Monday, November 18, 2013

IN OUR MOTHERS' HOUSE, by Patricia Polacco

Polacco, Patrica.  (2009).  In Our Mothers’ House.  New York: Philomel Books.
ISBN 978-0-399-25076-7

In this story, their family of three kids has two mothers.  They go through life laughing and loving each other. Small vignettes are told of ways that Marmee and Meema love their adopted children with all their hearts.  One family in the neighborhood does not like theirs, but this family does not let that family keep them from being a part of the neighborhood or from loving each other.


Patricia Polacco is a well-known children’s author who often has written about her past and her Russian, Jewish heritage.  In this case, according to the back jacket sleeve, she did not feel there were enough books that supported “these wonderful, yet untraditional” family structures, so she wrote one.  As Dr. Vardell states, “This topic makes many people uncomfortable.  Some even object to children’s books containing the topic of homosexuality in any way” (Gay Literature for Young People, n.p.)  If a community is reluctant to have literature that references a family with gay or lesbian parents, In Our Mothers’ House would be a good place to start.  It is not didactic, but rather simply shows how much love can be found in an unconventional family.  The family’s healthy love speaks for itself. 

The story is told from the point of view of the oldest child, beginning by saying how Marmee and Meema “walked across dry hot deserts, sailed through turbulent seas, flew over tall mountains and trekked through fierce storms just to bring me home” (Polacco, n.p.)  Right away, the two adult women are established as loving mothers, who are determined to do what is right for their child.  Then the other two children arrive, three years apart each.  The illustrations are warm family scenes, with the women holding their children and everyone smiling.  The fact that each child is a different ethnicity is not mentioned, though the art does a wonderful job of representing each child as an individual, not a racial stereotype.

Because the narrator is a child, the reader must infer why the neighbors don’t like their family for most of the story:  “They just plain didn’t like us, I guessed.  I couldn’t quite understand why.  We always tried to be respectful and friendly, like our mothers taught us.”  Most adults won’t have to guess, but for many children, this may still be a bit of an inference.  It is not until near the end of the book that the neighbor states outright, “I don’t appreciate what you two are!”  Even then, the word “lesbian” or “gay” is never used.  The other neighbors all hug Meema and Marmee and thank them for the block party—showing their support of their family.  So even though Meema and Marmee face judgment, it is minimal in the story.  It peeks through here and there, like when they all go trick or treating or when the treehouse was finished and the Lockner kids were not allowed to come play.  But the focus is really on their wonderful family.

There is no feel-good ending for the Lockner family either, which is a breath of fresh air.  They don’t suddenly see the light and decide that Marmee and Meema are wonderful mothers.  In reality, many families who judge gay/lesbian households are not going to change their mind. But what makes a difference in this story are the neighbors that have always loved this family and show that support publicly, making this a positive book for a family with two mothers or two fathers. 

There are many images of a whole, happy family bursting with joy and love, such as when Polacco writes, “…all of our family holidays began in the kitchen.  Our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins usually came for the weekend.  Our Italian grandpa, our nonno, was in charge of cooking.”  And the image shows arms widely outstretched to give wonderful hugs to all the kids and family members.  In every possible way, Polacco creates a family image of love, a wonderful place to be.  Through both text and illustrations, this family is presented in an incredibly positive light, which was Polacco’s goal.  “Our mothers loved to laugh,” and “We laughed and laughed,” and “How we loved them for doing this for us.” The implied statement is, “What’s not to love about this family and these two ladies?”

Gentle pencil and soft marker colors create realistic sketchy drawings in Polacco’s signature style.  She shows all three children grown up and married as the book develops.  The emotions on their faces are clear and very poignant.  When Meema and Marmee see their grandchild walk, readers can see their pride and joy. 

The end is touching, as it shows the two women aged but still smiling, arms around each other.  They are sitting on a chair amid a field of stars.  The text tells us, “They passed away within a year of each other.  Will, Millie and I placed them together in a green hillside overlooking the bay very near the place where they pledged their love to each other so many years ago.”  The very last image show the house at night, lit up from within, with children running with sparklers in the darkness.  All three of the children have grown up, married and had children.  The two mothers are gone, but not forgotten, as Polacco writes, “The walls still whisper our mothers’ names.  All of our hearts find peace whenever we are there…not only remembering them, but being there, together in our mothers’ house.” 

This book is a powerful testament to the love and acceptance found in many alternative/nontraditional families. 


“Gr 1-4-This gem of a book illustrates how love makes a family, even if it's not a traditional one. The narrator, a black girl, describes how her two Caucasian mothers, Marmee and Meema, adopted her, her Asian brother, and her red-headed sister. She tells about the wonderful times they have growing up in Berkeley, CA. With their large extended family and friends, they celebrate Halloween with homemade costumes, build a tree house, organize a neighborhood block party, and host a mother-daughter tea party. The narrator continually reinforces the affectionate feelings among her mothers and siblings, and the illustrations depict numerous scenes of smiling people having a grand time. Most of the neighbors are supportive, except for one woman who tells Marmee and Meema, "I don't appreciate what you two are." Eventually, the children grow up, marry heterosexual spouses, and return home to visit their aged parents with their own children. Is this an idealized vision of a how a gay couple can be accepted by their family and community? Absolutely. But the story serves as a model of inclusiveness for children who have same-sex parents, as well as for children who may have questions about a "different" family in their neighborhood. A lovely book that can help youngsters better understand their world.”  School Library Journal, May 1, 2009.

