Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Human Migration by George Butler

Multicultural Children’s Book Day, Jan. 28, 2022 #ReadYourWorld

Drawn Across Borders: True Stories of Human Migration

George Butler, Author and Illustrator

Candlewick, Nonfiction, Mar. 16, 2021

Suitable for ages: 10-17

Themes: Human migration, Migrants, Refugees, Poverty, War, True stories, Art

Book Jacket Synopsis:

From a celebrated documentary artist, twelve portraits from the front lines of migration form an intimate record of why people leave behind the places they call home.

“It is an unusual feeling to walk into a place that everyone is leaving . . .”

Resisting his own urge to walk away, award-winning artist George Butler took his sketchbook and made, over the course of a decade, a series of remarkable pen-and-ink and watercolor portraits in war zones, refugee camps, and on the move. While he worked, his subjects—migrants and refugees in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Asia—shared their stories. Theirs are the human stories behind the headlines that tell of fleeing poverty, disaster, and war, and of venturing into the unknown in search of jobs, education, and security. Whether sketching by the hospital bed of a ten-year-old Syrian boy who survived an airstrike, drawing the doll of a little Palestinian girl with big questions, or talking with a Masai herdsman forced to abandon his rural Kenyan home for the Kibera slums, George Butler turns reflective art and sensitive reportage into an eloquent cry for understanding and empathy. Taken together and elegantly packaged, his beautiful portraits form a moving testament to our shared humanity—and the universal urge for safety and a better life.

Why I like this book:

George Butler takes readers on a fascinating journey into human migration and the many reasons people leave their homes and countries.  Butler travels to 12 countries from 2012-2018, where he interviews and sketches refugees who are suffering and starving as they flee war zones and corrupt regimes, or are leaving rural areas to seek better employment opportunities in the cities for their families. The result is this powerful book. 

Butler beautifully captures the humanity behind migration with his daunting spare ink and watercolor illustrations. There is emotion and compassion in each drawing as he witnesses incredible hardship and shares it with readers. Each illustration is a moment frozen in time: Syrian children playing in burnt-out government tanks in the town square; a crowded train of men traveling from Tajikistan to Moscow to work in construction and send money home; a smiling Iraqi girl standing in line for food at a refugee camp in northern Greece; and a defeated Afghani translator for the U.S. Army in Kandahar, combatting the penetrating cold by burning railway ties with thousands of refugees in Belgrade. They have faces, names and their dignity.

Make sure you check out the Butler’s introduction which gives readers insight into what he wants them to think about migration as we move further into this current decade. This is an excellent book for middle grade and high school students.  

George Butler is an award-winning artist and illustrator specializing in current affairs. His ink and watercolor drawings are made in situ in war zones, refugee camps, and disaster areas all over the world. His work, including coverage of the Syrian Civil war, has been published by The Times (London), the BBC, the New York Times, and more, and it has been exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He is the cofounder of the Hands Up Foundation, which has raised of £4 million to support the salaries of professionals in Syria.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review. 

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The Genius Under the Table by Eugene Yelchin

Please note that this will be my last review of 2021!  I will return on Jan. 3, 2022.  Enjoy your holidays!

The Genius Under the Table: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain

Eugene Yelchin, Author and Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Memoir, Oct. 12, 2021

Suitable for ages: 10-15

Pages: 208

Themes: Soviet Union, Family, Communal living, Poverty, Surveillance, Talent, Memoir  

Opening: “The first time I saw real American tourists, they hopped out of a tourist bus in Red Square in Moscow and cut in front of us in line. “Nice manners!” my mother shouted. “We’ve been freezing our butts off for hours and they just breeze in like that?”

Publisher’s Synopsis:

Everyone in communist Russia is keeping secrets — including Yevgeny. By day, he longs to become an athlete, like his brother, or a dancer, like his mother’s beloved Mikhail Baryshnikov, an icon with secrets of his own. By night, however, Yevgeny’s world comes alive on the underside of his grandmother’s heavy oak table, where he uses his father’s stubby pencil to sketch out all the drama, confusion, and difficulty of life in the USSR. Grappling with the looming threats of surveillance and poverty — an armed with only his pencil and a tendency to ask difficult questions — Yevgeny is on a quest to understand his society, in a tale heartbreaking and hilarious in equal measure.

Why I like this book:

Eugene Yelchin has written a witty and dark memoir about life in the Soviet Union in the 1960s-1970s. He lived in Leningrad as a child, which makes his story even more believable for readers. And it reads like a piece of fiction. Yelchin’s artwork graces nearly every page of the story, perfectly complementing the text. 

