Review of Finding Home: Words from Kids Seeking Sanctuary, by Gwen Agna and Shelley Rotner, photographs by Shelley Rotner

Finding Home

Words from Kids Seeking Sanctuary

by Gwen Agna and Shelley Rotner
photographs by Shelley Rotner

Clarion Books, 2024. 32 pages.
Review written January 29, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review

Oh, this beautiful book! I’ve long been a fan of Shelley Rotner’s bright, beautiful photo illustrations focusing on children. In this one she shows us smiling faces of children from all over the world who are refugees. As a mom, the pictures of these sweet children wrenched my heart, but the book is completely kid-friendly, showing kids photos of other children who are just like them in important ways.

There’s simple text tying the pages together, and then most of the book is quotations from children, with speech bubbles coming from their photographs.

First, the book explains in simple language this concept:

Kids from all over the world have to leave their homes and countries.

They have to escape —
fleeing fires, floods, drought, or war —
because it’s not safe for them to stay anymore.

Many families leave hoping to find freedom,
a better life — a new home.

Quotations from kids, with photographs, illustrate each part. After the basic definition of refugees, it talks about the difficulty of moving. But the bulk of the book is positive things about their new lives. Here’s the text of that part without the quotations:

It takes a lot of courage —
you have to be brave to move somewhere new.

All kids need a safe place to learn . . .

… explore. . .

. . . play. . .

. . . celebrate good times together. . .

. . . and make new friends.

That section shows kids doing exactly those things.

Here are some of the quotations from kids:

We left in a hurry. We could hardly bring anything. I could only take what fit in my backpack.

I miss my home and I miss my comfortable bed, but I’m glad I’m not in a country that’s having a war.

It was hard to make friends at first when you speak a different language. I couldn’t understand them, and they couldn’t understand me.

My new school has art class. We didn’t have that in my country. I love to draw. This is my happy home.

There are more details of some of the children’s stories at the back, a glossary, and author’s notes. This will help give kids empathy for other kids in the world, who may show up in their own classrooms.

shelleyrotner.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Rough Sleepers, by Tracy Kidder

Rough Sleepers

Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People

by Tracy Kidder
read by the Author

Books on Tape, 2023. 8 hours, 42 minutes.
Review written January 3, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 More Nonfiction

I’ve read a few of Tracy Kidder’s in-depth biographies now: Among Schoolchildren, Strength in What Remains, and Mountains Beyond Mountains. Like those amazing books, this one takes a deep dive into a man who has given his life to helping people who need it.

In this case, we’re looking at Dr. Jim O’Connell, who got drafted into a program of providing medical care for the homeless in Boston after he’d finished his internship. His plan was to simply help out for a year, but the people there and the need pulled him in, and his work has gone on for decades.

Tracy Kidder traveled along with Dr. O’Connell and gives a picture of the day-to-day and night-to-night work he and his organization do. They’ve got a van that goes out to rough sleepers, bringing blankets and cocoa. They’ve got a home where people can go when they’re discharged from the hospital but not yet able to care for themselves. Most of all, the homeless people of Boston have doctors looking out for them, caring for them. I’m honestly a little envious – but at the same time glad that this vulnerable population has people in their corner.

And the portrayal of Jim O’Connell makes him shine like Mr. Rogers — someone who sees people, who cares about his patients. He sees them as wonderful people, looking far beyond their difficult circumstances.

The book doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. Many of their patients die, and sleeping rough is still associated with shorter lives. Even efforts to get them housing doesn’t always work because the patients don’t necessarily know how to conduct themselves in that situation. We also get stories of some of the striking characters, with all their complexity, whose lives have been touched by Dr. O’Connell’s work and whose lives in turn touched others.

This doctor shines because he sees the beauty and wonder in vulnerable people and cares for them. This book shines because it helps the reader see that, too.

tracykidder.com

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Review of Mexikid, by Pedro Martín

Mexikid

A Graphic Memoir

by Pedro Martín

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2023. 316 pages.
Review written January 3, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 Newbery Honor Book
2024 Pura Belpré Award Winner for Illustrator and Author
2024 Odyssey Award Honor Audiobook
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Children’s Nonfiction

It’s no secret that I think graphic novel memoirs celebrating middle school years are the best thing ever. In this one, the author looks to be a little younger than middle school, and he and his family went on an amazing adventure. Pedro’s the 7th of 9 children, and his whole family hit the road in a Winnebago in 1977 and drove to Mexico to pick up his Abuelito and bring him back to California. Hijinks ensue.

Honestly, I can’t do justice to all that’s in here. Pedro loves to draw, and imagines his Abuelito as a superhero, based on the stories of his time during the Mexican Revolution. But then when he sees Abuelito, he does some feats of amazing strength.

