Books May 2014

The King of Little Things

By Bil Lepp, illustrated by David T. Wenzel. Peachtree Publishers, 2013. 32 pages. $16.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

Reviewed by Margaret T. Walden

The King of Little Things loves his wife, his castle, nature, his people—he is content.

King Normous loves power, and he loves his big army—he is due a comeuppance.

The King of Little Things is a tale that demands to be read aloud. The protagonist is not given a personal name but his opposite, King Normous, occupies large parts of the pictures as well as the story. Extreme greed moves him to take over the world using his enormous army. King Normous uses force and fear to control his army and his subjects.

The King of Little Things does not need strategies. He is content with his small castle, his loving wife, the friendship of the ants and bees, and the loyalty of his happy subjects who understand that having just enough is a great pleasure. When King Normous traps the King of Little Things and imprisons him in a cave, his little subjects respond enthusiastically to his request for help by using their tiny talents.

The author, a talented storyteller, loves alliteration. The King of Little Things is a book to read and re-read: it is meant to be heard. Although ages four through eight (the folktale crowd) might enjoy it most, the tale is suitable for all ages. Illustrations are brightly colored with amusing details. The flyleaf has an invitation to the reader to do a picture search through the book.

The story raises questions on how best to treat others. What are the uses and misuses of fear? What happens when power leads to greed? How can cooperation be inspired? These are questions that Quakers reflect on all the time. Young children may be invited to share ideas on the differences between giving orders and making requests, or on conspicuous consumption versus simple living.

King Normous has some difficulty noticing the difference between need and contentment. He uses trickery to capture the King of Little Things, remarking to his council, “A lie, no matter how small, is never a little thing.” The King of Little Things and his subjects organize creatively to overcome the violence of King Normous. They protest in tiny ways, stopping the many little tasks they perform, leaving King Normous to spend the rest of his days looking for his own little things: his buttons, his keys, his socks, his spectacles, his wallet.

Alice Walker once said, “The most common way people give up power is by thinking they don’t have any.” The subjects of the King of Little Things know their own power.

Margaret T. Walden is a member of Detroit (Mich.) Meeting and is a retired librarian from Friends School in Detroit.


Brief Thief

By Michaël Escoffier, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo. Enchanted Lion Books, 2013. 32 pages. $16.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

Reviewed by Dee Cameron

After Leon the lizard starts his day with breakfast and a rest in the sun, he “has to go poo.” When he realizes he is out of toilet paper, he makes do with a pair of underpants he finds hanging from a tree limb. Then he hears the voice of conscience, which is anything but still and small. In fact, the indignant voice is that of a rabbit superhero hiding in the foliage of a nearby tree, and what appeared to be discarded underpants is actually his headgear. Their conversation covers issues of personal property, unwarranted assumptions, and the need to do the right thing when we have offended. Only after Leon has thoroughly washed the item in question and has gone on his way does the super rabbit appear, masked and ready for flight. Since bathroom customs are some of the first ones children learn, and since this picture book is so much fun, it should provide material for laughter as well as discussion in the family or First-day school.

Dee Cameron is a librarian and a member of El Paso (Tex.) Meeting.


The Chickens Build a Wall

By Jean-François Dumont. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2013. 32 pages. $16/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

Reviewed by Michelle McAtee

This book tells the story of a group of farm animals who are not sure what to make of a hedgehog who wanders into the barnyard. After rumors start to fly, the chickens decide to build a wall to keep the newcomer out. Unfortunately, they neglect to build a door and discover upon completing the wall that the hedgehog is on the inside with them. Bright, humorous illustrations enhance this tale of getting to know the stranger among us. The Chickens Build a Wall makes for a good First-day school lesson or addition to a family library.

Michelle McAtee is a member of Nashville (Tenn.) Meeting.


The Otter, the Spotted Frog & the Great Flood: A Creek Indian Story

By Gerald Hausman, illustrated by Ramon Shiloh. Wisdom Tales, 2013. 36 pages. $17.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

Reviewed by Tom and Sandy Farley

We’ve read and heard many tales about the origins of animals and humans. We’ve read biblical and other accounts of creation and the great flood. Some simply tell how an accident or injury becomes a permanent condition. This story from the Creek people in Georgia goes beyond that and makes the survival of an otter known as Listener directly dependent upon his listening ability and willingness to take advice on trust. The character who doesn’t listen is a buffalo named Honors Himself.

Gerald Hausman’s author notes reveal that he has pulled together several Native American story threads to weave this tale. He advises, “There is no competition in tribal storytelling. Just the message and the ways it can be expressed.” The way he tells this tale has an authentic feel, consistent with what we have heard from leading Native American storytellers.

