The month of December has long foregrounded issues of diversity in multicultural countries. As Christmas approaches in predominantly Christian countries, how do we acknowledge the presence and holidays of other religious groups? Some non-Christian parents even call the problems raised in our families by widespread Christmas decorations and gift-giving the “December Dilemma.” Finding solutions to this dilemma is akin to another responsibility all adults bear. How do we explain to young people that history is woven of many strands, its warp and woof sometimes obscuring the experiences of different groups?
This past month—with its shocking Islamic terrorist attacks in Paris and elsewhere—had me shakily looking backward as well as ahead. I despaired that my February, 2015 blog post, written in response to terrorist attacks in Paris last January, could have been reposted here today. Only the introductory remarks in “Jews, Muslims, Christians: The Rabbi’s Cat Speaks” would have needed updating. On a similar, but thankfully non-violent note, recent controversy raised by a new non-fiction picture book highlights another aspect of the questions about history and culture so prominent in December.
Writers and readers of color, in particular, have taken issue with the way in which slavery is depicted in A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat (2015), written by Emily Jenkins and Illustrated by Sophie Blackhall. This history of the dessert known as “blackberry fool” even contains a recipe for it. Opponents of this work’s depiction of life in 1810 South Carolina (one quarter of the book) say its creators obscure slavery’s real horrors, with Black characters—a slave mother, her young daughter, and a young boy—who are too calm and sometimes smile. Their critiques remind me, in these years of terrorist attacks, of the different ways twentieth century history in the Middle East is framed. For many people, 1948 marks the celebratory establishment of the state of Israel; yet displaced Palestinians, among other people, refer to that year and Israel’s recognition by the United Nations as “the Catastrophe.” These conflicting views are vividly portrayed by graphic journalist Joe Sacco in such works for adults and older readers as Palestine (1996) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009). There are no easy answers to the real-life problems stemming from these historical events, among others, however they are labelled.
Similarly, on a smaller scale, reading A Fine Dessert did not lead me to an easy, clear-cut stand towards its controversy. I thought the expressive facial detail and body language of Blacknall’s illustrations, combined with the final “Note from the Author” and “Note from the Illustrator,” did provide enough context for discussing those brief glimpses of 1810 South Carolina, mired in a slave economy. Unease and fear are displayed by the Black characters, and the White girl being served by her age-mate also seems uncomfortable. Yet the casual reader might not notice these subtle cues in the illustrations of this dessert’s history and might not even bother to read the end notes. And the picture book text itself never overtly mentions slavery beyond one word, “master.”
For those reasons, I surprisedly found myself in some agreement with critics of this well-researched, charmingly drawn and written book. To readers who are or might be dismayed by its 1810 section, I would point out picture books which focus more intensely on the anguish caused by slavery. Tea Cakes for Tosh (2012) written by Kelly Starling Lyons and illustrated by award-winning E.B. Lewis, with its comparable central element being another mouth-watering dessert, complete with recipe, is one such “remedy.” As they bake together, grandmother Honey tells grandson Tosh about their family’s history as slaves. Long ago, she explains, their ancestor Ida, another baker, “risked being whipped to give the children a taste of sweet freedom ” embodied in tea cakes slated only for the master’s table. Sepia pages illustrate those past events. Tosh’s love for Honey, even as she begins to lose memories, and his appreciation of their family history make this slender book resonate as cultural legacy as well as intimate family drama. Full-color illustrations of its modern-day events add further warmth here. You might opt for this moving volume. Or, perhaps the young readers in your life would benefit from a paired book gift or display: A Fine Dessert along with Cakes for Tosh. That double presentation would be my own way of responding to this recent controversy.
Kelly Starling Lyons has blogged persuasively about the positive impact of books designed to support cultural diversity and expand multiple perspectives of history. So, today I take my cue from her, presenting some brand new and recent graphic works which—just in time for Christmas–celebrate non-Christian cultures and holidays. Perhaps you will want to foreground one or more of the following books for the young readers in your life. These works—some standalones, others sequels or part of a series—would make fine special occasion or holiday gifts, whichever holidays you or the recipients celebrate:
Hereville: How Mirka Caught a Fish (2015), written and illustrated by Barry Deutsch, with backgrounds by Adrian Wallace and colors by Jake Richmond is the third, delightful volume about 11 year old Mirka. Its wryly humorous subtitle—“Yet Another 11 Year Old Time Travelling Orthodox Jewish Babysitter”—will come as no surprise to fans of Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword (2010) and Hereville: How Mirka Met a Meteorite (2012) , both reviewed here in April, 2013. Deutsch uses humor and smart insights about family relationships to depict both daily life inside a closed, ultra-Orthodox community and rebellious Mirka’s fantastic encounters with supernatural creatures and events. Even as curious Mirka sometimes disobeys parents and community rules, her love for family and tradition remains strong. In fact, as in the first volumes, family bonds and tradition help Mirka overcome the fantastic dangers she encounters. Here she thwarts a treacherous enchanted fish!
Life in fictional Hereville (similar to real-world Chasidic communities in New York and New Jersey) is not typical for most Jews, but the warmth with which Deutsch draws his expressive, slightly cartoonish characters and their interactions will engage readers regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation. As in the earlier volumes, an array of graphic elements support and enhance the narrative: frames of different sizes and shapes, close-ups, full and double-page spreads, and varied typography and word balloons are just some of the techniques skillfully employed in this story centered on battling sisters and mother-daughter love and misunderstandings. Color is also used deftly to communicate different moods, time periods, and situations. While How Mirka Caught a Fish can be read on its own, its revelations about Mirka’s sharp-witted stepmother Fruma and its references to past adventures will be savored even more by readers of Deutsch’s first two books.
