Chicks Rule by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Screenshot 2019-06-27 at 7.56.58 PM When I choose books to review, I focus on diverse book with diverse characters and story lines, but it is equally important to take note of the lack of representation of diverse authors in the publishing industry.  According to Lee and Low, in 2018 about 7% of books published were written by people of color.

Several years ago my school had the pleasure of having Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen come to our school. At the time my son was 2 so I bought her book Chicks Run Wild. It became a cult classic in our house.  I really can’t tell you how many times I’ve read it between my two children, but it’s definitely in the triple digits. I actually know large parts of it by heart! With that said, imagine my surprise when I found myself at a book festival a few weeks ago, face to face with Sudipta. Instantly I knew I needed to get her book Chicks Rule! I had no idea what it was about, but I knew as a family, we’d love it. I couldn’t have begun to imagine I’d love this book as much as I did.

As a mom of a young girl it’s important for her to be surrounded by books that show women as strong central figures. This book tells the story of a chick (which, by the way, I love the double meaning of the word and found it amusing throughout)  who can’t join a rocket club because “No Chicks Allowed” is on the door. So what does she do? She organizes her peeps (see what I did there? Ha!), focuses on everyone’s strengths, and in the end they have their own rocket launch. The book is so empowering for girls. Not to mention, I love the diversity in the illustrations. We have chicks of different colors, different cultures, different talents… it’s all around a diverse field of chicks coming together to solve a problem. What more could you ask for?

 

A Letter to My Child’s 1st Grade Teacher

Hello there,

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Today was the first day of summer break, and I decided to unpack Landon’s backpack. As I pulled out piles and piles of “stuff” I found so many treasures. There were memory books and projects that the kids worked on all year. There was all the stuff that I’d expect to see in a backpack in June. But there were also a few extras. There were pictures- lots and lots of pictures- that you took the time to develop. I know you paid for those with your own money. I know you took the time to make sure each kid got pictures to bring home.  I know that took time and organization, and for that, I thank you.

I found a letter that you wrote to Landon. It was filled with so many compliments and kind lines, and I could tell it was written specifically for Landon. With 23 kids in your class, I know how much time that took. I know you were tired in June- it’s the month that just doesn’t end for teachers- and yet you sat down and did this. I will cherish it forever.

I saw the memory book you made where each month they completed a page. I know that you had to 1) remember to do that each month, and 2) keep it organized. I know that’s not easy, and often is the type of thing that we start in September with good intentions and somewhere around November forget to keep up with. Thank you for doing it and taking the time.

Going through this backpack got me thinking just how incredibly lucky my son was to have you. It also got me thinking how many lessons I could learn from this year to apply to my own teaching. Whenever I emailed you, you responded so quickly, thoroughly, and I never felt I was annoying you. I was so thankful for that. I knew you were there for us and I could reach you, and as a mom of a young one, that meant so much.

You helped me to remember that the fun things mean so much to kids. One day the kids got to wear pajamas, watch a movie, AND have popcorn. My son acted like it was the best day of his life- way better than his two trips to Disney- and that’s because it was something you made feel like magic. It got me thinking- do I make magic for my kids? And if not, how can I? But the biggest lesson I learned this year is to always keep focus on the kids. Landon felt loved in your room. He felt safe. He felt seen.

You see, Landon can be overlooked. He won’t cause trouble. He won’t make waves. But you saw him. You saw that he was more than just a quiet kid sitting in his desk. And because you saw him, he thrived. I strive to “see” all my kids, but your gentle touch and focus on all of the kids made me remember just how important it is to see everyone. Because everyone is someone’s kids. And therefore every kid in that room is someone’s whole world.

So thank you. So much. Now go enjoy the summer, and relax. You earned it.

All our love,

The Cardoso Family

The Whole Story of Half a Girl by Veera Hiranandani

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I evaluate every book I choose to read aloud to my students by questioning if it will provide a window or mirror to my students. Will this book reflect who they are? Will it open their eyes to a life much unlike their own? I love watching my students faces as they experience characters much like themselves, but I especially enjoy watching their faces when they realize the world is a little bigger, a little more unique, and often a lot more challenging than they expected.

As an adult, the books I read for pleasure are often windows…. I see into other people’s lives, the rich, the famous, the struggling… and I imagine. However, when I was flipping through some books in my classroom and came across The Whole Story of Half a Girl I noticed  instantly that this book might reflect my own experience. In this book our main character, Sonia, is half Indian and half Jewish American. The first part of the book really explores this sense of identity and how youth often try to figure out who they are based on the roles and identities their born into.

I was born to a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. I grew up in a town with very few Jewish people and often felt very “left out” when kids spoke of their CCD experiences, Confirmations, and more. But because my dad was Catholic, I also felt “left out” at Hebrew school… I had Christmas, Easter, and a dad with a large Jesus tattoo on his arm. Needless to say I too felt like “half a girl” in these settings.

