The Suitcase – written and illustrated by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

 The Suitcase – written and illustrated by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 9780358329602, 2020 

Rating: 1-5 (5 is an excellent or a Starred review) 5+

Format: Hardcover

What did you like about the book?  Can you create a compelling, entertaining and beautiful picture book for children age 3-6 about immigration or being a refugee? Naylor-Ballesteros delivers a resounding Yes! with this metaphorical triumph. One day, a strange, dusty animal appears. He’s bright aqua and shaped like a sad and tired “s.” Possibly a salamander? At any rate, he’s quite different from the red bird, orange fox and yellow rabbit who pepper him with questions about what’s inside his battered suitcase. A teacup, the creature replies, and also a table and chair, before dropping into a much needed nap. The animals are incredulous. How could all these things fit in luggage? Grabbing a large rock, they bludgeon the valise open, only to find a (now) shattered teacup and a black-and-white photo of the sleeping refugee in happier times, seated in front of a small, cozy home. Aghast, the three miscreants repair the damaged china and build a cheerful cottage, welcoming their new BFF, who energetically announces that they’ll be needing more teacups!

The book design, typography and illustrations all work closely together in this well-conceived book. Slightly worn, aqua-plaid endpapers resemble the fabric lining of a vintage suitcase and are a good match for the creature. I loved that the newcomer is an unidentified species, yet easily “read” as different from the three, warm-colored and warm-blooded residents. The heavy white paper and clearly hand-drawn watercolor and pen-and-ink drawings create intimacy and subtly telegraph the value of the book’s message of inclusion and kindness. Each creature’s dialogue matches their color, so it’s easy to contrast the warm-blooded creatures’ responses with one another (Fox and Bird are suspicious, but Rabbit is more thoughtful).  Naylor-Ballesteros successfully and sympathetically charts the animals’ moral growth, from destructive wariness to acceptance.

Anything you didn’t like about it? No.

To whom would you recommend this book?  There are so many SEL goals addressed in this book, making it perfect for sparking discussion. What’s it like to be the new person? Why do we fear what’s different? How can we help those who have experienced trauma? How can we magnify kind thoughts into kind deeds? A good choice for an all-school read about social justice or to introduce a class project on activism. Although the simplicity of the presentation make it accessible in a very concrete way to children as young as 3-4, older children will enjoy reading it as a metaphor and considering how their own communities present to those in need of safety. With its large, clear illustrations and well-developed characters, this would work well as a read aloud.

Who should buy this book? Preschools, elementary and public libraries.

Where would you shelve it? Picture books, with special shoutouts to families and teachers about its value as a discussion starter.

Should we (librarians/readers) put this on the top of our “to read” piles? Yes

Reviewer: Susan Harari, Keefe Library, Boston Latin School, Boston, MA

Date of review: October 12, 2020

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