Manjiro by Emily Arnold McCully

Cover of Manjiro

Captain’s Log:

Module 12

Port of Call: Arnold McCully, E. (2008). Manjiro: the boy who risked his life for two countries. New York, NY: Farrar Straus Giroux.

First Lines: No Japanese ship or boat… nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoso acts contrary to this shall die.

Summary: This story is a biography of one of the few Japanese citizens to travel to the United States during the Tokugawa Shogunate’s period of inforced isolationism. Manjiro is a fisherman, and a boy, who is stranded on an island with several other men when their ship is caught in a storm. After some time, they are rescued by a U.S. whaling vessel and taken back to the states. The story details Manjiro’s travels through a foreing culture, his experiences as he finds a place for himself in America, and eventually his return to Japan at the risk of his life.

First Impressions: I’ve had a long-time interest in Japanese culture and yet I had never heard the story of Manjiro. Beautiful full-page pastel illustrations follow the storyline closely and display historical scenes from both the U.S. and Japan.

Suggestions for use: The story of Manjiro is one about overcoming unexpected circumstance, finding new ways to live and learn, and of the power of ‘home’ and belonging. I would use this story to teach about living in another country, or surviving in the face of adversity.

Illustration from Manjiro


School Library Journal:  “Gr 3–6— A fascinating episode from Japanese history, related in an oversize picture-book format. In 1841, while 14-year-old Manjiro and four men were fishing, their small boat was destroyed in a storm, and they were cast away on a tiny island for almost six months. Though they survived a drought and an earthquake, they feared for their lives. “For over two and a half centuries Japan had been closed to the outside world. Anyone who tried to return after leaving the country could be put to death.” They were finally rescued by a New England whaling ship. At journey’s end, Captain Whitfield took Manjiro home to New Bedford, MA. Whitfield married and bought a farm where the boy learned to plant, cultivate, harvest, and ride a horse—a skill reserved for samurai in Japan. Despite increasing homesickness, he attended school and graduated at the top of his class. In 1849, the California gold rush lured him to San Francisco where he collected $600 in gold dust in 70 days. Finally, after a nine-year absence, he headed back to Japan with two of the original castaways. When they arrived, government officials jailed and questioned them for seven months. He told them of America’s desire to trade and of railroads, telegraphs, drawbridges, and wristwatches. At last, he became an honored samurai. An author’s note gives background on Japan’s 250-year isolationist policy and how one curious, determined boy opened the door to the Western world. McCully’s realistic watercolors are striking against white backgrounds and show the contrast between traditional Japanese and 19th-century New Englanders as well as the tumultuous seas and perils of a fishing life. An exciting account of a pivotal period in U.S.-Japanese history.”

Auerbach, B. (2008). Manjiro. School Library Journal, 54(10), 134.

Kirkus:  “In this incredible true story, a poor Japanese boy, through fate and enterprise, bridges the cultural gap between Japan and America at a time when Japan was isolated from the world. In 1841, 14-year-old Manjiro and four other fishermen became castaways on a desert island for six months until rescued by an American whaling ship. The resourceful, adaptable Manjiro soon became Captain Whitfield’s favorite, eventually returning to Fairhaven, Mass., where Whitfield educated and mentored him. Initially regarded as a foreigner, the enterprising Manjiro became a popular, respected member of the community, but never forgot his family in Japan. He subsequently worked on a whaling ship and in the California gold rush to save enough money to return to his native land, where he was instrumental in teaching Japan about America. The historically rich text and the realistic watercolor illustrations capture Manjiro’s life and times—both in Japan and New England—making this a first-rate introduction to a relatively unknown young figure in Japanese-American relations. (author’s note, map, bibliography) (Picture book/biography. 7-11)”

Manjiro. (2008, September 1). Kirkus Reviews.


14 Cows For America by Carmen Agra Deedy

Cover of 14 Cows for America

Captain’s Log:

Module 11

Port of Call: Deedy, C.A. (2009). 14 cows for america. Atlanta, GA: Peachtree Publishers.

