I love finding a book that seems impossible to describe. Reviewing it is a challenge—not a “cleaning the girls’ bedroom after we’ve all put it off for far too long” sort of challenge (I hate those; I did that yesterday), but the fun kind. The kind that requires one to have her wits about herself. Like baking elaborate cakes* or breaking boards with one’s bare hands, the challenge of reviewing impossible-to-peg books ends either in defeat or in a adrenaline- or sugar-fueled rush.
But best of all, finding one of these books means I’ve found an author who is either doing something new or doing something old in a new way. In the case of the Rwendigo Tales, author J. A. Myhre sets her magical-realism stories in Africa, where she and her husband serve as missionary doctors and raise their four children, and she infuses the whole thing with the gospel.
These are beautiful books, and they are unlike anything I’ve read. Myhre writes complex scenes; she deals with hard topics, like rebel attacks, kidnapping, disease outbreaks, and death. Her characters are called upon to make some brutally hard choices, and they do not always choose well. But grace and forgiveness abound—in believable, costly ways.
If I were, for simplicity’s sake, to try and compare these stories to other stories, I’d have to say that the Rwendigo tales are a bit like A Long Walk to Water, The Wingfeather Saga, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, andTreasures of the Snowcombined, with maybe a dash of Narnian animals thrown in. And as unlikely a combination as that sounds, it works. It works beautifully. The Rwendigo Tales now live on the Bookshelf of Honor, between The Chronicles of Narniaand The Wingfeather Saga. I can bestow no higher honor upon a book.
*A few months ago, my brother sent me a cookbook and challenged me to a baking duel. We are both devotees of The Great British Baking Show, so I accepted the oven mitt he slapped on the counter. We have since baked a dozen or more treats from that cookbook, texting back and forth as we do, or occasionally sharing a kitchen when he comes to visit.
This is a ridiculous amount of fun; I recommend it to any grown siblings who share a love of pastry, a quirky sense of humor, and bad British accents. Also, today is my birthday, so a footnote about cake seemed appropriate.
We don’t get out much. I would blame it on the fourth baby or on this “hectic” season of life, but I can’t really. Even before we had kids, we didn’t get out much. We just like staying home.
When I opened my Instagram account a few months ago and started seeing all the amazing places my friends take their kids, I began to feel a little guilty about that, like maybe we should be putting our kids in backpacks and trekking up mountains and stuff. And maybe we will once, just so they know what it’s like. But I grew up doing things like that and somehow, it never took. I’d just rather be at home, having dinner with the neighbors and harvesting tomatoes until my hands smell like tomato plants, putting the kids to bed on time and then watching The Clone Wars with my husband.
We would like to show our kids some parts of the world, yes. That sounds pretty cool. But we have always had a clear vision of our home as a place of refuge, a place our children return to when they are grown and need a rest from their travels, and shaping that refuge (wherever it eventually is) is a daily work that we find it hard to walk away from.
Just because we may not take our children around the world ourselves, though, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t know what’s out there. I find myself looking for more and more ways to broaden their borders so that they grow up grounded but not sheltered: we have dinner with friends from other countries and host foreign exchange students (okay, we did that once, before we filled our house to capacity with babies. But it was a wonderful experience for all of us). We look up every little thing on Google Earth, and bring home stacks of library books about life in other countries.
Many of the books on this list came to my attention through Jamie C. Martin’s beautiful book, Give Your Child the World. If anything on this list whets your appetite, then please: read her book first. It’ll fill your cart with incredible titles and your heart with stories of life around the world. The rest of the books on this list are family favorites.
This books describes children not as “black” or “white,” but as “cinnamon, walnut, wheat” and more. Hamanaka uses both her words and her illustrations to celebrate the many different ways children can look. (Read my full review.)
Set in the Maasai culture of Africa, Papa, Do You Love Me? follows the questioning of a young child as he asks his father, “What would you do if I was cold? If I was hungry? If I did wrong?” The papa’s patient and generous answers show that the love of a father for is child is truly cross-cultural. (Read the full review.)
A book about a talking bear may seem like an unlikely choice for this list, but I loved the way that the authors present Growly’s exchanges with other animals: as he runs into cultural differences and language barriers, he meets them with humility and respect. This is a lovely story about a young bear whose world is much larger than he originally thought.
