In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van & illustrated by April Chu

By Maureen Tai, 5 April 2020

“In a fishing village by the sea, there is a small house.”

IMG_7158Growing up, I’d never lacked for books but I’d also never read any stories that reflected my Asian heritage or experiences. It was not until I was much older that I realised how greatly my worldview had been shaped by a foreign (read: British) influence and how little knowledge, pride and appreciation I had for children’s stories told by Asians. I have avowed to remedy this, not only for myself but for my own half-Malaysian children, and I am always on the look out for picture books that are proudly and unapologetically Asian. In a Village by the Sea is one such recent discovery, a gentle and sumptuously illustrated ode to fisherfolk in Vietnam.

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Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye & illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

By Maureen Tai, 24 March 2020

“Sometimes I think the world is a huge body tumbling in space, all curled up like a child sleeping. People are far apart, but connected.” – Mona

IMG_7342Mona is a little girl who lives in the United States of America. Her grandmother, whom she calls ‘Sitti’ (the word means “granny” in Arabic) lives far away across the seas, in a village in Palestine. Mona and Sitti inhabit different time zones, and they do not see each other often, but they think of each other a lot. This gentle and beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of Mona’s visit to Sitti’s homeland and of what the little girl learns about her grandmother’s life, despite neither of them being able to speak the other’s language. It is a story about family, and about forging human connections across geographic, linguistic, age and political barriers. It is a story for our fractured times. Continue reading

Can I Touch Your Hair? by Irene Latham & Charles Waters & illustrated by Sean Qualls & Seline Alko

By Maureen Tai, 6 March 2020

IMG_6509“When our teacher says,
Pick a partner,
my body freezes
like a ship in ice.”    – Irene

“… Now I’m stuck with Irene?
She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.”       – Charles

Two students who aren’t friends find themselves randomly paired up for a poetry project. Irene and Charles embark uneasily on their assignment, knowing only one thing about each other – what they look like. Irene has pale white skin and golden blonde hair. Charles has short curly black hair and skin the colour of warm cocoa. So far, so different. Will they make this work? Continue reading

Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker & illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

By Maureen Tai, 20 January 2020

“They’re like teardrops. The sky is crying birds.” – Ming-Li

Sparrow Girl

True-life, historical disasters rarely inspire picture books for young children. Sparrow Girl is an exception. From the long-forgotten ashes of China’s disastrous “Four Pests” campaign waged in the late 1950s, Sara Pennypacker (author of the gut-wrenching middle grade novel Pax) has plucked a sliver of hope, turning it into a redemptive fictional account of a child’s compassion and courage. Alas, we know that in reality, the ending was much,  much darker. Continue reading

Katie and the Starry Night by James Mayhew

By Maureen Tai, 13 May 2019

IMG_5351A visit to a multi-sensory exhibition of Van Gogh’s works prompted a fond recollection. My oldest child, then 5 or 6, had spotted a print of The Starry Night at a shop and exclaimed excitedly that it looked just like the picture in our Katie book. Upon returning home, she insisted that we read Katie and the Starry Night again – for the umpteenth time. On a re-visit of the picture book today after several years’ hiatus, I am struck anew by the artistry of the illustrations and the marvellously imaginative story of Katie, an adventurous little girl in a red coat, bright red ribbons in her hair. Katie has an unusual and dare I say, enviable, way of interacting with the artwork she encounters …  Continue reading

BE STILL, life by Ohara Hale

By Maureen Tai, 4 May 2019

Be still, life, be still
Like fruit in a bowl.
And you might hear the hum
Of a crisp summer’s apple,
Or a pear joining in with a
     Pear kind of babble!
– Ohara Hale

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BE STILL, life 
is a jolt of joyful exuberance.  Seemingly random text, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. Alphabets of different sizes, sometimes block, sometimes cursive. What unifies the playful and carefree words and the bold and whimsical drawings is the celebration of the simple pleasures of life. Isn’t it fun to look around, to really listen, to really feel, and to just be? Why, now that you mention it, it is!
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enormous SMALLNESS – A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess & illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo

By Maureen Tai, 28 April 2019

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places                             – e.e. cummings

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American poet Edward Estlin (e.e.) Cumming’s (1894 – 1962) life art was in seeing and creating wonderful world-words from the ordinary and small everyday. This inspired and beautifully illustrated non-fiction picture book tells his story in an engaging and relatable way while introducing e.e.’s unconventional, distinctive and refreshingly modernist style of poetry to younger readers. A word of warning: you might be compelled to drop your upper case letters after this encounter. Continue reading