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Module 4 - Book Reviews

International Children's Literature

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The Composition - Antonio Skarmeta, Ill. by Alfonso Ruano
Me in the Middle - Ana Maria Machado
My Friend the Painter - Lygia Bojunga Nunes
This Same Sky - Naomi Shihab Nye (Ed.)

Skarmeta, Antonio.  1998.  THE COMPOSITION.  Ill. by Alfonso Ruano.  Toronto, Ontario:  Groundwood Books.  ISBN:  0888995504.
     THE COMPOSITION is a story about Pedro who lives in an unnamed Latin American country that is run by a dictatorship.  Pedro is a typical nine-year-old boy who loves to play soccer.  One day, while playing soccer with his friends, their game is interrupted when his friend's father, Don Daniel, is taken away from his grocery store by soldiers.  When Pedro asks his parents why his friend's father was taken away, it is explained that Don Daniel was against the dictatorship that runs the country.  Pedro asks his parents if they are against the dictatorship and is told that that are.  Pedro now understands why his parents listen to the radio each evening.  Shortly after this incident, Captain Romo visits Pedro's classroom and announces a competition with a prize going to the best composition.  The subject of the composition is "What my family does at night."  Pedro has a tough time writing the composition, but finally submits his essay about a fabricated typical evening at his house involving his parents playing chess.   The closing line brings a subtle bit of humor to the picture book when the father states that "we'd better buy a chess set."  (Skarmeta, 1998).  Most children will not get this but of humor, but adults will appreciate the twist at the end of the story. 
     The picture book has full page color illustrations that are drawn to look very realistic.  The people's clothes occasionally have bright colors, but many illustrations also contain military looking colors which are appropriate since the story is set in a military dictatorship.  "With realistic local details of school, home, and neighborhood, words and pictures stay true to the child's viewpoint, whether Pedro is playing ball, whispering to his friend in class, or watching the police with their guns.  The edgy illustrations by Ruano Alfonso show the tension in daily life, in a place where family intimacy can be invaded by the government through brute force and sly deception."  (Booklist, 2000).  One of my favorite illustrations shows a desktop containing a chewed on green pencil and an eraser with a hole drilled through the middle as well as bits of eraser scattered around.  This is such a typical scene in schoolrooms no matter what country a child is from.  The last illustration is also very powerful as it shows the handwritten composition.  This is powerful for readers because something so common and typical to students can become so very important to Pedro and his parents and their future.
     The picture book contained several cultural markers.  The spelling of "defensemen" wasn't how we would spell it in the United States.  Instead it was spelled "defencemen."  Another cultural difference was the popularity of soccer.  In the United States, groups of kids would typically play basketball, baseball, or football when getting together.  For Pedro and his friends, soccer is the sport of choice and is a sport that is very popular in Latin American countries.  The names used were mostly Spanish names and instead of using "Mr." in front of a man's name, the title "Don" is used.  The famous soccer star, Pele, is also referred to as a hero of Pedro's.  Another cultural difference is instead of policemen enforcing the law, the children see soldiers carrying out law enforcement, something we usually do not see in the United States unless there is a state of emergency from a natural disaster.  An interesting cultural difference was in one of the illustrations.  The illustration shows a typical school room with two boys seated at desks.  In the background is a framed photograph of a military officer.  Typical pictures found in classrooms in the United States might be of past/current Presidents, but they are usually portrayed in civilian clothing, not military uniforms. 
     I enjoyed reading this powerful story and I thought it was an accurate portrayal of what it might be like to live in a country ruled by a dictatorship that is told from a child's point of view.  I thought the author did a great job showing that children often understand much more than adults often give them credit for.  Pedro was able to put various pieces together and came up with a very good understanding of the situation and danger that faced his family with his "composition."  "Pedro's innocuous and blatantly false assertions that his parents play chess every night shows how clearly he has put together the pieces of his parents' resistance and the necessity for secrecy.  Skarmeta's concise and pointed description of Pedro's acquisition of political consciousness and discretion is brilliant.  As a provocative incentive to discussion of different forms of government or the importance of freedom oa assembly and discretion, this story is unique."  (School Library Journal, 2000).
     The author includes a note on dictatorship at the end of the story so readers can have a better understanding of the topic.  The themes of freedom and loyalty to family that are discussed in the note are found throughout the story.  In one of the illustrations, the word "resistencia" is shown written on a wall, just as graffiti is written on walls in the United States.  I also thought the question Pedro asked his parents was thought provoking as well as the reply he received from his mother.  He asked, "am I against a dictatorship?"  The mother's response was, "I can't say."  "Why not?" asked Pedro.  "Children aren't against anything,"  she said.  "Children are just children.  They have to go to school, study hard, play and be good to their parents." (Skarmeta, 1998).  The parents are not forcing their opinion upon Pedro, but are letting him decide for himself what his decision will be.  Other may look at their answer as being evasive, or trying to protect Pedro, but I think the parents are trying to let Pedro make up his own mind on the subject.  I'm led to believe this because Pedro makes up a fictitious typical evening for his composition, not only to protect himself and his parents from danger, but also as a form of protest against the government.
