By Kevin Henkes
Realistic Fiction

It is a tradition for Alice to vacation in winter and celebrate her birthday with other regulars, in a seaside cottage in Florida. But on her 10th birthday things are a little different. Some of her “extended family” is missing. Instead, 6 year old Mallory enters the scene, and makes everything less perfect for Alice. But Mallory’s own story has a tinge of sadness. Henkes authentically brings out Alice’s struggle, swinging from girlhood to adoloscence – a trip into the internal psyche trying to balance genuine conflicting emotions. Wrapped tightly around all of this is Alice’s passion for shells and the hunt for the rare junonia shell she covets. Kevin Henke’s writing – choice of words, similies, simplicity, and style of language. The beach backdrop filled with sky, sea gulls, sun, pelicans, dolphins, cottages, sand and shells!


Island of the blue dolphins

By Scott O’dell

Based on a true story
Newbery Medal in 1961

Riveting. Powerful. Moving. Classic. Timeless.

Twelve year old Karana who jumps off a ship to rescue her little brother, only to find him dead on the shore. While the ship and her clan sail away for safer shores, Karana is left stranded on the desolate island for several years. Her survival saga is shrouded in hope, loneliness, courage, perseverance and strength, to stay alive and live beyond!
Scott O’dell is a master – a three time Newbery award winner and the recipient of the highest global honor, the Hans Christian Anderson Author Award. Need I say more?
Picture: Author Website


By Holling.C.Holling
Caldcott Honor in 1942

 I am grateful to destiny for leading us to this book. I am duly presenting it here. As my 7 year old promptly adds Paddle-to-the-sea to her list of favorites, I see us both recommending and reading this book several times in the future, and not many books are thatcompelling.

The book was published in 1941. It was a Caldecott Honor Winner. The movie version was an Oscar nominee as well. Holling.C.Holling is generous with natural details in the story and fluent in writing it with a geographic pitch.

A young native American boy carves a wooden man-figure on a canoe and names him Paddle-to-the-sea. After addressing the mechanical needs, he etches the words Please put me back in water – I am Paddle to the sea, along the underbelly of his “toy”. He sets him on a mound of snow in the wild, in Nipigon country in Canada. He hopes and waits for Paddle to start his travel when the ice thaws in spring and the stream takes him along. It is an innocent escapade born out of the boy’s longing for nautical travel and adventure.

Thus begins Paddle’s aquatic journey. The destination is the ocean, Atlantic Ocean. The small river where he sets off eventually leads him to the Great Lakes – the five lakes – Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario. Transiting through the St.Lawrence river to Newfoundland, he journeys to the ocean. Each chapter celebrates an encounter, a gamble, a risk. Sometimes it is a slow struggle. Sometimes it is a quick squirm out. Most times Paddle is just plain lucky. Interspersed are passages of serenity, nothing but the quietness of the still water or the murmur of a brook.

It is not an easy ride for Paddle. He rides a log into a saw mill and escapes by the skin of his teeth. He gets trapped in a marsh. He weathers wind and rain and storms to keep sailing. Sometimes he is washed ashore and later tossed back into the lakes. He even finds himself netted. Passing many pairs of human hands, the message underneath constantly evolves. Paddle also spends a winter with a coastguard. Then there is the wrong detour and the forest fire… he even nosedives in the Niagara Falls. Rivers, lakes, streams, creeks, beaches and bays – Paddle meets every body of water on his trip.

What makes this book wondrous is that every textual page on the left carries informative black-and-white diagrams. Sometimes with little hand written notes and markings. This helps a lot with mastering the topographical details of the lakes and the region, and with visualizing the details of Paddle’s intricate risks – be it a saw mill, a canal lock, a lake freighter or a buoy. All these also fuel a sense of proximity to the chaos that we often see on a dock or by the pier. Like these aren’t enough to get ourselves entangled with Paddle and his nail biting water adventures, the pictures on the right burst with color, in striking images of the sky, lakes, wilderness, woods, boats, birds and Paddle himself.

A chapter runs a page, making it a great transitional book for younger readers. It is an engaging resource for learning about the Great Lakes and thus makes wonderful classroom material. The visual support we get through maps, trail markings, one-liner-facts and detailed drawings with named parts is invaluable. It is great literature, in print for generations to learn and enjoy. Offer it to a child who is ready for this kind of a package. More of Holling’s geo-historic fiction that tell the story of a journey while celebrating nature are SeabirdMinn of the MississippiPagoo and Tree in the trail.

