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August 2006
Traveling to Other Lands
and Times With Books

by Mary Quattlebaum

A book can be the ticket to other lands and other times. It can widen horizons, deepen self-awareness and enrich the journey through childhood. Below are a few especially illuminating travel companions.

Through Maggie's Amerikay (Melanie Kroupa Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, ages 5 to 10, $17), young readers can travel with an Irish lass to New Orleans in the late 1800s. Maggie's family is fleeing the hardships of their homeland, but the girl has doubts about their welcome in the vibrant Southern city. When her baby sister gets sick, Maggie tries to bring in extra money to make up for the wages her mother is losing by taking care of the little one. She takes a job writing down the memories of an old black man and learns about his experiences, first as a slave, then as a soldier during the Civil War. Author Barbara Timberlake Russell brings a sharp ear for the rhythms and vocabulary of period speech to this beautifully written story about a girl and a man, separated by race and generation, coming slowly to a better understanding of, and respect for, one another. Jim Burke's illustrations bring the city vividly alive through scenes of cigar-rolling girls, crowded markets and ragtime music jams.

Caldecott Medalist Ed Young shares a story deeply personal and yet universal in My Mei Mei (Philomel/Penguin, 2006, all ages, $16.99). Adopted as an infant from China, the first-person narrator (Young's oldest daughter Antonia) yearns for a little sister, a "Mei Mei" in her native language. When her wish is realized through a second adoption from China, the girl expresses her ambivalence: The baby "took all the attention away from me. I felt left out." But as they grow, the sisters share treats, stick up for one another, play Mommy and Baby Cat, read together–and present a united front to their parents in their request at the end for "another Mei Mei." Young brings tenderness and humor to this lyrical exploration of the sibling bond, further enhanced by radiant gouache-and-collage illustrations.

In One Green Apple (Clarion, 2006, ages 5 to 10, $16), Farah, a Muslim girl, knows her dupatta and incomprehension of English make her stick out at her new school. She has recently emigrated from a country that has had difficulties with the United States, and she wonders if she will be accepted by the other children. On a school field trip to an orchard, Farah finds some similarities between her new country and her home country that make her feel less homesick. There are the friendly faces of two classmates, Anna and Jim, and farm dogs, with the insides of ears as "pink and shiny" as her dog Haddis's ears. She attends to sounds that are universal: the crunch-crunch of dogs eating, the ka-chunk of apples in the cider press and laughter, including her own. In saying her first English word, "App-ell," aloud, Farah begins to take her place in this new culture just as the apple she chose mingles with those of her classmates in the cider press. Master author Eve Bunting brings a compassionate eye and light touch to this story of resilience and self-acceptance, a story that will resonate with children of all cultures. Ted Lewin's stunning watercolors capture the sun-dappled orchard, the day's shifting light and the changing expressions of Farah and her classmates.

"Music was part of our resistance against the Nazis," says Ela Weissberger in The Cat with the Yellow Star: Coming of Age in Terezin (Holiday House, 2006, ages 9 and up, $16.95). "Music, art, good teachers, and friends mean survival." From the age of 11 to almost 15, Weissberger was interred, along with her mother, sister and grandmother (who died during that time) in Terezin, a World War II concentration camp. Weissberger's personal story, authored by Ruth Goldman Rubin, is accompanied by photos, documents and children's artwork, which give contemporary young readers a glimpse into the lives of Ela and her friends. In the girls' barrack, Ela and her peers are visited and secretly taught by adult musicians and artists, a dangerous activity since the Nazis have forbidden all studies. Teachers and students demonstrate yet more courage when they decide to stage the children's opera "Brundibar," with Ela in an important role as a creative cat. When the Nazis order the young actors to perform for a visiting group of International Red Cross workers, no one (except the interred performers) seems to catch on that the evil Brundibar is but a stand-in for Hitler and the victory march a stirring freedom song for the imprisoned Jews. But Ela's story doesn't end there. She, her sister and mother survive to begin new lives first in Israel, then in the United States, where she now speaks often on her Holocaust experiences and attends performances of "Brundibar" that honor the spirit of her childhood production. And every year since 1986, Ela and the small group of surviving Terezin friends try to meet. An amazing true story of the triumph of courage and hope over horror and despair. Every child deserves a chance to read it.

