The Mountain That Loved A Bird

I found this book while book hunting in Singapore last March… Bear was a wee month-old baby and was fussing up a bit at the bookstore, so I almost missed this treasure.

Beautifully written by the lovely late Alice McLerran and illustrated by Eric CarleThe Mountain That Loved A Bird is a beautiful tale that made my then 3-year-old Marz cry buckets! This book is good for kids 6 and above, but if your little preschooler enjoys a long story, then this is a keeper.

In this story, a lonely stone mountain lives in the middle of a desert. It is barren and thus, has never had company nor experienced anything beyond heat and cold. It has not much to see either – only the movement of the sun, the course of the moon and the stars when the skies were clear.

A small bird named Joy stops by one day. The mountain feels her sharp claws and her soft feathers and, overcome with amazement, asks her to stay. Unfortunately, Joy cannot comply – there is nothing that can sustain her there. However, she promises to make annual visits in spring and to name her daughter Joy, who in turn will name a daughter Joy and so on so that the mountain will always have a friend visiting once a year.

Ninety-nine springs come and go. Each time the separations become harder to endure. One day, unable to tolerate the loneliness, the mountain’s heart breaks. His tears are a stream which slowly but surely transform it and the land surrounding. Joy brings a seed and over time, the tears become tears of hope and happiness. Eventually, Joy brings not a seed, but a twig. Instead of her usual farewells, she tells the mountain that she has come to stay.

Eric Carle’s signature collages are simply superb! You will notice that the pictures become wonderfully vibrant as the story progresses. There are other versions of this book that you can check out on the author’s site.

For those in Pakistan, there is the Urdu version which the late Ms Mclerran was very happy about. This is what she said about it:

In the spring of 2003, even as Americans were invading Iraq, there was a new edition that seemed to me almost a miracle.  In Pakistan – a Muslim country with considerable ambivalence about the Iraq invasion by the US – a non-profit group of educators published a new edition of this story in Urdu, using gentle and pleasing collages by Adeel-uz-Zafar.  The printing costs of this book – a story written by an American, published at that point in history – were underwritten by a donation from an Arab oil company!

We have had so many lovely discussions and lessons centred around this book, like:

  • friendship & loyalty
  • keeping promises
  • hope
  • birds
  • mountains
  • climates
  • water, streams etc.
  • seeds
  • colours

You can also read Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed as an accompaniment.

This review was first published on Imaan.Net in August 2005 and has been updated for this site.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963

My girls and I had a rip-roaring time with “The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963” by multi-award winning author, Christopher Paul Curtis.

The story is about the “Weird Watsons”, a middle-class black family’s life in Flint, Michigan and their journey to the Deep South. Kenny, the narrator of the story, is an intelligent 10-year-old boy whose geekiness and lazy eye often cause him to be bullied. Father Daniel loves “cutting up” and has an irrepressible sense of humour. Mother Wilona is loving but formidable enough to strike terror in her children’s hearts when laws are breached. Her Southern background is often fodder for her husband’s hillbilly jokes. Byron, the cocky (eldest) teenaged son, is on his way to being an “official delinquent” while Joetta, the youngest, is a loyal girl who snitches on her siblings at times, but hates to see them punished.

Byron, by far the most colourful character, is the reason for the family’s journey to Birmingham, Alabama. Daddy Cool’s misdeeds include getting his lips frozen on the car’s mirror (it was cold and he was kissing his oh-so-handsome reflection), cutting school, using his parents’ credit at the store without permission, getting a conk (straightening his hair), playing with fire and assault. His parents make a desperate bid to save him from his self-destructive tendencies – they hope that a stint with Grandma Sands in Birmingham, away from the temptations and negative peers in the city will straighten him out.

The family makes preparations for the trip like refurbishing the car and installing the Ultra Glide (a record player) to avoid country/hillbilly music.. Mom meticulously jotted dow nall rest stops and expenses carefully and precisely in her notebook entitled The Watsons Go To Birmingham – 1963. Dad however has other plans and saves money by driving practically non-stop.

In Birmingham, the family are caught up in the turbulent events of the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Things take a tragic turn when a Black church is bombed – this is a true event in US history when a racially instigated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church led to some 14 to 22 people injured. Four teenage girls perished. Martin Luther King, Jr described it as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity”. The book is in fact dedicated to those girls – Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair.

This is where you see the sheer dexterity and verve of Christopher Paul Curtis. He isn’t just wickedly funny – he tackles difficult and emotionally wrenching issues with a lot of heart. His stories often take sad and painful turns, but he skillfully navigates you through it and you are never left without hope. This was true of his other books that I enjoyed tremendously – Elijah of Buxton and Bud, Not Buddy. (You know I’ll talk about them soon!)