First Lines: The remote village waits for a story to be told. News travels slowly to this corner of Kenya.

As Kimeli nears his village he watches a herd of bull giraffes cross the open grassland. He smiles.

He has been away a long time.

Summary: Kimeli is returning to his people in Kenya with a story from his life in New York City during the September 11 attacks. His story touches the people in his village who choose to make a gift to help those in America deal with the pain of the attack. The gift is 14 cows, a great treasure to the Maasai, given from one people to another in goodness and generosity of spirit.

First Impressions: The emotional impact of this story for me was unexpected. This is a simple, but beautifully illustrated story about a kindhearted people who have great empathy for others. Definitely a touching book.

Suggestions for use: Use this book to talk about relationships between cultures that are very different, or in a unit about September 11 and its effect on the world. This can be a great book for getting kids to think about people in other countries, and to find a mutual sharing of emotions and regard.

Illustration from 14 Cows for America

School Library Journal:

/* Starred Review */ Gr 2–5— Kimeli Naiyomah returned home to his Maasai village from New York City with news of 9/11 terrorist attacks. His story prompted the villagers to give a heartfelt gift to help America heal. Deedy and Gonzalez bring Naiyomah’s story to life with pithy prose and vibrant illustrations. Each block of text consists of a few short, elegant sentences: “A child asks if he has brought any stories. Kimeli nods. He has brought with him one story. It has burned a hole in his heart.” The suspenseful pace is especially striking when surrounded by Gonzalez’s exquisite colored pencil and pastel illustrations. The colors of Kenya explode off the page: rich blues, flaming oranges, fire-engine reds, and chocolate browns. Full-page spreads depict the Maasai people and their land so realistically as to be nearly lifelike. Gonzalez manages to break the fourth wall and draw readers in as real-time observers. The book’s only flaw is the less-than-concrete ending: “…there is no nation so powerful it cannot be wounded, nor a people so small they cannot offer mighty comfort” is an important message, but not a particularly satisfying one for children. Fortunately, their questions will be answered by Naiyomah’s endnote, and it provides a fitting conclusion to this breathtaking chronicle.

Dash, R. (2009). 14 cows for america. School Library Journal, 55(8), 89.

Publishers Weekly:

A native of Kenya, Naiyomah was in New York City on September 11, 2001. In his and Deedy’s (Martina the Beautiful Cockroach ) lyrical account, he returns to his homeland and tells the members of his Maasai tribe a story that had “burned a hole in his heart.” The narrative avoids specifics and refers to the events of 9/11 obliquely as the villagers listen to him with “growing disbelief”: “Buildings so tall they can touch the sky? Fires so hot they can melt iron? Smoke and dust so thick they can block out the sun?” Until they read Naiyomah’s concluding note, children may not fully comprehend either his story or the villagers’ subsequent actions: the tribe elders bless 14 cows, revered in Maasai culture, and symbolically offer them to the American people to help them heal. Featuring luminous images of the Maasai in vivid native dress and sweeping African landscapes, Gonzalez’s pastel, colored pencil and airbrush paintings appear almost three-dimensional in their realism. A moving tale of compassion and generosity. Ages 6–10.

Staff. (2009). 14 cows for america. Publishers Weekly, 256(31), 45.

The Blacker the Berry by Joyce Carol Thomas and Floyd Cooper

Captain’s Log: Module 4

Port of Call: Thomas, J.C. (2008). The blacker the berry. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

First Lines: Colors, without black,

couldn’t sparkle quite so bright…

Cover of The Blacker the Berry


This book is a collection of poems about skin color but truly are also about embracing who we are and what heritage has made us. Each poem speaks of our skin in vocabulary overflowing with  colors and tastes and smells. The poems are tied to a common theme of fruit/food as in, “I am red raspberries stirred in to blackberries”. And the ultimate message is that we are so much more than just the color of our skin, eyes and hair.

