Classic Children’s Books and Modern Gems

A few weeks ago I joined a book discussion called “Books and Bagels” that meets at a parish down the street. When I discovered we would be reading C.S. Lewis this summer I was thrilled. While it won’t include his children’s book, The Chronicles of Narnia, I do love his writing and am eager to read titles by Lewis I haven’t yet read. 

This got me thinking of favorite classics, then simply favorite books I read as a kid. Finally, I headed to my bookshelves to see what titles I might suggest to my niece as well as grand nieces and nephews. I was surprised to find several classics by Leo Lionni as well as these gems. I own these books because I wrote reviews for them years ago for Christian Library Journal and others. Then I hunted up the reviews to share here. Enjoy!

Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers
  • Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers / written by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Yan Nascimbene (Sleeping Bear Press)

Award-winning author Gloria Whelan crafts a rich historical tale in Yuki and the One Thousand Carriers.  Lyrical prose vividly weaves details and customs of ancient Japan into a story of a young girl using observation and impressions to ease homesickness.  Yan Nascimbene’s watercolor illustrations suffuse muted backgrounds with vibrant kimonos and foregrounds to evoke the time period.  Yuki’s mother instructs her to pack for a long journey.  Yuki does not want to leave but does as she is told.  Her teacher gives her lessons to complete on the journey.  She must write one haiku each day.  So in a basket she packs brushes, ink, and rice paper for her assignment. 

They travel the historic Tokaido Road on their 300-mile journey between Kyoto, the city of the emperor and imperial court, and Edo (modern-day Tokyo), Japan’s political center.  Shouters head the long procession. They announce the passage of the governor, Yuki’s father.  Next come the samurai, then Father on his horse.  Six men carry the palanquin sheltering Yuki, her little dog, and her mother.  Lastly, one thousand men carry the family’s possessions. 

Yuki’s haiku are sprinkled through the story and share her growing delight in the places and events she experiences.  “We are a dragon / Our one thousand carriers / the dragon’s long tale.” They stay at 53 inns, she sleeps using a wooden pillow, and learns “Fuji is a sacred mountain were spirits live.”

Beneath the story lies several benefits to readers. The book is entertaining but also provides information on ancient Japan. Values of honoring parents, showing respect, and finding joy in present circumstances are reinforced through this story. A note from the author precedes the story, supplying background on the topic.

Many Moons
  • Many Moons / written by James Thurber, illustrated by Louis Slodobkin (Voyager Books/Harcourt Brace & Company)

We sometimes complicate issues when using common sense is the answer. This is the message Many Moons by James Thurber shares in a classic storybook originally published in 1943. After eating too many raspberry tarts, Princess Lenore feels ill. Hoping to make her feel well again, her father offers to bring her anything her heart desires. When she asks for the moon – literally – the king calls on the wisest men in his court. The Lord High Chamberlain, the Royal Wizard, and the Royal Mathematician each balk at the request, reminding the king of the long list of items they have found when asked. The king worries about his promise to – and the health of – the princess. Calling on the court jester to ease his sorrows, it is the jester who makes a logical suggestion – asking Lenore exactly what she is expecting. The solution to the king’s problem is simple and the jester succeeds in giving Lenore the moon.

This story is as charming today as it was when it won the Caldecott Medal in 1944. Louis Slobodkin’s ink and color illustrations, though at a glance sketchy, are rich in action and hint at the ornate detail of Lenore’s royal life. Though story groups will enjoy the simple solution to such a demanding request, this book is especially appropriate for one-on-one sharing. It shows the appeal of childish logic along with imparting the message that parents or adults really do wish to give children “the moon.” More importantly, it shows that what is wished (or prayed) for may be answered in an unexpected way. 

The dragon’s child :
a story of Angel Island
  • The dragon’s child : a story of Angel Island / written by Laurence Yep with Dr. Kathleen S. Yep. (HarperCollins).

In The Dragon’s Child: A story of Angel Island, Laurence Yep weaves a quietly suspenseful tale packed with information on the Chinese immigration experience in early twentieth century California. His niece Dr. Kathleen S. Yep discovered immigration interviews while researching family history and the two crafted a story based on them. Each chapter opens with questions posed to Gim Lew Yep in the present followed with the story through the eyes of the ten-year-old boy. 

Lung Gon Yep was born in America where he lives and works. When he visits his wife and children in China, Lung Gon decides his youngest son will return with him to California. Gim Lew is torn between leaving his mother and disappointing his father. For the journey he must prepare for the interrogation all Asian immigrants undergo. But Gim Lew stutters. His father worries the immigration officials will believe it is because he is lying. So Gim Lew must memorize family facts and details and work to tame his stutter.

As they journey, first to Hong Kong and then on a ship to San Francisco, Gim Lew’s insights provide comparisons between American and Chinese customs. Issues of prejudice against Chinese are woven throughout the plot. When they reach Angel Island, sometimes called the Ellis Island of the west coast, Gim Lew’s anxiety intensifies. He has not yet tamed his stutter, which builds tension in the story.

The book concludes with facts about Chinese American immigration and photos of Yep’s father and grandfather. This story is a wonderful way to introduce family heritage and early twentieth century history and to launch discussion about prejudice and treatment of immigrants.

  • Queen Esther Saves Her People / retold by Rita Golden Gelman, illustrated by Frané Lessac (Scholastic)
Queen Esther
Saves Her People

Bright and lively illustrations portray the intensity of this bible story, which is closely based on the Book of Esther, in a folk art style that provides a sense of the Persian time period. This retelling of the Purim story portrays the courage and clever thinking of young Esther who risks her life to save the Jewish people. When Esther is chosen, Cinderella-like, to be the Queen of Persia, she discovers that her husband, King Ahasuerus, would rather drink and play cards and allows his prime minster, Hamen, to take care of business. When Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, refuses to bow down to Hamen, the prime minister is infuriated and vows that Mordecai, along with every Jew in Persia, must be killed. Esther gathers her courage to approach her hot-tempered husband who doesn’t know until that moment that Esther, too, is Jewish. Through clever thinking Esther succeeds in thwarting Hamen. The book includes a “Purim Notebook” at the end that provides information on the holiday and the noisy, joyous celebration. 

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