January 21, 2021 § 8 Comments
Yesterday, at the 59th Presidential Inauguration, as my children and your children and the world looked on, President Biden called us to the work of unity, to “uniting to fight the foes we face. Anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs.” He was referring to Americans coming together, though he also spoke of healing alliances around the world.
Then, the 22-year-old inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, took the stage—who, incredibly, before the age of twenty could not pronounce the letter “R” due to a severe speech impediment—and elevated that message of unity even further. She called us to hope and light and agency. “There’s always light if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
(Side note: moments after the inauguration, it was announced that Amanda Gorman has a children’s picture book coming out in September, illustrated by fan-favorite Loren Long. This girl is here to stay, and I am here for it!)
I haven’t yet told you about one of the most exquisite picture books published last fall—actually, if I’m being honest, one of the finest examples of bookmaking I’ve ever seen. (It would have unquestionably made my 2020 Gift Guide had I discovered it in time.) On the surface, Sugar in Milk (Ages 5-10), written by Thrity Umrigar and lushly illustrated by Khoa Le, is a story about a modern girl’s immigration and assimilation; and yet, as it recalls an ancient Persian folktale, it reads as an allegory of unity and light. It’s a story honoring individual courage alongside diversity, acceptance, and inclusion—hallmarks of the American promise. It’s a story reminding us that we are sweeter together.
From the moment we open this book, we’re in the hands of masterful bookmaking. Look at these endpapers. The hues of teal and indigo carry through the story, accented by saffron yellows and paprika oranges and tones of sandy browns. What you can’t see is that the weight and texture of the paper feel every bit as distinctive as the palette.
“When I first came to this country, I felt so alone.” A brown-skinned girl treks across a snowy park with a single suitcase, the skyline of an unnamed American city behind her.
Few details about her past are disclosed. We learn only that she has come to live with her Auntie and Uncle, who lovingly fill her room “with books and toys and painted it purple—my favorite color,” but who can’t ease her feeling of isolation.
The girl’s sadness at having left behind family, friends, “and my cats, Kulfi and Baklava” is palpable in the body language, color, and symbolism of the art. This is a book where the words are sparsely chosen, leaving the illustrations to fill in the rest. As it turns out, the power of visual representation is something directly invoked in the story-within-a-story that’s to come.
While Auntie and Uncle are at work, the girl reads books or stares out the window. She longs to connect with this new city, to make new friends, but she doesn’t know how or where to start. One day, when Auntie gets home, she takes the girl on a walk and tells her a story.
“There once lived a group of people in the ancient land of Persia who were forced to leave their home and seek refuge elsewhere,” Auntie begins, relaying an ancient legend about Persian refugees who arrived on the shores of India begging for shelter. Auntie’s voice recedes as we step into this folktale, visually marked by a border of blue that becomes increasingly ornate with every page turn.
When the Persians arrive, the local king has no intention of taking them in, claiming his land is already too crowded. “Besides, these visitors look foreign and speak a strange and different language I do not understand,” he tells his men.
But when the king attempts to deliver this message to the Persians, the language barrier persists, and the latter cannot understand him. So, he tries a different tactic, filling a glass to the top with milk, then pointing silently at it. “It was his way of saying: ‘My apologies to you. I would’ve loved to help…But just as this glass is filled to the brim with no room for more, so we are full up in my little, crowded kingdom.’”
The Persians’ leader, a “small and clever man with an ever-present smile on his lips,” looks around at his people, “tired and hungry and cold,” and begs the king’s attention once more. Taking the same glass, he stirs into the milk a spoonful of sugar from his own tattered sack. He stirs slowly, carefully, making sure to dissolve every grain without spilling a single drop. Wen he returns the glass to the king, once again words are unnecessary.
The king understood what the leader meant:
If you let us stay, O Mighty King,
we will live in peace beside all of you.
And just like sugar in milk,
we will sweeten your lives
with our presence.
The two men laugh and embrace, agreeing to live together in peace, and for the next few pages, a motif of peacocks moves through the background of the illustrations. I had to look this up, but peacocks have a history in mythology of representing nobility, holiness, watchfulness, and protection—all perfectly fitting here. India becomes home to the Persians, and “they kept their ancient promise of spreading happiness wherever they went.”
At last, we return to our modern girl, paused on a bridge with her Auntie in the same park where the book began. Only the park looks different—peacocks distort the landscape, for one—because the girl is seeing it through fresh eyes.
The next day, the girl asks Auntie for a packet of sugar to keep in her pocket, reminding her of the power to sweeten the lives around her. We catch little vignettes of her smiling at strangers, petting a neighbor’s dog, joining in a basketball game. The more she gives, the more she discovers the welcome she desires.
As Amanda Gorman so poignantly expressed in her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” it’s on us to look to the past to put our best foot forward, to push for unity, to be the light:
If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade. The hill we climb, if only we dare, it’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.
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Great post! I haven’t seen this book before so I’ll have to look for it. I’ve been reading a lot of immigration picture and middle school books lately. I really enjoyed Amanda’s performance yesterday and I will definitely have to read her book when it comes out. I thought her reading was very emotional and I loved how she expressed herself.
Thanks so much, Sandy. Amanda Gorman was just brilliant! I went to bed on such a high last night. And I agree–there are so many wonderful immigration stories being published these days. Our children will be better for growing up with them.
I remember when I was in elementary and middle school, finding books with Native Americans and African Americans in them was almost impossible (besides history books). I think we’ve ome a long way yet we still have a long ways to go.
It’s so true. Even now, I struggle to find diverse representation in books that aren’t issue-specific but are just stories about kids doing regular kid things. Still, it was wonderful to see so much diversity in the ALA Youth Media Award winners this week!
Oh, Melissa, this sounds like such a beautiful book. I especially loved the Persian story. This story offers a great opportunity for a conversation about immigration and how immigrants bring so much to our country to help us all be the light.
I’m so glad you think agree, Susan. I just love the imagery of the glass, the milk, and the water–powerful in its simplicity. And those illustrations, am I right?!
Thanks for this lovely post, Melissa. I began to think of my mom who was like this brown-skinned young girl living in a new country. This is a beautiful book – its message, its illustrations – like the beauty of humanity. .
Thanks, Michele. I’m so glad this resonates with you. It’s definitely one of those books that speaks to the best of humanity and fills you with optimism.