Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Talking with Kids about Ferguson: Recommended Titles on Race & Equality

It's been a heck of a few weeks, has it not? In addition to Sprout starting kindergarten today (wha???), which has taken up most of my free brain space, there's the situation surrounding the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Events are continuing to unfold, but one thing is pretty clear to all involved - this was about far more than the death of one young man, tragic as that death may have been.

I have my opinions on this issue, and I'm betting many of you can guess where my sympathies lie. I'm not going to be debating the events in this space, however. It's a discussion that needs to happen, and I'm fully invested in that, but in other arenas. Instead, what I want to do today is share some resources for initiating a conversation about race and justice with the children in your life. That's where I feel change can begin - with talking openly about the history of our country, honestly looking at events that have transpired, and considering where we can go from here, as a nation and as individuals.

So, without further ado - my picks surrounding African Americans' struggle for civil rights, to help provide some context to discussing Ferguson in the classroom, library or at home:

1. Let's Talk about Race by Julius Lester - (Ages 4-8) Possibly my favorite book ever to discuss race and difference between people. Lester acknowledges that race is important, and an element in everyone's story, and explores why difference can divide, or bring us together. Critical for every classroom or library.

2. We March by Shane W. Evans (Ages 4-6) - a family participates in the March on Washington, showing the power of individuals joining together to make their voices heard. Great introductory piece for young children, with a nice afterword for further discussion.

3. Ron's Big Mission by Rose Blue and Corinne J. Naden (Ages 3-6) - a young boy is denied a library card because he is black - but Ron doesn't let it go, and stages a protest for the right to access the books he loves. Based on the true story of astronaut Ron McNair, this is one of the first books about race we read with Sprout, and he still remembers it.

4. Belle, the Last Mule at Gee's Bend by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Bettye Stroud (Ages 5-8) - a fictionalized account of true events surrounding the drive to register to vote, and the fallout that happened when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. This vivid title doesn't shy away from relating hard truths, but is beautifully done.

5. Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney (Ages 7-10) - At the core of the Civil Rights Movement is nonviolent protest, and the Pinkneys demonstrate that in action with their account of the 1960 protest at the Woolworth lunch counter. A tremendous example of the small acts of injustice that wore away at African Americans daily, and how they stood up to gain basic freedoms.

6. Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges (Ages 8-12) - the firsthand account of a young black girl at the forefront of the movement to integrate public schools in 1960. The power of this first-person narrative draws readers in and provides plenty to think and talk about.

7. Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott by Russell Freedman (Ages 8-12) - a nonfiction piece that explores the entire history of this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement, giving context for the boycott and explaining how organized resistance brought about change. Illustrated with powerful photos, full of citations and additional reading suggestions.

8. Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson (Ages 9 up) - a stunning portrait of black history in the United States, covering the entirety of the stuggle for equality and acceptance. This should be required reading for all Americans, in my opinion - much of the history Nelson provides is often glossed over in regular history classes. Simply the finest title out there.

9. One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia (Ages 9 up) - Set a little later than many of the other choices here, this novel brings to life the late 60's and the rise of the Black Panthers. By setting her story against that of three sisters reconnecting with their absentee mother, Williams-Garcia personalizes the events and helps readers see a different view of the much-maligned organization. (Even better on audio.)

10. Revolution by Deborah Wiles (Ages 10 up) - this novel, the second in Wiles's Sixties Trilogy, is densely populated with facts that underscore the fiction. Students of history will appreciate the many small threads that Wiles weaves into this story, set in Mississippi during Freedom Summer; the shifting perspective of white and black characters adds power to the narrative.

11. Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Philip Hoose (Age 12 up) - Hoose's award-winning title recounts the true story of Claudette Colvin, a teenager whose refusal to move to the back of the bus preceded Rosa Parks's by several months. Colvin's actions were instrumental in the beginnings of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but her story was mostly forgotten; Hoose corrects this wrong with a striking story of one girl at the epicenter of a vast political movement.

12. They Called Themselves the KKK by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (Age 13 up) - I've often wondered how an organization based on hate could get its start, and this book pulls back the curtain. This is a difficult title, so best for older readers - Bartoletti is unflinching in her examination of the cruelty and bloodshed that spawned this group, and I think this is an important read to understand not only Jim Crow and segregation, but also the roots of the Civil Rights Movement.

13. When Thunder Comes by J. Patrick Lewis (Age 12 up) - the struggle for civil rights is of course not confined to the United States. Here, with a powerful collection of poetry, Lewis brings voice to the leaders of civil rights struggles the world over, including many who are familiar and some that will be entirely new. An intensely personal volume, and one that will linger in the heart and mind of the reader.

In addition, here are some more resources for discussing civil rights, protest, inequality and the events both past and current:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Picture Book Review - The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

One thing that I think is often overlooked in the discussion about diverse books for kids is that we need to be reading books by diverse authors. Of course kids need to see a wide representation of individuals as characters in books, but they also need to know that children's book creators themselves come in a wide variety of shades, genders, abilities and so forth.

