Family Matters: A Review of Three Picture Books

FAMILY MATTERS, by Alexa O’Kane

(A review of three picture books: Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist, and The World’s Greatest Lion.)

Picture books about families are anything but rare in the children’s literature community, but certain stories still prove to be special. Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola, Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist written by James Solheim and illustrated by Simon James, and The World’s Greatest Lion written by Ralph Helfer and illustrated by Ted Lewin, all serve to show children the diversity of family experiences while still allowing a child to connect their own lives to that shown in the books. In each of these stories, a character develops unique familial bonds that make the books absolutely enthralling for readers of any age.

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs is the perfect book to teach children about the loss of a loved one. Readers have the privilege of taking a peek into the relationship between Tommy and his grandmother, and Tommy and his great grandmother, respectively, in several heartwarming spreads.The specific details of their antics, such as being tied to a chair to eat, add to the charm of the story and truly show readers the power of their bond. Unfortunately, just as readers grow to love the Nanas, they pass one by one, and Tommy has to learn to cope without them. The honest but gentle way Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs addresses the topic of losing loved family members helps children to understand how to cope with the shifting of families.

The point of view featured in Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist is what makes it so special. Through a baby’s comical journal entries, readers get to experience family life from a new perspective. Despite the narrator’s lack of worldly knowledge, the plot unfolds as she finds adorable new ways to bond with her older sister, including forming a “Young Authors of the World” club and working through the realization that they’ll always have each other. The image of newly formed familial bonds is great way to show older siblings that things might not be so bad after all when their little brother or sister is on the way.

While The World’s Greatest Lion does not wholly illustrate the bonds between genetic family members, it superbly reveals the dynamics of a chosen family in a compelling and unique nonfiction narrative. Following the dramatic death of his biological parents, Zamba the lion is taken to a sanctuary, where his life changes forever when he bonds with world-renowned animal trainer, Ralph Helfer. Throughout his time with Ralph, the two become so close that Zamba sleeps in his owner’s bed and joins him in patrolling the other animals at the ranch. In a turn of events far too unbelievable for fiction, Zamba becomes a household name as a moviestar, eager to please his new master. Of course, his wonderful new world can’t last forever. Just when Zamba’s fame begins to rise, a huge storm sweeps over the ranch, breaking a dam and unleashing a torrent of water. Miraculously, Zamba survives and leads a number of other animals to safety, proving himself as the world’s greatest lion.

Although The World’s Greatest Lion is nonfiction, it is an excellent example of characterization leading to the clear and intense development of family bonds. Through rich illustrations painted in colors reminiscent of the African savannah, readers can watch as Zamba moves physically closer to Ralph, accompanying the gradual growth of their relationship unveiled in the text as they grow as characters. Through moving images and storylines, the author and illustrator of The World’s Greatest Lion allow readers to be a part of Zamba’s pride, too.

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs, Born Yesterday: The Diary of a Young Journalist, and The World’s Greatest Lion may not appear related at first glance, but, like a chosen family, they are connected by their themes of exploring familial bonds that come in diverse forms. Each book serves as an important facet of familial life for children to discover, proving that there is a picture book suited to every child’s individual situation.

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