Wednesday, November 17, 2021


By Heena Baek


Translated by Sophie Bowman


(Amazon Crossing Kids, 2017, 2021)


This is a curious picture book. I read it, then put it aside, unsure what to think of it. I’ve come back to it after a few weeks. I’m still somewhat uncertain. If I go page by page, I find there are hits and misses for me. I’m dazzled; I’m disappointed. Sometimes it’s best to read a picture book without overthinking things. 


In a nutshell, this is the story of a lonely young boy named Tong Tong who lives with his father and his aging dog, Marbles. As the book opens, Tong Tong tells us:


I play on my own.


It’s not all that bad, playing alone.

The other kids don’t realize how much fun playing with marbles is.

They always only play with one another, never with me.

So I decided I’ll just play by myself.


Given that the boy’s dog and pastime are both M/marbles, I figured marbles would play into Tong Tong’s finding a friend. One would roll too far or someone would draw near, wondering about an old-fashioned form of play; maybe another marble player would show up.


Engaged readers make predictions. Often, as in my case, the predictions are wrong. No matter. Who wants to read something that’s too predictable?


Instead, Tong Tong decides to spice up his play by buying NEW marbles. At the store, he finds a bag of what he thinks are marbles. “Those are hard candies,” the shopkeeper says. Um, okay. Maybe the store could be better organized with toys clearly separated from candy. Or maybe marble-minded Tong Tong got a little disoriented?


Turns out that each candy, which happens to be distinct in size and color or pattern, offers a chance for Tong Tong to hear something or someone communicate to him for as long as the candy lasts: the living room sofa, his dog, his father’s overriding thought, his deceased grandmother and autumn leaves. Each communication varies in tone from humorous to loving, from sentimental to cutesy sweet. 


For me, things begin with a groan as the talking sofa asks Tong Tong get his father to stop sitting on it and farting. Some time ago, farting in picture books almost came off as clever, good for belly laughs. For many, particularly young children (particularly boys), farting will always be a fresh source of amusement, but I just don’t feel it’s executed well here. The fart falls flat. 


Thankfully, it gets better. The boy and his dog come to an understanding and the boy gets insight into his father even if it seems there will be no end to dad’s orders, directions and grilling questions. Tong Tong gets the pleasure of reconnecting with his grandmother, this coming from tasting the pink candy which turns out to be bubble gum. (Slight quibble over pink being the color linked to the only female character. Thought we were moving past that. As this picture books originates in South Korea, perhaps the shift from color-gender stereotypes has yet to happen.) What I loved most was the message from the falling leaves but that may be a problem since it’s as light as, well, a falling leaf. It felt whimsical, but I’m not sure it should be the greatest takeaway. Pacing-wise, the leaves should follow the sofa so that messages become increasingly touching and/or profound. 


The final candy empowers Tong Tong to take on his problem of always playing alone. (Weirdly perhaps, the toy marbles never factor into the story again after the store visit.) The story continues, visually, inside the back cover and on the back cover itself.


The illustrations are outstanding. The fine print explains they are “rendered in mixed media, including handmade miniature figurines and environments.” Characters’ faces are remarkably expressive. The clothing is extremely well crafted. Most scenes have a shallow depth of field, making Tong Tong appear sharp in the foreground while the background appears blurry. This has the effect of focusing the reader’s eye on whatever Tong Tong is doing while adding a subsequent curiosity about what else is in the scene—two levels of image comprehension: first the main point, then added context. For instance, early on we see sad-eyed Tong Tong walking with his equally downcast dog who trails behind. In the blurred background, we see three boys playing soccer and unused playground equipment. There are more things to do than play marbles. If only…


Magic Candies is definitely worth a read and, even more so, worth a look.  



Friday, September 10, 2021



By Mo Willems


(Hyperion Books for Children, 2019)

No secret, I adore the works of Mo Willem…his Pigeon books, the Elephant & Piggie series, Knuffle Bunny, That Is NOT a Good Idea! and on and on. The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! is back on the picture book bestseller list because, well, a new school year has begun, but there’s likely been a sales boost due to the fact some children are re-entering school buildings after an extended period of seeing teachers and classmates solely through looking at a screen. The continuing kerfuffle over masks only adds to kids’ jitters. 


