Books can enlighten us and help us understand traditions and ways of life in other countries. Here is a collection of these types of books as well as unique takes on traditional folktales. You’ll find the appropriate age level at the end of each book’s review.
Night Sky Dragons, by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham, and gorgeously painted with pen and watercolor by Patrick Benson, is an insightful look into Chinese life in the past with this historical fiction. Young Yazul lives with his family in a han, a walled town where the citizens could live in relative safety. His father is the Lord of this han and wants him to learn how to rule in order to eventually take over his father’s position. But Yazul is enamored with kite making which greatly disappoints his father until one day the kites save the entire town. The beautiful pictures, found on almost every page, truly emit life in China long ago. This story is geared for ages seven and up.
Iqbal: A Brave Boy From Pakistan and Malala: A Brave Girl From Pakistan, by Jeanette Winter, is actually two picture books in one. By merely flipping the book over, the stories change from the boy’s story to the girl’s. This is a true story about both of these Pakistani children. Malala is a well-known hero among her compatriots in her country, and the world. She stood up for girls’ education. Iqbal is less well known as he stood up against child labor practices which often forces children as young as four to work. Sadly he was shot when he was twelve. But, this simple yet powerful book demonstrates courage against all odds and develops a greater appreciation for America. This book is best suited for ages nine and up.
Monkey: A Trickster Tale From India, by Gerald McDermott, is glorified in brilliant color and reflects traditional storytelling from a land far away. McDermott was a master at re-telling traditional stories and magnifying them with vividness. Monkey may be small and weak but he’s very smart. And smart wins the day as he wrestles his wit with Crocodile. McDermott (who passed away recently) used a mixture of colors, paints and papers to create a fantastic array of color that seems to jump off the page. This delightful picture book is good for all ages.
Noodle Magic, by Roseanne Greenfield Thong, and wonderfully painted by Meilo So, showcases life in this busy Chinese town as young Mei attempts to create the magic in her noodle dough that her grandpa Tu accomplishes at every turn. He encourages her to create her noodle dough for the emperor’s birthday. With his support and help, she creates a most memorable and magical noodle ball that will enthrall readers as you glimpse at a most amazing sight! The pencil etchings and painted color give a distinct folk art ambiance. All ages will enjoy this picture book.
The Glass Mountain: Tales From Poland, by Jan Pienkowski, and retold by David Walser, includes eight classic Polish stories with subjects that include dragons, kings, frogs and even mermaids. Each tale delivers a moral such as honesty, loyalty and bravery. Pienkowski is a brilliant and award winning artist and his work shows here beginning on the end pages. He is a master of cut-paper illustrations and these stories are highly imaginable. Both he and Walser have successfully collaborated on three other tales. Be sure to check out the foreword by both as well as a Polish pronunciation key in the front. This collection of stories is best for ages seven and up.
Old Mikamba Had a Farm, by Rachel Isadora, takes the familiar song and switches the reader to Africa with native animals actively moving and making sounds that go with the rhythm of the original song. The baboon says “ooh-ha-ha” and the cheetah says “grrrr-grrrr”. Isadora has magnificently reproduced the African splendor upon opening the full-spread end pages. It begins with the orange sun rising over a savanna setting and animals found drinking, running and standing. The final open-spread is night and dark and feels quiet across the open space. Isadora uses a combination of textures and color to create her collage illustrations. Be sure to check out more information about the animals found in this stunning book. This picture book (and the remaining two books) is good for ages three to seven.
Little Roja Riding Hood, by Susan Middleton Elya, and richly painted with watercolor, ink and gouache by Susan Guevara, takes the traditional story and puts a Spanish twist into it. There are Spanish words sprinkled throughout by just using one major Spanish word as the component. For instance, it begins like this: “There once was a nina who lived near the woods. She liked to wear colorful capas with hoods.” This rhyming text is simple and excellent for youngsters learning Spanish. There’s a glossary found in the front for easy and quick access. Every page is completely filled with color and most are open-spread pages.
Cinders: A Chicken Cinderella, by Jan Brett, takes a familiar tale and transforms it into the majestic eighteenth-century Russia. But the main characters aren’t human: they’re chickens. It begins with a child, Tasha, as she feeds her chickens in a tall tower. A blizzard is raging outside and once she leaves to seek the comfort and warmth of her house, the beloved Cinders is pushed around by the step-chicken, Largessa, and her frisky feathered daughters. The story is clever, and the illustrations by award winner Brett are luscious and her outstanding trademark paintings along the borders of the pages are captivating.