Oct 31, 2018

Picture Book Series, Part 2 (Economics, History, Culture)

In a previous post I shared three of the five picture book titles in the    TRADE WINDS series by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
I wrote there:
The five titles in this collection are presented in picture book format and feature young characters in stories set during key periods in the history of global economics and culture.
Whew, that's a mouthful. 
As much as I advocate for using picture books across all ages, some intentionally instructive titles/series should be evaluated as academic tools rather than as picture books. 

That is NOT the case for the five titles in this set. Each could stand proudly on its own (and can be purchased separately). Each is a story featuring a young character whose narrative arc unfolds within a specific historic time and place. Each contains back page supplements, including a kid-friendly glossary and timeline, map anchors, and a few clarifying comments about the concepts presented, all of which are highly accessible to young readers. And each  is enhanced by elaborate illustrations that provide additional insights about the central concepts and cultures.

At this time in history, culture might be viewed as whatever meme last went viral, and economics can be seen as swipes of a card or chip or smartphone with little relationship to actual marketplace or economic principles.  We also live in a time in which wealth is amassed in inconceivable amounts and in fewer hands, making the money = power equation more relevant than ever before. Finding ways to anchor economic concepts within a broader global culture is a challenge, and these titles meet that challenge with engaging stories and helpful clarifications. 

The two remaining titles in this series convey important economic turning points in western history. GRANDFATHER WHISKER'S TABLE, written by Eun-jeong Jo and illustrated by Bimba Landmann, is another father-son story. In the mid-Renaissance era, Siena, Italy, emerged as the banking center of Europe. 

Enzo and his father visit to view the famous Palio de Siena horse race (which is still a thing!). Young Enzo is enthralled with the swirl of people, languages, and marketplace surprises, asking dozens of questions. He is particularly intrigued by Grandfather Whisker, who has settled on a bench in a marketplace stall with his strongbox. There he is saving, lending, and protecting valuables, exchanging currencies from around Europe, and recording each transaction in his book and providing receipts. (Did you know that BANK derives from the Italian word for bench?)
Enzo's story involves choosing a gift for a sibling, making a smart decision to ask the banker to hold it in safe keeping, then dealing with the dramatic loss of his receipt at the end of the race. The banker's lesson for Enzo is also valuable, and the specific banking vocabulary in back pages is still surprisingly current, even in our digital exchange era.
I found the illustrations to be evocative and I'm sure they will generate many curious questions from readers about the cultural patterns of that late medieval time: Complex buildings, walled neighborhoods, colorful clothing styles, heraldry, and more.

The latest period explored in this series is in LEATHER SHOE CHARLIE, written by Gyeong-hwa Kim and illustrated by Anna Balbusso and Elena Balbusso. The story opens in a small village in England during the Industrial Revolution. Charlie's grandfather is a master cobbler and the boy proudly sports his leather shoes throughout most of the book, earning his nickname and the title of the book. 
When his family (and most other families from small towns) moved to Manchester to work in the mills, readers are thrust into a 19th century mill town. Grimy tenement  housing looms throughout the pages, with Charlie's prized shoes soon offering the only vibrant color within the dull, suffocating images. Dangers and problems of child labor and unprotected industrial conditions are hinted at, with clarifying details developed in the back pages, including references to emerging labor organizations. 
One significant aspect of millwork forms the drama for Charlie's narrative. His mother develops a chronic and debilitating cough from the factory fibers and dust, but even with the whole family working they are not able to afford a tin of tea to sooth her throat. Charlie chooses to sacrifice his prized shoes to trade for tea. Even so, he can see a future in which he will leave the mills and train to be a cobbler like his grandfather. 

In both posts about the titles in this series, I've praised the informational content, the storytelling, and the scope and depth of the subjects and locations. When translating books from other languages, those qualities are not easy to accomplish. Credit goes to an author I deeply admire, JOY COWLEY, who served as editor for the series. She has a knack for writing in a down-to-earth yet creative and lyrical way, and her deft touch shines through in each book. It bears mention, too, that in each story there are aspects of kindness and generosity, family affection, and pursuit of learning. These elements make stories from long ago and far away feel relevant and recognizable to young readers.
I can't resist pointing out, and I hope young readers will notice as well, that the central characters are all males. Sadly, each culture and era portrayed was patriarchal. In that sense, the questions raised and comparisons made to gender equity in a modern world can lead to better understanding of how recently these changes have emerged and how many unfulfilled goals remain.
I hope that all of the above will give you reason to track down these books and give them a careful read. 