It's especially great when you can flip to an author photo and show your child someone who looks like them, or read about someone who was born in another country like they were. This might require us as parents and educators to look beyond our familiar stable of authors and illustrators, but I promise you, the results are worth it.

Get a load of that cover! Tonight's pick, The Midnight Library, is written and illustrated by Kazuno Kohara, a very talented author/illustrator who just happens to be from Japan. Sprout has a soft spot for the country since one of his favorite adults, Miss Yuki, is also from Japan -- in fact, for a while he was telling us he wanted to be an astronaut and live in Japan when he's a grown-up. (Not sure how active the Japanese space program is, but he likes sushi so I think he'd be happy there!).

Sprout loved the other Kohara book we read (Ghosts in the House!), and naturally I wanted to read The Midnight Library because, hello, library. I'm pleased to report that our expectations for this one were met and even exceeded. Kohara's managed to create a book with a very classic feel but that's also got modern sensibilities. The story centers around a little girl who runs, with the help of three owl assistants, a library that opens at midnight. Why midnight? Who knows, who cares - it's charming enough of an idea that it doesn't need explaining.

The patrons in The Midnight Library  have various issues, all of which the little librarian and her assistants handle ably and efficiently. Book too sad? They all read the book together to get past the sad part. Can't leave the book behind when it's time to go? Sign up for a library card. No matter the problem, the librarian has an answer -- reinforcing all the myriad ways that libraries can meet people's needs. That's a message I never get tired of hearing, and I love that Kohara has reinforced it in such a sweet title. And those illustrations. . . the woodblock technique coupled with the retro color palette makes for a real winner in our book.

Check out The Midnight Library for a title bursting with whimsy and sly bookishness - it's a great way to end any evening storytime!

The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara, published by Roaring Brook Press
Ages 3-5
Source: Library
First lines: "Once there was a library that opened only at night. / A little librarian worked there with her three assistant owls."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Picture Book Review - The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall

Quick: name for me one book about where babies come from that is equal parts informative and funny. Can't do it, can you? That's because most of those books fall into one category or another: seriously dry yet factual, or silly and completely untrue. And no matter which camp they fall into, none of these books are the kind you really want to put on the regular bedtime reading rotation.

So let me first say that Sprout has not yet asked us THE question, but I know it's just a matter of time. And once he does, I finally, finally know how we're going to respond -- by reaching over to the bookshelf and grabbing Sophie Blackall's excellent picture book The Baby Tree, which is top of my list for books on the subject of babies and all that jazz. It's not just helpful, it's also a fun one to read (whew!).

With Blackall's trademark whimsical illustrations, The Baby Tree starts out to be a crowdpleaser right from the first page. Our hero gets up one morning and discovers that his parents have some news for him. You can guess what it is, of course, but our guy's more interested at first in having more cocopops. Soon, though, he gets to thinking about this baby's arrival and just where the kid is coming from. And he begins asking all the significant grownups, each of whom have an answer that ends up to be part of the truth (except Grandpa). The boy puts it all together at the end, when his parents finally tell him the whole story. Now all our boy needs to do is straighten out Grandpa. . . .

Let me reassure you here that Blackall handles this all in a sensitive, age-appropriate fashion. In fact, it's so tactful that your little one might have any followup questions the first time you read it -- but just in case they do, Blackall has a nice Q&A at the end of the book. (It even addresses topics like same-sex parents and adoption.) So when reading this with the littlest ones, the text may be enough, while for older kiddos you may decide to consult the talking points - you know, if you're not sure just what to say.

That said, I also appreciate that The Baby Tree not only deals honestly with a sensitive topic, but does it by incorporating some diversity into the mix. Sure, the main character and his family are white, but there's plenty of other hues in the babies and in our little boy's classmates. Score one for Blackall for recognizing that even topics like this need to be inclusive -- it's definitely a step in the right direction, in my view. Now, if we could just get diverse books about toothbrushing or potty training. . .

UPDATE: I'd written this post but not published it when Sprout came home from preschool and announced that one of the teachers has a baby in her tummy. Woot woot! I was ready! We read The Baby Tree last night and I'm pleased to say that Sprout thought the narrative answered his questions. So at least for now, we're out of the woods on that topic. Ms. Blackall, you have our many thanks. :)

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall, published by Nancy Paulsen Books
Ages 5-8
Source: Library

Monday, August 4, 2014

Chapter Book Review - The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern

How do you find out about great books? That's a question people often ask me, and it's kind of weird for me to answer, really, because so much of my life is steeped in bookish-ness. I keep close tabs on the publishing industry for work, but also because I'm just plain nerdy, and I can't help myself. Along the way I've picked up a number of fantastic blogs and websites that I follow (someday I will write a detailed post of all of them, honest), as well as trade publications. And when I start to see the same title cropping up in all my usual haunts, well then, I feel sure it's a sign from above pointing me toward that particular book.

'Cause that's how fate works, right?

