All in a Name: A Back-to-School Post

August 20, 2020 § Leave a comment

When our kids return to school this fall, whether in person with a mask or at home over a computer, there will be unusual circumstances to navigate. But for many children, pandemic or not, the start of school is already fraught with potential landmines. Will I make a friend? Will I like my teacher? Will I understand the rules?

Will my name be mispronounced?

Those of us with Anglo-Saxon names may have never considered this last question, but those with African, Asian, Black-American, Latinx, and Middle Eastern names know how commonly, if unintentionally, their names are mispronounced. What does it feel like to be on the receiving end of a teacher or classmate stumbling through your name? What does it feel like to be expressly teased for your name? What does it feel like to be asked to shorten or alter your name to make it easier for classmates to say?

For many, personal names play a central role in cultural identity and identification. If we don’t put in the work to pronounce a name correctly, we’re not allowing that person—in this case, that young child—to be seen. At best, we are belittling them; at worst, we are erasing them.

One of my daughter’s dearest school friends has a name whose South Asian pronunciation is different than English phonetics would suggest. The difference is subtle, but my daughter will correct anyone—especially me—who doesn’t say it with the right cadence. I’ve been touched by this gesture of loyalty over the years, and I know it’s owing to the care the girls’ teachers have taken to create a space where students are actively working to understand and appreciate one another.

What I’ve also frequently noted is how musical my daughter’s voice sounds when she speaks her friend’s name. The idea that all names can be celebrated for their musicality is the inspiration behind Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow’s new picture book, Your Name is a Song (Ages 4-8), a fast favorite with my daughter. Tenderly illustrated by Luisa Uribe, the story centers a Black American Muslim girl, who leaves her first day of school dejected and angry because “No one could say my name.” As her mother works to rebuild the girl’s confidence, she creatively and thoughtfully debunks many of the negative stereotypes associated with non-Anglo names, especially those with African or Middle Eastern origins: they’re hard to pronounce; they’re cacophonous; they signal danger; they’re made-up nonsense.

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Zoe Washington’s “Good Trouble”

July 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

When John Lewis passed away last weekend—ending a 60-plus-year career of social activism and civil rights legislation—I was struck by how many tributes invoked the Congressman’s tweet from 2015, in which he shared a mugshot from his time in prison 54 years earlier, arrested for using a “white” bathroom in Jackson, Mississippi. The photo was captioned: Even though I was arrested, I smiled bc I was on the right side of history. Find a way to get in the way #goodtrouble

Another of his tweets in 2018 further underscores this notion of “good trouble”—a phrase Lewis became known for:

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.

If you’ve asked me for a middle-grade book recommendation in the past two months, you’ve probably heard me go on and on and on about Janae Marks’ debut novel, From the Desk of Zoe Washington (Ages 9-13). If you follow me on Instagram, you may know I chose this title for a summer book club, after my third graders (bless them) begged me to continue hosting Zoom meetings. The book was not only a favorite of the year for most of the kids, nearly every parent emailed me to report that the story was yielding rich, important, anti-racist conversations around the dinner table.

If you are looking for a book to start a conversation about systemic racism, this one’s a gem. It’s not just that it offers awareness about the bias in our criminal justice system—the story features a Black character (Zoe’s father) serving time for a crime he may not have committed—it’s that it offers hope for a more just world. It’s a story about a girl who asks hard questions, who isn’t content to accept things as they are, and who makes some “good trouble” of her own when the adults in her life fail to step up.

Of course, none of these messages would be nearly as effective if the story itself wasn’t fan-freakin-tastic. This is not a heavy-handed “issues” book. It checks every box of a perfect tween story: it’s well-paced; the protagonist is immensely likable; there’s mystery, intrigue, and no shortage of fun and relatable sub-plots (baking! music! friendship drama!). It’s a book nearly impossible to put down, but it’s also a story packed with nuggets ripe for pulling apart and discussing. Read this book to or alongside your tween; you’ll both be better for it. (And may I recommend you encourage your child to make a playlist of the songs Zoe discovers from her father, because isn’t it high time our kids started listening to Stevie Wonder? Also: Fruit Loops cupcakes. Yup, it’s a thing.)