As the story goes on, Sonia’s father loses his job and struggles with depression. As a child, both of my parents battled addiction and the mental health issues that come with that disease. Growing up, I never saw my experience reflected in books. I wonder how transformative it would have been to me as a child to see a little bit of my life in Sonia’s. I may be 34 now, but I was 11 again as I read about Sonia and deeply related to her family. It makes you feel “normal” and like you’re not alone, even when your life might feel a little abnormal. That’s the power of a great book!

Sonia also experiences all of common social struggles and triumphs that our tweens face. She had to navigate social situations, friends, standing up for who she was, and being true to herself while also navigating her home life. As a teen I often felt I had two lives- school, where I could be “normal”, and home, where I had to be an adult and handle situations many kids didn’t. I really felt if Sonia was a real person, she and I could have shared stories and been friends.

I didn’t expect to find a mirror in this book when I grabbed in from my classroom library, but that’s why we as teachers need to not just have books in our classroom, but also read them. You never know what you might find… and what student you can recommend it to who might find it to be just what they needed.

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

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I read Front Desk for the first time last summer (2018) and instantly knew this book was a must read for my class. At first I thought I’d start my school year with it, but I decided to “hold it” for last. Read aloud time in my class is the most precious time of our day. I teach 5th grade, and if you came into my room during read aloud, you’d see 28 kids on the rug, stools, the bookcase (not my favorite spot!), but what you wouldn’t see is anyone off task, talking, etc. It is a sacred time and the conversations that come from our read aloud are always my reminder for why I teach. I knew that Front Desk would provoke some deep conversations and I wanted to save it for when the kids knew me, knew the culture of our room, and had the comfort that comes at the end of a year spent together.

Front Desk tells the story of Mia, a child who has immigrated from China to the US. She is going to school in California, where she and her parents also run (and live) in a motel. The book covers racism on many fronts- between different races, within the same race, between the police and races, and more. It covers economic disparities and the shame some kids face when they feel “less than” their peers. It covers family dynamics, immigration, and so many issues that you could probably spend months reading and discussing this with your class.

What I love about this book the most is that it is completely age appropriate for my students, while also forcing them to think deeper, challenge their preconceived notions, and explore the world through someone else’s eyes. It doesn’t hurt that the author, Kelly Yang, is a pretty incredible inspiration for my students with an awe-inspiring story to share. I read to them a little about her before we started reading since Mia is based on her life, and they were instantly hooked.

I’m so excited that this is the book that was selected for GRA 2019 and cannot wait to share this reading experience with my class next year as well.

How Do You Measure, Measure A Year?

If you’re reading the title to this post and singling along to “Seasons of Love”… we should be friends. When I look back on my college years I can say that Rent was a defining part of my college experience. I listened to the soundtrack, saw the play, watched the movie when it eventually came out… and hearing any song from Rent will always take me back to my years in college.

As a teacher I measure a year on a different timeline than most people. To me a year starts in September and ends in August. I look at my years in terms of school years. When I look back on all the years in my career there are different events that mark the year in my memories.

When I entered the classroom in late August of 2018 I was confident of what this year would be. This would be the year I chased my passion for diversity in children’s literature. From August through January I presented on the topic three times, added countless titles to my library, and started this blog. I had the pleasure of bringing two incredible authors into my school and felt I could see my dream coming to fruition.

And then my year changed. My father got sick and ultimately died. My dad was a big supporter and a huge part of who I was. His death rocked me and still does as it’s only been 3 months. In that time it’s not that my dream changed, it’s not that my focus changed… it’s that my priorities changed. For this period of time it was about survival and perseverance.

But time has passed and I feel more like myself. I am ready to return to sharing my passion. I’m ready to get back to reviewing books and sharing this message. When I think back to how I measure this year, it’ll be a mixed bag of emotions, but while there will always be the sadness of his passing, there is also the joy in knowing I am helping to bring voice to a topic that is so important.

My Why (In a Time of Cultural Crisis)

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I became a teacher 13 years ago, not because I had some dying desire to teach kids about conjunctions or writing essays, but because I wanted kids to feel loved and seen. I knew that I had the power to make kids feel accepted and safe, and to this day, I can proudly say that my greatest strength as a teacher is creating an environment in my classroom where diversity is not only accepted but appreciated.

My goal is simple. I want kids to know that they are loved. I want them to know that they are valuable and that they have a place in this world.  I want them to feel accepted and safe. I also want them to respect others. I want them to understand that their culture is not the only culture, and that there are many ways to celebrate holidays, pray to God, live your life, and be your true self. But how do you teach these things in a world that is ever-evolving, and not always in a positive way?

