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Book Reviews

International Literature


Mem Fox        Batchelder Award    International Author   


  Mem Fox

Bibliographic Citation:
Fox, Mem.  1988.  Koala Lou.   Illustrated by Pamela Lofts.  San Diego: Gulliver Books.  ISBN 0152005021.

Koala Lou loves to hear her mother tell her how much she loves her.  But as more brothers and sisters join Koala Lou's family, her mother becomes too busy to stop and tell her "I love you" as much as she used to.  Koala Lou decides to enter the Bush Olympics to gain her mother's attention and earn her love.  Even though she does not win, she learns that her mother has never stopped loving her.


    In Koala Lou, Mem Fox tells the tale of a young koala who longs for her mother's attention.  Before the arrival of her siblings and her mother's busy schedule, Koala Lou used to hear her mother tell her a hundred times a day, "Koala Lou, I DO love you!" (Fox 4)  Even though her mother's love never wavered, she was so busy that she did not have time to tell Koala Lou that she loved her (Fox 9).  The young koala decides that if she could win the gum tree climbing event in the Bush Olympics, she would have to earn her mother's affection and attention (Fox 10).  Like many young children that struggle with having siblings, Koala Lou yearns to be the center of attention again.  Readers, especially those who are the oldest child, will be able to identify with the young koala's heartache. 

    As an Australian writer, Fox has chosen a native animal, the koala, as her main character.  Illustrator Pamela Lofts depicts a plethora of Australian animals to add to the authenticity of the story, including an emu, a platypus, and a kangaroo.  One critic said, "Lofts's colored-pencil drawings portray the Australian flora and fauna beautifully, including a few of the more exotic species." (Publishers Weekly)  The cultural setting is further defined through the plants and flowers drawn in bright, bold shades of red, pink, and green.  Lofts illustrates the koalas munching on eucalyptus leaves and perched high in gum trees.  The white backgrounds allow the flora and fauna to capture the reader's attention and draw their eyes across the pages.  The Bush Olympics will remind readers of the World Olympics.  This universal event acts as a way for young children to relate to the story, no matter their cultural background.  The colorful flags that decorate the Bush Olympics' grounds are a rainbow of colors representing every animal (or nationality).   

    In addition to adding an Australian flare to her drawings, Lofts humanizes the story's characters through their facial expressions and body language.  Using soft colors for the animals' bodies, she uses black detailing to show Koala Lou yawning early in the morning and to depict her sadness as she sits remembering in a tire swing (Fox 6, 10).  This contrast of dark shading and soft pastels makes the emotions more obvious and allow the bold colors of the flowers to pop. 

    Lofts has chosen to also add humor to the story by depicting one animal hold a torch like humans do in the opening ceremony of the World Olympics (Fox 16).  She also has dressed the animals in human clothing.  Readers can spot Koala Lou in her red sneakers, a snake wearing a bowler hat, an emu with ribbons in her hair, and a kangaroo with sunglasses (Fox 17).  Even a mouse can be spotted wearing a stopwatch around his neck (Fox 20).       

    I believe that young readers will be able to identify with Koala Lou's concerns.  Any child with a younger sibling will understand her attempts to gain her mother's attention and win her love.  This story carries a universal message and I would recommend using this book to reinforce the idea of unconditional love between parents and their children.  The soft colors and Koala Lou's expressive faces will engage young readers, who will find it hard not to giggle at her working out with dumbbells and struggling to complete a push-up. 

Story Extension:
Read together with A Pocket Full of Kisses by Audrey Penn.

Reference List:
Publishers Weekly.  n.d.  Koala Lou review. (Accessed June 11, 2006).

  Batchelder Award

Bibliographic Citation:
Stolz, JoŽlle.  2004.  The shadows of Ghadames.  Translated by Catherine Temerson.  New York: Delacorte Press.  ISBN 0385901313.

Set at the end of the nineteenth century in a Libyan town, eleven-year-old Malika begins to make her transition to the female world on the city's rooftops.  Confined and restricted by religious and traditional beliefs, Malika yearns to travel like her father and be educated like her brother.  When a stranger is hurt while being pursued, the women in her family take him in and nurse him back to health.  Risking their lives and defying tradition, they must find a way to sneak the stranger out of the city undetected.  