But was all the drama that Paddle survived worth it at the end? Does Paddle finally make it into the Atlantic ? Does the Indian boy know it? Where is he now? Does he get to see Paddle again? Where is Paddle now?

And in the same vein, has my review done justice to the book? I doubt it. But I feel good, the kind of feeling-good that comes from sharing. And sometimes from discovering something magnificent and glorious. Like the waters of the deep oceans and the dark seas….

Picture: Paperbackswap

Sarah, plain and tall

By Patricia Maclahan
Realistic Fiction
Newbery Medal in 1986

Sarah, plain and tall, comes to join the family in the Prairies, in response to Jacob’s ad for a wife, for a mother to his two motherless children Anna and Caleb. However Sarah misses her own home back in Maine – the smell of the ocean, the gulls, and the mist over the cliffs. The children fall in love with Sarah but are soon overcome by fear of being abandoned once again. At one point, it seems like Sarah might never come back. However Sarah comes back and reassures them how much she’ll miss them (even more than Maine!) if she left. Narrated in the voice of Anna, this is a story of love and hope in small children,  it is gentle and heartwarming.
Skylark, Caleb’s Story, More perfect than the moon, Grandfather’s dance, all belong to a series following this book. Patricial Maclahan has several wonderful novels to her credit.

Picture: Wikipedia

Charlotte’s web

By E.B White, Illustrated by Garth Williams
Age: 8+
Newbery Honor in 1953

The realization that he is going to be slaughtered for a meal one day, leaves Wilbur, the naive and fun loving little pig, in a stupor. While the other gabby animal neighbors are supportive, Charlotte an affectionate and wise spider, goes to great lengths to protect friend Wilbur. She promises to save him. And she keeps it up by making him an overnight celebrity. Wilbur soon becomes the pride of the Zuckermans’ and the talk of the town. But Charlotte’s passes on doing what she does best – weaving magic words that keep Wilbur alive! A heartwarming tale about friendship and commitment.


Where is the Green Sheep?

Author: Mem Fox
Illustrator : Judy Horacek
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Age Group: Pre-K to Gr 1 (as per Amazon)
Picture Courtesy: Amazon.com

I always find hand-picking books for babies and toddlers very interesting, and challenging. While its bulls eye most times for the older age groups with the knowledge of their acquired likes and dislikes, it could be more of a gamble with the unknown, for the fries. The eye scans for something more than instructional concept books, for a gush of creativity that makes us hopeful of reining in the wandering little mind. Texture or bold colors, sounds or pop-ups, pulling tabs and pushing buttons often come to the rescue.

None of the above physical or mechanical attractions in this book. And yet it can hold the child in rapt attention. What is it that does the trick? Repetition – a binding word that puts the child in the comfort zone and belts him up for the ride. The “hiding” game intact. The confluence works like magic! All said, it is still a concept book.

This is how Mom Fox, a Saffron Tree favorite, starts the fun and word play in this book –

Here is the blue Sheep.
And here is the red sheep.
Here is the bath sheep.
And here is the bed sheep.
But where is the green sheep?

Clever, I tend to think. Clear ink-and-watercolor illustrations keep things simple for the young. Appropriately placed, pictures of different sheep – scared sheep, far sheep, moon sheep and the like support the text further along. Not to forget the adorable portrayals of the sun sheep on the beach or the train sheep peeping out the window. The use of opposites, colors and patterns add value, and rhyme sustains the momentum. Blank white pages periodically appear questioning But where is the green sheep? and the excitement mounts to find our missing friend. The finale is when the anticipation builds in the couple of pages leading up to the “eureka” moment on the last spread! And that’s when, I’d surmise, the exceedingly satisfying moment for the reader and the listener would also arrive.

There is an elaborate writing on Mem Fox’s website on how she collaborated with Judy Horaceck on the book and how the book evolved – http://www.memfox.net/green-sheep-secrets.html. The photograph included at the bottom says it all!
Here is Judy Horacek’s website, http://horacek.com.au/, where her banner includes our colorful sheep friends as well. Amongst other things the back cover of the book also lists the accolades that it has received.

I’d hate for my 20 month old toddler to grow up to discover “Where is the green sheep?” not featured on Saffron Tree! Because that’s how much he loves this book…we love this book!

