, isn’t it?

This journey ends in hope. Anything else would be unbearable for the young children whose hearts will be moved, certainly, by this story. 


As we head into a time of gathering together for various holidays, it seems the perfect time of year to share this gorgeous book in our households and consider together what small role we might play in the relief of suffering for the displaced.

Highly recommended for ages 3 to 100.


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I’ve got three books today, all short on pages yet long on interest.

Any of them could be read aloud to children ages 4-5 and up, or handed to an independent reader looking for something to finish in a sitting or two.

hippopotamister cover imageHippopotamister, a graphic novel by John Patrick Green
published in 2016 by First Second

Opening this jolly graphic novel is like opening a new pan of watercolors — colorful and anticipatory!

The City Zoo is in quite a sad state of disrepair, so Red Panda and Hippo set off  to find jobs and make new lives among the humans. Red Panda exudes confidence, though he leaves disaster in his wake, getting fired from one job after another. Hippo’s the trusting sidekick, oblivious to his mammoth talents in every assigned task.

Hippopotamister interior John Patrick Green

Eventually Hippo tires of the job hunt and returns to the zoo where his newly-acquired skills bear some surprising fruit!

hippopotamister interior2 John Patrick Green

The shortest word count on today’s list, plus cheerful illustration work and a warmly humorous story line combine to make this a breezy treat.  Grab it for reluctant readers, too!

wendel and the robots cover imageWendel and the Robots, written and illustrated by Chris Riddell
published in 2015 by Macmillan Children’s Books

This short adventure is sort of a disguised picture book. Its trim size — about 6″x7″ — makes it look like a Slightly-More-Important, tiny chapter book, just the ticket for a sturdy new reader, perhaps.

Chris Riddell is the master of the fantastical for youngsters. Unusual stories of quirky oddities seem to pour from his pen.

This one’s about an inventive mouse named Wendel who designs a couple of robots to help him keep his workshop clean and all manner of chaos results!

wendel and the robots interior chris riddell

Scrumptious language, with endearing and crazed illustrations that woo us effortlessly onward make this a winner.

saluki hound of the bedouin cover imageSaluki, Hound of the Bedouin, by Julia Johnson, illustrations by Susan Keeble
published in 2005 by Stacey International

By far the longest of today’s stories at 55 pages, this jewel comes from the UK, from the hand of an exceptional storyteller with extensive time spent in the Middle East. It reminds me quite a lot of the short, international stories created by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham such as Cloud Tea Monkeys.

That’s because the setting — the Sahara Desert — and its Bedouin cast of characters are gorgeously embroidered upon the fabric of the storyline, as it were, while silky-smooth language effortlessly unreels a fascinating tale.

saluki hound of the bedouin illustration susan keeble

Hamad is a Bedouin boy, eager to join the men hunting with their Saluki hounds and hooded falcons. Join him as he awaits a new litter of pups, discovers which is to be his, learns the patience necessary to train her, and encounters serious testings for both himself and his devoted dog, Sougha.

Copious cultural details are masterfully woven into the story. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Hamad and learning about this vanishing way of life. Keeble’s gorgeous watercolors gleam with sunlight and heat and further our understanding of these people and their homeland.

saluki hound of the bedouin illustration2 susan keeble

Read this one to ages 5 and up in installments, or hand it to a reader undaunted by the sprinkle of Arabic vocabulary. A glossary is included.

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While we wait for the new 2016 picture books to come into our libraries and book shops, I thought I’d remind you of a few older titles full of happy surprises and smiles.

They come from one classic American author, as well as a few Brits, Swedes, and one Kiwi…

I’ll start with one of Ezra Jack Keats’ lesser known picture books:

hi cat cover image

Hi, Cat! written and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats
published in 1970 by Viking

Archie and Peter are two brothers with vivid imaginations, and they’ve cooked up a grand surprise for the other kids in the neighborhood. It is quite a show!

hi cat illustration ezra jack keats

Along the way, a little dog named Willie (who pops up in other Keats titles) and a stray cat barge into the performance. Alley oops! Laugh along at the chaos, and wink at the irony on the final page. Pure Keats delight, for ages 2 and up.

down the back of the chair cover image

Down the Back of the Chair, by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Polly Dunbar
published in 2006 by Clarion Books

As we all know, the dreaded depths Underneath the Chair Cushions tend to be an Aladdin’s cave of murky treasures. Usually it’s stray kernels of popcorn, the odd pencil, a Cheerio or three, and a grimy penny.

down the back of the chair illustration polly dunbar

You will never believe what this family finds down the back of their chair as they search for Dad’s car keys! Margaret Mahy’s preposterous humor careens through this story, illustrated with Dunbar’s zoingy, riotous, color and line. A blast for ages 2 and up. 

eat up gemma cover image

Eat Up, Gemma, by Sarah Hayes, illustrated by Jan Ormerod
published in 1988 by Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books

Little Gemma has turned into a bit of a finicky eater, tossing breakfast on the floor, squishing her grapes, feeding her cookies, even, to the birds.


