Category Archives: social change

In honor of…

gone crazy in alabamaI’m not the biggest fan of all the special months.  Theoretically, they help highlight authors and issues affecting different groups (African-Americans, women, Latinx, LGBT folks, Asians, etc.), and I have no problem with that.  But shouldn’t we really be looking for more diverse books ALL year?  Of course.

Anyway, it’s February, so this year, I’ve decided that I’m looking at this as an EXTRA reason to highlight great African-American and African authors and characters.  Below are some of my favorites of the past few years:



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These feet are made for walking…

her right footIf you are looking for fun facts about the Statue of Liberty and her history, it’s here.  If you’d like a reminder of our country’s diversity and ideals, that’s here, too.  If you’d like to know about one of her feet – also here.  Is it a beginning?  A reminder?  A call to action?

Never forget we are a people in motion.  Never forget we have a choice which direction we go and what we take with us.

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers and Shawn Harris

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Join the Parade

harlem-charadeHarlem is full of history, street life and art, and it’s endangered by a city councilman who’d like to turn it into a theme park.  A bit hard to imagine at first, but maybe not as crazy as it sounds.  Jin, Alex and Elvin come from different backgrounds, but they (and some of their family members) will lose if the theme park succeeds, so they band together and start peeling back the layers of a decades-old mystery.

It’s a perfect combination of classic kids’ mystery, middle grade friendship, and a walk through a big city with a little bit of history thrown in.  As the author notes, the people and some places are fictional, but there’s a lot about The Harlem Charade that rings true about big city life and kids who are becoming more independent.

What’s really wonderful about this book is the depiction of friendships, new and old.  It’s hard making and keeping friends, and we’re all imperfect in some way.  It’s not just Jin, Alex and Elvin who are working through lies of omission, hurt feelings, and moments of anger.  The adults in the book have their own struggles and moments of insight, too.  In the end, the hard work is worth it, the mystery is solved, the theme park is stopped, and friendships are strengthened.

The Harlem Charade by Natasha Tarpley

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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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the-legendary-miss-lena-horne-9781481468244_lgLena Horne may have become a star, but her life wasn’t without hardship.  She grew up between her grandmother, who hoped for a respectable life for her, and her parents, who used her talent to pay the bills.  Being African American meant that even when she was headlining for white bands, she sometimes had to go in through the back door and sleep in the bus.  Standing up and speaking out meant that she was blacklisted.  Her talent took her around the world, but the challenges just kept coming.  Being a trailbreaker is hard work.

It’s a wonderful story of a life, and the art which accompanies it makes the words even brighter.  Enjoy!

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford and Elizabeth Zunon

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Nevertheless, we persist

des-moines-1728523_1280-2I’ve seen what teachers deal with every day.  I worked for the public schools for two years as an outreach worker. Then I followed around fifty “at-risk” kids for twelve years, spending a lot of time with them in their classrooms.  I also substituted as a school associate when I was between jobs, filling in for special education and library workers.  I’m now on my eighth year volunteering in an elementary school on my days off.

So, even if I had not had the absolute best first grade teacher in the world as a child, I would be a fan of teachers.  I am constantly in awe of how effective and caring and good at their jobs they are.  They teach kids who sometimes don’t come anywhere close to being ready to learn, deal with administrators who sometimes act like the only things that matter are test scores, and work with parents who sometimes aren’t helping.  And yet they still manage to shepherd loads of kids through academic and emotional growth every single year.   (Are there bad teachers?  Yes, I’m sure there are, but in the hundreds of classrooms I’ve visited, I can only think of one–in more than twenty years of being out there with them.)

Teachers have this tough job, doing something incredibly important for the public good, managing large numbers of people, and somehow keeping everyone moving forward.  Are they paid like the VPs of the insurance companies downtown?  No way.  Depending on how much extra education they’ve got, they might be paid a decent wage with decent benefits for some long hours and not a lot of gratitude.  Many of them work or take classes during the summer to keep up with the bills or the always-growing expectations of their jobs, so it’s not like their supposedly easy schedule is really even that.

Meanwhile, our state legislature has changed.  Republican members are now in control of the senate, the house, and the governorship.  They’ve decided they need to prove some kind of a point and are working on destroying collective bargaining rights, which will affect public school teachers, their benefits, and their working lives.  (As a public employee, I should note that it would affect me and probably my retirement, too.)

Here it comes.  I’m climbing up on the soap box.

Have these legislators actually spent time in the classroom recently?  I’m not talking about their 30-minute visit to AP Government.  Do they know what school is like for under-resourced schools, the staff trying to provide a great education, the average kids?  I’m sure many principals and teachers would welcome the interest.  While checking on the kids I worked with and now as a parent, teachers, counselors, social workers and administrators have always encouraged me to ask questions and get involved.  Spending time with the kids in school showed me both sides of the equation – how hard it could be for some kids and how difficult the job was for teachers.  Are public schools perfect?  Of course not.  But is the best way to make them better to punish the staff?  I don’t think so.