“The oldest of three adopted children recalls her childhood with mothers Marmee and Meema, as they raised their African American daughter, Asian American son, and Caucasian daughter in a lively, supportive neighborhood. Filled with recollections of family holidays, rituals, and special moments, each memory reveals loving insight. At a school mother-daughter tea, for instance, the mothers make their first ever appearance in dresses. The narrator recalls ‘My heart still skips a beat when I think of the two of them trying so hard to please us.’ Only a crabby neighbor keeps her children away from their family. Meema explains, ‘She's afraid of what she cannot understand: she doesn't understand us.’ The energetic illustrations in pencil and marker, though perhaps not as well-rendered as in some previous works, teem with family activities and neighborhood festivity. Quieter moments radiate the love the mothers feel for their children and for each other. Similar in spirit to the author's Chicken Sunday, this portrait of a loving family celebrates differences, too. Pair this with Arnold Adoff's Black Is Brown Is Tan (2002), Toyomi Igus' Two Mrs. Gibsons (1996), or Natasha Wing's Jalapeno Bagels (1996) for portraits of family diversity.” Booklist, May 1, 2009.

  • Read other books by Patricia Polacco and do an author study.  She has a great many well-loved picture books from which to choose.
  • Read Chicken Sunday, also by Patricia Polacco, and compare and contrast the families presented in that book with In Our Mothers’ House.  Both celebrate families.  Try doing a Venn Diagram to compare and contrast the stories.
  • Read another book that demonstrates a different type of family diversity.  The book Two Mrs. Gibsons, by Toyomi Igus, celebrates growing up biracial by talking about her Japanese mother and her African-American grandmother.
  • Read A Tale of Two Daddies, which also celebrates nontraditional families and supports the GLBTQ, or Daddy’s Roommate, by Michael Willhoite, which includes a divorced father who then finds a male partner. 
  • Try rewriting In Our Mothers’ House from the point of view of one of the mothers, or from the viewpoint of a neighborhood child who is a friend.  How would it be different?
  • Explore Patricia Polacco’s website, which is a wonderful, rich resource and found at .  She has electronic postcards you can make and send, bookmarks you can print with certain images from her books, activity ideas, Q and A related to some of the books (such as giving more information about the Amish for her book Just Plain Fancy) and other interesting facts.  It’s fantastic!


I have loved Patricia Polacco for years.  I had never read this book, though, so I was glad to check off one more Polacco book that I have read.  I own quite a few of them and this is one I’d be happy to own, too.  It may be a bit of overkill, how happy and wonderful everything is in the story.  We never see the mothers fight, or feel really hurt  by the rejection of their neighbor, but I think that’s okay, given Polacco’s goal.  It’s pretty clear that this book is meant to be positive PR for gay/lesbian families, but I am fine with that.   They get enough negative attention.  I am glad that Polacco has written a great book for children that highlights that love can be found in any family, and love is what counts.

Works Referenced:

Igus, Toyomi.  (2013).  Two Mrs. Gibsons.  New York:  Lee and Low Books.

Oelschlager, Vanita. (2010). A Tale of Two Daddies. Akron, OH: Vanitabooks.

Polacco, Patricia.  (1992).  Chicken Sunday.  New York:  Penguin Group.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008.)  “Overview” Culture 6 Inclusion Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 18, 2013. 

Willhoite, Michael.  (1990). Daddy's Roommate.  New York:  Alyson Publications.

DOES MY HEAD LOOK BIG IN THIS? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  (2005).  Does My Head Look Big in This?  New York:  Orchard Books.
ISBN 978-0-439-91947-0


Amal is sixteen, Australian, Pakistani and Muslim.  She decides she is finally ready to wear the hijab, Muslim head scarf, full-time as a mark of her faith.  This means wearing it even to her upscale prep school.  As predicted by her concerned parents, she attracts all kinds of attention, good and bad, and struggles against stereotypes and ignorance.  Amal works hard to determine what it means to be a young Muslim woman today in a society that does not always understand what her faith means to her and why she chooses to wear the hijab.  Through Amal’s experiences, readers are given a helpful understanding of the vast points of view within the Muslim community about the role of women, and what it means to be a young Muslim girl in a predominantly non-Muslim area.


Abdel-Fattah uses the first person voice of Amal to share an insider’s view of being a Palestinian- Muslim-Australian.  She uses humor to keep the book from getting too heavy, but she deftly touches on topics such as prejudice, 9-11, dating, job career choices, marrying and more.  The story is definitely about a teenager learning who she is and who she wants to be as a person of faith, and it weaves in cultural authenticity constantly, from what she eats to what she wears. 

Given that the hijab is a major plot point of the story, the question of clothing comes up very frequently.  Abdel-Fattah skillfully avoids stereotypes by showing instead the many ways girls and women approach the hijab.  Some of her friends wear it; some do not.  Her mother, the dentist, wears the hijab, but her aunt does not and bleaches her hair blond.  When Josh asks why her hijab is not colorful as some he has seen, Amal explains, “…every girl is going to interpret the hijab differently.  It depends on their culture, or their fashion sense, you know?  There’s no one uniform for it” (72). 

Amal speaks casually with plenty of slang and drama, making sure readers never forget this is a story about a teen, not a dissertation on Islam.  “So when you’re a non-pork eating, Eid-celebrating Mossie (as in taunting nickname for  Muslim, not mosquito) with an unpronounceable last name and a mother who picks up you from school wearing a hijab and Gucci shades, and drives a car with an “Islam means peace” bumper sticker, a quiet existence is impossible” (10).    Her sassy, sarcastic remarks keep her real and human and very much a teenager in the reader’s eyes.   When people ask about her hijab, she jokes with them, “I’ve gone bald” (71) or “My dad told me if I don’t wear it he’ll marry me off to a sixty-five-year-old camel owner in Egypt” (70).  The pace of the story moves quickly thanks to her liberal use of humor.

