Book Reviews: Five Books About Resistance

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Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez
Written by Kathleen Krull • Illustrated by Yuyi Morales

Cesar Chavez grew up on his family’s ranch in Arizona. He was shy and often teased at school. When he was ten, a terrible drought choked the life out of Arizona’s crops and his family was forced give up their home and move to California as migrant farm workers. This is the remarkable story of Cesar Chavez’s fight for the rights and lives of migrant farm workers. It is the story of one of the great civil rights leaders of our nation.

Reasons I love it:

  1. Incredible historical details are packed into a story told in beautiful, lyrical writing. The story is told in an engaging and moving way that invites readers into the heartfelt emotions and strength of the farm workers’ struggle.
  2. It depicts both the influence of one man with a voice and the power harnessed in a community united in action. It illustrates the power of non-violent protest and the ability people have to fight against those perpetuating injustice.
  3. This story depicts the challenges faced along the movement’s way; it doesn’t paint an overly simplified, rosy illustration of protest. From early doubts to farm company violence, police barricades, blistered feet and unsheltered nights, it shows the struggle – and the courage – that defined the movement.
  4. Yuyi Morales’ illustrations are beautiful (can you tell I’m a huge fan?). She traveled the route of his 1965 march and visited fields where he lived and worked as research for this book. The bold and vivid imagery convey the beauty, sacrifice and strength of Chavez’ life.

One Wish: Though a biography of Cesar Chavez, it would have been powerful to include, even briefly, mention of Dolores Huerta (see below) and Larry Itliong, the leader of Filipino farmworkers who were the first to walk out of the vineyards and who eventually joined forces with Chavez to form the United Farmworkers. They are lesser known – and even forgotten forces behind the farmworkers’ struggle.


Side By Side/ Lado a Lado: The Story of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez/ La Historia de Dolores Huerta y César Chávez
Written by Monica Brown • Illustrated by Jose Cepeda

Thousands of farmworkers slaved each day to harvest the food that would feed people all over the country. But, when they returned home at night, they could barely feed their own families. When Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez met and joined forces, they motivated workers to unite and fight for their rights. Together, they changed history and inspired millions.

Reasons I love it:

  1. This book is bilingual! The entire story is written in both Spanish and English. It is an empowering way for young people to read their own stories, or to learn the stories and language of others.
  2. It depicts the lives of Dolores and Cesar in parallel on separate pages, until they meet and their stories unite. By putting Dolores’ story on the left-hand pages, and by including her name first in the title, the author makes it clear that Dolores Huerta was an integral figure in this civil rights movement. This addresses the imbalance with which she is portrayed (or not!) in our history lessons.
  3. It shows the power of a united partnership and a non-violent protest for human rights. It is an reminder of our ability to fight for change.
  4. The artwork is bold and colorful. It has a slight cartoon-ish flavor blended with deep soulfulness. It contrasts Huerta and Chavez’ personalities well.
  5. The afterword – in both languages – provides more detailed information about the farm workers’ movement and the lives of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez.

One Wish: This book feels like it oversimplifies the struggle by focusing predominantly on the victories. I don’t think we need to sugarcoat history for children; they can learn from the struggles of the past. Especially if they will grow up fighting the battles of their time.


Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation
Written by illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh

Ten years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents fought to end school segregation in California. An educated American-citizen, Mendez and her siblings were denied enrollment in a “Whites only” school, while her paler-skinned cousins were allowed to attend. Her family’s court battles for their educational rights paved the way to end school segregation nationwide.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It brings the little known story of the Mendez family to light in a powerful narrated and illustrated format. It broadens the narrative beyond Black-White segregation; Native peoples, Asian-Americans, Latinxs and more were also subject to dehumanizing segregation in our nation’s history. Their battles paved the way for the ones we’ve heard of (though, we don’t learn enough about any of them!).
  2. It demonstrates the our ability to fight for rights through the court system. Though this process of change is slow, it represents a shift in public opinion. It also underscores the importance of equity-minded justices at all levels of the judicial system.
  3. Tonatiuh includes many details from his extensive research throughout the story; his research is detailed in the back.
  4. The author’s note at the back details not only the Mendez family’s impact on history, but also the relevance of this story today when our schools remain inexcusably segregated an unequal. How much have we really succeeded in desegregating schools and providing an equal education for all? We have more work to do.
  5. Tonatiuh’s illustrations are heavily influenced by Mexican styles. His art is an attempt to keep ancient art alive. This signature style blended with modern digital techniques add a timeless quality to the story (see point 4!)