Politicians are fond of talking about how important it is for students to get a “world class” education, going on about the long history of strong public schools in the state.   Well, maybe they should quit mouthing the words and actually do what it takes to have great schools and great teachers.  They could start by visiting schools in their districts and spending the whole day (or week) in classrooms, seeing what teachers do, learning about the problems schools are facing.  It might give them a whole different perspective on what education is and how lucky we are.

Climbing down from the soap box. Putting on my marching shoes for an afternoon at the state capitol building.

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Yarn lovers and radicals

extra-yarnI’m guessing that if Annabelle were a real person, she’d be out wearing some spectacularly fabulous hats today.  She’s a community organizer, maybe without meaning to be.  She’s a connecter, knitting for one very familiar storybook bear, as well as mailboxes and birdhouses.  She understands the people in her community.  (Would everyone wear a sweater?  No.  But hats work nicely, too.)  She cares about more than the money some selfish archduke wants to lob at her.  In the end, her kindness is her power and her joy.

Rock on, Annabelle.

Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen

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Insert inspirational quote here

bokeh-1835378_19201Every motivational saying that springs to mind today seems to not actually have been said by the person I think said it.   (Two examples — “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”  Do some quick research, and you’ll see what I mean.)  Oh well.  It’s not really about the inspirational quote anyway, is it?

The motivation is to find a way to create good in a world that just seems to be really NOT WHAT I WANT IT TO BE.

For those of you who know me or have read carefully, it will come as no surprise that in addition to being a pretty nerdy library worker who volunteers at an elementary school and likes to garden, I’m kind of a radical.  It might have been the time I spent living and working with nuns and other social justice activists that launched me in that direction, but later jobs in social services and volunteering gigs cemented those tendencies.  Sure, I’ve got degrees in economics and public administration, but a few of my more memorable moments in those studies came while listening to a Marxist talk about public policy and hearing a classmate drone on about how the marketplace would revolutionize education.  Did I agree with them?  No, but they made me think. Which made me think more.

So what do I do now?  Many people will protest.  I’ve done that.  (1990 – I tagged along with Sister Theresa to a protest against the first Gulf War.  And yes, we did sing “If I had a hammer”.)  Others will write letters or make phone calls to their representatives or donate to causes they care about.  I’ve done that, most recently last week.  More might get involved in something positive in their communities.  Done that, too.  Mentoring, working with kids, making copies, sewing things, planting flowers.

It doesn’t seem like enough this time.

When I was in college, one of my favorite professors told us that when we got older, we would feel less, that the emotions that seem so overwhelming and exhausting when you are young begin to fade.  I remember thinking that would never happen to me, because I didn’t want to lose that intensity.  And then I got older.  Not being so crushed by every single thing really did make life easier and more pleasant in some ways.  Do I miss the high drama of my college boyfriends or the slights of mean girls?  No way.

But I wonder if now is one of those times when more intensity might actually be a good thing.

Last year, my son had to come up with a six word phrase to describe his life.  (Ah, the fun that school counselors have!   Was that one really for the kids?   If I were a school counselor, I’d be doing that exercise to amuse me.  School counselors are probably better people than I am, though.)  And what he came up with fits me perfectly, now and pretty much always:

Work in progress; results may vary.

At least I know for sure where this quote came from.


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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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Caring and sharing – making a difference in your daily life

ahatformrsgoldmanWow.  I’ve set expectations kind of high today.  Maybe we can change the world with just a smile?  But here’s the thing.  We have to start somewhere.  Are we all about ourselves and what we are entitled to and deserve, or are we about doing what’s best in a larger sense, for our family, for our community, for the world?

Talking about this with kids is important, because what you learn at home and in elementary school sticks with you for the rest of your life.  It can be hard to imagine how you, as a six year old, can become one of those people who makes a difference.  As I mentioned the other day, the Ordinary People Change the World series by Brad Meltzer shows how people like Jackie Robinson and Jane Goodall started on the path to change.  Or you could read A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards and G. Brian Karas.

Mrs. Goldman knits for others but never seems to have a hat of her own on the cold, blustery days.  Sophia, who knits poorly but makes awesome pom-poms, sets out to right that small wrong in the world.  It’s that simple.  We can all make metaphorical hats for our communities.  Whether you’re Mrs. Goldman or Sophia, you have the power!  Get out there and do something kind, people.

Read, enjoy, start making hats.

A Hat for Mrs. Goldman by Michelle Edwards and G. Brian Karas

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