Review of One Plastic Bag

I was sipping coffee in a lovely café with glass walls, enjoying the light and feeling of openness.  I looked around at the sky and the winter trees, all bare of leaves, limbs like calligraphy against a gray sky.  Except the one on which a plastic bag was snagged.  It danced in the wind, an ominous trash dance.  Even though they’re banned here in Portland, Oregon, they’re still a part of our landscape.  They’re still used almost everywhere, all over the world, even in villages in Gambia.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, Millbrook Press/Lerner Books, was just released and it brings to light the depth of the plastic bag problem, as well as the innovative way one group of women are dealing with it.
In Njau, Gambia, when the plastic bags broke or were no longer needed, people dropped them.  One plastic bag became two, then ten, then hundreds.  “The bags accumulated in ugly heaps alongside roads. Water pooled in them, bringing mosquitoes and disease. Some bags were burned, leaving behind a terrible smell. Some were buried, but they strangled gardens. They killed livestock that tried to eat them.”

But people got used to them.  We’re very adaptable, even to things that are ugly and destructive.  When I wait for the bus here in Portland, I’m amazed at how many people throw down their trash and how the rest of us wait amongst the litter and never pick any of it up.  Picking up trash is beneath us; we have other things on our mind.
But Isatou Ceesay wanted change and despite being ridiculed, she became that change.  She and a small group of women began to collect and clean the bags.  They cut them into strips and crocheted purses.  The purses were colorful and practical.  Isatou realized that the purses could be a way to help alleviate the poverty of the women in her village. 
This is a truly inspiring story and one of the reasons I keep reading “children’s books.”  There is hopefulness in them and many publishers, especially the small independent ones, are looking for unsung heroes to celebrate.
Miranda Paul’s writing is clear and lyrical.  She met Isatou while teaching and traveling in the Gambia.  Miranda is an avid recycler and conservationist.  This was a story she “had to tell.”
Her descriptions of village life are vivid and inviting.  You feel as if you’re there.
The story is beautifully illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon.  Her luminous paintings bring the book to life.  She uses collage elements that enhance her backgrounds but also make characters more vibrant.  (She also illustrated The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, which I reviewed here.)  Her faces and hands are particularly beautiful and expressive.  You feel Isatou’s thoughtfulness and hopefulness through Zunon’s paintings.
Here’s a link to a short trailer of the book, so you can see a bit more of Zunon’s art, but of course, the best way to see it is in the book.  The screen does it no justice:  
The book includes bonus information such as a Wolof language glossary, timeline of actual events, and photos of the women of Njau.
It’s a beautiful book about an ugly topic, with great art, a great solution to a trashy problem, and a great woman who proves one person can make a difference.  
Here’s a link to the book’s website which includes lots of links for teachers and families.  I could see this being a great book for a family discussion night on environmental topics and different cultures:
And here’s a direct link to a 15 minute video on the Njau Recycle Centre:
Here’s Miranda Paul’s website.  She’ll have another book out this year, Water is Water, and two in 2016:
And here’s Elizabeth Zunon’s website.  She’s illustrated a book by Nikki Grimes called Poems in the Attic, which will be out in April:
Both Paul and Zunon belong to the wonderful We Need Diverse Books campaign, which you can read about here:

What are you reading these day?