The Watsons deals with issues like sibling rivalry, adolescent rebellion, friendship and bullying and racial prejudice, so do look through it and be prepared if you choose to read it with your children. I had a few reservations – there are some cuss words, Byron’s unnamed trouble with a girl and references to ‘adult’ books. Since I was reading this to my then 9-year-old and 6-year-old, I was able to tackle these bits. I also glossed over the part about Grandma Sands’ ‘friendship’ with a Mr Robert.

I found this a powerful tool to begin tough conversations about race, discrimination and civil rights. A very satisfying read – so very humorous, but also deeply moving.


Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe and was educated there and in Scotland. A Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, he is a best-selling author of adults’ books. He is a hugely prolific writer, probably best known for The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency featuring the delightful Precious Ramotswe – Botswana’s leading, and only, female private detective. He has other very popular series like The Sunday Philosophy Club and 44 Scotland Street.

Mr McCall Smith is also equally adept with younger audiences. A favourite in our household is the Akimbo series. Back in 2006, a kindred spirit told me about these books and so Marz and I went on a hunt. We were rewarded with a box set of the first three books that was in perfect condition! [The set features Akimbo and the ElephantsAkimbo and the Lions and Akimbo and the Crocodile Man. Two more books have been released since – Akimbo and the Baboons and Akimbo and the Snakes.]

Akimbo is a young, adventurous African boy who lives in a large game reserve where his father is a head ranger. He is passionate about animal conservation and goes through great lengths to protect them.

In Akimbo and the Elephants, Akimbo helps to bring down an elephant poaching ring. In Akimbo and the Lions, he helps to raise a lion cub and becomes attached to it. However he knows that Simba belongs in the wild. It is a heartbreaking moment when he releases Simba. (Oh how Marz cried!)

In Akimbo and the Crocodile Man, our resourceful friend is given the chance to accompany John the Crocodile man who is doing research on a batch of crocodiles. During the trip, John is attacked by an angry croc. It is a race against time as Akimbo braves dangerous waters to get help for his friend. Marz loved the bit where Akimbo hotwires a truck, drives it and barely misses crashing into a tree!

Akimbo is excited that he is finally able to visit his Uncle Peter’s snake park in Akimbo and the Snakes. A local village reports the sighting of a black mamba – the rarest and most deadly snake of all. Akimbo and Uncle Peter hope to catch it for the snake park, but Akimbo unexpectedly is trapped face to face with this deadly reptile!

Finally, Akimbo and his cousin, Kosi, join a visiting scientist, Jen, who is observing a pack of baboons in Akimbo and the Baboons. There is always danger in the wild and this time, a pack of leopards threaten the pack and Jen. Later, Akimbo notices that one of the young baboons is injured and resolves to help it.

I love his series just as much as Marz did. Young Akimbo is a such a likeable role model – he is plucky, cheerful and respectful … and he has perseverance in spades! Alexander McCall Smith manages to convey the importance of animal protection and ecological protection while still keeping the narrative accessible and upbeat. His descriptions are simple and yet incredibly detailed and will transport you to the beautiful African continent. Peter Bailey’s black and white illustrations are gorgeous – I don’t think we see enough of this sort of art.

We finished each book in one sitting. I’d recommend this for both boys and girls who are getting into chapter books and as read-alouds for younger ones. I think this book is a wonderful gateway to deeper studies of this fascinating continent.

A must-have for your home library.

Under the Hawthorn Tree

I first discovered this gem of a book by Marita Conlon-McKenna quite by accident and almost gave it a miss – it was such a ragged copy! I got it for a mere 50 rupees in a used bookshop in Islamabad. This award-winning novel deals with the the Great Irish Famine that ravaged Ireland in the 1840s. The story centres around the O’Driscolls, an average Irish family who are tenant farmers, dependent on potatoes as their main source of food. Tragedy strikes in the form of “the Blight” – a disease that destroys the potato crops – and what ensues is extensive starvation.

Eily (who is 12), Michael (10) and Peggy (7) O’Driscoll have coped with heartbreak upon heartbreak. Their parents left to find work, but have gone missing and their baby sister Bridget is dead and buried under the hawthorn tree. (It is said that in Irish mythology, the hawthorn is linked with the otherworld.) All around them, farmers are one by one being evicted by landowners. Surrounded by devastation and the threat of being sent to the workhouse, the children are determined to survive and stay together.