School Library Journal.  1 August, 2000.  Books in Print.  [database online].  Available from
Machado, Ana Maria.  1982.  ME IN THE MIDDLE.  Translated by David Unger.  Ill. by Caroline Merola.  Toronto, Ontario:  Groundwood Books.  ISBN:  0888994672.
     When ten-year-old Bel finds a photograph of a great-grandmother that she has never met, she begs her mother to keep the photo of old fashioned girl that looks amazingly like Bel.  After Bel takes the photograph to school, she begins to hear the "voice" of her grandmother, Bisa Bea, talking to her and offering advice on how to be a "proper" little girl.  The information about her grandmother's childhood is welcome until Bisa Bea begins to offer her opinion about how she should act around boys and loses Bel's tissues causing an embarrassing situation for Bel in front of a boy she thinks she might like.  Bel loses patience with Bisa Bea and stands up for herself.  At this point, Bel begins to hear the voice of her future great-granddaughter who also offers advice for her, but Bel tells both that what may work for them is fine, but she prefers to be her own person and will do what she thinks is best for herself.  The story ends with Bel's class beginning a research project about the time period her great-grandmother was alive. 
     The story has at least one black and white illustration for each chapter that add to the charm of the story.  One illustration shows the antique photograph of Bisa Bea and a drawing of Bel so the reader can see how much they resemble each other.  My favorite drawing shows Bel and her friend, Sergio, in a guava tree they have climbed to pick some of the fruit to eat.  Bisa Bea did not approve of this action.  Bisa Bea thought that Bel should have stayed on the ground with the other girl and been more lady-like.  I enjoyed the illustration because it brought back fond childhood memories of climbing trees with my brother and the fun we had in conquering heights.
     The story contains several cultural markers since the story takes place in Brazil.  Bel, the main character, discusses a family photo that has the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer in the background that is on a mountain that overlooks Rio (de Janeiro).  Another cultural difference in what she calls her grandmother and great-grandmother.  Bel uses the terms of abuela for grandmother and bisabuela for great-grandmother.  Instead of calling her teacher "Mrs.", Bel uses the title of "Dona".  Another word that Bel uses is "bibelots" which are porcelain figurines.  Another cultural difference was the fact that Bel and her friends eat guavas and climb the tree to pick them like we would with apples or peaches in this country.  Another cultural difference was the practice of taking "high tea," the practice of having tea and sweets in the middle of the afternoon.  Most people in the United States do not follow this practice, or if they do, do not refer to it as "high tea."  Bel's classmate, Victor, discussed another cultural difference.  Victor's parents had been exiled from Brazil for their beliefs about the government and had only recently been allowed to move back to the country.  This is a concept that most people in the United States are not used to thinking about because we have freedom of speech and we are allowed our own beliefs.
     There were parts of the book that were strong and were thoroughly enjoyable such as the theme that you should be your own person and make you own decisions.  The story also was strong in comparing the present with the past and describing how much technology, customs, and even food has changed over time.  "But then she told me about delicious sweets like gypsy's arm and mother-in-law's eyes and ladyfingers.  Little by little I realized that these were names for different deserts.  Get it?  She was thinking I ate stew made from dogs and I was thinking she slurped camel drool.  We speak the same language, but sometimes it's hard to believe.  Some things have changed so much that it's hard for us to understand each other at all."  (Machado 1982, p.47-48).  I thought the ending was a bit contrived.  The idea of the class researching the time period of their grandparents is realistic and could have come about naturally through the discussion of the old photograph of Bisa Bea and I also believe that a discussion of the future could have been introduced through the character of Bel since she was already having discussions with her future great-granddaughter.  The character of Victor telling about his family being exiled from Brazil, while it may have actually happened to some families, was not really essential to the story.  That Victor is the one to suggest that the class also study the future, I think, brings a false note to the story.  It would have made more sense for the character of Bel to be the one to introduce this idea.  "The ending is a bit preachy and forced, but balanced out by Bel's spunkiness and the light humor throughout." (School Library Journal, 2002).
     Overall, the book is very enjoyable.  I thought the idea of a character from the present talking to her great-grandmother from the past and to her future great-granddaughter was an interesting idea.  The comparison of technology, customs, and foods between the past and present was interesting and sometimes funny.  There was more to compare between the past and present than there was to compare between the cultures of the United States and Brazil.  Bel and Bisa Bea's discussion of food is one example of comparing the past and present.  Their argument over how Bel should act around boys also demonstrates how times and culture changed over the years.
School Library Journal.  1 August, 2002.  Books in Print.  [database online].  Available from
Nunes, Lygia Bojunga.  1987.  MY FRIEND THE PAINTER.  Translated by Harcourt Brace & Company.  Ill. by Christopher DeLorenzo.  Orlando:  Harcourt Brace & Company.  ISBN:  0152008721.

