where home can be found

Home is in Between by Mitali Perkins

Illustrated by Lavanya Naidu

FSG 2021 Picture book, 40pp Includes Glossary

“The space between cultures doesn’t have to be a barrier; for children who grow up there, it can become a threshold of gratitude to celebrate the best of many worlds.”—Author’s Note

interior pages from Home is in Between by Mitali Perkins & Lavanya Naidu

Home is in Between tells the story of a young girl who moves with her family from a village in Bengal to the United States (as had the author when she was seven). Shanti (a name that in Bangla means “peace”) finds herself between two cultures, continuing to grow in her first culture while learning to navigate a second one. The book portrays the joy derived from both worlds, even as it recognizes the challenges. Shanti begins to learn the art of code-switching and Perkins and Naidu illustrate how exhausting it is and becomes so beautifully.

interior pages from Home is in Between by Mitali Perkins & Lavanya Naidu

After Shanti rests (a wonderful and remarkable inclusion), she finds confidence and inspiration in her experiences and brings communities together.

Perkins and Naidu make the two homes easy to follow, the left and right sides, the white space in the middle, the color palette. The panels for those “Back and forth” pages are so well done. The use of color tones to create contrast; and while the oranges and yellows are warming to the left, the blues and purples cooler tones aren’t necessarily unwelcoming—but they do successfully translate difference. Shanti herself is dynamic; bright with movement and expression—her elephant companion is a great partner in this.

interior pages from Home is in Between by Mitali Perkins & Lavanya Naidu

The illustrations are absolutely charming. Please someone animate this book—and don’t change a thing. Perkins and Naidu are quite the collaborative pair: vibrant, accessible, skilled. Home is in Between is a pleasure to read. And I think what it brings to our bookshelves is invaluable.

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Mitali Perkins has written several books for young readers, including Between Us and Abuela, Forward Me Back to You,You Bring the Distant Near (a National Book Award Nominee, a Walter Honor Book, a South Asia Book Award Winner, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year, and a Shelf Awareness 2017 Best Book of the Year), Rickshaw Girl (a NYPL Top 100 Book), and Bamboo People (an ALA Top 10 YA novel). Mitali was born in India and currently resides in Northern California.

Lavanya Naidu is an animator and illustrator from Kolkata. A graduate of the National Institute of Design (Ahmedabad), she has worked with Google, Amazon, Cartoon Network, Godrej and several Indian publishing houses. Her illustration credits include Razia Learns to Swim (Divya Panicker) and Kittu’s Very Mad Day (Harshikaa Udasi).

nourishment

The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken

Dial 2021. Picture book, 56pp

The Tree in Me is a poem in pictures and words that lingers even as it moves, drawing you onward and inward…toward wondrous realizations. Of what? Of an interconnectedness: within, without, between. The progressions are lovely, and complex. I can see this book resonating in different ways for different audiences, but always nourishing, like that pie, like that sun…

The Tree in Me speaks to an aliveness, a hope, a love.

interior image from The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken

Colors are warm, bright, layered; both impressionist and defined. And sometimes dark, like when the roots go deep making the pink leaves and mushrooms vibrant on the page; and when the child is made small by comparison to the height and breadth of a tree.

There are so many lovely moments in Luyken’s images:

  • “The tree in me / is strong. / It bends,” and note the joy that illustration to which it bears witness.
  • The movement of lines that make up the bark of the tree on “It’s a bird-squirrel-worm.”
interior pages from The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken

There is so much pleasure and celebration in this book; its images and imagination worth internalizing.

If you are familiar with me at all, you’ll know that I will always tell you Luyken’s work is a must; The Tree in Me is no exception—if anything, she creates a renewed urgency. Child or Grown, do yourself a favor and find a moment or ten to linger over this one and soak it all in—and share it.

interior pages from The Tree in Me by Corinna Luyken

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Corinna Luyken makes art in the Pacific Northwest, where she is inspired by small things (like hearts, tree, and mistakes); and by big things (like love, nature, and the web of relationship that connects us all). She is the author/illustrator of two previous picture books, My Heart (a New York Times Best Seller) and The Book of Mistakes, and the illustrator of Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse and Nothing in Common.