As mentioned in our book (Smolen and Oswald, 274), a number of Middle Eastern books deal with the theme of immigrant experiences.  This is not a traditional immigrant kind of story, but it touches on this theme nonetheless.  Australia is Amal’s home—she was born in Australia.  Her parents were “both born in Bethlehem, but there are fifty-two years of Australian citizenship between them” (3).  However, the Catholic neighbor, in particular, has a touching, poignant story of moving to Australia from Greece, not speaking English, not meeting people, being so afraid of losing their store, of having many miscarriages.  It is heavy material, but because Amal always manages to make people laugh, the readers are able to take breaks and laugh with them, even when we have just witnessed how hard it can be to be an immigrant.  And though Amal is not technically an immigrant, she is still an outsider.  As she puts it, “I’m an Australian-Muslim-Palestinian.  That means I was born an Aussie and whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens…I mean, it’s hard enough being an Arab Muslim at a new school with your hair tumbling down your shoulders.  Shawling up is just plain psychotic” (6).

Amal mentions the derogatory words she has faced while living in Melbourne and she knows she’ll be called names if she wears the hijab (“towelhead” is mentioned, pg 27), but she also describes beautifully the reasons a woman would choose to wear the veil.  “…I want that identity. You know, the symbol of my faith.  I want to know what it means to be strong enough to walk around with it and stick up for my right to wear it” (24).  She is afraid of the consequences of her choice, “So you can understand why I’m walking around the stores in combat mode, avoiding eye-contact…” (27), but ultimately decides to do what she believes is right.  After a trip to the mall where she greets a few other girls wearing the hijab, Amal reflects, “I’m sharing something with millions of other women around the world and it feel so exciting.  I know some people might find it hard to believe but walking around the mall tonight I’d never felt so free and sure of who I am.  …I was looking and feeling good on my own terms, and boy did that feel awesome” (29). 

Later, she discusses boys and food and general life with her friends—showing very clearly that she is still a typical teenager despite her choice to take her faith more seriously.  She finds a place to pray; she already has been participating fully in Ramadan.  She wears the hijab—but still takes an hour to situate it perfectly around her face without any sags or creases.  She’s definitely still a regular teenage girl.  The book title itself is amusing and perfect, showing her concern about her appearance even while putting on the mark of her faith.

Readers are treated to sprinkles of Arabic throughout the passage, adding the authenticity and credibility of the storyline.  “Yallah!” is probably the word we see the most of, which means, “Come on” or “Hurry up!” We see her nickname is “Ya Amal” which means “Oh Amal.”  And we see words related to their culture, such as the morning fajr, or prayer.  She performs the wuduh, the ablution, and readers are able to follow along to see what these traditions look like in the daily life of a middle income family (29).  The authenticity is strengthened by the fact that the author is Australian, Muslim and of Palestinian and Egyptian heritage.

The theme of being true to who you are is strong throughout the novel.  The author does not hide from the barriers to standing up as a Muslim.  Amal says to her crush, “Do you have any idea how it feels to be me, a Muslim, today?  I mean, just turn on the television, open a newspaper.  There will be some feature article analyzing, deconstructing, whipping up some theory about Islam and Muslims.  Another chance to make sense of this phenomenon called ‘the Muslim’  It feels like I’m drowning in it all” (156). She is even asked by the class president to explain Islam and why the bombers who were suspected to be Muslims would do such a thing. Amal explains that they have nothing to do with her faith, but the class president never seems to understand why Amal does not want to be associated with the bombers in this way and finds it offensive to be asked to speak on their behalf.   

The theme of being true to yourself and embracing your heritage and faith is developed also in the side-characters such as Leila, who runs away from home rather than marry early.  For Leila, the Koran clearly says it is her duty to get an education.  Her mother does not read the Koran, but was raised as a Muslim in a little village and believes what she was told about the role of the woman—and living as a wife and mother has made her happy.  Through Leila, readers are able to better understand a mother who sees an early marriage as the best thing for her daughter.  For those of us in America who generally do not value arranged marriages, it offers a helpful insight into why a parent would find such a thing appealing for a child.  And Amal’s aunt and uncle illustrate the theme by how hard they try to NOT be Pakistani.  When the uncle has his boss over, he goes out of his way to use Australian slang (“Hey there, mate!”) and when the guest compliments the food, saying how much he loves Middle Eastern food, the uncle explains how his wife cooks many types of food, not just Middle Eastern food.

Amal’s friend Eileen is Japanese-Australian and says, “My parents emigrated from Japan about twenty years ago and they’re still going on about the traditions and cultural norms they were following when they left, all those years back”  (150).  She speaks Japanese at home and her mom wears old-fashioned kimonos.  She shares the experience of being torn between two cultures and she chooses a path from both that works for her.

Vardell states, “It can be challenging to locate children’s books which authentically reflect the experiences of immigrants from the Middle East” (overview, n.p)  Even though this book is not about an immigrant from the Middle East, as Amal is also Australian, it does serve as a wonderful book to expand children’s horizons when it comes to Arabic culture and understanding Islam, “one of the most misunderstood religions” (Smolen and Oswald, 270).  Vardell states, “Indeed, what we really need is books for young people about growing up in AMERICA with Middle Eastern backgrounds” (Overview, n.p.)  Even though this book is set in Melbourne, Australia, the description of the city (majority white, middle class, shopping malls, private schools, suburbs) could just as easily be some middle-sized city in America.  It is a worthy addition to any library.

The cover is upbeat and funky-fun, with bright colored circles and the top half of an Arabic girl’s face, wearing a red hijab, with her eyes looking upward at her veil.  The hijab has center stage.  The cover does a perfect job of representing the central idea of the story and Amal’s focus on what putting on the hijab means for her and her life.


“The sight of Jennifer Aniston in a bridesmaid's dress creates an urge to change the channel for most viewers, but for witty, academically talented Amal Abdel-Hakim, it inspires the confidence to wear the hijab full time. …Throughout the book, Amal makes candid yet astute observations on what it means to be a Muslim, a modern woman, and a good friend and daughter. Although the book addresses many teen issues including identity, family, religious traditions, and body image, it rarely strays into the realm of didactic. There is plenty of gentle humor, and strong female relationships balance Amal's racist classmates and a friend's crushingly traditional Muslim parent. In addition to her friendships, Amal also tries to deal with a crush that she knows will never develop into a romance and the hypocritical behaviors of some of her cousins. This novel is an excellent addition to the multicultural and chick-lit genres, and it is recommended for most collections”- Voice of Youth Advocates, Aug 1, 1007.

