The King Cake Baby

King Cake Baby51lbtJiI-nL__SX392_BO1,204,203,200_The King Cake Baby

Keila V. Dawson, Author

Vernon Smith, Illustrator

Pelican Publishing Company, Fiction, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: King cakes, Baby, Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Gingerbread boy adaptation

Opening: Once upon a time, an old Creole woman and an old Creole man lived in New Orleans. They wanted to celebrate Kings’ Day on January 6, so the woman decided to make a king cake.

Synopsis:  The old woman makes the dough for her king cake and fills it with a cinnamon-sugar filling and a cream-cheese icing. She forms the dough into an oval shape and places the cake into the oven to bake.  While the cake is baking she makes the green, purple and gold sugar sprinkles for the topping. When she goes to the kitchen drawer to retrieve the king cake baby to put inside the cake, baby jumps out and runs away. She chases the baby, but he taunts her, “No, ma Cherie! You can’t catch me, I’m the King Cake Baby!” This cheeky baby has many close encounters with people in a rollicking chase through the French Quarters on his way to the Mississippi River — until he stops to brag.

Why I like this book:

Keila Dawson has created a lively and entertaining retelling of a favorite tale that introduces children to the unique New Orleans culture and its annual Mardi Gras celebration. With lively Creole characters, skillful rhythm and pacing, fun dialect and repetitive language, children will all be chanting “No,  ma Cherie! You can’t catch me, I’m the King Cake Baby!” It’s a fun rhyme or song that builds suspense throughout the book. Dawson adds her own special twist to her king cake baby tale.

Vernon Smith’s colorful, bold and expressive comic-book-style illustrations will appeal to children as they beg to have the story read just one more time. Both Dawson and Smith capture this humorous tale along with the traditions of New Orleans in their wonderful collaborative effort.

The king cake baby escapes on January 6, the day of the Three Kings, a time when the people of New Orleans are baking and eating king cake at the start of Mardi Gras, which leads up to Lent.

Resources: There is and Author’s Note and an Easy King Cake recipe at the end of the story that you can bake with your children.  This book is also an excellent classroom book for teachers to jump-start conversations about Louisiana, the French and Creole dialects, the residents and their culture and traditions. Visit Keila Dawson at her website, where you will find a free study guide with lessons, activities and crafts.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Minna's Patchwork Coat51a3s9oMphL__SX340_BO1,204,203,200_Minna’s Patchwork Coat

Lauren A. Mills, Author and Illustrator

Little Brown and Company, Fiction, Nov. 3, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Pages: 288

Themes: Children of coal miners, Appalachian Region, Coats, Quilting, Family life, School, Community, Prejudice

Book Jacket Synopsis: Minna and her family don’t have much in their small Appalachian cabin, but “people only need people,” Papa always says. Unable to afford a warm winter coat, Minna is forced to give up her dream of going to school — until her neighbors work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. But even that might not be enough to cut through the long-held prejudices of Minna’s new classmates. Can she make them see beyond the rags to the girl with a special story inside?

Why I like this book:

Author and artist Lauren A. Mills lovingly reimagines her 1991  picture book, The Rag Coat, into a middle grade historical novel with 50 delicate and expressive black and white illustrations and an expanded story about a remarkable girl, a patchwork coat and how the two stitch the community together through scraps of stories that touch all of their lives.

The story is set in the Appalachian Region in West Virginia during in 1908. Most of the men work as coal miners deep beneath the earth. Many become sick with black lung disease. Poverty and loss are real. Prejudice for minorities is real and children of color aren’t permitted to attend school. Yet, families help each other when times are tough. They barely have enough money to feed and clothe their families, but they are rich in love, storytelling, music and dance. And the beauty of nature is the canopy they all share,

The characters are colorful and memorable. Minna is a resilient and feisty girl. Even though Minna is disappointed she can’t go to school, she spends her days helping her mama and watching her brother, Clemmie.  She also learns about the curative power of plants from “Aunt” Nora, a wise Cherokee healer. And Minna teaches Nora’s mixed-race grandson, Lester, to read and write. Mama keeps the family’s songs and stories alive. Papa is unable to work because of black lung disease. He’s a fiddler and teaches Lester how to play.

