Sea Prayer

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

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.

The Great Dictionary Caper

The Great Dictionary Caper, written by Judy Sierra and illustrated by Eric Comstock, is a fun romp with words. In a clever way, kids are introduced to various types of words, from the short (“I”) to “everyone’s favorite 34-letter word” (which you can maybe guess, but will have to read the book to find out if you are correct!).

Illustrations are words themselves demonstrating their meanings (we see the word “glide” ice skating). Without using any formal definitions, we learn the meanings of onomatopoeia, homophones, antonyms, palindromes, and anagrams. We find examples of proper nouns, rhyming words, contractions, interjections, and conjunctions. And oh yeah, some of Shakespeare’s created words, which are sure to draw laughs. (Do you know a kid that will laugh when you read the word “sackbut?”)

This book would be a great way to introduce types of words, and also as a review after any kind of formal unit study. There is no objectionable content in it for younger readers, but I doubt the younger set will understand it well. As such, I recommend this book for ages 8 and up, though maybe 6 and up for precocious readers.

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World

You get a cut. It bleeds. You need to carry on with your day – you don’t have time to cut and fold sterile gauze and adhesive bandaging. The good news is, you don’t have to, thanks to the Band-Aid.

The Boo-Boos That Changed the World – A True Story About An Accidental Invention (Really!) tells the story behind the often overlooked invention of the Band-Aid. Author Barry Wittenstein infuses humor in both the prose as well as the story’s structure. Just when one might think the story finished, we find out there’s more.

Commonplace as it is today, the Band-Aid was not an overnight success. Readers see how inventor Earle Dickson tweaked his prototypes to make them better and more user-friendly, yet this still wasn’t enough to entice the masses. Dickson used creative marketing tactics to help spread the word about his nifty bandages, which finally led to incredible success.

The frequent false happy endings make this a fun book to read aloud with kids. While not overt in any way, readers learn the valuable lessons of resourcefulness, ingenuity, and perseverance. Chris Hsu’s illustrations strike just the right tone, balancing the humorous with the historical. Three informational pages at the end provide the author’s context, historical timelines, and online resources. I recommend this narrative non-fiction book for ages four and up.

My Friend Maggie

Hannah E. Harrison both wrote and illustrate a strong story of friendship in My Friend Maggie. Maggie the elephant and Paula the beaver are best friends. By Paula’s own description, “Maggie’s the best!”

One day, fellow classmate Veronica mentions to Paula that Maggie is too big. Paula starts noticing other things about Maggie that aren’t so great. Paula wants to defend Maggie, but instead chooses to leave Maggie and play with Veronica instead. Maggie continues to seek out Paula, but Paula ignores her.

The tides turn when Veronica starts making fun of Paula’s teeth. Guess who comes to stand up for Paula?

Bullying is such a prominent issue plaguing today’s kids. My Friend Maggie is an appropriate book selection for ages 4-8 to aid in discussions about bullying and loyalty to our friends.

Be A Friend

Be A Friend is a beautiful book, with its theme succinctly expressed in its title. Dennis is a quiet boy that seems to live in his own world. Misunderstood by his peers, Dennis is often left to play by himself, with little hope of being included in the others’ games. And then Dennis meets Joy, a young girl who just gets him.

Salina Yoon’s illustrations are deceptively simple – strong lines, minimal background, but so expressive. Likewise, her text is sparse, but paired with the illustrations, the book tells a powerful story.

I recommend this book for ages 4 and up. Even older students will benefit from the simple message of being kind and reaching out to a lonely soul.

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn is the debut picture book of author/illustrator Kenard Pak. The book’s premise is summarized in its title: a girl observes the subtle changes in her surroundings as the season changes from summer into autumn. The girl greets natural elements such as plants, animals, and weather, and each returns her greeting with a description of how they are preparing for autumn. The result is lovely, lyrical prose beautifully framed with repetition and rhythm. (Example: “Hello, breezy wind.” “Hello! I love to whoosh drizzle and leaves through the misty streets.”)

Stunning artwork first draws the reader’s attention and makes re-readings a pure delight. The changing color palette as the book progresses further captures the essence of summer turning into autumn.

I have come across several books for children that focus on a particular season, or even the cycle of all the seasons, but not as many that survey the changing of one season into another. With the inclusion of trees and flowers, mammals, birds, insects, and weather, this book borders on creative non-fiction (though I’d still put it in the fiction section).

I recommend this book for ages 4-8, and it can be a great book to use at the start of the school year with its seasonal theme. Pak created a second book in the series, Goodbye Autumn, Hello Winter, which is beautifully done as well. I hope Mr. Pak will finish out the cycle with the remaining seasonal transitions.

Nothing Rhymes With Orange

This gem by Adam Rex is not your typical rhyming picture book. Instead of the rhyming couplets we’ve come to expect in children’s books, Rex fills the pages with internal rhymes while cleverly highlighting all types of fruit and even including a reference to Friedrich Nietzsche. That’s right. You’ll have to read it to find out how.

The illustrations are a fun fusion of photography (of real fruit) and overlaying illustration to bring the fruit to life. The result is bright and colorful, perfect for the comical text.

And though this book is pure fun, it manages to have some educational purposes as well. On a surface level, many types of fruit are introduced, including some that stray from the typical lineup found in lunch boxes. On a deeper level, the underlying theme promotes friendship and personal worth.

I recommend Nothing Rhymes With Orange for ages 4 and up. This one really isn’t just for little kids – older kids, teens, and adults will get a laugh out of this book too.

Stepping Stones

Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey is a beautiful book, and I’m surprised that I hadn’t heard about it before stumbling upon it in the library. Author Margaret Ruurs tackles a difficult and current topic by telling the story of a fictional refugee family’s journey from their endangered home to the hope of safe haven in a foreign land. Ruurs skillfully weaves a tale that is appropriate for young readers, yet it doesn’t minimize the danger the refugees face.

Nizar Ali Badr’s artwork is the true star of this book. He illustrates the story in stone-scapes, using only stones to create scenes. When I first read this book, I was stunned at how this stone artwork has so much life infused into it. It seems counterintuitive, but there is so much expression in the stone figures. Badr is himself Syrian, and he created his scenes with materials that were available to him there. In fact, Ruurs wrote the story after seeing Badr’s artwork, wanting desperately to bring his work to the attention of others.

Stepping Stones would be a wonderful book to introduce children to the plight of refugees. While the content is likely okay for children of all ages, I believe children ages 8 and up will benefit most from the meaningful conversations that may follow its reading.

Rhino in the House

Rhino in the House: The True Story of Saving Samia by Daniel Kirk tells the true account of conservationist Anna Merz and her efforts to provide sanctuary to Africa’s rhinos. Anna created an animal sanctuary to protect the wildlife from poachers. She rescued an abandoned rhino calf, which she named Samia and raised as a pet in her home.

Naturally, as the rhino grew bigger, it became more difficult for Anna to keep Samia at home. Children will entertained as they learn about some of the problems Samia caused, such as barging in while Anna was taking a bath! Anna reintroduced Samia to the wild, though the two continued to meet and share their special bond.

There are four pages at the end of the book that include photographs of Anna, Samia, and other African wildlife. An author’s note goes into further detail on Anna’s preservation efforts, and a bibliography guides students in further research. I recommend this book for ages 4 and up.