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Reviews of Multicultural Children's Books

June 27, 2012

While many of today’s classrooms are filled with students who grew up just around the corner from the schools they now attend, many of the students in those same classrooms may be new to the United States and unfamiliar with the particular routines and practices of American schools. The language and pedagogy may be completely foreign to these youngsters, leaving them feeling isolated and disconcerted. Books for children and young adults offer one way to help students from various cultures feel welcome while also offering a promising avenue for teachers and students to learn about the similarities and differences that exist among cultures. For this week’s book reviews, members of the International Reading Association Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) examine some recent multicultural titles that have expanded what we know of the world.

GRADES K-3


Buitrago, Jairo. (2012). Jimmy the greatest! Illus. by Rafael Yockteng; Translated by Elisa Amado. Toronto: Groundwood Books/ House of Anansi Press.

Jimmy the Greatest! A Colombian author and illustrator have crafted for young readers an inspirational story about a boy named Jimmy who thinks he wants to become a boxer. One small gym nestles among the many ramshackle houses in a small Caribbean village by the sea. Once Jimmy starts to hang out there, Don Apolinar, the gym’s owner, gives him a box of books and newspaper clippings about Muhammad Ali, often called “the greatest” by boxing fans. Jimmy reads all about the famous American boxer and starts running, shadow boxing, and training to become a boxing contender, even though someone has stolen his shoes. As Jimmy spends time learning the sport, he also notices that many villagers, including the gym’s owner, wish to leave their small village to find a better life. Jimmy discovers something about himself and decides to stay in the village and manage the gym for the community, even adding a library. Although young sports fans will enjoy this book, it is also a reminder to take pride in what are doing, enjoy the job you have chosen, and find pleasure in your surroundings. The 2010 Spanish edition of this book, Jimmy el más grande, has been nominated for the Best Books of the Year list by Venezuela's Banco del Libro.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Hughes, Langston. (2012). I, too, am America. Illus. by Bryan Collier. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

I, Too, Am AmericaIn this visually attractive book, illustrator Bryan Collier has artistically interpreted the 1925 poem by Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Sing America.” The book opens with a train whizzing along, allowing the visual images to tell the story of the Pullman railway porters. Relying solely on the sparse lines of Hughes’ poem, the Pullman porters’ story also unfolds pieces of African American history. As the porters clean up the cars after passengers have disembarked, they throw the debris, newspapers, books, and jazz records from the caboose. Field workers and others find these castoffs and learn more about their own history. Using the American flag “veiled” throughout each page, Collier depicts aspects of African American life. In the final scene, a young boy and his mother are looking out a train window that is travelling through today. Pair this poetic picture book with Patricia and Fredrick McKissack’s A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter (2001) for more background information on the porters.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Krishnaswami, Uma (2012).  Out of the way! Out of the way!  Illus. by Uma Krishnaswamy. Toronto: Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press.

Out of the Way! Set in a small Indian village, this story that was first published in India follows a young boy who discovers a young tree sprouting in the middle of a path. He places rocks all around the tree to protect it from people traveling along this dusty pathway. As the path becomes a busier track, then a street and eventually a busy road, travelers begin yelling, “Out of the way, out of the way.” As time passes and the young boy becomes a man and the tree grows into a beautiful shady rest spot, a whole new appreciation for the tree develops, as it becomes a place of beauty. This author/illustrator team (yes! two different people with almost the same name) work together to create a story that gets busier and busier over the course of the text. The illustrations become more densely populated with people and activity as the tree continues to grow. Readers will have to look closely to see the passage of time as the little boy becomes a man while the story flows from page to page. This thought-provoking story presents a theme to celebrate progress as well as taking time to enjoy the moment … and the tree. Teachers will appreciate the activity kit and book trailer provided by the author/illustrator team found at the author’s website.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Ravishankar, Anushka. (2012). The rumor.  Illus. by Kanyika Kini. Toronto: Tundra Books.