Personal Space and the Need for a Hug

A few days ago, my 6 year old neighbor, Karishma, wanted me to help her with her homework.  We did a little math, a little letter and word recognition, and a little reading.  She wanted to read her new favorite book, Hug Me, by Simona Ciraolo, published by Flying Eye Books, 2014.
I read it to her a few weeks ago when she was here with her 12 year old sister.  The sister didn’t think she’d be interested, but as I started reading, she sat beside us and wanted to see the pictures, too.  She was moved enough by it to say, “Awww,” more than once.
Hug Me is a remarkable book that tells a complex tale in charming drawings and poetic prose. “Felipe was descended from an old and famous family who liked to look good and always behaved properly.”
It’s the story of the universal need for affection and friendship, even if we are somewhat prickly.  Using a little cactus as the main character puts an interesting spin on it.  He’s prickly because of he descended from a prickly family.  Who hasn’t felt estranged from their family of origin?  Who hasn’t felt at least somewhat trapped by their ancestry?
I live in Bridge Meadows, a community made up of blended families that are adopting children out of the foster care system.  Some families have all adopted children.  Some have adopted children in addition to their birth children.  I live in the senior housing component, and we elders serve as helpers to the families.  I mentor kids, teach them art, and read with them. 
She sounds out all the words, even “uaahhh.”
I’ve read this story over a dozen times in the past few weeks to kids from ages 2 to 12, and they’re all gripped by it.  I now keep it in the book-bag I carry with me when I’m in the community center or else I’m chastised for not having it.  
Since many of the kids have been in foster care and counselling, they love that the Ciraolo uses the term “personal space.”  Many have had their personal space violated in the past, but they still want to be close to family and friends.
They love that in the end, Felipe knows exactly what to do.  His past loneliness has made him a better person.  (In his honor, a few of the kids and I may start a cactus and rock  garden this summer.)   They also LOVE the pictures.  It’s amazing to me, too, how much expression Ciraolo creates in her characters.  Even a simple dandelion has a personality in this story.
Karishma happens to be one of the children who has been with her birth family for her whole life.  She has foster sisters and her mom had a baby a little over a year ago.  When we read the book together, I asked her if she ever felt like she needed a hug and didn’t get one.  She first said no.  Then she flipped through the book again, and said, “Well, since my sister was born.  Sometimes she won’t hug me and sometimes everyone hugs her and forgets me.”
I told her the same thing happened to me when my little brother was born.  Now I know how important hugs are. 
“Me, too,” Karishma said.  “That’s why we’re so happy.”
I’m pretty sure if you read Hug Me, you’ll be happy, too.
Hug Me has been on numerous best book lists of 2014. You can read more about Simona Ciraolo on her website here

Flying Eye Books is based in England and publishes innovative books that introduce children to great graphics and compelling stories.  They published the inspiring Welcome to Your Awesome Robot by Viviane Schwarz, which you can read about in this blog post.   

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The Hole Story

What happens when you drill a hole through your book?  Oyvind Torseter has done a remarkable thing and made a hole a fully developed character in his charming book The Hole, published by EnchantedLion Books (2012).  It’s an almost entirely wordless book, but Torseter’s visual storytelling creates a page turning adventure.  Most of the pleasure is seeing where the hole has got to – because even though it’s in the center of the book, in the illustrations it moves around dramatically.  My scans don’t do it justice, you really want to see this book up close and personal.
In deceptively simple line drawings, Torseter introduces a character moving boxes into an apartment.  When he sits down to dinner he discovers a hole in the wall.


When he investigates further, he finds the hole has moved.  This hole is a little devilish.
Suddenly we’re in a surreal world where there are people who can help with renegade holes.

After the hole is captured, it has to be transported to a lab.

Our innocent man thinks the hole is safe in his box, but the hole is having its own adventure. Page after page shows the hole touring around the city and having a great time.
It continues to do so, even after it’s been studied by experts.
I’ve shared this book with some young friends in the Bridge Meadowscommunity, and they, too, were amazed by the way the hole seemed to move around.  The story is loopy and unique and inspired great conversations about how art can play visual tricks on you.
Reba’s amazed by the hole’s trickery


It’s a well bound book that lies flat and invites investigation

This is a great book for all ages – although it’s marketed for children, it’s really a book for anyone who loves illustration. It sparked our imaginations about what the hole would do after the book was closed.

Lydia studies the drawings and tries to figure out how the hole gets around so well

Both Lydia and Reba thought it was cool enough to want to read it again.  We loved that a complex story could be told in this unique way.

When I read it, I thought of artist Paul Klee’s statement that “a line is a dot that went for a walk.”   This hole goes for a walk and a ride and it takes flight. My sense of wonder took flight, too.