Full disclaimer here:  When My dad was a boy about Charlie's age his father died. That was during the depression, pre-social services safety net. He was the oldest son, so he worked with his cobbler uncle to earn enough money to feed his family. He handled deliveries and shop chores, but also learned enough of the trade to support his family throughout high school, repairing his classmates' shoes. As reluctant as I am to name favorites among any books, Leather Shoe Charlie has a special place in my heart. 

Eerdmans Books for Young readers provided a copy of the books in this set in exchange for a fair and honest review. I will donate this series to a local school and I recommend them to schools, libraries, and families. 

Oct 27, 2018

Some Educational Picture Books Worthy of a Second Look

Trade Winds is an educational series from Eerdman's Books for Young Readers. The five titles in the collection are presented in picture book format and feature young characters in stories set during key periods in the history of global economics and culture.
Whew, that's a mouthful. 
As much as I advocate for using picture books across all ages, some intentionally instructive titles/series should be evaluated as academic tools rather than as picture books. 

That is NOT the case for the five titles in this set. Each could stand proudly on its own (and can be purchased separately). Each is a story featuring a young character whose narrative arc unfolds within a specific historic time and place. Each contains back page supplements, including a kid-friendly glossary and timeline, map anchors, and a few clarifying comments about the concepts presented, all of which are highly accessible to young readers. And each  is enhanced by elaborate illustrations that provide additional insights about the central concepts and cultures.

I was intrigued by the subject matter- economics and culture with a world view. For kids growing up in a digital/swipe economy, one in which national and global policies are too often steered by massive corporate and individual fortunes, these are topics that deserve significant attention. I wondered if these would be books best used in the context of direct instruction and for older students, but my initial caution dissolved when I saw that the talented, prolific, and beloved author, JOY COWLEY, was the editor of all five books. I was confident that the stories would have both fluency and appeal. 
And I was right.

Three of the five titles will be reviewed here, with the remaining two titles considered in the next post. Each of the five can be read in any order and grouped/compared in various ways, but I chose to include in this post the three titles with non-European settings, stories that take place BCE (before the common era, or what we used to call BC). 

The earliest era portrayed is in THE WARLI PEOPLE, written by Hye-eun Shin and illustrated by Su-bi Jeong. It is the least story-based, in text. Instead, each double-page spread tells its story with a simple sentence, while the densely populated illustrations simulate the story/style of art and artifacts of the Warli People (from about ten centuries BCE). 
The core concept of this book is structured to reveal the many activities during the course of a year in an agricultural society in what is today coastal India. 
The Warli People had prospered into a complex agricultural civilization, one with an established and extended community structure: food production, recreation, specialized roles, social practices, and ceremonies. Most importantly, their secure economy allowed them to create a pictographic language using line art and geometric forms that are easily translated to imagine elaborate stories, rendering narrative text almost unnecessary. This book lays the groundwork for considering the cultural and economic concepts in subsequent titles. 
I can imagine readers of many ages poring over the elaborate visual narratives and telling/writing detailed stories of the events and characters pictured. Back content includes information revealing several Middle East civilizations that were comparably advanced during that era. 
The next story moves readers forward several centuries and many miles further north, depicting the SILK ROAD from eastern Asia (near modern Bejing) and extending across the desert and mountains to the Mediterranean Sea. 
FATHER'S ROAD, written by Ji-Yung Jang and illustrated by Tan Jun, follows a young boy on his first journey with his tradesman father. Wong Chung is old enough to begin his apprenticeship, learning the oddities, routines, and dangers of a camel caravan. His first person point of view and voice (directed to an imagined audience or perhaps a diary) draws readers into every aspect of what could otherwise be an alien experience. 
In the course of the book, Wong Chung enjoys spectacular views, surprising resources, and absorbs important lessons. He encounters bandits, a fierce sandstorm, and a chance to extend a helping hand. At the journey's end, the boy realizes that their destination, trading centers, are cosmopolitan intersections of people with varied languages, cultures, goods, and experiences from far-flung places, many he can't even imagine. 
For the youngest readers, this is a vibrant story that presents an adventure across global cultures and a vast time period. For older readers the story will intrigue, but the back matter provides a wealth of accessible content to expand understanding of the roots and relationships of global trade. 

