Posts in the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

Funny Monster Books

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Funny Monsters by Susan Fry

Humor is often the best way to combat fear. So if your children are a little overwhelmed during Halloween — or any other time of the year — by monsters and creatures that go bump in the night, a dose of the giggles might help them sleep soundly. And that means more sleep for mommy, too!


Even Monsters Need Haircuts, by Matthew McElligott. On nights with a full moon, the son of a barber takes over his dad’s shop – not to fight monsters, but to cut their hair! Mummies, dragons, and vampires who can’t come out during the day soon fill the waiting room. The hilarious drawings, in the muted colors of nighttime, show the little boy trimming a monster made entirely of fur and snipping a single hair from the head of a Cyclops. But when an ordinary-looking man walks in, all the monsters scurry to hide. Kids will enjoy finding them all under the chairs, behind paintings, and under a lampshade. And, just like the monsters, they’ll laugh when the “man” asks, “Can you take a little off the top?” and removes his head! When the sun comes up, the boy and his customers remove all evidence of their night, at least they think so . . . . Though friendly enough for even younger children, the book is also filled with more sophisticated jokes for older kids and grownups. The names of the products the boy uses, for example, include Hair Die and Spoiling Spray.

Mostly Monsterly, by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Scott Magoon. A little girl monster, Bernadette, learns how she can make friends at monster school while still being herself. “On the outside Bernadette was mostly monsterly,” lurching, growling, and causing mayhem like all the other students. But on the inside? Bernadette likes to pick flowers and pet kittens. Her other classmates don’t take kindly to her group hugs and cupcakes with sprinkles. What’s a monster to do? Bernadette finds a compromise: she makes cards for each student – monsterly cards! Kids will howl over greetings such as “roses are red, violets are blue. in this card i went ACHOO!”

Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, by Mo Willems. Little Leonardo is indeed a terrible monster – he can’t seem to scare anyone. He’s not big or weird like his other monster friends, and he “didn’t have 1,642 teeth, like Tony.” Finally, Leonardo finds a boy, Sam, who looks easy to scare. But when Sam cries, it turns out to be for a host of other reasons, beautifully expressed in enormous type and a page-long run-on sentence that will sound very familiar to kids and parents alike. In the face of genuine misery, “Leonardo made a very big decision. Instead of being a terrible monster, he would become a wonderful friend.” On the last pages, the boy and the monster take turns scaring each other. Willems’ ink drawings strike exactly the right balance between cute and a little creepy.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Halloween Books for Kids

Friday, October 21st, 2011

Halloween Book Reviews by Susan Fry

Here are three Halloween treats your kids won’t have to trick you into reading.


Spooky Hour, by Tony Mitton, illustrated by Guy Parker-Rees. Younger children will relish this counting book, which gives just enough Halloween flavor without being too scary. The watercolor illustrations are darkly colored, with deep purple night skies and black shadows. But the skeletons, witches, and other “midnight spooks” look downright friendly. They’re drawn dancing and waving, with fuzzy fur and gleeful grins. Kids can help count down from eleven witches stirring their spells, to six tromping trolls, then all the way to “One Gigantic Pumpkin Pie!” The story ends with all the creatures eating the pie with “some scary party fun!”


The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything, by Linda D. Williams, illustrated by Megan Lloyd. This folktale-ish and empowering story never mentions the word “Halloween.” But dark colors, spooky apparitions, and a giant pumpkin make it perfect for the season. A feisty old lady walking through the woods meets shoes, pants, a shirt, gloves, a hat, and, finally, a “very huge, very orange, very scary pumpkin head.” Each time, she says, bravely, “Get out of my way . . . . I’m not afraid of you!” Readers may notice, however, that she walks a little faster each time, until she finally races home. Part of the book’s magic lies in the repetition of sounds: kids can shout, clap, and wiggle as the “Two shoes go CLOMP, CLOMP,/One pair of pants go WIGGLE, WIGGLE,/One shirt go SHAKE, SHAKE,/Two gloves go CLAP, CLAP,/One hat go NOD, NOD,/And one scary pumpkin head go BOO, BOO!” As with most bullies, the pumpkin doesn’t know what to do with himself when the old lady isn’t frightened. So she finds a use for him . . . as a scarecrow!


