What Is Given from the Heart

Book review by
Mandie Caroll, Common Sense Media
What Is Given from the Heart Book Poster Image
Lovely art, heartwarming story about the joy of giving.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows how different people react to death or tragedy. Shows how a church community responds to their members who are going through hard times. Gives a glimpse of the African American Christian church community experience.

Positive Messages

There's joy in giving. Have empathy for others. We don't need money to give to others. Communities support one another in times of need. Healing from tragedy takes time and love. Faith can bring hope to your heart.

Positive Role Models

Mama, though grieving, is admirable and teaches her son that they are blessed, even in their struggles. James Otis is a loving and devoted son, and very thoughtful and kind-hearted. The church community takes responsibility for caring for the needy, a feature of many Black church communities. All characters are Black, of varied skin tone.

Violence & Scariness

The death of a parent is mentioned, and the child sees his mother crying on several pages; this may be distressing for younger or sensitive kids.


What parents need to know

Parents need to know that What Is Given from the Heart, by the late Patricia C. McKissack and illustrated by April Harrison, is the last offering from this legendary author, who passed away in 2017. James Otis and his mama have very little, but they manage to give freely from the heart to a girl and her mother, who lost everything in a fire. With McKissack's signature poetic text, and softly-hued folk-art illustrations, readers are immersed in an African American family and community of support and care. Empathy, the joy in giving, and the importance of faith in recovering from tragedy are among the many positive messages of the book. Mama and James Otis are admirable in their love and strength. James Otis is a devoted son and proves to be thoughtful and kind to others. All characters are Black, of varied skin tones. The death of a parent is mentioned and the mother is crying or very sad in two of the opening spreads, which could be upsetting to younger or sensitive kids. Illustrator April Harrison received the 2020 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent (Illustrator).

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What's the story?

In WHAT IS GIVEN FROM THE HEART, James Otis and his mama have had a really hard few months. James Otis' dad passed away and they don't have much money. But Mama says that as long as they are healthy and strong, they are blessed. They hear at church that a little girl named Sarah and her mother have lost everything in a fire, so the community comes together to get them back on their feet. But what will James Otis give when he has so little? With the preacher's words, "What is given from the heart reaches the heart," James Otis considers different possibilities and then decides on the perfect present for Sarah. After the church congregation presents its gifts to Sarah and her mother, James Otis and his mama appear happy and content walking home. When they arrive, they're surprised to find their church community has given hem something, too.   

Is it any good?

This beautifully illustrated, heartfelt story about giving amid tragedy is sure to become a favorite on many a family bookshelf. The melodic text and speech in What Is Given from the Heart is pleasing to the ear. This testament to the love between a mother and her son and the power of faith and community is a stunning reflection of one aspect of African American culture. The soft and luminous folk art/found art illustrations capture the details of the story in moving scenes. Particularly wonderful are those of James Otis embracing his mother as she mourns, the gorgeous spread that shows African American congregants walking to church together in their colorful Sunday best, and the joyous depiction of James Otis catching snow on his tongue as his mother has her arms open in wonder and smiles up to the sky. This is a not-to-be-missed treasure from an iconic storyteller and talented fine artist.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what James Otis' gives Sarah in What Is Given from the Heart. What kind of gift might you give to a kid who had just lost everything in a fire?

  • This book is about an African American family dealing with loss and poverty in a caring church community. Who do you turn to when you're very sad or need something? What are your communities?

  • What character strengths do Mama and James Otis show in this story? How do you show other people you care about them and what they're going through?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love books about families and stories of grief

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