Friday, May 10, 2013

THE SECRET RIVER by Marjorie Kinnan

Rawlings, Marjorie Kinnan. The Secret River. Illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. New York: Atheneum Books, 2011. $19.99. ISBN# 9781416911791. Grades 3-5. Picture book—fiction.

Originally published in 1955, The Secret River won a Newbery Honor award in 1956; author Rawlings also won the Pulitzer Prize in 1939 for The Yearling. In addition to many other awards, illustrators Leo and Diane Dillon received Caldecott Medals for Why Mosquitos Buzz in People’s Ears and Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions.

The Secret River addresses the significant issues of hunger and poverty in a gentle and optimistic manner. Young Calpurnia wants to help change “hard” times to “soft” times for her family and village. She decides she will catch fish to feed the townspeople and seeks the guidance of Mother Albirtha, “the wisest woman in the forest,” who tells her how to find a secret river. Calpurnia is successful in her quest, catching plenty of fish to feed the village, although she struggles to make her way home. She encounters several beasts (an owl, a black bear, and a panther) on her journey home and pacifies them with fish. At this point, readers may wonder if Calpurnia will return empty-handed, but she returns with enough food for everyone.

The illustrations aptly convey the scariness of the forest, which is dark with faces embedded in the trees, although the acrylic paintings are somewhat muted to suggest softness. The Secret River contains various messages, such as the importance of helping others and to trust one’s self. However, the book may be trying to do too much by interspersing poetry (created by Calpurnia), regional dialect, and grammar corrections. For instance, when Calpurnia says, “everybody be’s my friend,” her mother corrects the error. Additionally, when Calpurnia goes back to find the secret river, but it is gone, Mother Albirtha tells her,“The secret river is in your mind.” Such a concept may be confusing for readers. Overall, this is an engaging picture book for older readers and it would be best to share with an adult who can help explain some unfamiliar ideas.

--Cynthia McDaniel

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Granfield, Linda. Out of Slavery: The Journey to Amazing Grace. Illustrated by Janet Wilson. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2009. ISBN# 978-0887769153. $15.95. Grades 4-7. Picture book—nonfiction.

Originally published in 1997 as Amazing Grace: The Story of the Hymn, Out of Slavery was selected as a nonfiction best book by Quill & Quire (a Canadian award). This historical account of the slave trade focuses on ship captain John Newton during the mid-1700s. Granfield’s writing is descriptive, rich, and engaging. She uses vivid metaphors and a relatively high level of vocabulary, with many interesting historical facts and details that older elementary age readers would probably find fascinating. Clearly Granfield conducted extensive research for this book, including Newton’s Journal of a Slave Trader. However, she does not sugarcoat the story and she presents information about the reality of the slave trade that could be disturbing for some readers, presenting information such as babies that were born on a ship were often “tossed overboard.” Somewhat ironically, devout Captain John Newton prays for the Lord’s help to “deliver his cargo of 207 African men, women, and children to be sold in the marketplaces of the West Indies.”

Eventually he decides to find a “more humane calling” and becomes a minister, writing sermons and a book of hymns, including “Amazing Grace” (which had a different title at the time). Additionally, he wrote a pamphlet entitled “Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade” in which he decided in retrospect that slavery should be banned. Newton worked to abolish slavery in Britain and the British colonies, which actually occurred the same year he died in 1833. Additionally, readers will probably feel relieved by the relatively happy ending.

Wilson has won many awards for her illustrations and her work in Out of Slavery captures the tone and advances the story. For example, the first page shows the ship African during a fierce storm in 1752. She captures the movement of the “vicious, glitter tipped waves” and shows the ship pitched sideways as “the masts strained and moaned in the relentless winds.” Many of the illustrations depict horrendous situations, but of course, this book is presenting a horrific time period in human history.

According to Wilson, Out of Slavery is a companion book to In Flanders Fields, in which she used a similar artistic style. She says, “some readers miss the fact that I've depicted the same boy on his forced journey from Africa. Also, the inspiration for the image of the captives in Africa came from reading a diary of a slave driver of the time [Newton]. He wrote about seeing Africans with tears streaming down their faces as they walked.” The paintings were done in oil on canvas.

I highly recommend Out of Slavery for any reader who wants to learn more about the realities of slavery. This is an honest account of human greed and suffering. Considering the fact that slavery still exists in the world today (although it is more covert) perhaps this book will inspire others to help make a difference.

--Cynthia McDaniel

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

NINI by Francois Thisdale

Thisdale, Francois. Nini. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2011. ISBN# 9781770492707. $15.95. 