“"*Starred Review* Like the author of this breakthrough debut novel, Amal is an Australian-born, Muslim Palestinian whacked with some seriously confusing identity hyphens. … Without heavy preaching, the issues of faith and culture are part of the story, from fasting at Ramadan to refusing sex before marriage. More than the usual story of the immigrant teen's conflict with her traditional parents, the funny, touching contemporary narrative will grab teens everywhere."-Booklist, July 1, 2007.
"With an engaging narrator at the helm, Abdel-Fattah's debut novel should open the eyes of many a reader. … As Amal struggles with her identity in a post-9/11 world …her faith-and an array of ever-ready quips-help her navigate an often-unforgiving world. Using a winning mix of humor and sensitivity, Abdel-Fattah ably demonstrates that her heroine is, at heart, a teen like any other. This debut should speak to anyone who has felt like an outsider for any reason. Ages 12-up. “- Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2007.

"Gr 7 Up-Australian 11th-grader Amal is smart, funny, outspoken, a good student, and a loyal friend. She is also a devout Muslim who decides to wear the hijab, or head covering, full-time. …While the novel deals with a number of serious issues, it is extremely funny and entertaining, and never preachy or forced. The details of Amal's family and social life are spot-on, and the book is wonderful at showing the diversity within Muslim communities and in explaining why so many women choose to wear the hijab. Amal is an appealing and believable character. She trades verbal jibes with another girl, she is impetuous and even arrogant at times, and she makes some serious errors of judgment. And by the end of the story, she and readers come to realize that ‘Putting on the hijab isn't the end of the journey. It's just the beginning of it.’”-School Library Journal, June 1, 2007.

  •  Read other books by Randa Abdel-Fattah, Ten Things I Hate About Me, which deals with the same sort of theme of choosing to be publically Muslim.
  • Read poems by Naomi Shihab Nye The Flag of Childhood: Poems from the Middle East.  Compare a poem to the experiences of Amal in Australia as a Muslim girl of Palestinian descent.
  • Read informational books about Arabic or Muslim culture and compare the cultural markers described to what is seen in this book.
  • Read a fiction book set in a Middle Eastern culture. Perhaps consider Where the Streets Had a Name, also by Randa Abdel-Fattah.  How are the experiences of the girl as Palestinian Muslim girl in a Middle Eastern country different than Amal’s as a Palestinian-Australian Muslim?
  • Explore Randa Abdel-Fattah’s website, which is at


The book taught me a lot about Islam and Muslim females, for which I’m thankful. I did not know, for example, that “Islamic” is not how you refer to a Muslim person.  So I’m glad I learned that.  However, I will add that while I would buy this book for a library, I personally did not feel that Amal was truly believable as a teenager because she was just too wise, too kind to the mean old neighbor, too understanding of too many people (excluding the required Mean Girls in the high school.)  I also wish she would have explained more about why she could not even date, because it was like an assumption was made that because she was choosing to abstain from sexual intimacy, that meant no dating, when there seems to be a wide spectrum of behaviors in dating.  She says, “Nah, you know I don’t know the whole boyfriend-girlfriend thing” (74) and then immediately mentions how she’d never “cross the line” for him and “you know the whole thing about no sex and physical intimacy before marriage” (75) which I understand.  But I guess I found it strange that she automatically equates dating with having sex, when I have known quite a few teens who do not believe in casual sex like that, or even no sex before marriage.  I did not like that it implied all dating people are sleeping together.  It just sort of confused me. I would have liked to hear more about her reasons for not dating at all.  

Works Referenced:

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  (2010).  Where the Streets Had a Name.  New York:  Scholastic Press.

Abdel-Fattah, Randa.  (2010).  Ten Things I Hate About Me.  New York:  Orchard Books.

Nye, Naomi Shihab.  (2002).  The Flag of Childhood:  Poems from the Middle East.  New York:  Simon and Schuster. 

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  (2011).  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008.)  “Overview” Culture 6 Inclusion Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 14, 2013. 


Lyon, George Ella.  (2010).  The Pirate of Kindergarten. Ill. by Lynne Avril.  New York:  Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
ISBN 978-1-4169-5024-0
Ginny is a little girl who sees everything double, but does not realize she is seeing anything differently than others.  She stumbles into things, cannot read properly and finds even cutting along the dotted line to be a challenge.  When the school nurse realizes she is seeing double, she is sent to a doctor, who gives her a prescription and a temporary eye patch over one eye until her vision can be corrected.  Now, with one covered, she can finally see, read, use scissors and run and play.


The art and text in this story work seamlessly to show readers what it is like to see with double vision and how frustrating it is to have an undiagnosed visual impairment. 

The brightly colored illustrations show the world as Ginny sees it, with overlays of repeated images everywhere.  By using darker lines around half the objects, readers can tell that half the images are the results of Ginny’s visual differences.  Lyon writes, “Getting there was hard, though, with all those chairs. She knew only half of them were real, but which ones?”  This line perfectly and poignantly captures the problem in the story and the emotional frustration of Ginny, who keeps trying so hard to succeed despite her difficulties. 

Ginny’s teacher tells her things that are meant to be helpful (but aren’t) such as, “We read with our eyes, not our noses” and “Just once, Ginny.  We read it just once.”  But of course, for Ginny, she saw it twice.  Her teacher praises her originality for the three-eared bunny, without realizing it is a symptom of a visual impairment.