     This is a brief novel about an eleven-year-old boy named Claudio and his adult friend, the painter.  Claudio and the painter have a sincere friendship that spans age.  The older painter had encouraged Claudio with his artistic talent in addition to playing backgammon with him and enjoying serious talks about such subjects as art and politics.  Claudio is devastated when his friend, the painter, commits suicide.  Claudio struggles with the grief and confusion over his friend's suicide and tries to understand why his friend would do such a thing.  Claudio records his feelings about his friend's death and discovers through conversations with his friend's former mistress, that there were some things that the artist was unhappy about.  Claudio learns that his friend spent years in prison as a political prisoner and while he was in prison, the woman he loved married someone else.  Claudio also learns that the painter no longer wished to live because he felt that he would never be a great painter and so lost the will to live.  Claudio eventually accepts that this is all the information he will ever get, and while he is angry over his friend's death, he will never know the exact reason why his friend committed suicide.

     The book is divided into chapters according to the days of the week.  Each day of the week has a small, square illustration that is in black and white and looks like it is a pencil drawing.  The illustrations are of various objects and subjects that have meaning to Claudio and the painter.  The first illustration shows the clock that Claudio is used to hearing in the painter's apartment.  The second is of the backgammon board that Claudio and the painter used to play their games.  The illustrations serve to add interest to the story and also draw attention to and add emotional impact to certain parts of the story that were mentioned.

     There were some cultural markers mentioned in the story.  A popular event held at the school was the soccer matches.  While soccer is becoming more popular in the U.S., it still is behind baseball, basketball, and football which are more commonly held in the U.S. for after school events.  Another difference is the names used in the novel.  Names, such as Janaina, Rosalia, and Claudio, which are more Spanish sounding are used, and the title "Dona" is used for married women where in the U.S., we use "Mrs." for the most part.  One important cultural difference is the fact that the painter was arrested for his political beliefs and spent time as a political prisoner.  This is something that is not commonly done in the United States and many people in this country have a hard time understanding.  I did not find many other cultural differences.  Most of the rest of the story could have taken place in the United States.  The country the story takes place was never mentioned in the novel.

     The novel discusses several themes:  life, love, death, and betrayal, and also makes interesting analogies between colors and feelings and emotions.  The story describes how Claudio begins to work through his grief over his friend's death and even comes to some kind of understanding of why he committed suicide.  The writing is clear and the reader can picture the events described, but there are some areas that I thought might be confusing for younger readers.  The switching between the past, present, and Claudio's dreams might confuse some.  "Her subtle transitions between present, past, and dream-world may not always be easy for young people to follow."  (Kirkus Reviews, 1991).  I also would have liked to have had more details and description added to some parts of the book.  There doesn't seem to have been enough written about some of the themes in the book such as the romance and love between the painter and Dona Clarice.  Dona Clarice wouldn't leave her husband, but yet she was still involved with the painter.  Why?  Why didn't they both move on with their lives?  (Nunes skims over the deeper themes (life, loyalty, death, art, betrayal) without satisfactorily exploring any of them." (School Library Journal, 1991).  It was difficult to make a connection with Claudio and his emotional pain and feelings.  It was an interesting story but it just needs more information so the reader can more easily experience what Claudio is experiencing. 