Seriously, if you don’t think traveling in a Winnebago with a whole bunch of kids has all kinds of funny things to write about, you’ve never done it. Hmm. My family did that a few years before Pedro’s family, when there were probably 8 kids. But we didn’t have to deal with crossing a border and getting toys confiscated and nothing to listen to except “Shipoopi.”

You’re going to have to trust me that this book is hilarious and fun and full of adventure, because I don’t even know how to start describing details. It’s also about family – siblings and cousins, parents and grandparents, and a classic road trip bringing them all together.

mexikid.com
Penguin.com/kids

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Review of The Tower of Life, by Chana Stiefel, illustrated by Susan Gal

The Tower of Life

How Yaffa Eliach Rebuilt Her Town in Stories and Photographs

by Chana Stiefel
illustrated by Susan Gal

Scholastic Press, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written January 11, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Children’s Nonfiction

The Tower of Life is a beautiful and bright picture book biography. As the book opens, we’re introduced to the main character as a child:

There once was a girl named Yaffa.
She was a spirited girl who loved her home and her family. She was born in a shtetl, a small Jewish town that pulsed with love, laughter, and light. The name of her shtetl was Eishyshok (Ay-shi-shok).

The acccompanying picture shows a happy chld playing in the bright yellow-green grass above a village with people in groups interacting with one another.

We’re told that Yaffa’s family had lived in Eishyshok for 900 years. We see a picture of a grandmother telling stories as the community gathers around. The following pages show a happy community, enjoying both snow and sunshine. We see a bustling marketplace.

But then we learn that Yaffa’s grandmother had a photography studio. She took photographs of all the people in the village. On Jewish New Year, it was a custom to send photographs to family all over the world, so that’s what people in the community did. We even see a reproduction of a photograph of Yaffa, smiling broadly as she feeds the chickens.

But then hard times came. The Germans came and rounded up the people of Eishyshok. But Yaffa’s family escaped and lived in the forest. The pictures describing that time are darker, but they are accented with bright red paint that keeps a sense of hope. Yaffa brought her family pictures along.

After the war, Yaffa ended up in America, and she became a professor of history. So she was asked by President Jimmy Carter to help make an exhibit for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Thoughts of her own treasured photographs made her think of basing her exhibit on photographs from the rich lives in happier times.

Yaffa decided she would find the survivors and rebuild Eishyshok, not brick by brick, but photograph by photograph, story by story.

And the book concludes with a vertical format spread showing how Yaffa’s exhibit looks in the museum.

Today, if you travel to Washington, DC, you can see Yaffa’s “Tower of Life” in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. More than 1,000 photos of the people of Eishyshok soar three stories high for all the world to see. A world filled with love, laughter, and light — a world that will never be forgotten.

I love the way this picture book makes something beautiful out of a story of the Holocaust, as Yaffa did herself, emphasizing life and light and including beautiful pictures. The book shows the reader that these people were so much more than victims, living beautiful lives.

chanastiefel.com
galgirlstudio.com
scholastic.com

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Review of Tomfoolery! by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Tomfoolery!

Randolph Caldecott and the Rambunctious Coming-of-Age of Children’s Books

written by Michelle Markel
illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Chronicle Books, 2023. 40 pages.
Review written December 6, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

This picture book biography of Randolph Caldecott begins like this:

Come on in.

A whole world lives and breathes inside these pages. You’ll find frisky animals, sprightly characters, and a hero so chipper he can barely hold still on the paper.

But in the 1850s, there are no children’s books like this one. Many are published, but their pictures look stiff, full of pretty poses and cluttered scenery. No one has yet imagined how much fun an illustrated book could be.

No one, until…

Quick!

If you don’t move fast, you’re going to miss him — Randolph Caldecott, future famous illustrator. A fever has weakened his heart and left him frail, but he loves to be outdoors . . .

This amazing book shows us what made Randolph Caldecott different. We do see examples of picture books before Caldecott on that first page, and then the rest of the book is done in Caldecott’s style — with movement on every single page. There’s only one exception — the page where Randolph is sitting alone on a chair in his flat in London, sad and wishing to be back in the countryside. Even in that page, your eye is drawn out the window to the rooftops of London. Barbara McClintock expertly incorporates Caldecott’s own work in the illustrations — also full of movement — with even a grand full-color spread of Mr. Gilpin’s ride taken straight from Caldecott’s work — the same scene used for one face of the Caldecott Medal.

The page talking about Caldecott’s international success and how he transformed children’s picture books is especially wonderful, as it shows many Caldecott Medalists looking at their own books — I recognize several, including Maurice Sendak, Jerry Pinkney, and Dan Santat. My one complaint about the book is that they did not include a list of authors pictured in the back matter. They did include a list of Randolph Caldecott’s books and told which illustrations include reproductions of Caldecott’s own art and which of his books they came from.