Minna’s Patchwork Coat is a richly textured story with many layers and a charming narrative. The plot is engaging. Sadly Minna’s father passes, but his spirit and memories help ease her grief. In order to earn money for the family, her mama joins the Quilting Mothers to stitch beautiful quilts to sell in the larger cities. When the mothers work on a colorful pattern called Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, Minna longs for such a beautiful coat so she can go to school. The mothers work tirelessly to create a quilted coat out of old fabric scraps. Minna picks the scraps which carry a story about many of the students at school who tease her. Hearing their mothers share their stories helps Minna get to know each one better, including the bullies. The coat is finally finished and she proudly wears it to school on “sharing day.” She is teased by the other children about her coat of rags, until they realize that those rags carry bits of their own history. A beautiful tale that teaches children about the bond of community and their connection to each other.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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Mango, Abuela, and Me

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Meg Medina, Author

Angela Dominguez, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Aug. 25, 2015

2016 Pura Belpré Honor Book medal for literature

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Aging grandparents,  Love, Family relationships, Learning a new language, Hispanic, Diversity

Opening: “She comes to us in winter, leaving behind her sunny house that rested between two snaking rivers.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Mia’s “far-away” grandmother leaves behind her sunny house with parrots and palm trees to come live with Mia and her parents in the city. But when Mia tries to share her favorite bedtime story with Abuela, she discovers that Abuela can’t read the words.  Mia helps Abuela with her English while they cook, and Mia learns some Spanish, too. But it’s still hard for Abuela to learn the words she needs to tell Mia all her stories. So when Mia sees a parrot in the pet-shop window, she has the perfecto idea for how to help Abuela.

Why I like this book:

What a treat to review Meg Medina’s book, just after she received the 2016 Pura Belpré Honor Book medal for literature. Her heartwarming story about the bonds of love, family and culture is a testament to how important Latino books are for children.

Medina weaves her magic as she includes both Spanish and English words into her uplifting and endearing bilingual story about Mia finding a way to communicate with her Hispanic grandmother — especially since they share a bedroom together. Language barriers are likely a familiar issue for many multi-generational immigrant families.

Mia and Abuela’s memorable characters are artfully crafted. Mia is caring, creative and determined to find a way to bridge the communication gap and does so in a very clever and humorous way. (No spoilers.) Abuela is sad and homesick at first, until she begins to cook with Mia and learn new words. Both learn to be patient with each other.

The text is simple and lyrical, the plot engaging and timeless. The narrative is a springboard for Angela Dominguez’s lively, colorful and expressive illustrations which are a blend of  ink, gouache and marker. This is a lovely collaborative effort between Medina and Dominguez.

Resources: Children learn a second language very easily. No matter if your child is learning English or Spanish, you can teach them simple words. For instance, Mia makes words cards for her abuela and tapes them to the lamp, rug, door, phone, chair, blanket, pillow.  Teach your child to count and say the alphabet in Spanish or English. Visit this creative Bilingual Teaching Activities page for children on Pinterest.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Mountain Dog

Mountain Dog9781250044242_p0_v3_s192x300Mountain Dog

Margarita Engle, Author

Olga and Aleksey Ivanov, Illustrators

Henry Holt and Company, Fiction, 2014

Paperback Pages: 240

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes: Rescue dogs, Human-animal relationships, Family relationships, Foster care, Hispanic-Americans, Sierra Nevada

Opening: “In my other life there were pit bulls. / The puppies weren’t born vicious, / but Mom taught them how to bite, / turning meanness into money, / until she got caught.”

Book Synopsis: When Tony’s mother goes to jail for being cruel to animals, he is sent to live with a great-uncle he has never met in Sierra Nevada. It is a big move for Tony and different from his life in Los Angeles. Uncle Tio is a forest ranger and owns Gabe, a search-and-rescue dog (SAR). Tony learns the skills he needs to survive in his new environment. With the friendship of Gabe and the support from his uncle, Tony opens himself to a life and a future he never could have imagined.

Why I like Mountain Dog:

  • Margarita Engle writes a moving and sensitive novel that touches on historical facts that include immigration, unhealthy and healthy family relationships, cruelty of animals, and search-and-rescue dogs along the Pacific coast wilderness trails.
  • It is a beautifully inspiring story written in free verse, with alternating chapters in Tony’s and Gabe’s voices. The language is strong and captures Tony’s pain as he struggles with his complicated feelings about his mother and his new life. Gabe shares his upbeat insights into Tony and his unconditional doggy love. I believe it is a story that will appeal to both genders.
  • In many ways, this is a coming of age story for an 11-year-old boy who gets a real chance to experience family with his Tio and Gabe, as he settles into the search and rescue life of the community. The characters are realistic and memorable. There are friendships with Gracie and members of the Cowboy Church (which welcomes horses and dogs), and fellow hikers.
  • The plot is original with moments of action and tension in the vast wilderness that will keep readers turning pages. There is no tidy ending with Tony’s mother.  This is a very sensitive story about a boy who begins to dream, find purpose in his life, and heal.
  • Readers will also enjoy the facts woven into the story about the choice and training of SAR dogs, what to do if you get lost, and survival tips. Olga and Aleksey Ivanov’s black and white illustrations of the SAR dogs in action, bears and wildlife, wilderness treats, and paw prints contribute significantly to Tony’s story.