My Review of My Heart

We All Play kimêtawânaw

I never purchase a book gift for a baby (and their family) without reading it first. But times such as they are, I hadn’t been able to get ahold of a copy of Julie Flett’s latest. But I bought it for dear friends on the occasion of their first child anyway—because it’s Julie Flett.

I finally read it.

We All Play kimêtawânaw by Julie Flett

Greystone Kids, 2021. Picture book, 40pp

Includes: List of Animals + Pronunciations at the back.

We All Play kimêtawânaw is gorgeous, friends. Absolutely perfect. I will continue to gift it.

interior pages from We All Play kimêtawânaw by Julie Flett

Julie Flett’s use of color and texture, how she captures movement in a plant or an arm or the hair… The balance in her compositions, her use of the white page as backdrops. I’m in love with the bubbles in this book, the washes; the underwater divers, both of them, the arm, the melanin. The sounds, the moods she composes in the expressiveness of her figures, their bodies and faces: the animals’ eyes.

interior pages from We All Play kimêtawânaw by Julie Flett

The diction is rich, resonant. Really, the structure is intriguing. We are given a variety of animals performing the verbs in a sequence that forms a lovely cadence. Interjected, like a chorus is “We play, too! kimêtawânaw mîna” over a double-spread of children (in different seasons/climates/environs) at play. I love looking at the images of the children and imagine how they play out the words that precede their page, e.g. how the sledding children slip, slide, rumble, roll, wiggle, wobble.

interior pages from We All Play kimêtawânaw by Julie Flett

The inclusivity, the interconnectedness of “We” and “All” is reinforced by showing all the creatures out-of-doors, aligning the children with the land (and water) alongside other creatures. Flett will also emphasize the collective with compositions of pairs or more, with adults with small ones, with postures of affection and ease and energy (read: delight, joy).

The scenes in nature read like childhood in that it is all movement, interactive, experiential.

interior pages from We All Play kimêtawânaw by Julie Flett

Like any other creature of the land, there is not just a time for play, but for rest. Flett creates a natural progression, gathering her words and her cast, shifting into a delightful lull, “Slowly, side by side, animals fall asleep. We do, too. nîstanân mîna…zzz” It’s here in these final two compositions that we get the colorful Autumn leaves both among the illustrations of the animals and the children strengthening the likeness between them; a punctuation mark.

We All Play kimêtawânaw is a delight. It is gentle and playful, and visually stunning. It’s an absolute must own.

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Julie Flett is a Cree-Metis author, illustrator, and artist. She has received many awards

A great interview with Flett at Art of the Picture Book

an invitation

Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pēna

Illustrated by Christian Robinson  

Putnam 2021. Picture book, 40pp

Matt de la Pēna & Christian Robinson of The Last Stop on Market Street team are back together for Milo Imagines the World and yes, it is as truly gorgeous an experience as the first.

interior pages from Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pēna & Christian Robinson

This author is not afraid to commit a large quantity of words on the page, rich with details. His partner will give you plenty of visual enjoyment while you listen (or read) with rapt attention. Matt de la Pēna and Christian Robinson are magical, interesting, interested.

As Milo and his sister make their way on the subway, Milo illustrates the stories of the lives he imagines his fellow passengers living after they exit the train. And then, in a delightful turn of events, he is asked to re-imagine those lives. And so are we…

What do we think this “monthly Sunday subway ride” is about? Where could he and his sister be going? And why is Milo “a shook-up soda”? What pictures would we draw, and what details would we include (or exclude)?

And why does Milo imagine the way he does in those first sets of drawings? And in what ways does he change them?

interior pages from Milo Imagines the World by Matt de la Pēna & Christian Robinson

Milo Imagines the World is an invitation none of us should refuse. It’s a wonderful time spent with Milo. And it’s one of those important books—one of those lives-changing works. It’s a gift, an absolute pleasure.

