By Emily Pilkington
If you’re like me, the last few weeks have been heavy. Pain and tension are palpable. We don’t just read them in headlines and social media feeds, but on the faces of people we know. I’m a white woman from a middle-class background and a community where most people look a lot like me. Given my context, it can be easy to overlook, misunderstand, and dismiss the pain of others.
I was first confronted with the danger of this line of thinking during my time as a public school teacher. Many of my students had life experiences that were different than my own. Gracious men and women of color were willing to share their hearts and lives with me. These friendships have increased my awareness of how limited and oversimplified my perspective and understanding of the world are.
Motherhood has added another layer:
How can I help my children listen to, understand, and value those whose lives don’t look like theirs?
This question has led me back to one of the tools I found most helpful as a teacher: children’s literature.
A perk of this unusual summer is that many families have additional time together. Use it to read and listen to a diverse set of important voices.
Here is a short list of favorites to get you started. The library just partially reopened. And Skylark Bookstore also has many of these titles available that you can purchase while also supporting a local business. Both are offering curbside pickup.
Books that help us understand, appreciate, and celebrate the ways we are different:
Have you ever experienced an event with someone else, only to realize your interpretations of what happened were completely different? Voices in the Park by Anthony Browne tells the story of a trip to the park using different perspectives and whimsical illustrations. This helps children of all ages better understand this phenomenon.
As a teacher, I had the opportunity to teach and learn from many children learning English as a second language. Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words, Spoken Pictures by Aliki helped our class put ourselves in the shoes of our friends experiencing this. My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recovertis and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting do so as well.
Langston Hughes’ famous poem My People comes to life with stunning photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr. This book celebrates the unique beauty of the African American experience. I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley similarly shares the story of a young girl learning to enjoy the uniqueness of her hair.
God’s Very Good Idea by Trillia Newbell helps us see that our differences are God’s good gift to us.
Books that help us understand, appreciate, and celebrate the way we are alike:
Whoever You Are and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox illustrate the way the human experience is the same despite our many differences. Both were simple enough for me to share when my children were babies. But they were also complex and poetic enough to engage the first graders in my former classroom.
It is important to deal directly with issues related to race and ethnicity. But it’s equally significant to tell stories of everyday childhood experiences with main characters that represent a variety of backgrounds.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first to do this well. Winning the Caldecott Medal for the best illustrations in 1963, Keats tells the simple story of Peter. Peter is a young Black boy enjoying a fresh snowfall in a way that all Missouri children are likely to connect with.
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman provides young African American girls the opportunity to see themselves as the heroine in a well done, everyday school story. A Chair for My Mother by Vera B. Williams tells the story of Rosa, her mom (who is a single parent), and her Abuela in a way that clearly communicates the normal, everyday family love that resonates with many of us. In Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, a little girl looks past her day-to-day for the beauty in each moment. And Eloise Greenfield’s Honey, I Love offers unforgettable poetry that does the same.
Finally, The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey tells the story of an African American boy completing an early morning paper route.
Books that Provide a Historical Context for the Pain of Our Neighbors:
Kwame Alexander’s Undefeated has been heralded as a love letter to Black life in the United States, chronicling the pain, brutality, triumph, and perseverance of countless historical events and heroes through a well-illustrated poem
Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles tells the story of two friends who share many things in common except for one important difference—Joe is white and John Henry is Black. Living in the south in the 1960s means that the two friends must struggle with the ugliness of the world they live in.
Freedom on the Menu by Carole Boston Weatherford tells the story of the 1960 Lunch Counter Sit-Ins through the perspective of a young girl named Connie who is shopping with her mother.
Other notable books that speak about the Civil Rights movement in developmentally appropriate ways include:
- The Otherside by Jacqueline Woodson
- The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles
- Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport
- Rosa by Nikki Giovanni
- Grandmama’s Pride by Becky Birtha
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is the story of a Japanese American boy who is sent to an internment camp with his family shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Obviously issues of injustice are not unique to the American experience.
It is far more pervasive in a post-Genesis 3 world. Several great titles that tackle these issues in other world regions include:
- When Gogo Went to Vote by Elinor Batezat Sisulu (Post-Apartheid South Africa)
- Walking to School by Eve Bunting (Protestant/Catholic tensions in Northern Ireland)
- Passage to Freedom by Ken Mochuizuki (the story of a Japanese diplomat to Lithuania during WWII who assisted thousands of Jews in escaping the Holocaust)
- My Freedom Trip by Frances and Ginger Park (the story of one family’s escape from North Korea to freedom in the south)
Picture books are not just for small children. Many of these will captivate upper-elementary and middle-school-aged children as well. But for more ideas, check out this list for ten recommendations of important novels to read with older children this summer.