2020 has been a difficult year for most, and yes, I realize how much of an understatement that is. It will come as no surprise that I’ve turned to my trusty bookcase for guidance, but books can be a bridge of understanding and empathy for children as well. When things get complicated, we can look to picture books to help us communicate effectively and compassionately with our kids, and the books below are yet another example of how useful they can be as parenting tools.

Freedom Soup by Tami Charles, Illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara

Freedom Soup takes place in Ti Gran’s kitchen. She’s from Haiti, and is cooking the traditional ‘freedom soup’ with her grandaughter Belle. As ingredients find their way into the pot, Ti Gran explains the history of the soup, the dish’s roots springing from from the Haitian Revolution in the late 1700’s. January 1 is Haitian Independence Day in which many traditions include the cooking of this soup, and the kid-friendly version of the recipe is included in the back of the book along with a light summary of the road to Haitian independence.

I’ve read this one to my 5-year-old a few times, because I really enjoy it. Ti Gran is a musical person, and together, her and Belle dance their way through the recipe, even while she explains some dark subject matter. The focus of the book is food and how it brings people together. Belle revels in the fact that she helped make the dish while her cousins come over and enjoy the feast, everyone dancing and socializing in a small apartment with steamed up windows and plenty of laughter, evoking the tropical lightness that Ti Gran had to leave behind in Haiti. Many of the characters are wearing traditional dress with beaded and braided hair while the illustrations pay homage to the varied body shapes and skin colors present within one extended family. The pictures and text are vibrant, which gently introduces the disturbing topic of slavery to a younger audience while focusing their attention on the positive traditions that grew from past horrors. Unfortunately my daughter complains this book is ‘too much about cooking’, but I suspect she’s more uncomfortable with the serious subject matter and doesn’t have the words yet to voice this. Regardless, I’ll keep reading it with her, and I definitely intend on making a pot of my freedom soup for my own family!

Kaia and the Bees by Maribeth Boelts, Illustrated by Angela Dominguez

Kaia and the Bees is the perfect book for kids who are afraid of bugs, or in my family’s case, my husband who is afraid of earwigs. And given the recent news reports of murder hornets, perhaps everyone should give this book a try right now. Kaia’s Dad is a beekeeper with hives on the roof of their apartment building, and even though Kaia brags to her friends how cool this is, she’s actually terrified of being stung. After her friends catch her running away in fear from a bee, she’s determined to show them how brave she is by working with the bees on her roof, but is stung in the process, setting her back in her pursuit to conquer her fear. After harvesting the honey with her parents, Kaia begins to realize how important bees are to our ecosystem, which helps her overcome her fear.

The illustrations are bright, saturating each page while the bees are depicted accurately (they don’t have great big smiles on them, they simply look like bees). The text is simple, only a few sentences on each page, and Kaia’s family life is a relatable one; she lives in an urban environment with a black Dad and a white Mom, a nod to the growing popularity of progressive race representation in pictures books. I also appreciate the acknowledgement that not all families live in the suburbs; the city is a wonderful place to raise a child too. As the mother of a cautious child, I love reading books that celebrate bravery, especially as the weather turns warmer and bugs are an everyday fact of life while outside. The environmental message of this book is also appreciated; bees are crucial to our food supply, so celebrating their magic and building empathy for them is important for the younger generation.

Madame Badobedah by Sophie Dahl (granddaughter of Roald Dahl), illustrated by Lauren O’Hara

Madame Badobedah is a grouchy and mysterious old woman who comes to live (permanently?) in Mabel’s parents seaside B&B. Mabel is an only child who loves adventure, but when a grumpy senior with loads of luggage and not much patience comes to reside in room 32, Mabel resents the intrusion and suspects Madame Badobedah is actually a jewel thief hiding out with all her loot. Eventually they strike up an understanding, and through their little talks and adventures together we learn that Badobedah has led a fascinating life, having escaped a war by dancing as a ballerina in New York City when she was young. Mabel has a never-ending curiosity and enviable imagination, so they make a good pair.

Fair warning, this is a very long book, it takes me close to 20-25 minutes to read out loud from start to finish so I typically break it up into two sittings. Still, it’s a fun read that keeps my five-year-old’s attention, mainly because Badobedah’s witty remarks are endlessly entertaining, she’s a Lucille Bluth type character that we all love to hate, but once her and Mabel’s friendship deepens we realize first impressions can be deceiving.

The book is a beautiful little gem, mirrored by the fact that treasure is frequently mentioned and referred to throughout; Badobedah’s belongings are their own type of treasure, Mabel is always in search of treasure while on her seaside adventures, and she dreams of finding treasure as a pirate in her imagination. The cover is studded in gold detailing while the illustrations are full of tiny details that emerge after each re-reading; the tortoise named Boris is especially cute. There’s lots to love in this one, and because of its length, it’s a great stepping stone to short chapter book read-alouds with your kids.

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