weighted and lovely

CW: The Weight of Our Sky will be shelved Young Adult/Teen, but I think Adults will enjoy this one—you’re welcome Book Clubs.

A music loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.—jacket copy

I tend to avoid certain decades of historical fiction, but between the setting (Malaysia), premise (race, neurodiversity, music), and the reviews (so many stars!), I decided to go ahead—I’m glad I did. Alkaf is excellent. “Heart-pounding” is not hyperbole; also: heart-wrenching.

CW: Folks, Alkaf is considerate in her depictions, but the author is not going to make the climate of violence and loss of human life too palatable. And the anxiety Melati experiences will translate. In a rare move: the author herself opens the book with a warning.

Before I even begin to say anything else, I’m going to say this: This book is not a light and easy read, and in the interest of minimizing harm, I’d like to warn you now that its contents include graphic violence, death, racism, OCD, and anxiety triggers. If any of this is distressing for you at this time, I’d recommend either waiting until you’re in the right space to take all of that on or forgoing it all together.

Is that weird, for an author to basically say, “Please don’t read my book. No book is worth sacrificing your own well-being for.

Are you still here?

Did you get this far?

If you did, thank you. I appreciate you. I would have, whether or not you’d kept going, but I’m even more grateful because it wasn’t so long ago that a book like this would never even have made it as far as an editor’s desk, much less exist in the tangible typeset form you hold in your hands right now. –”Author’s Note,” first page.

0_190423_1754235423_the_weight_of_the_unspokenThe Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

Salaam Reads (Simon & Schuster), 2019

Hardcover, 288 pages. YA Historical fiction, Ages 14-18.

Melati can and will imagine all the ways her mother has died while they’ve been apart. This is on any ‘normal’ day, and the seamless way Alkaf writes it into the narrative shows how ‘normal’ and frequent her mother’s deaths have become for Melati. To counteract the likelihood of the her mother’s often gruesome deaths, Melati must perform small rituals (e.g. tapping, pacing). They must be performed before she can continue onward. She likens her situation to music (referencing her father’s favorite band The Beatles):

There’s all these different notes, different instruments, different sounds. It’s a mess. But you add a beat and a rhythm and somehow everything can come together and make something beautiful. I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Find a rhythm for the mess in my head, so that it somehow…makes sense.

On a normal afternoon of her best childhood friend Safiyah aka Saf persuading her to go to a Paul Newman feature after school, Melati will find herself trying to avoid her own untimely demise.

Political actions spur a race riot between the Malays and the Chinese, with gangs taking to the streets to claim control of different areas of the city. Armed men come to the theater to separate out the Malays from the non-Malays (Chinese, Indian, Eurasian). Right away we are reminded that outward appearances are subject to interpretation as Melati “passes” at the argument and will of another theater attendee.

Melati finds herself in a car with a strange woman and her son as they race home—their home. This will begin days of separation from her mother, a nurse at a local hospital, as Melati looks for opportunities to traverse the city and find her. All options for verifying her mother’s condition are removed. Melati will become desperate, but not completely consumed.

Alkaf introduces characters with stories into an already compelling narrative. They will serve to illuminate Melati’s history and offer character-growing conflict in the future, maybe offer an option for romance…, but they also provide glimpses of life outside of Melati’s—and likely, the reader’s. Alkaf offers depth and nuance, and tension-relieving levity—and you’ll drink it in. And you may cry a little. It’s weeks and I’m still processing Saf and Singh.

I admit that I was confused and put-off by the perceived shift in focus and pacing, but Alkaf knew what she was doing. Thematically, we’ll be reminded over and over how Life is still lived in the throes of adversity, even in times of especially intense conflict. Structurally, we experience Melati’s reality: the fraught journeys between sites of stability; finding moments of respite and safety; outfitting herself for the next step along the way/the process. Those sites will become increasingly tenuous (e.g. invaded, destroyed, necessarily temporary). Her own needs will come up against other’s prerogatives.


Aunt Bee is the woman from the theater and Vincent/Vince is her college-age son. We’ll meet her informative husband Uncle Chong; and the younger son Frankie who makes a conversation on radicalization painfully relevant:

“My parents were never anything but nice and good to everyone—Chinese, Malay, Indian, whoever. But the Malays don’t care. They looked at them and saw outsiders, not worthy of their time or mercy. What’s the use of being good if it just gets you trampled on?”

