Hope in the Darkest Hours

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising WWII

Warsaw Ghetto: Photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report to Heinrich Himmler – Public Domain

On September 1st, seventy-five years ago, German forces swept into Poland to open one of the most demented chapters of the last century. A year later, Jews were forced into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto (pictured above) to be eliminated by starvation, exposure and infectious disease: after the Ghetto was liquidated, the Germans used camps to work their evil. Despite the grim nature of the Ghetto, Karen Hesse brought a kid safe story of resistance to us in the form of The Cats in Krasinki Square.

The Cats in Krasinski Square

This is the tale of two Jewish sisters who have escaped the Ghetto and are posing as Poles in Warsaw. As the only survivors of their family, they have joined the resistance and sneak food to their friends within the Ghetto. But the Gestapo learns of their scheme to bring food in on a train and plot to sniff them out with a team of dogs. Undaunted the resistance releases cats all over the train station throwing the dogs into confusion and allowing the precious food to slip into the Ghetto.

Hesse’s smooth prose flows seamlessly through this story, masterfully balancing the atrocities of the Holocaust with the innocence of her target audience. Likewise, Wendy Watson‘s illustrations bring us the tension of the story without traumatizing students.  

It’s extremely rare that I can bring such a harsh topic to young readers with confidence that the material is suited to my first graders. But once in a great while, I cross paths with such a book. The Cats in Krasinki Square is that book.

The Cats in Krasinski Square 2


Tanogram Hype Man

The Warlords Puzzle

The Tangram is so engaging that it doesn’t really need a picture book to entice kids to play. But, if you were seeking an over the top  introduction with a nod to medieval China (and a side of economic social justice) then this is definitely your book.

Virginia Walton Pilegard delivers The Warlord’s Puzzle  in a style often employed for Chinese folk tales. In this one, the ruler (warlord) has a problem (tangram) that no one (wise men, monks, and the affluent) can solve.  Enter the peasant fisherman’s son, to save the day and receive a lavish reward. It’s no shock that we wrap up with the moral of the story. (Just because you’re marginalized by the mainstream culture doesn’t mean you aren’t wise.)

Predictable? Yes. But given the application I have tasked this book with, this is a solid selection.

And here are a couple user friendly tangram sites.


National Geographic Kids


Invisible People

The Can Man

I never saw the “invisible people” at the library. They were not the quintessential smelly, sleeping in public with tattered clothing variety. Security moved “those people” out like they might infect the masses.

No, the invisible people knew how to blend in.  In retrospect, they were definitely there. But, I didn’t have the eyes to see them. After working with a couple of groups that aid the homeless, I know what to look for. But prior to this, they didn’t even exist in my world.

Not so long ago the homeless were invisible in picture books too. It took the efforts of a giant (Eve Bunting) to break that barrier. Her masterwork, Fly Away Home, remains the most balanced representation of homelessness to grace the market.

The Can Man is about more than just one invisible population. Oddly enough, biracial families are virtually nonexistent in picture books, and I’ve never seen a Black/Asian couple and their kids in a picture book before. So when I saw that “Tim”, the boy who befriends The Can Man, came from a biracial family I couldn’t believe it! I literally turned the pages back just to double check. Is this real?! Gratefully, yes. Yes it is, and it’s about time!

So what is the book about?

The Can Man is a heartwarming – if somewhat romanticized – story of homelessness and hope, minus the common issues that often  parallel homelessness: mental illness and drug  addiction.

What Laura E. Williams doesn’t deliver in hard realities, she makes up for by bringing invisible people to the printed page. While most students are not homeless, a growing percentage are biracial. The presence of positive representations of  lived experiences of these families within schools is a critical step in embracing and welcoming populations that often receive neither.

For the hard realities of homelessness, check Invisible People‘s videos and Dennis Cardiff’s chronicling at Gotta Find a Home.

A Conversation Worth Having


There really aren’t a plethora of picture books that talk about segregation in 1950ish small town America from the perspective of a young black girl.  Admittedly, it’s a narrow niche.  But even if it was a Dr. Seuss sized portion of the market, this story would hold its own.

Woodson tells the tale of two girls that become unlikely friends at the fence that racially divides their town.  This book serves beautifully as the bridge into discussing race relations with children.  They are captivated by the tension in the story; and even though the physical fences are gone, it’s obvious that we still need to work toward reconciling.

Martin’s Big Words

Martin's Big Words

With all the awards Martin’s Big Words has received you’d think it wouldn’t need to be plugged.  But the balance of MLK Jr.’s life story and his select words pack a phenomenal punch.