Category Archives: we need diverse books

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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Dream. Do. Believe. Achieve.

hey black childRead this one, and be sure to also read the author and illustrator notes when you’re done.

Because this is a book about more than the words on the page and the really wonderful and expressive art which accompanies it.  The words reach out. The pictures draw you in.  And if you take the time to sit and think and read it again, different ideas will come at you – uncomfortable ideas for some, liberating ideas for others.  And then talk it all through with all the kids around you.

Hey Black Child  by Useni Eugene Perkins and Bryan Collier

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Camel derbies and dreams

The-Wooden-Camel-cover-copy-12.49.13-PM-300x300Etabo spends a lot of time thinking about camels and camel racing.  His dream of becoming a camel rider might have some obstacles – his family has to sell off their camels, for starters.  But his dreams, as hazy as they sometimes seem to him, can carry him through hard times and provide some insight into his life for people like me on the other side of the world.

There are beautiful illustrations accompanying the story, and they’re filled with enough detail to do a little imagining and dreaming wherever you are.  Perfect for talking about the world around us and how families and dreams comfort us wherever we are.

The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu and Manuela Adreani

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Secrets and family and love

Pashminacover

Priyanka, like many children of immigrants, lives between two worlds – one Indian, one American.  When she finds a pashmina with seemingly magical powers, she can travel to India, into other possible lives, and maybe even learn about the missing pieces of her past.

What’s fun about this book is the play between the black and white pages and those in color, the linked stories, all of the small ways we see Privanka live with and apart from others, the way her life connects to so many others.  And really, that could be all of us in one way or another, right?

Perfect.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

 

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Stars and rainbows and gun violence

stars beneathI was at work  when I learned about the latest mass shooting.  We heard again that “this kind of thing doesn’t happen around here.”  Clearly, it does happen around here, more and more often.  And it’s been happening around here for a while.  We’re not really even surprised by it.

I’d been reading The Stars Beneath Our Feet for a few days, and while it’s set in New York — which might seem far away to anyone knowing where I live – it’s not far away at all.  I recognize these kids, having worked in a program similar to the one described in the book, just out here in good ol’ Iowa.  They’d lost family members to gun violence and drugs, and some lived every day with traumatic pain, not seeing any way to get out of it all.  Some of my favorite kids could be Lolly and Vega and Big Rose.

I wish they had all known Lolly and this book.  It might have given us one more way to talk about the really awful choices in front of them, things adults all want them to avoid and resist, but which, like Harp and Gully, just kept landing in the middle of the sidewalk in front of them, unavoidable.  My own Lolly, much loved by his family and friends, didn’t make the same choices and will most likely be incarcerated for many years, missing his kids’ birthdays and everything else.  His decisions will ripple out to affect even more people.  The pain just spreads.

After finishing the book, it struck me that these tragedies — mass shootings or gun violence in our neighborhoods – they’re not so far away from any of us, whether we’re in the suburbs or the city or a small town.  We act like one thing is different from another, but maybe it isn’t.  And as a country, we don’t do anything about either, no matter how many lives are ruined and wasted on it all.

This should probably have filled me with sadness and hopelessness, but it didn’t.  Lolly’s story, you see, is like a rainbow of Legos reaching out to us across that pain.  (I like the image, although I know it’s a little silly on paper.)  It needs to be read by all kids, whether they sound and look like Lolly or not.  Kids in small town and urban Iowa may look or sound different, but they live their own stories with strikingly similar challenges.

Can a book change the world or a life?  It can.  This one just might.

The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore

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“Sing, don’t cry, even if it is only in your soul”

singdontcryMy abuelo was not a cool musician who sang songs when he came to visit.  He was more of a pipe-smoking, western-reading, Wheel of Fortune kind of guy.  But I’m so glad Angela Dominguez had an abuelo who played the guitar and sang and knew the power of music.

