Blending striking artwork, captivating storytelling, and universal themes, these recently published picture books provide glimpses at the day-to-day lives of children across the globe. Share these offerings with your students as starting points for studies that delve more deeply into the featured countries or cultures, using informational texts and online resources to provide additional context and comprehension. Or, use them to extract broad truths about the human experience, build empathy for others, and illustrate that we are all part of one global community.
Finding Hope: Young Refugees
Suzanne Del Rizzo’s My Beautiful Birds (Pajama Pr., Mar. 2017; Gr 1-5) articulately conveys the experiences of a child displaced by war in Syria. As Sami’s family and their neighbors flee the bombs that have destroyed their homes, the boy worries about the pet pigeons he was forced to leave behind. After days of walking, they reach the safety of a refugee camp but questions about the future loom. His family settles into their makeshift shelter, teachers open a school, and children begin to play again, but Sami keeps himself apart, haunted by “smoky nightmares” and all that he has lost. One day, he realizes that the sky above the camp is the same as that viewed from his Syrian rooftop; watching “clouds billow and swirl,” he asks the sky to keep his pets safe. Soon after, four birds—a canary, dove, rose finch, and pigeon—arrive and alight on his out-stretched arms. Caretaking this newfound flock provides Sami with the solace and sense of purpose needed to rekindle hope and begin to move forward. Intricately detailed and lifelike, the polymer clay and mixed-media illustrations combine with the understated first-person narrative to communicate Sami’s circumstances, heartbreak, and healing process. Through this emotionally accessible story, inspired by an article about a real boy who fled to Jordan’s Za’atari camp, readers begin to understand Sami’s plight, and to gain awareness and insight into the lives of the many children facing calamity across the globe. An author’s note provides background and a link to resources about the Syrian conflict and the refugee crisis.
When invading troops force Deo and his family to abandon their hillside farm in Burundi, the boy wants to pack his most prized possession, The Banana-Leaf Ball (Kids Can, Apr. 2017; Gr 1-5) that he’d made to practice soccer, but his father tells him they can fit only necessities in their small cart. Separated from his family during the long and terrifying night, Deo eventually makes his way to Lukole, a crowded refugee camp in northwest Tanzania where food and water are often scarce. Lonely and homesick, Deo collects banana leaves and fashions them into another soccer ball, keeping it hidden from Remy, a boy known for bullying kids and taking their meager possessions. When a coach arrives one day and gathers the youngsters for a soccer match, Deo and Remy end up on the same side. The positive effects of teamwork and a passion for the game lead to greater mutual understanding and friendship between the two boys, and Deo willingly shares his ball for scrimmages. Years later, back home and reunited with family members, Deo, now a farmer, coaches soccer, helping local school children “learn to play together and trust one another” and teaching them how to make banana-leaf balls. Kate Smith Milway’s clearly written narrative is paired with Shane W. Evans’s stunning collage illustrations, which beautifully blend texture and color to depict the story’s setting and emotions. Back matter introduces the story’s real-life inspiration, Benjamin Nzobonankira, and provides information about six global organizations that use play to foster compassion and confidence in children.
The Power of Music
Ada’s Violin (S&S, 2106; Gr 1-5) introduces a real child growing up in Cateura, Paraguay, a town where 1,500 tons of trash from the capital city of Asunción are dumped each day. Here, gancheros (recyclers) spend 14-hour days picking through the landfill searching for anything that can be recycled or sold. Despite the dismal realities of this “noisy, stinking, sweltering slum,” Ada liked to imagine that each garbage truck was “a box of surprises” where treasures might be found. When Ada was 11, Favio Chávez, an environmental engineer working in the area, decided to offer music lessons, hoping to keep kids out of trouble. Ada and nine others signed up, but problems loomed: there were too few instruments and it was unsafe for the children to take these expensive objects home to practice. Refusing to give up, Señor Chávez and several gancheros experimented with materials found in the trash, transforming “oil drums into cellos, water pipes into flutes, and packing crates into guitars.” Ada chose a violin made from “an old paint can, an aluminum baking tray, a fork, and pieces of wooden crates.” With plenty of hard work and a strong level of commitment, Ada and the rest of this “ragtag crew of kids” learned to play music and “band together,” coalescing into the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay, a group that now tours the world. Ada, now first violin, and her fellow musicians indeed discovered treasure—“Buried in the trash was music. And buried in themselves was something to be proud of.” Susan Hood’s lyrical narrative and Sally Wern Comport’s vibrant illustrations relate this true tale, presenting the facts while also effectively emphasizing the power of music to build confidence, forge connections, and transform lives. Back matter includes an author’s note, a photo, websites, and videos that will facilitate classroom sharing.