Frankie won’t seem unreasonable until you put him next to other young people who’ve made a different choice in how they will respond to the injustices. We see similar contemplations with other groups and their reasonings. Melati reflecting on an encounter in the streets:

“Allahu akbar!” they yell. “Allahu akbar!” And for a moment I am struck by how strange it is to proclaim the greatness of God, a phrase we say over and over again in prayer five times a day, while doing the best to destroy His creations.”


The presence of religion and faith is an unusual and marvelous aspect of Alkaf’s YA novel. I was moved by as Melati observed Aunt Bee’s own little ritual near the entrance of her home.

“I am both mesmerized by the little gesture of faith and jealous of her intimate relationship with God. It always bothers me that I can’t seem to connect with Him the way people like Auntie Bee and Mama can. The way I used to.”

And here when she thinks of her father: “Abah would recite the verse aloud, his voice turning the unfamiliar words into a song, and I remember sitting close and letting the words wash over me and feeling…safe.”

The rituals of faith or superstition to cope or comfort, and to shift perception and find hope are utilized in Melati’s struggle with her reality. It’s an interpretive tool, to describe.

“It seems difficult now to believe that there was ever a time when the only djinns I believed in came from fairy tales, benevolent creatures that poured like smoke from humble old oil lamps and antique rings […]  And later, they took a different shape, one informed by religious teachers and Quran recitation classes: creature of smoke and fire, who had their own realm on Earth and kept to themselves, for the most part.

“I didn’t realize they could be sharp, cruel, insidious little things that crept and wormed their way into your thoughts and made your brain hot and itchy.”

Melati and her mother “knocked on the door of every religious teacher and healer she could find, asking for their guidance, their wisdom to defeat the invisible enemy who held me so firmly in his grasp.” They would spend considerable sums of money. The result is disheartening, and not only from teachers and healers, but from the medical establishment: “You young people, life is so easy for you. No job yet, no families to raise, no responsibilities. I don’t know what you think you have to worry about.”

Melati is left to navigate her world and its expanding and constricting realities on her own. She draws into herself in order to project a return to normalcy. Remember, nothing has been resolved, and Melati carries the weight of its suffering; and it was only a matter of time before pressure would result in something explicitly life-threatening. Alkaf writing this character against the backdrop of the race riots is brilliant on so many levels. That Alkaf is willing to elicit a need to strangle the protagonist (at no real fault of her Melati’s) is a testament to how determined the author is to allow trajectories to follow, rock-bottoms to be met, realities to bear witness. None of the heroes will always be at their best; but then, we may only require those rare, precious moments of mercy.


It is from Aunt Bee that we learn more about the title of the novel:

The Malays have a saying: Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijungjung. Where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky.  Wherever you are you must follow what the people there do, their customs, their ways.

The novel will discuss this racially and culturally, but it will take on a specific meaning for Melati who’s need to participate is something we are made to think about throughout the novel; ‘passing,’ hiding. Her mental health is culturally subject to fear and suspicion. It’s a point of contention with her mother, which is one of the many, many beautifully wrought scenes of the novel.

“Every step that brought me closer to her door, the voice in my ear screamed: She’ll disown you, she’ll push you away, she’ll think you’re dangerous and have you carted off to the madhouse.”


“So I blurted it out. All of it: the endless thoughts of her death, the constant counting and tapping and pacing that kept me up at night for fear that doing them wrong meant that I’d wake up in the morning to find her stiff and lifeless in her bed.

“And she recoiled.

“Oh, she pretended she hadn’t. She tried to recover quickly, pulling me in for a reassuring hug. But I’d seen her eyes widen in…fear? Disgust? I’d seen her flinch and turn away. I’d seen her pull her hand back for a minute, as if worried I’d contaminate her, or hurt her. Or worse.”

Vince will give her another opportunity at vulnerability and we begin to make connections between music, mental health, and an inciting event: her father’s death. The mysteries unravel not as easy explanations, but context.