One Wish: The story includes a list of organizations like United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League and the American Jewish Congress that eventually supported the Mendez family’s battle. It would have been nice to gain a better historical understanding of the reasons these groups supported the cause. Even a simple nod to the fact that they were all fighting similar battles of their own would have helped expand our understanding more.


We March
Written by illustrated by Shane W. Evans

On August 28, 1963 over 250,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to join the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It began at the Washington Monument and ended at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his historic, “I Have a Dream” speech. Told in strikingly simple yet powerful language, this book conveys the experience of that day in words even the youngest children will understand.

Reasons I love it:

  1. In just 61 words, this expressive book conveys deep emotions and a growing a sense of strength, unity and hope. It reads like poetry. It is a simple, yet powerful introduction to this historic event.
  2. Without explicitly talking about protest, this book demonstrates the power of standing up together against injustice and for freedom. It is a perfect way to teach this concept to young kids.
  3. The images speak as much or more than the poetic words of this book. They show emotion, values and history on every page.
  4. I love that this book is about a family marching together. It shows the power of parental influence in raising conscious kids. It shows the power of unity in a family. And, as more and more people gather, the familial feeling of love and unity seem only to expand with the group.
  5. Loved Shane Evans’ notes at the end describing the power of organized movements. His words feel particularly relevant today, “It takes people of all ages and cultural backgrounds to move a nation into a new era of freedom. In a sense, these marches pushed old ideas out of the way and moved new ideas forward. History shows that where there is change, there will often be resistance to change. However, these events demonstrate that through action and determination people have the power to overcome that resistance.”

One Wish: None. I’m going out to purchase this book for our home library as soon as I can!


¡Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A.
Written by Diana Cohn • Illustrated by Francisco Delgado

A bilingual historical fiction about the successful janitor’s strike in Los Angeles in 2000. Every night, Carlitos’ mom cleans skyscrapers in LA. She comes home to wave him off to school each morning before climbing into bed. One night, she tells Carlitos that her income isn’t enough to support their family so she is going on strike with the other janitors. How can Carlos support his mother as she fights for their rights?

Reasons I love it:

  1. Carlitos’ mama includes him in critical conversations that teach him about her struggles and injustice. She explains to him her low salary means she can’t spend as much time with him or cover medical costs for his abuelita. She explains that she is not paid enough for the work she does. She asks for his support and includes him in the struggle. She teaches him to act against injustice through her own life and actions.
  2. The story is as much about Carlitos’ organizing power and solidarity as it is about his mother’s. It is about the teacher who supports Carlitos’ ideas and encourages other students to join. It shows that injustice has ripple effects through a community and it shows that a community united in solidarity can win battles against oppression.
  3. The story is about a modern-day struggle against inequity and oppression. Children need to know that oppression and injustice did not end with the civil rights movement. Too many stories and history books tend to teach history this way. The struggle continues and we each have a part to play. This point is further emphasized at the end as Carlitos’ mama continues to show solidarity with workers in other industries fighting for better working conditions.
  4. This story is features Latinx characters in a diverse manner. Instead of portraying all Latinx people in the same way, it makes an effort to show the diversity within Latin-American cultures too.
  5. It’s bilingual! Written in Spanish and English, this book can reach and teach so many!
  6. The notes at the end of the story tell the story of Dolores Sánchez, one of the janitor strike organizers. It is inspiring!

One Wish: The text is a little long for my toddler. I wish I could read this book to him now! I’d recommend this for slightly older children (preschool+) because of the length.

