In the award-winning Indian picture book “A Walk With Thambi” (2017), written by Lavanya Karthik and illustrated by Proiti Roy, a boy named Thambi enjoys a late-afternoon stroll with his dog. The art shows the dog in the lead and Thambi holding a white stick with a red tip, but the narrative never mentions that Thambi is blind. Instead, we follow along as the pair listen to street sounds, smell the bazaar, feel the breeze and play with friends. When they realize it’s sunset and past their curfew, they race home, eyes wide and legs (and stick) akimbo. Thambi’s mother takes in the muddy duo and finally, humorously, it is revealed that her son is blind.
Anna Anisimova’s new chapter book takes a similar approach. When her young heroine, who narrates her own story, visits the natural history museum with her father and hears a guard complain about a boy who crashed around the exhibits “like an elephant in a china shop,” she’s intrigued. (While she has shown us how she navigates the world around her, she hasn’t told us she cannot see.) “Papa promises the gloomy person that we’ll be very careful. But I really want to see this elephant. Where is it? I’ve never felt one before.” Henceforth, an “invisible elephant” accompanies her everywhere. When her mother asks her to vacuum the carpet, “all the dust and bits go up the hose, like the vacuum cleaner is sucking up its lunch. … Oh yes, the hose is an elephant’s trunk!”
What these children can decipher may be limited, but what they appreciate and celebrate knows no bounds. Capturing this duality is what makes works like these last. It is their protagonists’ (and their readers’) choice to delight in the elephant in the room or stop to reckon with it. The sprightly girls in these three new books — about eyesight, hearing and literacy challenges — choose the former. They learn new languages, make friends and persevere, page after page. (I dare you not to cry.)
In LISTENING TO THE QUIET (Lantana, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 4 to 9),by Cassie Silva, young Jacki wants to experience everything her mother experiences — even as her mother loses her hearing. She also wants to help her mother continue to experience the things she herself experiences. Inspired by her own childhood, Silva’s narrative is honest and compassionate, and Frances Ives’s illustrations enhance that authenticity. The climax occurs two-thirds of the way through the book on a double-page spread, with mother and daughter seated at opposite ends of a classroom full of singing children, each with a finger pointed at the other. Forget the Sistine Chapel ceiling; these are the two fingers that define how far the human mind can reach.
Silva’s touch is light, from sharing her story to educating readers about sign language. The hand lettering on several illustrations helps readers follow along with the dialogue. “Listening to the Quiet” celebrates the community around Jacki and her mother, and signals to us — fingers pointed — that loving others is the loudest language of all.
LETTERS IN CHARCOAL (Lantana, 32 pp., $18.99, ages 5 to 9), written by Irene Vasco, illustrated by Juan Palomino and translated by Lawrence Schimel, is about a girl who learns to read in a community where very few — including her older sister, Gina — can. Desperate to decipher the love letters Gina receives in the mail, the two climb to the highest branch of a mango tree and search for O’s, the only letter they know. Soon after, Señor Velandia, the owner of the village’s one shop, offers to teach our narrator to read if she helps him weigh rice, beans and corn and put them in paper bags. Vasco’s words and Palomino’s dazzling illustrations, full of movement and color, create a story of blooming. Girls become women; letters become words; a pueblo becomes literate.
In her endnote, Vasco describes “braiding” together memoir, colonial history and oral history. Her audience is also three-part: The book is written for children, dedicated to librarians and honors the women of Colombia’s Palenque pueblo. It’s a powerful read for parents and children whose upbringings are radically different.
Anisimova’s aforementioned THE INVISIBLE ELEPHANT (Restless Books, 112 pp., $22, ages 6 to 12), illustrated by Yulia Sidneva and translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, is tirelessly cheerful. Four connected stories describe a friendly, impish girl with that nostalgic mix of curiosity about, and trust in, the world around her. She takes walks with her grandfather and his third foot (a cane he calls Speedy), sings with her mother like the birds in their garden and goes sledding on a “whale.” In Kemp’s applause-worthy translation, verbs empower, descriptions tickle and exclamation marks abound. Everything is exciting and full of wonder.
While this little girl deserves her readers’ admiration, so, too, do the adults around her: parents, teachers and librarians who make her feel special and normal, independent and beloved, silly and brave, all at the same time.
Aditi Sriram is the author of “Beyond the Boulevards: A Short Biography of Pondicherry.”