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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2017 Gift Guide (No. 2): For the Change Agent

December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments

How do we right a wrong? When do we speak out? At what cost to us?

These are some of the questions posed quietly but provocatively in Wishtree (Ages 7-12), the latest chapter book by Katherine Applegate, award-winning author of The One and Only Ivan and Crenshaw (yes, you will cry in this new one, too). In today’s installment of my Gift Guide, I’m giving Wishtree its own due—deliberately not bundling it in my forthcoming post on middle-grade reads—because it lends itself so beautifully, so ardently, to sharing aloud. (Said differently: it’s not action-packed, so if your children are like mine, they may not pick it up on their own.) At just over 200 pages, with 51 short chapters, it’s not a long or difficult read. But its smaller-than-usual trim size gives it immediate intimacy, and the discussions it encourages—about what we want our community to look like and what we’re prepared to do about it—may just make change agents of us all. « 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 »

Changing the World Through Song: A Post for MLK Jr. Day

January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a SongLast 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 »

Saving the Trees

April 22, 2013 § 2 Comments

The LoraxEarlier today, in honor of Earth Day, I shared Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax (Ages 5-10) with the elementary children at my son’s Montessori school. While most people associate Dr. Seuss with the nonsensical but catchy I-Can-Read titles, like Green Eggs and Ham, I would argue that his narrative poems—his longer, more complex, often moralistic stories—were actually his greatest gift to children. Not only do these stories showcase a mastery of rhyme that is virtually unmatched in contemporary children’s literature, but many of them also serve as cautionary tales, introducing children to the dangers of things like running away from your problems (I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew), or prejudice (The Sneetches), or, as in the case of The Lorax, industrialization at the expense of natural resources.

The Lorax, a “brownish,” “mossy,” raspy-voiced creature, who famously utters, “I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues,” may have been conjured up by Dr. Seuss in 1971, but his environmental message resonates just as clearly today. And yet, there’s a second hero in this story, one with greater power than The Lorax himself. I’m referring to the unnamed child, who appears at the beginning and the end of the story—the one to whom the Once-ler relates (and repents) his decision to knit every last Truffula Tree into an ambiguous but allegedly multipurpose Thneed, “which everyone, EVERYONE, EVERYONE needs.” This child, to whom the Once-ler entrusts the very last Truffula seed, along with instructions to nurture it with water and clean air, literally holds the future of the planet in his hands; he is the reader’s hope for a happy ending. « Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Gift Guide 2012 (No. 4): Books For the Hero Within

December 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Boy Who Harnessed the WindBenjamin Franklin once penned: “If you would not be forgotten/ As soon as you are dead and rotten,/ Either write things worth reading,/ Or do things worth the writing.” OK, that might not be a quote we need to read aloud to our young children, but its sentiment can and should inform the books we choose to share with them.

The genre of biographies written for children is taking off like never before; it seems not only are parents and educators seizing the chance to inspire our young ones with tales of historical figures, but kids themselves are embracing these literary opportunities to inform their own choices, to pave their own paths worth living. And it’s no accident that many of this past year’s biographies are picture books: against a backdrop of beautiful art and poetic text, stories about scientists, writers, inventors, artists, and peacemakers become that much more gripping. The books listed at the end of this post are treasures worth giving and owning; their artistic caliber alone makes them a far cry from the dry, fact-filled paperbacks that we once suffered through for school reports.

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