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The Picture Book Buzz

What Makes Us Human - Perfect Picture Book Friday #PPBF

Stunning and captivating, this book ingeniously carries the reader through a series of succinct and lyrical clues accompanied by detail-rich illustrations which both play with the text and hint at the answer. Beautifully portraying how "The more languages, writing systems, and cultures our world has, the richer we all are as humans."

Book cover - collage of four strips with hair, eyes, mouth, and hands from different people.

What Makes Us Human

Author: Victor D.O. Santos

Illustrator: Anna Forlati

Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

Ages: 5-9



Humanity, puzzle, Indigenous cultures, and language.


A poetic riddle about language, history, and culture, released in partnership with UNESCO in honor of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). 

Can you guess what I am? I have been around a very, very long time. You hardly knew me as a baby, but now you cannot get me out of your head. There are thousands of me, all over the globe, and some of those forms are disappearing. I can connect you to the past, present, and future. Who am I—and why am I so important to humanity?

Clever and thought-provoking, What Makes Us Human is an accessible introduction to how language connects people across the world. This unique book celebrates all the amazing ways communication shapes our lives, including through text messages on phones, Braille buttons in elevators, and endangered languages at risk of disappearing.

Opening Lines:

I have been around for a very long time.

Longer than toys, dogs, or anyone you know.

My roots go back many centuries.

Some of them even longer.

What I LOVED about this book:

This unique early nonfiction starts from the viewpoint of an unknown narrator. I love how Victor D.O. Santos translates centuries into concrete ideas young readers can understand, "longer than toys, dogs, or anyone you know." And I love how Anna Forlati's soft digital illustration plays along with the mystery in the text by showing a tree with its roots encasing an ancient building. Is the answer a tree? It would be a short book.

Internal spread - on the left a small hiker approaches, on the right a giant tree with twisted, gnarled roots encasing an ancient temple.

Text © Victor D.O. Santos, 2024. Image © Anna Forlati, 2024.

So, what has been around a long time and has roots, that is not a tree? Something that is absolutely everywhere and can be seen, felt, and heard. This is such a tender illustration, quietly relaying so much information.

Internal spread of a blind child with seeing eye dog and cane, in an elevator with braille numbers and a speaker.

Text © Victor D.O. Santos, 2024. Image © Anna Forlati, 2024.

The narration focus subtly shifts from "I" to "you," exploring an individual's personal interaction with the narrator throughout their lives. Check out the illustration in Monday's interview. But shifts back as it offers more hints about its dichotomous nature - it can be soft, harsh, loving, or hurtful. Forlati's created stunning, powerful, and intricate illustrations with her earth toned digital collage. Each page is a feast to explore and ponder.

I'm pretty sure most adults will know the riddle's answer, especially after seeing the Tower of Babel image. I adore the continued play with the riddle as Forlati uses the "many different shapes and forms" of the narrator within a garden as the base structure for plants. Some are easy to spot, and others require a closer look. It will be fun for kids on subsequent reads to look for specific symbols.

Internal image - a garden with trees, greenhouse, fountain and plants constructed of, or containing, symbols of languages.

Text © Victor D.O. Santos, 2024. Image © Anna Forlati, 2024.

Santos and Forlati also explore what the narrator's disappearance (being carried off by extinct or endangered birds) means to all of us, both the loss of cultures and enrichment in our lives. The final spreads are simply stunning and ultimately answer the title's question - what makes us human? It's sure to spark curiosity and questions about the diverse Indigenous people and their languages Back matter details both the benefits of preserving both written and spoken languages and the risk that of "7,168 living languages (Ethnologue, 2023), it is estimated that at least half will become extinct by 2100." And also includes a note from Unesco about the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). This is a beautiful, poignant, and ingenious way to explore how we are surrounded by, use, and need language; every one of them.


  • write your own mask or riddle poem/story. Check out Poetry 4 Kids for some ideas on how to get started.

  • how many languages do you speak? Do you know someone who speaks another language? Explore how your languages are similar and different for common items or feelings.

  • pair with Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis. How did you figure out what was being said?

If you missed the fun interview with Victor D.O. Santos on Monday, find it (here).

This post is part of a series by authors and KidLit bloggers called Perfect Picture Book Fridays. For more picture book suggestions and resources see Susanna Leonard Hill's Perfect Picture Books.


Maria Marshall

 Photograph © A. Marshall

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