The poems are of medium length, and are accompanied by a full page illustration that portrays the character who is the topic of each poem. I thought every poem was lovely, skillfully crafted so that the book was interesting, vibrant, easy to read and full of sensory language that really made you feel the essence of each poem/person.

First Impressions: I’m not a big fan of reading poetry, so this book intimidated me a bit before I opened it. However, I was sucked in with the first few lines and flew through the poems in one sitting. I also loved the illustrations and spent time looking at each picture and picking out the elements that were representative of the poems they accompanied.

Suggestions for use: This is a book about celebration. This book’s message will most likely resonate loudest with African American children, but truly its message of acceptance and individuality can be a powerful message to all ethnic groups. I liked that this book taught the beauty that exists within all of us, and how we can wear our skin proudly and feel comfortable in who we are. Read this book to children who may feel they are not beautiful, and help them to point out the ways in which they are incredibly wonderful and special.


School Library Journal:

“Grade 1–4—The varieties of African-American ethnic heritage are often rendered invisible by the rigid construction of racial identity that insists on polarities. This collection of 12 poems makes the complexities of a layered heritage visible and the many skin shades celebrated. Read-aloud-sized spreads offer luminous artwork that complements the verses in which children speak of their various hues: “I am midnight and berries…” a child says in the title poem. In another selection, a boy recalls his Seminole grandmother who has given him the color of “red raspberries stirred into blackberries.” In “Cranberry Red,” a child asserts that “it’s my Irish ancestors/Who reddened the Africa in my face,” understanding that “When we measure who we are/We don’t leave anybody out.” The large illustrations match the lyrical poetry’s emotional range. Cooper’s method includes “pulling” the drawing out from a background of oil paint and glazes. With his subtractive method, he captures the joy of these children—the sparkle of an eye, the width of a grin, the lovely depths of their skin, and the light that radiates from within. This book complements titles that explore identity, such as Katie Kissinger’s All the Colors We Are (Redleaf, 1994).”

Pfeifer, T. (2008) School Library Journal Review for The Blacker the Berry. Retrieved September 9th, 2010 from

Golem by David Wisniewski

Captain’s Log: Module 3

Port of Call: Wisniewski, D. (1996). Golem. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

First Lines: Within the beautiful city of Prague, fierce hatreds have raged for a thousand years. People of differing beliefs in God and nation have clashed violently here: Czech against German, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Jew.

The cover of Golem


During a time when the Prague Jews are being persecuted by others a Jewish rabbi, Judah Loew ben Bezalel is searching for a way to bring relief to his people. He is given a dream in which a hand appears and writes the word ‘GOLEM’, a creature made from clay and brought to life with mystical Jewish words. Seeing this as a sign of an answer from God, Rabbi Loew sets out to make such a creature. He successfully brings the golem to life and charges it with protecting the Jews of the city from those who want to harm them. The golem is incredibly good at this task, and fiercely defends the Jews and destroys the attacking enemies. However, the golem is also a tragic figure, wistfully he just wants to watch the sunrise, and when the Jews are safe and the Rabbi prepares to disable the spell keeping the golem alive, the golem does not want to be turned back into clay. Nonetheless, he is dismantled with the promise that he will be brought back when the Jews need him once more.

First Impressions: Immediately I liked the heavy and dramatic illustration style of Golem. I also found the story to be intriguing as I had heard stories related to the myth of golems in other books. I did find parts of the book to be a bit scary or even depressing, so I wouldn’t recommend this book for very young children.

Other notes: The end of the book has a very informative section on the historical information this book was based on. This is a great resource for parents and children alike who want more information about the scenario described in Golem.

Suggestions for use: In addition to being a historical story, this book can also teach about the preciousness of life, the benefits and detriments of using another being as a ‘protector’, and the responsibility we have for the people in our care and our creations. This story could easily be a cautionary tale for anyone being persecuted or persecuting others.


