The best picture books about languages

Mara Rockliff Author Of Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope
By Mara Rockliff

Who am I?

I am a children’s author best known for digging up fascinating, often funny stories about famous people—and forgotten people who deserve to be famous again. But only one of them inspired me to take up a whole new hobby: L. L. Zamenhof, creator of the international language Esperanto. Learning Esperanto turned out to be fun and easy. It helped me make friends all over the world, and got me interested in how language works.

I wrote...

Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope

By Mara Rockliff, Zosia Dzierżawska (illustrator),

Book cover of Doctor Esperanto and the Language of Hope

What is my book about?

Meet the boy who made up his own language—and brought hope to millions! 

Life was harsh in the town of Bialystok, and Leyzer Zamenhof thought he knew why. Russian, Polish, German, Yiddish—with every group speaking a different language, how could people understand each other? Without understanding, how could there be peace? Zamenhof had an idea: a “universal” second language everyone could speak. But a language that would be easy to learn was not so easy to invent, especially when even his own father stood between him and his dream. Yet when at last in 1887 “Doctor Esperanto” sent his words into the world, a boy’s idea became a community that spread across the globe.

The books I picked & why

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The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story

By Aya Khalil, Anait Semirdzhyan (illustrator),

Book cover of The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story

Why this book?

There are lots of excellent contemporary picture books about children from other countries adjusting to life in the United States. What sets this book apart for me is that, rather than just sprinkling in some words in the family’s native tongue, it specifically talks about languages and bilingualism. The writing is a little on-the-nose in spots (children say things like “I didn’t realize how important a different language is” and “Aren’t languages a beautiful thing? They can truly unite us!”), but it’s a likable story with charming illustrations. My favorite part is at the end, when the Arabic quilt inspires another class to make one in Japanese.

Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story

By Joseph Bruchac, Liz Amini-Holmes (illustrator),

Book cover of Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: A Navajo Code Talker's Story

Why this book?

If I had to recommend just one picture book about languages, I’d choose this one, because it does so much. First, of course, it shares a long-secret episode in American history—the triumph of the Navajo “code talkers” in World War II. (Not the first time bilingual heroes came to our country’s rescue: see my own picture book Gingerbread for Liberty! How a German Baker Helped Win the American Revolution.)  But this book also addresses language justice in a way that kids will find easy to understand. Through Chester, we feel the pain and confusion of being told one’s own language is “bad” and worthless, and the pride of having it finally treated with respect. We also see how language isn’t just a set of words, but carries culture, tradition, religion, a whole way of life.   

The Language of Angels: The Reinvention of Hebrew

By Richard Michelson, Karla Gudeon (illustrator),

Book cover of The Language of Angels: The Reinvention of Hebrew

Why this book?

Although I studied modern Hebrew as a child, and understood that it was different from the Hebrew in the Bible, I never realized that the everyday language spoken by millions of Israelis didn’t just develop by itself. The Language of Angels tells the story of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who worked tirelessly to revive the Hebrew language, from the point of view of his son Ben-Zion. The father’s insistence that his son speak only Hebrew, a language then used solely in prayer, condemned him to a friendless childhood in multilingual late-nineteenth-century Jerusalem and lends a dark edge to the tale. But bright, cheerful illustrations help lighten the tone, and the book is full of lively details about Ben-Yehuda’s efforts, such as finding a word for “ice cream.”

Moses Goes to School

By Isaac Millman,

Book cover of Moses Goes to School

Why this book?

I haven’t seen a lot of picture books about children using American Sign Language (ASL), and I enjoyed the details of a day in a public school for the deaf and hard of hearing, although the book’s age (it came out in 2000) means the tech is somewhat out of date. While this book is not about Deaf culture, it does—like all the books on my list—give kid-friendly examples of the language it is introducing. I appreciated that the children are shown signing in ASL and not just fingerspelling English words, and that the author made some attempt to convey that ASL is its own language and that anyone who is fluent in both ASL and English is bilingual. Other titles in the series include Moses Goes to a Concert, Moses Goes to the Circus, and Moses Sees a Play. 

The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come

By Sue Macy, Stacy Innerst (illustrator),

Book cover of The Book Rescuer: How a Mensch from Massachusetts Saved Yiddish Literature for Generations to Come

Why this book?

I’m so glad there is a children’s picture book biography of Aaron Lansky. His own memoir for adults, Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, is so entertaining and engrossing that I’ve read it twice. While this picture book doesn’t have space for all of Lansky’s funny, touching stories, it does get across the amazing fact that thanks to one young man who refused to believe that a “dying” language should be buried, Yiddish was given new life—and a permanent address at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts. (I recently visited, and it’s spectacular! There is a great children’s section, too, full of books, games, and fun activities.)

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Navajo, deaf culture, and sign language?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the Navajo, deaf culture, and sign language.

The Navajo Explore 12 books about the Navajo
Deaf Culture Explore 8 books about deaf culture
Sign Language Explore 16 books about sign language

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