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Moving Past Color-Blindness

June 25, 2020 § 2 Comments

I have been drafting this post in my head for two weeks, terrified to put pen to paper for the dozens of ways I will certainly mis-step. Raising children dedicated to equity and justice has always been important to me—if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recognize it as a frequent theme here—but only lately have I pushed myself to consider the ways my own privilege, upbringing, and anxiety have stood in the way of that. It is clear that I cannot raise my children to be antiracist if I am not prepared to do the work myself.

When my daughter was three, I brought her to the pediatrician’s office for a rash. As we sat in the waiting room, watching and remarking on the colorful fish swimming in the aquarium, my daughter suddenly turned to me. “Mommy, is the nurse going to be black-skinned?”

Embarrassment rose in my cheeks. “Oh honey, I’m sure any nurse here is a good nurse. Let’s not—”

Her interrupting voice rose about ten decimals. “Because I am not taking off my clothes for anyone with black skin!”

Just typing this, my hands are shaking. I am back, seven years ago, in that waiting room, aware of all eyes upon us. Aware of the brown-skinned couple with their newborn baby sitting directly across from us. This can’t be happening, I thought. This can’t be my child. She goes to a preschool with a multicultural curriculum. We read books with racially diverse characters. She plays with children who look different than her. Shock, outrage, and humiliation flooded every inch of my being.

Caught off guard and determined to rid myself of my own shame, I fell into a trap familiar to many white parents. For starters, I came down hard on her. I took my shame and put it squarely onto her. I was going to stop this talk immediately. I was going to prove to everyone listening that this was unacceptable behavior in our family. I was going to make it…all about me.

“Stop it!” I said firmly. “We do not say things like that.” Then, I started rambling about how we shouldn’t judge people by how they look, how underneath skin color we’re all the same, how we’re all one big human family, and so on. You know: the speech. The color-blind speech. The one where white parents tell their children to look past skin tone to the person underneath. The one where we imply that because skin color is something we’re born with, something “accidental,” we shouldn’t draw attention to it. The one where we try and push on our children a version of the world we’d like to inhabit, as opposed to the one we actually do.

My three year old was observing—albeit not kindly or subtly—that not everyone looked the way she did. And she wasn’t sure if that was OK. She was scared. She was uncomfortable. Because we weren’t talking about skin tone or race with her at home, because our conversations (however well-intentioned) steered mainly towards platitudes of kindness and acceptance, she had begun to internalize the racial assumptions around her. She had used the descriptor “black-skinned,” I later realized, whereas if she had simply been observing skin tone, she would have said brown skin or dark skin. The word she chose was a reference to race. A loaded word. Something she had heard. Something she didn’t understand. Something she was beginning to associate with something less than.

We don’t want our children to use race to make judgments about people, so we’d rather them dismiss race completely. Except, in a society where race is embedded into nearly every policy and practice, it is impossible not to see race. So instead, what we are really communicating to our young children is, I know you notice these differences, but I don’t want you to admit it. (Including to yourself). Good white liberal children don’t talk about their black and brown friends as being different from them. Even more problematic, good white liberal children love their black and brown friends in spite of these differences.

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What Does It Mean to Be Woke?

June 4, 2020 § Leave a comment

In the preface to her scintillating picture book of poems for young readers, Mahogany L. Browne provides this definition of “woke”:

It means to be aware. It means to see your surroundings and challenge how we strengthen our relationship with the government, the community, and nature. To be WOKE is to fight for your civil rights and to fight for the rights of your neighbors…The idea of being aware of your surroundings, especially in a time when we are taught to be quiet and not rock the boat, can be difficult to embrace, but this is where our freedom begins.