I adore Vince who delivers lines like this: [Melati’s name means Jasmine] :

“Jasmine flowers are so pale, so delicate,” he says, “you’d think they couldn’t survive in this relentless tropical heat. But they thrive on it. they grow strong and gorgeous, and they bloom. Their perfume is…intoxicating, so strong that it leaves its mark on you long after you’ve left it behind.”

What I love even more, is that Alkaf doesn’t conscript Vince to be Melati’s savior, a hero and necessary friend, sure, but he is flawed and he isn’t her only source of rescue or even inspiration. Alkaf writes a community into the novel, and some members will show up later than sooner (e.g. May).

Alkaf portrays a careful balance between considering communal and individual decision-making; it’s the tension in the novel and in that title. We read it in the greater political climate, the neighborhoods, the households, and in the very body of the protagonist. It’s played out at the government and local gang level, as well as in fraught circumstances like negotiating Melati’s fate in the theater and the fate of a pregnant woman in labor in a war zone and in a school bus with a child bleeding out while Melati “bleeding out” in the throes of an episode.


Religion isn’t the only means to interpret the world. Melati’s father uses music as a way to think about his relationship with Melati’s mother. Abah loved The Beatles and he used their song “We Can Work It Out” to talk about him and his wife. The two were “optimism and light” and “efficient to a fault.” McCartney and Lennon were “total opposites in so many ways. But when they get it right, don’t they make the most gorgeous music together?”

I love the way Alkaf writes Melati’s relationship to her parents, the way she sees them. Her father is kept in a sacred place, encased in the sentiment/privilege of memory. Her mother is still living (and imaginatively dying) parent, less perfect, relevant in a different (read crucial) way, no less holy.

“My father’s death a year before had diminished her light a little, but it was as if she’d gone from a wild, raging bonfire to a delicate, tapered candle—she was still bright and beautiful, but somehow more elegant in her grief. My situation took whatever light she had left and extinguished it. before my very eyes, she shriveled and shrank until all that was left was shadows. The Djinn might inhabit my body, be he held us both captive.”

Melati’s awareness of the interconnectedness of life/lives is what makes the novel so profound, and so painful. Her loneliness, alienation, isolation comes into conflict because we have these desires for relationships, relationships, social contracts, people who draws us out of ourselves and into their spheres (Saf, Aunt Bee, Vince, Singh, anonymous pregnant woman, May, The Beatles…). Within her own self we witness the stir of spirit, mind, body strive for some semblance of balance. The world, both within and outside of Melati is terrifying—and beautiful; compelling and worthy of all the emotions and that fight for a resolution (if only for a time being).

We cling to the life-giving moments of The Weight of Our Sky, compelled to seek them with greater urgency as the novel continues—spurred to consider how we can (re)create those moments of mercy in our own landscapes, whether internal to our bodies, in households, communities, nationally, internationally. The novel is one seated in a voice of love and compassion fighting to be heard above the violence of disunity, of imagined loss/scarcity. Melati, the humanity that surrounds her, all are love refusing to be silenced, extinguished.

Remember how far you’ve come. Remember what you’ve accomplished. Remember who you are.

Thank you Hanna Alkaf.

Hanna Alkaf graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in ShapeEsquire, and Marie Claire among others. She lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family, and The Weight of Our Sky is her first novel.

Of Note:

Why reading multiple perspectives is of value (bonus points for well-written):

Maybe that mother in the orange sari tugging impatiently on her little girl’s hand as they exit the sundry shop is irritable because she can’t stop thinking about how dirty and dusty everything is, can’t stay the aching need to scrub every inch of both her child’s body and her own. Maybe that young man so desperate to speak to the pretty young woman next to him at the bus stop is really doing it because he’s trying to save her from an unspeakable fate dictated by the monster inside him. I can’t tell just by looking, but maybe they’ve learned to hide their demons, too.

Where the novel will resound politically (thanks Uncle Chong for this articulated context):

“The Malays resent the Chinese for taking over the urban areas, getting rich while so many of them remain poor in the kampongs…”

“Some shouting about preserving ketuanan Melayu—Malay supremacy. Some trying to push for a Malaysian Malaysia, not just a Malay one. Some insisting the Chinese need to protect our own interests. And the Indians are left to gather whatever scraps they can. How do  you expect unity to grow from seeds of self-interest.”

