Omu is a comfortable, grandmotherly sort who has assembled a lovely and thick red stew “in a big fat pot.” She looks forward to having it for dinner. As the stew simmers, it fills her home with an enticing, scrumptious smell that wafts out to catch the attention — and noses — of others. The first knock on the door is from a small boy playing with his racecar down the hall from Omu’s top-floor apartment. He wants to know what smells so delicious; Omu offers him a bowl of stew. More than a dozen neighbors and strangers follow: A police officer, a construction worker, a doctor, even the mayor, dance across the pages in cheerful profusion. Just as the day draws to a close and it’s time for Omu’s supper, the pot is empty. But then! Someone knocks at the door. The parade of people bearing gifts of food in return for Omu’s generosity is sweet and funny. In the chill of winter, it’s cozy and pleasant to contemplate the delights of cooking and eating — and sharing. Author and illustrator Oge Mora’s collage art enfolds her characters in warm, inviting colors. “Thank You, Omu!” (Little Brown, ages 3-7), a 2019 Caldecott Honor Book and winner of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award, feels all at once fresh and like a classic folk tale.
With “China: A History” (Abrams, ages 10 and up), Cheryl Bardoe somehow distills a great and sprawling civilization into 150 well-illustrated pages. Written in conjunction with Chicago’s Field Museum, the book covers 7,000 years and makes the most of recent findings from shipwrecks and archaeological digs. It’s an ideal introduction because it identifies historical patterns, provides a sense of how rich and varied Chinese culture has been, and features remarkable tidbits, like the noodles that were recently discovered beneath a tipped-over bowl, buried for 4,000 years. The opening chapter explains the development of sturdy communities and the customs that live on today, beside photographs of artifacts and nifty reconstructions of three prehistoric villages. Bardoe’s discussions of dynastic drama, China’s central schools of thought (Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism) and Chinese interactions with the larger world are clear, concise and illuminating.
Greg Howard opens “The Whispers” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, ages 10 and up) with a scene familiar from TV cop shows: the interrogation. Except in this complex, poignant novel, 11-year-old Riley is being questioned by “the world’s worst police detective” about a day that he can’t remember, the day four months before when his mother disappeared. This is no fast-paced whodunit, though. It’s an uncertain journey with a gentle, imaginative narrator desperate to uncover a truth he can’t face. Complications mount: Riley wrestles with a shameful “condition” (bed-wetting) and worries about his maternal grandmother’s forgetfulness. And he feels a tender attraction not to the girls that his best friend chatters about but to a kind, slightly older boy. Riley tries to keep these feelings a secret from others in his small South Carolina town, especially his traditionally masculine father and older brother. Along with two friends and his old dog, the boy follows the Whispers, disembodied voices from his lovable mother’s favorite story, into woods filled with “all kinds of crazy.” What Riley finds there calls for a courage and resilience he never dreamed he possessed, and it emboldens him to begin shaping a brighter, more open future for himself. With sensitivity and skill, Howard handles themes of sexual identify, self-worth, loss and friendship.