Three Books Featuring Asian Kids

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Juna’s Jar
Written by Jane Bahk • Illustrated by Felicia Hoshino

Juna and her best friend, Hector love to collect things to put in Juna’s empty kimchi jar. When Hector moves unexpectedly and is unable to say goodbye, Juna’s big brother tries to lift her spirits by filling the jar with different gifts. With the help of her special jar, Juna embarks on imaginative adventures as she searches for Hector. Juna realizes that new friends and adventures can be found in the most unexpected places!

Reasons I love it:

  1. The story weaves elements of fantasy into a real and relatable story about losing a best friend. Juna’s imaginative adventures give a magical feeling to a story about overcoming loss and finding friendship.
  2. Though the story provides authentic hints at Juna’s race and ethnicity – kimchi jars, names, Korean familial terms – the story is not about race or ethnicity; it centers on relationships and universal emotions and experiences. It is extremely challenging to find books featuring Asian children that aren’t culture-specific; though the intention may be to educate, one consequence is that it others Asian children. I love that this book ties in culture but focuses on universal childhood experiences.
  3. The watercolor illustrations add a dreamy, whimsical feeling to this imaginative story. I particularly appreciate that Juna’s eyes are drawn as real eyes and not slits (like too many other Asian characters! See my mini-rant in my review for One Family); she is adorable.
  4. Hector is from a Spanish-speaking family. Kudos for interracial friendships!

One Wish: I get the sense that the story contains layers of symbolism that I haven’t unpacked yet. I wish someone would tell me what it means when each item in the jar grows so quickly overnight!

Maxwell’s Mountain
Written by Shari Becker • Illustrated by Nicole Wong

When Maxwell spies the big mountain behind the park, he is determined to climb it. He must prove to his parents that he is prepared and he sets out to become a true outdoorsman. When he’s ready, he sets out to climb the mountain with his gear and trusty sidekick, a toy soldier named Harry, at his side. But, how will Maxwell get to the top when he loses his way on the hill?

Reasons I love it:

  1. Maxwell is a biracial boy who loves the outdoors and goes looking for big challenges. He sets goals and trains hard to become an expert outdoorsman: he reads books, works out, draws maps, packs gear and brings friends. He is overcomes his challenges with perseverance and determination.
  2. I got hooked on the first page with the sentences: “He looked to the left and saw a swing set – typical. To the right he saw a sandbox – predictable. Directly ahead, a seesaw – common.” Maxwell is always looking for adventure.
  3. Fine-lined, softly watercolored illustrations add inviting layers of detail with sweeping vistas. They make readers feel as if we are on the adventure with Maxwell.

One Wish: The voice on the first page that hooked me seemed to shift so something a little more generic and teachy through the rest of the story. Would have loved to see that initial lively voice with a little snark throughout the whole book.

 

The Ugly Vegetables
Written and illustrated by Grace Lin

In the spring, a young Chinese girl helps her mom start a garden and realizes their neighbors are planting gardens too. As their plants grow, she realizes that different sized shovels and signs with funny pictures aren’t the only things that make her mom’s garden different. While the neighbors grow gardens filled with beautiful flowers, her mother’s garden is filled with ugly Chinese vegetables. But, when it’s time to harvest and cook the vegetables, beautiful changes transform the neighborhood…and the little girl.

Reasons I love it:

  1. It speaks to my heart as someone who grew up self-conscious about my different-looking, different-smelling food. For some, this book may be a way to introduce and appreciate differences. For me, this book is an affirmation of my food and culture. The arc of embarrassment to appreciation to pride is a familiar one.
  2. The trusting relationship between the mother and daughter is heartwarming. The mother is unafraid to be different, yet allows her daughter the space to learn on her own.
  3. Sharing cultures, bonding communities, accepting differences are just some ideas shared in the story. It is a great book to use in classrooms to introduce these universal themes, or to discuss plants and gardening!
  4. There is a recipe for ugly vegetable soup included at the end!

One Wish: The ending in which (spoiler alert!) every family in the neighborhood loves the soup and ends up planting ugly vegetable gardens of their own is lovely, though not super realistic. In my experience, many people are afraid to try new, different-looking foods, no matter how delicious it smells. Nevertheless, I wish the world really worked the way the story does!

Let me know what you think if you pick up one of these books! Happy reading!