My Gandhi Scrapbook

I saw Google incorporate the face of Gandhi into their logo first thing this morning. I was reminded of this book. Her aunt had given it to her on her birthday. I pulled it out of my saved-for-later stash and turned to look at the back cover. For all ages it said. I flipped through to make a quick judgment of the content before I presented it to her. I smiled and beckoned my little one.

My Gandhi Scrapbook, compiled by Sandhya Rao at Tulika Publishers, India.

A very warm and casually written introductory note from Sandhya talked in simple terms about scrap booking and went on to encourage children to add to the collection in the book. We flipped and we saw Gandhi everywhere! I can’t help but verbalize a scrapbook here, now that I actually saw one, a well-made one. Photographs and images of currency and postal stamps bearing his visage were splattered all over. Tags, comments and labels floated near them with little details. She took her finger here..there. Mine followed hers. She then took the book closer to read finely printed letters on a vintage photo. Colorful art, monochromatic photographs and handwritten patches carried tidbits of his life, style and work.

Beyond the images of currency, were a bunch of thematically assembled photographs. All were sightings of places (streets, squares roads, parks) from around the world, carrying placards with his name. We turned the page, and saw more caricature. On this page, was a tip to create a quick Gandhi doodle. She giggled. But then came a spread of vintage black and white photographs of Mohandas, in his boyhood and adolescence (and of the bald old man we all love). Another couple of pages showed how omnipresent he is, even today. This was conveyed through images of magazine covers, child art and hoardings. Beside these were little bubbles loaded with bite-sized facts about the Mahatma. The neat bonus was a few sheets left blank for the child to collect more such wonderful scrap!

You get the idea now, I suppose. And so did my 5 year old. I watched her hold on to the book and gaze at the photographs even as I walked away thinking that every kid reading this book is sure to find him cool just as she did!
Digestibility. We all look for this attribute when it comes to presenting history, religion or mythology to our children. And this book takes good care of this.

Live simply that others may simply live – M.K.Gandhi. I pull this out from a yellow blob in this book, as we celebrate a hero’s birthday today!

Best Friends, for EARTH DAY

Its EARTH DAY today everyone! As always it calls for a celebration here at Saffron tree! And what better way to do it than through a good book? That is why I have here with me BEST FRIENDS, written by Nina Sabnani; a neat blingual production from Tulika Publishers, India. No contemplation preceded the choice of this book. And it cannot be more befitting for today – the celebration of a little girl’s friendship with a tree.

We are introduced to little Tamanna playing in the garden. We see her talking and sharing stories from her school and home to the big tall beautiful Kuchi. The sounds of nature had led her to believe, when she was a baby, that the tree actually spoke. Shhhuunnn! Muuuunnnn! was the language her companion spoke, she thought, and thus a friendship was born. However, her chatty friendship becomes a subject of ridicule and mockery amongst her human friends and that prods her to rethink her relationship. Pragmatism wins and her delusion ends.

Years roll by and we see her reading a book to her daughter. Shhhuunnn! Muuuunnnn! Something beckons her. Running out into the garden she sees a man with an axe. Stop! Don’t touch Kuchi! screams the woman, our Tamanna. The closing image is that of a little girl in a swing suspended from one of Kuchi’s branches. The friendship is passed on.

I turn the book and read “Based on a real friendship between Nina Sabnani’s niece and a tree….”. Deeply touched.

The author is also the illustrator. The text is oddly simple and the reasoning for this would be its ability to support multiple Indian languages. But the profound thoughts that the simple text can transmit impresses me. Trees, like water, symbolize our giving earth in its (her) full glory. Irrespective of whether we choose to talk about deforestation or recycling or about simply closing the pipe while brushing, amongst us and to our kids, the importance of our environment, the generosity of nature and the beauty of our home, the earth stands. Happy Earth Day!


Publisher: Tilbury House, Publishers, Maine, USA
Author: Katia Novet Saint-Lot
Illustrator: Dimitrea Tokunbo

What is a snowman doing on the front cover of a book bearing what I think looks like an African boy in a village setting? Little did I know that it was curiosity of this nature that was the basis for the transformation in young Amadi’s life, the central character in the book Amadi’s Snowman.

Amadi is a native of the Igbo tribe of Nigeria in Africa. The story is set in a hamlet in Nigeria, boasting marketplaces and friendly faces amidst which Amadi is raised by his hardworking mother.