Life is hard in the Soviet Union. Extended families live in communaka (communal) one-room apartments. They share the bathroom, hallways and kitchen with other dwellers. Food is rationed. Many books and artwork are banned. There are paid spies in every communalka. Everything about life is based on rules. Freedom of speech is forbidden. Antisemitism is still prevalent.

The only way to succeed and get out of poverty is to have a talent, like Yevgeny’s brother, Victor, who is a talented ice skater and athlete. I was fascinated at how the USSR used talent as a secret weapon against the United States during the Cold War. Yevgeny doesn’t appear to have a special talent. His mother wants him to be a great ballet dancer like Baryshnikov. But he DOES have a talent that even he’s not aware of.

I especially enjoyed how Yelchin weaves the famous Baryshnikov (and his defection) into this story. Yevgeny’s mother works at the Vaganovka Ballet Academy for where Baryshnikov studied dance as a child. She has an interesting relationship with the artistic world. She takes Yevgeny to see her beloved “Misha”  dance at the Kirov Ballet Theater, where they stand in the wings and watch him perform. (And, yes there is a secret backstory about his mother and ballet.)

Yevgeny’s father is a committed communist and has a deep love for poetry — much of which is banned in the USSR because poetry tells the truth. In the USSR it is dangerous to tell the truth or criticize the government. Artists who survived learned to make art by the rules. Readers will learn about how people keep secrets, especially about family members. They even cut pictures of loved ones out of photographs. And Yevgeny really wants to know what happened to his grandfather, but his grandmother remains silent.

I was drawn to this story because I’ve always been fascinated with Russian history and political science and studied Russian in college in the 70s. There are no tidy endings to this story, as Yelchin’s memoir represents his family’s experience of living behind the Iron Curtain.

Eugene Yelchin is the the coauthor and illustrator of the 2018 National Book Award finalist The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge, cowritten with M.T. Anderson. He is also the author and illustrator of the Newbery Honor Book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, and the recipient of a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Tomie dePaola illustrator Award. Eugene Yelchin lives in Topanga, California, with his family.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Too Small Tola by Atinuke

Too Small Tola

Atinuke, Author, Onyinye Iwu, Illustrator

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 2, 2021

Suitable for ages: 7-9

Themes: Nigeria, Poverty, Family relationships, Community

Tola lives in “a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria,” with her older sister, Moji, who is very smart; her brother, Dapo, who is very athletic; and Grandmommy, who is very bossy. Tola may be small, but she finds that she has other abilities. 

In the first story, Tola accompanies Grandmommy to the market and balances a basket full of yams, vegetables, chili peppers, fish, football glue and diapers — on her head. It’s a long tiring walk, but she also manages to climb steep  stairs to their apartment without dropping anything. She discovers that she is strong.  She is also very clever with counting their money and makes sure Grandmommy isn’t being cheated by vendors.

In the next story, Tola wakes up very early and discovers that the electricity is off again and the faucets in the apartment aren’t working. There is no water for bathing or cooking.  She wakes her sister, Moji, and they grab empty jerry cans and head to the outside water pumps before a long line forms. They return and wake Dapo to grab more cans to gather water, although this time she runs into trouble.

In the final story Tola helps their tailor neighbor, Mr. Abdul, who breaks his leg in accident. Easter and the end of Ramdan feast of Eid is approaching, and Mr. Abdul isn’t able to ride his bike to measure his customers for new holiday garments. Tola is clever with numbers and measurements, so she offers to help. Dapo uses the bike to pedal Tola around the city. 

Award-winning children’s writer, Atinuke, is a master storyteller. She started her career as an oral storyteller of tales from the African continent. Today her stories are contemporary stories about life in Nigeria. Her stories are perfect chapter books for children 7-9. Each chapter lends itself to a short story, which will appeal to this age group.  In Too Small Tola, she shows the poverty of Nigeria, but also the strength and love of family and community. 

Readers will enjoy Onyinye Iwu pen and ink drawings that appear on every page and they show both the love and humor of the community. They will help readers visualize the story and help break up the text. A delightful read for kids preparing to move into middle grade books.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by Candlewick Press in exchange for a review.