    As the 2005 Batchelder Award winner, JoŽlle Stolz's Shadows of Ghadames tells the coming of age story of an eleven-year-old Libyan girl named Malika, who struggles with her desire for freedom.  As she nears marrying age, "she won't set foot in the street anymore; [the] rooftops will be the only country where she'll be allowed to travel." (Stolz 8)  However, the division goes both ways.  Men and women are separated from one another.  "The rooftops of Ghadames are like a city above the city, an open, sunny town for women only, where they walk about, lead their own lives, visit one another, and never talk to men.  Twenty feet below, the men walk in the cool shade of the alleyways, conduct business, and never talk to women." (Stolz 10)

    One critic said, "Setting her tale at the end of the 19th century, Stolz not only weaves the sights, sounds, and daily rhythms of life in Ghadames into a vivid tapestry, she creates a cast of distinct characters, each of which displays a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses, as well as sometimes unexpected intelligence and compassion." (Kirkus)  Malika's half-brother, Jasim never lets his sister forget that she is "just a girl" (Stolz 7).  Though tradition divides the men and women, this does not mean the women are powerless and susceptible to the demands of their husbands and fathers.  "This novel's females are independent, strong, and resourceful, mentoring each other, questioning rules, and adjusting societal expectations." (Schafer)  They do not view their society's traditions as hindrances.    

    When her father's second wife brings an injured stranger into their home, the women rearrange their traditional beliefs to accommodate his presence.  They risk their reputations to restore his health.  As Abdelkarim heals, Malika convinces him to teach her to read and write before he leaves.  Though it is not custom for a women to learn these skills, she is eager to learn them and can only hope that the lessons continue once Abdelkarim has left.  The women work together to find a way for him to leave the city undetected.  They sneak him out during one of the night ceremonies that men are excluded from.  Malika's female family uses their segregation to their advantages.    

    Just as American readers may be astonished to learn about foreign traditions such as polygamy and public baths, Stolz's characters are equally shocked by the outside world.  Having never been beyond the city's walls, Malika questions her father about their custom of gender separation.  He explains, "You see, our ancestors thought it best to avoid contact between men and women who are not of the same family.  We are used to this arrangement.  But, from what I've been told, in some countries the customs are very different.  There are places where men must make way for the women, and even greet them by baring their heads in their presence." (Stolz 54)  Malika's mother refers to such an idea as an "upside-down world."  It provokes her to question whether women are considered superior to men in these countries (Stolz 54).

    Despite her French origins, Stolz has created a believable background for her story.  The author's note explains that while Malika's story is imaginary, the city of Ghadames is not.  Though the city's citizens have lived the past two decades living in modern government-built homes, they remain attached to the old part of the city.  Stolz thanks the city's people who guided her through the "labyrinth of the old alleyways, opened their houses to [her], and described their childhoods on the rooftops." (Author's Note)  By visiting and researching the city of Ghadames before ever putting the pen to the page, this French journalist was able to absorb the traditions and culture necessary to create such a delicate story.  She subtly integrates the Libyan culture through her use of names, clothing, food, and customs.  From the blue djellaba Jasim must wear to see his father off to wives removing their jewelry until their husband returns home, Stolz addresses the minute details of everyday living in Ghadames.

    I believe that young readers will enjoy the unique perspective this book offers of the Middle Eastern culture.  One critic observed that, "This quiet story is notable for the intimate picture of the traditional Muslim world that it conveys." (Isaacs 2004)  Though there were several terms that I was unfamiliar with, I was usually able to use the context to figure out their meaning.  However, a glossary would have made it easier to decipher parts of the narrative.  "The imprecise use of language may make it difficult for readers to visualize this distant world and to understand the characters' motivations. Still, this novel would be useful in schools studying this part of the world." (Isaacs 2004)  Children may struggle at first with these foreign words and ideas as they interrupt the narrative pace, but I think overall they will enjoy being exposed to something new.      

Reference List:
Isaacs, Kathleen.  2004.  School library journal: The shadows of Ghadames review. (Accessed June 11, 2006).