Girl Power: Memorable Female Protagonists
It’s early morning in her Sri Lankan village, and Malini awaits the arrival of the oxcart carrying the rice seedlings that will bring her community “food and fortune.” She eagerly looks forward to learning to plant those seedlings, but worries, “…what if/she does it wrong?/Will they still grow strong?” In the street, the driver leaves the tiny girl in charge of a gigantic ox, “big enough to crush her,” and slips into the café for a break. Suddenly, the wind whips up, sheets of rain fall from the sky, and water rushes down the road, separating her from the villagers. As the flood quickly rises, everyone shouts for the girl to get to higher ground. However, Malini understands the importance of the rice seedlings to her village, and is determined to lead the ox to safety. Though “scared frozen,” she summons the courage and strength needed to accomplish her goal. Filled with ear-pleasing rhythms and onomatopoeia, Alma Fullerton’s vivacious free verse paints Malini’s character with deft strokes, and stirringly describes the action. Kim La Fave’s color-splashed illustrations set the scene and create a strong sense of motion, as the ox looms large above the girl, the monsoon unleashes, or Maili returns to the arms of her worried family. When the Rain Comes (Pajama Pr., Feb. 2017; K-Gr 4) provides a vivid glimpse at life on an island country in Asia, as well as a satisfying look at a child who discovers the inner fortitude needed to overcome difficult circumstances.
Susan Verde and Peter H. Reynolds’s The Water Princess (Putnam, 2016; K-Gr 4) is based on the childhood experiences of fashion model Georgie Badiel in Burkina Faso. In the first-person text, self-proclaimed Princess Gie Gie enthusiastically rules over her domain—taming wild dogs with a song, making the tall grass sway with her dance, and forcing the wind to play hide-and-seek. Yet, no matter how hard she tries, she cannot make the water come any closer to her African village or run any cleaner. Early each morning, she and her mother hoist large clay pots onto their heads and make the long trek the nearest well to fetch muddy water. Though they fill the journey with music and laughter, the trip is long and arduous. Gie Gie’s questions about her village’s lack of water remain unanswered, but she never gives up hope for change: “I am Princess Gie Gie. My Kingdom? The African sky. The dusty earth. And, someday, the flowing, cool, crystal-clear water. Someday….” Enchanting mixed-media paintings depict the irresistible narrator, the sun-shimmering beauty of her surroundings, and the whimsy of her imagination. An author’s note provides background for this upbeat book, which makes a fitting starting point for launching discussion about an important and timely global issue. Childhood resolutions can come true; today, Badiel’s foundation works to provide access to clean drinking water, build sanitation facilities, and plant trees in Burkina Faso and Africa.
Inspired by a true story, Ji-li Jiang’s Lotus & Feather (Disney, 2016; K-Gr 4) emphasizes both the strength found in friendship and the importance of wildlife conservation. Lotus lives with her grandfather, a basket maker, in the rural marshlands of China. Unable to speak since recovering from an illness, she has been ostracized by the other children. One morning, while collecting reeds at the lake, she sees a spectacular crane—now an endangered bird and rare sight in these disappearing wetlands—only to watch as it is shot moments later by a hunter. Scaring the man off with a loud noise, Lotus gathers the elegant bird in her arms, carries it home, and tenderly cares for it. Feather and Lotus quickly become inseparable; the bird follows her to school, dancing and prancing to the sounds of her reed whistle, and helping her reconnect to the other children. Feather even saves everyone from a flood, awakening Lotus and her grandfather in time to alert the village. When it’s time for Feather to return to the wild, Lotus is sad but sends him off with a heart filled with love. A breathtaking surprise arrives in the fall, as Feather and his flock of hundreds descend upon the once-desolate lake. Julie Downing’s delicate paintings accompany this emotionally compelling tale, emphasizing the natural beauty of the wetlands, the graceful wonder of the crane, and the triumph of this voiceless child’s power to communicate and touch the lives of others.
