When We Were Alone

David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett have come together to create a brilliant and important picture book that introduces to children an important part of First Nation history, which must be understood to put U.S. history in context.

Picture book, First Nation history, fiction
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 3; reading level: 3.6
5 out of 5 stars


Much of the history of First Nation people in North America is never presented in the history books that children encounter in schools. In the late 1800s First Nation boarding schools were established in the United States. The idea behind the boarding schools was to eradicate First Nation culture. Forcefully removed from homes and separated from their family members, First Nation students were forced to give up their culture and were made to dress the same, cut their hair, speak only English, and convert to Christianity.

In When We Were Alone Robertson has managed to deftly present the bleak and horrifying story of First Nation children without overwhelming young readers. He has presented the realities of the situation in a general way and paired it with hope and perseverance.

The story focuses on a young child having a conversation with her grandmother. The girl asks “why” questions and the grandmother’s answer focuses on how her time in the boarding school shaped her life as an adult.

“Nokom, why do you wear so many colours?’ I asked.
Nokom said, “Well, Nosisim…”

The grandmother responds that when she was a child and went away to school, all the children were forced to dress the same because “they wanted us to look like everybody else.”
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Flett’s monochromatic illustration of the children all dressed the same is a powerful image that illustrates how something as seemingly simple as having the authority to tell people what clothes they can wear can begin to erase an entire culture.

Robertson then follows up the bleak idea of the children’s identity being erased by boarding school rules with a message of inner strength and hope. The grandmother has a story about how each season, when the children found themselves alone together, they would remember their culture and heritage and secretly work to maintain their identity.

But sometimes in the fall, when we were alone, and the leaves had turned to their warm autumn hues, we would roll around on the ground. We would pile the leaves over the clothes they had given us, and we would be colourful again.

And this made us happy.

Both Robertson and Flett are Cree descendants, so the voice of the story is authentic. My only wish is that the book contained some type of author’s note or bibliography so that parents, teachers, or children would have further information about this topic. Some readers could believe this is a made up story, not realizing that it wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978 that First Nation parents had the right to determine if their child was placed in a boarding school.

This is an incredibly powerful and important book that sensitively introduces a difficult, and little known part of U.S. history to young children.

Parent/teacher guide: There is a free parent/teacher guide available at http://www.portageandmainpress.com/product/parentteacher-guide-for-when-we-were-alone/. The guide includes some talking points, prepping ideas, and follow-up discussions.


When We Were Alone
by David A. Robertson and Julie Flett
Highwater Press, 2016
ISBN 978

The Storyteller

This exquisite and complex story is an original folktale that celebrates the importance of culture and storytelling.

The Storyteller
by Evan Turk
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4814-3518-5
Picture book, fiction, diversity
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations, color map ; 29 cm
Interest Level: grades 2-5; Reading Level: 4.2
4 out of 5 stars


Evan Turk has crafted an original folktale that is set in Morocco, on the edge of the Saharan desert. The story opens in modern times, with people becoming busier and less connected. Additionally, the life-giving water in the fountains starts to dry up. A thirsty young boy searches the city for water, and comes across an old storyteller, who tells him, “Sit down, my boy, and your thirst shall be quenched.” As the boy listens to the old man’s stories, his bowl fills with water. The storyteller always leaves the boy wanting to know more, which he must wait to hear the next day.

The stories that the boy hears are actually stories nested within stories that tell about a never-ending magical blue thread that is the source of water for the people. It takes very alert readers to keep the nested stories straight in their mind and not get them confused. Turk has crafted nested borders for his pages that can help distinguish which level of the story the reader is hearing.

Ultimately, the Sahara threatens the drought-stricken modern city, and the boy must distract the sandstorm by telling the stories he has just heard. The boy’s storytelling not only distracts the great Sahara, but also brings water back to the fountains, as more and more citizens gather around to hear the stories of the young hero.

An Author’s Note in the back of the book begins with this quote:

When a storyteller dies, a library burns.
–old Moroccan saying

Evan Turk has crafted a story that uses water for a metaphor for the storytelling culture of Morocco. Culture dries up when storytelling disappears. There has recently been a push in Morocco to revitalize this ancient craft and maintain their storytelling traditions.

