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The nursery has been invaded by the...

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The nursery has been invaded by the realities of the entire planet. At unimaginably young ages, our children are exposed to the contingencies of life as never before. Now, information about that larger world is coming to them in picture books from other countries, from our own ethnic minorities, as well as from specific cultural-interest groups. This is needed; it is never too early for literature to give us a key to our global citizenship. Otherwise, this task falls to the TV, the newspaper and the streets. Alas, they are not gentle teachers.

From Japan, a set of four books, originally published there in 1982 by Noboru Babe, is about 11 cats. The astonishing thing about this series is realizing how different Japanese books can be: Eleven identical heroes is just not the usual American idea of a protagonist! The cats lack parents but have a group leader instead. Furthermore, they are a team that works together. That is to say, the cats make mistakes together, learn together and win and lose together. This collective point of view is a healthy change for the American ego, a natural antidote to our overdeveloped cult of the individual. So far so good.

In Eleven Hungry Cats in a Bag, the cartoony felines, drawn in simple and colorful line, naughtily defy various signs: “Do Not Climb the Tree, Do Not Cross the Bridge,” etc. As a result of their disobedience, they fall into the hands of a monster they must outwit--together, of course. In the end, reformed by their brush with terror, when they see another sign, they obey it. This may be the perfect book for the contrary child, but for the timid one, endorsing rule-following will only squelch the spirit of daring from which originality and genius stem.

More inspired, and poetic, is Mirandy and Brother Wind, from award-winning author Patricia C. McKissack and Jerry Pinkney, winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for illustration. A young black girl, Mirandy, decides to enter the local cakewalk jubilee. This dance, rooted in Afro-American culture, was performed by couples to fiddle and banjo music and entailed complicated swirls and turns. The winning couple won a cake. “There’s an old saying that whoever catch the Wind can make him do their bidding,” Mirandy’s mother tells her. Mirandy decides to pursue the elusive, powerful wind rather than dancing with the clumsy neighborhood boy, Ezel. Ezel, hurt that the wind is Mirandy’s first choice, asks another girl to be his partner. In the end, Mirandy protects Ezel from embarrassment and dances with him and the wind. The tale, accompanied by colorful illustrations rich in ambiance, texture and mystery, treats us to life in a rural black community with style, grace and heart.

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The People Shall Continue, by Simon Rotiz, an American Indian, is published by the Children’s Book Press, which specializes in traditional and contemporary stories from minority and new immigrant cultures in America. This is a sober account for young children, which traces the history of the American Indian, herein called “the People.” There is a reverence for life on these pages, yet the harsh truths of Indian life are documented:

“At times, corn did not grow and there was famine. At times, winters were very cold and there was hardship. At times, the winds blew hot, and rivers dried. At times, the People grew uneasy among themselves.”

This could be called a revolutionary book:

“The People looked around them and they saw Black People, Chicano People, Asian People, many White People who were kept poor by American wealth and power.”

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One appreciates the dignity and struggle inherent in this tale and the honesty with which it is recounted. The American Indian experience, largely of enforced impotence and poverty, is not a pretty story. Although the bold illustrations are stiff and stilted, the message often didactic, this voice needs to be heard, and young readers will share the concern of the People.

Desert Giant by Barbara Bush is a handsome book that takes us back into the desert, but this time to learn about cactus life. Subtitled “The World of Saguaro Cactus,” science is brought to life as we learn about this 50-foot plant, which grows in Arizona, California and Mexico and lives for up to 200 years. This cactus is an ecological dream come true as it provides nourishment for birds and desert animals, homes for hawks and their families, and fruit jams and candies for humans. Curious children will enjoy the sensitive, excellent illustrations and appreciate the author’s enthusiasm for this natural phenomenon. Perhaps readers will even be awed, realizing the saguaro does not really take form until its arms appear . . . after it celebrates its 75th birthday!

Originally published in 1982 in Switzerland, Never Satisfied is by Fulvio Testa, an Italian who has been published in 12 languages. Testa’s illustrations are striking and original; his world is stark, strange, and evocative. The premise here is that two rather grim-looking boys are bored. “Nothing exciting ever happens. Every day is the same.” Ah, but if they only peeked over their shoulders, crazy things would be revealed. The best irony is “You always see the same old faces.” Awful weird monsters watch the boys from over a wall: We see them, the boys don’t. Children will love being in on the joke; it’s just too good to be smarter than these dumb heroes who miss everything good in life, including a woman walking on her clothesline, a panther and a snake.


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