The RumorA grumpy fruit seller named Pandurang lives in the Indian village of Baddbaddpur. He is such a grouchy old man that no one really wants to be around him. One day, he coughs up a feather. He tells his wife about this unusual incident and asks her not to tell anyone. Since Pandu’s wife loves a little gossip, she tells her neighbor about the feather; the neighbor, in turn, tells another neighbor, who tells a friend, thus, spreading the feather story throughout the small village. However, each time the tale is told, details in the story change, and the feather gets bigger and bigger until eventually the story being told is that whole trees and birds’ nests are growing out of Pandurang’s mouth. The jewel-toned illustrations add even more humor to the story as Pandu’s face gets bigger and bigger throughout the book. When the story gets back to him, a very strange thing happens. He laughs out loud! Teachers may want to pair this book to with Pass It On by Marilyn Sadler as well as trying out the online Telephone Game activities

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Schmidt, Gary D. (2012).  Martín de Porres: The rose in the desert. Illus. by David Diaz.  New York: Clarion Books.

Martin de PorresBorn in Lima, Peru in 1579 to the mother of an African slave and a Spanish nobleman, Martín de Porres faced poverty and endured prejudices due to his biracial identity. His mother wanted him to enter the priesthood, but because of his mixed blood he could not. Instead, he offered his services to the monastery where his talents as a healer became well known. Soon his ability to enact miracles made him famous and allowed him to finally be confirmed into the Dominican Order. Eventually, others came to consider him as “the rose in the desert” because of his many acts of kindness toward the poor and suffering. In 1962 he was canonized as the first black saint in the Americas. The beautifully colored illustrations provide an appealing backdrop for this patron saint of interracial justice while the text tells a truly remarkable and little-known story. For a short video and a more detailed look at the life of de Porres, check out the Catholic Church’s biographical background on their website

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

GRADES 4-5

Coury, Tina Nichols. (2012). Hanging off Jefferson’s nose: Growing up on Mount Rushmore. Illus. by Sally Wern Comport. New York: Dial. 

Hanging off Jefferson's NoseImagine envisioning a sculpture that would take 14 years and countless hours of blasting and carving to complete. This title provides interesting background on how Mount Rushmore emerged from the creative imaginings of Danish-American sculptor Gutzon Borglum to become an enormous rocky tribute to four American presidents. Although Borglum initiated the blasting and carving into the side of a mountain required by the project, he did not live to see its conclusion. When he died, his twenty-nine-year-old son, Lincoln, who had learned how to perform many of the jobs associated with the project, completed the massive project. The book contains fascinating details about how the faces were created from the rocky surface as well as how the crew rigged 500 steps to the mountain’s summit. The illustrations heighten reader interest, showing how the mountain and the presidential profiles dwarf the men climbing around them. Young readers are certain to wonder exactly how often those Presidential visages require a touch-up due to the effects of weather.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Harris, Randal. (2012). Tua and the elephant. Illus. by Taeeun Yoo. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. 

Tua and the ElephantTua often spends her evenings visiting the market near her Thailand home. Everyone greets her in a friendly fashion, sharing food and conversation, and becoming a part of her daily routine. One night, though, Tua stumbles upon a young elephant being abused by two men, Nang and Nak, who most likely stole the creature in the first place. The girl and the elephant bond immediately, and she knows that despite the consequences, she cannot leave it behind. She rescues the pachyderm, brings it home, and christens it Pohn-Pohn. Together, the two set off for an elephant refuge where Pohn-Pohn can live in peace. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of individuals willing to help them avoid the clutches of the men from whom Tua has taken Pohn-Pohn. The book offers glimpses into Tua's way of life as well as showing how men such as Nang and Nak try to take advantage of the country's natural resources, tourists and poor citizens. There are poignant scenes, of course, but there are also scenes filled with humor as Tua continually outwits the former owners of her new friend. Although the conflict about how Tua can keep her promise never to leave Pohn-Pohn while continuing her schooling is resolved rather neatly, the story leaves readers smiling because there are good people similar to those who rally around Tua in the world.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Hiranandani, Veera. (2012). The whole story of half a girl.  New York: Delacorte Press.

