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Lucky Beans, by Becky Birtha

  • April 3, 2010 7:42 am
lucky beans

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Marshall is sick of the beans his African-American family often eats during the Great Depression. His father is out of work, and relatives are staying at their house. One day Marshall sees a huge jar of beans in the window of the furniture store. The person who guesses the number of beans in the jar will win a sewing machine! Marshall knows his mother could use the machine to earn money for the family.

First, Marshall must counter racism: a white girl tells him that only whites are eligible to win. Instead of believing her, Marshall asks the storekeeper, who tells Marshall that anyone can win.

Marshall’s mother shows him  how to figure out the number of pints in a quart. Marshall remembers what his teacher taught about estimation. With these tips, Marshall and his family come up with an estimate of the number of beans in the jar, and the family ends up winning the sewing machine. There is only one problem: they win the jar of beans too!

This book depicts a boy who learns from the women in his life. The story is based on truth: the author’s grandmother really did win a sewing machine by guessing the number of beans in a jar. Kids will enjoy learning about history and math from this gentle, funny book.

I have included this book on my boys list.

Playing War, by Kathy Beckwith

  • December 5, 2009 7:21 am
playing war

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A group of five children (four boys and a girl) decide, one summer day, to play “war” with pine cones for bombs, and sticks for guns. One boy, who has recently come to the United States from another (unnamed) country, starts to play but decides to go home when his friend Luke declares, “I’m going to blow their heads off.”

The next day, Luke suggests playing war again, and wishes he could be in a real war. Sameer reveals that, in his home country, he lived in the middle of a war, during which a bomb destroyed his house and killed his parents and brother. The friends are shocked at Sameer’s story of the tragedy of war. Luke decides that they ought to play basketball instead.

This picture book reveals the horrors of war in a gentle, sympathetic way. It would be a good book to get elementary-school kids talking about issues of war and peace.

You can buy this book from my boys list.

When the Bees Fly Home, by Andrea Cheng

  • October 10, 2009 10:20 am
when the bees fly home

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Jonathan, an elementary-school boy, is not strong enough to help his father, a beekeeper, with his work, and his father is annoyed. The father seems to prefer Jonathan’s preschool brother, who loves to show off his muscles. The family is struggling financially: a dry spell means less honey to sell.

One day, Jonathan helps his mother make beeswax candles by decorating them with tiny beeswax sculptures. His father is impressed, and starts to appreciate Jonathan’s artistic skill. The decorated candles sell out at the farmer’s market, and Jonathan collects many more orders.  That night, Jonathan and his father enjoy some quiet time on the porch as the rain finally comes down.

This unusual picture book contains bee facts on each page. My sons were interested to learn, for example, that bees’ wings beat 180 times per second.

Another thing I liked about this book is that the parents are a mixed-race couple. This is never mentioned in the story, but the watercolor pictures by Joline McFadden show a fair blond father and a brown-skinned, black-haired mother. It is rare to see a mixed-race couple presented in a picture book in a matter-of-fact way, without a lot of commentary.

You can buy this book from my boys list.

Little Zizi, by Thierry Lenain

  • September 19, 2009 7:04 am
Little Zizi

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This funny picture book deals with a subject that many little boys think about, but that is rarely written about in children’s books. One day, while Martin is changing his clothes after swimming, another boy, Adrian, makes fun of Martin, saying that his “zizi” is too small, and that he will never be able to make babies with a little zizi. Martin is worried because the girl he likes, Anais, wants to have 10 babies! How will he possibly make all those babies?

To make matters worse, Adrian decides that the boys should have a peeing contest to decide who will be Anais’s boyfriend. Despite hours of practice, Martin loses the contest, Adrian wins, and Adrian declares himself the boyfriend of Anais.

But Anais has other plans. She rejects Adrian and writes a love note to Martin. The book ends with a reassurance: “love isn’t a question of a zizi — large or small.”

This book was originally written in French and published in Canada. The author says he wrote the book because he believes that “much of the world’s misfortune comes from men thinking they have to assert their manliness,” according to the jacket copy.

My two boys found this book a bit shocking, but fascinating. The illustrations are very tasteful (the story takes place in an old-fashioned city), and the book makes its point without preaching.

You can buy this book from my Boys list.

Gray Wolf’s Search, by Bruce Swanson

  • September 5, 2009 3:04 pm
Gray Wolf's Search

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This beautiful picture book tells the story of Gray Wolf, a native boy of the Pacific Northwest who is given a task by his uncle, Raven’s Head: Gray Wolf is to find a very important person, and get to know this person well.

Throughout the next year, Gray Wolf asks various animals if they know of this important person. Sister Bear, Brother Whale, and Sister Eagle claim never to have seen such a person. To them, all humans look and act alike. 

Gray Wolf meets with Raven’s Head again, but sadly tells him that he has not found the very important person. Raven’s Head advises him to “look within.”

As I was reading this book, at this point I assumed that the “very important person” would turn out to be Gray Wolf himself. But my 7-year-old son guessed that the important person would turn out to be everyone. And, in fact, my son was correct. Gray Wolf comes to realize that his family and friends are all equally important, and he brings this message back to his clan.

This book provides an interesting message of community to balance the message of individuality that we often get from mainstream culture. We are all important.

I also like the fact that both female and male animals are included. So often, animals in pictures books are almost exclusively male. The paintings in this book are absolutely gorgeous.

I highly recommend this story for ages 5 and up. You can buy this book from my Boys list.