Category Archives: …Absolute Favorites

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loïc Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano, color by Greg Salsedo, translated by Alexis Siegel

HiddenPreorder this title now and you can stop reading here … you won’t, you can’t, you will not be disappointed.

Oh, fine. If you’re still with me, let me tell you about Elsa, a little girl who just can’t seem to fall asleep. She tiptoes out of her room and finds her grandmother wide awake. Noticing her sadness, Elsa reassures her grandmother, “You know, when I have a nightmare, I tell Mommy about it and that makes me feel better. You want to tell me?” Hesitant at first, her grandmother begins, “It was a long time ago. Grandma was still a little girl …”

Dounia Cohen, long before she was Elsa’s grandmother, “didn’t care who had won or lost” the war: In spite of France’s defeat by Germany in 1940, “My daddy had come home alive, and that was all the victory I needed.” Returning home unusually early one day, he suggests,”Some people suggested that we become a family of sheriffs.” Her mother sews the required yellow star onto Dounia’s coat: “Being a sheriff … is more of a boy’s job,” Dounia thinks. “But I don’t mind,” as she looks at her proud reflection in the mirror.

By the next morning, that Star of David has marked young Dounia not with privilege, but made her a target of abuse. “What had I done,” she asks in bewilderment. As a young Jewish child in occupied Paris, Dounia is shunned, isolated, hated without reason. When her parents are violently taken away from their own home, she is sheltered by Mrs. Péricard, the downstairs neighbor. Fearful of the returning police, Mr. Péricard devises a plan to help Dounia escape to safety; in the process, he gravely risks his own safety.

Dounia becomes Simone Pierret, a Catholic child who arrives on Germain’s farm with her “Mama” – Mrs. Péricard who has also given up her Paris life to care for the young girl. The war continues, but Dounia’s new identity – and the unlimited kindness of strangers – keeps her safe until reunion, at least in part, becomes possible …

Like Lola Rein‘s The Hidden Girl and Maryann Macdonald‘s more recent Odette’s SecretsHidden represents not only the 84% of Jewish children in France who escaped the Holocaust – the highest rate of survival for children in Europe – but also the 11,400 French children who were murdered during WWII. While Hidden bears witness to tragic history, the ultimate message is one of hope and redemption, that humanity can and will be effectively used against racism and hatred. Narratively and graphically, the French creative team proves spectacularly adept in balancing the nightmare with moments of innocent humor (“pink shoes”), unexpected laughter (“‘Does Grandpa know you were in love with another boy?’”), and joyful discovery (“‘I did it! I did it!’”). While some nightmares never quite fade, here’s hope that triumphant resolve will have longer staying power.

Readers: Middle Grade, Young Adult

Published: 2012, 2014 (United States)

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The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly by Sun-mi Hwang, translated by Chi-Young Kim, illustrated by Nomoco

hen Who Dreamed She Could FlyThis new year couldn’t start off with a better title. At a mere 134 pages, it’s perfect to read in a single sitting, although the story’s loving spirit is sure to linger. It’s also the ideal gift to share with anyone and everyone who holds a place in your heart.

“Sprout was the best name in the world. A sprout grew into a leaf and embraced the wind and the sun before falling and rotting and turning into mulch for bringing fragrant flowers into bloom. Sprout wanted to do something with her life, just like the sprouts on the acacia tree. That was why she’d named herself after them.”

Confined to a tiny space all her life, Sprout simply decides one day she will not lay another egg. She is soon culled from her coop, but survives the “Hole of Death,” even escaping the murderous weasel with the help of her duck friend Straggler, another less-than-accepted animal in the farmyard. In spite of her initial fear and worry, Sprout is newly empowered on her own. Out in the”vast fields” in which she can roam free, “Sprout stood tall and proud, clucking joyfully.” And then her wildest dream comes true when she finds another animal’s still-warm egg, protects and nurtures it, until Baby arrives to make her world wondrous and tragic, joyful and wrenching, and everything in between.

An international bestseller with over two million copies sold around the globe, Hen arrives Stateside more than a decade after its native South Korean publication. The author of over 40 Korean titles, Sun-mi Hwang makes her English debut via Chi-Young Kim, who has quickly become the lauded, in-demand, Korean-to-English translator since her rendition of Kyung-sook Shin’s 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize-winning Please Look After Mom. London-based Japanese designer Nomoco adds just enough haunting whimsy with black-and-while line drawings that introduce each chapter.