The Whole Story of Half a GirlSixth grader Sonia Nadhamuni has a mixed heritage with a Jewish mother and a Hindi father from India. Sonia has attended private school until now when her father loses his job. Public school is not an easy transition as other students question her mixed background by asking questions for which she does not always have answers. Struggling to find the group of friends where she fits best, Sonia waivers between the cheerleaders and the in crowd versus a friend who is not part of this group but whose ideals and sensitivities are more akin to her own. Additionally, her family life is falling apart as her father sinks into a depression and at one point even disappears. While looking for her father, Sonia searches within herself to discover who she really is. Sprinkled with humor and realistic characters and dialogue, the book is sure to appeal to readers who will like Sonia and appreciate the way she thinks through decisions about how to cope with her life. Teachers may want to visit the author’s blog for more background on this debut author for middle grade readers.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Patent, Dorothy Henshaw. (2012). The horse and the Plains Indians: A powerful partnership. Illus. by William Munoz. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The Horse and the Plains IndiansFilled with colorful modern photographs and archived photographs and artwork, this nonfiction title traces the bond between Native Americans and horses, a strong connection that continues even today. Not surprisingly, the Spaniards who brought horses to North and Central America were reluctant to allow the indigenous peoples they enslaved and mistreated to own or ride horses; nevertheless, they quickly saw how useful horses could be. The author describes how some First Nation peoples abandoned dogs as conveyors of their possessions once they realized how much more efficient horses were for those purposes. She does not stint in describing how the intrusion of white men and women on the Native American’s territory spelled disaster for their way of life.  As whites moved ever westward, snapping up the land, in some cases, all of the horses belonging to a tribe were destroyed in an attempt to force the members to become more agrarian. The descriptions and images of gear used with horses are quite interesting and insightful. Although fascinating, this book is also heart-breaking in its descriptions of the mistakes that were made and the unfair treatment of so many members of this horse-loving population.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

Steckel, Richard. (2012). Faith: Five religions and what they share. Photos by Michele Steckel. Toronto, Canada: Kids Can Press.

FaithWhat is faith? This new picture book explains, “Faith is what is in our hearts and minds. Faith is when you trust something you cannot see or touch, but you believe it exists. Faith helps us feel peaceful and secure” (p. 4). Five of the world’s most widely practiced religions--Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism--are explored in depth in the book’s pages. Each of these religions has its own special stories, beliefs, spiritual leaders, sacred texts, clothing, symbols, place of worship and rituals. Children will notice that there are common links between each religion and that faith connects us rather than divides us. In addition, there are extension activities suggested throughout the book. For example, on the pages where prayer is discussed, children are given a challenge to “Think of something in your life that has particular meaning for you and create your own prayer” (p. 31). The back matter contains ideas for parents and teachers to promote tolerance and understanding. If we learn about other religions, respect can replace intolerance. 

- Deanna Day, Washington State University Vancouver 


GRADES 6-7

Ellis, Deborah. (2012). Kids of Kabul: Living bravely through a never-ending war. Toronto: Groundwood Books. 

Kids of KabulAfghanistan has been at war for decades, affecting the Afghan people on many levels. The country’s vulnerable portion of the population, women and children, has been affected in unexpected ways. Millions of Afghans have died, been injured, maimed, displaced and terrorized during the years of war. For this book, Deborah Ellis interviewed two dozen Afghan children who talk honestly about their lives. Each vignette begins with an introduction that includes some background information and an accompanying photograph of the interviewees and their homeland. Most of the interviews took place in homes, community centers or schools. These heartbreaking stories discuss how this never-ending war has caused poverty, child labor, abuse, addiction, death and illiteracy. Nevertheless, every child interviewed retains hope that Afghanistan will survive and that their generation will be the one to create change for their family and country. In addition to the often heart-rending yet hopeful stories, the book contains a glossary and a list of organizations and books to gain further information. 

- Deanna Day, Washington State University Vancouver

Engle, Margarita. (2012). The wild book. New York: Harcourt Children’s Books.

The Wild BookOnce again author Margarita Engle draws on her Cuban heritage for a story about her grandmother at the turn of the century. Unable to learn how to read, her grandmother, Josefa, called Fefa, was diagnosed with “word blindness,” what we would call dyslexia today. As she struggles with this disability, her mother gives her a blank notebook where she can sketch images and jot letters or words. This gift becomes her wild book. Fefa’s mother loves words, especially poetry, and she tells Fefa to “Throw wildflower seeds/ all over each page” (p. 6). Offering hope to her daughter, she encourages her to “Let the words sprout/ like seedlings,/ then relax and watch/ as your wild diary grows” (p. 6). Fefa eventually learns to make sense of the letters that comprise words, a precursor to the ability to read, which comes a bit later. This spare novel in verse is set at a time in Cuban history where bandits roam the countryside and kidnap children for ransom. When one of those bandits gets a little too close, a poem saves Fefa and her family.