In 1942, a young German boy named Bruno and his family move to "Out-With," a desolate place where his father is commandant. Annoyed that there are no playmates around and that their house there is smaller than the one in Berlin, Bruno decides to explore the surrounding area. He comes upon a fence and on the other side is a boy about his own age named Shmuel. Every day the boys meet at the fence to talk, though Bruno remains confused about Shmuel's thin appearance, shaved head and vanishing family members. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (David Fickling Books/Random House, 2006, ages 12 and up, $15.95) is a haunting fable, with an ending that lingers in the mind. The final words sound a cautionary note: "Of course all this happened a long time ago and nothing like that could ever happen again. Not in this day and age." A deceptively simple, thought-provoking tale.

Yearning for the freedom of her old life in California, young Mari plants sunflower seeds in the bleak Utah desert where her family is interred. Author Amy Lee-Tai bases her bilingual English/Japanese picture book A Place Where Sunflowers Grow (Children's Book Press, 2006, ages 5 to 10, $16.95) on the experiences of her mother and grandmother at the Topaz Relocation Center during World War II. (More than 120,000 innocent Japanese-Americans were similarly "relocated" by the government during this time, according to the book's introduction.) While she waits for her seeds to sprout, Mari endures the conditions of the camp–the lack of privacy in communal shower and toilet rooms, the noisy mess halls, the dust storms. In her art class, though, she finds the tools and inspiration to bring color to this dreary place. Mari creates a picture of her family's barrack and places herself and best friend Aiko under towering sunflowers. And when she returns to her desert garden, amazingly enough "nine tiny green stems peeked from the ground" like "old friends." Through her creative and resilient spirit, Mari is able not only to transcend but also to make changes to an oppressive situation. Luminous mixed-media illustrations by Felicia Hoshino reinforce the message of the text. A beautiful, important book about a long-hidden chapter in American history.

Novelist Sophie Masson draws on Indonesian culture and mythology to create a rich, complex fantasy in Snow, Fire, Sword (HarperCollins, 2006, ages 10 and up, $15.99). Fantasy buffs ready to move beyond the standard Western motifs (boy wizards, fairies, fire-breathing dragons) will relish the spirit and human antagonists (Jinn, Afreet and Hantumu, to name but a few) that pit their powers of evil against protagonists Adi and Dewi. A vision has told the two teenagers to journey to Kotabunga, the capital city, in order to find "snow, fire, sword" in preparation for a great battle that could destroy spirit and human realms alike. There is action aplenty as these realms blur and the old ways collide with the new. A fascinating read!

Monkeys mischievous, grand and wise swing through the pages of Monkey Business (Henry Holt, 2005, ages 8 and up, $18.95). This collection of 14 tales, gathered by Shirley Climo, showcases monkey lore from countries including Madagascar, Mexico, Brazil, Japan and India. Like their fictional kin Curious George, the critters' curiosity often gets them into trouble–but their quick wits get them out again. In "The Baboon and the Shark," a Liberian folktale, a landlocked primate yearns to visit the depths of the sea described by a shiny-toothed shark. Luckily the hairy fellow figures out a way to save his skin and heart in the nick of time. In a Filipino folktale, Uncle Monkey cleverly solves the mystery behind a hunter and his many pets. Climo liberally sprinkles proverbs and facts throughout and includes an informative annotated bibliography. Illustrator Erik Brooks wields brush and colored pencil as deftly as his subjects climb trees and has managed to capture the look and personality of a host of monkey species. Great for family read-alouds and sure to inspire a few monkeyshines

Mary Quattlebaum is a mother and the author, most recently of Winter Friends, a picture book of poems. You can contact her at www.maryquattlebaum.com, which has information on her 13 award-winning children's books and author visits in schools.

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