Books

A wealth of children's books with lessons to spare

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What a wealth of books we have this month — some books expand our appreciation of history, culture, and our own neighbors; some make us smile. These books do it all.

Let’s start with two books about Native Americans.

“We are Grateful” by written by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frane Lessac (Charlesbridge, 2018; $17.99) gives readers a look at contemporary Cherokee culture through the People’s gratitude for the gifts of each season. “Cherokee people say otsaliheliga to express gratitude. It is a reminder to celebrate our blessings and reflect on struggles — daily, throughout the year, and across the seasons.”

A Cherokee word is used on each page, along with a pronunciation guide, as well as a version of the word in the Cherokee syllabary. We see the Cherokee celebrating their New Year in the fall — “ ... shell shakers dance around the fire, and burnt cedar’s scent drifts upward during the Great New Moon Ceremony/ … as we clean our houses. wear new clothes, enjoy a feast, and forget old quarrels to welcome the Cherokee New Year.”

Winter is for eating soup, learning from older children how to make corn-husk dolls. In spring families gather wild onions and plant strawberries, children learn to sew pucker-toe moccasins and build clay pots. Summer is a time to catch crawdads, celebrate the Green Corn Ceremony, and celebrate tribal history at the Cherokee National Holiday.

This book is a warm look at modern Cherokee people celebrating their traditions — and it reminds us all to be grateful for the gifts of the seasons.

“Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code,” written by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes (Albert Whitman, 2018; $16.99) offers a clearly-written history of one of the Navajo code talkers. Twenty-nine Navajo soldiers were locked in a room to develop a code, based on the Navajo language, that would allow the army to send messages that could not be understood by the enemy. And they did. “By the end of the first day, they had the whole alphabet.” Then they were joined by three other men. They came up with certain Navajo words to stand for some items. “Battleship became lo-tso, which means ‘whale.’ Bombs were a-ye-shi, or ‘eggs.’”

This code was never broken and helped the Allies to win the war. The code talkers could not talk about it until 1968, when it was declassified. An author’s note gives us more information about Chester Nez and parts of the code are included in the back matter. This is a book for anyone interested in codes, Navajo accomplishments, or World War II.

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“Sweety,” written and illustrated by Andrea Zuill (Schwartz & Wade, 2019; $17.99) is a story with a timeless theme — not fitting in. Sweety is a naked mole rat (Zuill tells us “they love clothes” so she is able to draw them dressed) whose grandmother calls her “a square peg.” She dances her book reports, loves to study fungi, and owns a doll who is a warrior princess. But she has Aunt Ruth, who was also a “square peg,” and who says, “ … being different was one of the best things about her life, and that if you stayed true to yourself, you’d find your people.”

Sweety hopes for a secret handshake to help her find her people. She waits, and decides that being Sweety was not so bad after all. I want everyone to read this book. The language is funny and we can all see a little bit of ourselves in Sweety.

Julian, in “Julian is a Mermaid,” would be a friend to Sweety. This book, written and illustrated by Jessica Love (Candlewick, 2018; $16.99) introduces us to Julian, who loves mermaids and his abuela, who loves Julian. Julian sees some ladies on a train dressed as mermaids. When he gets home, while his abuela takes a bath, he puts ferns in his hair and uses curtains to make a long skirt/tail. His abuela comes out of the bath … and sees what Julian has done. What will she do? A page turn reveals that she gives him beads. Together they go to the Mermaid Parade on Coney Island. We all should be so lucky as to have this abuela. A wonderful book that is also about staying true to yourself.

One more Julian story. “In a Mouse Called Julian,” written and illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton (Flying Eye, 2019; $16.95), Julian likes to be by himself. He’s learned to avoid the creatures above ground “who tried to eat him” and the animals below ground who “got in his way.” But one night a fox crept up to Julian’s house and “smashed right through Julian’s front window.” Though the fox showed his teeth and looked fierce and filled with bad intentions, he could not quite reach Julian. But he was stuck. He asks for Julian’s help. “‘Help you?’ Julian yelped. ‘You just tried to eat me!’” Still, “Julian did not want a fox in his house” so he tries. None of his efforts work and the fox was still around at dinner time. So Julian shares and they talk and eat together. Eventually Julian figures out how to get the fox unstuck. And life goes back to routine, until … Julian seems destined to be supper for a barn owl. Before the barn owl can open his beak the fox crept up and “gobbled Julian right up!” But no. Once the barn owl leaves the fox opens his mouth and says, “Wow we ware weven.” “Now we are even.” They both go back to their own ways, but get together for supper every now and then. So satisfying.

Gratitude, heroism, love, joy, and friendship — these books celebrate blooming, buzzing life. Happy reading. Happy springtime.

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Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.