In the previous books, exchanges involve bartering. At some point in our global economic history, "money" must come into play. LION, KING, and COIN, written by Jeong-hee Nam and illustrated by Lucia Sforza, shares, in story form, the origins of the first coins used in trade. In the sixth century BCE, in ancient Lydia (in present-day Turkey) Sardis was a large and prosperous village. The Pactolus River was also known as the Gold River because  
gold could be panned from it's sandy bottom. 
The young narrator, Laos, is the son and grandson of goldsmiths. Both smiths were renowned for their gold jewelry and other items. The boy describes the problems encountered on market day when a trader wished to purchase something, even something like a piece of fruit, but only had a large item, like an ox, to trade. 
In order to  improve transactions and to assure fair value during the trades, the king ordered that coins be minted. Each was stamped on the front with a lion emblem, a symbol of the king's authority. The back of the coins carried a special smith's mark, to prevent counterfeit coins. Various values were assigned based on the weight of gold in the coins. 

This charming narrative from the perspective of young Laos incorporates a story of King Midas to reflect a culture with oral traditions. The historic information is based on current archeological information about the first civilizations found to use minted coins. 
Once again, the back matter places this period in perspective with earlier and later periods, presents this village location in relation to the Silk Road, and explores precursors to traditional metal coins.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the two titles set in Europe in the modern era. Meanwhile, check out these titles and share links with educators and curious kids. There are far too few stories incorporating global history and economic basics. These books are very engaging and informative, making them a welcome addition to that limited pool of resources.

The five titles were originally written and published by Yeowon Media, Ltd. before being translated and published for an American audience by Eerdmans BYR. Copies of each book were provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Oct 15, 2018

RAIN: As Essential As Poetry

Eerdman Books for Young Readers, October, 2019
I'm excited to celebrate the launch of a brand new picture book by Swedish author, illustrator, and poet Anders Holmer: RAIN.  It ticked all the right boxes for me before I even opened the cover: nature, poetry (strongly accessible haiku, in fact), breathtaking art, and a diverse world perspective. 
I don't often post an extra-large version of covers, but in this case it feels necessary. Even at this size, you may struggle to view the minuscule falling particles in the image. These and other suggestions of rain in the various scenes throughout the book are "raining down" on the characters and situations. These characters are as diverse as the locales, and each individual feels to me to be totally absorbed in a distinct story. 
On this cover image, for example, those gray-green slashes poking through the snow are early evidence of lichen underlying an arctic/tundra region. The snow cover, clothing, and transportation methods suggest that the moisture from above may be of the slushy-sleety variety, the type that stings the skin and renders old snow surfaces as slick as ice, literally. 
And yet, after surviving yet another long, dark, frozen season, such a rain swells the heart:
"Calf licking the first
fresh green wedges of lichen.
And soon, butterflies!"
Like this poem, each in this book is finely crafted, adhering to the rigid expectations of Haiku, a traditional Japanese form:

Three unrhymed lines (5-7-5 syllables)
Total of 17 syllables
Strong imagery
Often nature scenes
Capturing a specific moment or emotion in time

In this book, creator Holmer has mastered all of the above while developing a series of global scenes that underscore the universal nature of the moments and emotions portrayed. Young readers and writers will enjoy and be inspired to write their own haiku- a seemingly simple challenge. If that happens, I'd urge you to emphasize content over syllable count. (There are many poetry scholars who accept adaptations to the pattern, although the three line, seventeen syllable total are useful guides.) 

I've shared other haiku collections HERE, and HERE. Themed and cumulative haiku that form a sequential narrative story are easiest to explore for beginners (Dog-Ku and Won-Ton). Holmer declares RAIN as the unifying theme for this series. Rain is unbiquitous in every climate, including desert zones. It offers a common thread among all human experience. The emotional journeys of these scenes also have a commonality to them, with each double spread revealing relationships, struggles, and suggesting open-ended resolutions. Independent writers could well imagine a story from each of the twelve spreads, guided by the haiku text, and then harvest details from images on the page while imagining a before and after related to the scene. 

