Nasreen's secret school by Jeanette Winter
Beach Lane Books, 2009

Nasreen and her grandmother live alone in Herat, Afghanistan, after Nasreen's father was taken away by Taliban soldiers and her mother has disappeared in an attempt to locate him. It has been many months and Nasreen has not spoken since her father was taken. Although the Taliban does not allow girls to go to school, Nasreen's grandmother wants her to learn about the world as she had so she finds out about a secret school for girls and takes Nasreen. Although it takes many more months, with the help of a friend Nasreen moves past her parents' disappearances and begins to learn.

This is not a light storybook, and Jeannette Winter does an admirable job explaining the Taliban regime and its ramifications on the daily lives of women in a succinct and easily understood manner. The recent history of Afghanistan is very briefly summarized in the first couple of pages, enough to provide context to the story, especially that the Taliban was a new regime and made radical changes to society. The arrival of the Taliban is correlated with a dark cloud settling over the city, and that cloud is visible in the majority of the illustrations. The author's note at the beginning reveals that the Taliban fell in 2001 but that danger still remains, and that girls going to school is still not accepted practice.

Not wholly dark, apart from the cloud Winter's illustrations are generally quite bright and patterned. Nasreen always wears the same clothing which makes it easier to pick her out from the crowd of girls at her school, as do her green eyes, and the pinks, oranges, and greens Winter often uses are a welcome lift from the text.

The idea of having a parent taken away and another disappearing is undoubtedly a scary subject for young children, especially as the book is based on a true story. As well, while the story ends on a happy note, within the confines of the book news of Nasreen's parents is never found and the Taliban is still, presumably, in power. For children who balk at the idea of parents being taken away this could prove to be a bit much, and so I would caution adults to read this book before presenting it to young children.

Nasreen's secret school provides a perspective not often seen in picture books: children who need to avoid mortal danger simply to have the opportunity to learn. Although perhaps scary for some children, it is a book that ends with hope and a positive look to the future, and would be an excellent read-aloud to raise awareness of the continuing plight of women in Afghanistan for older children and teens as well.

The black book of colors by Menena Cottin and Rosana Faria, translated by Elisa Amado
Groundwood Books/House of Anansi Press, 2006

More than any other book I've come across - certainly more than any other picture book I've encountered - The black book of colors gives those of us with the ability to see an idea of how we might perceive colours if we were blind. Printed entirely on black paper, a boy named Thomas describes what colours mean to him, beginning with, "Thomas says that yellow tastes like mustard, but is as soft as a baby chick's feathers."* A Braille translation is provided above the printed white text, and the page opposite the text and the Braille is comprised of an embossed representation of how Thomas interprets the color, in this case delicate feathers. The reader is able to read the text, feel how the same words are written in Braille, and feel the raised images.

Image from: http://erin-thefoolscapflyer.blogspot.com/2009/08/black-book-of-colors.html
This isn't just a gimmick either, as the text is spare and evocative. Some connections seem more likely than others, such as brown smelling like chocolate, and other colours are very personal to Thomas, as with black feeling like his mother's hair falling on his face when she hugs him. The black book of colors takes colours into the realm of having meaning and associated emotion, well past mere visual processing of the electromagnetic spectrum.

*Book is not paginated.
You and me together: Moms, Dads, and kids around the world by Barbara Kerley
National Geographic Society, 2005

With spare, rhythmic text and gorgeous photographs from all around the world, You and me together looks at the common experiences shared by parents and children regardless of culture, language, nationality, or religion.

This is an absolutely gorgeous book. The photos all have a parent with one or more children partaking in activities described by the text, from playing with a ball to riding ponies to just having a chat. Each photo in the book (including the cover image) has a brief caption at the back explaining where the photograph was taken and something interesting about the subjects or event depicted in the image. Although North America is the continent depicted most often in the book, the images cover all continents (except Antarctica). Although one spread in particular that shows a young Karen girl gazing at her guitar-playing mother with an expression of absolute adoration just about undoes me, You and me together is chock full of lovely everyday moments between children and their parents.

Most of the children depicted in the images  fall within the 4- to 8-year-old  age group, which is likely the target child audience. An outstanding book to demonstrate for young children the similarities and differences between cultures.





Farm by Elisha Cooper
Orchard Books (Scholastic), 2010

Farm takes readers from early spring through to late autumn on a modern family farm. Although it is strictly speaking a fictional picture book, Farm reads much like nonfiction with it's descriptive chronological text. At the end, I felt as if I had watched a months-long, time-lapse film of the farm.

Cooper's text, while concise, results in a very atmospheric book. Phrases like "even the clouds seem to make sound as they bump across the sky"* and "to the south are more cornfields, which smell sort of buttery" permeate the book with evocative details of farm life. It is these details, the minutiae of farm life from squeaking corn to the smell of the barn, that made me feel as if I had been there. Despite the detail the text manages to show the reader instead of telling them, leaving me to fill in blanks.

The use of white space in the watercolour illustrations also reflect this sense of filling in blanks. From the farm animals to the children doing chores, all are illustrated with a stark white background, and without much detail except for some animal close-ups. The feeling of wide open spaces is tangible when Cooper shows panoramas of the farm, which are dominated by the sky filling the vast majority of the page.

A subtle humour is at play as well, which I enjoyed: describing the lazy activities of the month of June, "Bear [the cat] plays with a snake then eats it (some animals enjoy June more than others)." A bit dark? Sure. But the cycle of life is alluded to every so often in Farm, and rightly so.

This is a poetic and evocative book about the day-to-day, season-to-season life on a family farm. Lovely.

*I would provide page numbers for quotes but the book is not paginated.