In her notes for this module, Dr. Vardell writes:
In past reading materials, the characters with disabilities have often been portrayed as: "(a) pitiable and pathetic; (b) the object of violence; (c) sinister or evil; (d) an enhancement of the book's "atmosphere"; (e) "Super Crip"; (f) laughable; (g) their own worst-and only-enemy; (h) a burden; (i) nonsexual; and (j) incapable of participating fully in everyday life" (Andrews 1998). To accurately portray an individual with a disability authors and publishers must understand the multifaceted dimensions of the individual. Authentic books should also use people-first language in which the person is mentioned before his/her impairment (for example, ‘the child with a learning disability’ instead of the ‘learning disabled child’.) (Disabilities in Literature for Young People, n.p.)

Lyon’s book exemplifies this advice.  The first line of the book is not something like, “Ginny couldn’t see well,” but “Ginny loved Reading Circle.”  This is a line that shows a positive strength about Ginny and sets her up to be more than a stereotype.  She clearly loves to learn.  There is already a clue about her challenge in the art, as the reading circle is shown with the haloes of double-vision, but Ginny herself is smiling.  On the next page, it does show that someone “always laughed” when she fell down, but rather than being shown as “pitiable and pathetic,” (Vardell, n.p.) Ginny instead “loved reading anyway.”  Ginny’s energy and determination are reflected in the bold watercolors, pastels and colored pencils used. 

Ginny has a defender in Ms. Cleo, even if she did not understand what was going on.  When Ginny is teased about her three-eared bunny, Ms. Cleo tells the boy, “Mind your own bunnies.”  Ginny does get frustrated enough about that bunny to stick her scissors in the paste—she’s not some ideal example of a zen-like student who never gets angry.  She’s a real human being.

A big turning point of the story is when Ginny starts to cry at the realization that most people only see one of each thing, when the nurse has figured out she has double-vision.  This page is set apart from all the others by being completely blue except for a white teardrop in the middle with the text, “Ginny started to cry,” with a lighter blue halo around the teardrop to keep the double-vision impairment in the fore-front.  It halts the movement of the story and makes the reader sit for a moment with the sadness Ginny feels about being different and realizing things are harder for her than others.  This gives students a chance to develop sensitivity in children, as they place themselves in Ginny’s shoes.  This book can help “replace negative stereotypes with knowledge and understanding about disabilities (Andrews, 1998)” (Vardell, n.p.)

When Ginny goes to the doctor and receives her patch, some children might have been uncomfortable or embarrassed—but not Ginny.  She becomes “the pirate of kindergarten.”  This fun name evokes adventure and bravery.  It is not that she is some sort of super hero at this point.  Rather, the relief of being able to use her scissors and run without tripping is overwhelming, not to mention her ability to “read and read and read.”  And the story ends back with her taking her place in the Reading Circle—in her eye patch—“without knocking over a single chair.”  The problem is solved.  Even though Ginny still has her eye-patch at the end of the story, no one is teasing her and she is able to do all the things she wanted to do.  The author, through the words of the doctor, tells us that eventually, she will no longer need the patch, but the patch is not an issue for Ginny.

Dr. Vardell writes, “Historically, the most common disabilities represented in children’s literature are orthopedic or visual impairments” (Disabilities in Literature for Young People, n.p.)  The Pirate of Kindergarten is about a girl who has a visual impairment, but it’s not a type of visual impairment that is commonly seen on the shelves.  A child with double-vision will very much appreciate being represented in a book, and a book like this would be excellent to read with a child about to go to school with their own eye patch.  Those children might just be inspired to become pirates of their grade, too!


“Ginny has double vision, although she doesn't receive that diagnosis (and a treatment plan) until the final pages of this vividly empathetic book. Without lecturing or making Ginny the object of pity, Lyons (Sleepsong) and Avril (Every Cowgirl Needs a Horse), who works in cheery but remarkably expressive pastels, show how disorientating and alienating it feels when something as fundamental as visual perception goes awry. "If she didn't keep her mind tied tight when Ms. Cleo gave them rabbit pictures, she might cut out one ear and another and another. Once she got so mad, she stuck the scissors in the paste." The arrival of a vision screener at school is a little gem of narrative tension: since Ginny can see fine when one eye is covered, will her problem be caught? Readers will be reassured and gratified to know that the answer is yes ("Do you see two of me?" asks the nurse kindly. "Do you know... that most people see only one?") Even those with 20/20 vision will feel Ginny's sense of relief, and close the book confident of her progress. Ages 4-8.” Publishers Weekly, May 17, 2010.

“Ginny enjoys kindergarten, but she does have some difficulties, and occasionally children laugh when she runs into chairs or reads lines of text twice. Her teacher notices that the child closes one eye to read, but on Vision Screening Day, the school nurse discovers that Ginny has double vision. When the doctor gives her a temporary eye patch, Ginny wears it with style and becomes a Kindergarten Pirate, suddenly better at numbers, scissors, and reading and no longer tense from concentrating in order to avoid mistakes. Created with pastels, acrylics, and colored pencils, Avril's bold and wonderfully vivid mixed-media illustrations sometimes portray the classroom through Ginny's eyes, with overlapping images of chairs, books, and people, though they usually present an outside perspective. Based on Lyon's own experience, the sensitively written story radiates empathy and good humor. Even children who have not experienced Ginny's problem will understand her occasional frustration and find it intriguing that one person can literally see the world differently from another,” Booklist, May 1, 2010.

 “K-Gr 2-Ginny suffers from undiagnosed double vision, and seeing two of everything is causing her difficulties in school. On vision screening day, a nurse discovers the problem, and the prescribed eye patch gives Ginny a new identity-the pirate of kindergarten. Lyon's short, descriptive sentences set up the situation deftly, and Avril's astute chalk, pencil, and acrylic drawings of "two of everything" provide a vivid window into Ginny's pre-treatment world. It is not until the end of the story that Ginny declares herself a pirate, but as a metaphor for confidence and competence, her patch effectively declares her to be captain of her own ship. Julia [sic] Chen Headley's The Patch (Charlesbridge, 2006) is another story about a pirate with vision issues.”- June 1, 2010.

