Monday, January 26, 2015

Celebrating Multicultural Children's Book Day with Icy Smith's Beautiful Books about Asia -- by Christy Mihaly

Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015 is the second Multicultural Children's Book Day (MCCBD) and GROG is happy to be part of this national event. Today I'm reviewing three beautiful, eye-opening picture books by Icy Smith. These historical fiction stories introduce children to important topics in Asian history. All are published by East West Discovery Press (a MCCBD sponsor). Today's post will be linked to the MCCBD site as part of an enormous celebration of diversity in children's literature. 

The creators of MCCBD are Mia Wenjen (from Pragmatic Mom) and Valarie Budayr (from Jump Into a Book/Audrey Press). Here's what they say about their mission: “The MCCBD team hopes to spread the word and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in children’s literature. Our young readers need to see themselves . . . and experience other cultures, languages, traditions and religions within the pages of a book. We encourage readers, parents, teachers, caregivers and librarians to follow along the fun book reviews, author visits, event details, multicultural children’s book link and via our hashtag (#ReadYourWorld) on Twitter and other social media.”

Icy Smith is the 2012 recipient of the Author Award conferred by the National Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. She writes children's books about Asian and Asian-American history, and founded East-West Discovery Press to publish bilingual and multi-cultural titles.
Her new picture book, Mystery of the Giant Masks of Sanxingdui (2015), illustrated by Gayle Garner Roski, is a richly imagined recounting of life in the ancient city of Sanxingdui, in Sichuan Province, China. As Smith's back matter explains, in 1986 construction workers accidentally discovered ancient pits filled with more than a thousand stunning artifacts, many made of gold and bronze. These objects--some dating back to 1300 B.C.--were evidence of a sophisticated ancient culture with advanced bronze-making technology. Among the monumental relics were large, intricate bronze masks and a life-size human figure. 

Illustrations include a map and diagram of the ancient city. In the Author's Note are photographs of some of the artifacts and a summary of what is known about the lost city of Sanxingdui. Smith also notes that many unanswered questions remain about how the people of this ancient civilization lived, and why they disappeared. 

This book weaves the tale of a young brother and sister, Wei and Min, and their father, the chief of the people. Wei is initiated as a warrior, and their father gives him a young elephant. When word comes that invaders approach, the community must decide how to respond. Min plays an important role in determining what their ancestors wish for them to do. 

Smith's writing evokes a peaceful daily life, and the mystery and ritual of ancient ceremonies. Her use of the first-person present brings an immediacy to the tale. In her fine story-telling, she incorporates available information and theories about Sanxingdui and common practices of ancient China. Together with illustrator Roski's evocative water colors, this book paints a vivid picture of long-ago life Sanxingdui. This is a beautiful book, suitable for children ages 6-9.

Activity: In sharing this educational book, why not have children create their own masks, using cardboard, paints, and aluminum foil? You can refer to the photos in the book or from online or other resources. Archeologists aren't sure how these masks were used. What are some possibilities?
AND: For readers in southern California, how about a field trip? Check out China's Lost Civilization: The Mystery of Sanxingdui at the Bowers Museum in Orange County. At this exhibit you can see some of the monumental 3000-year old bronze objects from the Sanxingdui discovery.  

The other two historical fiction picture books reviewed here tackle darker chapters in Asian history. They are recommended for middle graders. The topics covered may not be familiar even to adults in this country, and some parents and teachers may be uncomfortable discussing them with youngsters. But as Icy Smith points out, it's important to remember history so we don't repeat it, and it's important to discuss these stories so the people who experienced them can heal. These books include helpful factual materials and are both engaging and educational. 

Three Years and Eight Months (2013) is an award-winning book based on the experiences of the author's father, uncle, and grandmother. Illustrated by Jennifer Kindert, it chronicles what happens to a Hong Kong family during the Japanese occupation of the island from 1941-45. The publisher designates it for ages 10+.

Ten-year-old Choi tells his story from the day the Japanese army invades. Soldiers drag his mother away, and he and those around him are subjected to indignities and privations large and small as life in Hong Kong becomes more and more horrible. 
Choi is befriended by a Japanese soldier, becomes a slave boy for the Japanese military, then finds a way to assist the anti-Japanese resistance. The somber water color illustrations pull the reader into the narrative. 

In five pages of back matter, the author shares factual background and historical photographs, including one of her father. There's also a map showing the extent of the Japanese occupation. Although this story has a hopeful ending, Smith, in her author's note, emphasizes that we must not forget the brutality and atrocities committed. (Avoiding graphic details in the story itself, she notes in back matter that the Japanese killed more than 100,000 Hong Kong civilians and engaged in widespread rape.)

This book is an excellent introduction to an aspect of world history unfamiliar to many Americans.

