I recently did school visits in eighteen different elementary schools in Richardson, Texas. At each one, I shared the story of Rebeka Uwitonze, my coauthor for Her Own Two Feet: A Rwanda Girl’s Brave Fight to Walk. What I realized as I shared was that many of these children were first or second generation immigrants from countries just as foreign as Rwanda, with stories just as brave and hard as Rebeka’s. Each one of them has a story to tell, and I wish I could have heard them all. This month I focus on books that give a peek into other countries and cultures and experiences. The more we connect through our stories, the better our world will be.
I Just Want to Say Goodnight by Rachel Isadora
This goodnight book, set on the African plains, is beautiful for the paintings, vibrant and saturated with color, and also for the sweet story of a little girl that needs to tell everyone and everything goodnight before she goes to bed. She says goodnight to the fish, the cat, the goat, the little ants, the rock, and finally, in the the end, her book (a copy of Goodnight Moon). I love the way this shows a foreign country from a child’s eyes and how we can see the similarities and differences in our western world. Baby chicks come through the open door to her bedroom and there are monkeys in the trees outside, but Lala must go to bed as all children do. She has a bed, a stuffed animal, and a book. It’s a beautiful story to drift off to sleep with.
My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood
Imagine immigrating to the US and going from a girl called Cartwheel to a girl who doesn’t want to go out anymore. She wraps herself “in a blanket of my own words and sounds. I called it my old blanket.” English, a foreign language for her, is brilliantly pictured as strange shapes coming out of stranger’s mouths. When the girl takes a walk with her mother, both wearing traditional clothes from their country, heads covered, another little girl smiles and waves. Next time they meet the girl says something, but the words come out as strange shapes. So they swing, something they both understand and love. And in that moment of shared experience, they become friends.
The girl still feels isolated and alone, but as they continue to meet and the American girl teaches her words, the shapes coming from their mouths become recognizable. A bird, a leaf, a tree, the girl repeats the words until they begin to sound “warm and soft.” Like a quilt. Each new word is like a new square in her new blanket that becomes just as comfortable as her old one. The blankets are languages, and in the end she cartwheels again, realizing, “I will always be me,” no matter where she is, or what language she speaks. Light on text with gorgeous watercolor and oil paintings, this book shows what compassion, courage, and friendship look like in the context of moving to a whole new country.
Sakamoto’s Swim Club: How a Teacher Led an Unlikely Team to Victory, by Julie Aberi and Chris Sasaki
Set in Hawaii in the 1930’s, this picture book takes readers to a time and place that feels foreign, even if it is in the US. Blending content that’s interesting to both adults and children, it’s an inspiring story for all ages. A short preface begins with: “Who would believe that children cooling off in the irrigation ditches of sugar plantations on the Hawaiian Island of Maui could become Olympic swimming champions? Science teacher Soichi Sakamoto believed.” So you get the scope of the story, and then turn the page and paired with gorgeous illustrations you read short, four line, rhyming stanzas. More than a historical accounting, it puts us in this place:
Simple, and yet it paints a clear picture, even without the illustrations, which are gorgeous. It also does a good job of drawing on common experience to really tug a child into this story, the next page:
Dawn to dusk
they toil away.
alone to play.
Kids almost a hundred years later still identify with that feeling of being around a busy adult and relying on their own resources and ingenuity to find a way to play. So many reasons to read and love this book! The note at the end includes a photo of the Three Year Swim Club, reminding the reader this is a real story about real kids.
Room For Everyone by Naaz Khan, illustrated by Mercè López
I first saw this picture book, which is set in Zanzibar, at TLA 2022. It jumped out at me as I was co-writing a picture book with a friend that was also set in Africa. I love the swahili words like daladala (a minibus/shared taxi) and parachichi (avocado) and the language, falling into clever and unpredictable rhymes and rhythms. “It’s hotter than peppers out there in the sun! Come in, there’s room for everyone!” What a lovely message, there’s room for everyone. For one old man, a herder with two goats, three fruit sellers, a farmer and his four shiny pails of fresh milk, five mamas . . . and so on. Bright colors, lots of different people doing different things, including ten divers in the end, all on their way to the shore. It’s a fun read and begs retelling and re-looking, the illustrations are equally fun.
My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang and Huynh Kim Lien
Set in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, the story begins with a boy sitting on his front porch, his feet dangling in the water and his “little open boat” tied up nearby. We’re told, “Today is the first day,” but we don’t know where he’s headed or what he’s about to do. All we know is this is the first time he’ll travel alone. With spare text and beautiful illustrations, we set out with him.
Clever text hints at his destination as he braves rain and rough water. “It’s different when you’re alone in the unfamiliar halls of the forest. I hear the chatter of a classroom full of animals as I move by.” This book nails the familiar experience of a first day of school. The boy paddles across a dark double page spread that reads, “When you don’t know a place, it can be scary.” He’s finally welcomed by schools of fish, a herd of water buffalo and new friends as he lands at the shore of his school.
An author’s note explains how kids get to school around the world in lots of different ways and shares facts about the Mekong Delta. And at the very end is a beautiful note to the reader from Christopher Myers. He writes that, “strangeness and familiarity are braided together,” in our world where technology, immigration and ease of travel have brought us closer. He goes on to say this book, “collapses the space between same and different and in doing so creates something very close to wonder in our everyday.” Yes. Yes, yes, yes.
My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sara Palacios
I’ve seen many women in Rwanda carrying large baskets, or yellow water containers, or bundles of maize or sweet potatoes on their heads. I’ve tried to do it myself, and failed.
In this story, set in Port-au-Prince, a little girl is finally getting to learn how to carry a basket on her head as she goes to market with her mother. Little Sister is left back with Grann so it’s just Fallon and Manman. At first, the basket falls off Fallon’s head and her Manman tells her the wisdom she learned from her mother, “Pitit, pitit, zwazo fe nich li. Little by little the bird builds its nest. Not everything is learned fast.” When I read this I was working on a manuscript of my own with a Kenyan phrase, Haraka, haraka, haina baraka, hurry, hurry has no blessing. Both wise, universal truths.
Fallon is eager to try to balance the basket on her head again, but she must first learn from her surroundings. A tap-tap bus passes playing Kompa music and Manman says to carry the panye she must be graceful, even under the weight. Then they pass walls that still stand years after the earthquake in Haiti, and Manan says strength is also needed. And to carry the panye is to care for the family, she tells Fallon as they pass mothers and daughters in the market. Finally, it’s time to try again . . . and once again it falls. Fallon almost gives up but Manman says, “Pitit, pitit, build your nest,” and after one more try, Fallon does it. She walks like a queen, like Manman, all the way home with the panye on her head.
Back at home, when Manman asks Fallon what the panya means to her, she says, “The panye means we are graceful when the load is heavy. We are strong, even when the earth is not. We are family, fed from love.” I kind of want to paint this on my walls at home. Empowering, and beautiful.