Sandip Wilson, Mary Ellen Oslick, and Sharryn Larsen Walker
Each year the Notable Books for a Global Society Committee of the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG) of the International Literacy Association (ILA) reviews and selects twenty-five trade books that enhance the understanding of people and cultures around the world. This column, the first of two that introduce readers to the 2021 NBGS collection, features books that provide insight into human experiences, stories of individuals who show persistence (and resourcefulness) in a time of uncertainty and transition.
The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story. Aya Khalil. Illus. by Anait Semirdzhyan. (2020). Tilbury House.
As a newcomer who wishes to fit in at school, third grader Kanzi is embarrassed when her mother arrives wearing a hijab to deliver a forgotten kofta sandwich. After a tough day, Kanzi wraps herself in the quilt made by her Egyptian tieta (grandmother). The comfort of the quilt and the poem she writes about it stave off the feelings of longing for her grandmother’s home in Egypt. When her teacher discovers Kanzi’s gift for writing poetry, she invites her to share her work with the class. This insightful teacher then invites Kanzi’s mother to school to lead a lesson in quilt making. The class makes a quilt with each square containing a student’s name written in Arabic. When completed, the quilt is hung in the hallway and inspires other classrooms to create similar quilts. Through poetry and quilt making, acceptance of others is learned. A glossary of Arabic words is included in the back matter. (GR 1-4)
The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. Frederick Joseph. (2020). Candlewick.
Frederick Joseph is clear about his intentions for this book: For it to be a mirror for young people of color growing up in America and a call to action by white people committed to becoming anti-racist. The stories in his memoir are realistic and brutally honest. He describes his white teacher’s disbelief that a Black boy would enjoy Star Wars and cites multiple instances of his unjust treatment by police officers. Through all of the chapters, Joseph treats his readers as friends. He really wants to convey to them that now that they know better, they can do better. As a jumping off point, the back matter includes an encyclopedia of racism, a playlist of music, a “People and Things to Know” section of recommended reading, source notes, and an index. (GR 7 and Up)
The Cat Man of Aleppo. Karim Shamsi-Basha & Irene Latham. Illus. by Yuko Shimizu. (2020). Putnam.
Mohammed Alaa Aljaleel, an ambulance driver and paramedic in Aleppo, loves the city with its “gentle, polite, and loving people.” Witnessing the destruction of war in which families fled for their lives to escape the bombing, he sees the many cats left behind without a home. Alaa brings them food and water. People remaining in the city join in the effort to care for the cats and their efforts grow into community projects for the cats and other abandoned animals in the war torn city. With expressive illustrations, rendered in ink on heavy paper with computerized color, the book recounts efforts that reflect hope, care, compassion, and community. The back matter provides background for Alaa’s story and includes author and illustrator notes. Inspired to write the book on the ancient city of Aleppo, the authors collaborated and consulted Alaa by telephone. Shimizu conducted research on the culture for nine months to create the illustrations. (GR PreK-3 )
Dragon Hoops. Gene Luen Yang. Color by Lark Pien. (2020). First Second.
Using his expertise of storytelling in the graphic novel format, Gene Luen Yang shares his journey to understanding the game of basketball as he follows the Bishop O’Dowd High School Dragons through its 2014-2015 season. He details the storied season by weaving in tales of basketball history and its place in American and world culture. As the season progresses, Yang finds himself more deeply invested in the histories and lives of the coaches, players, students, and the community. He realizes that high school basketball is not just a game, but a connection that binds people across cultures, ages, and communities. Yang includes extensive notes and a bibliography. (GR 8-12)
Land of the Cranes. Aida Salazar. (2020). Scholastic.
Immigration is key to survival for many people in this world, and just as cranes migrate to begin families or escape extreme climates, Betita’s family fled cartel wars in Mexico to find a better life in Los Angeles. Now nine-year-old Betita takes comfort in her papi’s stories of how her Aztec ancestors, who were descended from cranes, migrated to Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City) and would eventually return to Aztlan (the Southwestern United States). Although Betita’s family thought they had returned home, without the proper documentation, Betita’s papi was arrested and deported to Mexico. To make matters worse, when Betita and her pregnant mother attempt to meet him, a misstep results in their being sent to a family detention center outside of Los Angeles. Depicting heartbreaking realities, this novel in verse makes the humanitarian issues of immigration accessible to younger readers. (GR 4-8)
Loretta Little Looks Back: Three Voices Go Tell It. Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. (2020). Little, Brown.