Go on a Journey
Calling out, All Aboard for the Bobo Road (Andersen Pr., 2016; K-Gr 3), Big Ali loads passengers onto his minibus at the Banfora station in southwest Burkina Faso and prepares for an action-packed ride. Fatima and Galo perch atop the vehicle, ready to help their father load baggage onto the roof rack at each stop and catch a prime view of the passing scenery and wildlife. Stylized images of colorfully patterned dwellings give way to other sights, as the bus travels to hippo-filled Tengréla Lake, scenic Karfiguéla Falls, the ancient egg-shaped rock Domes of Fabedougou, and verdant Mou Forest. Throughout the journey (which is mapped out on the endpapers), the hardworking kids stow items ranging from mopeds and cooking oil cans, to yams and melons, to goats and chickens (highlighted in the text, these objects provide a fun counting opportunity). Once everything is unloaded and carted off at the bustling station in Bobo Dioulasso, the tired and hungry youngsters are rewarded with a satisfying surprise—“a huge pot of rice, beans, and fried fish.” Stephen Davies’s buoyant text and Christopher Corr’s bright-hued folk-art-style illustrations provide an eye-dazzling introduction to this West African country. Use this book as a starting point for further research into to the geography, culture, flora and fauna, and day-to-day life of Burkina Faso. Or pair it with other titles featuring this local mainstay of public transportation, such as Kabir Sehgal and Surishtha Sehgal’s Wheels on the Tuk Tuk (S&S, 2016), set in India, and Elizabeth Dale’s Off to Market (Frances Lincoln, 2013), set in Uganda.
Different but the Same
Written and illustrated with a lighthearted tone, Wade Bradford and Micha Archer’s Around the World in a Bathtub (Charlesbridge, Jun. 2017; K-Gr 3) underscores both the unique cultural customs and commonalities associated with a practice that spans the globe. One shared theme is the “bath-time battle,” which the book humorously highlights by spotlighting a young boy’s initial reluctance to get into the tub (“‘No, no!”) and his mother’s gentle insistence (“‘Yes, yes”). These words are repeated in a variety of languages as colorful spreads takes readers to Japan, where family members scrub themselves clean before taking turns relaxing in a square-shaped ofuro; an enormous hammam (bathhouse) in Turkey; India’s Ganges River, where a Hindu father and son honor their ancestors with a ritual bath; and the Alaskan tundra, where a Yup’ik family shares a steam-heated maqii. Also featured are children bathing in the bogey holes of Australia’s southeastern coast, hot springs in the Himalayan valleys, sunny lakes in rural South Africa, and a muddy volcano in northern Colombia. The book ends with another look at the original boy, now happily settled into the tub, begging to “stay in just a little longer.” Blending rich jewel tones with a variety of textures, the mixed-media illustrations set the scene for each location and provide these international bathers with plenty of personality. An endnote offers a bit more detail about the featured scenarios, and makes a good launch point for further research.
Tessa Strickland and Kate DePalma’s The Barefoot Book of Children (Barefoot, 2016; K-Gr 4) outlines the universal needs, experiences, and joys of youngsters across the globe while also celebrating the glorious diversity of unique cultures and ways of life. Simple text invites readers to think about a particular element of their own day-to-day lives, while detailed illustrations expand each concept by portraying scenes of children around the world, a book design that encourages discussion of differences and similarities. Topics addressed include homes, families, bodies, clothing, play, work, food, faith, and love. An appended section provides more depth about each broad subject, as well as the geographical locations and activities highlighted in the artwork, making this offering particularly useful for classroom settings. An appreciation for smaller moments—“Do you have a special place…where you go when you want to play with a friend or daydream or just be quiet for a while?” (depicted are two boys playing checkers beneath a blanket fort in Israel, a girl perched in a New Zealand tree house, and other contemplative youngsters)—adds to the volume’s sense of intimacy and child appeal. Wonderfully inclusive and chock-full of charm, David Dean’s lovely acrylic paintings show children of all skin hues and body types, families that encapsulate an array of circumstances and life choices, colorfully depicted locales across the globe, and the warmth of a human community that transcends geographical borders. This thoughtful resource encourages children to look both inward and outward, engendering an important mix of self-awareness and empathy for others.
All of the picture books featured here allow youngsters to see into the lives of children who live in different parts of the world, enabling readers to step outside of their own familiar environs and get a taste of the day-to-day occurrences, customs, and challenges experienced by their global counterparts. Providing brief snapshots of their subjects, these offerings not only encourage curiosity about how other people live, but also help build compassion and understanding. The books also provide children with the opportunity to look inward—what elements of their own stories would they most want to share with children in another place? What basic needs, characteristics, or dreams do they have in common with other children? Share these resources with your students and help nurture global citizens capable of the self-awareness and empathy needed to chart a positive future.
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