Winner of the 2010 Schneider Family Book Award

  •  Read other books by George Ella Lyon and do an author study.  She writes for children, teens and adults.  Some of her other books for children include:  No Dessert Forever, Mother to Tigers as well as, You and Me and Home Sweet Home.
  • Read The Patch, by Justina Chen Headley.  How does Becca respond differently to her patch for amblyopia than Ginny does to hers? (Becca is upset at first, and then comes up with many imaginative reasons for her patch before telling the truth.)  Compare and contrast Becca and Ginny with a Venn Diagram.
  • Read informational books about double-vision or another visual impairment and compare it to what was learned from The Pirate of Kindergarten.  Consider Living with Blindness, by Patsy Westcott, which also discusses other types of visual impairments, as well as provides a simple explanation of how the eye works.
  • Read a book that celebrates people as unique individuals, such as Hooray for You:  A Celebration of You-Ness, by Marianne Richmond.
  • Talk about service dogs and how they help some people with visual impairments.  There are a number of children’s books on this topic, as well.
  • Explore George Ella Lyon’s website, which is at .  She is, by the way, a girl.  She says she is named after her brother George and her sister Ella.


The art in the story is so cleverly done to show what Ginny sees.  I really enjoyed seeing how the artist and author worked together so well, knowing that they probably never spoke, because that is the way the publishing business usually works.  Authors and illustrators do their work separately, for the most part.  I just loved how the illustrations were handled.  My kids enjoyed this book.  It is a fast read, but has a real impact on how children may view another child who has a visual impairment.  I think it’s a great addition to a library. 

Works Referenced:

Headley, Justina Chen.  (2006.)  The Patch.  Watertown, MA:  Charlesbridge Publishing, Inc.

Lyon, George Ella. (2003).  Mother to Tigers.  New York:  Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Lyon, George Ella. (2006).  No Dessert Forever!  New York:  Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Lyon, George Ella. (2009).  You and Me and Home Sweet Home.  New York:  Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Richmond, Marianne.  (2001.)  Hooray for You:  A Celebration of You-ness.  Naperville, IL:  Sourcebooks, Inc.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008.)  “Overview” Culture 6 Inclusion Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 18, 2013. 

Westcott, Patsy. (1999).  Living with Blindness.  Austin: Raintree Publishers.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

TEA WITH MILK, by Allen Say

Say, Allen.  (1999).  Tea with Milk.  Boston:  Walter Lorraine Books.
ISBN 978-0-374-35761-0


In this sweet story, Allen Say tells the true story of how his parents met.  His mother, Masako, was known as May in the states when she was a child, where she learned English and American habits while she lived in San Francisco, such as taking milk and sugar with her tea.  But when May’s parents grew homesick and moved home when she graduated from high school, she moved to Japan with them.  Here, she was once again a foreigner who had to go to school all over again to learn Japanese and the expected skills and manners for Japanese young ladies.  She finally decides to move to the city and get a job, and the only job she can get is to work the elevators at a store.  But when a visitor who only speaks English needs help, she jumped in, just for a chance to speak English.  So she is given a new job, speaking English with any guest who needed her to.  Allen Say’s father approached her in an effort to have someone to speak English with, as he had gone to an English school.  They discover they have much in common and when he is transferred to Yokohama, they decide to get married and go together.

The illustrations in Tea with Milk steal the show. The very first image captures so much in the book with such a deceptively simple image:  little May, in her little American-style dress, stands in front of a door with an American flag on it, with half of a parent’s face visible through the door window that has the curtains slightly pulled back in a suspicious manner.  The color is so washed out, it almost looks like a black and white photograph, with stark shadows.  The second image shows a teenage May looking uncomfortable and sullen in her kimono.  The background has changed to a traditional Japanese style room with paper windows, which are also referenced in the text.  All the colors are homogenous.  Most of the illustrations use soft, muted colors, until May decides to get a job in the city.  “First thing in the morning, Masako put on the brightest dress she had brought from California and left the house.”  She wears an American-style red dress that leaps off the page at this critical turning point in the story.

Yet the words are brilliant as well.  There is repetition that illustrates what being in America and being in Japan was like for May.  On the first page, we read, “Her parents called her Ma-chan, which was short for Masako, and spoke to her in Japanese.  Everyone else called her May and talked with her in English.”  But just a page later, we read, “No one called her May, and Masako sounded like someone else’s name.”  The author refers to her as Masako through most of the story, but subtly begins referring to her as May when she tells Joseph she’d like to be called May.

As May struggles to fit in living in Japan, she has a heavy heart.  The readers are better able to grasp the disorientation she felt through the use of these concrete examples, along with references to food differences such as, “There was no more pancakes or omelets, fried chicken, or spaghetti” and even architectural distinctions such as,  “Her new home was drafty, with windows made of paper.”  Through these details, Say allows readers unfamiliar with a move, especially a move to Japan, to experience it through May’s reactions.

As our textbook says, “immigrant stories illuminate how Asian Americans have had to adjust to a new culture” (162).  The theme of immigration is an important theme in Asian Pacific literature, as “These stories tell of Asians who have left their home countries in search of a new home” (164).  In particular, Tea with Milk focuses on the experience of the 1.5 Generation, “those who immigrated to the U.S. with their parents” (171)  In a unique twist in this story, May ends up experiencing culture shock twice:  once in the U.S. and again in Japan, where her acquired American values did not align well with the values of Japan (171).  If she were fictional, I’d say the author purposefully avoided the Asian stereotype of the passive, serene, obedient girl by having May going out and getting a job, rather than docilely obeying.  The fact that May was a real person who truly made these choices—it was not the artistic choice of the author--only makes her example as a strong Asian woman even more positive. 