But oh, dear! You won’t believe what ends up looking tasty to her!! Or how her clever big brother saves the day. This is one of our family’s all-time favorites. Read it again and again with children 18 months and up.

boo and baa have company cover image

Boo and Baa Have Company, written and illustrated by Olof and Lena Landström, translated from the Swedish by Joan Sandin
first American edition 2006 by R&S Books

Boo and Baa are just trying to rake up the leaves, but their work is snaggled by a stray cat. (How did two troublesome cats sneak onto the list today?!)

boo and baa have company illustration landstrom

From one obstacle to the next, Boo and Baa have quite a muddlesome day. I give them an A+ for effort, but I think after all, the cat wins. There are a number of Boo and Baa stories, though my library has only this one. It’s a delight for ages 2 and up. Maybe you’ll have luck finding some of the others.

alfie wins a prize cover image

Alfie Wins a Prize, written and illustrated by Shirley Hughes
published in 2004 by The Bodley Head

Finally, I can’t resist urging more of you to find your way to the Alfie stories, if you haven’t already.

In this episode, Alfie and Annie Rose are off to the Harvest Fair, a lovely jumble of cake contests, second-hand toy booths, neighborhood pet show, and most importantly for Alfie, a children’s painting competition.

alfie wins a prize illustration shirley hughes

All our old, dear friends — Bernard, Maureen MacNally, Min — are here enjoying the day. And Alfie, whose big sister Bella has modeled generosity so dearly in the Dogger story, finds a way to win at kindness today, too. All the joy of this multicultural neighborhood and the authentic childish outlook are here, along with Hughes’ brilliant artwork. Ages 3 and up.

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I’ve met a bunch of awesome kids recently in the three novels highlighted today, all of whom I’d love to introduce to you.

They’re coming from widely different locations — a farm in the American South, an island off the coast of India, a ranch in Oregon. Each of them encounters substantial adversity and meets it with an authentic mixture of courage, reluctance, fear, and deep questions about life. All great choices for middle-grade readers and book clubs.

ruby lee and me cover imageRuby Lee & Me, by Shannon Hitchcock
published in 2016 by Scholastic Press

Sarah Willis has her life turned upside down in one split second when her younger sister, Robin, is critically injured on Sarah’s watch.

Over the next months, Sarah is engulfed in guilt and terrified about her sister’s injuries. She longs to experience peace and forgiveness, but isn’t convinced it’s possible for her, not while Robin still lies in a hospital bed. 

Sarah moves to her grandparents’ farm during this crisis, into their warm, accepting embrace, and just down the road from her best friend, an African American girl named Ruby Lee.


As Sarah and Ruby start school, more difficulties await them. School integration has come to Shady Creek, and along with it the area’s first African American teacher for the predominantly white students.

Sarah navigates all this with some huge missteps, then has to find her way back with the help of her teacher, her faith, and her solid heart. Beautifully written characters interact with honesty in this great read for ages 9 and up.

tiger boy cover imageTiger Boy, by Mitali Perkins, illustrated by Jamie Hogan
published in 2015 by Charlesbridge

Neel lives on an island of the Sunderbans, a tropical home of salty creeks, flowering jasmine, and wild guavas off the coast of India. It’s a home Neel loves to the core of his being, but it’s a tough place to make a living.

That’s why when the corrupt businessman, Gupta, pays men to harvest rare sundari trees or bully widows for rent payments, even good men like Neel’s father turn their backs on long-held values to earn his rupees.


Now, a tiger cub, normally protected in a reserve, has gone missing and Gupta is offering a huge reward for it. Neel and his sister know Gupta means to sell the skin and body parts on the black market if anyone captures it for him. Despite the immense dangers, they’re determined to find it first and return it to safety.

Meanwhile, another treasure is at stake: Neel’s future. He’s a bright student, who could bring honor and success to his family if he’d agree to move far from home for a good education. But the loss of his home-life is not something Neel is willing to accept. 

Mitali Perkins weaves Neel’s inner turmoil and outward adventure together brilliantly in a marvelously diverse setting. Excellent, fast read (132 pages) with an environmental message and resources to learn more about efforts to save Bengal Tigers and bring about holistic development to the Sunderbans region. Ages 9 and up.

heart of a shepherd cover imageHeart of a Shepherd, by Roseanne Parry
published in 2009; a Yearling Book from Random House

Brother is 11 years old,  the youngest of five boys living with his dad and grandparents on their ranch in Eastern Oregon. As his story opens, his father has just received orders to head with his Army Reserve unit to Iraq for 14 months. That seems like an eternity to Brother.

With his older brothers off at their own military assignments and schools, Brother finds himself the only one left to help his grandparents keep the ranch going. Those tasks are brutally hard, and Brother has never been so sure that he’s cut out for either ranching or the military anyway, as generations of Aldermans before him seem to have been.


So there’s a raft of anxieties snarling in Brother’s heart and mind — about his dad’s safety, his grandparents’ health, the bum lambs he’s tending, the promise he made to his dad to keep the ranch in good shape, and his own misgivings about who he is meant to be. Brother doggedly moves forward with the wise help of his extraordinary grandparents — his Catholic grandmother and Quaker, pacifist grandfather — and the new priest in town, Father Ziegler.

This story is unusually deep, honest, and tender, probing issues of faith, calling, and identity in children. Deep chords of grief run through the story, yet the strength of these characters support us all the way through. Ages 10 and up.

P.S. Can I just say that I really dislike the cover of this book? I don’t like to make negative comments here, but if you look at the cover and say, “Hmmm…not for me,” I just want to recommend that you ignore it and give the story a chance.

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