Publishers Weekly:

“Elaborately composed cut-paper spreads give a 3D, puppet-show-like quality to a retelling of a Jewish legend. Rabbi Loew has a prophetic vision in 1580 when the Jews of Prague are accused of mixing the blood of Christian children into matzoh: he must create a Golem, “a giant of living clay, animated by Cabala, mystical teachings of unknown power.” Brought to life with apocalyptic explosions of steam and rain, the Golem seeks out the perpetrators of the Blood Lie and turns them over to the authorities. Thwarted, the enraged enemies of the Jews storm the gates of the ghetto, but the Golem grows to enormous height and violently defeats them with their own battering ram. Once his work is done, he pitifully (and futilely) begs the Rabbi: “Please let me live! I did all that you asked of me! Life is so… precious… to me!” Wisniewski (The Wave of the Sea Wolf) emphasizes the Golem’s humanity and the problems with his existence; instead of reducing the legend to a tale of a magical rescuer, the author allows for its historical and emotional complexity. The fiery, crisply layered paper illustrations, portraying with equal drama and precision the ornamental architecture of Prague and the unearthly career of the Golem, match the specificity and splendor of the storytelling. An endnote about the history and influence of the legend is particularly comprehensive. Ages 6-10. ”

Publishers Weekly (2006) Review of Golem retrieved September 9th, 2010 from

Shark VS. Train by Chris Barton and Tom Lichtenheld

Captain’s Log: Module 5

Port of Call: Barton, Chris, & Lichtenheld, Tom. (2010). Shark vs. train. New York, NY: Hachette Book Group.

A shark and a train face each other in a display of bravado

Shark VS. Train cover

First Lines:  “SHARK VS. TRAIN Who will win?

 Well, that depends on if they’re…

in the ocean… 

or on railroad tracks.

If they’re on a seesaw…” 

Summary: Two little boys are playing and each picks up a different toy. Naturally, they then have to decide whose toy is best, in this case, shark vs. train. The ensuing competitions are all entertaining and ridiculous, illustrated cleverly and embellished with frequent humourous quips from the shark and train involved. In the end, the boys are called to lunch, and the competition is put on hold. (Until  fate pits shark vs. train against each other once more!) 

First Impressions: When I saw the title of this book on my booklist, I immediately started snickering. The title is funny, and reminds me of ‘CRAB BATTLE’ or ‘LOBSTER VS. MAGNET’ comedy on the internet. The title is an instant hook that makes you wonder ‘what the heck could be inside that book?’ and ‘who wins?’. 

Suggestions for use:  If there is a lesson to be learned from this story, it might be that each individual (be they shark or train) has scenarios in which they excel and scenarios in which they will fail, but there is a balance of each. I would use this story for its entertainment value – it’s a very cute rendition of the way children play and compete together – and it’s very funny and creative. I also think this book would be a good way to teach a lesson about healthy competition. In Shark VS. Train both shark and train take turns ‘winning’ the different scenarios.  This book can also teach us to laugh at our failures, and see the humor in them without getting too discouraged to go on and try something new.

The train successfully toasts the marshmallows over its smokestack, but the shark has drenched his with seawater

Roasting marshmallows...


From the Washington Post: “Also not to be missed is Lichtenheld’s visually clever take on the power of play in Chris Barton’s “Shark vs. Train.” Two lively young lads excavate the toy box. One grabs a shark (“GRRRRR”), the other a train (“CHUGRRR-CHUG”), and each instantly disappears into his chosen persona. Who wins the ensuing battles depends entirely on who chooses the game. Riding in a hot air balloon? Train’s weight sends him plunging earthward (“AAAiieee!”). Roasting marshmallows? Shark’s drippy fins put out the fire (“drat!”). And if detente and lunch are synonymous, well, that’s what kids (and happy endings) are all about.” Kristi Jemtegaard 

 Jemtegaard, K. (2010) Washington Post review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from

 From the San Francisco Review: “Literature, sports, politics… they all have their great rivalries, ones where competition stirs the spirit of the masses and drives the contenders to greater heights than ever. And to the pantheon of truly epic rivalries, Chris Barton proudly introduces two new worthy combatants in Shark Vs. Train

 As shark and train do battle in pie-eating contests, card games, and physical and intellectual challenges of all kinds, they learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even coming to question where the rivalry came from in the first place. Tom Lichtenheld’s illustrations are marvelously simple, offering funny little background details for the sharp-eyed reader while never detracting from the main imagery. 