We never learn how Spotted Frog knows that a flood is coming; we just have to trust his wisdom. His instructions do go one step beyond what Noah got. Spotted Frog tells Listener the Otter to fasten his raft to a tall water oak with a long rope so he won’t drift away. We found the emergence of the mosquitoes after the flood and their role in bringing to life the first human couple intriguing. This makes the story an interesting read-aloud for adults as well as for children they share the book with.

Ramon Shiloh’s illustrations are colorful and fluid, bringing just enough detail to enhance the story and leaving significant white spaces. Recognizing motifs from several Native American styles, we contacted Ramon to ask about the influences in his work. He replied, “The general rule of this book was to incorporate symbolic references all nations would enjoy.” Ramon Shiloh is also a storyteller.

The lesson embedded in this story is the importance of listening. There is also a delightful scene of forgiveness and reconciliation between Listener and Otter Woman, Listener’s wife. Here is a story that is well told and not preachy. It would be good to include in a First-day school library as well as in homes of Friends.

Sandy and Tom Farley are members of Palo Alto (Calif.) Meeting, storytellers, booksellers with the EarthLight bookstore, and co-authors of the Earthcare for Children curriculum.


The Man with the Violin

By Kathy Stinson, illustrated by Dušan Petričić. Annick Press, 2013. 32 pages. $19.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 5–8 or adults.

Reviewed by Anne Nydam

The Man with the Violin tells the story of a boy who notices things. In particular, he notices the music played by a violinist in the subway station. Dylan wants to stop and listen, but his mother, along with all the busy people in the station, has somewhere to go, and she pulls Dylan away. All day the music stays in Dylan’s mind, and back home in the evening, he hears it again on the radio. The radio announcer explains that the man in the subway was a famous classical violinist. Dylan’s mother sees that Dylan was right to notice the music, and she stops what she is doing to dance and listen to the music together with her son. The story is based on a true incident when the famous violinist Joshua Bell played in a Washington, D.C., subway station and was ignored by most of the passersby.

The illustrations are primarily monochromatic, mostly pencil sketch lines shaded with watercolors in grays and browns. Ugly noises are represented by harsh, jagged black and white lines. The violin music, however, is in full color, a watercolor rainbow swooping and swirling across the pages like a wind. Also like the wind, it seems to move things, swooshing through Dylan’s hair and lifting him into the air as he remembers it through the day. It’s fun to see how the music colors everything it touches.

This is a story about mindfulness, about noticing things and taking time to appreciate them. I think the message is actually aimed primarily at adults, in that adults are the ones in the book who fail to stop and notice, the ones being admonished to slow down. However, I believe children will enjoy reading this book with an adult and having the opportunity to talk about when they’ve been able to quiet themselves enough to appreciate what’s around them, and when they feel too hurried and harried. First-day school for lower elementary might be able to use this book to help illustrate and explain the idea of quieting yourself, setting everyday activities aside, and listening through the hustle and bustle to something more.

Anne Nydam is a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting, where she teaches First-day school. A former middle school art teacher, she now stays home with her own children while working as an artist and writer of books for children.


We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song

By Debbie Levy, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. Jump at the Sun, 2013. 32 pages. $16.99/hardcover. Recommended for ages 6–8.

Reviewed by Vickie LeCroy

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song is a large-format, colorful children’s book that describes the history of a song as it relates to the Civil Rights Movement. The story is a good one, reflecting how one song has played an important role in influencing the course of history in the United States and even the whole world. The illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton are fun, colorful, and inviting. The book improves as it progresses. The first few pages seem to imply incorrectly that all whites exercised meanness toward African Americans prior to and even after the Civil War. The book neglects to clarify that while many whites treated African Americans harshly throughout the history of the United States, there were also many advocates for emancipation of the slaves and many who treated African Americans (slave or free) as friends and equals. It is inappropriate and inaccurate to paint the entire white population with one broad brush, and African Americans as uniformly mistreated with another broad brush. Children who are building their understanding of the world and of history deserve a more accurate portrayal.

Vickie LeCroy is a member of the Cincinnati (Ohio) Meeting.


Imprisoned: The Betrayal of Japanese Americans during World War II

By Martin W. Sandler. Walker Books for Young Readers, 2013. 176 pages. $22.99/hardcover. Recommended for ages 10–14.

Barbed Wire Baseball

By Marissa Moss, illustrated by Yuko Shimizu. Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013. 48 pages. $18.95/hardcover, $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 6–10.

Two titles reviewed by Dave Austin

As a middle school teacher, I am blessed to work in a school district that has as part of its curriculum an extended unit on tolerance and diversity that includes several weeks worth of lessons focusing on the Holocaust and other examples of mass violations of human rights. As part of that conversation, I introduce my students to the issue of the internment of Japanese Americans by the U.S. government after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many if not most of them are shocked to realize that at the same time the Nazi regime was rounding up Jews and members of other targeted groups and placing them in death camps, their own government was imprisoning thousands of its citizens in concentration camps without due process, simply because of their ethnicity. Martin Sandler’s new book, Imprisoned, will be an invaluable resource to anyone interested in this shameful episode in American history, student and educator alike.