This book is an impressive, “big picture” look at people: the many ways they can look, the things they do, the places they live, and more. It’s a fun one to read together or to study alone (the illustrations are incredibly detailed). By looking at the many ways we differ and the few things we have in common, Spier creates a fascinating portrait of the human race.
Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa, amazing Africa, and Atinuke celebrates that by exploring her daily life in Africa through Anna’s charming perspective. These are early chapter books and heavily illustrated, so they’re perfect for sharing with a beginning reader. In fact, my beginning reader likes to follow me around while I do housework, reading aloud from them like she is my own private audio book. (Read the full review.)
My girls found this book enchanting. Dozens of countries appear in its pages, represented by one or two children who give a glimpse into their daily lives. We found ways in which those lives differed dramatically from our own, of course, but we also found many things that our families have in common. If People is a big picture look at humanity, this is a close-up detail shot that focuses on one child at a time.
Jude Daly uses the familiar passage from Ecclesiastes 3 for the book’s text, but places her illustrations in South Africa. By having one family enact the different “times” described, she gives a fascinating portrait of life in the South African countryside. (Read my full review.)
Jamie C. Martin makes a compelling case for why we should read things that expand our children’s understanding of the world. She isn’t bossy about it, though: she makes her case quietly, by sharing what has worked for her own multi-cultural family and describing their favorite books so enthusiastically that I found myself filling an Amazon cart as I read (oops . . . ).
This summer, we started a tradition. It involved library trips in the morning and a picnic blanket in the afternoon, along with a stack of books, simple homemade caramel corn, and cream soda.
If that sounds insanely idyllic though, remember this: it also involved taking a toddler to the library.
With a baby in the carrier and a book bag over one arm (a book bag that grew increasingly heavy the longer we stayed), I had only one arm free for herding Phoebe away from the easy fiction, where she happily unshelved books one series at a time, and back toward the board books—only to have her slip away when I wasn’t looking and head toward the bathroom.
It is no coincidence that our Fridays also involved a post-library stop for coffee.
But while browsing the library with a toddler in tow has its downsides, it also has a few notable upsides: namely, the books she slipped into her own book bag, that were checked out by an older sister and brought home unnoticed until I pulled them out and read them aloud on our picnic blanket. We found a few gems that way.
We found Papa, Do You Love Me? that way.
This book is a beautiful, “Yes, child, I love you to the moon and back and nothing you can do will change that” sort of story, but it’s set in the Masai culture in Africa, so while it tells a familiar, comforting story, it also quietly shows how universal that story is. The child, Tender Heart, presses his father with questions: “Do you love me? How much? What would you do if I was hot? If I was thirsty but the river ran dry? If I disobeyed?” And his father answers honestly and beautifully, painting a picture not just of a father’s love but of Our Father’s love as he does so.
I have a bittersweet relationship with early reader chapter books. I say “sweet” because those chapter books are legion: my daughters can check out seven books in a series and savor them throughout the week, and I don’t have to pre-read every one.
But I also say “bitter” because many of the early reader series tend to be a bit flat: they incorporate interesting historical or geographical elements, but the characters remain pretty static and the stories tend toward the formulaic—I suppose they must if they’re to have fifty or more books per series. The more of these we borrow from the library, the more I find myself willing to settle for fewer books of better quality.
Anna Hibiscus is the first early chapter book I’ve found that strikes both the educational and the character-rich chords at once. Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa (“Amazing Africa!”) with her Canadian mother, her African father, her twin baby brothers, and all her aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. She doesn’t travel through time or make a single pun on the word “mouse,” but Anna Hibiscus does long for snow, love her family, and learn a bit about how truly wealthy she is.
Atinuke paints an enchanting picture of urban life in Africa through the musical language of her characters and through sweet stories about Anna herself, while Lauren Tobia’s illustrations portray a family life that is rich and vibrant, even in black and white drawings.
I found myself actually wanting to read these books aloud to my daughters—rare praise for a genre that caters toward independent readers! There aren’t many books in this series, which gives me hope that the rest of them will be as well-written (and charmingly illustrated) as the first.
Hi, I'm Théa! I review classic literature, poetry, nonfiction, fantasy, picture books—children's books luminous with grace and beauty. These are books our family loved and that I think you'll love too. Thanks for stopping by!
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