In straight-forward, simple sentences, Hwang manages to create a multi-layered tale of the most improbable connections that make up a family – and the surrounding community. Powered by the deepest emotions, strengthened by immeasurable bonds, Sprout proves to be a conduit for every kind of love … for her child, for her friend, and even her fiercest enemy.

As we ready ourselves for the many challenges we’re certain to face in the new year, may Sprout be our beacon for enduring inspiration and unconditional love for us all.

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2000, 2013 (United States)

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The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride

Color of Water McBrideWhat writer and musician James McBride initially thought might take just six months to write required 14 long years to produce his now-almost-20-year-old debut title, The Color of Water. “Mommy” – McBride never calls her anything else – was never a cooperative subject: she shared her memories in her own good time, in between her endless warnings of “‘Mind your own business!’” and “‘Leave me alone. You’re a nosy-body!’”

Born Ruchel Dwajra Zylska in Poland, Mommy’s “parents got rid of that name when we came to America and changed it to Rachel Deborah Shilsky.” Her father was an Orthodox Jewish rabbi who abused his own family, her mother a long-suffering sweet woman partially paralyzed by polio. The five Shilskys – Mommy had an older brother and a U.S.-born younger sister – eventually settled in rural Suffolk, Virginia. At 17, Mommy escaped her miserable home life and found independence in New York City.

She became Ruth McBride when she married her first husband, Andrew McBride, a kind African American man who eventually became a minister and founded – with Mommy’s unwavering support and involvement – the New Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The as-yet unborn James was the 8th child of that union, which ended when Andrew died in 1957. He was not quite a year old when Mommy married the man James always called “Daddy,” Hunter Jordan, Sr., a “quiet, soft-spoken,” nattily-dressed African American furnace fireman for the NYC Housing Authority, with whom she had another four children. When Daddy died of a stroke in 1972, the hapa family was left in desperate poverty and yet Mommy miraculously managed to raise “twelve very creative and talented children.” Indeed, “her children’s achievements are her life’s work.”

Mommy’s story stayed on The New York Times‘ bestseller list for over two years. McBride has since written three novels, the latest of which, The Good Lord Bird, is currently a finalist in fiction for the 2013 National Book Award (the winner gets announced November 20). That his name has recently been popping up with regularity might be what prompted me to pick up Color again, although this time I decided to stick it in my ears.

As superbly written as this now-classic memoir is, the audible version manages to be markedly better. Truly. The unforgettable André Braugher gives elegant, commanding voice to McBride, but even more spectacular is inimitable Lainie Kazan who completely embodies “Mommy” in one of the best book performances I’ve ever heard. Although Mommy passed away at age 88 in 2010, Kazan’s riveting narration ensures she lives on and on and on …

Readers: Adult

Published: 1996

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I dreamt … A book about hope by Gabriela Olmos, translated by Elisa Amado

I dreamt ...Sometimes, it takes a village to create a book this magnificent. Award-winning author and publisher Gabriela Olmos gathered “[s]ome of Mexico’s best illustrators” who donated their art to create this stunning prayer for peace.

“I dreamt of pistols that shoot butterflies … and of drug lords who only sell soap bubbles.” For the past six years in her native Mexico, Olmos explains, “a vicious war against drugs has brought fear and insecurity into every child’s life.” But violence, alas, plagues our children all over the world … from bullying (the third leading cause of death among young people in the U.S.!) to growing gun violence (Chicago just last week!) to war (how many hot spots can you count today?).

Olmos inspires alternatives: “I dreamt that wars are always fought with flowers … and that soldiers prefer shadowboxing to shooting at each other.” Whimsically wishful, yes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the world’s soldiers agreed. In Olmos’ safe new world, robbers would steal nightmares, while jokes would drive kidnappers far away.

With poetry and pictures, Olmos empowers children to choose strength and resilience, to “learn from city trees.” She channels those trees “who fight back and break open the sidewalks … and grow despite everything. And it is they who help us all to breathe” – especially after gasping too often at too many horrific headlines.

Need further motivation to buy now? All royalties go to the International Board on Books for Young People [IBBY] Children in Crisis Fund, “which supports bibliotherapy projects that use books and reading to help children who have lived through wars, civil conflicts and natural disasters to think and talk about their experiences.” Support the youngest survivors and grab a few copies to share … aren’t all our children worth the investment?

Readers: All

Published: 2012, 2013 (United States)

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FArTHER by Grahame Baker-Smith

FArTHERCertain books make me terribly selfish – because once I finish a post, the book gets cleared off my desk and either shelved or shared. British author/artist Grahame Baker-Smith‘s FArTHER – the many meanings in the title alone, achieved with just the lower-casing of that single ‘r’ provokes goosebumps of awe! – has been parked on my desk for months and months … and still I hesitate.

