Tomatoes in My Lunchbox (Costantia Manoli)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Tomatoes in My Lunchbox, written by Costantia Manoli and illustrated by Magdalena Mora, a sweet story of cultural blending and friendship.

On her first day of school in her new country, the child protagonist is dismayed to hear her teacher and classmates attempt to speak her name. When her mama and grandma say her name, it’s colorful and light and soft; yet when the teacher says it, “it’s strange and sharp, and sounds like something is breaking”. She envies the other children with names like Olivia, Sophie, or Chloe. She wishes her clothes and belongings and the whole tomato in her lunchbox didn’t seem so strange in this new place. She tries to imitate the other kids, but it doesn’t work – she is not like them, she is herself. Remembering advice from her grandmother, who stayed behind in her origin country and whom she misses dearly, she tries use a smile to lighten the load… and is surprised to find that while understanding can take time, it can begin with an exchange of simple kindnesses.

Warm and comforting. Based on the Cypriot-born author’s experience growing up in London, Manoli delicately yet authentically explores several aspects of the immigrant experience for children, including culture shock and social assimilation, while focusing on the aspect of having the pronunciation of one’s name change across language barriers. The child’s name is never revealed (though eagle-eyed viewers who can also read Greek will spot the personal Easter egg in the illustrations), but her dismay at hearing her name, a thing which is tied closely to almost anyone’s identity, become something unrecognizable in this new dialect is striking. It’s an element of crossing culture barriers that had never occurred to me, and was thought-provoking for both JJ and I. Manoli is sure to end on a hopeful and affirming note, and Mora’s warm and atmospheric artwork takes the reader on a visual journey that ties in perfectly to the tone of the text. The length is perfect for a storytime, and we liked it a lot. Overall, an affecting immigrant narrative that can help foster empathy and validation for little ones, and it’s Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Rosa’s Song (Helena Ku Rhee)

Hello, friends! Our book today is Rosa’s Song, written by Helena Ku Rhee and illustrated by Pascal Campion, a touchingly bittersweet story of friendship, community, and the immigrant experience.

New to “the country, the city, the building,” young Jae is struggling to adjust to his new surroundings and new language. His mother suggests introducing himself to some of the other kids in the building, and behind the first door he tries is Rosa and her pet parrot, Pollito. Rosa is a warm and welcoming bundle of energy, who instinctively sees Jae’s homesickness for his native country and invents games of imagination to help him adjust. She also teaches him to sing her special song with Pollito: “When I fly away, my heart stays here.” All summer, the friends play, pretend, and learn from each other… until the day that Jae wakes up, and Rosa has suddenly left. Heartbroken, Jae is left only with Pollito, a parting gift from his friend when her family had to leave “in a hurry” against their will. Once again, Jae struggles with sadness and loss, but now for a person instead of a place. Yet with the help of Pollito’s song and some new faces, Jae may learn how to carry on the spirit of Rosa’s friendship.

A complicated theme executed with tenderness and hope. Rhee’s wistful tale follows a familiar format at the start, but takes a surprisingly bold turn with Rosa’s departure, both hinting at the immigration status of Rosa’s family and facing the sometimes transitory nature of friendships based on proximity (as a former military family, we FELT that). This development is handled impeccably though, with honesty and heart, and may help little ones who experience similar closure-less separations from loved ones. Campion’s illustrations are warm, soft, and comforting – even in moments of sadness – and help ease the reader through the sadness of the plot. The length is great for a storytime, and JJ liked the rich artwork, especially of adorable and expressive Pollito. Overall, this is a poignant tale that encourages us to reach out and form connections – even if they may not last. It’s moving, and we loved it; Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by a representative of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Bright Star (Yuyi Morales)

Hello, friends! Our book today is the utterly stunning Bright Star by Yuyi Morales, a complex and beautiful tale of life, family, community, and hope.