Sandler’s text presents a thorough chronicle of this sad tale, beginning with a detailed history of the Japanese American experience prior to the war. He then discusses the mass anti-Japanese hysteria, amped up by already bigoted politicians and media types, that paved the road toward mass internment. The lives of individuals and families behind the wire are given extensive attention, their stories enhanced by beautiful black and white photographs and many color pictures of historical and personal artifacts from the camp experience. The contribution to the war effort by Japanese American soldiers—including many women—is thoroughly documented. The book closes with chapters covering the often neglected aspect of any World War II narrative: what happened when the war ended and it was time to go home again. Here, Sandler discusses the efforts to provide some sort of legal redress for what was done to the Japanese Americans and to their contributions to American life and culture since the war. There is also a brief tribute to the work of American Quakers, especially West Coast Friends and American Friends Service Committee, who vociferously protested against the forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes and against the unconstitutional seizure of their property.

As a baseball fan and history geek, I found Barbed Wire Baseball to be irresistible. This picture book for elementary readers presents the story of Kenichi “Zeni” Zenimura, a diminutive but talented Japanese American baseball player and manager who actually toured Japan and also played exhibition games with stars such as Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. But his dreams of baseball glory collapsed with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Shortly thereafter, Zeni was sent along with his family to an internment camp in Arizona. Zeni sought to do something to improve the harsh and inhumane conditions at the camp, something that would make use of his talents. And so in the desolate desert environment, he and other internees built a real baseball diamond. Through hard work and ingenuity, he got equipment and uniforms enough to organize teams that could play for the entertainment of those who could not otherwise escape the day-to-day dreariness of life behind the barbed wire.

The gorgeous illustrations by Yuko Shimuzu are done in the style of Japanese baseball cards of the period. The colors are brilliant and the drawings are finely detailed: the artwork alone is worth the price of the book. Reading this book and marveling at the illustrations motivated me to do further reading on the life of Kenichi Zenimura (and about those amazing baseball cards!), and I encourage baseball fans to seek out his story online.

These two texts belong in every school library, and in the hands of any young people you know who have an interest in U.S. history, warts and all. Both include extensive notes and references for further reading and research. Most importantly, they both tell stories that our children need to hear, each in ways that will engage and enlighten them.

Dave Austin is a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting. He is currently at work on a young adult novel about Quaker conscientious objectors during World War II.


The Garden of My Imaan

By Farhana Zia. Peachtree Publishers, 2013. 192 pages. $15.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 8–12.

Reviewed by Lisa Rand

It is refreshing to find a novel for younger readers with a Muslim girl protagonist, and this fact alone gives The Garden of My Imaan immediate appeal. Farhana Zia’s novel centers around Aliya, an Indian American fifth grader. Readers will relate to Aliya, who tries her best while making plenty of mistakes. Aliya’s family plays a supportive role in the story, yet each member is an interesting and likeable character. I appreciated the author’s depiction of the importance of extended family relationships.

My favorite character is Marwa, a new girl at Aliya’s school. At many points, I wished Aliya could be more like Marwa, a strong and confident girl who consistently acts with kindness and integrity. While Aliya wrestles with being herself, she has Marwa as an example to emulate.

There is discussion of boyfriends and crushes that might be more appropriate for an eighth grader than a fifth grader. However, one can expect that this topic is something that varies widely depending upon the culture of the school and a given peer group.

Throughout the book, Urdu phrases and Arabic expressions arise naturally in conversation, and there is a short glossary to help with those terms. Overall, the book does a fine job of presenting a glimpse of Islam in daily life and a window on the diversity of religious expression. The story would be an enjoyable addition to home and school libraries.

Lisa Rand is a member of Unami Meeting in Pennsburg, Pa. She writes the blog Light to Read By at


Why Do We Fight?: Conflict, War, and Peace

By Niki Walker. Owlkids Books, 2013. 80 pages. $16.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 10–14.

Reviewed by Lucinda Hathaway

Conflict, war, and peace! Talk about a huge topic that needs to be perused, discussed, mulled over, and researched: this book is it. Niki Walker tackles the subject in a straightforward, concise, and thoughtful manner. The book is really a “thought plan” (my phrase to understand this huge topic). I started reading it with a rather jaded attitude that an impossible task was being undertaken by this brave author. Well, I finished the book with huge respect for her research and deft handling of a difficult undertaking.