“When you are fighting for your rice bowl, you don’t think about how many hands were needed to grow the grain. You only think about who’s out to steal your portion.

“Blame immigrants or outsiders for stealing their jobs. Taking away our opportunities.”




{May is Jewish Heritage Month}

good night wind coverGood Night, Wind : A Yiddish Folktale

by Linda Elovitz Marshall. Illus. by Maëlle Doliveux

Holiday House, 2019. Hardcover Picture book, 32 pages

Now that his season is done, “an old, wandering [Winter Wind is] searching for a place to rest.” The villagers aren’t interesting in allowing him in. The old tree and the rock find his freezing presence to be threatening as well. When it seems he has no place to go to rest,

“Winter Wind blasted out across the fields, crying like a child, howling like a dog, wailing like a cat.

With sleeves rolled and feet stomping, wind whipped up a whistling, screeching blizzard.”

A big sister isn’t about to put up with Winter Wind’s tantrum—he is frightening her little brother after all.

Wind is acting like a tired, angry baby, the girl told her brother.

The little boy wiped his eyes and asked, “Maybe Wind needs a nap?”

The siblings are the ones to both figure out the problem and find the solution, leading the very tired Wind to place where he can rest and no one will be disturbed.

The story is relatable one of weariness and ingratitude. The children are bold and empathetic. And of course a protective older sister knows the protective places; of course, the tearful brother knows such an emotional expression has context. The story does a good job of drawing sympathy with each of the characters, inviting understanding and increasing the tension (desire) for a satisfactory solution.

good night wind interior 1
illustration by Maëlle Doliveux (from Good Night, Wind)

Doliveux’s cut paper illustrations are utterly charming; they complement the playful tone and layered meaning of the folktale. It moves with color and texture and light, capturing the idea of wind and the way the wind is being carried along by the story. Her medium is unusual in picture books, which adds to the appeal of including this in your library. I’d also verify how many Yiddish folktales you have in your collection as well.

Good Night, Wind is a story for young and old alike. (Maybe the older can read it to the younger?).

good night wind rev
illustration by Maëlle Doliveux (from Good Night, Wind)

Other cut-paper illustrated books you should check out: My Father’s Arms are a Boat by Lunde ; Damm’s The Visitor ; And Elly Mackay’s books

Linda Elovitz Marshall is the author of many picture books for children, including the Talia and… series of Jewish holiday books including The Passover Lamb, which was a Sydney Taylor notable book.

Maëlle Doliveux is an award-winning artist and illustrator whose work has appeared in dozens of publications, including The New York TimesNewsweek, The Boston Globe, and Vulture. She is also the cofounder of Beehive Books, an independent comics publisher. She has won both gold and silver medals from the Society of Illustrators and has been a judge for the MoCCA Arts Festival Award of Excellence along with Joan Hilty and Rutu Modan. This is her first book.




{May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month}

I picked up Yoon Ha Lee’s Dragon Pearl because I love what the Rick Riordan Imprint is doing: publishing authors of diverse cultural backgrounds who are drawing from mythology/lore rarely seen in young reader’s fiction. And his selections have been fantastic thus far. I also picked up Dragon Pearl because I was intrigued by the premise of taking Korean mythology and fox magic into space. It works so beautifully, and makes so much sense.

Dragon-Pearl.2Dragon Pearl by Yoon Ha Lee

Rick Riordan Presents, 2019. Hardcover, 312 pages.

Includes Pronunciation guide; which is useful to reference as you go along.

Middle grade, Science Fiction Fantasy. Ages 8-12

Min is just your average teenage fox spirit, living with her family on the dusty backwater planet of Jinju. Oh, sure, like all foxes, she can shape-shift into whatever she wants: human, animal, even a dining room table. And yes, she has the power to Charm—to manipulate human emotions and make people see things that aren’t there. But that’s not very exciting when you’re stuck in a small dome house, sleeping every night in a crowded common room with your snoring cousins, spending every day fixing condensers in the hydroponics unit. Min years to join the Space Forces like her older brother Jun did—to see the Thousand Worlds and have marvelous adventures!—Rick Riordan’s intro “A Thousand Dangerous Worlds”

Thirteen-year-old Min (meen) is a fox in female human form on unfinished planet where she is encouraged to stick to her human form and keep her fox magic a secret. If she were a Shaman, Celestial Maiden, Dragon or Goblin she probably wouldn’t be living on Jinju to begin with, but she certainly would possibly be viewed with less suspicion.

