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Luli and the Language of Tea; Quiet Time with My Seeya

Reviewed by Miriam Moore-Keish

Miriam Moore-Keish is a children’s book publisher at Capstone Publishing in
Minneapolis, Minnesota. She also writes books and regularly collaborates with the
nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books.

Luli and the Language of Tea
Andrea Wang
New York: Neal Porter Books/Holiday House, 2022

Quiet Time with My Seeya
Dinalie Dabarera
New York: Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, 2023

Silence in the Playroom

How do we communicate without language? As a writer and publisher—someone who relies on words—this is a question I like to avoid if I want to pay my rent. Two recently published children’s books, Luli and the Language of Tea by Andrea Wang and Quiet Time with My Seeya by Dinalie Dabarera, confront language barriers and find community and love in play, in gathering around a table, and in sharing a cup of tea.

Luli and the Language of Tea begins with Luli walking into her ESL (English as a second language) class. She doesn’t speak English. Neither does anyone else there. Luli notices that the room is silent as the students all play alone. She pulls out her thermos of tea and calls out in her native language, Chinese, “Chá!” 

“Té?” “Chai?” “Shay”? Students begin to recognize the sounds of each other’s words for tea, noticing more similarities than differences. With their varying tongues and tea traditions, the whole class gathers at a table and passes around teacups, sharing in the language of tea. When the tea runs out before Luli can get a cup, students all pour out a little from their own cups to give to their new friend. And afterwards, the playroom is no longer quiet.

Andrea Wang’s simple and understated picture book addresses the universal struggle to humanize and build relationships with those different from us. With so many unshared and unique experiences often posing challenges, it’s easy to fall into quiet and solitary play. How can we be more like Luli and un-silence our playrooms? The children in our lives may very well be able to guide us in that. The rich back matter of the picture book includes pronunciation guides for all the characters’ names, a map of where they come from, and some information about how tea is served in each of their home countries. Intricate end pages also include illustrations of the teacups traditionally used in each of the kids’ countries. 

This text would fit well in liturgy or conversations with young people on World Communion Sunday, any communion Sunday, really, or even Pentecost. When we talk about gathering at a shared table, finding abundance where some might see scarcity, and understanding each other regardless of spoken language, the language of tea might be a good place to break the silence.

Dinalie Dabarera, though, challenges the pressure to break the silence. Her picture book, Quiet Time with My Seeya, embraces it. The protagonist /speaker tells readers on the first page, “Time with my Seeya is quiet time.” This English-speaking young girl and her Sinhalese-speaking grandfather spend a day together playing dress up, stomping in puddles, finding bugs, tending to the garden, and more. Sometimes they read books. They don’t always understand the words, but they get what the other means. I was lucky to speak with Dinalie in March for We Need Diverse Books (an organization that promotes diversity and representation in children’s literature) and ask about her exploration of cultural and language barriers in intergenerational family relationships. She recalled drawing inspiration for this story from her relationship with her grandmother, saying:

She doesn’t speak English and my Sinhalese is really poor, especially now. I was thinking about how our relationship has been so limited by this. But at the same time, my grandmother through my whole life—she’s been able to communicate how she loves me in so many different ways. Even when she was in her nursing home and I would go to visit, she would call me over to sit next to her and she would take my hand and hold it. Even though it was very difficult to tell her about what work I’d been doing or how my life was going, we would just sit together. For children, language isn’t as much a part of their relationships as it becomes when you’re an adult. You’re not always connecting with people through conversation, which, I think, is the way you do as adults, for the most part. So [Quiet Time with my Seeya] allowed me to focus on the play and fun and warmth of the relationship.

Rather than attempting to fill the playroom with noise and languages from around the world, the speaker of Quiet Time with my Seeya sits in the silence. It is here that she finds warmth and love. This book could be a conversation starter to ask about what we hear in the silence. What meaning is there? My pastor parents definitely “pulled an Ecclesiastes” on me as a loud elementary schooler, reminding me that there was a time to speak and a time to keep silent. But there is something else at play here. The speaker and her Seeya know their relationship through silence. What other silences are our young neighbors living in? This book provides a framework to ask them. At age three, I infamously told my mother that God wasn’t real because I spoke and God didn’t speak back. This isn’t a story limited to three-year-old Miriam. This book can be a text for anyone, regardless of faith, who may want or need the reminder that silence is not always absence. Perhaps it is also an invitation to those who plan and lead worship that silence is not absence. May we treat the silent sitting together in worship with the same reverence we do the loud words we speak.

Both Luli and the Language of Tea and Quiet Time with My Seeya ask: how do we communicate across difference and without shared language? It’s up to us readers, then, to decide when is the time to speak and when is the time to keep silent.

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