Daily Bread by Antoinette Truglio Martin

Daily Bread

Antoinette Truglio Martin, Author

Red Penguin Books, Historical Fiction, Oct. 12, 2020

Suitable for ages: 8-12

Themes: Immigrants, New York City, Poverty, Child labor, Factories, Bullies

Synopsis:

Set in New York City in 1911, the large Taglia family has immigrated from Sicily and is living in a three-room tenement on Mott Street in the Lower East Side.  Earning enough money to cover the rent and basic needs is an endless struggle for the Taglia family and they need all the help they can muster. The father works double shifts at the docks. The mother is very pregnant with her fourth child, refuses to learn English and depends on her daughters to translate and barter for her.

Spunky songbird Lily wants to help by baking Daily Bread at the Goldberg’s Bakery like big sister, Margaret. But Margaret says Lily is just a little kid, and there is more to baking Daily Bread than height and an artist’s heart. Lily learns to navigate in a grown-up world when facing bullies, disasters, loss, dotty bakers, and treacherous streets to cross by herself.

Why I like this book:

Antoinette Truglio Martin has crafted a beautiful work of historical fiction based on her own family’s early beginnings in America. The story is a very American story — one that so many of us share. Martin’s writing is polished and filled with vivid imagery of the sights and sounds of the period, which will captivate reader’s imaginations. Her plot is realistic and sobering, and her pacing is pitch perfect, which will keep readers fully engaged.

The characters are authentic and memorable. Twelve-year-old Margaret is the eldest. She’s a smart student and knows that education is her way out of poverty. She helps the family out by working at a bakery. Ten-year-old Lily loves to sing and wants to learn how to bake Daily Bread at the Goldberg’s bakery with her big sister. Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg are Russian immigrants, who create a safe place where neighborhood children can bake the Daily Bread for their families and only pay three cents for their loaf rather than five cents. They also teach them a skill. Their routine is laborious, with Margaret and Lily arriving at the bakery before dawn to mix and knead their dough and put it into a pan to rise. They head to school only to return on their lunch breaks to punch the air out of the dough, knead and reshape it into a round loaf.  Their loaf will be baked and ready for them to take home when they return after school. Margaret earns extra money by helping with bakery sales and has secrets of her own, if she can dodge her mother’s pressure to take a factory job. Lily is determined to help out too. She makes bakery deliveries and has to learn to outsmart bullies and stand up for herself.

The heart of Martin’s story comes from listening to her grandmother, and her sisters, tell stories about their early lives in the shabby tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. They shared their stories around the dinner table or while cooking in the kitchen. Her family immigrated to the U.S. from Sicily in 1905. It was a tough time for immigrants, but they all had dreams of new lives. Make sure you read the Author’s Introduction and check out the Discussion and Writing Prompts and Research Project suggestions  at the end of the book. This is a great classroom book.

Antoinette Truglio Martin is a speech therapist and special education teacher by training but really wants to be a writer when she grows up. She has been collecting, writing, and fashioning stories forever. Over the years she has been a regular columnist in local periodicals and has several essays featured in newsletters and literary reviews. Her children’s picture book, Famous Seaweed Soup was published in 1993 by Albert Whitman Co. Antoinette’s memoir, Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer (She Writes Press 2017), chronicles her first year battling breast cancer as a wimpy patient. She proudly holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Stony Brook/Southampton University. Be sure to stop by her website and blog, Stories Served Around The Table, to read about past and present family adventures, book happenings, and musings.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Reviewed from a purchased copy.

A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat

A Wish in the Dark

Christina Soontornvat, Author

Candlewick Press, Fiction, Mar. 24, 2020

Suitable for Ages: 8-12

Themes:  Fantasy, Privilege, Oppression, Poverty, Justice, Friendship, Courage, Self-discovery

Book Synopsis:

After a Great Fire destroys the city of Chattana, a man appears before the starving people and offers to bring peace and order to the city. He is called the Governor and he magically lights the city. For Pong, who was born in Namwon Prison, the magical lights across the river represent freedom and he dreams of the day he will be able to walk among them in the city. But when Pong escapes from the prison, he realizes that the world outside is just as unfair as the one behind bars. The wealthy dine and dance under bright orb lights, while the poor toil away in darkness. Worst of all, Pong’s prison tattoo marks him as a fugitive who can never be truly free.

Nok, the prison warden’s perfect daughter, is bent on tracking Pong down and restoring her family’s good name. But as Nok hunts Pong through the alleys and canals of Chattana, she uncovers secrets that make her question the truths she has always held dear. Set in a Thai-inspired fantasy world, Christina Soontornvat’s twist on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables is a dazzling, fast-paced adventure that explores the difference between law and justice — and asks whether one child can shine a light in the dark.