Resources: There is much back matter in the book from the author, who owns SAR dogs, which makes this a perfect classroom discussion book.  Margarita Engle is a Newbery Honor winner for The Surrender Tree and has written poems plus historical fiction works.  Visit Engle’s website where teachers can find activities for the classroom.

Check other Middle Grade review links on Shannon Messenger’s Marvelous Middle Grade Monday post.

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Doylie to the Rescue: Saving Baby Monkeys in the Amazon

Doylie to Rescue 61yz1rq+bHL__SY427_BO1,204,203,200_Doylie to the Rescue: Saving Baby Monkeys in the Amazon

Cathleen Burnham, Author and Photographer

CrickettHollow Books, Nonfiction, April 2015

Suitable for Ages: 4-10

Themes: Amazon rain forest, Global kids, Youth activism, Wild animal rescue, Baby monkeys, Conservation and protection

Opening: “The Yagua Indian man crept through the Amazon rain forest in Peru. He had been hunting a family of red howler monkeys for hours. If he was successful, his family would eat meat that day. If not, they would go hungry.” 

Synopsis: Doyli, a 10-year-old girl with a big smile, lives in the Amazon rain forest. With the help of her family, they rescue and protect orphaned monkeys from hunters and thieves, nurse them back to health and release them to the wild when they are ready.

Why I like this book:

Cathleen Burnham has written a powerful and  inspiring true-story that carries a very strong message for children that they don’t have to be adults to make a difference. Doyli is proof of how one small act of caring can have an extraordinary impact in protecting wildlife.

This book engages readers in Doyli’s rehabilitation work from the start. It also includes a fascinating glimpse of every day life in the Amazon rain forest. Doyli does household chores, collects drinking water from the river for the family, takes a bath in the river, and travels with her brother in a dug-out canoe to school where she studies math, Spanish, and science. After school, Doyli nurtures the orphaned monkeys back to health with a special diet and her love.

I especially like how the author doesn’t judge the Yagua Indian for shooting a monkey with a poison dart. He’s only trying to feed his family. The same hunter discovers the monkey he shoots has a baby, which he delivers to Doyli’s home the next morning. He knows the baby will be cared for and released back to its natural habitat — a kind of cycle of life story. The story also shows a dark side, where Doyli discovers a man selling a spider monkey in the marketplace. With the help of the police, the man is arrested and Doyli takes the spider monkey home.

Every page of the book is filled with lush, beautiful and touching photographs that really SHOW every aspect of Doyli’s life in the Amazon, the delicate ecosystem  and the gorgeous endangered species living in the rain forest. Readers will also devour all the factual information.

Resources: To learn more about the amazing things Doyli and other children are doing to protect wildlife around the globe, visit the World Association of Kids and Animals (WAKA) and get involved. There is a special teacher’s guide available for classroom use. Make sure you read the Author’s Note about the story behind the story of finding Doyli and her family.

Cathleen Burnham is a journalist, writer and photographer. Doyli to the Rescue is the first “photodocumentary” book in a series of six forthcoming books for young readers that profile wildlife preservation efforts being undertaken by kids around the globe.

Every Friday, authors and KidLit bloggers post a favorite picture book. To see a complete listing of all the Perfect Picture Books (PPB) with resources, please visit author Susanna Leonard Hill’s Perfect Picture Books.

Oskar and the Eight Blessings

Oskar and Eight Blessings51kJJQr3hbL._SY399_BO1,204,203,200_Oskar and the Eight Blessings

Richard and Tanya Simon, Authors

Mark Siegel, Illustrator

Roaring Book Press, Fiction, Sep. 8, 2015

Pages: 40

Suitable for Ages: 4-9

Themes: Kindness, Refugees, Jews, Holocaust, Hanukkah, Blessings, New York City

Prologue: “Oskar’s mother and father believed in the power of blessings. So did Oskar…until the Night of Broken Glass. His parents put him on a ship to America. He had nothing but an address and a photo of a woman he didn’t know — “It’s your Aunt Esther.” — and his father’s last words to him: “Oskar, even in bad times, people can be good. You have to look for the blessings.”

Book Opening lines: Oskar arrived in New York on the seventh day of Hanukkah. It was also Christmas Eve.