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

House, Silas and Neela Vaswani. (2012). Same sun here.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Same Sun HereTwo authors each take on the voice of a different character through letters as pen pals; one is Meena, a recent immigrant from India to Manhattan, and the other is River, a young boy from Kentucky who is part Irish and a little bit Cherokee. As the two become friends through their letters, they learn that despite their seemingly vastly different backgrounds, they have much in common. Both live in poverty; both have a deep affection for their grandmothers; both grandmothers share a love of nature and the environment; both have fathers who work far away, and both have mothers who are having difficulty coping with challenging situations. As Meena and River communicate and help each other through some of the tragedies that come their way, they become closer with each letter, eventually becoming each other’s best friend as they ponder everything from politics to environment to family and life styles. Teachers can find a discussion guide on the Candlewick website. 

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant

Marsden, Carolyn. (2012). The white zone. Minneapolis: Lerner/Carolrhoda Books

The White ZoneWar can make even the best of friends into enemies, and in the case of cousins Nouri and Talib who live in Baghdad in 2007 amid warfare, the conflict escalates quickly to unexpected levels. American troops patrol the city's streets, and strife between two religious sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites is disrupting any peaceful moments the city's residents manage to find. Nouri, a Shiite, blames his cousin, Talib, who is half Sunni, for the death of his uncle. At first, he internalizes his anger but eventually he shuns Talib and offers him only tiny amounts of food at family gatherings. Eventually, though, Nouri and his friends mount an intimidation campaign and throw a rock through the family's window. The book traces the hatred that grows and dissipates on the parts of both boys, once friends, that is only dispelled during an unprecedented snow storm. The author's sure-handed treatment of the boys’ vacillation between hatred and forgiveness make it clear that some actions are difficult to forgive. Both boys move quickly from being upset about a loss in the family to looking for someone to blame. The back matter describing the snowfall that temporarily eased tension between the two sides added to the story’s appeal, illustrating vividly the consequences of war, violence, and hatred on children as well as adults.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman


Rosenthal, Betsy R. (2012). Looking for me. New York: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children.

Looking for MeEleven-year-old Edith Paul often wonders if there is any place for her among a family with 12 children. Most of the housework and caregiving falls on her. When her teacher asks the class to write poems about their families, she is annoyed at first because she will need to write a lot more than her classmates because of her family’s size. This novel in verse, based on the growing up experiences of the author's own mother whose mother emigrated from Russia, highlights the tension between a family’s economic survival dependent on child workers and the importance of education. It also touches on prejudices toward Jews, Anglicizing the family name, bullying in school, and an unexpected death that leaves Edith thinking her family is not large enough, after all. Despite her father's lack of empathy for her goals, Edith eventually finds a way to reach her goals, thanks to support from an unlikely source. The book’s somber moments are offset by descriptions of hijinks such as the peanut butter bullet battle between the boys and the girls that leads to a ban on peanut butter in the house. Back matter includes family photographs, a glossary, and a nod to the author's relatives for their storytelling. This is an appealing story from a new voice with something important to say about finding one's way.

- Barbara A. Ward, Washington State University Pullman

GRADES 8-12

McCormick, Patricia. (2012). Never fall down: A novel. New York: Balzer + Bray.

Never Fall DownEleven-year old Arn Chorn-Pond’s village is overcome with soldiers who march everyone into the country. In this story based on actual events in Cambodia, Arn is separated from his family and soon learns that he and the other children are to be used as slave labor. Survival is tough on many fronts including the constant hunger since the prisoners are given only a handful of rice to eat each day. One day the soldiers ask if anyone can play an instrument. Although he cannot play an instrument, Arn, immediately volunteers and becomes a quick study as he sees this as an opportunity to survive one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century, The Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge regime. As the war continues, Arn is forced to give up his flute, start carrying a gun and become an actual soldier. Somehow, he survives and eventually makes his way to the United States where he is able to tell his story. Readers may be interested in listening to this NPR interview with McCormick, a National Book Award finalist, about the book. Reading the book almost guarantees curiosity and a desire to learn more about Arn Chorn-Pond. A good starting place with a video can be found at Facing History. Also, read Reading Today's interview with McCormick

- Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant


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