Cover of book My Heart Will Not Sit Down shows African child sitting in doorway of hut.Some picture books are straight fiction. Some picture books are straight nonfiction. And then there are a few, like Mara Rockliff’s My Heart Will Not Sit Down, that straddle that line.

As the author’s note explains, “In 1931, the city of New York received a gift of $3.77 to feed the hungry. It came from the African country of Cameroon. Many people in New York really were hungry at that time…[but] Even at Depression prices, $3.77 wouldn’t have gone very far in New York City. For the villagers in Cameroon who sent it, though, the money would have been a fortune.” This heartwarming story, based in part on the author’s interview with a woman who grew up in Cameroon in the 1930s, uses fiction to imagine how that real life $3.77 might have come to be sent to New York City.

The text and illustrations work together to plunge us into a distant place and time. We see “the grandmother with strong arms pounding cassava” and “the laughing girls who carried pots of river water balanced on their heads.” We hear a “drum’s quick, sharp beat” and  feel “the bamboo bed” which Kedi sleeps on “between her brothers and sisters.” Although the entire book is written in English, we hear the cadences of a different language and catch a glimpse of a different way of looking at the world. When Kedi hears of starving children in New York City, “her heart stood up for them in sympathy.” Her mother worries, “How can we send money to people whose faces we have never seen?”

The book works hard to create a sense of foreign otherness, but it doesn’t alienate. Rather, it stresses the theme of people worrying about each other and doing whatever they can to help others. As the Author’s Note says, “”As for Kedi’s belief that no one should ever go hungry, that belongs to the world.”

This would be a lovely book to read before a food drive. It reminds all of us that tiny actions matter.

My Heart Will Not Sit Down by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Ann Tanksley. Knopf: 2012

Children around a globe.


I participate in the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted by Allyson Beecher at Kid Lit Frenzy.