I stumbled on an interesting juxtaposition of books while browsing at the library a few days ago. I happened to pick up Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker and illustrated by Yoko Tanaka.
It's a beautifully illustrated and poignant story that starts, "One day, not too long ago, war was declared in China." The war is against the sparrow population, which has been eating the wheat crops. People use firecrackers and gongs to scare the birds and keep them flying. Told from the perspective of Ming-Li, a girl who vows to save some of the birds, the plight of the exhausted sparrows is heart-rending. Neither the text nor the illustrations pull their punches: "By afternoon, the birds were falling at a terrible rate." When Ming-Li's brother says the birds are like raindrops, she says, "No, they are like teardrops. The sky is crying birds."
The story is based on events from 1958, when Mao Tse-Tung ordered a campaign on sparrows that had the unintended consequence of ruining the wheat crop because there were no birds to keep the locusts in check, causing a terrible famine.
By coincidence, I also read Always With You by Ruth Vander Zee and Ronald Himler.
Always With You is the story of a young girl orphaned by the Vietnamese War. It shows four-year-old Kim struggling to adjust to life in the orphanage, clinging to her mother's last words for solace. It also tells an honest story, showing Kim hiding and frightened in the aftermath of the bombing that killed her mother, then weeping in bed while a foster mother tries to offer comfort.
In both of these books, difficult subjects are handled without flinching. They work because they stay close to a child's perspective and offer hope for survival. While they might be difficult for younger picture book readers, both are well suited for helping older children begin to come to grips with some of the world's stupidity. Because both of the events portrayed are safely in the past (though both within my lifetime), they may be more approachable for kids than stories of current events.
I congratulate the publishers (Hyperion and Eerdmans) for having the courage to bring us books that aren't easy to read.