Two Rhyming Mighty Girl Books

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Ada Twist, Scientist
Written by Andrea Beaty • Illustrated by David Roberts

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Ada Twist, a young girl with insatiable curiosity, embarks on fact-finding missions and conducts elaborate scientific experiments to find answers to the questions that fill her head. When her experiments to discover the source of a mysterious stink go too far, her exasperated parents banish her to the Thinking Chair. Will Ada’s budding science career be cut off just as it begins?

Reasons I love it:

  1. Ada Marie Twist (named after Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie) is a young Black girl with a gift for science. She asks questions that lead to more questions and she is determined to find answers. She is unafraid of failure, passionate and persistent. Her curiosity and daring experimentation are infectious to her classmates, family and audience!
  2. Ada’s family contradict some negative stereotypes about Black families. Her parents and older brother support her growth, participate in her experiments, and nurture her passion.
  3. It is the perfect starting point for learning about the scientific method and scientific inquiry. This book could be used from elementary school up to high school to hook students into science. It is a celebration of STEAM.
  4. Upbeat rhyming text. The rhythms make for a fun read aloud.
  5. Beautiful, detailed illustrations. I particularly love the mother’s fashion. I’d wear those dresses if I could!

One Wish: I wish more books about children of color were written by authors of color. This is more of a comment on the industry and not one specifically targeted at Ada Twist, Scientist.

Interstellar Cinderella
Written by Deborah Underwood • Illustrated by Meg Hunt

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In a girl-power retelling of a well-known fairy tale, our heroine is a mechanic who loves fixing space ships. When Cinderella is abandoned at home, Murgatroyd the mouse and Cinderella’s fairy god-robot must get her to the Royal Space Parade. On the way, Cinderella sees the prince’s ship in smoke and she must zipzap with her socket wrench and swoop in for the rescue!

Reasons I love it:

  1. It is a fairy-tale retelling that empowers girls. Cinderella is a problem-solving girl with an aptitude for fixing things. She is more interested in pursuing her passion than marrying the prince. The book subtly, but clearly, shows readers that girls can and should dream past the boundaries outlined for them by tradition.
  2. The prince is a man of color; he is desirable, he has power, and he is kind. It is rare to find “good” characters of color in fairy-tales, if at all. I appreciate the interracial friendship illustrated in the story.img_7434
  3. The illustrations are eye-catching and colorful. The style is unique and bold with details to discover with every read.
  4. Fun rhymes that introduce creative vocabulary make this another fun read aloud.

One Wish: A few leaps in the story feel like we skip forward and miss connecting details. While the illustrations fill in some gaps, there are a couple places where the reader must fill in the holes themselves.

Happy reading!

The Power of Diverse Stories

You are driving down a winding road. You need to get somewhere and your time is precious. There is a car going 10 mph ahead of you. You cannot pass because the road is too curvy. You are stuck for miles. No matter what you try to do – flash your lights, tailgate, wave your arms, roll your eyes, yell out the window – the driver of this car will not speed up.

What do you think and how do you feel?

Now imagine you are in the same situation, but this time you know the driver of the nemesis car is an 85-year-old man named Edward. The only family he has left is his sick cat. Edward loves his cat. Overnight, the cat got so sick that Edward braved the roads to get it medical help right away. Edward knows the cat gets car sick – barf, poop, miserable meowing, the works – on winding roads, so he drives extra carefully to keep the cat comfortable on the way to the vet.

Now, what do you think and how do you feel?

Author Deborah Underwood shared this anecdote at this year’s SCBWI Golden Gate Conference to illustrate the power of story. Stories, she said, build empathy and understanding. When we feel connected to one individual, we can feel for all.

When we read stories, we develop relationships with characters. We know them, they become our friends, and in many cases, we grow to love them. Growing up, I loved Matilda (and every other Roald Dahl protagonist), Anne Shirley, Max, Black Beauty, Ramona, Shirley Temple Wong, the tree in The Giving Tree, the Hardy boys and Encyclopedia Brown. As I got older, I loved Jing-Mei Woo, Celie, Hagrid, Gandolf, Edmond Dantes, Lisbeth Salander and Ender Wiggin, just to name a few.