The book’s illustrations are a combination of rich blues and browns. Turk’s images appear both modern and ancient at the same time. For example, a motor scooter and horse-drawn carriage are in the same scene; some characters are more ancient looking, and others quite modern.
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The back of the book contains information for further reading about weaving and storytelling in Morocco.

I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars because the illustrations are a perfect fit for the tone of the story. The tale itself is unique and speaks to the need to retain ones culture. This is a well-crafted story, but because of its complex nesting of stories, it has a somewhat limited audience.

The book has a companion website at http://thestorytellerbook.com/ which offers further reading and background material.

There is also a book trailer:

The Sound of Silence

This is a very thought-provoking picture book that focuses on the Japanese concept of ma, or the silence between sounds.

The Sound of Silence
by Katrina Goldsaito; illustrated by Julia Kuo
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
ISBN 978-0-316-20337-1
Picture book, fiction, Tokyo, Japan
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 22 x 29 cm
Interest Level: K-5; Reading Lvl: 3.0
4 out of 5 stars


A young boy named Yoshio is walking to school one day in the rain. As he walks through the busy city of Tokyo, he becomes aware of all the sounds that surround him — cars honking, rain on his umbrella, tires on the pavement, the squish of his boots. Through all that, he also hears a koto player. The sound fascinates him and he stops to listen. When he asks her what is her favorite sound, she answers, “The most beautiful sound is the sound of ma, of silence.” So Yoshio continues on to school, but now he is determined to find the sound of silence. It is not in a bamboo forest, his bathtub at home, or in his bed as he goes to sleep at night. Will he find ma?

Julia Kuo’s illustrations are a perfect accompaniment to the story. Drawn in pen and colored digitally, the illustrations transport the reader on Yoshio’s journey to find ma. His bright yellow boots and umbrella and his red hat make him easily recognizable in the busy Tokyo scenes. Kuo has done a wonderful job depicting the busyness of the city and then following Yoshio’s search for ma, we see the scenes becoming more tranquil and the colors more natural.
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Yoshio finds ma in the stillness inside him, and learns it had been there all along. This book has so many good reasons to share it with children. It exposes children to Tokyo and Japanese traditions, and can be used to teach about calmness and ma. While it is a picture book, it really does require a lot of thinking and understanding about abstract concepts, so young children may not appreciate its beauty.

This book could be used in conjunction with yoga or meditation activities, lessons on Japanese culture, or in music class to pair with Toru Takemitsu, who is a contemporary Japanese composer who said that “without silence, sound would be meaningless.”

I gave the book 4 out of 5 stars because I feel the illustrations and story are unique and fit well together. It is a diverse offering that can teach young American children about Japanese customs and introduce them to life in Tokyo. It is perhaps more deep thinking than children are accustomed to, so it will be appreciated by a select audience.


For some digital projects related to The Sound of Silence, visit http://thesoundofsilence.org/.

The music of Toru Takemitsu can be found on YouTube. One of his pieces is titled “Rain Spell” and makes a good companion to The Sound of Silence.

Dia de los Muertos

This nonfiction picture book is a festive introduction to the Mexican and Latin American holiday of Dia de los Muertos.

Dia de los Muertos
by Roseanne Greenfield Thong; pictures by Carles Ballesteros
Albert Whitman & Company, Chicago, 2015
ISBN 978-0-8075-1566-2
1 volume (unpaged) : color illustrations ; 23 x 29 cm
Picture book, nonfiction, diversity
Dewey: 394.266
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.7
4 out of 5 stars


It is important to respect the cultures and traditions of people in other parts of the world, and reading books that present accurate information in a fun and entertaining way is an excellent way to educate children. Many people who are not part of the Latin American or Mexican culture mistakenly believe that Dia de los Muertos is associated with the American holiday of Halloween. Dia de los Muertos by Roseanne Thong and Carles Ballesteros make this distinct holiday come to life so readers understand what makes it special.

