When We Were Alone – David A. Robertson (author), Julie Flett (illustrator)

When We Were Alone CoverFirst Published: 1st March, 2017
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A young girl helps her kókom (grandmother) in the garden. She asks her kókom questions, and the answers go back to the time when her kókom was sent away to school.

This book deals with the history of residential schools for Native American children. The focus is on the attempts to stop the children from practising their culture. They weren’t allowed to have long hair or speak Cree at the school. Everything they were not allowed to do was to make them like everyone else (in other words, like white people), but the children fought back in small ways by doing the forbidden things when they were alone.

The story of the school is told through the young girl asking questions, such as asking why her kókom has long hair, and being told about the school cutting the children’s hair. This makes it a generally positive book, as her kókom survived and is able to live as she wants. However, there are also hints that it’s not all in the past. The girl doesn’t face being taken away from her family and community, but she lives in a world where most people in the media will be white, and someone like her kókom is seen as different. There’s that unspoken implication to the questions of the pressure still being there, because those questions wouldn’t be raised if the girl’s family was considered to be like everybody else.

The pictures look like collages, with additional painting and drawing for detail and texture. It creates a bold and colourful feel, which works well with the theme of the girl’s kókom dressing brightly and not being afraid to show her culture. My favourite page is the flying bird with the Cree text around it (the words repeated from the main story), as it feels like a celebration. Despite all of the attempts, the girl and her kókom are free to speak as they want to speak.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a quiet and subtle handling of the topic. The art and story are a good match. It is perhaps a little too subtle for readers who don’t already know the history of the residential schools. For example, the text doesn’t make it clear who made the children go to the school. This could be something to discuss with readers after finishing the book.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Day I Became a Bird – Ingrid Chabbert (author), Guridi (illustrator)

The Day I Became a Bird CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

A boy falls in love with Sylvia, a girl who loves birds. He decides the obvious solution is to dress up as a bird.

The premise of this intrigued me, though I also wondered how well it would handle it. Early childhood love is often handled very badly. Boys are encouraged to treat girls poorly to get their attention, and when girls report it, it’s dismissed with, “He’s only doing that because he likes you.” That’s a pretty terrible message to put across, that it doesn’t matter if someone hits you, or destroys your stuff, as long as they like you.

Refreshingly, this book doesn’t go there. The boy is instead a quiet and sensitive child, who wants to appeal to Sylvia’s interests. At no point is it suggested that Sylvia should stop being so interested in birds. The boy wants to be part of that, rather than trying to change her. He also doesn’t feel he’s entitled to attention for dressing up as a bird. He’s hoping she’ll like it, but he waits to see if she reacts rather than pressing the issue.

I also liked that he doesn’t need to be a bird in the end. There was the potential for suggesting that the only way to find love is changing yourself, but it doesn’t really go there. It’s clear to all involved that he’s wearing a costume for a short time, rather than this being a permanent attempt to be someone else.

Pencil sketches make up the majority of the artwork. These act as a simple and expressive way of telling the story. The bird costume itself is huge, and looks both carefully made and uncomfortable to wear. I liked how it slowly begins to fall apart, as being worn for normal school activities takes its toll. Some additional bird art, such as a scientific diagram of a bird, and bird identification pictures, are included as part of showing Sylvia’s interests.

This is a gentle story, that encourages taking an interest in someone else’s passions. The bird focus is likely to appeal to young bird lovers, and it could be tied in with dressing up activities.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Yitzi and the Giant Menorah – Richard Ungar

yitziFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

The people of Chelm receive a giant menorah as a gift from the mayor of Lublin. As each night of Hanukkah passes, they try to think of ways to thank the mayor.

The story is based on the Jewish tales of the people of Chelm, which often focus on their comedic antics. This sets the scene for the sort of things they attempt to do as gifts for the mayor. There are funny moments, such as trying to give snow as a gift. It’s also paced well, by limiting the number of failed gift attempts (I did wonder if there’d be one for every night, which would have been a little heavy).

I’d have liked a little more focus on Yitzi, as he’s the character providing a child’s perspective. He does eventually get to solve the problem, but most of the story happens around him rather than including him. I don’t really know what he thought about it all, other than wanting to sing songs and not being able to until the mayor had been thanked.

The illustrations are watercolour monoprints. They have vibrant colours and patterns, which really capture the feel of the menorah lights in the darkness. Each of the villagers is a unique person, rather than having generic crowds. There’s a lot of detail to explore on each page.

The language level is for more advanced picture book readers, or to be read aloud, as there are several paragraphs of text per page. The book includes “The Story of Chanukah” from PJ Library (Harold Grinspoon Foundation). This is a page with a retelling of the origin of Hanukkah/Chanukah, for those who need a bit of background.

Though I wanted more of Yitzi, I did like the book. The illustrations are great, with a post-impressionistic feel. It’s a sweet story about how to thank someone for their kindness.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

The Flower – John Light (author), Lisa Evans (illustrator)

The Flower CoverFirst Published: 1st April, 2006
Genre: Children’s Dystopian / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK | Child’s Play

Brigg is a child living in a grey city. He works at the library, where he finds a book he isn’t supposed to read. It’s filled with pictures of flowers, which he hasn’t seen before. If only he could find a flower in the city.