Øyvind Torseter is a Norwegian artist, illustrator, comic book artist, and author. In addition to his own books, books illustrated by Torseter include the beautiful and poignant My Father’s Arms Are A Boatby Stein Erik Lunde. During his career, Torseter has emerged as one of Norway’s foremost illustrators.   We hope his books keep getting published here in America.
Enchanted Lion publishes unique and amazing books from all over the world.  Check out their website to find great books:
The most intriguing hole you’ll ever look through

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What a Difference a Doughnut Makes

I had the pleasure of introducing the book Arnie the Doughnut, by Laurie Keller, to a 4 year old last week.  I asked him if he’d like to hear the story before I got it out of my book bag, and merely telling him the title made him laugh. 
I stumbled upon this book a few years ago and the title made me laugh, too.  I was charmed by the story, the art, and the layout of the book.  It’s so rare to find a book that’s genuinely funny but doesn’t resort to mean or potty humor.  
Arnie is a bright, happy doughnut who has no idea he was made to be eaten. 
And once he finds out, he is again dismayed when his friends back at the doughnut shop are happy to be comestibles.  
Fortunately, Mr. Bing, who bought Arnie, no longer wants to eat him now that they’re on a conversational level.  So they must find something for Arnie to be besides tasty.  It’s a wonderful book with inventive puns and a compelling story line.  It’s also wonderful for sharpening visual literacy. 
Keller peppers her story and illustrations with side characters who have opinions on everything.  On any given page, you might have people, pastries and aliens making comments.  It’s an easier book to read with one or two children than in front of a class or big group.The children can participate in the story.  They can ask what the squirrel is saying.  Or they can read that the caveman says, doughnut make good wheel.
A few years ago, I got to read it to a 9 year old boy who was in foster care.  I live in an intergenerational community called Bridge Meadows, which is set up to help support families adopting children out of the foster care system.  (You can read about it here.)  I am fortunate to get to help introduce books to kids who have seen a lot of the scary world but not a lot of the caring world.
This boy, John, was so taken with Arnie the Doughnut that I decided to buy it for him.  Before I could give it to him, though, the Department of Human Services (DHS) discovered he was being abused and moved him to a safe house.  It was the 9thmove for this 9 year old boy. 
Through the social worker here at Bridge Meadows, I was able to get the book to him.  Later she told me that in a counseling session, John was asked about his anger. 
“I know what anger is. I’ll show you.”  He got his copy of Arnie and show them the picture of angry Arnie, who had discovered his fate.
 John was able to express his anger, but also, in the midst of extreme uncertainty, to laugh at it.  And laughter, often, is the first step to wisdom.  John will not have an easy life.  Nobody gets the kind of happy ending Arnie does.  But John has had the good moments hearing the story.  He has read it himself and he’s used it to express his own emotional state. It’s a colorful and safe spot in his memory.   

Perhaps it will prompt him to look to books for solace while he navigates the fractured path of foster care in search of an identity. 
I believe books like Arnielay the groundwork for deeper thinking.  Once you make the leap into imagining a doughnut has a personality, a will, and hopes for the future, you’re free to imagine everything has a higher purpose. Toys.  Plants.  Animals.  Humans.  Yourself.  Maybe it isn’t your destiny to be eaten.
This book didn’t miraculously make John’s life better.  I believe, however, it’s made his life more bearable.  I know, for sure, that it’s made mine more so.  I hope that it puts a few sprinkles of humor and love on his fractured and perilous path.  I can’t fix broken home, broken families, or broken children.  I can give them stories, though, to lighten their load. 
John is now in a permanent home and has a new family.  His future looks good.
Laurie Keller is the author of many picture books, all of which I’ve enjoyed, Birdy’s Smile Bookbeing my second favorite.  Or maybe Do Unto Otters.  Or maybe Open Wide.  She’s started a chapter book series on Arnie the Doughnut, including Bowling Alley Bandit, (a who-doughnut), and Invasion of the UFOnuts, (an outer spastery story).  These books are great for reluctant readers, and have elicited howls of laughter from one of the kids I mentor who hates to read.  
For another opinion on Arnie the Doughnut, here’s a link to a NYTimes review:
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 If you missed my last post on the books of Shuan Tan, you can read it here.
And there are links to my book reviews here.