As a whitetail fawn takes its first breath, it is greeted by an unidentifiable voice, who welcomes its new “hermosa creatura”. As the fawn and its mother explore its beautiful desert surroundings, the voice celebrates the miracle of existence, and the preciousness and promise of this young fawn. But then, in the distance, darkness looms. A gray dust begins to overtake the land, and the fawn’s mother urges it to lie low for safety. When the dust settles, the fawn’s mother is gone, and a concrete and barbed wire wall separates the fawn and other animals from the rest of the world. The voice encourages the fawn to have courage – that even in the darkness, the brightness of their star cannot be dimmed, and someday the world will be beautiful once more.

Absolutely remarkable. Obviously, we are big fans of picture books as a medium, but sometimes a picture book comes along and reminds you that they are an unsung vehicle for the fine arts. Morales has constructed a visual and lyrical story in this book that is so layered, so nuanced, and so deeply moving that it feels impossible to capture in a review. Perhaps most striking is the “twist” ending, and its bold tone that combines heartbreaking honesty with indefatigable hope. Incredibly detailed illustrations draw the reader into both the fawn’s world and its tumultuous journey, and the combination of English and Spanish text is both authentically representative and inclusive to dual language speakers. The length is perfect for a storytime, and JJ thought it was gorgeous. Simply put, this is a perfect book, and we can’t recommend it enough. Baby Bookworm approved.

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

My Name is Bana (Bana Alabed)

Hello, friends! Our book today is My Name is Bana, written by Bana Alabed and illustrated by Nez Riaz, a powerful tale of resilience, tenacity, and strength.

When Bana asks her mother how she got her name, her mother explains that she was named after a tall, green tree that grew in their native Syria. Bana’s parents gave her the name with that hope that their daughter would be strong like the tree – by showing kindness to others, by standing up against injustice, and by being brave in the face of fear. And in fact, Bana has already shown such strength in many ways: bringing joy to her brothers even amidst bombings and war; starting over in a new country with a new language and new classmates; and speaking on behalf of all Syrian refugee children in front of world leaders. Bana has more than shown that she is “qawia” (strong) like her namesake tree, and stronger still that her strength is rooted in “amal” – in hope.

Stirring. Based on Alabed’s true life story, this inspiring and empowering tale of fortitude manages to finely balance the gravity of its subject matter with language and a tone filled with the concept of hope that it explores. Riaz’s emotional illustrations capture moments of strife, courage, and peace with incredible nuance; Alabed’s text is lyrical yet conversational, and lovely to read aloud. Alabed’s author’s note in the backmatter is not to be skipped, and the closing lines will remind adult readers that strength should not always lie on the shoulders of children. The length is great for a storytime, and JJ and I really enjoyed the heartwarming exchange between mother and daughter. Overall, this is a fantastic book that covers a crucial topic in an accessible and uplifting way, and we highly recommend it. Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Friends Are Friends, Forever (Dane Liu)

Hello friends, and Happy New Year! Our first book of 2022 is Friends Are Friends, Forever, written by Dane Liu and illustrated by Lynn Scurfield, a touching tale of tradition, immigration, and friendship.

Best friends Dandan and Yueyue are excited to spend another Lunar New Year celebrating their traditions: dumplings, making red paper-cut ice ornaments, and watching the fireworks. However, this year’s festivities are bittersweet – Dandan and her parents are moving to the United States the next day, and the girls must say goodbye. Yueyue gives Dandan a stack of red paper and a spool of string to make cutouts with new friends in America, and the girls tearfully hug one last time. Dandan struggles in her new country, feeling alienated by the unfamiliar surroundings, new language, and unfriendly classmates. Will she ever find a new friend to continue her traditions with?

Heartwarming and real. Dandan’s story, based on Liu’s own immigration experience, is told with raw authenticity and honestly, in a way that young readers can connect with. One can feel the pressure and isolation of adapting to a new culture and struggling with a new language while missing everything that once felt familiar and comforting, both through Liu’s frank, sincere text and Scurfield’s expressive and atmospheric illustrations. Fortunately, Dandan does find a new friend, and with some adjustments, is able to practice her Lunar New Year traditions, a resolution that encourages openness to other cultures and provides the promise of better days during transitional times. The length is great for a storytime, and JJ loved the story and instructions on paper cutting in the backmatter. Overall, this one is a treasure, and a great way to start the year – Baby Bookworm approved!

(Note: A copy of this book was provided to The Baby Bookworm by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)