Category Archives: diversity

Not just for the 4th of July

blue skyI have such a deep admiration for Kadir Nelson’s work.  When I’m thinking of children’s displays, I often check to see if he’s done illustrations for books that would fit in with the theme, because they are always so perfect when they do.  His illustrations rarely even need words to accompany them, and he’s a genius at finding ways to amplify already powerful language, creating art that expands an idea as much as it represents it.  Adults who think they’re beyond picture books could benefit from a few hours just looking through his work.

Blue Sky, White Stars – from a poem by Sarvinder Naberhaus – is no exception.  Looking at these paintings, you see our country – not all of it good – in its many layers and complications.  For younger kids, it might be a simple walk through our past, our present and our future, but there is more if you take the time to look, and you should.  You really should.

Blue Sky, White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and Kadir Nelson

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Some of these are just for me

carrot and peaCarrot & Pea: an unlikely friendship is one of those incredibly sweet (not saccharine) picture books we could use to talk about tolerance and acceptance, how all of us have something to add to the world, no matter how different we look or seem to be.  And that is exactly what I thought when I read it last night.

And then I woke up this morning, wondering.  Why is the carrot a rectangular carrot stick and not a carrot with greens on top?  Or is it a carrot that’s been processed?  And all the peas are out of their pods, right?  So maybe these peas and carrots are in a vegetable processing plant, which makes the absence of other carrots suspicious.  Why is this carrot the only one?  What has happened to all of the other carrots?  Has there been some kind of epic disappearance?  A plague on carrots alone?

Ok, so maybe I think ridiculous things when I first wake up.  When I told my son about it, he said, “Well, obviously they’re all in a bag of frozen peas and carrots, and some human has eaten all the carrots but just can’t stand peas.  The carrot that’s left was just missed in the massacre.”

Well, at least I’m not the only one in the house with an imagination.

Read this one, though.  It’s a treat, as long as you can handle the suspense and sinking feeling that something is not quite right in Pealand.  Kidding.  Really.

Carrot & Pea: an unlikely friendship by Morag Hood

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What’s personal is political

dreamlandWill and Rowan are separated by close to a hundred years, but their efforts to confront racial discrimination and adapt to society’s expectations for them are strangely similar.  In the 1920s, Will has a tough time resisting the verbal and physical threats of Ku Klux Klan members who will eventually burn down the African-American part of Tulsa.  In the present day, Rowan isn’t sure she’s the right person to stand up, either.  Both characters make mistakes, alienate friends, and eventually find their way.

I’ll be interested to hear how readers who are African American or Native American see this book.  For me, it started a little slow, but became very compelling, especially since both sections mirror real history and current events.  I don’t know a person who hasn’t messed up something in adolescence, immediately regretted it, but then struggled with how to fix it.  It could provide a great starting point for discussions on race, expectations, and how we make choices.  The parallel lives also do a nice job of illuminating how much and how little changes over what seems like a long time.  It worked for me.  Give it a look.

Dreamland Burning  by Jennifer Latham

For another perspective, see this review at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

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Pathfinders and Visionaries

There’s nothing like a nasty cold to get me reading nonfiction.  I don’t know why.  Is it a strange attempt to keep some kind of grasp on reality?  Does it remind me how lucky I am compared to historical figures?  Do I just like the pictures?  No idea.

For whatever reason it happens, though, it’s a gift.

My latest cold brought me these two:

  • Pathfinders: The Journeys of 16 Extraordinary Black Souls by Tonya Bolden. Whether it’s Venture Smith’s memoir or Jackie Ormes and cartooning, there is much to learn here about both leaders and regular people.  There are a lot of pictures (yay!) and infographics, which help move the text along.  For kids learning about history and biography, this will be a great addition to the wide range of books highlighting forgotten historical figures which have come out in the last few years.
  • Ada’s Ideas: The Story of Ada Lovelace, the World’s First Computer Programmer by Fiona Robinson. Ada Lovelace keeps popping up lately.  Even though I knew her story, this picture book adds a joyful and creative boost to the mix.  The artwork is expressive and fun, and it manages to represent math concepts and the emotional struggles of a woman trying to excel within a system that limited her.

For more books with similar themes, see these past posts: (Women in science and math) (Smartypants biographies) (5 on getting the vote)

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Not so hidden now

hidden-figuresI haven’t seen Hidden Figures in the theater yet, but having just finished the young readers’ edition of the book, I can appreciate what we’ve been missing all these years—one more chapter of our history that should have included much, much more.  The African American women “computers,” mathematicians, and engineers who worked on the race to build better and faster aircraft and then the space program were up against a host of low expectations, not because they weren’t good at what they were doing, but because they were not white and not men.  It’s an inspiring story, and one that will be interesting to kids and teens on its own or as part of any curriculum that addresses the civil rights movement or how the workplace has changed for women since World War II.

Looking for more on women in science?  See this post for even more recent resources.

Hidden Figures: Young Readers’ Edition by Margot Lee Shetterly

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Everyone has a first day, even the school

schoolsfirstdayThis time of year, everyone is starting to shift into back-to-school mode, thinking about school supplies, new classes, new friends and first day jitters.  It’s wonderful to come across a new way to talk about first days, and I’m a fan of both Adam Rex (The True Meaning of Smekday) and Christian Robinson (Last Stop on Market Street), so I was excited to see their new collaboration, School’s First Day of School. 