The events of the last week are calling us to become woke. They are calling us to listen, especially to Black voices unleashing decades of pain and injustice. They are calling us to expand our bookshelves and our social media feeds to include more voices of color (@hereweeread and @theconsciouskid are a great place to start for parents). They are calling us to talk to our children about difficult topics like race, privilege, and racism and help them revise their summer reading lists to include stories by people of color. They are calling us to begin the uncomfortable and long-overdue work of examining the way our own whiteness makes us complicit in the sickness of systemic racism, because until we change what’s in our hearts, we can’t lead our children to do the same.

Topics like police brutality and racial profiling can be overwhelming and frightening to children of all races, but we can also use these conversations to empower them. “Rocking the boat” starts with finding the words to describe what’s happening and how it makes us feel—and then turning these words into beacons of inspiration, hope, and change.

We are being called to help our children find their voice, and I can think of no better vehicle than Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice (Ages 8-12). Historically, poets have been on the forefront of social movements. Here, Mahogany L. Browne’s poems sit alongside those from Elizabeth Acevedo and Olivia Gatwood, serving as “instruction manuals and anthems,” as “literary heartbeats and blueprints of survival,” for our children to sift through cruelty and injustice and find the words and courage to speak out about them. Several of the poems address racial history and discrimination. Others speak to gender bias, immigration, activism, body image, physical disability, intersectionality, and our relationship with nature. Taken as a whole, the poems celebrate a definition of community that’s richer for its diversity of voices, skin colors, and genders. Double-page illustrations by Theodore Taylor III enhance the vibrancy of the poems. As “Instructions on Listening to the Trees” concludes, “We are all part of someone else’s journey/ That’s the way communities are built/ Each root sprawling toward the edge of an infinite smile.”

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A Light in the Dark: Three New Read-Aloud Chapter Books

May 14, 2020 § 3 Comments

It has been said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes, but—at least, while quarantined—I can now add a third. Every morning for the past two months, the same conversation has transpired as soon as the breakfast dishes are cleared, around 8:15am.

Me: “OK, kids, head to the couch for read-aloud time.”

My son: “What? No! I need to get upstairs to get ready for school!” (“Getting ready for school” means opening up his Chromebook, clicking on a Zoom link, and waiting for the administrator to let him into the meeting…45 minutes before said meeting actually starts.)

Me: “Your class doesn’t start until 9am.”

Him: “But sometimes they come on early!”

Me: “You don’t need to stare at a screen any more than is necessary. Park your tush next to your sister.”

Every morning, we have this same exchange. Every single morning. For the record, I always win. I only insist on one tiny little fragment of consistency during corna-time and it’s that the kids and I spend forty minutes every morning reading aloud. It’s how we connect before dispersing into our own “virtual” agendas. It’s how we remind ourselves that the world still exists outside our doors, that it waits patiently for us to return, that it invites us to visit in our imaginations until we can come in person. It’s how we remind ourselves that we don’t have to leave the house to get our minds blown.

Quite simply, reading aloud is the one light in these dark days that we can always count on.

As soon as my fidgety, eager-for-that-screen-fix tween sits down on that couch and tunes into my voice, he doesn’t want to be anywhere else. I know this because he gasps the loudest, laughs the hardest, leans in the closest. Reading aloud to tweens and teens can initially seem like an uphill battle, but it’s almost always worth the struggle. In our family, it’s non-negotiable. And it always, always leaves them begging for more…even if just a few minutes earlier they were all too happy to skip it.

In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be doing a gargantuan middle-grade round up with favorite new books to put in front of your kiddos for independent reading. Today, though, I want to share three new middle-grade novels which lend themselves especially well to reading aloud, as evidenced by our own experience. Their genres—fantasy, comedy, and historical fiction—couldn’t be more different, but their characters, prose, and stories are similarly unforgettable.

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Concluding Black History Month on the Train

February 27, 2020 Comments Off on Concluding Black History Month on the Train

Every year, once in the fall and once in the spring, I take each of my children on a mommy-and-me trip to New York City for a long weekend in the city where I grew up. We board the train in Alexandria, Virginia and make stops in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; Newark, Delaware; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and, finally, New York City, Penn Station. My kids have come to enjoy the train ride almost as much as the destination itself, glancing up from their books to watch the changing scenery speeding by—there is something innately lolling and contemplative about train travel—and anticipating the stops to come.