Shark has smashed all the bowling pins

It depends on whether they're bowling...

 I could choose to see all kinds of context behind those words and images–a battle between the makings of man and the forces of nature, technology matching wits with the best evolution has to offer–but, come on, it’s a kid’s book. Just sit back and enjoy the spectacle. 

 Shark Vs. Train is the best struggle to come out of nowhere since “Monkey vs. Robot.” I just couldn’t bring myself to pick a side.” – Glenn Dallas  

 Dallas, G. (2010) San Francisco Book Review of Shark VS. Train. Retrieved September 4th, 2010 from

The Snowman by Raymond Briggs

Captain’s Log: Module 2

Port of Call: Briggs, R. (1978). The Snowman. New York, NY: Random House, Inc..

First Lines: n/a

Cover of The Snowman

Summary: This is a beautifully illustrated story told entirely in pictures. Drawn in what looks like colored pencil, each page is filled with panels of varying sizes that tell the story of a young boy and his snowman. Beginning with him waking up and discovering it’s snowing, the boy runs outside and builds a snowman. He dresses it, and when he goes to sleep, he can’t stop thinking about it. He gets up to go check on his snowman, who tips his hat very courteously. Greetings exchanged, the boy invites his snowman inside, and proceeds to give him a tour of the house and all the novelties inside that a snowman would never have seen before. The snowman then returns the favor, taking the boy by the hand and leaping into the sky to fly over the world until morning comes when they both return and the boy goes back to bed. When he wakes up the next morning, he runs outside to see the snowman again, only to discover that he has melted.

More than the story, the best part of this picture book is the illustrations. Some pages have 12 small panels, while others are full page spreads. It’s always easy to tell what’s going on in each picture, and the book reads smoothly and quickly. I think this book would be a great bedtime story, with its theme of adventures while you sleep. I also love that a child who can’t read will fully be able to enjoy this book. Finally, it’s a great wintertime story, and I bet children will want to make a snowman after finishing it!

First Impressions: I did not know that this book had to words, so the first couple of pages were amusing and surprising. I thought the comic book-style illustration strips were fun, and I flew through the book very quickly.

Suggestions for use: This is definitely a winter story, so reading it around that time of year – first snowfall – would be a great use. Also, this is somewhat a story about imaginary friends and dreams, so reading it to children can stimulate their imaginations or help them understand a dream they themselves had.


The boy and his snowman take off into the night sky

“Who needs words to tell a story? In Raymond Briggs’s charming tale, told with 175 softly hued, artfully composed frames, a little boy makes friends with a snowman. He wakes up on a snowy day, tells his mother he’s going outside, then begins a flurry of snowman-building. That night, he can’t sleep, so he opens the front door and lo! the snowman has come to life. The amiable yet frosty fellow enjoys his tour of the boy’s cozy home; he admires the cat, but is disturbed by the fire. The boy shows him other wonders–the TV and a lamp and running water. Predictably perhaps, he is disturbed by the stove, but likes ice cubes quite a bit. Soon it is the snowman’s turn to introduce the boy to his wintry world. They join hands, rise up into the blizzardy air–presumably over Russia and into the Middle East–and then safely back to home sweet home. The boy pops into bed before his parents get up… but when he wakes up the next morning he races outside only to find his new buddy’s melted remains, scattered with a few forlorn lumps of coal. Since the book is wordless, you can make up any ending you want… like “Then, in a puff of pink smoke, the snowman recomposed himself and went to live in the boy’s garage freezer.” Or you could just resign yourself to a peaceful “And that was that.” Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, and this wintertime classic continues to win the hearts of kids every year. (Preschool and older)” Karin Snelson

Snelson, K. (2001) review of The Snowman. Retrieved September 6, 2010 from

Bats at the Library by Brian Lies

Captain’s Log: Module 1

Port of Call: Lies, B. (2008). Bats at the library. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

a number of bats pulling a book off library shelves using headphone cord

Cover of Bats at the Library

First Lines:

“Another inky evening’s here-

the air is cool and calm and clear.