“Am I going to be okay?”


“Why is my teacher wearing a mask?”


“Why isn’t my teacher wearing a mask?”


“How come I have to wear a mask when Ava P. doesn’t have to?”


Thankfully, we have pre-COVID books that stick to the more normal concerns and playfully approach kids’ wonders and worries. 


Pigeon starts out asking what many five-year-olds ask: “Why do have to go to school? I already know EVERYTHING!” [NOTE: This contention, whether linked to academia or not, shall remain until the age of thirty.]  


It doesn’t take long until Pigeon gets real. Bring on the What ifs. “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?” “WHAT IF I LEARN TOO MUCH!?!” “What if there is MATH?” Seriously, when was the last time you encountered a BEDMAS problem in real life?


You don’t have to be starting school to relate when Pigeon says, “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” Yep, totally.


That’s the beauty of the book. Children (and adults) can acknowledge their anxiety—we all experience it to some degree—and connect to the blue pigeon. It feels better knowing others, including, fictional feathered friends, have hopes and worries too…about school, about change, about things without one hundred percent clear answers. Like so much involving the pandemic. Oops, I went there again.


Back to pigeons and buses, please.


As an adult reader, it’s fun to also look at the copyright page (aka, reverse title page) to look at the sneaky bits Willems adds to the ho-hum legal/reference information. Here we learn that The Pigeon HAS to Go to School! was “(p)ublished near a very lovely bagel shop on the Upper West Side. My Uncle Herb goes there all the time.” Fascinating, if a tad incomplete. I Googled “Uncle Herb’s bagels” and got re-routed to a certain specialty “herb shop” in Alaska. Um, no. A future Big Apple bagel hunt shall have to wait. (I’m craving a cinnamon raisin with cream cheese.) There’s more, of course, but you’ll have to track down the book. 


Looks like someone HAS to go to the library now.



Friday, February 19, 2021


Written by Heather Gale

Illustrated by Mika Song

(Tundra, 2019)

There is much we’re learning about gender identity. If it’s confusing and maybe overwhelming for adults, imagine what it’s like for a child, born in a body representing a particular gender and yet feeling it’s not the right fit. The feeling is not a passing curiosity; it stays with the child, a persistent thought. Who do you talk to? How do you explore this seeming mismatch? Imagine, too, what it’s like for a friend of this person. How do they ask questions, understand and support?

Picture books can help us all begin to process things we may have never considered. They can help children who feel they don’t belong suddenly feel connected. That character is like me! It’s even more satisfying to find a book about gender identity that is told in a culturally diverse setting.

Heather Gale’s Hoʿonani: Hula Warrior addresses the grays of gender within the context of Hawaiian culture. The story’s main character, Hoʿonani, is based on a real person, Hoʿonani Kamai, raised in Honolulu. While “girl” is wahine in Hawaiian and boy is kāne, “[s]he preferred just Hoʿonani.” The book notes that, in traditional Hawaiian culture, māhū people “embraced both feminine and masculine traits” and had a role “as healers and as caretakers and teachers of ancient traditions.”

oʿonani’s mentor is Kumu Hina, another real person whom we’re told in the author’s note is a Hawaiian cultural practitioner and the first transgender candidate to run for state office in the U.S. (Based on how the book is written, both Hoʿonani and Kumu identify with female pronouns.) It is Kumu who announces that, as part of a high school cultural event, the kāne (boys) will peform a traditional hula chant. Hoʿonani is neither a boy nor in high school, yet she wants to try out and Kumu encourages her to do so. To be accepted, Hoʿonani must be strong and convincing in her warrior stance, in her movement and in her delivery of the chant. Not only is she accepted, she is selected as the leader.

This book is based on the twenty-five-minute PBS documentary A Place in the Middle. It’s worth watching after reading the book to gain more context and to see that this story is not simply a fairy tale version of reality. Truthfully, I felt Kumu Hina came off as a bit too stern, perhaps even harsh, in the documentary, but seeing Hoʿonani on video will be especially worthwhile to convey to children how utterly normal she is. This is important since children may feel awkward in understanding who Hoʿonani based only on two-dimensional drawings in a picture book.

For opening minds about gender and Hawaiian culture, Hoʿonani: Hula Warrior is a worthwhile read.