Frederick Douglass Elementary is the new school on the block, and it’s not sure about what’s going to happen when children start coming every day.  Are children a good thing?  When the first day finally arrives, there are so many children everywhere, and they bump and stick things on the walls and snort milk out of their noses at lunch.  Sigh.

The art is perfect – children of all shapes, sizes, colors, and abilities – simple but bright and colorful, just as you’d hope the first day would be.  The story is also perfect, full of gentle humor and giving adults a great way to talk about how hard that transition can be.  Frederick Douglass Elementary is a little uncomfortable with all the new people.  What do you think about all the new people you see?  It could work on a first day, for the 100th day (How do you feel about school now compared to the first day?) or even the end of the year (Do you feel different about our school now?).

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex & Christian Robinson

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We make our own family – international & interspecies edition

what elephants know

Why was two-year-old Nandu being protected by a pack of wild dogs when Devi Kali (an elephant) found him?  Why would the head of one of the king’s elephant stables take him in?  Why would a retired, expatriate teacher care so much about him?  Or a holy man?

Nandu, it’s clear, has something special.  It could be his connection to animals or the way he navigates and understands the wildness around him.  The world of humans can be frightening and dangerous – bandits, false accusations, politics – but the world of the wild is one he understands.  It’s easy to see why he’d prefer life with his elephants over dealing with people who cheat and lie or only look out for themselves.

We’re lucky Nandu’s story was shared with us.  It’s clear from the author notes and praise that Eric Dinerstein, who spent years in Nepal researching animals, has a lot of other things going on.  We’re lucky, because Nandu’s story is one about a child bridging the old world and the new, learning how to adapt, figuring out what he cares about, and creating his own family.  It’s a story that speaks to many kids of all kinds of backgrounds in a quiet and powerful way.


What Elephants Know by Eric Dinerstein

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Not Awful. Love falafel…and the book, too


Cindy/Zomorod Yousefzadeh is living in 1970s California, just trying to be like everyone else.  She dreams of things like beanbags and gauchos and is frustrated by her parents’ insistence on hanging on to their life in Iran.  Sure, Cindy – as she wants to be known (like one of the Brady Bunch) – misses her cousins and other family still in Iran, but she would maybe like to fit in, too.

Her neighbors and friends at school don’t seem to really know much about Iran, at least not until the Shah is overthrown.  Suddenly, everyone has an opinion, and she has to explain her culture constantly, attention which she would happily avoid.  Before long, she finds herself trying to protect herself and her parents from ignorance and stereotyping.

What’s nice about this book is that it captures a moment – the 1979 Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis – from a unique perspective, one with a lot of humor which could provoke some really interesting conversations with kids.  Cindy and her family are not refugees, but as immigrants, they are outsiders.  Her father is a businessman working in the oil industry, but that doesn’t make them any less affected by the crisis when it happens.  How would moving to another country affect our perspective?  Would we be able to laugh about the embarrassing mistakes we made?  How would we react in Cindy’s situation?  How can you defend your country and culture without agreeing with what’s happening there?

It Ain’t So Awful, Falafel by Firoozeh Dumas

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Paper Wishes, stolen dreams

paper wishesManami is only ten when World War II disrupts her life on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. The government has decided that she and her family might not be loyal to the United States because of their Japanese heritage, and they are forced to relocate to one of the internment camps set up to imprison them.

Once there, she quits speaking, overcome by having to leave her dog behind after trying to smuggle him onto the train. In their own ways, she and her family adjust to the new life, but always, always, losing her dog comes back to haunt her.

Paper Wishes is a particularly well-timed book. Being in the middle of a political campaign means that we are constantly hearing about who we are as Americans – and in some camps also who isn’t a real American or truly loyal. For younger readers, it’s a vivid reminder of bad decisions we’ve made to punish whole groups of people because of their supposed beliefs or culture.

If you’re particularly interested in this topic, there are several newer books which revolve in some way around the World War II internment camps. The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell is a fascinating nonfiction read for adults.  Pam Munoz Ryan’s Echo, and Kirby Larson’s Dash are both wonderful for young readers in very different ways. Echo weaves together several interrelated stories; Dash focuses on a girl and her dog (as does Paper Wishes). Red Berries, White Clouds, Blue Sky by Sandra Dallas also tells a fictionalized version of life in the camps.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

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Journeys into different lives


“Apparently the length of a grown-up’s growing up story is determined by the difference between immigration and escape.” Enchanted Air, Margarita Engle.

The narrator of this memoir in verse travels through childhood, accompanied by her family and her dreams of the person she is or might be.  She is Cuban and American and Ukrainian, quiet and bold and scared and daring.  She lives her childhood intensely and colorfully on family trips to Cuba until the Cuban Missile Crisis brings FBI men and questions about loyalty and nasty comments from teachers.

Seeing the impact of global conflict on this one young person’s life brings a whole different level of clarity to current issues, too.  It’s not a big stretch to read this and think of how being a refugee in Sudan or Syria or any number of other places could affect a child.  Whether a refugee, an immigrant, or a child who sees herself as an outsider for other reasons, the world can be –in exactly the same moment — both an awful, humiliating, difficult place and one filled with beauty and song.

Margarita Engle’s story is captivating, because it so beautifully describes the excitement and freedoms of childhood, the joys of traveling to new places, and the challenges of living between different worlds.  It also provides a great way to talk with kids about the history of the Cold War, the impact of politics on individuals, and the path we all travel in growing up and making choices about who we will be.


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