These relationships begin early. Carter sees the characters in his books as friends. He asks for Sophia, from One Word from Sophia multiple times a day. He loves the characters Stick and Stone, from Stick and Stone; he feels what they feel, kisses or pets them when they are sad and lights up when they smile. He does not discriminate in his empathy – he loves all characters be they human, animal or inanimate object. He misses these friends if we don’t see them for a few days. This began when Carter was a little more than one-year-old.

Stories teach us about each other and about the world. They teach us how to act (currently reading him a lot of potty books and sharing stories!), how to see and treat others. They are mirror and map. They give us perspective.

Except when they only give us one perspective.

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Given the statistics in children’s books alone, it is no wonder that White becomes our reference point for normal. This too, begins in infancy. The consequences are far more insidious than people of color feeling othered, lost or insecure, though those effects run deep and have lifetime ramifications. I wrote about some of these effects in an older post, found here.

This normalization of Whiteness is compounded by the near complete focus on a Euro-centric (re)telling of history in schools. The media and Hollywood exacerbate it further. White people – particularly white men – get to spread a wide variety of narratives and stories about themselves. People of color see their stories either written or approved by those in power. Or, they don’t see their stories or histories at all. With an inexcusable dearth of stories about people of color, our common narratives become stereotypical caricatures of reality. They would be comical if they didn’t shape the way we viewed others and made decisions for the rest of our lives. They would be laughable if they were not so dangerous.

Without diverse stories, it is little wonder that people find it so easy to write off Syrian refugees in desperate need of help. It is little wonder that people can believe immigrants are rapists and murders, coming to take jobs and ruin our society. It is little wonder White flight occurs in all communities of color for different, discriminatory, fear-based reasons. It is little wonder too few women hold positions of leadership or pursue careers in science, math or technology.

It is little wonder that people find it easier to believe the police account of Terence Crutcher’s unprovoked murder, despite video evidence that his hands were in the air and his car window closed. It is little wonder that an armed, suicidal white man who threatened police officers in San Francisco was given the benefit of a 6 hour negotiation, when an unarmed Black man also suffering from a mental breakdown was shot and killed. It is no wonder that a Black man reading in his car, sitting on his own front porch, or lying on the ground with his hands in the air (while helping an autistic patient, no less) can be assaulted, shot or murdered with impunity. It is little wonder that the public finds ways to justify these killings when a person’s demeanor or prior criminal record should never result in an unjustified death. The examples go on and on.

Sometimes the world is so wrong, so immoral, so unjust that we find it impossible to accept the reality before us. So we default to the stories we know. The narratives we have been told. Even when they are wrong.

This is one reason diverse stories are important. It is not because they are trendy. It is because they are necessary. We need them to shape society today and for generations to come. They teach us to see a reality beyond stereotypes. They make it difficult to define any one group by a single false narrative. They help us move beyond our implicit biases. They allow us to see the diversity within diversity. They build empathy and remind us of our common humanity. They create change.

The photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who drowned while fleeing Syria, echoed around the world. His family’s tragic story gave faces to the refugee crisis and galvanized the world – for a short time – to push for more aid and support. Nine-year-old Zianna Oliphant’s heartbreaking testimony against police shootings in Charlotte went viral and is changing the common “thug” narrative about communities who protest injustice.

When we know each others’ stories, we have greater capacity for compassion, empathy and understanding. Stories help us past the false narratives segmenting our society. Diverse stories are necessary not just for “diverse people” but for all people. We all need mirrors for ourselves and maps to others. These stories build bridges and diminish fear.

My dream is that one day, we won’t need to use the label “diverse books” because books will simply reflect the stories and realities of all children. They will just be books. “Diverse books” still implies that white is normal and the rest of us are niche. As if we could all fit on one multicultural shelf or be represented authentically by rarely recognized cultural or religious holidays. Right now “diverse books” means everyone who isn’t White, male, straight and able-bodied. So…the majority of the world.

My hope is that one day, I won’t need to work so dang hard to fill Carter’s bookshelves with stories that reflect the world. I only have a tiny window in which I can control most of the inputs in his life; I refuse to give him a dangerously myopic understanding of the world and its people.