Kirkus Reviews.  1 May, 1991.  Books in Print.  [database online].  Available from




School Library Journal.  1 October, 1991.  Books in Print.  [database online].  Available from



Nye, Naomi Shihab, Ed.  1992.  THIS SAME SKY.  New York:  Aladdin Paperbacks.  ISBN:  0689806302.
     This collection of poems from around the world represents 129 contemporary poets from 68 countries.  The poems have been translated from many languages, and contain poems that have long been favorites in various countries as well as poems that were sent to be considered only for this collection.  The book contains a introduction by the editor and is divided into six parts:  Words and Silences, Dreams and Dreamers, Families, This Earth and Sky in Which We Live, Losses, and Human Mysteries.  The poems contained within these themes are moving, inspiring, and appealing.  Nye states in the introduction the motivation for collecting poems for this book:  "Not only may we discover more about writing through these poems, but we may also catch a glimpse of so many distant friends." (Nye 1992, xii).  What an interesting idea and a great motivation to read this collection of poems.
     One of the poems I enjoyed is one called THE PEN.
          "Take a pen in your uncertain fingers.
           Trust, and be assured
           That the whole world is a sky-blue butterfly
           And words are the nets to capture it."  (Muhammad al-Ghuzzi, Tunisia, Translated by May Jayyusi and John Heath-Stubbs).  This is a universal concept that works for all cultures and is common for many people and countries.
     This collection of poems contains several cultural markers since all of the poems come from other countries.  Different objects, foods, ideas, names, and plants, etc. are mentioned and described.  Some examples mentioned in the poems include a neem tree and char.  Neem is a Bengali word for the margosa tree and char is the sandy strips of land that rise out of the beds of rivers (which sounds like what we would call a sandbar.)  Another example of a cultural marker is the mention of a food, eating balls of rice together in a poem from Japan.  A poem from the Philippines mentions parrots that are nesting in the trees.  A poem from Palestine mentions the Nile river, the cities of Damascus and Baghdad, and the vineyards of Algiers.  An interesting cultural distinction is mentioned in a poem from Kuwait which has the line "Peace be to the neighborhood water-carrier."  (A Sailor's Memoirs, Al-Fayiz, p. 51).  This is something we are not used to hearing about in the United States where most of the country has indoor plumbing and water comes from the taps instead of someone bringing water around from house to house.  Some interesting cultural differences are mentioned in the poem Wind's Foam.
     "Nothing remains, see, leaves, flowers, village elders, the
      river's dancing waves, brass pitchers and the hookah's coal,
      groups of growing girls one by one dwindle like the ilish
      season, yellow leaves in the wind on the rainless fields and
      meadows drop rustling.  The migrant geese go too, their
      bodies like multitudinoius bubbles in the sky's blue cup.
      Why does nothing remain?  Corruguated iron, thatch or mud
      walls, the ageless village bat tree are uprooted in the terrible
      Chittagong typhoon.  Plaster cracks; as vast as faith, with a
      great crash, finally crumbles and falls the local mosque. 
      Sparrows' nests, love, creepers' leaves, book covers fall torn
      and twisted.  Bitten by the Meghna's waters the harvest's
      green cry shivers to the horizon.  Houses, water-pitchers,
      cowsheds float, and an old pillow, flower-embroidered, sinks
      like childish affection.  After this, not a dwelling remains;
      water-loving birds fly, wiping the wind's foam from their
      beaks." (Nye 1992, p 109). (I could not get the poem to line up the way it is published.) 
Ilish is a tasty fish found in Bangladesh rivers and the bat tree is the banyan tree.  The Meghna River has its source in the Himalaya Mountains and flows through India and Bangladesh.  The poem also refers to a hookah's coal.  Most people in the United States do not know what a hookah is used for as smoking usually brings to mind cigarettes or cigars.  There are many more cultural markers, as the book contains poems from all over the world, I have only included some examples. 

     I was impressed with the poems in the collection.  Most have been translated, and I don't believe there has been much lost in the quality of the poems in the translation process.  As Nye has stated in the introduction, "Deep appreciation to the dedicated translators who labored on all horizons to make these border-crossings possible.  Whenever someone suggests "how much is lost in translation!"  I want to say, "Perhaps-but how much is gained!"  A new world of readers, for one thing."  This is so true.  Some words will not have a literal translation, but I believe the ideas and emotional quality have been retained.  The poem I mentioned above, Wind's Foam, is a good example of this.  The poem still evokes strong visual images of the devastation a typhoon can cause.  I don't know how much of a weakness this is as the book is intended for young adults, but some of the poems may be difficult for some of them to understand, especially those poems that are political in nature.  "Some are more political in subject matter.  Determining the audience is problematic.  The preface states that the poems have been especially chosen for young people, but many of them will be of marginal interest to them, and several require an adult perspective to be appreciated."  (School Library Journal, 1992).  These poems could also be used in a social studies class to add to a discussion of politics.  The book also has an index by country of the poems which may also be useful for teachers.


International Children's Literature
Sylvia M. Vardell, Ph. D. - Instructor
Renee Schneider - Student

This site was created as an assignment for a Texas Woman's University course.  The course is a graduate level course in Library Science LS 5903.24 Special Topics - International Children's Literature.