Ignorance breeds hate. People fear and hate what they do not know. We live in a political climate where it is completely acceptable to say things that were completely unacceptable just a few short years ago. This past weekend we have had more hate spread in our country than many can handle. We had 13 lives taken (11 senior citizens in Pittsburgh at a temple,  2 in Kentucky) all due to hate. Hate, brought on by ignorance, and a lack of acceptance for people not just like you.

This is why I am on a mission to push diversity in children’s literature. I can’t stop all of the evil in the world and nobody can. But we all have to use our voices, in whatever capacity we have, to spread the importance of acceptance.  It’s important that books serve as both windows and mirrors, and while mirrors are very helpful for children to see their own cultures and identities reflected to them, windows open children’s eyes to the “others.” It is essential that kids see other cultures, religions, and experiences, because we fear what we do not know.

As a teacher you get 180 days with a kid. In 180 days you can’t save the world, but you can show kids a window into cultures they may not know about. When we learn about others we often see that we are all quite similar on the inside. It is essential to share about the power of diversity. To share books that show how divisive hatred can be and to show the power of coming together.

I’m not foolish enough to thing a children’s book can prevent an act of terrorism. I am, however, a strong believer in teaching kids to love others while they are young. All kids come to us with the innate ability to believe in the power of good over evil. When we, as educators, expose them to other cultures through deliberate choices of books, news stories, and lessons, we are opening their eyes. Ignorance fuels hate. Hate fuels terrorism. And hope fuels the future. Hope fuels children. Most children believe in the power of kindness and acceptance. We, as teachers, wield the power to show kids a vision of the world that is positive and possible. We can provide kids windows into the world in a safe environment. And perhaps, when kids grow up with exposure to the unknown, they will come to see that the unknown is quite similar to their own lives… maybe then we can have a future with a little less hate, and a little more hope.

Authentic Voices Matter

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My students had the great fortune of having Gita Varadarajan come visit our school again last week. Her book, Save Me a Seat, was a large part of what pushed me to see the immense need for diversity in children’s literature. Her visit to my school last year was the turning point for me; my experience with diverse books went from awareness to advocacy. Seeing the connection she made to the students was life-changing for me and I knew I’d make it my professional mission to give kids and teachers tools to provide all children with windows and mirrors to their identity.

This time when she came to my school she spoke to my 5th graders about authenticity- the need to tell authentic stories, based on your identity, and the impact that has on the stories you create. The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. While 31% of children’s literature published in 2017 features people of color, only 7% of those books are written by people of color. So who is writing these stories? And how can they authentically tell the story of a person of color? Why is there such a gap? And what does this say about the publishing industry?

Last year when Gita was at my school she ran a writing workshop with students in 4th and 5th grade. She told me to take note of the names my students chose to include in their writing. While most of my students are Indian, Asian, or African American, they often choose very “typical” American names and not names that reflect their own identity. What kids are telling us with this simple choice is that they do not feel people of their culture are characters in stories. This simple action of selecting to name a character “Bob” or “Mary” when their family is full of “Arnav” or “Sanjana” or “Tyree” means they don’t believe their story, their identity, is what stories are about.

So how do we fix this? How can we, as educators, help this? How can we help kids to tell their authentic story? Over the past year I’ve found a few strategies that have really helped.

1- Have diverse books, written by diverse authors, on display. While I have a large collection of books in my library I make sure to prominently display books that reflect my students on the end caps, at the front of baskets, etc. I don’t want these books buried in the library and missed!

2- Feature read-alouds about diverse children, in diverse countries, written by diverse authors! It’s not enough to just have them housed in the classroom- share them!

3- Use diverse names in your own writing! Anchor charts, math story problems, scenarios you write out in science labs… anywhere you are writing a name is an opportunity to “normalize” your students’ diversity. If all of our math word problems show names like “Mike” or “Kelly” why would kids feel comfortable writing one about “Palak” or “Tyshaun”? How are we, as teachers, providing kids with mirrors to their own identity?

4- Support diverse authors! Buy their books! Share THEIR stories! Follow blogs that support diversity. I cannot speak highly enough about Lee & Low Books. They are my go-to resource for diversity in children’s literature.

5- Use your authentic voice and encourage kids to do the same. I am a white woman, so I cannot write from the perspective of any other racial group. I can share authentic stories of my culture, my religious upbringing, my family dynamics, and my life experiences. Similarly, my students can share stories of their own backgrounds! Embrace and encourage them to use their strengths of their own identity to find their voice.

6- Don’t be scared. I spoke to my superintendent today about how sometimes I fear having a voice on this topic because I feel I don’t “deserve” to have a say on a topic that isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. Feeling this way is normal- but we all need to stand up for diversity and helping children to be proud of who they are. Remember, kids spend 6+ hours a day, for 13+ years of their life, in a classroom. That comes out to about 14,040 hours. That’s a LOT of time! We as educators have power to help shape lives with all of that time, but we can’t be scared. Be brave- no change will come from stagnation!