“Mom insisted that we behave as proper, civilized gumiho so we wouldn’t get in trouble with our fellow steaders, planet-bound residents of Jinju. In the old days, foxes had played tricks like changing into beautiful humans to lure lonely travelers close so they could suck out their lives. But our family didn’t do that” (4).

Min’s magic allows her to shape shift and charm others. Her capability for deception is pretty remarkable. She’s also intelligent, an adept mechanic, and Min’s determination is profound, compelling.

Sure Min is eager to follow her brother Jun into the Space Forces and see more of the Thousand Worlds. She’s done with a household packed with aunts, cousins, chores, and secrecy. But when a stranger comes with news that her brother has deserted his posting, she knows something is wrong. She is certain that one: she is the only one who believes her brother’s innocence, and two: she is the only one to prove it. Min just needs to sneak off-planet and find him.

Min’s exit plan is not fully formed, nor does she make it off-planet without issue. She is pressed for time and her magic is still gaining strength and skill. Fortunately, she happens to arrive at the space station from where her brother deserted. Unfortunately, it was not without peril. And if we were thinking nothing is at stake in this young reader’s novel, we learn that a young cadet was killed in the process.

Yoon Ha Lee does a couple of things in the story that impresses me. The world-building involves more than just populating it with supernatural creatures from mythology, the lore is built into the world’s very fabric and its technologies (143).

According to the old lore, energy flows could bring whole civilizations to ruin or grant good fortune. Just like you could have flows of good or bad luck in a room, depending on how furniture and ornaments were arranged, there could be flows of good or bad luck across star systems and beyond. The Thousand Worlds hadn’t yet gotten to the point where we could rearrange the stars for own benefit, but I’d heard that some of the more ambitious dragon masters dreamed of making that happen. (142)

The author isn’t afraid of nuance. Few, if any character, is glowingly good or evil. Our protagonist is the epitome of questionable decisions based in admirable intentions. She is going to have to deceive people, and make deals that appropriately complicate matters. Which leads me back around to that young cadet—Jang—a young person killed in the course of the novel, a situation Yoon Ha Lee is hardly gratuitous with, just realistic about, and it heightens the stakes. Even so, we only really know Jang as a vengeful ghost, and the reality that not all characters will live is delayed for more pressing matters.

Ghosts have familiar capabilities in Dragon Pearl, but paired with Min’s ability to shapeshift, we get a convenient but not flawless means for Min to investigate her brother’s situation. She’s able to learn more about her brother’s reputation and situation, and that the hunt for the Dragon Pearl continues. Part of the complication comes in the form of fellow cadets Haneul (hah-nool), a dragon cadet using her pronouns, and Sujin (soo-jeen), a goblin (dokkaebi) cadet using them pronouns. Min makes her first friends (outside of family)—as both herself and Jang.


Through Min’s fellow cadets, we learn the unique abilities other supernatural have and how natural it’s incorporation can be and how useful it is corporately. Min learns to navigate life as a cadet, which will involve a lot of scrubbing toilets. But she is familiar with chores; she is skilled at troubleshooting; she has a quick mind for certain tasks.

Yoon Ha Lee doesn’t create their hero out of thin air, or even convenience. We come to be reminded that what we know is only what Min knows, thinks, believes. And just because she have convinced herself of something, it doesn’t mean that it is true. The use of shape-shifting and limited perception strengthens thematically as the novel continues and we try to navigate folk’s intentions and facades. Some fox spirits do lure humans to their doom (gambling).

Some characters will not surprise us—not in the end—and that smug feeling distracts from the more surprising revelations—which maybe aren’t so surprising. Yoon Ha Lee does not create conflict or solutions out of thin air either. They are willing to go to some difficult places narratively, but it is ultimately rewarding. Plans do not run smoothly, not everyone can be easily anticipated, and resolutions will cost our protagonist, others, and the reader (I cried). I can’t wait to read the next installment.