The author includes quotes from a number of prominent peacemakers: the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, and Christopher Hitchens. In this day and age, kids or adults have only to Google these names, be they familiar or not, to find out more about them.

Words are defined that must be understood to even begin discussing “fighting.” Conflict is approached from all angles and defined in a way that applies to everyday happenings as well as international wars. The author discusses forming groups and bonds in a way that makes us understand that even like-minded people may experience conflict but may find ways to avoid allowing it to escalate.

The book might best be read in segments with discussion and guidance as you proceed. For sure, the ending that asks “What do you believe?” must be deftly handled, giving permission for minds to change after learning about all sides of a situation. This exercise would be a good lesson to present to middle schoolers to challenge their understanding of what they know, what they think, and what they think they know!

It is a difficult subject. Walker does a good job of looking at all sides and leading the reader to conclusions and positive action.

Lucinda Hathaway is a member of Sarasota (Fla.) Meeting and author of Takashi’s Voyage and ’Round the World.


The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the Impossible Became Possible . . . on Schindler’s List

By Leon Leysin. Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2013. 240 pages. $17.99/hardcover; $7.99/paperback; $9.38/eBook; $10.95/audio. Recommended for ages 9–14.

Reviewed by James Foritano

The book opens with a scene of untrammeled boyhood: water; low-hanging tree branches; and a running start, barefoot or, if adults are not present, bare-naked. It could be a scene out of the American classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, except the river lies across the Atlantic in the darker territory of World War II.

We learn that the protagonist with whom we shared the preceding adventure (and we hope many more) is now named Leon Leysin. His Polish name, however, was Leib Lejzon, and his family (Polish Jews) had lived for generations in Narewka, a small village in northeastern Poland near Białystok. The change of name is intriguing and ominous; it speaks of Leib/Leon’s perilous journey to the safety of U.S. shores. The journey is successful, but the perils cannot be denied.

We feel these perils all the more vividly since our introduction to the family, its mores and morals, is deftly accomplished: loving; hardworking; and even, for their time and place, upwardly mobile. Their tale seems to promise a familiar story of striving rewarded. And feeling so, we share their warmth and twists of fortune so completely that we also vicariously share, will we or not, their destiny in the larger family of European Jews.

It is a signal virtue of the author’s scope that he shares with us not only a lovingly burnished perspective on an individual and his family, but also that of a village, city, country, and continent that they share with other families and nations.

Paragraphs recount volumes of history with vivid incidents. We suffer, for example, the shattered perspective of Polish Jews when the Germans of World War I return with their humanity hollowed out by a Nazi ideology full of hate and vengeful nihilism. Along with its victims, we grasp this revolution in ethics with shocked surprise and horror.

The title, by the way, refers to the box Leon/Leib needed to stand on so he could reach his adult-level workstation in Schindler’s factory and, fortuitously, a place on Oskar Schindler’s famous list—an advantage he never wasted for a moment and never failed to extend to others.

James Foritano attends Cambridge (Mass.) Meeting.


Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War

By Helen Frost. Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers, 2013. 138 pages. $17.99/hardcover. Recommended for ages 10–14.

Reviewed by Judith Favor

What do friendship and home mean in a time when war threatens everything? Can Quaker children read about war? I think they can, especially when the story is as carefully crafted as this one. Helen Frost’s novel in poems is captivating. As a pacifist grandmother who supports the War Is Not the Answer movement, I also ache for child soldiers who are forced to carry weapons in some parts of the world today.

When war is thrust upon children in 1812, what do they do? Frost’s historical and poetic story introduces two 12-year-old boys in Indiana Territory who speak different languages. They spend their days fishing, trapping, and exploring the forest around Fort Wayne, where James’s family runs a trading post, and Kekionga village, where Anikwa’s tribe has lived for centuries. The boys’ friendship is based on competition and respect, tricks and games, whistles and stillness. The author presents the thoughts and actions of each boy with tender respect. She conveys James’s point of view through lines of print duplicating the American flag. Frost artfully shows Anikwa’s perspective through pulsing lines arranged on the page in diamond and triangle patterns, the traditional art form of his people.

As tensions increase between the British and American armies, the boys’ families are swept up in the hostilities. When the fort comes under siege and war ravages the land, James and Anikwa must decide where their deepest loyalties lie. Can their families and their friendship survive?

What does salt have to do with all this? Poems about salt appear throughout the story, offering a reflective pause between events. Although the children cannot stop the course of events, Anikwa and James can harness the power of salt in an effort to re-establish trust between enemies.

This book led me to wonder if Friends put youngsters at a disadvantage by not educating them about war, by not offering ways to confront and gain understanding of war at an early age. Can Quaker children appreciate this fictional story about friendship between two 12-year-olds in a time of war? I think they can.

Judith Favor is a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting.

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