Ghoul School, illustrations by David Roberts, paper-engineering by Corina Fletcher. This pop-up book will have older children shivering and laughing at the same time, though ghoulish graveyards and grisly ghosts could scare younger kids.

Readers can pull tabs, lift flaps, and turn wheels to discover just how Ms. Vampira teaches her students “a full range of haunting techniques, from basic wailing and groaning to walking through walls.” No child will complain about dinner after seeing Mrs. Snotte’s “classic school lunches,” and grown-ups will enjoy jokes such as Shake, Rattle, and Moan as a library book title. The watercolor-and-ink drawings are in muted browns and grays, with quavering lines and a grotesque, Edwardian sensibility that recalls the work of Edward Gorey. The final triumph? A pull-out report card that praises students for skills such as “an unhealthy obsession with reptiles.”

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Halloween Books for Kids

Saturday, October 15th, 2011


For parents with younger children, Halloween is a fine balancing act. How do you find skeleton costumes that are spooky without being too scary? How do you plan ghostly party games that will make your kids shriek with laughter, not with fear? And how can you make sure the gigantic, glowing, inflatable witch on your neighbors’ lawn will make them giggle instead of scream all night?

Here are some books that walk (and even fly) the line perfectly.

Ghosts in the House! by Kazuno Kohara. When a little girl goes to live in an old house, she discovers that it’s haunted. Luckily, “the girl [isn’t] just a girl. She [is] a witch!” In no time, she has the ghosts exactly where she wants them: in the washing machine. Soon, she makes the frowning ghosts into happily smiling curtains and tablecloths. And when the witch gets tired, she curls up under a ghost blanket. Kohara’s strikingly attractive design hits exactly the right note. While the orange and black pages signal a spooky subject, the blocky, cheerful outlines and smiling heroine reassure both parents and children that nothing too scary will happen. Kohara’s true masterpieces are the flowing white, nearly transparent ghosts with the texture of tissue paper.

Only a Witch Can Fly, by Alison McGhee, illustrated by Taeeun Yoo. It’s easy to forget one of the most wonderful things about witches: they can fly. The elegant, unusual, breathless rhymes capture a girl’s longing to soar through the sky, and her joy when she finally manages it. Pages colored brown, black, and olive green evoke a moonlit night in the countryside as the little girl in a witch’s costume attempts, and fails, to fly her broomstick. With the help of her pajama-clad brother, however, she tries again and succeeds. “Who could have known it was such a big sky?/ Bat and Owl below wave Bye, Bye/ and Cat calls a velvet song to the moon./ And you? You have flown . . . /you have flown!”

Big Pumpkin, by Erica Silverman, illustrated by S. D. Schindler. A witch finds herself with a problem: she wants to make pumpkin pie, but her pumpkin is so big she can’t move it herself. When a ghost, a vampire, a mummy, and a little bat offer to help, she hesitates. “It’s big and it’s mine, but it’s stuck on the vine, and Halloween is just hours away!” she cries. Only the thought of pumpkin pie overcomes her selfish desire to keep the pumpkin all to herself. But even the ghouls can’t move the giant pumpkin, until the little bat points out they have to work together. The book manages to offer many wonderful life lessons in its funny, rollicking rhymes. After they all eat the pumpkin pie, for example, the witch is already planning another pumpkin party for the next year. The humor of the brightly colored illustrations – the witch has a green face and a nose like a pickle – make the book friendly for even younger children.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

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Leonardo’s Monster

Friday, October 7th, 2011


Leonardo’s Monster, by Jane Sutcliffe

Reviewed by Susan Fry

Introducing kids to historical figures can be tricky. Far too many biographies can be dry or preachy. The events that grownups find interesting, such as revolutions, political reformations and . . . yaaaaaaawn! Oh, sorry! I guess those can bore even grownups. Plus, many high achievers accomplish their greatest feats as adults. Adults,honestly, just aren’t as interesting to kids as, well, other kids.