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Matt de la Peña is the Newbery Medal-winning author of Last Stop on Market Street. He is also the author of the award-winning picture books Carmela Full of Wishes, Love, and A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis, and seven critically acclaimed young-adult novels. Matt teaches creative writing and visits schools and colleges throughout the country. 

Christian Robinson received a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for his art in Last Stop on Market Street. He is the author and illustrator of the picture books Another and You Matter, and he has illustrated many more, including Carmela Full of Wishes, the Gaston and Friends series, School’s First Day of School, and The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade

My Reviews of Christian Robinson’s Another & You Matter

making children feel seen

Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

Bloomsbury 2021. Picture books, 32pp

interior pages from Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

Percival finds really refreshing solutions to time-worn experiences: like Anger, or Difference, or in the case of this Big Bright Feelings book: Making Friends. Something that ties all the books together thus far is how Percival doesn’t make the character be anyone they are not. It is Meesha being her creative maker self that makes a friend—and the realization that others might just be receptive as a fellow creative.

Being genuine, not all her attempts in the story work. Many readers will understand why calling “Tag! You’re It!” to a crying boy with a scraped knee (being comforted by another friend) may not be understood. And the vignette above it, the children don’t look mean, just confused.

interior pages from Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

Percival and the story are patient and kind—compassionate. And the solution falls into place in a non-preachy message well-received. She doesn’t interact perfectly in any given situation, that’s reality, and relatable, but an opportunity will present itself.

I love these books in that they never feel forced. And they are all just really beautifully illustrated; they translate well into relatable emotions and experiences. The clever use of a grid paper background on that one page that captures Meesha’s worry over Josh: a subtle delineation from reality; a nod to her imagining/constructing something. I also dig the bubble-vignettes on that page. I love the use of a limited palette, the use of it to draw the eye, to create distinctions, without allowing it to distract you from Percival’s skill with detail.

interior pages from Meesha Makes Friends by Tom Percival

Meesha Makes Friends is visually and emotionally engaging. It’s a great book for every child, whether they have a tricky time making friends or not.

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My review of Ravi’s Roar

About the Big Bright Feelings series from Percival: these are “kid-friendly entry points into emotional intelligence topics–from being true to yourself, to worrying, to anger management, to making friends. These topics can be difficult to talk about. But these books act as sensitive and reassuring springboards for conversations about mental and emotional health, positive self-image, building self-confidence, and managing feelings.”

Tom Percival is a writer, artist, video producer and musician. He is the author of many picture books for children, including Herman’s Letter, Herman’s Holiday, Bubble Trouble, By the Light of the Moon, and his bestselling Big Bright Feelings series, which includes Perfectly NormanRuby’s WorryRavi’s Roar and Meesha Makes Friends.
Tom lives in Stroud with his partner and their two young children.

thank you Galliez & Ratanavanh

Thank You, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez

Illustrated by Seng Soun Ratanavanh

Princeton Architectural Press 2020. Orig. 2018 Merci, Miyuki! Picture Book, 32pp

I love Time for Bed, Miyuki (2018), and when Patience, Miyuki (2019) proved a strong follow-up, of course, I had to seek out this next Miyuki story—and to be transparent—anything Seng Soun Ratanavanh.

interior pages from Thank You, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez & Seng Soun Ratanavanh

Seng Soun Ratanavanh returns with signature whimsy and vibrant play with color and patterns. Like the earlier books, our illustrator will occasionally visualize the text in a more literal fashion, but most often she creates atmosphere. She echoes and sometimes creates a necessary tension with the text. I love the delicate, yet bold nature in the work.

interior pages from Thank You, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez & Seng Soun Ratanavanh

In this installment, Grandpa begins his day with tai chi, an activity Miyuki claims “is too hard!” Ever patient, Grandpa gently chides Miyuki, “Can’t you see I’m taking care of myself?” he asks. Miyuki’s reply is loving—and energetic, “I can take care of you too, Grandpa. I’ll make you some tea!”

interior pages from Thank You, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez & Seng Soun Ratanavanh

She becomes this restless figure fluttering about Grandpa’s stillness. While still advocating for himself, Grandpa can’t resist using Miyuki’s desire to spend time with him as an opportunity to teach her about meditative practices. Grandpa is loving and finds Miyuki delightful—because she is. Her vivaciousness is welcome, her curiosity nurtured.