It may take some time before I have the opportunity to see my own stories in print, but I feel the responsibility and need to do something to support diverse books now. My new goal – in addition to my other writing goals and blog posts – is to begin writing book reviews about diverse books once a week (eep!). Hopefully, by increasing awareness about the diverse stories available, I can help them reach a wider audience.

I hope that people will purchase the books that speak to them. We can support the authors and illustrators of diverse books and show the industry there is a strong and increasing demand for diversity in children’s literature. Even better, I hope people consider purchasing books from their local bookstores. It’s more expensive than Amazon, but they do so much to support writers, artists, literacy and culture!

We need more diverse books. We need more diverse stories. We need to know and understand the complex and beautiful realities of our brothers and sisters around the world. Deborah Underwood said, “One story can change the world.”

Let’s write, buy, borrow, share and pass on the stories that will change the world.

 

Three Picture Book Favorites

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These three books are our current household favorites. Carter asks for these books every night, knows the characters by name and can quote several pages of text. It’s another reminder to me that stories and books shape lives.

One Word from Sophia
Written by Jim Averbeck • Illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail

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Sophia’s One True Desire is to get a pet giraffe for her birthday, but she must convince her family that this is a good idea. She prepares presentations, proposals and pie charts but discovers that her arguments are too verbose. She must figure out a way to persuade her family that a giraffe is a good idea before her birthday arrives!

Reasons I love it:

  1. Sophia is persistent and precocious. She makes some bomb presentations that include arguments like, “A giraffe could take me to ballet class and deliver me right to the second floor” and “Giraffes are a good source of manure, which can be sold at a profit to garden centers and activists. In short, people will pay me for poop.” I think Carter is in love with Sophia.IMG_5577
  2. Sophia is part of an interracial family that challenges stereotypes. Her mother is a judge, her father is a businessman and Uncle Conrad is a politician. Sophia, a young girl of color, is both sophisticatedly clever and charmingly sweet. I love that this book presents a different narrative on race and gender without making it the explicit focus of the story.
  3. Vocabulary vocabulary vocabulary! Jim Averbeck uses words and syntax that might be considered too advanced for young children, but cleverly creates context for them to puzzle out meanings on their own. The English teacher in me loves this!
  4. There is a simple message that everyone – children, parents, teachers – will love. Read it to find out more!

Stick and Stone
Written by Beth Ferry • Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

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Stick and Stone are lonely. When Stick rescues Stone from a bully, they become good friends and adventure together happily. One day, Stick is blown away in a storm and it is up to Stone to save him!

Reasons I love it:

  1. This entire story is told in less than 150 words. That’s right, Beth Ferry tells a story with a beginning, middle, climax, resolution, and several universal themes in less than 150 words. Oh, and it rhymes. It also includes humorous word play and sound effects that add a deeper layer of meaning and makes the story fun to read aloud. In, you got it, less than 150 words. Mind blown.
  2. The illustrations are so dang cute. They add layers of dimension and bring the characters into all their charming, loveable life. I was first drawn to this book because of the adorable pictures. Look:IMG_5575
  3. The underlying theme of friendship is told with sweetness and ingenuity. It is neither preachy nor sickly gag-worthy. It makes you laugh and awww in perfect balance. I know I love a book when I don’t mind reading it ten thousand times a day with Carter!

 

This is Not My Hat
Written and Illustrated by Jon Klassen

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Little fish steals hat from big fish. Little fish is confident that he will get away before the big fish figures things out. But, big fish wakes up and wants his hat back!

Reasons I Love it:

  1. This book is hilarious and unlike any other picture book I’ve read. The little fish breaks the fourth wall, telling readers about his adventures. This sets the stage for dramatic irony and deadpan humor that hooks adults and kids alike.
  2. Visual humor in beautiful illustrations. The story is told in the pictures. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 2013. Take a look:IMG_5574
  3. Mysterious ending. We learn that stealing is wrong, but what happens to the small fish? This is up for debate. Could potentially be upsetting to younger children depending on how one decides to spin it!
  4. Did I mention I think this book is brilliant and darkly hilarious?

Happy reading!