Leonardo da Vinci is one of history’s most fascinating people. But summarizing his life in a children’s book, especially one for younger children, seems impossible.

Luckily, in Leonardo’s Monster, Jane Sutcliffe brilliantly decides to focus on one small episode from da Vinci’s childhood.

According to legend, the young da Vinci was asked to decorate a shield. He painted it with a monster so frightening and lifelike that his own father fled in fear. “Flames darted from its eyes like lightning bolts. Smoke curled from its nostrils, and the very air around it seemed to be on fire.” The shield was later sold to a duke, and then it disappeared. “But who knows? Perhaps somewhere the shield is waiting to be found.”

It’s a simple story. But the simplicity gives Sutcliffe the space to explore da Vinci’s personality. She offers a likeable portrait that may help kids think of da Vinci as a person as well as a genius. “For a start, he was the kind of boy who was good at everything . . . . Being so good at so much and not being a show-off about it is pretty unusual.” Sutcliffe’s informal language and humorous asides make the era and da Vinci himself feel approachable.

Kids will adore the fact that da Vinci is smarter and more talented than all the grownups around him. His own teacher even stops painting because da Vinci is better.

My boys begged me to re-read the page on how da Vinci created his monster. Sutcliffe shows the boy collecting all the disgusting animals he can find, such as lizards, newts, and bats, and then drawing all their scariest parts. Grownups, of course, can use this to introduce the concept of the scientific method.

Da Vinci’s hard work and determination – drawing and re-drawing so many times that he doesn’t even notice when the animals start to stink – can be an inspiration for adults as well.

Well, maybe without the stinky part.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Madonna’s The Adventure of Abdi

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011


The Adventures of Abdi, by Madonna,

illustrated by Olga Dugina and Andrej Dugin

Reviewed by Susan Fry

Children’s books by celebrities have always made me nervous.  After all, what are the chances that someone who can sing/dance/act can also produce a great book?  It seems unlikely – not to mention unfair – that one person would have so much talent.

Luckily, the The Adventures of Abdi by Madonna (yes, that Madonna) changed my mind.  It’s a satisfyingly traditional tale set somewhere in the Middle East, aimed at kids who may be just a little too young for The Arabian Nights.  The language, the illustrations, and the story itself manage convey an exotic setting without losing the interest of younger children.

The very first sentence, for example, borrows just enough from the flowery storytelling style of the Nights:  “Long ago, in a land far away from the one we know, where sand and mountains stretched as far as the eye could see, and snake charmers wandered the streets, there lived a little boy named Abdi.”

Abdi is the servant of Eli the jeweler, who has the impossible task of creating a necklace for the queen in just four weeks.  But as the philosophical Eli reminds Abdi, “[Remember] that everything we have been given in life is always for the best.”

This proves to be the moral of the story.  When Abdi takes Eli’s necklace to the queen, thieves steal it and replace it with a real snake.  Abdi is thrown into prison.  He tries to remain positive, and his attitude is rewarded when Eli comes to the rescue – he convinces the queen to place the real snake around her neck, where it turns into the necklace.

The final, delightful touch?  On the way home, Eli’s story prompts the thieves to set off to the queen’s palace with a sack full of snakes that, needless to say, don’t transform into jewelry.

The gorgeous illustrations don’t just echo the story’s magical elements – they magnify them.  Giant pumpkins grow on the roof of Eli’s house; Abdi watches a dragon curl across the night sky; the king’s pet has the body of a jaguar and the wings of a bird.  The colors are muted, which means the intricate details take on their own flamboyance.  Geometric squares echo the patterns of Middle Eastern carpets, and every piece of clothing or metal is ornately decorated.  Thanks to the illustrators, even the peripheral characters seem to have their own, intriguing stories.  A snake charmer wears a giant snake as a hat, and a palace guard straps an innumerable number of spiky weapons on his belt.

The only sour note?  The illustrators weren’t given equal billing with Madonna.  Her name is the only one that appears on the front of the book.  I guess that’s the reason she is, after all, a celebrity.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Sweet Peas & Stilettos has more children’s books by celebrity mom authors. Come take a look.