Min is a force of nature, as is her adventure to rescue both her brother and herself. The Dragon Pearl is an object that may be initially perceived as an innocuous excuse for an adventure, but it has serious political dimensions: power and survival. And I suppose Yoon Ha Lee’s novel could be read with depths unplumbed, but lines like “Due to lasting prejudice, they have to hide their true identity.” And “It was easier to design starships to human shapes and sizes and have everyone else adapt,” makes the novel’s conversation rich and relevant. Too, the ideas of sacrifice: which ones are noble and which ones are needless?

Dragon Pearl is fun, imaginative, and compelling. It also carries a good kind of weight in its dialog, characterization, and world-building. It would make for a great book club choice with its broad appeal. Dragon Pearl is also a great way to lure Fantasy readers into the Science Fiction genre to experience the space opera; I’m looking at you Harry Potter and Percy Jackson fandoms.


Yoon Ha Lee is the author of several critically acclaimed short stories and the Machineries of Empire trilogy for adults. Yoon draws inspiration from a variety of sources, e.g. Korean history and mythology, fairy tales, higher mathematics, classic moral dilemmas, and genre fiction

The Riordan Imprint’s page for the novel, where I retrieved character images of Haneul, Sujin, and Min respectively.



{May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month}

His A Book of Sleep in the board book version is a favorite.

the dreamer coverThe Dreamer by Il Sung Na

Chronicle, 2018. Hardcover Picture book, 52 pages.

The question of whether pigs could fly is not new to picture books; neither is the desire to fly rare. If an engineer/inventor character in a STEM-book isn’t constructing a robot, it’s a flying contraption. The Dreamer is a lesson in why I shouldn’t underestimate an artist’s ability to make something new from recycled parts.

“Once there was a pig who admired birds,” the book begins. He doesn’t merely wish he could fly. He doesn’t wish he were a bird. He admired the birds. And he wanted to “join” them and when they migrated, he wanted to “follow.” Already Il Sung Na sets an unusual tone.

The dreamer doesn’t want to fly or become a bird out of envy, feelings of inadequacy, or to become something he’s not, or whatever other negative, yet plausible motivations we’ve been presented with before. The dreamer admires the bird–feels awe and inspiration–and begins to wonder if the belief that pigs do not fly is a foregone conclusion.

Cue the research phase ala formulas on the blackboard, then the collecting materials, building, falling, failing again and again. The dreamer returns to pondering the problem. And after inspiration strikes, “hope blossomed” (grew) in the form of a team of collaborators. “But even with help, it was not easy.”

Cue the part of the book that really caught my attention. “So he listened.” Pig and friends enter little vignettes where different birds are talking as they watch and listen and take notes:  a kiwi, an ostrich, a penguin, a hen, a parrot. Note with an amused smile the speech bubbles.

They return to the drawing board. And guess what?

interior pages from The Dreamer by Il Sung Na

Their success extended both the dream and the dreamer’s reach. A plane that could carry the dreamer around the world becomes a rocket that takes him to the moon.

And “Soon the world wanted to join him” in flight, and the various animals in a variety of flying machines are wonderful. You can’t help but think how this came about because the dreamer was admired by and had inspired those around him; just as the admired birds had inspired him.

The dynamic of not only pursuing the dream, but refining the process along the way is striking. As is how Il Sung Na illustrates–in an accessible and often humorous way–the dreamer observing, experiencing awe and inspiration, imagining, listening, and formulating, of collaborating and trying again and again, and to not even end the story there. The dreamer remains unfinished.

The dreamer found his beginning out on a ledge against a white sky, overlooking a valley of barren trees. At the book’s close, we return to the pig on that ledge, the sky with color and stars, and the trees with leaves on them. You are invited to wonder where this next season and next beginning might lead: “Once, there was a pig who admired birds.”

Paint me impressed with this beautifully nuanced, honest, and endearing portrayal of a dreamer. You’ll want to add this to those STEAM libraries, there are not too many like it—yet.

Always mind the endpapers. Look who joins the row of birds at the close.