With its stage-like presence, readers can imagine this historical fiction novel as theater performance. The curtain opens with a lone figure, Loreta Little, sharing her life story as a sharecropper’s daughter in the 1920s in tales that show resilience and tenacity. Roly, a foundling taken in by Loretta’s family, follows. He recounts his journey into adulthood, using what he learned from the Littles in his life as farmer, husband, and father. Then Roly’s daughter, Aggie B., tells of her participation in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, connecting the life lessons of Loretta and Roly to her life. The production of what Andrea Davis Pinkey calls a tri-monologue closes with the three performers in a field of wildflowers reminiscing about how their stories intertwine across generations setting the path for those who will follow them. (GR 5-8)
The Magic Fish. Trung Le Nguyen. (2020). RH Graphic.
Tien, a teenager born in the U.S., and his mother, Helen, who grew up in post-war Vietnam, read folktales together each night so Helen can practice her English. The folktales weave throughout the novel, with connections to Tien’s relationships and challenges at school and to Helen’s life before coming to the U.S. The color of the panels retelling folktales, different from the color of those for the story of Tien and his mother, create a clear distinction between them for readers, yet show the connection between folktale and their lives. Ultimately, the folktales they share every night help them understand their current lives in unexpected ways and fortify their mother-son relationship. In the back matter, Trung Le Nguyen explains the source of the interlacing stories and provides information on the artwork, integrating text and image of folktale. (GR 7-9)
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read. Rita Lorraine Hubbard. Illus. by Oge Mora. (2020). Schwartz & Wade.
Reading is a gift and Mary Walker’s story proves that one is never too old to receive that gift. Born a slave in 1848, Mary’s long life spanned from the century of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. She raised a family, working hard to take care of them and putting aside her desire of learning to read. When she was the last living member of her family, she signed up for a reading class at her local community center. At the age of 116, Mary learned how to read, earning the designation of the nation’s oldest student. This picture book celebrates the importance of persistence and patience in attaining a personal goal. (GR PreK-4)
The Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne. Lisa Cline-Ransome. Illus. by John Parra. (2020). Paula Wiseman.
Born in Chicago, Ethel L. Payne had an eye for story, and as she learned of the racism and discrimination African Americans faced, she started to use her gift for writing in community social action. The book, with illustrations rendered in acrylic, shows her passion for story and justice that inspired her to write about the discrimination African Americans faced during the Great Depression and World War II. Publication of her articles in the Chicago Defender led to her becoming the first African American press correspondent in the White House. Over more than three decades she challenged presidents, questioning their efforts to address discrimination and racism. Back matter includes additional biographical material and books for further reading. (GR 2-5)
We Are Not Free. Traci Chee. (2020). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In this historical novel, fourteen teenaged friends from San Francisco tell the diverse stories of their goals and relationships as Japanese American citizens incarcerated at Topaz, Utah, during World War II. Their families face racism and hatred before and after the war, and live with uncertainty throughout the war. In the camp, everyone must sign a loyalty oath, an action that divides families and challenges friendships. Families are split up, individuals are moved to a high-security camp in Northern California, and some young people volunteer to serve in the U.S. war effort. The novel includes archival images, and Chee provides detail about her family history in that period. (GR 8 and Up)
We Are Water Protectors. Carole Lindstrom. Illus. by Michaela Goade. (2020). Roaring Brook.
Using the format of the folklore of indigenous people in North America, Carole Lindstrom presents from the black people standing together as one, with courage, honoring water and protecting the Earth. As foretold by the people, the black snake is encroaching upon the land, ready to take life from the Earth. Lindstrom uses the metaphor of the black snake to symbolize oil pipelines crossing the land, leaving their mark on the land and harming the water, the sustainer of life. She issues a call to action “To stand for the water / To stand for the land” in the repetitive pattern of the text, and Michaela Goade’s vibrant illustrations include elements of the author’s Ojibwe culture, with waves of blue to suggest people standing together, united, as they resist the black snake. (GR PreK-4)
When Stars Are Scattered. Victoria Jamieson & Omar Mohamed. Color by Iman Geddy. (2020). Dial.
Omar Mohamed narrates the story of the years he and his brother, Hassan, spend in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya after their father is killed in Somalia and their mother goes missing. They live years in the camp, designed as a transitional safe haven, experiencing daily trials of hunger and uncertainty. One of the many decisions Omar must face is whether to take tests so he can continue middle school, which would require leaving his challenged brother. Overall, the novel focuses on gratitude and hope, reminding readers of the community and kindness that people can share. (GR 4-7)
Sandip Wilson, Chair of the NBGS Committee, is a professor at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. Mary Ellen Oslick, Co-chair of the committee, serves as associate professor at Stetson University, Deland, Florida. Sharryn Larson Walker, a member of the committee, is a professor at Central Washington University, Ellensburg.
These reviews are submitted by members of the International Literacy Association's Children's Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CL/R SIG).