In the end, we learn that the voice of the narrator is the son of May and Joseph, who grew up drinking tea with milk, which is a symbol for American and English habits, lifestyle and even values.  We learn that Allen Say grew up with two parents who had many behaviors that reflected a culture outside of Japan, such as speaking English to each other and calling each other by their English names.  They adopted Japan as their country, but never forgot their past.  As he writes, “Sometimes my mother wore a kimono, but she never got used to sitting on the floor for very long.” 

The story is a sweet love story of a person trying to figure out where she fits in and finally finding someone else who is split between cultures as well.  Together, they are able to make a home that works for them both—and for their son.


“Say's masterfully executed watercolors tell as much of this story about a young woman's challenging transition from America to Japan as his eloquent, economical prose. …With his characteristic subtlety, Say sets off his cultural metaphor from the very start, contrasting the green tea Masako has for breakfast in her home, with the "tea with milk and sugar" she drinks at her friends' houses in America. Later, when she meets a young Japanese businessman who also prefers tea with milk and sugar to green tea, readers will know that she's met her match. … Through choice words and scrupulously choreographed paintings, Say's story communicates both the heart's yearning for individuality and freedom and how love and friendship can bridge cultural chasms. Ages 4-8.”-Publishers Weekly, March 8, 1999.

Gr. 4-8. On the title page of Say's new picture book, there is a small frame from his Caldecott-winning Grandfather's Journey (1993), a picture of his mother, Masako, as a Japanese American child in California. Say tells her immigrant story: how, when she finished high school in California, her restless, homesick father took the family back to live in his village in Japan. Masako becomes a foreigner in her parents' country, longing for home in San Francisco. … Say's watercolors are quieter in line and color this time, and the text is much longer. Together, they tell an elemental story that will appeal to everyone who feels a stranger at home... Like many foreigners everywhere, she discovers her home in the city, where she finds work, opportunity, and a husband from an even more diverse background than her own. They speak English ("at last, a real conversation"); they drink their tea with milk and sugar; and when their son, Allen, is born, they speak English to each other and Japanese to him. Both an "ugly duckling" romance and a universal story of leaving home, this is a picture book that will have intense appeal for older reader.”  Booklist, March 15, 1999.

“K-Gr 6-Continuing the story he started in Grandfather's Journey (Houghton, 1993), Say explores familiar themes of cultural connection and disconnection. …Say's many fans will be thrilled to have another episode in his family saga, which he relates with customary grace and elegance. The pages are filled with detailed drawings featuring Japanese architecture and clothing, and because of the artist's mastery at drawing figures, the people come to life as authentic and sympathetic characters. This is a thoughtful and poignant book that will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly our nation's many immigrants who grapple with some of the same challenges as May and Joseph, including feeling at home in a place that is not their own.—School Library Journal, May 1, 1999.

  •  Read another book by Allen Say such as Grandfather’s Journey, which is the first story in this family saga that deals with traveling to the United States and loving both the new home and the old, always missing the one when living at the other.
  • Read informational books about Japanese culture and look for Japanese cultural markers in Tea with Milk.
  • Try to learn some of the skills May has to master as a young Japanese lady, such as flower arranging and calligraphy.
  • Watch a tea ceremony online to observe the formality and precise skills used.
  • Journal about a time you were new to a place, even if it was just the first day at a new school like high school.  But if you have moved locations, journal about what that felt like, and then imagine no one around you speaking your language or dressing like you or eating the foods you are used to.  Write about what that might be like, if you have never experienced a cross-cultural move.
  • Read other books about immigration and living in a new country, such as:

  1. The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco (Russian, Jewish)
  2. Hannah is my Name: A Young Immigrant’s Story, by Belle Yang (Taiwanese)
  3. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (Korean)
  4. Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story by Eve Bunting and Ben Stahl (Ireland)
  5. Coming to America: The Story of Immigration by Betsy Maestro (describes many waves of immigrants and settlers)


The illustration on the first page of the book took my breath away.  It’s just so poignant and perfect.  I was hooked immediately.  Also, I’m a romantic, so I loved this story.  I loved the big reveal at the end that he was talking about his parents and I love that this is a true story.  It’s interesting to me that the majority of this story is about a young adult woman, not a child, yet it works for children.  I noticed that the reviewers gave it a very wide age-range for reading.  I agree that this one works well with older children and even teenagers.

Works Referenced:

Bunting, Eve and Ben Stahl. (2000). Dreaming of America: An Ellis Island Story. Mahwah, NJ:  Troll Communications L.L.C.

Choi, Yangsook.  (2003).  The Name Jar.  St. Louis,  MO:  Turtleback books.

Maestro, Betsy. (1999).  Coming to America: The Story of Immigration. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Polacco, Patricia. (1988). The Keeping Quilt.  New York: Simon and Schuster Children’s Publishing.

Say, Allen.  (1993). Grandfather’s Journey.  Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  (2011).  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008).  “Overview” Culture 5 Pacific Asian American Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 5, 2013. 

Yang, Belle. (2007). Hannah is my Name: A Young Immigrant’s Story. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

PEACH HEAVEN, by Yangsook Choi

Choi, Yangsook.  (2009).  Peach Heaven.  New York:  Francis Foster Books.
ISBN 978-0-374-35761-0

One day in a Korean town in the Puchon region in August 1976, it was so stormy that it rained peaches carried down from the mountain orchards.  The village they arrive at rarely buys peaches because they are too expensive.  Yansook Choi writes about this real-life experience as she finally gets to eat peaches to her heart’s content, only to feel worried later that night about the farmers whose crops have been so damaged.  The children decide to make it up to the farmers by collecting what remains of the peaches and hauling them back up the mountain to the orchards.