Beautiful Yetta’s Hanukkah Kitten (2014), written by Daniel PInkwater and illustrated by Jill Pinkwater, is a picture book that will be relished even by readers unfamiliar with their earlier Beautiful Yetta: The Yiddish Chicken (2010). Both colorful works have text in three languages: English, Yiddish, and Spanish—a mélange authentically reflecting the multicultural experiences of their contemporary New York City setting. The warmth and fellow-feeling that cross species lines—here between kitten and birds and earlier, between chicken Yetta and the South American parrots who help her survive—are heartwarming. Simple, colloquial language blends well with vivid colors, preventing the story from becoming too sweet by the book’s end, when every creature and person has the chance to enjoy a savory, traditional Hanukkah food. An additional treat for readers may be found online here, in an NPR interview where Daniel PInkwater and others read the first Beautiful Yetta aloud, as each page is displayed on-screen.
Teens interested in Zen Buddhism or poetry will be intrigued and charmed by Cold Mountain: The Legend of Han Shan and Shih Te, The Original Dharma Bums (2015). Written by Sean Michael Wilson and illustrated by Akiko Shimojima, with poetry translations by J.P. Seaton, this graphic work has two main parts. First, Wilson compiles and retells stories about the two Chinese men, friends now regarded as Buddhist bodhisattvas or saints, who may have lived between 600 and 900 C.E. Their legendary humor and eccentric behavior questioned their society’s traditional rules and values. The next half consists of poems they wrote, embodying Zen Buddhist views of the natural world and human existence. Shimojima’s black and white illustrations are really inspired here. Her selection of such natural objects as fruit trees or an aging human body give clear meaning to poetic abstractions, while her shifts in perspective and distance, with close-ups being particularly telling, enhance each poem’s progression of ideas and major points.
Ramadan Moon (2009), a picture book written by Na’ima B Robert and illustrated by Shirin Adl,, does a fine job of capturing the feelings experienced by observant Muslims during this month-long holiday. Ramadan is celebrated at different points in the year determined by the Islamic calendar’s lunar cycles. We both see and hear how the moon’s waxing and ebbing shape the holiday for one observant family and their community, uniting them all as well with Muslims around the globe. In that harmonious family, Robert in the voice of an older child observes, “Our family bows, like one body, Before the break of day.” Fasting between sunrise and sunset each day is not a chore but a religious obligation that brings a sense of joy and peace. Even as Robert’s characters celebrate the end of Ramadan with its traditional feast day, her narrator notes that they are looking forward to next year’s Ramadan moon.
Illustrator Adl depicts the many races of global Islam but she and author Robert do not note the diverse practices within this world religion. Illustrations only show women clothed in traditionally conservative ways: either wearing a hijab, which covers the entire body and chest, or a burqua, which covers the entire body and sometimes masks eyes as well. Ramadan Moon answers questions about this holiday in inspiring ways, but it also may leave some young readers with questions about how contemporary Muslims dress.
Ms. Marvel Volume 4: Last Days (2015), just published, features teenager Kamala Khan, the first Pakistani-American, Muslim superhero. It contains issues 16 through 19 of the comic books written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphonsa and also includes related material from issues 7 and 8 of Amazing Spiderman (2014). Last Days may be read on its own, but fans familiar with the preceding volumes will appreciate it even more. (The award-winning Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal  was reviewed here in January, 2015, and Ms. Marvel Volume 2: Generation Why  was reviewed in May, 2015. Since then, Ms. Marvel Volume 3: Crushed  has also seen print.)
Kamala is obviously not the traditionally clothed and observant Muslim woman who appears in Ramadan Moon! Yet her superhero costume is designed to conform in some ways with Islam’s rules for modest dress. Kamala also continues to find value and support in her faith, even as she struggles as many teens do to juggle family and religion with emerging adult goals and desires. As her hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey faces an overwhelming alien invasion, Kamala recalls the words of her imam about being accountable for her own actions. Kamala chooses to be daring in defending others and to put off for now any romantic involvement. Confessing her superhero identity to her traditionally dressed, immigrant mother is one of this volume’s emotional high points. A full page spread centered upon her accepting mother’s embrace, emotional Kamala’s relieved face, and their few, heartfelt words visually reinforces the intensity of this moment. The close-ups and shifts in perspective that precede this embrace astutely support this climax, versatile graphic techniques also evident throughout the book’s overlapping storylines.
Those story-lines include ones that contain high-energy fun, such as Kamala’s interactions at a high school dance and her star-struck, tongue-tied exchanges with older superheroes. The story line involving her overly serious, very traditional older brother Amir, while it continues their usually good-natured bickering, also has a new and serious element. Just as terrorist recruiters seek to enlist religious, disaffected Muslims, a supervillain seeks to enlist Amir in his criminal enterprises by forcibly giving him superpowers. As his henchman remarks to Kamala, “Do you think some little part of Amir isn’t angry? Looking like he does, believing what he does . . . you think he doesn’t wish he could live in a world where he gets to make the rules?” Author Wilson is, I believe well aware of the stresses and fractures within Islam today. Amir, however, after being rescued by Kamala later rejects the possibility of superpowers, opting instead for traditional Islamic prayer, even if it has to be in a section of the besieged school gym. This section is identified with teenage sincerity and political correctness as the “Nondenominational, nonjudgmental prayer area.” That signage is another bit of fun provided by Wilson and illustrator Alphona.
If deciding which books to buy, borrow, or order for young readers is one of your dilemmas this December, I hope this overview of some culturally diverse works will help. Perhaps you will decide to pair books from different traditions or offer ones which approach history from somewhat different perspectives. Whatever your choice, happy holidays and happy reading!