Baker-Smith won the coveted Kate Greenaway Medal, one of Britain’s highest honors for illustration, in 2011, a year after its release. That the voyage over the Pond to reach Stateside shelves took three years is rather surprising, but readers can gratefully bask in the recent safe landing.

So are we ready for the story …?

A father dreams “of air and flight,” so much so that his son must sit in his lap “until he remembered me.” His creations are stupendous, but they never carry him aloft … war, tragically, is eventually what takes him away. His son, now grown, claims his father’s dreams and finally soars. And then the son’s son arrives in the world with new possibilities: “What will he do, I wonder …”

Beyond the words, Baker-Smith’s art is gawwww-inducingly spectacular. Collaging occasional photographs (he thanks a borrowed hound, Rodney Seal, and his cooperative owners for the canine camera time) with various textures and original drawings, Baker-Smith creates a faraway, wondrous world of bittersweet memory and beckoning promise. Each page is a treasure hunt, from avian curtains and tiles, to a calligraphied letter marked with 1768 (because … it’s a leap year?), to the bare outline of a father’s supporting hand, to a toddler’s outstretched touch upon a stilled bird. Each page, too, is a reminder – the beckoning skies, a lofty balcony, even rough seas – to always be open to dreams.

Readers: All

Published: 2010, 2013 (United States)

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Author Interview: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy is one tough writer to get to, although she declares in our first email exchange when I finally track her down, “I am not at all the kind who plays hard to get :-) .” Attempts to contact her included pleas to both her Canadian and U.S. publishers and publicists (multiple times, ahem!), as well as to her Canadian literary agent’s office. Two months had already passed since my feature piece on Kim Thúy had been filed, edited, and readied for publication.

So, I got personal. I sent random emails to friends who happened to be Canadian writers. How hard could six degrees of separation be, right? I asked an Israeli Canadian buddy and an American ex-pat-now-Canadian professor. Nothing. And then I remembered a Nepali Canadian journalist author friend, who quickly replied she didn’t know Kim Thúy personally, but she thought of two friends who might. The connection that finally came through was a missive from Shanghai from a novelist on her way to a Vancouver residency! Talk about searching the ends of the world!

Kim Thúy insisted on a Skype chat: “… my English is weak [it’s so not!]. Live Skype allows me to use my hands to speak to you.” And she requested an 8:33 call on a Thursday morning, warning “a later time will be interrupted by all kinds of daily stuff: phone calls, people at the door, wild cats … and bears in the garden …” I will add that, regardless, her phone(s!) rang as if on cue every few minutes.

Still, we managed a two-hour session of gesticulating and laughing and outright guffawing.

Okay, so you’ll hear me typing while we talk, and I’m also recording our conversation …
Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’ve said so many stupid things during interviews, I don’t worry at all anymore! So you can do anything you want with this!

Then I might as well ask you the most selfish question right up front: when’s the next book coming out?
I’ve written two more since Ru! They are already out in French. My second book is with another author, Pascal Janojvak. We met in Monaco because we were both there for a book prize [the Prix Littéraires Prince Pierre de Monaco]. I had not read his book [L'Invisible] and he had not read mine. Pascal is half-French, his father is Slovak, and his parents met in Switzerland where he was born. But now he is living in Ramallah, in Palestine. And I wondered why a Swiss would be living in Ramallah! He had been there for five years, he had his kids there. And I thought, there must be a love story! He met his Italian wife in Beirut at the Institut Français. They lived in Bangladesh, then worked in Jordan, then got jobs in Ramallah. Their children have many passports! We first met for only one-and-a-half hours, but something just clicked. We exchanged our first email, and the story was right there. So we started writing this book, going back and forth. It’s called À toi.

Since it’s not translated into English yet, can you tell us about it?
When we met, first I talked about French colonization, about the Vietnamese people’s love/hate relationship with the dominant culture. For the Vietnamese, we want the French to leave our country, but then we also wish we had French features. We still wish to be French, even though we despise them, because we wish to be like those who have the power.

Then Pascal came back with a great story about Palestine, about what the kids are playing in the streets. He noticed that when they had a choice, the Palestinian children chose to be an Israeli soldier, because that’s the closest they had to a hero! When they played with planes, they wanted the supersonic models from Israel, not the Palestinian versions. Israeli products are always thought of as better than the Palestinian. That was very interesting to me. I knew so little about Palestine – beyond explosions, smoke, guns. But Pascal told me about how when a pot of soup is made by someone’s mother, she shares it with her friends. I don’t have that sort of image – of mothers, fathers, their children living their daily lives. But of course, they have the same daily lives as everyone else!

