Deepening Our Definition of American

November 16, 2021 § 5 Comments

We’ll be back with more installments of my Gift Guide later this week, but I’m hitting pause to talk about a book that released today, one that could be the most important book we share with our kids this month. It also happens to be one of the most gorgeously composed and illustrated long-form picture books I have ever seen. Come for the anti-racist education; stay for the exceptional execution.

A picture book stirringly penned in verse for older children, The 1619 Project: Born on the Water (Ages 7-12) chronicles the consequences of American slavery and the history of Black resistance. Co-written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning creator of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and bestselling children’s author, Renée Watson, and exquisitely illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, it’s a book for every kind of American reader. Make no mistake: it’s a book that speaks to the atrocities of our past, but it is not a book that leaves readers in despair. This is a book that educates, inspires, and emboldens.

The social justice protests that swept our country last year quickly gave way to cries for books by Black and other marginalized creators to assume a more prominent place in our homes, libraries, and schools. Parents were DMing me daily, asking for books to introduce conversations about race and racism, even and especially among young children. Seemingly overnight, anti-racist education was valued, if long-overdue.

Now, one year later, conservative backlash has thrown us into a culture war that threatens to undermine anti-racist learning by removing books touching on racial history and discrimination from classrooms, with the alleged accusation that they are “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”

Have the folks who seemingly fear the power of these stories actually read them? One of the books on the receiving end of this vitriol is Kelly Yang’s Front Desk series, semi-autobiographical stories about a Chinese immigrant girl who helps her parents manage a motel and, as Yang said Sunday in a social media post about this backlash, is just “trying to get through school without someone making fun of her for her floral pants!” My daughter was recently asked to list her favorite books, and she ranked this series #2 after Harry Potter. Some might say there is no higher praise.

For my daughter, these and other books starring Brown and Black protagonists are “window” stories; what about children for whom they are “mirrors?” Should only some Americans see themselves reflected in literature? America is an indisputably diverse country with an indisputably complicated history. When we gloss over the experience of marginalized people, we are not giving our children—the hope for the future—access to the diversity that underscores our democratic promise.

Books like Front Desk, which reflect individual immigrant experiences, as well as books like Born on the Water, which address the resilience of a people born out of the forced passage from one country to another, do not illicit shame in the white children lucky enough to read them. These are stories of “determination, imagination, faith,” a refrain repeated in the latter book. They are stories about the will to survive and the power of the human spirit, not at the expense of others, but alongside them. They are books that make me proud to be an American, not for the wrongs of the past, but for the opportunities to right those wrongs, to build a nation that strives for justice and equality for all its people. A place where compassion is valued as much as health and prosperity.

If our children do not have the opportunity to engage in nuanced conversations about oppression, when we gloss over key issues in our history that are deeply intertwined with race and racism, then we fail them as parents and educators. When we take away stories with the capacity to ignite their imaginations, we deny them a chance to know their own minds. When we take away stories that give them language to talk about difficult issues, we silence them. When we take away stories rich in truth, beauty, and hope, we make it less likely that they will be emboldened enough to share their own.

With that in mind, I invite you to take a look at the triumphant Born on the Water. As we head into Thanksgiving, did you know that 400 years ago, a whole year before the Mayflower arrived, there was a ship called the White Lion that brought slaves to our shores? This ship isn’t studied in most schools; and yet, it’s as integral to the history of this country as the Europeans who settled here, not to mention the Native peoples who were here before them. I am grateful to have the opportunity to correct this wrong with my own children.

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Zoe Washington’s “Good Trouble”

July 23, 2020 § 1 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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