Book Jacket Synopsis: It is both the seventh day of Hanukkah and Christmas Eve, 1938. Oskar, a refugee from the horrors of Nazi Europe, arrives by ship in New York City with only a photograph and an address for an aunt he’s never met. As he walks the length of Manhattan, from the Battery to his aunt’s home uptown, he encounters the sights of the city at holiday time — and receives small acts of kindness from its people, each in its way welcoming him to the city and a life in the new world.

Why I like Oskar and the Eight Blessings:

Richard and Tanya Simon’s heartwarming story captures the best of New York and its residents who welcome Oskar to their city through their generous spirits and acts of kindness– a helping hand, a loaf of bread, a superman magazine, a snowball fight, a pair of mittens, and a friendly wink. It is the essence of what America is about, welcoming immigrants fleeing oppression or seeking a better life.

The story is realistic and believable for children. The characters are diverse. The plot is engaging. Oskar is overwhelmed by how small he feels in such a big city. He is tired and hungry. The sights and sounds are strange and confusing. Oskar is brave and remembers the wise fatherly advice he receives that wraps him in warmth during his 100-block journey to his aunt’s house.

This Hanukkah story, set in 1938, is timeless and should be shared with children no matter what tradition they celebrate. Compassion and kindness towards others is not limited to color, race or culture. This is a story of hope for humanity.

Mark Siegel’s illustrations are hauntingly beautiful. With spare text, the illustrations are expressive and really show the story. There is so much feeling captured in the characters eyes and smiles. The illustrations are uplifting.

Resources: An Author’s Note offers historical insight into the story, a glossary provides definitions of key words, and a map shows Oskar’s walk up Broadway in 1938.

Check out Susanna Leonard Hill’s review of Oskar and the Eight Blessings, on Perfect Picture Book Friday, which will return January 8.

Written in the Stars

Written in the Stars9780399171703_p0_v2_s192x300Written in the Stars

Aisha Saeed, Author

Nancy Paulsen Books, Fiction,  Mar. 24, 2015

Suitable for Ages: 14-17

Themes: Forced Marriages, Pakistani-American teen, Diversity,

Synopsis: Naila is a responsible and trustworthy daughter to her immigrant Pakistani parents. Steeped in cultural tradition, her parents allow her to attend a Florida high school, study subjects she likes, wear her hair how she wishes, dress like the other students and choose her career path in college. The only thing she is not allowed to do is date boys or choose a husband. Naila falls in love with Sajf, a Pakistani-American boy, during her senior year. She keeps her secret and meets Saif for lunch everyday. When Naila disobeys her parents and sneaks to the senior prom with Saif, her parents are outraged at her betrayal of trust and humiliated by their close-knit community. In attempt to help Naila understand her heritage, they pull her out of school, travel to Pakistan to visit relatives. Naila enjoys meeting so many family members and bonding with her cousin, Selma. Her vacation turns into a nightmare when her parents betray her, force her into an arranged marriage with Amin, and then leave Pakistan. She is alone living with a strange family, who see her as their ticket to America. Is this Naila’s destiny or is there any hope for escape?

What I love about Written in the Stars:

  • Aisha Saeed has masterfully written a bold, heart wrenching and complex cross-cultural novel that will be an eye-opener for many young readers. It is also beautiful love story between two Pakistani-American teens.
  • The setting is culturally rich for teens reading Written in the Stars. It is about Pakistani traditions, extended families living together, food preparations, small villages, the landscape, neighbors knowing everyone’s business, and shopping in local markets.
  • The first-person narrative with Naila offers greater depth into her character. Naila is a strong and determined protagonist. Her anger and pain are palpable, as is her desire to escape. All of the characters are well-developed, memorable and stay with you after you finish. The plot is suspenseful and brutal at times. The author shows much of the action, which is more powerful than words. The reader experiences Naila’s prison. Written in the Stars is a page-turner and I could not put it down. The ending is unexpected.
  • The author shares that although her own marriage was arranged by her parents, she wrote the book to shed light on the many arranged forced marriages.  I have never read anything like this powerful book, and I mean that as a compliment. Saeed sheds so much light on the problem of forced marriages in America and around the world. Although her characters are American-Pakistani, Saeed points out that “the issue is not limited to one particular culture or religion.”

Resources: There is a lovely Author’s Note at the end, along with resources for individuals needing advice, and a glossary. Visit Aisha Saeed at her website.

Aisha Saeed is a Pakistani American writer, teacher and attorney. Written in the Stars is her debut novel. She is on of the founding members of the We Need Diverse Books Campaign.