I liked this even better than the author’s book Balderdash! about John Newbery, I think because the topic is so visual, and the artist could incorporate Randolph Caldecott’s own illustrations to show us how good he was at bringing characters to life.

Ha! And that’s interesting: In Balderdash! she mentioned that John Newbery used the story of Goody Two-Shoes to show that children could learn from stories better than sermons. But in this book, Goody Two-Shoes is one of the books shown as an example of picture books with stiff poses and little movement. So essentially, John Newbery helped publishers get started on making books for children, and Randolph Caldecott helped them make books with dynamic illustrations that captured kids’ attention.

michellemarkel.com
barbaramcclintockbooks.com
chroniclekids.com

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Review of The Other Pandemic, by Lynn Curlee

The Other Pandemic

An AIDS Memoir

by Lynn Curlee

Charlesbridge Teen, 2023. 164 pages.
Review written December 4, 2023, from a library book.

In The Other Pandemic, Lynn Curlee tells his own story, as a young gay man in the 1980s — when his friends and his community started dying.

He begins by setting the stage with what it was like for him to grow up as gay in the 1960s, then talks about starting his career as an artist in New York City. He talks about the connections he made and the friendships he built — and then his friends started getting sick. After several years, his own life partner passed away from AIDS.

At the back of the book, after the main story, he’s got photographs and loving tributes to eleven friends who died of AIDS. This book helps the reader understand the pain and fear of that time for gay men. He highlights the non-response of the government for many years and hopes we’ve learned something about dealing with pandemics.

Here’s an excerpt from the Epilogue:

An entire generation of gay men was decimated by AIDS, and the survivors were forever changed. We came from every walk of life: businessmen, architects, teachers, doctors, bartenders, lawyers, plumbers, actors, contractors, musicians, salesmen, designers, factory workers, composers, deliverymen, artists, athletes, and more. There had always been outspoken homosexual individuals who lived their lives openly, and throughout the entire twentieth century there was a thriving underground gay subculture, particularly in the big cities. But before Gay Pride, the vast majority of gay people were invisible. They lived their daily lives in the closet because of homophobia. While there were activists before, it was an entire generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s that asserted and then openly lived the idea that gay people should be proud of who we are, and not ashamed of our natural orientation. We were the generation that refused to hide in the shadows and insisted upon equality….

If only Americans could learn from the experience of the gay community and stop wasting time floundering in denial and wallowing in hatred. Throughout the AIDS crisis, the movement for equality and acceptance continued, but it was temporarily overshadowed by the challenge of coming to terms with the horrific carnage. Out of this struggle the AIDS generation of gay people made a community forged in pain and sorrow, tempered by compassion, and eventually resulting in a newfound strength and purpose.

This book was eye-opening for me because I was a college student in the early 1980s and had no idea this was going on. Lynn Curlee telling his own story gives a window into the lives of people who didn’t have the luxury of ignorance.

curleeart.com
charlesbridge.com

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Review of The Gardener of Alcatraz, by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Jenn Ely

The Gardener of Alcatraz

by Emma Bland Smith
illustrated by Jenn Ely

Charlesbridge, 2022. 40 pages.
Review written March 1, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2022 Cybils Finalist Elementary Nonfiction

This picture book biography tells the true story of Elliott Michener, who was imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in 1941 for counterfeiting money. At first, he worked on plans to escape. But then his life changed when he was given the job of working in the gardens.

As time passed, a funny thing happened. This gardening thing started to grow on him. He studied seed packets and books from the prison library. He built a greenhouse and tried out composting. He even created his own narcissus hybrid.

He ended up gaining the trust of the new warden and his wife and working in their home. Later, he was transferred to Leavenworth and wrote to the warden about how much he missed Alcatraz and his gardens there. Fortunately, the warden helped him get early parole, and he eventually became a landscaper.

It’s all told with colorful pictures and details that pull you into the story. The backdrop of San Francisco Bay in many pictures adds to the beauty of the book. There are 5 pages of backmatter, and we learn that the author found wonderful primary sources, including Elliott’s correspondence with the warden and prison reports. She used those to make the story come alive, in a sort of nonfiction version of The Secret Garden, where working with plants changed a man’s life.

emmabsmith.com
jennely.com
charlesbridge.com

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Review of Good Books for Bad Children, written by Beth Kephart, illustrated by Chloe Bristol

Good Books for Bad Children

The Genius of Ursula Nordstrom

written by Beth Kephart
illustrated by Chloe Bristol

anne schwartz books, 2023. 44 pages.
Review written October 26, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Good Books for Bad Children is a picture book biography of one of the giants of children’s literature — Ursula Nordstrom, the editor behind hundreds of classics.