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Welcome to the Zoo

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Welcome to the Zoo alison jay

Welcome to the Zoo, by Alison Jay

Reviewed by Susan Fry 

Why don’t more books for adults have illustrations? Everyone agrees that it’s vitally important to visit museums and galleries. But the grownup books with pictures, such as manga or comics, are given only cult status at best. Why is art on walls “art,” but “fringe” on the page?

Kids are SO lucky to get books with paintings in them. At the top of my list are the ones by Alison Jay. And at the tip-top of my list of Jay’s books is Welcome to the Zoo. The book is wordless, the story – or, rather, stories – carried entirely by the illustrations. Jay’s pictures take the reader on a trip through a zoo without cages, in which animals and people mix with laugh-out-loud results.

Both my four- and six-year-old loved figuring out which animals and people had their own storylines. It may take a multiple readings to realize that animals are eating the entire contents of a family’s picnic basket, page by page. Or that an ostrich, pursued by a zookeeper, escapes on the last page by hopping into a bus. There are so many tiny, delightful mysteries to solve: why is one zookeeper carrying an oversized toothbrush, and another a giant baby bottle? People fall into pools with dolphins, zookeepers climb ladders to feed giraffes, a tiger’s roar blows over a penguin, and polar bears lick popsicles.

At the end, one my sons asked, “When can we go to that zoo?”

You’ll be able to recognize Jay’s illustrations at a glance. They combine a modern cheerfulness with the old-world flavor of medieval oil paintings. Jay’s stylized animals, people, and plants are exaggerated shapes that are still instantly recognizable. The elephants are whimsically blown up into enormous, round bellies on tiny little legs. The impossible, but somehow jaunty, people have tiny heads and weeble-middles. Everything seems barely tethered to the ground, giving all her pictures a fairytale quality. Her colors are equally fantastical — pastels that seem vivid because Jay happily juxtaposes sherbet greens and cotton candy pinks.

But the lovely, archaic touch that makes Jay’s paintings unique? She uses a paint varnish that produces the fine network of lines across the surface known as “crackle,” cracks that usually only appear on very, very old paintings.

It’s hard not to let the sheer visual joy of Jay’s pictures distract from the fascinating story they’re telling. No wonder my sons want to step into her world.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

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The Terrible Hodag

Friday, September 9th, 2011

The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers

The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers, by Caroline Arnold, illustrated by John Sandford

Reviewed by Susan Fry

My family and I are trying to squeeze in one last camping trip before the end of summer. Personally, I’ve always thought that the best part of childhood camping was telling ghost stories around the fire. Remember sitting just a few feet away from the dark, dark woods, shivering as you imagined SOMETHING jumping out at you?

Well, with two boys who are only four and six, a story like that would lead to screams throughout the night. And that would mean a very grumpy mommy on the trail the next day.

So I was thrilled to find The Terrible Hodag and the Animal Catchers. The book combines the delicious spookiness of a horror story with a feel-good ending that will banish nightmares.

Arnold based his story on old tales told in Wisconsin logging camps. Sandford’s pen-and-ink illustrations beautifully capture this sense of history. He takes woodcuts as his inspiration, but updates the look with intricate, wavy patterns and stark black silhouettes. The drawings give such a fantastic illusion of texture that I want to reach out and run my fingers across them. The black-and-white contrasts also capture the eerie luminosity of a forest during a deep, dark night. As you can probably tell, I’m as enraptured by the illustrations as I am by the story.

The heroes of the book are lumberjacks. They wear old-style clothes with suspenders and chop trees with axes. But they are not the only ones in the forest: they are watched by a creature who “had the head of an ox, feet of a bear, back of a dinosaur, and tail of an alligator. It was forty feet tall, and its eyes glowed like fire. It was the HODAG!”

Before kids can get nervous, Arnold quickly informs the reader that the lumberjacks “knew that the Hodag was their friend.” The Hodag helps the lumberjacks knock down trees and feasts only on blueberries. The illustrations get this message across as well. While the Hodag may have spines and claws, he’s also got a smiling mouth and a cuddly belly.

The true danger in the forest? A group of animal catchers who want to take the Hodag to the zoo.