Il Sung Na was born in Seoul, South Korea. In 2001, he moved to London to pursue a BFA in illustration and animation at Kingston University, where he discovered a passion for children’s books. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri.


the lighting of candles

{May is Jewish American Heritage Month}gittels journey interior coverGittel’s Journey : An Ellis Island Story by Lesléa Newman

Illus. Amy June Bates. Abrams, 2019. Hardcover Picture book, 48 pages

Historical fiction. Includes: Author’s Note and her family members who inspired the story, as well as notes on their fellow immigrants; Glossary of Yiddish words/phrases used in the story; a Bibliography.

Gittel had already been prepared to leave her belongings, her best friend Raisa and her goat Frieda behind, that—at 9 years of age—she’d have to sail to America without her mother was unexpected. It isn’t safe to stay until Mama can pass the medical evaluation—and we can conclude why. The story opens with her mother bidding Gittel to come in to light the candles with her for Shabbos.

gittels journey interior 2
pages from Gittel’s Journey by Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates

As her mother tells her she must go, she gives Gittel a paper with cousin Mendel’s name and address and the candlesticks. She would keep the tall white candles.

“She had Mama’s candlesticks but no candles. Mama had candles but no candlesticks. Candles and candlesticks belonged together just as she and Mama belonged together.”

In this scene we see Mama and Gittel apart, rendered with the same color palette in watercolor, engaged in the same act of closed-eyes, singing “the Sabbath blessing softly to herself.” The theme of light, flame, guidance, welcome/invitation is extended to the appearance of the Statue of Liberty. Note, too how the candlesticks peek from Gittel’s bag the way candles peek from Mama’s bag, both with the Stature and her torch lifted in the background.

gittels journey interior 4
pages from Gittel’s Journey by Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates
gittels journey interior
pages from Gittel’s Journey by Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates

Amy June Bates work is always stunning. The woodblock stamped frames and title page illustrations are gorgeous. Bates literally frames the text with a sense of the historic and cultural. The portraiture in Gittel’s Journey is remarkably effective in translating the feeling of something past while experiencing all the emotion in the present. Families shouldn’t have to flee, be separated, or be kept so vulnerable when they do and are. The Interpreter is a hero.

Newman introduces a compelling tension in the way Gittel tracks the paper her mother gave her. We understand its import and we fear alongside Gittel that she’ll lose it. While she has found kindness on the ship, will there be kindness to greet her at Ellis Island? Will she find Mendel as effortlessly as her mother made it seem?

gittels journey interior 3
pages from Gittel’s Journey by Lesléa Newman and Amy June Bates

I love Gittel’s invitation at the close. Her journey was incomplete without Mama and those tall white candles. And it is now her turn to call her mother home and to the lighting of the candles.

Gittel’s Journey is a treasure in text and illustration; two masterful portrait artists capturing a time so presently felt.

line clipartLet’s Talk Picture Books talks to Amy June Bates about her process, check it out.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 70 books for adults and children. Her literary awards include a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, the Association of Jewish Libraries Sydney Taylor Award, and the Massachusetts Book Award. She lives in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Amy Bates is the illustrator of Loving Hands, Bear in the Air, Minette’s Feast,and The Dog Who Belonged to No One. She lives in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.



{may} Asian Pacific Islander History & Jewish American Heritage Month

There are many to celebrate in May.
I hope to share some creators in honor of both Heritage Month observances.

copy_of_youre_invited.png“May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), celebrating the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.”–APAICS.org

A few things to share from “API Heritage” :

MISCONCEPTIONS: Asian Pacific Islanders (APIs) are seen as the ‘model minority’ with few issues. Yet, the reality isn’t true:

  • “Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to Be Promoted to Management” [Source: Harvard Business Review]
  • “Asian-American Actors Are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not Be Ignored.” [Source: New York Times]
  • “A Lawsuit by Asian-American Students Against Harvard Could End Affirmative Action as We Know It” [Source:TIME]
  • “America is Ignoring a Huge Part of Trump’s Crackdown on Immigrants” [Source: HuffPost]


The API community represents 30 countries with over 100 unique languages and dialects.

Mandarin Chinese is spoken more than any other single language throughout the world.