Thank you, Miyuki is a nice addition to mindfulness shelves—something more along the lines of Jon J. Muth’s Zen series. It’s also a good relationship story—with self, others, and our surroundings.

one little dumpling

Ten Little Dumplings by Larissa Fan. Illustrated by Cindy Wume

Tundra 2021. Picture Book, 48 pp

Features: Family, Siblings, Gender, Artists, Taiwanese culture.

In the village of Fengfu, “If one son is lucky, then ten must be great luck indeed!” And it is here that you’ll be tempted to start counting the boys in matching yellow outfits in the energetic bustle. And if you are counting heads, you’ll notice an 11th. A figure with an orange hat infiltrates the pictures, peeking, tucked, watching…but hasn’t yet appeared in the text. But the story isn’t about the one daughter though is it?

“Their parents called them their ten little dumplings.

Not only because as babies they were round like dumplings,

But also because, like sons, dumplings are auspicious,

Bringing prosperity and success.”

The visual story of the boys is active and interesting. And the words find them extraordinary—which is easy to believe. And even easier to believe they grow up well. And if you didn’t notice little sister, she introduces herself and reveals that she is not only the narrator, the person you’ve been listening to the whole time, but she shows you where she was the whole time: listening, studying, learning…discovering her own talent. She was only one of one and in her own panel (read: portrait), alone on her own page when we learn that she “made [her] own way in the world.”

Interior pages from Ten Little Dumplings by Larissa Fan & Cindy Wume

The transition from the brothers childhood to the sister is a lovely sequence of disentangling. We follow the boys until they are grown, “successful and respected.” Then we review to find the sister’s childhood in the midst of the brothers’ until she, too, has left the house. The last we see of the brothers is when they come to see their sister’s artwork, the ten in her space, observing and listening and learning. And then we move into a story that belongs to the sister in her adult life with a child—a life that has familiar echoes but with just the one child and her parents: “My own wonderful girl. My little dumpling. How lucky am I!”  And she does look very lucky indeed!

The book can carry multiple readings for an incredibly broad audience.

I like the hide-and-seek type books that reward sharp eyes, and what a perfect way to think about a book that hopes to invite curiosity about the stories of the backgrounded or unaddressed characters. The sister was invisible to the listener, but the observer was invited to wonder “who is that?”, spying her at the edges. And the life of a daughter looks so different when she is the only child… Both households look happy and full of life.

Interior pages from Ten Little Dumplings by Larissa Fan & Cindy Wume

Ten Little Dumplings will resonate with those raised in households or cultures that preference their sons, or even those overshadowed by their more epic sibling. But the story isn’t interested in talking about the sons and star siblings so much as its sharing a mere observation and maybe a bit of amusement at the exaggerated status the mythic confers upon its subject; like that village song written about the boys, “Their brushstrokes flow like music.” Fan has nothing negative to say about the ten little dumplings. The narrator is as fascinated as everyone else. No, the revelation of the only daughter is the actual story and holds the focus. Remember that it is the sister who is the narrator, and later to be discovered: the artist and author—and not only literally.

The book we are holding/reading is created by two women, two daughters in some household and/or culture full of sons. It is the author who, though entertained by stories of 10 brothers in both her family and cultural lore, is curious about the story of the sister. “My father grew up in Taiwan where he was one of ten brothers. […] I heard a lot about my father’s brothers growing up. […] What I didn’t realize until I was older was that my father also had a sister! Learning this made me wonder about who is left out of the stories we are told and why” (Author’s Note).

Interior pages from Ten Little Dumplings by Larissa Fan & Cindy Wume

Ten Little Dumplings is beautiful, clever in its subversion. It subverts expectations, tricks the reader into reading a story about someone else—and you’ll forgive them because the experience is delightful. The sister/daughter is a great story and storyteller. We are fortunate that someone took notice, wondered…and imagined.

