Kids Will Love These Five Books "Between Cultures"

Waxing poetic about Thanhha Lai's
Inside, Out, and Back Again at
Mrs. Dalloway's Books in Berkeley, CA.
Anne Whaling, children's book buyer at Mrs. Dalloway's Bookstore in Berkeley, asked me and a couple of other visitors (Nina Lindsay, Oakland public librarian and author-illustrator LeUyen Pham) to share a few recommendations of books featuring diverse characters for ages 5-10.

I was delighted to introduce a few of my favorites to an audience of eager readers and their parents. Here are my "quick picks," with annotations provided by Anne and a quick description of why I like the books.

Four Feet, Two Sandals by Karen Williams (Eerdmans). When relief workers bring used clothing to the refugee camp, everyone scrambles to grab whatever they can. Ten-year-old Lina is thrilled when she finds a sandal that fits her foot perfectly, until she sees that another girl has the matching shoe. Soon Lina and Feroza meet, each wearing one coveted sandal. Together they solve the problem of having four feet and two sandals. (What I particularly love in this story: the exploration of power, and the fact that the resolution is brought about by the person with least power.)

Rain School by James Rumford (HMH). It is the first day of school in Chad, Africa. Children are filling the road. "Will they give us a notebook?" Thomas asks. "Will they give us a pencil?" "Will I learn to read?" But when he and the other children arrive at the schoolyard, they find no classroom, no desks. Just a teacher. "We will build our school," she says. "This is our first lesson." Starred review, Booklist. (What I particularly love in this story: the revelation to the North American reader that school is more than just a building—it's actually a community of learners and teachers—and the fact that the children of Chad are the revealers of this truth.)

Ruby Lu, Empress of Everything by Lenore Look (Simon and Schuster). When Ruby's cousin Flying Duck emigrates from China to live with her, Ruby decides the best thing about Flying Duck is that she is a great new friend. BUT the worst thing about Flying Duck is that now, no one speaks English at home. Plus, there's strange food on the table every night and only chopsticks to eat it with. And Flying Duck is deaf, and Ruby doesn't know any Chinese Sign Language. As if that weren't enough, this summer proves to be even more perilous as Ruby faces the dangers of swimming lessons, the joys of summer school, the miracle needed to keep a beautiful stray dog that wanders into her life, and much more. Is it all too much for anyone -- even the Empress of Everything -- to handle? Starred review, SLJ (What I particularly love in this story: the humor and strong characterization make this the perfect book to illuminate Betsy Bird's concept of "casual diversity.")

Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (Harper). Inspired by the author's childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child's-eye view of family and immigration. Newbery Honor Book, and a winner of the National Book Award. Starred reviews, Horn Book, Kirkus, PW, SLJ. (What I particularly love in this story: readers will love seeing their own sibling relationships mirrored in the author's depiction of three very different older brothers, plus this is a beautiful "between-cultures" read that is award-winning and accessible.)

The No. 1 Car Spotter by Atinuke (Kane Miller). When a cart breaks down and the villagers can't get their goods to market, Oluwalase Babatunde Benson, otherwise known as the No. 1 Car Spotter in his village, comes up with a brilliant solution. (What I particularly love in this story: it makes me laugh out loud and shatters any "single story" of Africa that might be lurking in the back of the reader's mind.)