Pascal told me about all the stress in Gaza that has led to a big controversy with black market sleeping pills and Viagra. The men can’t sleep. They’re too tense and not relaxed enough for that. When he told me this story, I finally realized how they must always live under such pressure all the time. The body is always reacting, the body has to keep changing and adapting. But by being under stress always, we are just muting ourselves.

I wanted to continue this conversation with him, so we did that through writing the book.

And also, he was very handsome, by the way. And now you know I’m just superficial! I just wanted to talk to him. Anyway, that’s how we started. The book is about the same length as Ru. It’s not yet translated into English but I think soon. [...click here for more]

Author interview: “Q&A with Kim Thúy,” Bloom, September 18, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012 (United States)

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Author Profile: Kim Thúy

RuKim Thúy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader

Ah, well . . . better start with true confessions: my words appear on the back cover of the U.S. edition (at least the first printing) of Vietnamese Canadian author Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru. The blurb is excerpted from my starred review in the August 15, 2012 issue of Library Journal: “This extraordinary first novel unfolds like ethereal poetry . . . [an] intricate, mesmerizing narrative.”

So now, you’re fully aware of my publicly admiring bias for the novel. And clearly, I’m not alone. By the time Ru hit U.S. shelves in November 2012 (translated from the original French), it had already earned numerous, important, global accolades for its first-time author. After multiple lives as a refugee, interpreter, translator, lawyer, and restaurateur, Thúy was 41 when she “bloomed” with the initial publication of Ru in Canada in October 2009.

Success came quickly and broadly, with editions that appeared in 20 countries: nationally, Ru was shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize; internationally, it was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. The original French debut won Canada’s coveted Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in 2010, only to reappear two years later on the shortlist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation when the English-language edition, translated by the award-winning Sheila Fischman, appeared in 2012. “This is an exemplary autobiographical novel. Never is there the slightest hint of narcissism or self‑pity,” read the Governor General’s Literary Award jury citation upon announcing Ru the 2010 winner. “The major events in the fall of Vietnam are painted in delicate strokes, through the daily existence of a woman who has to reinvent herself elsewhere. A tragic journey described in a keen, sensitive and perfectly understated voice.”

That enigmatic single-word title is as multilayered as the slender novel’s elliptical prose: “Ru” means “a small stream and, figuratively, a flow, a discharge – of tears, blood, of money” in French; in Vietnamese, pronounced quite differently but sharing the same spelling, “ru” is a “lullaby, to lull.” “Ru” is “the most beautiful word in our [Vietnamese] language,” Thúy told Vinh Nguyen in an interview for Diacritics, which named Ru the first-ever Vietnamese Canadian novel.

“I came into the world during the Tet Offensive, in the early days of the Year of the Monkey. . . . The purpose of my birth was to replace lives that had been lost,” Ru’s narrator introduces herself.

My name is Nguyễn An Tịnh, my mother’s name is Nguyễn An Tỉnh. My name is simply a variation on hers because a single dot under the i differentiates, distinguishes, disassociates me from her. . . . With these almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed that I was the sequel to her, that I would continue her story.

The History of Vietnam, written with a capital H, thwarted my mother’s plans. History flung the accents on our names into the water when it took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago. It also stripped us our names of their meaning, reducing them to sounds at once strange. . . . In particular, when I was ten years old it ended my role as an extension of my mother.

In just over 140 spare pages, Thúy constructs an intricate mosaic of vignettes that flow through decades, continents, generations, and cultures. The “Reading Group Guide” available at book’s end explains that Ru is “an autobiographical novel based on the author’s real-life experience as a Vietnamese émigré and how she found her way – and her voice – after immigrating to Quebec.”

Written as a series of prose poems that range from a precise few lines to a fleeting few pages, the emerging narrative charts a young girl’s journey from wealthy privilege in Vietnam; her rebirth as a war refugee in Canada; her return to her native country where the locals consider her “too fat to be Vietnamese” – not because of her stature, but because “the American dream had made me more substantial, heavier, weightier”; and eventually her own overwhelming motherhood. [... click here for more]

Author profile: “Kim Thuy’s Ru: An Apple for the Reader,” Bloom, September 16, 2013

Readers: Adult

Published: 2009, 2012 (United States)

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One Gorilla: A Counting Book by Anthony Browne

One GorillaCounting books seem to be a dime a dozen, and some you wouldn’t even pay that much for! How satisfying, then, to discover this priceless One Gorilla.