For all the libraries, Fan and Wume are engaging and entertaining; the work is delightfully illustrated.

Recommended for those who enjoy charming and unusual stories; who like sibling books, artist-centric books, and childhood stories in general. This is excellent want to engage in conversations around sex/gender preference and/or erasure at a familial or greater cultural level.

In some ways, Madeline comes to mind…maybe it’s the yellow? And the counting and the finding one in a crowd.

LARISSA FAN is an artist and writer whose short films have screened at festivals worldwide. She studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design University and has an MFA in Film Production from York University. Larissa grew up with three brothers and competes with them as to who can make the best dumplings. Ten Little Dumplings is her first picture book. She lives in Toronto, Canada.

CINDY WUME is an illustrator and picture book maker. She completed an MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Cambridge School of Art at 2016. Her debut picture book The Best Sound in the World was published in 2018, and her work has been exhibited at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. This story is special to her because she also believes women can be great dumplings. Cindy lives in Taipei, Taiwan.

the old and the new

The Old Boat by Jarrett & Jerome Pumphrey

Norton 2021. Picture book 56 pp

Features: All-Black cast; Family; Elders; Community; Environmentalism.

What a journey. Do not let the timeless (nostalgic?) feel to the illustration, its minimalist palette and simpler lines fool you into thinking this is going to be a quaint tale about a boat and its people. It wrapped it’s bright and warm hued fist around my heart and squeezed. I’m not sure which part to blame for the held breath in my throat. Maybe it was that the hope was harder won in this latest Pumphrey brother creation. But they carry us through, and damn, but that is a gorgeous ending.

A boy leaves the shore of an island with a woman in an old boat to fish. While the story finds its opening and close about an old boat, our focus is also glued to the boy. As the old boat goes out and deeper, we watch the boy—and woman—age. And we watch the water beneath the boat as they cast with hooked lines or nets. And we watch the sky, too, as the Pumphreys work their subtle magic to capture the passage of time—lifetimes in so few pages.

interior pages from The Old Boat by Jarrett & Jerome Pumphrey

The old boat works like an anchor in the remarking of that which can change and won’t. A constant is the old boat’s age, the things in the sea, and the boy-then-man.

We are as distressed as the expressions of the old boat’s passengers as we notice the human-created debris in the shallows…and even deeper still. Our joy at the beauty and abundance of sea-life are also reflected in the woman and boy’s faces.

interior pages from The Old Boat by Jarrett & Jerome Pumphrey

The Old Boat is more pictures than words, and the words seem to arise as organically from the images as our emotions. I love the images captured visually and in my ear as I read “The old boat caught wants and wishes, waves and wonders.” We relax into a deep-seated joy in the relationship between woman and youth (soon elder-woman and man) brought together on an old boat on the water. It’s a moment that starts to feel like a glimpse, especially once we turn the page to find the boy-now-man alone, ‘the old boat [riding] farther…”

The rain feels inevitable. As does “lonely,” because we feel it before we see it—the “cold,” and the “lonely,” and the “lost.” I didn’t know what to anticipate. I think in some books the man would, via the old boat, find a friend. But wait, isn’t it, according to the narrator, the old boat that is “cold,” “lonely,” and “lost?”

The Pumphreys’ skill at relationship building is one of my favorite things. The old boat becomes significant to how we’ve formed our ideas about the relationship between woman and child; human and sea; even how we imbue those relationships with notions of nourishment, joy, wonder, legacy.

