An "absorbing narrative, careful use of authentic, concrete detail intrinsic to the story as well as illustrative of the culture portrayed, and sympathetic understanding of a child's world--all in a story that will be enjoyed by younger children" Kirkus
In 1992 our CBCA slogan was Windows into Worlds. This slim book (54 pages) The Most Beautiful Place in the World fits that theme perfectly. Even though this is a short story I think it would best suit readers of 9 and older.
Juan lives in Guatemala. Through no fault of his own, life is very hard for Juan. His father leaves the family when Juan is a tiny baby. He moves with his mother into his grandmothers house but when his mother remarries she leaves Juan behind. When Juan is five his grandmother decides he needs to earn money so she sets him up as a shoeshine boy. Juan works hard but he feels resentful when he sees other city children heading off to school. By asking questions he learns the basics of reading and finally when he is seven and a half he gathers enough courage to ask his grandmother to send him to school. He greatly fears she will say no or worse she will also reject him as his mother and step father have already rejected him. Thank goodness he is wrong on both counts.
Here are a few story quotes to give you a flavour of this really special writing:
"But best of all, my grandmother owns her house and the land it's on. She keeps the papers that prove it in an iron box under her bed, and she's sure of what they say because somebody she trusts read them to her ... "
"It got bad when I saw kids who were going past me on the way to school. I was sitting in the dust all smeared up with shoe polish, and they were all neat and clean, with their pencils and their notebooks, going to school."
"School?' She said it like I'd said I wanted to go to Mars. 'You can't go. ... you're too young, you're five.' 'Grandma,' I said, 'I'm not five, I'm seven!"
"And she looked at me as if I were a man already, and said that maybe by studying I could find out why some people were rich, and some were poor, and some countries were rich, and some were poor, because she had thought about it a lot, but she could never understand it."
I first discovered Ann Cameron through her book Banana Spaghetti which features the characters found in her book series about Huey and his brother Julian. I also loved Spunky tells all - take a look at my review.
I would pair this book with The Paper House and for older students Figgy takes the City. You could use The Most Beautiful place in the World with older students when discussing the Rights of the Child.
Finally from his description Juan does convince me Guatemala is one of the most beautiful places in the world - green hills, lots of flowers, flocks of birds and a happy evenings spent strolling and storytelling.