It’s up to the lumberjacks to save the Hodag, with plans ranging from sending the catchers the wrong way to hiding the beast in his den. One particularly lovely illustration shows the lumberjacks riding on the Hodag’s back as they create fake tracks.

In the end, the lumberjacks scare the animal catchers away, and the Hodag goes back to munching on blueberries. As in the best monster stories, the monster winds up not being the bad guy at all – it’s people who cause the most trouble.

And that means that we might all get a good night’s sleep in our tents.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Around the World on 80 Legs

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011


Around the World on Eighty Legs, by Amy Gibson, illustrated by Daniel Salmieri

Reviewed by Susan Fry

A teacher recently told me she’s horrified that many children don’t know the traditional Mother-Goose-style nursery rhymes.

While I’m all in favor of a child learning to love poetry, I’ve got a pretty good idea why my peers and I are reading Boynton instead of Mother Goose to our kids. Those “traditional” poems are downright strange! Yes, they do provide insight into life during an earlier era. But many of them don’t make any sense to the modern reader, leaving both children and parents puzzled. Many of them depict violence. And many portray values I’d rather not pass on. Take “Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater,” for example. My sons can’t figure out why a man would want to imprison his wife in a pumpkin shell – and I certainly don’t want to tell them.

Let’s not even discuss “Three Blind Mice.”

Instead, I’d like to suggest Around the World on Eighty Legs as a wonderful substitute. Amy Gibson’s rhymes and Daniel Salmieri’s pictures offer educational, clever, and occasionally poignant looks at what makes animals around the world unique.

A map at the beginning of the book lays out the terrain, “From the Andes to the Amazon” and “The Sahara to the Savanna,” so parents can flip back and forth to show children where each creature lives. Refreshingly, the animals run the gamut from the familiar (“counting zebras keeps you busy./Counting zebras makes you dizzy.”) to the obscure (“The agouti/gathers fruit/he finds that’s/fallen to the ground./The agouti’s/solemn duty/is to scatter/it around.”)

Salmieri’s neat watercolor-and-ink portraits manage to be both whimsical and realistic. I know, for example, that I would immediately recognize the South American Hoatzin (a colorful and stinky bird) if I saw one, even though the picture shows him grinning at the reader, flies buzzing around his feathers.

And Gibson’s rhymes? Imagine a cross between Ogden Nash and naturalist Stephen J. Gould.

Gibson’s commentary on physical characteristics is witty and – ahem – always spot on: “It may be true/that ocelot/has got/an awful lot/of spots/(an awful,/awful, awful lot).” Gibson’s explanations may also be the perfect way for a child to learn about an animal’s behavior: “The pangolin’s/got scaly skin/from head to toe/as hard as tin./He rolls into/an armored ball,/and nothing,/nothing’s getting in.”

I most enjoy, however, when Gibson muses on the personalities of the animals, making them seem like more than simple beasts. For a tiger, for example, Gibson writes: “His roar/could shake the forest floor,/but tiger opens not his jaws–/He steals on silent, padded paws/and leaves the talking to his/claws.” Her rhino entry is brilliantly punny: “Do you suppose/the rhino grows/tired of puns/on his rhinose?/He’s got thick skin./ He doesn’t mind./ It’s hard to find/a thicker/rhind.”

Mother Goose chronicles animals that are familiar – and essential – to children living close to farms, such as mice, pigs, and sheep. But Gibson and Salmieri’s lovely and clever book is perfect for modern, global children. What better way to prepare them for future travels?

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Unusual Pets

Friday, August 26th, 2011

Some Unusual Pets by Susan Fry

As everyone knows, there are cat people and there are dog people.  I fall firmly into the cat camp.  While dogs can be adorable, there’s just something about the drooling, the jumping, and the wet-doggy smell that makes me cringe.

Unfortunately, my husband is so allergic to cats that his nose runs at the slightest “meow.”  So we find ourselves debating the merits of the less common animals, such as skunks, snakes, guinea pigs, and ferrets.  Or perhaps we should consider something even more exotic, like one of the pets in the books below . . . .