Armed with nothing but courage and love, they embark on a perilous journey across Ireland to find their great-aunts, Nano and Lena, whom they have only heard about in their mother’s stories. The children sleep in the open and forage for food in the wild and in the farms of dead tenants. They are confronted with death at every turn. They see bodies of those who died with no one to mourn or pray over them and they see the living dead – those so traumatised that they are but shells of their former selves.

When the O’Driscoll children arrive in Ballycarbery, they see the ships loaded with food bound for England. It is a painful and bitter pill to swallow – the landlords were making money while their countrymen were falling dead from starvation. Indeed, that is the irony of those horrific years – it was only the potato crop that failed; wheat, oats and meat were in excellent supply but they were shipped out to England. It is said that a million and a half people died during these dark years and another million emigrated.

Read about how Eily, Michael and Peggy push every fibre of their being to stay alive and find a better home. This book is part of the Children of the Famine trilogy. The other books in the series are Wildflower Girl and Fields of Home. This series is very special to me because I have such lovely memories of reading them with my girls many winters ago.

If you are keen on doing a unit study, guides are available at O’Brien Press. I’ve also done a class entitled Ending Hunger at the close of my history of food co-op. If you are interested in my resources, please leave a comment below.

We Must Have Books

A few years ago, back when the girls were still homeschooled, we’d get up to all kinds of shenanigans together. We’d make a day of book hunting and grocery shopping. It made sense that the two went together because the old bookshop, Vanguard Books, was just a minute away from the cash and carry, Best Price, at the F6 sector in Islamabad.

They say that location is everything and in my case, it was true – Vanguard always trumped Best Price for the lion’s share of my budget 🙂 This was because it was the first store on the street and so we would hit it first. Of course, by the time we were done and had to adjourn to Best Price, we’d have invariably used up a large portion of our money for our groceries.

I didn’t feel too guilty because I learnt a very important lesson. I learnt that we could do with fewer luxuries, but we could not do without books. (No child was harmed or deprived of sustenance, alhamdulillah… I had sense enough to not blow the entire budget! And of course, I almost always buy used books.)

“One more thing is of vital importance; children must have books, living books; the best are not too good for them; anything less than the best is not good enough; and if it is needful to exercise economy, let go everything that belongs to soft and luxurious living before letting go the duty of supplying the books, and the frequent changes of books, which are necessary for the constant stimulation of the child’s intellectual life.”
Charlotte Mason, (Parents and Children, p. 279)

She was right. The worth of the book isn’t in its price but in the value it imparts to the reader. I like to think that with prayer and good intentions, a good book can bring about not just knowledge, but wisdom, character and imagination and empathy. Imagine the benefit such a well-read person can bring to the world.

Books have comforted me when I was at my loneliest. They have taught me when I was at my lowest. I guess this is why I am so passionate about books. But I realise even as I write this that, at the end of the day, I have the funds and therefore, the luxury of choice. While I deliberate over what extras I can leave out, many others are only considering if they can bring home the staples.

In Singapore, where I am from, there is a public library in every neighbourhood and they are wonderfully stocked. I would love to see this in Pakistan, where I am currently based. I can’t speak for other cities, but the libraries in Islamabad are poorly managed. I’ll write more about my love for libraries soon, God willing, but right now, I’d like to suggest a few things you can do for the community that lacks access to good books:

1. Lobby for a library. This might be a frustrating endeavour, depending on the kind of people in office, but try!

2. Start sharing your books. I know. It’s hard. A friend of mine asked how it was that I was so willing to share my books. I told her that I do miss my books when they are gone because they are like my children (don’t laugh!), but it makes me truly happy to see kids reading and reading lots. You need not place your books in a common physical space and you need not stock only new books. A database of books set up with a good library app can do the trick and used books will mean more affordability and more volume! [My friends and I have used Boocshare  and it worked well for us.]

3. Start your own library. If the powers that be won’t give you a library, start your own for the community with like-minded friends. If you are concerned about folks not returning your books, start out with a reference/read only library.

4. Gift books. There are many organisations that will appreciate a donation. Seek them out and better yet, organise a storytelling session while you’re at it!

I’d like to leave you with a quote by Charlotte Mason who was a wonderful visionary. Let’s build a library and build one with the best of books…

A child’s intercourse must always be with good books, the best that we can find. We must put into their hands the sources which we must needs use for ourselves, the best books of the best writers. For the mind is capable of dealing with only one kind of food; it lives, grows and is nourished upon ideas only; mere information is to it as a meal of sawdust to the body.
Charlotte Mason

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