Our Children's Librarian columnist, Julie Booker, brings us a new view from the stacks every month.
In 1997, when Hong Kong was transferred from Britain back to the People’s Republic of China, the school where I worked had an influx of Chinese families determined to make Canada their home. One five-year-old boy arrived on October 31st, to a parade of ghosts and monsters. He spent the day, refusing to move, tears streaming down his face, occasionally emitting a howl heard round the school. How could this possibly be his new home?
Robert Munsch's book, From Far Away (age 4–7), also written by Saoussan Askar and illustrated by Michael Martchenko, deals with a similar situation, except the protagonist has the added layer of immigrating from war-torn Beirut. It’s told in the form of a letter to a Reading Buddy. This is the beauty of Munsch. His stories come out of real kids' lives.
Whether transitioning to a new location or determining to stay in one place, the desire for stability is common to all these picture books about home.
The Boy in the Attic (age 5–7), by Paul Yee and Gu Xiong, is an intriguing story of a boy who moves from rural China to a North American city. He doesn't speak English and all the cars and trucks and kids playing street hockey seem extremely foreign. One day in his backyard, he looks up through the huge maple tree to see a face in the attic window. It's a trapped spirit, a little boy who lived there long ago. A black butterfly appears, allowing them to speak the same language and they become playmates until Kai-Ming's father announces they're moving to another house. The spirit boy helps Kai-Ming decide a common language is the only way he'll move on and have real friends in his new country.
Rachna Gilmore uses metaphor to capture how a young girl feels immigrating from India in the Gita Trilogy, illustrated by Alice Priestley (ages 5 and up). In Lights for Gita, a young girl's first Divali party in Canada is almost ruined by a freezing rain storm. Friends call to cancel, fireworks are out of the question, and Gita must settle for diyas (mustard oil candles) to stave off the darkness. A neighbourhood blackout shows Gita the true meaning of light overcoming darkness.
In Roses for Gita, Gita attempts to plant flowers in her new yard, just like her grandmother’s garden in India. This book’s well-chosen antagonist is the mean, nearsighted Mr. Flinch who thinks Gita is one of the rapscallion boys who used to live next door. Following her grandmother Naniji’s advice about roses needing space for strong roots to grow, Gita takes steps to include the grumpy neighbour, thus broadening her immediate community. It ends perfectly with: "The First Rose would dig its roots down, down towards Naniji's garden on the other side of the world."
A Gift for Gita takes place three years later. Gita's father is offered a job in India, and the family, along with Naniji on a first visit to Canada, must explore their feelings about having two homes, aptly symbolized by Gita's Indian nesting doll.
A great non-fiction pairing with these immigrant stories might be The Day I Became a Canadian (age 7–9) by Jo Bannatyne Cugnet, illustrated by Song Nan Zhang. Subtitled, A Citizenship Scrapbook, it captures, visually and story-wise, the citizenship ceremony, as told through the eyes of a child. The pride, fear, diversity of the crowd, and the multitude of reasons for choosing Canada are all present.
A grumpy neighbour figures in Tess (age 7–10) by Hazel Hutchins, illustrated by Ruth Ohi. This is a snapshot the Prairies in the 1930s. Tess's parents, having lived in a "warmer gentler society," struggle with their harsh new life, including the constant need for coal to heat their home. They train Tess and her brother to gather malongo (cow dung) from the fields, which at first seems disgusting to Tess. But then it becomes a welcome challenge to find the perfect patty—not too fresh, nor too old, and crumbly. Her next door neighbour makes her feel ashamed of the stench. But this problem is countered by Tess standing looking at "...the sky so wide it made her feel wonderfully small and wonderfully grand …. How could you be poor with the whole prairie at your feet?" This sums up beautifully the moment she discovers she’s finally at home.
The Dust Bowl, by David Booth and Karen Reczuch, (age 7–10) is set in a similar place, fifty years later. This conversation between a grandfather and his grandson about belonging to a place is a great introduction to hardships faced by farmers: snowstorms, dust storms, grasshopper plagues eating through horse halters, and covering train tracks to the point of stopping locomotives. Many farmers left their homes to look for a better life further west, but the family in this tale illustrate endurance through cycles of drought and abundance, with a loyalty to home spanning generations.
Wolf Island by Celia Godkin (age 5–11) is about a home out of balance, set in the animal world. It takes place on an island. Five wolf cubs find a raft at the water's edge and step onto it, quickly becoming adrift. The mother and father swim out to them and they all end up on a neighbouring island, leaving no wolves in their homeland. The deer population increases, consuming an unusual amount of grass and plants, which leaves the rabbits without food. Less rabbits are born, so that the foxes don't have enough to hunt and so on. It encapsulates a complete food chain out of whack and provides another example of the implications of leaving home.
On her first day as teacher-librarian, Julie Booker was asked by a five-year-old if that was her real name. She's felt at home in libraries since her inaugural job as a Page in the Toronto Public Library. She is the author of Up Up Up, a book of short stories published by House of Anansi Press in 2011.
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