Picture Book Round-Up:
Fitting In and Standing Out

h1 July 3rd, 2007 by jules

Angelina’s Island
by Jeanette Winter
Frances Foster Books (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
April 2007
(library copy)

“Every day I tell Mama,
I want to go home.
Every day she tells me,
We are home, Angelina.
New York is home now.”

Thus begins Jeanette Winter’s latest picture book, an affectionate story about one immigrant girl’s acceptance of change and struggle to belong in a new country. The young girl and her mama have moved from Jamaica to New York, and she’s having trouble feeling like she is at home. Nightly, she dreams of her “island in the sun” and dreams that a plane takes her back to her Jamaica: “I don’t want to wake up and leave my sunny dreams.” Her persistent mother repeatedly tells her, “we are home, Angelina.” She continues, though, to long for her island food (mangos, breadfruit, ackee, salt fish, and much more); the warm sand at her feet and the blue sky, as opposed to the tall skyscrapers that cover the sun; the dust and dirt of the roads she walked in bare feet toward school, as opposed to the bus that now takes her to school down busy, congested roads; the brightly-colored birds of Jamaica; her grandma (“I talk to her in my dreams”); the games of Jamaica; and, perhaps best of all, dancing at Carnival with her friends. But the girl’s observant mother has a plan — involving the very sense of community the young girl longs for — to lift her daughter’s spirits, which is so delightful that I won’t spoil it for you. The illustrations are a joy — Winter’s use of greys and muted colors for the busy city the girl longs to leave behind make the bright, bold introduction of pastels in the end (and in the girl’s dreams) an exuberant event. Winter is a master of evoking so much joy from the simplest of shapes and saying so much with a squiggle here and a spiral there. Her use of a heavy, dark, black line for the illustrations’ borders are a perfect complement to the book’s images and really call forth our determined young protagonist on each page, always keeping her center stage and expertly balancing the color choices with the striking use of black. Winter succeeds in making this story about one Jamaican girl living in the northeastern U.S. radiate with a universal appeal, speaking to anyone struggling to belong. An Author’s Note at the book’s close explains how the Labor Day Carnival tradition in Brooklyn “keeps alive the traditions of the West Indian people and their ancestors.”

Lissy’s Friends
by Grace Lin
May 2007
(library copy)

Here’s another solid story about feeling like an outsider and trying to fit in: Lissy, the new girl at school, is lonely. None of the other children talk to her or play with her. One day — while eating alone in the school cafeteria, as she usually does — she takes the lunch menu (do some school cafeterias now use menus? No matter . . . moving right along) and folds it into a paper crane. Naming it “Menu,” it becomes her new best friend, coming to life and fluttering up with its paper wings right in front of her. Lissy now has a secret — and a secret smile, no less — having put her new friend in her coat pocket. Eventually, she makes a lot more new friends, in the truest sense of the word “make” — after a few days pass, she has a whole slew of new, paper-creature friends, who go to school with her, read with her, and sit at her desk. “And Lissy was never alone.” One day, at the playground with her paper friends, the wind blows them away while they play on the merry-go-round and while several other children watch. Feeling hopeless, Lissy sits and cries. “‘No more friends,’ Lissy said, and she sat down . . . and covered her face with her hands.” But, then she hears a voice; it’s Paige who has picked up Menu and brought her to Lissy. Paige becomes Lissy’s first new (human) friend and expresses an interest in paper-folding. In an afterword of sorts, we see that Lissy’s paper friends, carried away by the wind, have sent her a postcard and picture: “. . . We are having fun traveling the world. We miss you! . . . p.s. Tell Menu Hello!” (Heh. I laughed out loud. It’s both charming and very funny, seeing as how they’re partying down in Paris, as we see the Eiffel Tower behind them).

The book works on many levels as a warm story of transformation — one of them being the metamorphosis of a child from shy to bold and her imaginative way of filling her own void of friends through the restorative power of art. Duuude, that sounds heavy, but it’s true, and I love that about the book. And, of course, there’s also the obvious theme of an outsider/newcomer/perhaps even an immigrant (as with the story above) fitting in. And with this book (as well as Winter’s above), our protagonist might be shy, but she manages to use a traditional element of her family’s culture (in this case, origami) to help her assimilate, emphasizing something unique to her culture (in this case, Chinese) and using it to connect, as opposed to renouncing it altogether (in some desperate effort to acculturate). Nice.

And Lin’s art work? Let’s just say I’m jealous that Eisha got to see it up close a couple months ago. Her bright, light-filled color choices are lovely, and I’m tellin’ ya that I could pore over her books for days, what with her intricate patterns (even on illustration borders) and many swirls — there’s so much to see, yet all the beautiful details never overwhelm the eye. And, as the School Library Journal review noted, the illustrations “call to mind quality origami paper.” Instructions for how to fold a paper crane yourself are included in the back. Excellent. Don’t miss this one. Highly recommended.

4 comments to “Picture Book Round-Up:
Fitting In and Standing Out”

  1. Nice reviews, J. You’re right, Grace Lin’s art is just so gorgeous and energetic. I wish you could have been there too!

  2. I haven’t read Angelina’s Island, but from your great review I can practically feel how moving from a tropical island to New York City can be traumatic for anyone.

    I HAVE read Lissy’s Friends, and while I love Grace Lin’s art and the premise of the book, I thought the ending was a bit too pat… But at the same time, I’m still thrilled about the publication of any book dealing with these issues of moving to a new culture and fitting in. Thanks for the great reviews!

  3. Thanks, Eisha and Renee. Let me know what you think of Winter’s book, Renee!

  4. It may be the emotional space I’m in these days, but every time I read the line, “No more friends” followed by Lissy putting her face in her hands, my eyes prickle. It’s far more wrenching than if Lissy had simply cried.

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