At this point I'll pat myself on the back because I'm going to resist including any other examples of Holmer's poems, even though I'm eager to share them all. I wouldn't dare include more, though, because doing so without the book in hand would fail to deliver the full impact their power. The conceptual design and flow of emotional content from scene to scene is enhanced by the book's design. The tall trim size allows for double spreads to open as in a landscape display of artwork (which each is). Most use color tones that are subdued but surprisingly intense, whether in the depths of a rainforest river or a petal-strewn Japanese garden. 

The scenes (puffins near a lighthouse, running horses on a plain, a forest fire with fleeing animals, and so many more) unfold with quiet authority, providing enough realism to spark background knowledge of climate zones (and perhaps some geography research), yet they provide a slightly abstracted quality that is inherent in the poetry form, allowing space for each reader to enter and inhabit the pages and the poems. 

Rain is a human experience, as are its consequences (floods, droughts, crops, famine, dismay, delight). It is a resource and a necessity. After reading and re-reading this haiku collection, many times over, and after sitting with the lives revealed in scene-after-scene, I'm convinced the same can be said about the new picture book, RAIN. For your own reading and for young readers of any age, make it a point to get and share this book. Return to it often. It is both a resource and a necessity. 

I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. 

Oct 9, 2018

A Fall Ball for ALL: Nature Throws a Party in Wisconsin

Yesterday morning I pulled out of my driveway and nearly every tree in my yard was leafy green. When I returned in the evening I found half (or more) of those leaves were sporting glorious fall golds, oranges, and reds. It's no surprise that so many people who live in temperate climates list Fall as our favorite season. Adjectives (and even camera lenses) can't do justice to the spectacle nature provides at this time of year. The sudden color adds to my recognition that a single windy night could- WHOOOOMP -snatch that overhead brilliance from the sunlight above and cover the ground with a carpet of leaves. 
MIllbrook Press, 2018
There are times, like yesterday, when Mother Nature's hand feels very deliberate, intentional.
Jamie A. Swenson's latest picture book, A FALL BALL FOR ALL, captures that sense of intention by giving a personified voice to The Wind.
While I felt Autumn's painterly hand in yesterday's sudden transformation of color, Swenson's book gives life to the wind with this beckoning message:
"Once upon a golden day,/Autumn Wind blew in to play,/ Whooshing leaves into the air--/ Orange, brown, purple, everywhere!"

With that irresistible opening, the stage is set in a Wisconsin woodland  (a location Swenson confirms in the author note back pages)
The animals welcome the news, delaying migration and hibernation in order to participate. The Windfall Ball is coming!

While Swenson's rhyming text swirls from page to page, rich with delightful descriptions and figurative language, illustrator Chiara Fedele's double-page spreads saturate the scenes with movement, revealing growing enthusiasm among the guests, and conveying expressive wildlife postures and features. 

Swenson's text utilizes both familiar and expansive vocabulary, with a lilt:
"Gusts and gales and tempest forces/ set a fete with seven courses:/
Cranberries, chestnuts, corn and plums,/ Sunflowers, daisies, chrysanthemums."
On the spread with this text the listed elements are pictured, along with pumpkins so robust they make the page look heavy, magnificent mushrooms, late season daisies, and more. On each page I was seeking out faces, tails, and beaks- and any other signs that the complex mix of residents of the woods might be tucked among the dense visual images, anticipating a celebration on each pre-ball day.

There is a brief note about the TWO meanings of windfall on back pages:
The actual fruit and other crops blown to the ground by the wind, 
An unexpected gift or good fortune.
That note called to mind the many years when I lived on large acreage in a rural area. The land included an overgrown orchard. Windfall fruits attracted countless furry and feathered wildlife to the area. As critters are together in the dark they occasionally generated quite a bit of noise.  Upon hearing it, I would hope that their disagreements would end with no one harmed. Now I realize it may have been rousing windfall parties like the one we are privileged to attend in A FALL BALL FOR ALL.

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.