The concept is simple – it’s a counting book, after all: each bold, sensational double-page spread features a numeral and the corresponding number of various primates, from the titular 1 gorilla to 4 mandrills to 9 colobus monkeys …

But wait … because after the 10 lemurs, creator Anthony Browne inserts his own self-portrait, as he explains, “All primates. / All one family. / All my family …” And when you turn the page once more, he includes “… and yours!” That final spread spectacularly showcases human primates from all over the world, of all skin tones, ages, and even expressions: the shyly smiling woman in chador, the tentative little girl still sporting bed-head, the comical older man with hair so stiff as to resemble a strange helmet, the blonde woman with too much make-up caught with her eyes closed, the wrinkled older woman with thinning hair gazing with deep concern emanating from her aging eyes, and so many more.

You and I could easily step right into the picture; in fact, the partial body at the top right suggests that the human population goes on and on … with all of us welcome and included.

Browne’s One is simply magnificent – all for One, and One for all, indeed!

Readers: Children

Published: 2012, 2013 (United States)

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My Father’s Arms Are a Boat by Stein Erik Lunde, Illustrated by Øyvind Torseter, translated by Kari Dickson

My Father's Arms Are Like a BoatA dear friend lost her mother this week; even if a parent is granted almost a century of life well lived, the surviving child’s loss resonates for always. When a parent dies while the child is still very young, to understand and accept such loss must be an even greater challenge. Stein Erik Lunde’s gentle, caring story, with simple, beckoning art gorgeously created by Øyvind Torseter, provides comfort and understanding without artificial reassurance. Their team effort is a rare gift that belongs on every shelf.

A young boy goes to bed, keeping the door open to his father, “‘[s]o that your dreams can come out to me.’” But the house is “quieter now than it’s ever been,” and sleep eludes the unsettled child. He returns to the living room, and as the father holds him cheek to cheek, the two discuss the trees, birds, and fox outside.

The boy remembers his grandmother “at the old people’s home,” where his father laughed, and listens as his father explains that his mother will “‘never wake up again … not where she is now.’” Still sleepless, they bundle up to watch the night sky, perhaps catch a shooting star: “I wonder if our wish will come true if we wished for the same thing.” Under that vast darkness, the boy knows his “dad’s arms are like a boat,” one in which he will always find protection and warmth.

Artist Torseter uses a uniquely collaged style that combines crisp architectural model-like settings with hand-drawn people, animals, and comforting objects of home inside (a worn stuffed animal, a slightly open book, lined-up dirty dishes), as well as details of activities in motion outside, such as footsteps in the snow, growing piles of firewood in the making, the birds exploring scattered bread. The book’s message is clear: time, change, life continues outside, but home (together with father and grandmother) provides the waiting refuge. Death happens to us all, but the gentleness of this soothing story can help ease the way …

Readers: Children

Published: 2012 (United States)

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The Children Who Loved Books by Peter Carnavas

Children Who Loved BooksCheck out the fabulous cover …. this is exactly what my reading piles have looked like the last few days – a very good thing, by the way! I’ve been oh so very blessed to be part of judging committee for a kiddie book award, and the latest batch of arrivals included some 50 books which must all be read by September 1. Talk about joyful binge-reading all weekend!

Angus and Lucy, the eponymous ‘children’ of this delightful story, utterly, completely, totally, understand that joy. Their parents, too, of course. For a family without a television, a car, or even a house, the one thing they did have was hundreds of books. Overcluttered and overcrowded, the tiny little trailer they call home “could take no more” and the books “had to go.” But then nothing was quite the same with all that space, because with space came more distance – especially among the family. Until, that is, a single book falls out of Lucy’s school bag … and Dad starts reading out loud, and doesn’t stop …

Page after page, Australian author/illustrator Peter Carnavas‘ visuals are invitingly enchanting, a mixture of seemingly effortless lines infused with cheerful colors; his style is reminiscent of award-winning writer/illustrator Peter H. Reynolds, working with a slightly brighter-hued palette. Likewise offered with whimsy, humor, and charm, Carnavas’ straightforward story has important life lessons to share: Take a break from our over-wired, over-committed lives of constant accumulation, reconnect with those who matter most (who probably happen to be under the same roof with you, ahem), and enjoy together the unlimited adventures offered in books. Carnavas’ latest title shows us that perfect, simple truth: “Angus and Lucy didn’t have very much, but they had all they would ever need.”

Readers: Children

Published: 2013 (United States)

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