We’ve feasted, fluttered, swooped and soared,

and yet… we’re still a little bored.”

Summary: A colony of bats has an unexpected night of fun and reading when they discover someone has left a window open at the local library. Apparently this happens every year or so, and the older bats get to show the bat pups what fun the library has to offer. Making shadow puppets on the overhead projector, to making batty photocopies, swimming in the drinking fountain…. the bats explore everything but eventually they find themselves enthralled by the books and stories all around them. So immersed, in fact, that they almost don’t notice when morning comes!

Bats at the Library

Bats hang upside down from a lampshade, reading

First Impressions: I immediately loved the full-color illustrations of the cover and was not disappointed to see the same style continued within the book. The dark colors and bat theme give this book a Halloween atmosphere (and in fact I found it in the holiday books at my library) but the story itself is not a Halloween book. I thought the bat illustrations and font were fun and cute. A few amazingly memorable pages show illustration montages from highly recognizable children’s classics.

Suggestions for use: This book would be great for sharing with children the excitement of reading and how wonderful it can be when you are sucked into a story so completely. Also a great book for Autumn thanks to the Halloween-ish atmosphere which does not overtly promote that holiday.

Other Notes: Apparently Lies has a series of books featuring the bats, including Bats at the Ballgame and Bats at the Beach. So if you liked the bats (and I did!) there are a few more ways to see them again.


School Library Journal: “In this companion to Bats at the Beach (Houghton, 2006), Lies pays homage to the pleasures to be found within libraries and books. The story opens on three winged creatures clinging to an autumnal branch against the backdrop of evening.





A bat flies through the air on a bed saying, no more melted cheese for me, no

Part of the children's classics montage

Observant readers will recognize the young bat with yellow “water wings” from the earlier title and notice that the chimney and trees at the top of the page point downward—a cue to attend to perspective. The bats are bored, but an antidote is announced: someone left a window open in the library. The golden glow from spotlights on the side of the building and an Arts and Crafts-style reading lamp illuminate the nocturnal adventures in this handsome, traditional space. The bats cluster according to interests. Some peruse “guides to fancy foods” (insect books) and form literary discussion groups. The younger mammals make images of themselves at the copier, frolic in the fountain, play at the computer, and explore the gingerbread castle in a pop-up book. An impromptu storytime brings everyone together, however, and after the pint-size protagonist is literally drawn into the featured book, two spreads reveal a montage of scenes from classic stories, with bats in the starring roles.

Lies’s acrylics are a successful fusion of fantasy and reality. The rhyming narrative is generally smooth, with enough humor and sophistication to propel readers along. And who can argue with the message?”

Lukehart, W. (2010)  School Library Journal  review of Bats at the Library. Retrieved August 28th from

Worcester Telegram and Gazette News:The creator of “Bats at the Beach” has brought his endearing band of flying mammals back for a nocturnal visit to the public library, a stimulating trip made possible by news that a window to the building has been left ajar. The older members of the group — you can tell them by their spectacles — are content with seeking out favorite titles such as “Goodnight Sun.” Some bats, in “munchy moods,” will study “guides to fancy foods.” Others — quite literally — “hang out” by the lamps to schmooze, while a few of the youngsters play shape shadows with an overhead projector. Brian Lies clearly has a passion for libraries and the world of wondrous treats that they have to offer, an enthusiasm he shares by way of his wonderfully sophisticated chiaroscuro paintings.”

Worcester Telegram and Gazette News (2008) Review of Bats at the Library. Retrieved August 28th, 2010 from

a full page spread from the book