As with Pumphreys’ previous book, The Old Truck, we get old held in relationship with new. And notice how the “new sailor” (whom we recognize as the boy-now-man) marks a turn in the tide. The book began with “an old boat [that] rode the tide” such as it was—littered and in the company of two. Not necessarily content, but neither engaged beyond sad facial expressions. The “turn” is not announced by a new sailor on a new boat, but our human protagonist beginning to clean up the shore. Soon, the footprints he made are accompanied by others to help him. Another echo of earlier text means something new, the venturing deeper builds a different relationship for the boy-now-man—with his community, the island/sea, and the old boat.

interior pages from The Old Boat by Jarrett & Jerome Pumphrey

The old boat built a home for the boy, a place within which a relationship flourished. The grown-boy follows in its wake—and returns the favor. The reciprocity is beautiful. And in a story that inspires us to react and care about the seascape, it is intriguing. All the other manmade objects are removed, but the old boat remains as if it has always belonged to the sea—and doesn’t the ending suggest as much? The distinction in what qualifies as an artifact versus waste/pollution is a lovely conversation.

That final composition is powerful. “An old boat was home” and it looks like it has become a home, integrated through time on the seafloor. Meanwhile, the our new sailor (now white-haired) fishes from the shore with a girl; the shore having become “the boat” in his relationship with a new generation. The new imagination still holds visual lineage with the previous generation’s (e.g. cast lines, smiles, basketed catch); an imagination that was launched with the “turn of the tide” and narrative. I wonder what the girl’s future contribution to this story will be? This ending has me feeling optimistic.

The Pumphrey brothers create emotional and thought-provoking narratives that inspire real joy in the histories, present-days, and futures of their characters (inanimate or no, figurative or no). Their books are going to be the old books we’ll want to keep around for generations to come; share them with someone you love.

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My REVIEW of The Old Truck.

Jarrett Pumphrey is an author/illustrator and the former CEO of a tech startup. Originally from Houston, he now lives in Austin, Texas.

Jerome Pumphrey is an illustrator and a graphic designer at The Walt Disney Company. Originally from Houston, he now lives in Austin, Texas.

deeply beautiful

The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang. Illustrated by Khoa Le

Carolrhoda Books/Lerner, 2020. Picture Book, 32 pp.

Features: Elders; Grandmother; Intergenerational Family; the Hmong;

Refugee stories; Tigers.

That cover is a gorgeous glimpse at just how stunning the book is.

illustration from The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang & Khoa Le

The narrator, a young Hmong girl, wants to tell us about her grandmother who “is so old, no one knows how old she is.” It’s a deeply loving story. And one that will draw beauty from what I think will be unfamiliar sources to many.

Woven together are stories of grandma’s past and the narrator’s relationship with grandma in the present (which spans a length of her childhood). 

“It was a long time ago and I was just a girl…” Grandma’s childhood in Laotian jungles involves a tiger, and loss. She loses her parents at a young age and as the eldest, is left raising her siblings in poverty. We know she later becomes a mother of 9 children, the narrator’s father being the youngest.

interior pages from The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang & Khoa Le

In the present, the narrator is a younger sister and a younger cousin, and one of “the luckiest of the grandchildren who got to help take care of Grandma.” The elder two girls wash Grandma’s clothes and help with her bath. Our narrator got to clip her fingernails and toenails. These intimate moments ushered in questions and stories. Grandma’s body bearing witness to a past full of remarkable moments.

It isn’t only aspects of her body (like the cracked feet and the single tooth) that hold stories, but as we experience the narrator’s childhood, we understand objects draw us back (and together). Noticeable is how things like an ice-cube filled red plastic cup, peppermint candies, and bone broth are responses to hardship. The narrator’s family couldn’t afford ice cream from the truck, meat from the market, or a new dress for school. Her crooked teeth would become a reminder of something else her family couldn’t afford—but could it be a reminder of something else as well?

The Most Beautiful Thing is humbling. It offers perspective, one that I think is incredibly valuable. All that the grandmother literally embodies in the story is precious, priceless. The respect and care for her, modeled by the family is lovely—and reciprocated. The struggles of the girl and the grandmother, and the family for that matter, aren’t cast aside, but it is reframed by what opportunities it represents.

interior pages from The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang & Khoa Le

Le’s illustrations are a breathtaking companion to Yang’s words. They provide a different kind of visual access to the affection between family members and a home, though poor, that is rich with color and texture. The deep colors and the vegetation. That tiger! The grandmother’s footprint.

