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.« Read the rest of this entry »
Rich in Stories
May 7, 2020 § 4 Comments
For many of us following stay-at-home orders, social media is a welcome lifeline to the outside world. And yet, its lure can be as powerful as its trapping. If occasionally I used to fall down the rabbit hole of comparing my children’s accomplishments to those paraded out on Facebook, I now find myself in weaker moments comparing houses. We may be leading similar lives—working, schooling, eating at home—but our backdrops are wildly different. Maybe I’d be going less crazy if I looked out my window and saw mountains. Sure would be nice to have a swimming pool in my backyard. Sure would be nice to have any backyard. Oh man, are they at their river house right now? I’m sure I could homeschool better if we had a creek.
Of course, these thoughts are inane. Inanely unproductive. Inanely indulgent. At no time for my generation has it been more of a blessing to have our health and a roof over our heads. Not to mention money for food and ample time to steer our children through these rocky waters.
Still, I would be lying if I said there aren’t cracks in my resolve to be gracious and mindful.
With our recent move, our living space has been significantly downsized. I can’t spit without hitting another person. Heck, I can hardly do anything without being watched or whined at. My husband gave me grief for packing up no fewer than four boxes of books to bring with us to these temporary digs. But you know what? We are rich in stories. We have stories painted with breathtaking backdrops, stories which quicken our pulse or tug at our heart or seduce us with beauty…all from the cozy confines of our couch. Some days, I look at the piles of books haphazardly lying around and I think, Why does no one clean up? Most days, I look at them and think, We are the luckiest.
One need look no further than Aesop’s fables for proof that stories have long been offering hope in turbulent times. Tales like “The Lion and the Mouse” (or my favorite as a parent, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”) have been told and retold around the world for 2,500 years. Until now, I didn’t realize that the allegedly true story of Aesop himself—a slave in Ancient Greece who earned his freedom through storytelling—also bears telling, lending meaningful context to Aesop’s beguiling fables while offering proof that stories are richer than gold.
Ian Lendler’s 63-page trove, The Fabled Life of Aesop (Ages 5-9), luminously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, is not your typical picture book biography. It’s more of an anthology of fables encased in a broader, biographical context. Like an onion, each turn of the page reveals another layer of story and art, the sum of which is one of the most spellbinding books of 2020. It can be read in a single sitting or paged through out of order. If we’re talking about losing ourselves in the sublime for a time, this is just the ticket.
Moving the Classroom to the Woods
March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments
(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)
It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.
We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.
You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.
Never Too Old to Learn
January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments
Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.
“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”
“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.
Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”
On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”
Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.
2019 Gift Guide: Nonfiction Favs for Ages 4-14
December 5, 2019 § 8 Comments
Our children are blessed to be growing up at a time when kids’ nonfiction is being published almost as rapidly as fiction—and with as much originality! On this comprehensive list you’ll find new books for a range of ages on a range of subjects, including geology, biology, astronomy, art, World War Two, American History, survival, current events…and even firefighting. (Psst, I’m saving nonfiction graphic novels for the next post, just to give you something to look forward to.) Hooray for a fantastic year for nonfiction!
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 »
The Right to Vote
February 11, 2016 § 6 Comments
With 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 »
Connecting Through Diversity
March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
A 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 »
“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”
February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment
My wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).
Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). « Read the rest of this entry »
Changing the World Through Song: A Post for MLK Jr. Day
January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment
Last year’s post, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, continues to be one of my most read and shared posts. I don’t think there’s any way to top Kadir Nelson’s moving picture book biography of King, so I thought I’d talk this year, not about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but about his followers—the ones who marched, the ones who stood up for what they believed, the ones who sang. I was giddy with excitement to discover Debbie Levy’s new picture book, We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (Ages 5-10)—one, because I have always loved that song (it crops up at surprising times, like when I’m hiding in the bathroom in an attempt to keep from screaming at my children); and two, because music has recently taken our house by a storm. « Read the rest of this entry »
Eyes on Abraham Lincoln
February 12, 2013 Comments Off on Eyes on Abraham Lincoln
You might expect that my children, living so close to Washington DC, have many opportunities to learn about our nation’s history. But mere proximity does not a future scholar make. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, is consistently celebrated by my five year old as “the place where we picnic in the summer!” If you ask him the name of the president that sits in stone behind him during said picnics, he is likely to throw you a disinterested look and recommence staring out the car window, pointing out other landmarks whose names he boasts correctly but whose significance he understands not. Which begs the question: How do we get our kids to care about the past presidents that have shaped our country?
The biographies we read as kids were filled with dry facts and black-and-white photographs that made their content feel all too disconnected from our daily lives; too often we were encouraged to memorize names and dates for tests, only to forget them a week later. Thankfully, our own kids have access to a whole new generation of fresh reading material, including picture books that breathe colorful new life into historic periods and events.