Books

A lesson in empathy, other best books for children and young adults this month

Small in the City
Small in the City
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“Small in the City”

A small figure in a winter cap and yellow polka-dot boots emerges from a city bus - a child who is solitary and determined. “I know what it’s like to be small in the city,” our narrator observes. “People don’t see you and loud sounds can scare you.” But, the narrator continues, “I can give you some advice,” and points out places to avoid, a tree to climb, a place to get warm, a source of food, someone kind. In “Small in the City” (Holiday House, ages 3-8), author and illustrator Sydney Smith takes visual moments, fleeting glimpses, and fixes them to paper in a way that is extraordinary and beautiful. His adept uses of line and light and color deliver a quietly cinematic look at city streets: the red of traffic lights and brake lights blurred through condensation on bus windows, reflections in glass, shadows along sidewalks and alleys, snow beginning to fall, gather, and stick. Layers of empathy are revealed as the pages turn. This is a story about what it’s like to worry: Where will my loved one find food and shelter? And it’s also about going out into the world to see what’s possible, staying hopeful, posting a notice so that others might help the lost friend come home: “I know you. You will be all right.” “Small in the City” is full of faith and compassion, and gorgeous to look at, as well.

“Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys” and ‘”he Magnificent Migration”

Featuring concise text and expansive illustrations, “Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys” (Bloomsbury, ages 5 to 8) presents an impressive assortment of animals making their way through the world. Whether by land, sea or air, these creatures travel many miles to preserve themselves and their species. Author Mike Unwin engagingly conveys key facts about 20 species, and illustrator Jenni Desmond depicts them from intriguing angles. Some, like the osprey and the great white shark, travel solo; others move in packs. Christmas Island red crabs, for instance, travel a relatively small distance but create a bright spectacle as they emerge from the forest, cross major roads, and head to the sea. “The Magnificent Migration” (HMH, ages 10 and up), written for older children by the peerless wildlife writer Sy Montgomery, focuses on Africa’s wildebeest herds and the animals (including many thousands of gazelles and zebras) accompanying them on their year-round, 800-mile circuit through the Serengeti. Montgomery travels with Richard Estes, the world’s foremost authority on these super-social bearded antelopes, and explains how wildebeests lead such a large, eventful procession. Citing the destruction of Great Plains wildlife in 19th-century America, Montgomery also makes clear how important it is that 21st-century people work to protect, rather than diminish, the Serengeti.

“The Downstairs Girl”

Jo Kuan, a 17-year-old Chinese American girl in post-Reconstruction Atlanta, has learned to deal with racism and sexism by keeping her sharply observed opinions to herself. In “The Downstairs Girl” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ages 12 and up), Stacey Lee vividly portrays the precariousness of Jo’s existence: Her home is an underground hideaway she shares with Old Gin, the kind man who raised her. Old Gin is one of the poorly treated Chinese bachelors “shipped in ... to help rebuild the South” after the Civil War. The two work for a wealthy white family that includes a malicious daughter and a flirtatious son - both of whom tax Jo in different ways. When she adds another job - as an anonymous contributor to a struggling newspaper - Jo hopes both to express her views and protect her identity. As the witty advice columnist Miss Sweetie, she is soon offering insights on matters ranging from manners to suffragists and prejudice - and shaking up the status quo. Those angered begin to probe for the person behind the pseudonym. Jo isn’t the only one trying to hold on to a secret, though, and her discovery of the hidden lives of those around her adds even greater depth to this vividly rendered, intriguingly plotted historical novel. Jo’s example of resistance and hope is sure to resonate with today’s readers.

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