This is an especially strong batch of new nonfiction picture books, including a few that haven’t received much buzz. Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix, for example, is unlike anything else out there, and I haven’t seen it reviewed anywhere. Same goes for Adrift at Sea and Waiting for Pumpsie. Maybe I just missed the reviews, but each of these books is worth a look for those seeking to add cultural diversity to their nonfiction picture book collections. I hope you find something here that will interest the children in your life.
Chef Roy Choi and the Street Food Remix has a cover that jumps off the shelf, and the story inside lives up to the cover’s promise. Roy Choi learned about preparing good Korean food at home, and he learned other things on the street. After culinary school, he became a chef, but the lifestyle didn’t work for him, so he combined his food knowledge and street smarts to serve great food for people to eat on the street “while skateboarding, exploring, or just hanging.” Chef Roy Choi and The Street Food Remix capitalizes on the popularity of food trucks and uses bright graffiti-style graphics and comic art to enhance the book’s fun urban ethos. Explanations of various Korean dishes and recipes for some of Choi’s creations accompany this picture book’s underlying messages about perseverance, community, and using our talents to make a positive difference for others, in Choi’s case through “food smiles.” Keep this one in mind when students need a biography.
One of the best things to come from this year’s observations of the late poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s 100th birthday is We Are Shining, a new picture book adaptation of “A Little Girl’s Poem,” published in 1983. The “We” in the title can belong to one child or a collective childhood as the narrative persona claims the natural right of a child to shine, sing, and live! Ms. Brooks was a forward-looking, positive person, but she also gently reminds readers how many of the world’s children struggle to live into the lives they deserve. The poem’s message is uplifting, as are the illustrations from the always excellent Jan Spivey Gilchrist. The children in this book sometimes swirl in imaginative settings, and other times are settled in their homes and neighborhoods. Matching this poet, this poem, and this artist was a visionary publishing decision. We Are Shining is a beautiful book, and I hope it gets the attention it deserves.
The Secret Life of the Red Fox is exactly the kind of book that captivates young animal lovers. Focusing on one vixen, Laurence Pringle emphasizes the secretiveness inherent in her nocturnal nature, as well as her intelligence. Pringle incorporates some darker moments too as the fox faces danger and preys upon smaller animals. Kate Garchinsky’s pictures convey the animal’s beauty, both in close-up paintings and from a distance in various contexts. This book will reward readers who return to its words and pictures as closer examination reveals new details, and the most intriguing elements retain their allure. Although there is some potentially challenging vocabulary here, a useful glossary is included, and the likely repeat reading will reinforce those words.The Secret Life of the Red Fox will pair well with last year’s Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson.
I didn’t see the usual batch of baseball picture books this spring, but Barry Wittenstein’s Waiting for Pumpsie would be a standout in any year. The main character Bernard is fictional, but the events surrounding the 1959 Red Sox debut of Elijah “Pumpsie” Green are true. Although Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, twelve seasons later the Boston Red Sox had never fielded a black player. Then in 1959 Pumpsie Green was ready to move from the minor leagues to the Red Sox. Waiting for Pumpsie is the story of how Bernard and his family, and other black Red Sox fans, first wait for the level of Pumpsie’s minor league play to develop into major-league readiness. Then they wait for him to join the team. Then they wait for him to get in a game, which happens in a road game they listen to on the radio. Finally, they wait for Pumpsie to take his place on the field at Fenway Park, and his first at-bat. All this waiting has an emotional pull that lets readers know what it was like for black Americans to await each step toward integration. Racist taunts at Fenway Park are directed at both Bernard’s family and Pumpsie, and those examples of ignorance also have emotional resonance. Waiting for Pumpsie gets the baseball elements right, both visually and in the text. More importantly, Waiting for Pumpsie shows how America’s pastime served as a microcosm of America’s gradual civil rights progress.
Before reading Long May She Wave, I didn’t know the story of the Pickersgill family and their role in making the flag flown over Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 which became the inspiration for “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Long May She Wave focuses on 13-year-old Caroline Pickersgill as she works to create the enormous flag as a signal of American pride to the British invaders. Because author Kristen Fulton accents verbs in her story-telling, this picture book is great for a read-aloud. Fulton also cleverly incorporates phrases from the National Anthem’s lyrics into the story, which makes this an excellent accompaniment to introducing the song to children. Holly Berry’s illustrations evoke the popular lithographs of Pickersgill’s time, while colorful images of the flag and “bombs bursting in air” pop out of the otherwise simple drawings. Long May She Wave is an enlightening and entertaining book for helping young readers understand the flag, Flag Day, and The National Anthem.
At first I thought This Is How We Do It was going to be a little too busy and confusing. Silly me. It comes together smoothly as author Matt Lamothe charmingly shows how kids from Italy, Japan, Peru, Uganda, Russia, India, and Iran do pretty much the same things American kids do, although some of the details are different. Each activity—breakfast, going to school, playing, etc.—is shown in action from other the countries, with a space on the page for American kids to reflect on their own version of the activity. This large picture book draws on the basic principle that much of how we learn is based on recognition of how things are the same and how things differ. This Is How We Do It can help children (and adults) understand that our lives have far more in common with our global neighbors than we are sometimes led to believe.
The appeal of Greg Pizzoli’s The Quest for Z lies in its mysteries. The unknown has a way of firing the imagination, and this picture book deals with a couple of interesting unknowns. (Pardon my vagueness, but I’m avoiding a major spoiler.) The text’s complexity, especially in the sidebars, probably makes this most appropriate for older elementary students, although Pizzoli’s illustrations do such an excellent job of conveying the story that younger readers are likely to get something out of it too, regardless of how much or how little they explore the text. The Quest for Z is essentially an adventure story, but it also has fun with touches of humor and cartoon-style artwork.
A picture book about John Newbery, the founding father of publishing for children, seems like a good idea, but I had my doubts about whether Newbery could be made interesting for young readers. Michelle Markel’s Balderdash! begins by showing Newbery’s attitude and early life in fun ways, and the first half of the book maintains that tone. Although Nancy Carpenter’s illustrations remain “boisterous” throughout, the text loses much of its momentum in the book’s second half. I’m glad this version of Newbery’s biography exists, and it can play a role when talking to children about books, but Balderdash! is not one they are likely to return to on their own.
Adrift at Sea is the true story of Tuan Ho, a young Vietnamese boy who escaped his country’s military regime in 1981 and became part of the wave of “boat people,” refugees hoping to arrive in America. As author Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch relates how Tuan and members of his family survived their escape and a flimsy boat with a motor that eventually dies, she keeps the drama intact without crossing the line into being terrifying. My only quibble with the text is the awkward present-tense construction in the first sentence: “When I come home from school today, a jug of water and bags of dried food sit by the door.” (Delete the word today, and the sentence works fine.) The artwork of Brian Deines is exquisite. His pastels display the sea’s enormity and beauty without undercutting the threatening situation. The colors somehow convey a sense of hope that I found comforting. The front and back matter complete Tuan’s story as it relates how his refugee family found a home and life in America.
Thank you for reading this month’s collection of reviews, some of which appeared earlier on Goodreads in slightly different form.
If this is your first visit to my blog, welcome. You may want to take a look back at earlier months to see more nonfiction picture book reviews.