The book begins with some spreads about her lonely childhood, early fondness for books, and time in boarding school. Then she couldn’t afford college and got a clerk job in the textbook department at Harper & Brothers publishers. But that led to meeting the head of the Department of Books for Boys and Girls in the cafeteria. And that led to becoming her assistant. And that led to becoming the head of the department four years later in 1940. And that led to many fabulous children’s books being created over the next decades.

The author doesn’t give us a list of books she edited. (I would have liked one in the back, but it surely would have taken up too much space.) Instead, she keeps it interesting for child readers and gives us a story behind the publication of several classics: encouraging Crockett Johnson about Harold and the Purple Crayon, listening to the first line of Goodnight Moon on the phone, laughing with Ruth Krauss over lines for A Hole Is to Dig, and more.

Here’s my favorite spread in that section:

Sometimes Ursula would find a way
to help her writers and artists end their stories.
Like when Maurise Sendak
came to her with a tale about a boy named Max
who goes on a wild stomp of an adventure.

The problem?
Maurice didn’t know how to get Max back home.

“Well, why did Max want to go home?” Ursula asked and asked again.

“Well, he wanted to be where someone loved him best of all,
but he couldn’t really say that,” Maurice said at last.

“Why not?” Ursula asked.

It was the perfect question,
which led to the perfect ending
for Where the Wild Things Are.

I also love the way the author gets across Ursula Nordstrom’s attitude that children need all kinds of books, because there are all kinds of children out there. Indeed, she worked to make good books for bad children.

I was already a fan of Ursula Nordstrom because of reading Dear Genius, a book of her letters collected by Leonard Marcus. I’m happy that now children can learn about this lovely person who made a big difference in the world.

bethkephartbooks.com
chloebristol.com

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Review of Solito, by Javier Zamora, read by the author

Solito

A Memoir

by Javier Zamora
read by the author

Random House Audio, 2022. 17 hours, 8 minutes.
Review written May 2, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2023 Alex Award winner

The Alex Award is for books written for adults that will appeal to teens. Solito is a worthy winner, since in the entire memoir the author is nine years old. It’s the intense subject matter that put this book into the adult market.

Solito is a memoir — and the story of the author’s journey from El Salvador to the United States all by himself in 1999 when he was nine years old. His grandfather took him on the first leg to Guatemala. But then Javier was entrusted to a “coyote,” supposed to be taken safely to Mexico and then the USA to be reunited at last with his parents.

The trip was supposed to be relatively simple, taking a maximum of two weeks. Pretty early on, the plans got messed up. I won’t tell you how many weeks or how many tries it took before he was reunited with his parents, because I don’t want to mess up the suspense — but it was more than one try and much more than two weeks.

The journey was harrowing. In boats, in cars, buses and vans, and on foot through the desert. The author remembers details from a child’s perspective, doing what people told him, and making up names for the desert plants and animals. He is especially grateful to the adults who took him under their wing when plans went terribly awry, pretending he was part of their family to get him safely past officials.

The author doesn’t tell you what to think about the journey. But my reaction is that this is terrible. No child should have to go through such an arduous journey just to have to be with his parents.

But no matter what you conclude, this amazing story will have you riveted and will touch your heart.

javierzamora.net

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Review of The Girl Who Heard the Music, by Marni Fogelson with Mahani Teave, pictures by Marta Álvarez Miguéns

The Girl Who Heard the Music

How One Pianist and 85,000 Bottles and Cans Brought Hope New Hope to an Island

words by Marni Fogelson
with Mahani Teave
pictures by Marta Álvarez Miguéns

Sourcebooks, 2023. 36 pages.
Review written May 1, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

This picture book biography tells the story of Mahani Teave, a girl from Rapa Nui, one of the most remote inhabited islands on earth. They didn’t even have a piano on the island when she was born, but when Mahani was nine, a retired music teacher moved to Rapa Nui with a piano, and Mahani was hooked. She got further lessons after the teacher left, but had to go off the island for more training. She became a concert pianist who performed all over the world.

But an especially inspiring part of her story was that she co-founded a nonprofit which built a music school on the island — built of trash from the nearby ocean!

Although the Rapa Nui School of Music and the Arts was made with tons of trash, it’s powered by nature! Solar panels turn energy from the sun into electricity, and giant barrels hold rainwater for gardens.

So this book is not only the story of a child prodigy, but also a story of fighting for the environment. Rapa Nui is near a place where ocean currents bring trash thrown into the water elsewhere. As well as helping with that mess, the island is working toward being sustainable and waste-free by 2030.

It all adds up to an interesting and inspiring story of a kid who started with a love of music and grew up to help her people and her home.

sourcebookskids.com

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