For a picture book with an old soul that also feels fresh, look no further than David Litchfield’s The Bear and the Piano. At its core, this is a timeless story of friendship and belonging that dares to ask if one can return after leaving.
The story itself is a bit magical. A bear cub stumbles upon a piano in the middle of the woods. Captivated, he returns day after day, year after year, mastering the instrument. The other bears in the woods gather to hear him play, until one night a human family offers to take him to the big city so he can play concerts there. Though he loves his home and his friends, he also longs for adventure, and sets out for the city, where he soon achieves great success.
Though he enjoys his time in the city, he misses his home and decides to return to tell his friends all about his adventures. When he arrives in the familiar clearing in the woods, the piano is missing. The bear is certain everyone has forgotten him. That is, until he follows a fellow bear deeper into the woods to a startling discovery.
The illustrations in The Bear and the Piano are gorgeous. Using a mix of techniques, Litchfield creates expansive scenes that are both spacious and focused. The color palette is varied and lively, yet restrained, lending to the classic storybook feel.
The Bear and the Piano is a beautiful book for ages four and up. Younger children will enjoy following the bear’s adventures in the city. Older children and adults will value the story’s deeper meaning when the bear returns to the woods. All readers will appreciate the lyrical language and detailed illustrations.
There are two things you should know about this book: 1) I am generally not a crier, especially for books. 2) This book made me cry.
Sea Prayer is a poem – a father’s earnest prayer for protection over his young son, Marwan, as they prepare to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea in a lifeboat. Fleeing war-torn Syria, they are among the refugees who are hoping to find a better life in another land. But first they must face the sea.
With lyrical language evoking a sense of longing, the father recalls happier times on the farm and in the bustling city. This is soon contrasted with the world Marwan knows, a world of protests, bombs, and death. Now their family is waiting by the sea for the sun to rise so they can depart, eager for safety, but dreading the uncertainty of a perilous journey.
Author Khaled Hosseini is a bestselling author, perhaps most known for his novel The Kite Runner. In Sea Prayer, his words are paired with illustrations by Dan Williams. Williams’ art captures every mood and adds yet another layer to the already rich text. My particular favorite spreads are of Marwan and his mother walking through a field of flowers, and Marwan cradled in his father’s arms as they wait by the sea.
Because this is an illustrated book, some may consider it a children’s book. One of my local libraries catalogued it with the juvenile fiction, while another placed it in the young adult section. This is where I will offer a word of caution. While it is a devastating truth that this story is a reality for far too many children, Sea Prayer may be too graphic for the youngest readers, especially sensitive ones. Furthermore, this is the sort of book that will impact adults (particularly parents) more than children and teens. As such, I would recommend it for ages ten and up, and parents may wish to preview it first. At the very least, I encourage all parents to read this beautiful, heart-breaking book.
The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson and illustrated by Rafael López, is an all-around beautiful book. Woodson’s lyrical text conveys the anxiety young students experience when they feel different from their peers. The overall tone is perfectly expressed in the opening line. There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you. Children feel isolated because of their physical features, their ethnic lunches, their foreign names, their capabilities.
Three-fourths of the way through, the text shifts gradually with a subtle addition to the opening line. There will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you until the day you begin to share your stories. The children learn to be true to themselves in order to make connections with their classmates. In the end, we find that maybe we are not very different from each other after all.
The illustrations burst with color and life. López creates an inner dream world superimposed on on the real one. While the children’s facial expressions show uncertainty and loneliness, we also get a glimpse of the exuberant spirit that is just waiting to pour out.
The Day You Begin would be a wonderful read-aloud choice for building empathy. I highly recommend this book for readers of all ages, particularly ages 6-10.