AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Beautiful and crazy-making, the cries of a small child for another book - as a parent, it's the best thing if you love the book. But if you don't, yikes. So to help us build the best bookshelves for youthful enjoyment and your family's sanity, we've asked Matt de la Pena to join us. He's written lots of books for loads of ages, including the Newbery Award-winning "Last Stop On Market Street."
Welcome back to the show.
MATT DE LA PENA: Thanks so much for having me.
CORNISH: So let's talk about some of your suggestions. There's a book called "Saturday" that just came out this year. Tell us about the author and why this one hit home with you.
DE LA PENA: This comes to us from Oge Mora, who wrote "Thank You, Omu!," who - which won tons of awards last year. So my whole family loved that book. We were super excited for the new one. What I love about this one - it's very simple language. But it's exploring a single parent. It's exploring an African American child's navigation through the world. But it's not about that. So this little girl and her mom are so excited for their one day they get together.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: (Reading) It was Saturday. Because Ava's mother worked Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Saturday was the day they cherished.
DE LA PENA: They go to the park, but it's too crowded. They get their hair done, but then a bus comes and splashes a puddle and ruins their hair. So all the things they set out to do - they're not working out. However, when they forget their tickets to the puppet show, they both look at each other. And after sort of letting that sink in for a second - the disappointment - they decide they'll make their own puppet show. So it's a really sweet ending. And really, it's about two people, a mother and a daughter, spending time together.
CORNISH: And I can imagine for the parent reading it, especially if you do work a lot, single parent or not, there's something in there for you as well - right? - 'cause we can make those interactions very high-stakes when we do have the time.
DE LA PENA: See, that's the thing. I travel a lot for work. So when I'm home, I try to be home. And this book sort of hit home for me as a parent. But my daughter loves the pictures.
CORNISH: Another book - this one is about summer, actually - "Saffron Ice Cream." Why does this appeal to you, and why do you think it makes sense for young readers?
DE LA PENA: So "Saffron Ice Cream" is a book I don't think a lot of people know about. It's by an Iranian artist named Rashin. And it's about a little girl who's an immigrant to America. She's going to the beach for the very first time.
NEARY: (Reading) Is called Coney Island. We're getting there by subway train, which is filled with all sorts of people. In Iran, the Caspian Sea looks endless, blue and beautiful. How will the sea look in Brooklyn?
DE LA PENA: When she sees an ice cream vendor, she gets really excited because when she was at the Caspian Sea in Iran, she would always get saffron ice cream. So she gets up there. She orders saffron ice cream, and they don't have it. She cries because she's not just crying about the ice cream. She's crying about being an outsider, being in a place that's new. And then a little girl in the back says, you should try chocolate crunch. And she does, and she loves it. And those two girls play together.
CORNISH: What about the idea of books for very young children that tackle really difficult topics? I think about Lupita Nyong'o's book - I think it's called "Sulwe," maybe - that came out...
DE LA PENA: Yeah.
CORNISH: ...This year, which is essentially about colorism...
NEARY: (Reading) Sulwe was born the color of midnight. Mama was the color of dawn, Baba the color of dusk. And Mich, her sister, was the color of high noon.
CORNISH: ...And introduces a small girl, a child who wishes that her skin wasn't so dark. I have had mixed kind of responses from people about what parts of the book were appropriate, depending on how old the child was. I mean, how do you suggest people go about having these talks in their own home?
DE LA PENA: Here's my theory. Is there a safer place to explore the more challenging parts of life than in the lap of a loved one? So - and then my theory is you let the child take you where they want to in conversation around the book. If they want to talk about the colorism aspect, they will guide you into that conversation. If they just want to talk about Vashti Harrison's amazing illustrations, then you just kind of go with that.
But I think giving children an opportunity to sort of experience something that they're going to find in the real world eventually - and if they can experience it through a book first, I just think that's - it's a really great thing for parents and for the child.
CORNISH: So you have two small children. And I should have said very small children, right? One of them is, like, 1 1/2. So...
DE LA PENA: Yes.
CORNISH: ...Are you reading to him or her at this age? And what kind of books have you found of value?
DE LA PENA: So this is interesting. You know, kids don't come the same way, even though they have the same parents, right? We know this. My daughter will read anything. She could read books all day and all night. My son, however - not the biggest book fan. In fact, one time I remember I was reading to him. He closed the book, knocked it out of my hands, jumped off the couch and pushed it under the couch. So I was like, OK, he's a challenge.
DE LA PENA: There's one author-illustrator that we have found he actually loves. His name is Chris Haughton. I believe he's located in the U.K. And our favorite book that he's created that my wife and I share with Miguel is a book called "Oh No, George!" And he loves this book. He picks it off his shelf every night before bed.
NEARY: (Reading) George sees something in the kitchen. It's cake. I said I'd be good, George thinks, but I love cake.
CORNISH: There's another book you mention. It's called "The Dead Bird" from Margaret Wise Brown, who also wrote "Goodnight Moon," which everyone reads. No one really reads this one, and it's probably because of the plot. Tell us more about it.
DE LA PENA: Yeah. So "The Dead Bird" is possibly one of my favorite picture books ever. And I have the re-illustration by Christian Robinson, who's somebody I've worked with before and I greatly admire. And I think some people are scared off from this book because the word dead is in the title. Do you mind if I read you a couple of my favorite lines?
CORNISH: Please do.
DE LA PENA: OK. So after they sing the song to this bird that they've buried, we get this line from Margaret Wise Brown. She says, (reading) around the stone they planted white violet plants and wild geraniums. Only the geraniums faded. And every day until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.
And I just love this line - until they forgot - because isn't that childhood? You're living in the now. You're trying on the adult sensibilities, but really, you're concerned with right this second. And I think that's such an amazing psychological element of childhood that you can share with them.
CORNISH: Well, Matt de la Pena, thank you so much for bringing these books to us, old and new. It's a lovely mix.
DE LA PENA: Oh, thank you. It was such a pleasure to talk to you.
CORNISH: That's Matt de la Pena, kid's book writer by day and kid's book reader by night to Luna and Miguel. His picture books include "Carmela Full Of Wishes," "Love" and "Last Stop On Market Street." And thanks to NPR's Lynn Neary for reading from some of Matt de la Pena's picks for us.
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