In 30 years of reviewing I’ve seen an increase in characters of color in children’s books, but representation remains far from equal. Several recent books dare to be different and provide opportunities for cultural understanding.
Sheri Sinykin’s “Zayde Comes to Live” (Peachtree, ages 6-10), a deceptively simple picture book, begins as heroine Rachel says, “Zayde comes to live with us. It’s because he’s dying.” Rachel grieves about her grandfather’s impending death, but has an additional concern – what will happen to him when he dies? Her friend Megan says he’ll go to heaven, Hakim says he’ll enter paradise, but her Jewish Zayde doesn’t believe in Jesus or Allah. Ultimately, her grandfather provides Rachel with comfort, voicing his contentment at becoming part of the circle of life and living in her memory. Sinykin paints a complex view of death, reassures Jewish children and offers chances to discuss different views of death.
Anna Olswanger’s “Greenhorn” (New South, ages 9-11) is narrated by stuttering, Aaron who’s studying in a 1946 New York City yeshiva when Daniel, a non-speaking Holocaust survivor, enters with a small, mysterious box. They bond as both are bullied and Aaron shows compassion to the “greenhorn.” This small book grows large with meaning when Daniel admits he carries a lump of soap made in a concentration camp that he hopes contains a bit of his murdered parents. The book’s intensity requires conversation.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s “P.S. Be Eleven” (HarperCollins, ages 9-12) is the sequel to her Newbery Honor-winning “One Crazy Summer.” Delphine and her two sisters, newly returned from a summer with the Black Panthers in Oakland, face more changes. Delphine tries to age gracefully despite her father’s remarriage and the sadness of her Vietnam veteran uncle’s addiction to drugs. Garcia-Williams’ period icons are well-chosen. Her mix of history, heartache, laughter and learning is superb.
Deborah Ellis’s “Kids of Kabul: Living Bravely Through a Never-Ending War” (Groundwood, ages 11 and up) combines stories of 27 children, ages 10-17. The author gives context to the children’s varying economic and cultural backgrounds as they speak frankly of life in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. Their diverse, poignant voices picture a reality most Americans their ages can’t imagine.
Patricia McCormick’s “Never Fall Down” (Balzer and Bray, ages 12 and up), a 2012 National Book Award finalist, is based on the real life experiences of Cambodian Arn Chorn-Pond, who was 11 when Khmer Rouge came to power. Arn gives an honest picture of the brutal genocide that killed nearly 2 million people. At 11, Arn and his family are marched into the countryside, where they are separated, brutalized, underfed and overworked. His musical gifts allow Arn to become part of a band that plays patriotic tunes to cover the sound of torture and killing that surrounds them. The first-person narrative has a lyricism built of broken language that takes some getting used to, but balances the sensory-strong horrors Arn describes.