These same train stops come to life against an important and fascinating historical backdrop in Overground Railroad (Ages 4-9), a new picture book by superstar husband-and-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, whose Before She Was Harriet I praised around this same time last year. “Isn’t it supposed to be “Underground Railroad?” my daughter asked, when I picked up the book to read it to her. Admittedly, I was equally stumped. As the Author’s Note explains, most people are familiar with the covert network known as the Underground Railroad, which assisted runaway slaves on their journey to the North, usually on foot. Lesser known but often equally secretive, the Overground Railroad refers to the train and bus routes traveled by millions of black Americans during the Great Migration, a time when former slaves opted to free themselves from the limitations and injustices of sharecropping to seek out better employment and educational opportunities in the North. Faced with the threat of violence from the owners of these tenant farms, who relied on the exploitation of sharecroppers for their livelihood, those who escaped often had to do so under cover of night.

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Taking Up Space (A Black History Month Post)

February 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

In her modern dance classes, my daughter cherishes above all the few minutes devoted to “sparkle jumps.” One by one, the dancers crisscross the studio at a run. As each one reaches the middle, she explodes into a leap, arms reaching up and out, head tall, like the points of a star. For one perfect moment, my daughter takes up as much space as her little body will allow.

“I love watching you take up space,” I tell her. « Read the rest of this entry »

Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. « Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing Activism to Children

November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments

Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer & Christopher EliopoulosIn light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.

What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened? « Read the rest of this entry »

The Right to Vote

February 11, 2016 § 6 Comments

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah WinterWith such a heated presidential election upon us, voting has been a popular topic of conversation in our house. My eight year old is trying to make sense of the candidate names he has heard; and he repeatedly asks my husband and I who we “want to win” this November, convinced with that blind, beautiful eight-year-old innocence that his parents’ choice must be the right one. (I’m tempted to blow his mind by telling him that his dad and I might each want someone different.)

The right to vote may be one that many of us Americans take for granted today (much like trying on shoes at a store—see last year’s post for Black History Month); and yet, it also seems to inspire a certain awe in our children. Or at least it did in me when I was young. My mother would take me along when she voted in major elections. We’d wait in line, hand in hand, and then part of me would cringe in betrayal when at last it was her turn and she would pull the curtain closed around the voting booth, leaving her on one side and me on the other. I would strain to see her shadow beneath the curtain, trying to make heads or tails of what she was doing in there. “Can’t I come in with you?” I’d lament. “Isn’t it unsafe to leave me out here all alone?” I’d try. But her answer was always the same: “Voting is private. What I do in here is nobody’s business but my own.” That night, I’d try harassing my father: “But you did vote for who you said you were going to, right?” “That’s for me to know,” my dad would reply, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. « Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Activism (In Honor of Black History Month)

February 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. LewisLast spring, I took my then three year old daughter shopping for shoes. It was a rainy Saturday, we had just come from her first early morning soccer practice (to which she had worn rain boots), and with plenty of time to kill before lunch, I figured we’d hunt down some sensible, sports-worthy sneakers. As we stepped, hand in hand, through the automatic doors and into the giant monstrosity that is Rack Room, it occurred to me that I had never taken her shopping before. I was feeling a little giddy.

We soon found ourselves standing before towering steel shelves, endless rows filled with mix-matched boxes of child-sized sneakers. “Let’s see,” I said, pulling down a Nike box with a pair of bright turquoise Velcro sneakers. “How about these?”

There was a squeal. “Mommy, look! These ones over here have PRINCESSES on them!” “Oh, wait! Look at that girl over there: she’s got on shoes that LIGHT UP! Those are the ones! Those are the ones I want!”

I started to panic. Oh right, this is why I have never taken her shopping. Why did I forsake my precious Zappos for this place?! As the steel walls and high-pitched whining began to close in on me, I made a quick decision. « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »

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