Wednesday, May 16, 2001

Multicultural tales

MadlenkaFirst published in The News Tribune, May 16, 2001

Long gone are the days when all the characters in children's books were white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Visit the children's section in a bookstore and look at the book jackets. You'll see a multicultural melting pot.
Here is a sampling of recent books that help bring different cultures alive.
By Peter Sis
Farrar Straus Giroux, 44 pages
$17, ages 4 to 8

The plot is deceptively simple. A little girl who lives in New York City discovers a loose tooth. She's excited and runs to tell the people in her neighborhood the news. First she runs to Mr. Gaston, the French baker; then Mr. Singh, from India, who sells newspapers; Mr. Ciao, from Italy, who has an ice cream truck. By the time she finishes, she has spread the news to people from 10 countries.
Still sounds simple. But Sis has a way of complicating things with his amazing artwork. The Escher-like perspective he uses to illustrate is fascinating. So is the way he mixes black and white and color.

By Jeanette Winter
Farrar Straus Giroux, 32 pages
$16, ages 3 to 6

A nearly perfect book, this is the story of folk artist Nakunte Diarra, her inspiration, her life in Mali in northwest Africa and the birth of her baby.
Nakunte's mama teaches her to make bogolan, a pure white cloth painted with sticks using the blackest mud, mixed with a special leaf. As the child becomes more skilled, she paints larger pieces and sells them.
Nakunte marries, wearing a bogolan her mother has made. She learns that she will give birth to a baby and begins to paint a bogolan for it. On one page Nakunte hears drums, and stylized drum shapes appear on the cloth. A leopard slinks by. Nakune paints her own version of spots. A scorpion's tail, fish bones, iguana's tongue, calabash flower, turtle dove footprints and stars all appear on the cloth.

By Yin
Illustrated by Chris Soentpiet
Philomel, 40 pages
$7.99 paperback, ages 4 to 8

Two brothers from China, Shek and Little Wong, step off a crowded boat into what Shek calls "the land of opportunity": the United States in 1865. Along with hundreds of other Chinese immigrants, they have jobs helping to build a railroad.
Building a railroad was difficult and dangerous work, especially for the Chinese laborers. They labored over deserts, across steep cliffs and over the imposing Sierra Nevada mountain range. Shek is buried in an avalanche and almost dies.
In spite of all the hardships, the brothers were proud of the money they were able to send to family members in China, and also of the monumental project they helped to complete. They weren't recognized by the people in power, but they knew that they had had a big part in an important creation.

By Janet S. Wong
Harcourt Brace, 32 pages
$16, ages 4 to 8

A girl 5 or 6 years old travels with her mother from the United States to the mother's childhood home in Korea. Before they leave on the long plane trip, they buy gifts for everyone: leather work gloves for grandfather (haraboji), a ruffled apron for grandmother (halmoni) and a simple children's book so aunt (imo) can learn to speak English.
In Korea, the child and mother blend seamlessly into the daily routine, helping feed the pigs, traveling to the market, making kim chi. Warm illustrations and descriptive text impart a good amount of information about life in a Korean village, and also about love and family connection. Wong is a Puget Sound resident.

By Robert Sabuda
Atheneum, 32 pages
$16, ages 4 to 8

In the cold, dark Arctic the "People Who Fear the Winter Night" stay close to fires, fearful of the monstrous Blizzard. Among them is Teune, a skilled maker of robes. One night, sparks from Teune's fire ignite Blizzard's robe. The People rejoice, but Teune is upset. In a dream, Blizzard promises a great gift if she will help. Next morning she finds rolls of cloth made of ice. She creates a gorgeous new robe for Blizzard, which becomes the Northern Lights - the gift.
Sabuda's colorful illustrations for this original folk tale are fittingly made of batik. Sabuda makes incredibly engineered pop-up books, the most recent of which is a tribute to "The Wizard of Oz" (the tornado is a must-see).

By Rosemary Wells
Dial, 40 pages
$15.99, ages 4 to 8

Adapted from "The Promised Land," by Mary Antin, this is a touching fictionalized biography of a young Russian Jew who came to the United States in 1894.
Masha's family fled Russia when Jews were considered inferior and were tyrannized by unfair laws. Masha's father went to America and sent for the rest of the family.
The family was poor and had to work very hard. But Mary was allowed to attend school and eventually wrote a poem about freedom. The book ends with Masha, speaking to the sunrise, "I'm on my way ... here in America."

-Rebecca Young

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