While We Were Out, by Ho Baek Lee.  When a family goes away overnight, their pet rabbit makes herself at home in their apartment.  Behaving just like a human child, she fixes herself a snack, watches a movie, and even tries on mommy’s lipstick.  Best of all, the rabbit shows her enterprising personality by figuring out how to race around on skates that are far too big for her:  by propelling herself with chopsticks.  But though she thinks the family will never know about her adventures, kids will giggle at the traces she’s left behind.  Little rabbit pellets dot every page!  The soft colors and lines bring the rabbit’s cuddly nature to life.

The Egg, by M. P. Robertson.   Robertson explores the parallels between pet ownership and parenting in this realistically illustrated book about every child’s fantasy.  George finds a gigantic egg and adopts it, carrying it to his warm bedroom and reading it stories.  When the egg hatches, the dragon that emerges calls George “Mommy.”  George doesn’t blink an eye, either at his new responsibility or at the gender confusion. “George had never been a mother before, but he knew that it was his motherly duty to teach the dragon dragony ways.”  Over the following enchanting pages, George teaches the dragon to fly, to breathe fire, and to fight a knight.  But when the dragon misses his own kind, George learns the hardest lesson of all:  having to let his “child” go.  Luckily, the dragon comes back for a visit, and he even returns again in a sequel, The Dragon Snatcher.

Hieronymus Betts and His Unusual Pets, by M.P. Robertson.  Robertson again strikes literary gold with this hilarious parade of a little boy’s unusual pets, each one more disgusting, dangerous, and wittily named than the last.  The slugapotamus oozes slime, the porcupython sprouts prickles, and the grizzly hare growls.  But no matter how slimy, noisy, or smelly the animal may be, Hieronymus knows of something even slimier, noisier, or smellier . . . Hieronymus’ own little brother.  Before siblings can get peeved, however, Hieronymus points out that even though his brother is “smellier than a bog hog and stranger than a whatchamacallit . . . he’s more fun than any pet could ever be.”

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.


Friday, August 12th, 2011


Goal! By Mina Javaherbin, illustrated by A. G. Ford

 Reviewed by Susan Fry

Most sports books for kids are cheerful tales that spend most of their pages trumpeting fancy equipment and fast plays. It’s rare to find a book that digs below the surface of a sport to uncover a deeper meaning – that games are, in a very real way, a rehearsal for life.

There’s a reason Mina Javaherbin’s Goal has a blurb from Archbishop Desmond Tutu proclaiming the book “Uplifting and inspiring.”

The world of Goal is a challenging one: a poor neighborhood somewhere in South Africa. The houses are shanties of cardboard and corrugated iron. The streets are dirt, and the children running in them are dressed in ragged shorts and t-shirts. The illustrations reflect the poverty with muted brown and dark orange hues.

The social environment is just as challenging. The main character, Ajani, wants to play football (American soccer) before getting water from the well for his family. But none of his friends will come out to play, because, as Ajani says, matter-of-factly, “The streets are not always safe.” Bullies roam the alleys.

Ajami, luckily, has a plan. He persuades his friends to take turns standing guard, so the rest of them can play with his prize possession: a new, federation-size football. “We are real champions,” he says, “playing with a real ball . . . . When we play, we forget to worry. When we run, we are not afraid.” The boys’ joy is clear in the play-by-play descriptions of their game, and even in their disagreements about the rules.

But when the bullies appear, all the boys’ differences disappear, and they form a real team against real danger. They hide the ball under a bucket and desperately pretend they’ve been playing with an old, beat-up ball instead. The boys’ fear is heartbreakingly portrayed in a close-up, two-page spread of one of the boys hiding his face with his hands. The ingenuity of Ajani’s team triumphs, and the bullies steal the old ball, not the new one. Ajani and his team immediately resume play, all fear forgotten in an example of true resiliency, “like it’s the World Cup that we’ve all won.”

There are no adults anywhere in view during this story. The boys solve their problem on their own, and their joy is a mark of their independence and maturity. “When we play together,” Ajani says, “we are unbeatable.” Is there any better lesson for a child to learn from a sport?

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications. You will find links to all of her children’s book reviews on our Toys & Books page.