Thong has used rhyming text, with interspersed Spanish words, to narrate the story of how one town celebrates Dia de los Muertos. The Spanish words are left to stand on their own; they are not defined in the narrative text. This works well in the story because in most cases the words are either recognizable because of their resemblance to the corresponding English word, such as “celebraciones,” or the illustrations provide visual clues to the word’s meaning.
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The illustrations are colorful and festive, matching the tone of the text and the holiday itself. In the additional information in the back of the book, Thong notes that “the emphasis of this day is on the joy of life rather than the sadness of death.” The feeling of the holiday is conveyed well by the rhyming text and festive illustrations. Skulls are part of the holiday, and the illustrations are accurate, but in no way scary, in order to be appropriate to young readers.

Two pages of more detailed information about Dia de los Muertos is included in the back of the book, as well as a glossary to define the Spanish words. There are no pronunciation guides, which is unfortunate, although Google Translate or other online resources can fill that need.

The flow of the rhyming text, paired with engaging illustrations, would make this book an excellent read-aloud for Nov. 1 or 2, the dates that the holiday is celebrated. Teachers or librarians could compare this Mexican/Latin American holiday to Halloween to help children recognize the differences.

Additional resources
Latinxs in Kid Lit has a list of other books that explore the holiday’s beliefs and traditions: https://latinosinkidlit.com/2014/10/31/scholastic-highlights-books-that-celebrate-the-day-of-the-dead-el-dia-de-los-muertos/

The Program of Latino History and Culture at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History has created a guide to the holiday that is appropriate for teachers or librarians. The history and beliefs are covered, and lesson ideas and activities are included. http://latino.si.edu/dayofthedead/DODManual.pdf

National Geographic has general information about Dia de los Muertos, including stunning illustrations, suggested questions to pose to students, and quick facts.
For older students: http://nationalgeographic.org/media/dia-de-los-muertos/
For younger students: http://kids.nationalgeographic.com/explore/celebrations/day-of-the-dead/

Arcady’s Goal; 4 out of 5 stars #bookaday

Yelchin’s illustrations are expressive and really help to bring this Soviet Russian historical fiction novel to life.

Arcady’s Goal
by Eugene Yelchin
Henry Holt and Company, 2014
ISBN 978-1-62779-291-2
234 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm
Chapter book, historical fiction
YHBA intermediate grade nominee, 2016
Interest level: grades 4-8; reading level: 4.4
Lexile measure: 630
4 out of 5 stars


Arcady’s Goal is a historical fiction novel that is set in Soviet Russia in the time of Stalin. This is not a historical time period that children know much about, so Eugene Yelchin’s books are windows into an unknown, but real, world.

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The book opens with a black and white photograph of a soccer team. The accompanying narrative explains to readers that the photograph is what inspired Yelchin to write Arcady’s Goal:

Fewer than a dozen photographs of my family survived the turbulent history of the Soviet Union, the country of my birth. The photograph above inspired this book, and it is the one that I most treasure: the Red Army Soccer Club in 1945. The captain of the team is in the middle row, third from the right. He is Arcady Yelchin, my father.

Arcady is a 12-year-old boy living in a children’s home in Russia. His parents have been declared enemies of the state, and even though the children don’t understand what that means, they live with the shame of their parents’ actions. Arcady is gifted at playing soccer, and he uses this skill to earn extra bread rations and establish respect in a tough and bleak life.

One day some inspectors come to examine the children’s home and Arcady and his soccer skills capture the attention of Ivan Ivanych, who comes back to adopt Arcady. Arcady’s life after that is about learning to trust and love. The story is suspenseful, exciting, and full of moments of heartbreak and warmth.

I listened to the audiobook version, and while it is well done, I would recommend reading the print version. Yelchin’s illustrations are expressive and really help to bring the story to life for readers.