In Half Spoon of Rice: A Survival Story of the Cambodian Genocide (2010), Smith introduces another topic not often taught in American middle schools: the Khmer Rouge. As with her Hong Kong story, the author spins a fact-based tale focused on the travails of a young boy--in this case, young Nat. Nat recounts his terror, hunger, and exhaustion as the Khmer Rouge takes over Phnom Penh, evicts the residents from their homes, and marches them into the countryside. Soldiers then separate him from his parents, sending them to separate camps. 

In a children's work camp, Nat endures forced labor in the fields, cruelty and violence from the soldiers and guards, and near-starvation. (The book's title refers to the workers' rations: half a spoon of rice per day.) But this story also tells of hope and generosity, as Nat and a friend help one another survive. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge they reach a refugee camp and find Nat's parents.

Smith's notes explain that this book arose from both the stories of her Cambodian friends and her independent research. She provides six pages of back matter about the Khmer Rouge and its brutal rule. An estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died -- about a quarter of the population. Photographs portray the "killing fields" as well as soldiers and workers in labor camps.

The illustrator, Sopaul Nhem, is Cambodian. He credits his father, a Khmer Rouge survivor, for assuring the historical accuracy of the artwork, which conveys both the horror and the hope of the story, and makes it accessible to a young audience. 

Kudos to Icy Smith for bringing these diverse topics to light. These books are well worth reading and sharing -- with children and adults alike.

And now, a word from MCCBD's sponsors and co-hosts (THANK YOU!). 
Please check out the information below about the book drive and MCCBD's ongoing efforts to bring multicultural books to kids!
MCCBD’s  2015 Sponsors include 
Platinum Sponsors: Wisdom Tales Press, Daybreak Press, Global Bookshop 
Gold SponsorsSatya House, MulticulturalKids.comAuthor Stephen Hodges and the Magic Poof 
Silver Sponsors: Junior Library GuildCapstone Publishing, Lee and Low Books,  The Omnibus Publishing
Bronze Sponsors: Double Dutch Dolls, Bliss Group Books, Snuggle with Picture Books Publishing, Rainbow Books, Author Felicia CapersChronicle Books, Muslim Writers Publishing, and East West Discovery Press.

CoHosts: MCCBD has NINE amazing Co-Hosts. Check out their websites!

MCCBD is partnering with First Book to offer a Virtual Book Drive that will help donate multicultural children’s books during the week of the event. This is a great way to get diversity books into the hands of kids who most need it! The Virtual Book Drive is LIVE and can be found HERE.

And finally, MCCBD is collaborating with Children’s Book Council to highlight wonderful diversity books and authors on an ongoing basis all year.



  1. Thanks, Christy, for making us aware of these books. In fact, I'd never heard of this publisher before.

    1. Thanks, Tina -- don't you just love learning about exciting publishers doing great work like this?

  2. Christy, Thanks for making me aware of Multicultural Book Day, a variety of independent presses, and these books.

  3. Appreciations very much, Christy.

    It's good to know a new author & to also learn of these illustrators.

    The Khmer Rouge & Dith Pran, a Cambodian photographer who arrived eventually in the U.S.& worked for the New York Times, are events that are important for me to keep. The movie The Killing Fields & the documentary Swimming to Cambodia brought the topic to my husband & me vividly. I salute the thoughtful teamwork that brings this topic to students & I wish them well with it.

    My MCCBD blog post is at Bookseedstudio:

    I hope you & Group Blog readers can visit it.

    1. Thanks, Jan, I've been enjoying the posts on yours and other blogs today -- so many exciting books to read about!

    2. You're welcome & thanks so much for visiting Bookseedstudio's post. I didn't realize you'd been there!!

  4. I'm wondering what ages these two picture books were targeted to? Will check Amazon.

  5. Hi Wendy! The publisher says 7+ for "Half Spoon of Rice," and, as mentioned in the post, 10+ for "Three Years and Eight Months." As always, of course, it depends on the kiddos -- and judicious sharing of the back matter as appropriate.

    1. And, the Giant Masks is suitable for younger ones!

  6. Thank you so much for your wonderful book reviews of difficult topics covering real life events! I think these stories are important to remember even if they are hard to listen to. Thank you also for joining us for Multicultural Children's Book Day!

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful review - looking forward to checking out Giant Masks for myself. I always love finding new authors and new blogs, and I did both with your post. :) Thanks for the support of Multicultural Children's Book Day!

    1. Thanks! It's been a pleasure to be part of MCCBD -- and I've discovered some great new books and blogs too.

  8. ជំរាបសួរ [jumreap sooa] 🙏
    Thank you for introducing me to some excellent books that depict important historical events.

    Mia and Valarie, the creators are doing good stuff through MCCBD. The books by Icy Smith look like a must read.

    I have fond memories of Sambath, Sambo and Nicky, my ELLs {English Language Learners}, from Cambodia.

    Celebrate diversity.

  9. Thanks for the introduction to Icy Smith and East West Discovery Press, Christy! I like broadening my world of books. These ones look so interesting.