What we come to understand after the introductory pages is Amadi’s impregnable resistance to learn to read. He strongly believes that the ability to read is unneeded for an Igbo boy whose stereotyped ambition is to grow up to be a business man. Wandering at the marketplace, Amadi chances upon his friend Chima furtively buried in a book. It is now that Amadi’s eyes fall upon an image of a boy bundled up in clothes next to a strange animal with a nose that looked like a carrot. Everywhere around, the ground and trees sparkled, blinding white. To some of us the image of a boy and a snowman could seem effortlessly digestible but to an Igbo man in Africa whose land is drenched in sun all through the year, this can sure seem hard to gulp. His ignorance is dispelled by Chima, who now seems to be the all-knowing idol to Amadi. But Chima soon takes off abandoning the book and poor Amadi who stands there with a whole lot of questions queued up in his head. This incident sows the seeds for Amadi’s genuine enthusiasm to read, to learn, and to discover.

Amadi’s quest does not end here. He begins to realize the existence of a lot more beyond his small world, like the snow and snowman. But they are all going to be out of reach if he did not know to read. The climax is when Amadi finds the same book in his house, gifted to him by Mrs. Chikodili, his tutor whom he is seen avoiding all through. You can tell Mrs.Chikodili I’ll learn how to read are Amadi’s final words in the book.

The depiction of the life of a rural African boy can itself be intriguing to urban children. The rustic scenes painted in warm earth tones come as a bonus, thanks to Dimitrea Tokunbo. The book is also overly apt for Saffron Tree for more than one reason – not only is it truly multicultural as in being a story about a tribal boy in Africa and created by a well-traveled author who now lives in India, but it is also one that spoons children the motivation to learn to read.

The initial resistance to read that Amadi exudes is probably a feeling that all young children might be able to relate to and the fact that the story can eventually inspire them to read is the most wonderful and powerful thing about this book! Nothing says this like when my 4 year old worriedly and hurriedly ensured “Ma, I know to read, right? I will know to read much better on my own, right?” as I slowly closed the book.Thumbs up to Katia Novet for this neat package! Literacy is a heavy subject and to translate it to young children is a daunting task. But looks like Katia Novet has effortlessly and wonderfully accomplished this endeavour.


AGE GRP: 3-5 yrs
SPANISH language edition also available

“An ode to the power of children’s imaginations (and their parents’ patience), Minji’s Salon reminds readers that creativity and play are worldwide phenomena.”
is what the publisher Kane Miller rightly claims.

Yet another book on pretend-playing and dress-up that I got my hands on, but the overdose doesn’t seem to tire my 4 year old girl!

A simple story line. Mother visits the local salon for a vivid red color and a fancy haircut. Daughter creates a make-believe salon at home assuming the role of the stylist. The guinea pig is her dog companion at home. Smell chaos already? Wait until you see what Minji is up to.

Something really neat in the book is the juxtaposition of equivalent scenes, the city salon on one side and Minji’s home base on the other. This presentation makes it easy for the child to get a grasp of the hilarious on goings in parallel. While the rendezvous of the mom with her stylist progresses on the left, Minji’s date with her canine friend evolves on the right. Similar drill, dialogues and drama. An ice-cream concoction for color, crayons for holding the fuzz, generous use of water colors – all to simulate the hairdresser’s paraphernalia and perform the shear act on her own specimen. Can you imagine the predicament of the dog? Visuals just enough to make the little reader giggle or guffaw.

Another observation would be the fact that mom’s proceedings happen in a confined rectangular window while Minji’s play has no defined boundaries (on the pages), clearly portraying how a child’s imagination has no bounds, whatsoever! And this is the central idea of the book.

Mom is back, pretty and perky. Her initial shock softens into surprise and then a sweet tolerance takes over even as she stands there encompassed in total mess. A feeling that mothers all around the world can comfortably relate to.

“ My goodness! Are you the owner of the salon?”
“Yes Madam. Would you like to make an appointment?”

We see no end to Minji’s frolic. However the book comes to an end with a picture of Minji staring at a mannequin through the glass window of a city store, not to forget the bright red oversized stilettos she has gotten herself into!

Eun-hee Choung lives in South Korea, academically qualified in art and illustration. And I can safely conclude that she has done adequate justice to the above fact in Minji’s salon where visuals dominate text.