Monday, December 2, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books---The Best of this Year's Picture Books

    When I picked out my three favorite picture books of 2013, I did not have a theme in mind. I just wanted to share three books that I felt were outstanding.  Only after re-reading them, did I realize they all had something in common.

     They are all based on stories from the author's family history.  No wonder I liked them! Almost everything I have written is based on my own family stories.  You know what they say, write what you like to read.

    I like stories based on real stories of real families.

   The authors of these three will probably be familiar to most of you.  I will leave the honor of "discovering" for you an exciting debut author for a fellow blogger. Again, I did not mean to pick well-known authors. It just happened.

      Patricia Polacco's The Blessing Cup is a companion piece to her classic, The Keeping Quilt. The books stand alone as stories, so it is not necessary to read one to understand the other. Once again, Polacco recounts her ancestors' life in Czarist Russia, from the point-of-view of her Grandmother Anna, as a child.  Life is hard, but the family has one treasure, a beautifully embellished tea set, a wedding gift to the author's great-grandmother.  With this magnificent present comes a blessing: "Anyone who drinks from it has a blessing from God.  They will never know a day of hunger.  Their lives will always have flavor.  They will know love and joy and will never be poor."  When circumstances force the family on a long and arduous journey to America, Anna discovers just how much magic and blessing truly are in the tea set.

    Another multigenerational story, again with an object as the centerpiece, is This Is the Rope by Jacqueline Woodson, with great illustrations by James Ransome.  This book would be a good introduction to the history of The Great Migration from the rural South to the industrial North as thousands of African-Americans searched for a better life. The rope begins as a jump rope for the child narrator's mother as she skips beneath the "sweet-smelling" pines of South Carolina. Soon the rope is used to anchor the family's belongings to the station wagon that takes them North. Each scene begins with the phrase "This is the rope that..." as the rope is used in a variety of ways in the city, through the narrator's mother's childhood, then adult life, until the rope, "threadbare and greying" is exchanged by the narrator  for a new jump rope, leaving her mother holding the old one, and "her long-ago memory of sweet-smelling pine."  Woodson includes an author's note on The Great Migration which took place from the early 20th century to the 1970's.  Sharp-eyed adults will be able to trace the passage of time through the changes in clothing, hairstyles and car models, to tiny details (one two-page spread includes 45 rpm records and a Michael Jackson album scattered on the bed, a poster of Prince on the wall.) For those of us who love our metaphors, Woodson states that the rope symbolizes hope. I have read this deceptively simple book many times...and as an adult reader, have found something new and profound with each reading.

    The last picture book I wish to share is Year of the Jungle: Memories of the Home Front by Suzanne Collins, illustrated in near-cartoon fashion by James Proimos.  Suzanne Collins?  The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins? Yes, the same author who created Katniss Everdeen has written a picture book memoir of the year her father went to Viet Nam.  Told in present tense, first grader Suzy only understands that her father is going away to a jungle.  Her favorite cartoon (George of the Jungle, maybe?) takes place in a jungle, so Suzy is curious and excited when her father sends her postcards.  No one tells her he is fighting a war, so Suzy is initially puzzled, then scared, by adult reaction when she tells them her father is in Viet Nam.  The year goes on and Dad's postcards become infrequent. Most alarmingly, he sends her birthday card in winter. Surely Dad knows that Suzy's birthday is in summer? Suzy's mother tells he must have been "confused."  Suzy wonders just what kind of place this jungle is to confuse her dad so badly. Finally, after many months, Suzy connects the news reports of the Viet Nam war with her dad's "jungle."  The end of this story is exactly as it should be, for one told by a first grader.  I am pretty sure that the Viet Nam War is not on anyone's first grade curriculum.  However, parents serving in other wars in other places is still a reality for many small children.  This would be a wonderfully reassuring book to share with them.

    One of my favorite authors is Kevin Henkes. In one of his books about Lilly the Mouse, there is a refrain throughout the story of "Wow. That's all he(she) could say. Just wow."  That's how I feel about these three books. Wow. That's all I can say. Just wow.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Linda B said...

Mary Ann, I only am familiar with The Blessing Cup, and count all of Patricia Polacco's books treasures. Thank you for telling about this latest book by Jacqueline Woodson and the one by Suzanne Collins. Both sound like ones we should have, personally or in our library at school.

mary ann rodman said...

Linda, I have had the rare luck to meet Patricia Polacco twice, before I had so much as thought of writing picture books. Just hearing her speak encouraged me to take the leap into writing picture books. As a former school librarian myself, I can think of any number of ways to incorporate all three of these books into an elementary curriculum. Thanks for writing. I hope these books find their way into MANY school libraries.

Kenda Turner said...

Thanks for sharing these titles. I'll want to check them out :-)