Kirkus Reviews.  n.d.  The shadows of Ghadames review. (Accessed June 11, 2006).

Schafer, Elizabeth D.  n.d.  Children's literature: The shadows of Ghadames review. (Accessed June 11, 2006).


  International Author

Bibliographic Citation:
Base, Graeme.  2004.  Jungle drums.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.  ISBN 0810950448. 

Ngiri Mdogo is the smallest warthog in Africa.  He is constantly being teased about his size and appearance by the other warthogs and the animals across the River.  When Old Nyumbu the Wildebeest offers him a set of magic drums, Ngiri makes a wish with disastrous results.  Only after several tries does he realize it is okay to be the smallest because someone has to be.


    Published simultaneously in the United States and Australia, Graeme Base's Jungle Drums tells the story of the smallest warthog in Africa.  Aptly named Ngiri Mdogo, which is Swahili for little warthog, he endures teasing from the other warthogs.  They only tease him because "they're jealous of the Other Animals who live across the River, with their stunning spots and striking stripes, impressive horns and curly trunks, graceful necks and gorgeous plumage." (Base 2)  Base uses lyrical language and flowing descriptions to depict the animals' exotic appearances.  His words help the reader build a mental image, in addition to the illustrations. 

    Because the warthogs cannot compete in the Other Animals' Grand Parade, they take out their insecurities on Ngiri.  Their actions mirror those of school bullies, something every young reader can relate to in some way.  On his way home one day, he meets Old Nyumbu the Wildebeest, the oldest and wisest animal.  After hearing Ngiri's troubles, Nyumbu offers him a set of magic drums that will grant his wishes.  However, he warns him, "Just remember wishes can come true, but not always as you expect!" (Base 7)  Only on the third try does Ngiri find the results he is looking for and learns that being the smallest is not the worst thing after all.

    As an Australian writer and artist, Base has been able to step outside the boundaries of his homeland creating a rich, African landscape.  While working on this book, Base and his family traveled to Tanzania, Africa.  The trip helped Base to bring the characters and landscapes to life and to incorporate Swahili influences (back inside cover).  He uses contrasting illustrations to depict the Other Animals in a lush tropical setting, while setting the warthogs lives in a dry, savannah.   Base's colorful and vibrant illustrations blur the lines between text and artwork.  They take on a life of their own and dominate the pages.  Base takes great care in his use of detail and color.  When readers are first introduced to Ngiri, he sits all alone with a dejected expression on his face (Base 1).  When Ngiri tries to interact with the Other Animals, they take on a variety of expressions ranging from amusement to superiority to hostility (Base 6).  The animals take on human characteristics. 

    The central object within the story is a pair of bongo drums, often stereotypically (and incorrectly) associated with African culture.  One book reviewer noticed that "The appealing creatures are drawn accurately enough for identification, but their facial expressions and physical positions give them personality and humor.  This is a visual feast, even if bongo drums are not native to Africa." (Staskus 2004)  Base furthers the African setting by integrating the Swahili language into his story.  Including a pronunciation guide, he teaches readers how to say each of the animals' Swahili name, as well as, provide the meaning behind each one. 

    I believe that young readers will be drawn to this book because of its universal message and its exotic and vibrant illustrations.  Like the rest of his picture books, Base has created a game within his narrative and drawings that invite little eyes to take a second glance.  One critic noted that "In addition to Base's illustrated notes on Swahili pronunciation, he offers a challenge to the reader.  He has changed every creature in some way after they have listened to the magic drums.  He has also hidden Old Nyumbu somewhere on every spread.  Luckily he also gives the answers to the search." (Marantz 2004)  Several critics have argued that Base's story is weak and flimsy, in comparison to his other books.  Indeed, the story does carry a didactic message, but I believe that it is an important one for children to hear, even if they are not hearing it for the first time.

Reference List:
Marantz, Ken and Sylvia.  2004.  Children's literature: Jungle drums review. (Accessed June 11, 2006).

Staskus, Linda.  2004.  School library journal: Jungle drums review. (Accessed June 11, 2006).


Other Multicultural Book Reviews:

African American    Hispanic/Latino    Native American

Asian Pacific American    Inclusive Literature

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