The words of this picture book are simple and direct, matching the plot of this story that is simple, but as sweet as the peaches in it.  The art is soft and direct as well, with watercolor and possible pencil outlines.  At the beginning of the story, it is raining and raining.  The close up of Yangsook clearly shows her boredom and dissatisfaction in the way her head is leaning over, supported by her palm.  The image also shows her cultural heritage authentically and respectfully, with an accurate skin color and dark hair pulled back in two braids. 

When her little brother pulls her and their grandmother outside to see what is falling from the sky, readers get a view of the traditional dress of Korea, worn by the grandmother, as well as contemporary clothing worn by the children and parents.  The girl, Yangsook, is not passive, but is the one who ventures out into the stream to see what is falling from the sky.  By having modern clothing and a strong, active female character with leadership skills (she knocks on doors and leads the other children to return the peaches), the book transcends stereotypes, as described in our class notes by Dr. Vardell. 

The home shows authentic roofs and doors, with Korean written along two of the columns visible in the illustration.  The result is a solid grounding in the setting, as readers can thoroughly visualize where these events are happening.  The setting is important, because the peach orchards in Puchon are central to the plot. One particularly great image is painted from the perspective of the roof, close up on the peaches rolling down it, with Yangsook shown small below, looking up.

The language is plain with just a few metaphors or similes, but still captures the emotions of the child narrator:  “I got closer and couldn’t believe my eyes.  Beautiful ripe peaches were pouring over the rooftops!” and “The farmers had worked so hard to grow the perfect peaches.  I couldn’t sleep that night.  Then I had an idea.”  The simplicity of the text and images makes this a great read-aloud for younger children.  It is also a great way to expose them to appropriate, authentic Asian Pacific literature.

Yangsook Choi is a credible author for this story.  She grew up in Korea until she was 24, when she came to the United States to study art.  Not only was she born in Korea, but she is writing about an actual event that happened to her while she lived there.  The author’s note in the back addresses the day it rained peaches as well as the symbolism of the peach as a fruit that brings peace and is a defense against evil.  In the story, Yangsook sees heaven as a place full of peaches, and has a calendar that even shows a peach orchard full of happy children.  But she loves peaches not just because they taste sweet.  In Korean mythology, “the peach is regarded as a magic fruit that brings a long and happy life.”  Once a reader understands that, having peaches rain down upon their village takes on a whole new meaning.

The author’s note does not state if she and her friends really brought the fruit back to the farmers, but the fact that she does so in the story brings a strong symmetry to the plot:  she sees heaven as a place full of peaches; she has never had enough peaches because she is poor; she enjoys a day of eating peaches; she realizes that the peaches really belong to the farmers; she makes the right choice to help return them to their rightful owners.  Young children will be able to identify with and appreciate the justice in this story.  They have a very strong sense of what is fair, and Yangsook makes a fair choice.


“K-Gr. 2. Based on a 1976 incident from Choi's childhood, this story is set in the Punchon [sic] region of Korea, known for its magnificent peaches. Here, young Yangsook dreams of frolicking in a beautiful peach orchard, because even though the trees surround her, the fruit is too expensive for her family. Then one furiously stormy day, Yangsook and her grandmother are startled by thuds on the roof: the rain is carrying peaches down from the mountain orchards. Catching them in her umbrella, Yangsook eats to her heart's content. Then she starts worrying about the farmers who are losing their crops. The story is apparently true up to this point, but the author's note doesn't state whether Yangsook and her friends really gathered peaches and returned them to the farmers, even using yarn to hang some back on the trees. The colored-pencil artwork, single- and double-page spreads, has an appealing simplicity, though the figures are somewhat stiff. Unusual perspectives and close-ups add interest to the pictures, which use lots of greens and browns. For larger libraries, or those serving Korean communities.”  Booklist March 1, 2005.

“Using watercolor washes in hues of yellow, blue-gray, brown and green, Choi (Nim and the War Effort) illustrates a childhood memory, the day in 1976 when the sky rained peaches in her hometown of Puchon, South Korea. During endless rainy days that August, young Yangsook avoids her homework by staring at what she calls “a picture of heaven,” a golden peach orchard filled with children. One afternoon, the streets flood, and objects larger than hailstones pour down. A full-bleed spread shows the heroine wading in knee-high water while her grandmother and brother watch from the porch; in a subsequent spread, Yangshook [sic] bites into a succulent peach, her overturned umbrella filled with the fruit while more float by. “We... feasted on peaches until we could eat no more. I forgot about the rain. I was in peach heaven.” That night, however, Yangshook [sic] could not sleep, thinking about the farmers who had lost their crops, and she and the other children find a way to aid the distressed farmers. Architectural details such as gray roof shingles, doors made of vertical wooden slats opening to minimally furnished rooms, and cultural details (children and parents wear contemporary clothes, while Grandma wears a traditional robe) capture the ambience [sic] of a small Korean town. Choi’s vivid recollection of one extraordinary day takes on the timeless feel of a classic tale. Ages 4-8.”-PW Annex Reviews, June 27, 2005.


  •  Read another book by Yangsook Choi, such as The Name Jar, which addresses what it is like to be a Korean immigrant in America as a child (part of the 1.5 Generation).
  • Read informational books about Korean culture and look for Korean cultural markers in Peach Heaven.
  • Eat peaches or make peach-based dishes to eat while reading the story. 
  • Turn the story into a play.  Create several narrators, so more students can participate beyond just the final scene.
  • Look for peaches having special importance in other cultures.  In Japan, Momotaro, a semi-historical hero, was born from inside a huge peach.  He is called “Peach Boy” in his many adventures. 


The book is a nice, gentle story.  It does not have a high action, drama or humor, but it is a solid story that a younger audience will enjoy.  It is not one I feel compelled to add to my personal collection, but I would want it in an elementary library’s collection for sure.

Works Referenced:

Choi, Yangsook.  (2003.)  The Name Jar.  St. Louis,  MO:  Turtleback books.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008.)  “Overview” Culture 5 Pacific Asian American Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed November 5, 2013.