Teacher’s guide from Macmillan
Teacher’s guide from Indiana Library Federation

Nino Wrestles the World; 4 out of 5 stars #bookaday

Nino Wrestles the World
by Yuyi Morales
Roraing Brook Press, New York, 2013
ISBN 978-1-59643-604-6
Picture book, diversity
Pura Belpre Illustrator Award, 2014
Interest level: K-3
Reading level: 2.3
4 out of 5 stars


Lucha libre is a style of professional wrestling that features the participants wearing brightly colored masks. They can feature anything from animals to mythical heroes and villains, and are popular in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries.

Nino Wrestles the World is a picture book that features a young boy who begins the story quietly playing by himself. You can see that he has a toy wrestling ring with luchadores set up on the ropes. Then the boy straps on a red mask, strips to his tighty-whiteys and becomes NINO! He wrestles various characters, using tactics like the “tickle tackle” and “popsicle slick.” He defeats all foes until his twin sisters wake up from their nap, and he must face Las Hermanitas.

This diverse book is very creative, and highlights the wonders of a child’s imagination. Spanish is sprinkled throughout the text, but careful reading, and some wonderful explanations in the book’s endpapers, enable readers to understand meaning. There were a few scenes in the book that I did not understand on the first reading, so I really do encourage readers to read the endpapers, and read the book a second time. The meaning is much more apparent then.

Morales has illustrated the story with a graphic style featuring bright colors and scenes that would be at home on wrestling poster. This book is a wonderful way to open up children to different cultures, as well as to let children see their interests reflected in a story.

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? the story of Elizabeth Blackwell

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? the story of Elizabeth Blackwell
by Tanya Lee Stone; illustrated by Marjorie Priceman
Christy Ottaviano Books, New York, 2013
ISBN 978-0-8050-9048-2
Picture book, biography
40 unnumbered pages : color illustrations ; 29 cm
Dewey: 610
Orbis Pictus Award, recommended book, 2014
Interest level: K-5
Reading level: 4.5
5 out of 5 stars


This is a wonderful picture book biography of Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America. The story begins by informing the reader that there was a time when women were not allowed to be doctors. Many young readers will not be aware of this, and this somewhat shocking revelation makes a good hook as we then learn about Elizabeth Blackwell, from when she was a tough young girl up through her graduation from medical college.

The author includes some interesting details that helps readers get to know Blackwell. She was “a girl who tried sleeping on the hard floor with no covers, just to toughen herself up,” and “blood made her queasy.” It was when she was visiting a sick friend that she started to think about female doctors. The friend commented that “she would have much preferred being examined by a woman. She urged Elizabeth to consider becoming a doctor.”

Priceman’s gouache and india ink illustrations are colorful and flowing, and create a sense of movement that perfectly matches the text and the personality of Blackwell. Untitled

As Blackwell receives twenty-eight rejection letters from medical schools, Priceman has created an overwhelmed Blackwell surrounded by swirling letters and a series of “no’s.” Untitled

You turn the page, and there is one solid “Yes!” and the image of a figure carrying a suitcase halfway off the page. The juxtaposition of those two scenes brings the feelings of Blackwell to life.

The combination of an intriguing main character, engaging illustrations, and solid text that reads well would make this an excellent read-aloud opportunity. It would fit with children as young as kindergarten up through high school, if they were studying women’s rights.

The author has included a note at the back that fills in information around the main story. We learn of Blackwell’s infancy, as well as what happened after medical school. A source list is included.

The Library of Congress has a collection of Elizabeth Blackwell’s papers. You can view a handwritten letter from 1851 written by Blackwell concerning women’s rights.
Library of Congress: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/awmss5/blackwell.html

The author’s website has a Teacher’s Guide and CCSS Connections publication available for download.
Teacher’s Guide: http://tanyastone.com/assets/files/Blackwell%20Reader%20Guide.pdf
CCSS Connections: http://tanyastone.com/assets/files/Blackwell%20Reader%20Guide.pdf

School Library Journal has teaching ideas for the book. This article includes an extensive list of online resources for more information about Elizabeth Blackwell.
The Classroom Bookshelf: http://www.theclassroombookshelf.com/2013/05/who-says-women-cant-be-doctors-the-story-of-elizabeth-blackwell/