Dystopian futures are tricky to condense for picture books, as there’s not a lot of space to explain what’s going on, and early readers may not be familiar with the tropes of the genre. This book does a good job of tackling that issue. There are many small details, like Brigg having a job and living alone rather than with parents. Brigg has never seen flowers before, and doesn’t recognise a seed packet or understand how plants grow.

It focuses on a personal act of revolution, rather than trying to overthrow the system. Brigg can’t change how the city runs, but he can try to grow a flower. The theme of finding a point of happiness when the world seems bleak will resonate with children going through tough times.

There’s also a suggestion of post-apocalyptic themes, with the environment changing so there aren’t any plants in the city. It takes something pretty major to kill off all the weeds.

The art reinforces the story, by showing the city as a dull grey place. Brigg is shown walking the other way to everyone else, or sitting apart from other children, highlighting how out-of-place he feels. His room is very plain, with few personal items. Once the flower appears, it’s a point of colour and life in an otherwise dull environment.

I wasn’t sure whether Brigg was intended to be mixed race. The art style has everyone with very lightly shaded skin, making it rather ambiguous. He also has somewhat European facial features. But his hair texture suggests black ancestry. So, I personally saw him as mixed race when I read it, whether or not that was intended.

This is an enjoyable book that packs a lot into very few words. It touches on things like feeling alone, environmental issues and book censorship. It’s an accessible introduction to dystopian fiction for younger children, with darkly whimsical artwork.

Zootropolis

Zootropolis Bluray CoverAlternate Titles: Zootopia
Genre: Children’s Fantasy / Film
Main Cast: Ginnifer Goodwin; Jason Bateman; Idris Elba; J.K. Simmons; Jenny Slate; Tommy Chong; Octavia Spencer; Nate Torrence; Shakira
First Shown: February, 2016
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is the first bunny police officer in the city of Zootropolis. She fights for acceptance by trying to crack a missing mammals case, and she has a lead: fox con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).

This was a strong film in many areas. The worldbuilding of Zootropolis was fun, with multiple anthro animal species living in various biomes in the city. Business hamsters get to work via tubes. Trains have doors of different sizes for the various animals. It created a complex and colourful world.

The story was also great. Judy has a mystery to solve, which touches on the prejudices running through Zootropolis. At the same time, her relationship with Nick develops from uneasy cooperation to close friends. There are a lot of fun side characters, including singer superstar Gazelle (Shakira) and terse police chief Bogo (Idris Elba).

Prejudice is a major theme of the story. Judy joins the police force as part of a diversity initiative. She has to be the best of the best at the academy, and is still assumed to not be good enough due to her species. The police station is clearly not designed for smaller animals, as the chairs are so tall she has to struggle to climb on them. The police world is literally not designed for her.

Judy and Nick both face discrimination for their species, and both have their own prejudices to overcome. For Judy, being a small prey animal means it’s assumed she can’t do the job. Bunnies are seen as cute, easily scared, and not very smart. For Nick, the assumed aggression of predators becomes a bad thing. It makes a lion a fearless leader, but it means a fox can’t be trusted. The story touches on microaggressions, from Nick touching a sheep’s wool, to animals shuffling away from species they don’t trust. Even Judy, who tries so hard not to be prejudiced, still holds beliefs that predators are naturally aggressive because it’s in their DNA. Nick becomes the exception in her eyes, rather than the example that disproves the rule. Prejudice is complicated, and I liked that the film embraces that.

However, unlike the real world, the discrimination can go both ways. Initially it looks as though larger predators, such as big cats and wolves, hold a privileged position. In some respects, they do. But it’s also possible for them to be on the receiving end of discrimination, which isn’t how the balance between privileged and marginalised works in the real world. It was believable in the context of the world of Zootropolis, but does mean it’s not a perfect metaphor for talking about real discrimination.

On the subject of things in the real world, there are some nods to that. Though being a woman isn’t a cause for discrimination for Judy, she stands out on that basis to the viewer. Her small size and strength are clearly a factor in deciding she’s unsuited to police work. Yet she succeeds anyway, despite the additional obstacles thrown in her way.

There are also Judy’s neighbours, who are both male antelopes (of different species) and presumably living together in a room a similar size to Judy’s. Though I took them to be a married couple, I figured if I looked it up there’d be something making it plain they weren’t. Turns out they share a hyphenated family name, so I will continue viewing them as a married couple.

Less great was the introduction to Clawhauser (Nate Torrence), the cheetah who staffs the main desk. The joke of him finding a half-eaten doughnut in his neck fat was something I could have done without. It’s a big misstep for a story tackling prejudice to fall into fat jokes. They could easily have stuck with laughs based on him being a superfan of Gazelle, which wasn’t poking fun at his weight.

I really enjoyed the film. Though I felt there were some weaker points, such as the fat jokes, it was a well-paced mystery with interesting character relationships. The world was beautifully done. There’d be a lot of potential for more stories in this world, but even if there aren’t any sequels, this was a satisfying story.