This book, The Most Beautiful Thing, is not to be missed. It’s one the older crowd will enjoy, and will, no doubt, inspire envy in those who have missed out on the value of having an elder so close and well-respected. It’s a book full of a lot of good reminders, gorgeously rendered and beautifully told.

interior pages from The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang & Khoa Le

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“The Most Beautiful Thing pronunciation guide” (which is provided below the dedications in the book) video posted by Lerner Publishing, read by the Kao Kalia Yang.

Author interview w/ Michelle Meadows at Picture Book Builders. “For me feelings are the birthplace of books, the flood at the gates of me, the point at which words must now be my vessels into the world, a point of imminent explosion. 

Kao Kalia Yang is an award-winning Hmong-American writer. She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University. Yang is the author of the memoirs The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir and The Song Poet. Yang is also the author of the children’s books, A Map Into the World, The Shared Room, and The Most Beautiful Thing.

Khoa Le is a Freelance illustrator, graphic designer and painter based in HCMC, Vietnam. She is also the author and illustrator of numerous picture books, The Cloud Princess, The Lonely Bear, Thrity Umrigar’s Sugar in Milk, and Jane Yolen’s Miriam at the River.

the sweetest

Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk Illustrated by Alexandria Neonakis

Inhabit 2014 Picture Book 32pp.

Features: New Child; Mother-Child; Gender-Neutral; Animals/Nature; Indigenous Creators; Digital Art.

To quote the jacket copy, Sweetest Kulu is a “bedtime poem, written by internationally acclaimed Inuit throat singer Celina Kalluk, describ[ing] the gifts bestowed upon a newborn baby by all the animals of the Arctic.” And it is really beautifully illustrated. I’m late to reading this one and you’ve not gotten to it yet, you should.

interior pages from Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk & Aleandria Neonakis

A mother tells her child about the day they were born, of the “many wondrous and grand visitors [who] shared thoughts, feelings, and best wishes with you.” Forget the faeries in the court of Sleeping Beauty’s parents. The ideas, words, images Kalluk and Neonakis’ share are powerful, invoking love, friendship, tenderness, creativity, and spontaneity to name a few. “The Muskox shared heritage and empowerment with you, magnificent Kulu, showing you how to protect what you believe in.” The Polar Bear offered “gentleness,” ingrained within it a “powerful instinct [to] always treat animals with respect.”

interior pages from Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk & Aleandria Neonakis

The mother describes not only the gifts, but a non-gendered Kulu (*an Inuit term of endearment) throughout–affirming, instilling: “sweetest,” “charming,” “admired,” “handsome,” “nicest,” “little,” “beloved”…

interior pages from Sweetest Kulu by Celina Kalluk & Aleandria Neonakis

Neonakis’ illustrations involve sweeping curves, shadows, color, a sense of movement, vivacity, breath. The story does first speak of Melodies of Wind arriving… Neonakis skillfully renders creatures of the air and land and water; of varying scale and complexity. Her touch with color disinterested in overwhelming the composition with detail, merely lushness, fullness. Neonakis offers charm and magic to images that are also real, substantial—like Kulluk, she isn’t fantasizing, but (re)creating, speaking of an existence.

Sweetest Kulu is a gift, an obvious one for our infants and toddlers, but I find its ability to remind and affirm the characteristics and relationships within to be a powerful opportunity for older audiences as well.

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* learned from Debbie Reese over at American Indians In Children’s Literature 2014 review.

Note the images I credit to Neonakis’ website are samples that include the Inuktitut names of animals. The edition I read did not include these names.

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Celina Kalluk was born and raised in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. She dedicates this book to all the mothers and fathers of this earth and to our wonderful children. Celina is also a visual artist and has illustrated several book covers and other literacy materials. Currently, she is the Inuktitut Language Specialist and Cultural Arts teacher for grades seven through twelve at Qarmartalik School in Resolute Bay.

Alexandria Neonakis is an illustrator and designer from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. She currently lives with her cat, “Kitty,” in Santa Monica, California.

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