There are an estimated 21.4 million Asian residents living in the U.S. [Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

The Asian American population is the fastest growing in the U.S. and expected to continue over the next decade. [Source: Pew Research Center]





“Every May, celebrate Jewish Americans who have helped weave the fabric of American history, culture, and society.” —JAHM.org

Jewish American Heritage Month’s 2019 theme is Illustrators. Follow the link to learn about Jewish American Illustrators like Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are; The Night Kitchen; Chicken Soup with Rice), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (Marvel Universe), Ezra Jack Keats (The Snowy Day; Whistle for Willie), Bernard Waber (Courage; Lyle, Lyle Crocodile) among others. [2018’s theme was Music.]



{topics} cbw-graphic

100CollabPoster_FrankMorrison-IMG.pngIt’s Children’s Book Week and I thought I would share some favorite books and creators this week. Today, I want to share a few of my favorite comic books aka graphic novels. ages 7-12.

creators : names you should know

9780439846813*Kazu Kibuishi  : Amulet series (SFF), Copper, and edits Explorer anthologies

*Raina Telgemeier  : GutsGhosts; Smile/Sisters; Drama; Babysitters Club adaptations

+Gene Luen Yang : Avatar the Last Airbender; Secret Coders series; Boxers & Saints.

+Ben Hatke : Zita the Spacegirl series; Mighty Jack series; Little Robot

*Jennifer L. Holm w/ brother Matthew Holm: Babymouse series; Squish series; Sunny books; edits Comics Squad anthologies.

*Doug TenNapel : Ghostopolis; Cardboard; Bad Island 

9781596431089Shannon Hale, Dean Hale, Nathan Hale : Rapunzel’s Revenge books; + Real Friends books (w/ LeUyen Pham)

+Jen Wang: The Prince and the DressmakerStargazing; illustrated Doctorow’s In Real Life

Hope Larson : Four Points series; Chiggers; A Wrinkle in Time adaptation; Eagle Rock trilogy.

+Sara Varon : Robot DreamsBake Sale; Sweater Weather; Odd Duck

Ursula Vernon : Dragonbreath series; Hamster Princess series

favorite publishers

+First Second Books : I read their catalog of work. They are a to-read-list of comics.

*Graphix (Scholastic imprint)

for the younger

9781626725355+Sleepless Knight by James Sturm

+Tiger vs Nightmare by Emily Tetri

Narwhal and Jelly books by Ben Clanton

Ricky Ricotta series by Dav Pilkey, Dan Santat

*Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey (spin-off of Captain Underpants)

young readers

+Hildafolk books by Luke Pearson

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez

*Bird & Squirrel books by James Burks

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson

9781368022804Sidekicks by Dan Santat

Lunch Lady books by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

Sanity & Tallulah  series by Molly Brooks [SFF]

+Star Scouts series by Mike Lawrence [SFF]

+Chronicles of Claudette by Rafael Rosado, Jorge Aguirre

Hereville books by Barry Deutsch

*Cleopatra in Space series by Mike Maihack [Fantasy]

+The Time Museum by Matthew Loux

5 Worlds series by Mark Siegel

Last Kids on Earth series by Max Brailler [hybrid; Fantasy]

Hilo series by Judd Winick


9781626724457.jpgAmelia Rules! series by Jimmy Gownley

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol

Pilu of the Woods by Mai K. Nguyen

Pie in the Sky by Remy Lai [hybrid]

Fanny Britt, Isabelle Arsenault: Jane, the Fox, and Me

+This One Summer by Tamaki

+Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

9781626721562El Deafo by Cece Bell

+Nameless City trilogy by Faith Erin Hicks [Fantasy]

+Dam Keeper books by Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi

*The Witch Boy series by Molly Knox Ostertag

Berrybrook Middle School series by Svetlana Chmakova



Monster on the Hill by Rob Harrell

+Delilah Dirk series by Tony Cliff

Princeless by Jeremy Whitely, M. Goodwin

+Battling Boy series by Paul Pope

Bone series by jeff smith [fantasy, adult fandom]

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

Mouse Guard by David Peterson [fantasy, mice, adult fandom]


9781626727557Hidden by Loïc Dauvillier, Marc Lizano [Historical Fiction]

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales [history, non-fic]

+Pelé by Eddy Simon, Vincent Brascagalia

+Science comics: various topics