If you’re like me, the last week and really all of 2015-2016 has carried with it a sense of national and personal heaviness. Pain, division, and tension are palpable. If we’re willing, we read them not just in headlines and social media feeds, but on the faces of people we know. As a white woman from a middle-class background and a community where most people looked a lot like me, it has been historically easy for me to overlook, misunderstand, and dismiss the pain of others. My time as a public school teacher to children whose life experiences were different than my own was one of the first places where I was confronted with the danger in this line of thinking. In many ways, my students taught me just as much as I taught them.
As a new mom, I’ve felt the weight of this in a slightly more personal way. How can I help my son listen to, understand, and appreciate those whose lives don’t look like his? As I’ve processed, I’ve turned back to one of the tools I found most helpful as a teacher–children’s literature. While not meant to be an exhaustive list, here are five reasons I find sharing quality, multi-cultural children’s literature important as a Christian, a teacher, and a parent.
- I want my son to see, value, and affirm the Imago Dei in every person he comes in contact with. After understanding the Bible’s teaching on the subject, the two things that have helped me do this the most are having real, meaningful relationships with others whose perspective is different than my own and reading books that offer the same vantage point. This is essential for children as well.
- I want my son to understand the Gospel and its far reaching implications and that’s what racial reconciliation is ultimately all about. Revelation 7:9 reminds us that God is redeeming a people for himself from every tongue, tribe, and nation. As Russell Moore puts it in a recent blog post, “We are not just part of a coalition but part of a Body—a Body that is white and black and Latino and Asian, male and female, rich and poor. We are part of a Body joined to a Head who is an Aramaic-speaking Middle Easterner…We belong to each other because we belong to Christ.”
- When Jesus shares the “Greatest Commandment” of loving our neighbor as ourselves, He illustrates it using the parable of the Good Samaritan—a story that defines our neighbor not just as those who live in close physical proximity to us and not just as those who are like us. The person who shows mercy to the man in need is someone of another race, another religious background, and even someone who historically would’ve been viewed as the man’s enemy. Jesus commands us, regardless of age, to go and do likewise.
- It was essential for all children in my classroom to see themselves represented in the books, art, and history we shared as a community of learners. I wanted our classroom to be a place where everyone’s voice was valued, heard, and respected. As a teacher it was my responsibility to set this tone of affirming the dignity and worth of each individual. As a Christian, it was part of living out the Gospel in my vocation.
- Even if my classroom lacked racial diversity, sharing books like the ones listed below would’ve been just as important. If we don’t have the opportunity to directly meet and hear from others whose stories are different from our own, literature that has the ability to do so becomes even more critical.
Since I’m always looking for good book recommendations that encourage this type of thinking, I thought I’d share some of my own with the hopes of encouraging others who are also trying to do this type of good, Gospel work with children.
Books that help us understand, appreciate, and celebrate the ways we are different.
Have you ever experienced the exact same event with someone else only to realize your interpretation of what happened was completely different? In Voices in the Park, Anthony Browne helps children of all ages to better understand this phenomena by telling the story of a trip to the park using four different perspectives, whimsical illustrations, and thoughtful inner monologue.
During my time at Paxton Keeley Elementary School, I had the opportunity to teach and learn from many children and families learning English as a second language. Marianthe’s Story: Painted Words, Spoken Pictures by Aliki captured the hearts of both my first and fifth grade students as it helped us to put ourselves in the shoes of someone experiencing this. My Name Is Yoon by Helen Recovertis and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting are additional well done titles that address this as well.
Langston Hughes’ famous poem My People comes to life with stunning photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr. that celebrate the unique beauty of the African American experience. I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley does this as well by sharing the story of a young girl named Keyana learning to enjoy the uniqueness of her hair.
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 illustrates the way the human experience is the same despite our many differences. Both are books that are simple enough for me to share with my one year-old child but complex and poetic enough to engage the first graders in my former classroom. Repeating lines offer children the opportunity to be part of both the reading process and the celebration of the Imago Dei.
Drawing on photographs from National Geographic, Barbara Kerley shares a glimpse of what life around the world looks like for a variety of different people in One World, One Day and A Cool Drink of Water.
While books that share historical events and deal directly with issues related to race and ethnicity are important, literature that tells the story of everyday childhood experiences with main characters that represent a variety of backgrounds are equally significant. 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 a young African American boy enjoying a fresh snowfall in a way that all Missouri children are likely to connect with. While tackling the negative reaction several classmates have about a young African American girl playing the leading role of Peter Pan in a school play, Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman most of all 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, as does Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. Finally, The Paperboy by Dav Pilkey tells the story of a young African American boy completing an early morning paper route.
Books that Provide a Historical Context for the Pain of Our Neighbors
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 John Henry is unable to participate in many of the things Joe can do, including swimming in the public pool. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is passed, the two 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 in Greensboro, North Carolina 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, and Grandmama’s Pride by: Becky Birtha.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki is the story of a Japenese 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 Northen 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), and My Freedom Trip by Frances and Ginger Park (the story of one family’s escape from North Korea to freedom in the south.)