Thisdale is both author and illustrator of Nini, which begins in Asia with a baby in the womb who hears her mother’s soothing voice. However, she goes to an orphanage when she is only one day old. She is not mistreated, but she does not hear the comforting voice anymore. It is not clear why the baby is sent to an orphanage, but that detail may not be necessary. Readers learn that a husband and wife “on the other side of the world” are unable to have a baby. The story is fairly simple, almost like a fairy tale—which may be part of the point. Clearly, Nini will “live happily ever after” with her new family.

One of the strengths of this picture book is that it does not try too hard to cover every aspect of adoption. Children in adopted families would probably feel comforted knowing that Nini’s birth mother cared about her and in a sense she has two families. There are some words that would be difficult for young readers, such as “falter,” “shrill, and “frail.” Apparently Nini is a tribute to the baby Thisdale and his wife adopted. The illustrations complement and further the story. Thisdale uses drawing, painting, and digital images to create a calm but vibrant mood. The result is a serene depiction of a present-day family situation that would be enlightening for all readers.

--Cynthia McDaniel

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

EDWIN SPEAKS UP by April Stevens

Stevens, April and Sophie Blackall. Edwin Speaks Up. New York: Schwartz & Wade, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-375-85337-1.

You might say that the text supplements the illustrations in this picture book—the pictures tell as gripping and more truthful a story than the actual words. Whenever Edwin, the little baby of this lemur family (or similar such creature), speaks up, not a member listens to him despite his insightful observations and reminders. Granted they just happen to be mixed up in all sorts of garbled "baby-speak" ("Figbutton noo noo POCKY BOOKY froppin ROOF" clearly indicates that the mom's pocketbook is on the roof of the car, right?). But in this wild excursion to the grocery store, Edwin is the "silent" hero among his whole family, the only one observing where lost items go, where lost grocery carts get switched, and finally where to find the missing but supremely important sugar that everyone else has forgotten.

Reading this book with a child would be immense fun; it invites the child to look for the interaction between the story and pictures. A keen eye can seek out and notice all the action going on in the illustrations and compare that to the oblivious nature of Edwin's mom and siblings in the text. Does anyone else know where mom's pocket book is? Nope, only Edwin. Who tries to call and point out to mom that she has switched grocery carts? Only Edwin. The reader finds out how observant and versatile Edwin is with every page. The retro style of the illustrations—colorful and with a 50's flair—belie their complexity, an intricacy the derives from the watchful eye of young Edwin.

This was a delight to read, and young readers will get great pleasure from decoding the silliness of the grown-ups and big kids compared to the intelligence of the little baby.

Alya Hameed

Monday, May 6, 2013


Addasi, Maha. The White Nights of Ramadan. Illus. Ned Gannon. Honesdale, PA: Boyd's Mills Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-1-59078-523-2.

"Noor was too excited to sleep. She kept checking the candy and the fanouses that would light up their path for Girgian." This undercurrent of energy courses through the whole story, in which little Noor and her littler brothers prepare for a three night celebration during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. It's always a pleasure to read of that exuberance in the child during what is a spiritual and peaceful but also challenging time (fasting from dawn until dusk for a month!).

The familiar and widely known facts are there about Ramadan, but we get to learn a whole new facet of Arab culture in the description of a culturally specific holiday, Girgian (which I personally was unfamiliar with, despite my Muslim heritage). I enjoyed learning about this celebration, and I'm sure a lot of kids will actually relate to it—even if in the most ridiculous way—by equating the action of giving and collecting candy from house to house to that of Halloween. However, here you see children share in the delight of making the traditional candy and adorning their fancy ethnic garb together, while the parents instill the understanding that there is deeper purpose to the holiday and the month itself. There's no discord here; Noor naturally picks up from her grandmother the joy of being with your family and supporting others, an action she fulfills completely by the end of the novel.

This is a well-written story about a multigenerational family in Kuwait who share in the many experiences of Ramadan, and teach us about a jovial new one.

Soft, swirly illustrations in rich jewel tones bring out the bright white moon and brilliant red garb and yellow drums, all the while inviting the reader to experience the excitement of the children. I love illustrations that capture the details in their expressions as well as their cultural background. These are just incredibly warm and evocative. The guide at the back is helpful and informative as well—worth an exploration into something that may be somewhat familiar to the general reader but offers rich insight into the beauty of another culture. I've become a fan of Maha Addasi's work and highly recommend this book.

Alya Hameed