THANK YOU, MR. FALKER, by Patricia Polacco. (Philomel, $16.99; grades K-5.) In the opening passage of this moving story, a little girl named Trisha learns a profound lesson about the power of reading. Her grandfather ladles a dollop of honey onto the cover of a book and then asks her to taste it. “Sweet,” she says, to which her other family members respond in unison: “Yes, and so is knowledge, but knowledge is like the bee that made that sweet honey, you have to chase it through the pages of a book.” And so Trisha can’t wait to become a reader.
But, alas, it is not to be. The other children in her class at school learn to read, but not Trisha. “When Trisha looked at a page,” Polacco writes, “all she saw were wiggling shapes, and when she tried to sound out words, the other kids just laughed at her.” Polacco never uses the word, but it’s clear that Trisha suffers from dyslexia. Although a gifted artist, Trisha feels worthless. She finds some comfort in long walks with her loving grandmother. But then her grandmother dies, and school becomes even harder to bear.
When Trisha’s in the 3rd grade, her mother moves the family from rural Michigan to a town in California. It’s a chance for a new start, but Trisha fares no better there-until a new 5th grade teacher arrives at her school. Trisha can see that this teacher is different. “Right from the start it didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Falker which kids were the cutest. Or the smartest. Or the best.” Although Mr. Falker quickly recognizes Trisha’s artistic talents, he doesn’t immediately detect her disability. But when he does, Trisha’s life is changed forever.
On the last page, Polacco tells us what we’ve guessed all along: that this story, like so many of her other books, is autobiographical. It is a tribute to a real-life Mr. Falker, who saw sadness in a child’s eyes and took the time to do something about it.
The book also packs a strong message for children and adults alike. Between 5 percent and 20 percent of U.S. children suffer from dyslexia; some experts put the number ever higher. These children may be slow to read, but, as Polacco shows us, they are not slow in the head. New research has found that such kids benefit most from one-on-one instruction in phonemes and phonics as well as lots of practice. Although Polacco does not describe in detail the specific strategies Mr. Falker used with her, it’s clear he worked with her after school almost every day.
Those familiar with Polacco’s other books-Thunder Cake, Just Plain Fancy, and Pink and Say, for example-will immediately recognize her distinctive artistic style here. Using pencil, markers, and paint against a white background, Polacco gives her characters distinctive features, expressive body language, and colorful clothes that, like the narrative itself, linger long after the story is over.
IF YOU COULD BE MY FRIEND: Letters of Mervet Akram Sha’ban and Galit Fink, presented by Litsa Boudalika. (Orchard Books, $15.95; all ages.) On her first trip to Israel in 1988, Belgian documentary filmmaker Litsa Boudalika visited Jewish and Palestinian families during the intifada, the Palestinian rebellion against Israeli occupation. During these visits, she came to know two girls: Galit, 12, who lived in a working-class neighborhood of Jerusalem, and 12-year-old Mervet, from the Palestinian refugee camp called Dheisheh just 10 miles away. Seeing such bright, lively youngsters, Boudalika writes, she couldn’t help but wonder, “Would the intifada create a hate in the children as irreversible as in the adults?”
Intrigued by the similarities of the two girls’ cultures but saddened by the lack of dialogue between them, Boudalika tentatively asked the girls if they would like to meet. They agreed, but it was decided that they would first get to know each other through letters. For the next three years, Galit and Mervet corresponded intermittently, with Boudalika playing messenger.
Boudalika first focused on the girls’ relationship in a documentary that aired on French television during a round of Middle East peace negotiations in 1991. But now, she’s assembled the letters into this fine book. “It is a very strange feeling to be writing to a Palestinian,” Galit notes in her first letter. “It is like a dream, a good dream,” Mervet replies. “I don’t know how to speak to you. I don’t know if you want to be my friend. I know very little about your life, but I feel friendly toward you.” The letters that follow are poignant and offer intimate glimpses of their lives-the longing for an imprisoned grandfather, the birth of a baby brother, the joys of a family feast. The girls’ fear of violence and desire for peace echo in their words. But over time, as the killings increase, the tone of their letters hardens as each girl defends her people’s actions, threatening their fragile friendship. Their eventual meeting was emotional and bittersweet, but the future of their friendship remains uncertain at the book’s close.
Boudalika has prefaced each letter with a brief and even-handed description of the political events of the time. The book also includes a historical overview and glossary. But the correspondence alone speaks volumes about the brutal effects of this conflict on two young women who, in a different time and place, could have become fast friends.