Why I like this book:

A Wish in the Dark is a timeless Asian fantasy that is exquisitely penned by Christina Soontornvat.  Her storytelling and literary style elevate readers’ sense of wonder. The magical Thai setting, well-crafted characters, riveting plot and the gorgeous imagery are so beautifully intertwined that they create an electrifying experience.

At the beginning of the story, the main characters Pong, Somkit and Nok, are 10 years old. As the story unfolds readers will experience their character growth to age 13, as they journey towards self-discovery, which is different for each. Pong is an observer, who has become restless in the confines of a prison. He wants his freedom. Pong looks out for his best friend, Somkit, a small boy who has health issues. When Pong flees, he feels guilt over leaving his defenseless friend behind. The bond between the boys is so natural that they feel like brothers. Nok is the warden’s daughter. She lives a privileged life and is brainwashed by the Governor’s magic and believes his teachings are sacred. Pong and Nok are complete opposites and their journey is fraught with tension and excitement.

This stand-alone novel deals with many social justice issues: the inequality among classes, poverty, oppression, greed, corruption and power. In this novel, power is used by the Governor to control and manipulate those he claims to care about. In Father Cham, a monk, and Ampai, a woman living among the poorest citizens, power is used in loving kindness for the good of all people.  It is a particularly relevant discussion point for students in classrooms.

Verdict: This book is a gem. It may appear to be dark, but don’t let that fool you. Because at its center, there is heart and light.

Christina Soontornvat grew up in a small Texas town, where she spent many childhood days behind the counter of her parents’ Thai restaurant with her nose in a book. She is the author of engaging picture books, chapter books, and middle grade books for children, including the fantasy series, The Changelings, and the upcoming nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue, All Thirteen. She now lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband and two children.

Greg Pattridge hosts Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts on his wonderful Always in the Middle website. Check out the MMGM link to see all of the wonderful reviews by KidLit bloggers and authors.

*Review copy provided by the publisher in an exchange for a review.

A Good Trade by Alma Fullerton

A Good Trade

Alma Fullerton, Author

Karen Patkau, Illustrator

Pajama Press, Fiction, 2013

Suitable for Ages: 5-8

Themes: Ugandan children, Poverty, Traveling for water, War

Opening: “In a small Ugandan garden, a single poppy blooms white in a sea of green. On a mat inside his hut, Kato wakes at the break of dawn.”

Book Jacket Synopsis: Kato wakes early to begin his morning routine, a long barefoot trek beyond village gates through grasses, down a steep hill, and along fields dotted with cattle and guarded by soldiers. His destination is the village well, where he will pump a day’s supply of water into two jerry cans. Like very day, Kato lets the water splash over his hot tired feet before carrying his heavy load back home, where the day’s chores await him. But this is no ordinary day. The aid-worker’s truck has come, and in the back is something so special the little boy rushes home to look for something to repay the aid-worker for this unexpected gift for his village.

Why I like this book:

Alma Fullerton’s text is rich, spare and beautifully crafted. Her narrative is strong and lyrical as she shares Kato’s daily trip to get drinking water for his family. He is barefoot like the other children in his village. The water he collects is essential for cooking, drinking and bathing.

When Kato spies the aid worker’s truck that brings shoes to the village children, he hurries home with his water cans. He finds a white poppy and returns to give it to the aid worker as his expression of gratitude for her generous gift.

This important book shows children how difficult life can be for kids living in war-torn areas and in drought. For many children school isn’t an option because  their days are filled with chores. Fullerton’s story raises cultural awareness for the global plight of children like Kato. Young readers will appreciate the things they take for granted, like running tap water, shoes and transportation.  It addresses tough issues in a hopeful and age-appropriate manner and is an excellent read-aloud for the classroom.

Karen Patkau’s digitally rendered illustrations are colorful and lush. They work beautifully with the text and illuminate the message in the story.

Resources: This is an important story that will generate lively classroom discussions  about how difficult life can be for children around the world.  Ask children about how they would feel if they didn’t have a pair of shoes? Would they be able to walk barefoot every day to collect water from a well? How would they bath or wash clothing?  What will they eat? This is a great exercise in empathy.

Alma Fullerton is the award-winning author of the picture books A Good Trade, Community Soup and In a Cloud of Dust, When the Rain Comes. Check out my review of her most recent picture book, Hand Over Hand.  Visit Fullerton at her website.

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 website.

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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