Sing, Don’t Cry is a sweet picture book, highlighting the love of grandparents and grandchildren for each other, while also illustrating the power of the wisdom older people can pass on to younger ones.  Sure, when you’re a kid, you might not always remember to sing your way out of a crisis, but it’s a message that you could carry with you into your teen or adult years and be able to rediscover when you’re thinking about your abuelo or abuela and need a little boost.

Sing, Don’t Cry by Angela Dominguez

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A voice in the wilderness. Or Wisconsin.

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Once in a while I find myself reading along, thinking “oh, this is nice realistic middle grade… problems to be solved, problems solved… everyone learns something… and we’re good.” I’m waiting for predictable things to happen, and then when they happen, they’re somehow not quite as predictable as they seemed in my head.

Amina and her friends and family are so well and lightly drawn – little details scattered here and there which highlight who they really are—that an otherwise predictable story floats along for a while.  Then you realize there is more to all of this than making new friends and keeping the old.  Hena Khan managed to sprinkle in things about Amina and her friends’ families and cultures which further the story instead of falling like heavy look! here’s the diversity part bricks.

And it’s genius, because the differences within all of our families are about who we are in all parts of our life – school, friendships, home – and life is complicated.  I liked the book while I was reading it, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how special it is.   Listen to this voice.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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Clayton, Cool Papa, and Wah-Wah Nita

I cclayton-birdan relate to Clayton Bird.  I may be a middle-aged white woman living in Iowa, but I understand his pain.  I might not have grown up with a blues-playing grandpa–mine was known to ride a banana seat bike now and then, but wouldn’t have known what to do with a guitar—but I know how important people other than parents can be when you’re growing up.  I remember being angry about injustice when I was a kid, or at least what I saw as injustice in my own life.  And I know grief, really crushing grief that hides out in unexpected places and hits you at all the wrong times.

Clayton is the kind of character everyone can relate to on some level, although he might not look like many of the kids I knew growing up.  That’s what’s so wonderful about Rita Williams-Garcia’s work.  Her characters are simultaneously universal and completely unique.  The small details make you think of your Uncle Rich or that kid you went to school with who had a goofy nickname or your best friend’s mom or whoever.   His story, like many of Williams-Garcia’s, celebrates an ordinary life with extraordinary moments—moments which reveal quite a bit about our society as a whole and how kids navigate it. Her characters’ experiences reach out to you, whoever you are, wherever you live.  It’s a gift we are so, so lucky to be able to witness and enjoy.

And if all that weren’t enough, Ms. Williams-Garcia mentions Kathi Appelt in her note at the end of the book.  We all know (or maybe we don’t) just how crazy I am about Kathi Appelt.  I’ve practically thrown her books at the 5th graders I visit if I find out they have somehow managed to miss them.  And  I don’t stop at once a year – she comes up repeatedly.  Actually, I’ve kind of done the same with Rita Williams-Garcia’s books (One Crazy Summer, P.S. Be Eleven, Gone Crazy in Alabama) because they are a different and wonderful brand of fabulous.   Clearly, I’m just going to get worse.  Prepare.  Beware.

Clayton Bird Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia

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Unexpected Brady Bunch references

stef-soto

Well, hmm, that’s not what I was expecting when I started this book.  I was thinking I’d be getting something along the lines of realistic, middle grade, family, coming of age fiction.  Estefania “Stef” Soto, definitely lives in that world – the world of her dad’s taco truck, Tía Perla, the world of Saint Scholastica School and a former friend who now calls her the Taco Queen.  Friends and parents and school are the center of her life, and Stef is really trying to come into her own.  Her parents are nervous about almost everything, and then the city announces possible changes to the rules for food truck, and her art teacher runs out of supplies.  Well, you might not guess it, but it’s all going to be connected.

And into this drops Davy Jones.  Actually, Davy Jones is Viviana Vega here.  Stef pulls a Marcia Brady and sort of hints she can get Viviana Vega to come to the school dance.  Will it work out?  Let’s just say that Viviana is no Davy Jones.  But Stef Soto is still pretty awesome.  Fun, light, and a great story about real people and real families.

Stef Soto, Taco Queen by Jennifer Torres.

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Legendary

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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