Today's title is one that I first heard about through the goddess of all kidlit bloggers, Betsy Bird, when her blog Fuse #8 premiered the trailer for The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern. I mean, that book trailer -- I defy anyone to watch that sucker and *not* want to start reading the book immediately. So I waited somewhat impatiently for the book to arrive at my library and then downed it in one sitting. And subsequently could not stop thinking about the book, it's that good. Definitely a sleeper hit of the year for me.

It's the voice of Maggie, the main character, that really stuck with me. Maggie's entirely original, unlike anyone else you're liable to run across in chapter books. She's self-assured and knows what she wants -- to be the president of the US, a Wall Street tycoon (starting with her first share of Coca-Cola stock) and also to fix her dad. Because the thing is, Maggie's dad's legs started to fall asleep a while back, and now they're all the way asleep. And some other stuff is happening too, like Maggie's mom getting a job at a hotel, Maggie's sort-of long-lost grandmother coming to visit, and Maggie's sister kissing a boy on the couch. Oh, and that guy Clyde who Maggie can't get out of her head. Wow, is middle school a crazy time -- you can understand why a girl gets upset when her Halloween candy stash runs low.

The Meaning of Maggie is Sovern's debut, but you can tell by the end of the first chapter that this author has some serious chops as far as novel-writing goes. She keeps the pace moving along, and strikes a nice balance between emotion and hilarity. Maggie's family is dealing with some tough stuff -- we find out about halfway through that her dad has MS, and it's getting progressively worse -- and kids who have been in a similar situation will find much to relate to here. But this is a great title for all kids, all people really, to read, in order to build empathy and help people understand what it's like to love someone with a disability. Maggie plainly adores her dad, and the toll his disease takes on her whole family is tough. But through it all, the family sticks together, and their bond just continues to grow.

Like Wonder and Mockingbird, The Meaning of Maggie is a novel that can start conversations: about ability, difference, emotions and the meaning of "normal". Read this smart, sassy, very real novel now, then share it with every kid you know -- Maggie's the kind of girl who needs all the readers she can get.

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern, published by Chronicle Books
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "I'm feeling about a million things at this moment. And I guess the only thing I'm not feeling now is hungry because I just ate that entire Little Debbie even though I double swore to myself that I'd wait until Dad woke up to share it. But I couldn't help it. I'm tired. I slept on a floor last night. In a hospital waiting room. Next to my sister who kicked the dickens out of me with her perfect legs all night long."

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Chapter Book Review - The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang

Confession: I do not long for the bygone days of my youth. For the most part, they weren't all that great, and I've no secret longing to relive them in any way, shape, or form. But I do sometimes find myself hankering to have one childhood experience once again: that of picking up a book you've never read and cracking the spine to find yourself peeking back at you.

Ever had that happen? If you ever were a misfit somewhat-on-the-fringe bookworm like I was, it might just have been your biggest relief. Seriously, there was little I found more comforting than knowing that I surely couldn't be the only one for whom middle school was pretty much torture, and then reading a book that showed me someone out there felt the same (and wrote the book about it).

Even today I love finding books like that, because they can be a lifeline for kids who are having the same experience right now. I think that's especially true for kids who stand out in some way, and often that's due to cultural differences in their family life. That's certainly the case for the title character in Wendy Wan-Long Shang's The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. Lucy is relatable, accessible and someone that middle-grade readers will recognize in the mirror, even if they don't share her Chinese-American heritage.

When we meet Lucy, she's primed for a great year in sixth grade. This is going to be her moment to shine, and nothing symbolizes that more than the fact that she'll no longer be sharing a room with her older sister Regina, who's off to college soon. But everything crashes down on Lucy when she finds out that her family will be hosting a visit from Auntie Yi Po, a relative Lucy's never even heard of, much less met. And just guess where Yi Po will be staying, when she's with the family for several months. If you picked Lucy's almost-all-hers bedroom, you win (but in Lucy's view, she loses).

Shang absolutely nails Lucy's experience of feeling like an outsider even in her own family. While her sister Regina "majored in Being Chinese", Lucy can't speak much of the language and finds pretty much all the food more than she can handle. Now with Yi Po in the house, Lucy's off to Chinese school on the weekends and missing out on basketball - and she's not shy about voicing her opinion, just as her parents aren't shy about expressing theirs. Lucy feels the friction of her two worlds, and struggles to find a balancing point between them. It's a realistic struggle, and the dynamics between the family members are always believable. 

I love the resolution that comes about, mostly because it rings absolutely right and true. You can feel Wendy Wan-Long Shang's passion for her subject and her devotion to making sure that young readers have a denouement that is both positive and plausible. Lucy Wu is a character kids will root for and relate to; though Shang is a debut author, her skills speak for themselves. Hand this to kids who love Judy Blume, Grace Lin or Beverly Cleary - and then we'll all be waiting on pins and needles to read more from this talented author!

The Great Wall of Lucy Wu by Wendy Wan-Long Shang, published by Scholastic
Ages 9-12
Source: Library
Sample: "Now the desk and bookcase formed a wall between the two beds. The Great Wall of Lucy Wu. When I lay down on my bed, all I could see was my side of the desk and the front of the bookcase. And I hid my favorite picture of my grandmother, the last one we took before she got sick, in my bookcase."