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?

 

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.

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani

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As I’ve spread my passion for diverse children’s literature I’ve had many joys and unexpected victories- watching children connect, hearing other educators join in on the mission… but few compare to this. The power of diversity in literature is it can bring us together and allow us to connect to students as they share their stories with us. I had this such pleasure when my student, Ashlyn, discovered the book Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani.

I am fortunate to work in a school with a librarian who is tirelessly working to increase the diversity on the shelves. She goes above and beyond the call of duty to get new, high-interest, and diverse books on the shelves. This past week one of my students, Ashlyn, saw this graphic novel, Pashmina, and picked it up. As she was checking out I asked to see her book and did a quick flip-through. I mentioned to her that it looked interesting and to report back.

The next day she came to me to tell me she had finished and asked me if I wanted to read it too. Let me tell you, my teacher-heart was so excited. First of all, this child read the whole book in one night! Second, she wanted to allow me to share in the experience with her. I took the book and read through it quickly myself, captivated by the illustrations and the story.

Pashmina is one of a kind! It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of a young Indian-American child who has been raised by her mother in California. She has never been to India and doesn’t know much about her culture. One day she discovers a pashmina that has magical powers. When she wears it she is able to “transport” to India and learn about her culture. The graphic novel is in black and white, except for when the magical scarf transports the wearer, which then transforms the book into beautifully colored illustrations.

When I spoke to Ashlyn about the book she told me she really related to main character because like Priyanka, our main character, she too is Indian, lives in America, and has never been to India. She told me that this story helped her to discover more about Indian culture and increased her desire to go there and see the family she hasn’t met. As a teacher, I loved that in the story Priyanka struggles with her cultural identity, but in the end reclaims her identity when she reclaims her name and asks her peers to call her Priyanka instead of Pri.

This novel is a fast read but a powerful read. There were sub-plots that are above the heads of my fifth graders, but are intriguing to an older audience. The fact that this is a graphic novel makes it a show stopper. We need more diverse books, written by diverse authors, in diverse formats. Kids LOVE graphic novels so this is perfect fit for so many readers. A must have for all middle-grade classrooms!

The Invisible Boy

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When you begin looking into the world of diverse children’s literature and the research surrounding it you will quickly stumble upon the concept of “windows and mirrors.” Windows are books that open your eyes to the experience of others, letting you see in to a world unfamiliar to yours. Mirrors are books that reflect your personal experience, validating your experiences, and deepening your understanding of who you are. Kids need both types of books in order to grow as people. As I read this story, The Invisible Boy by Patrice Barton, I felt I had the opportunity to view this through both a window and a mirror. That is such a powerful experience!

In this story we meet Brian. Brian reminds me a lot of my son in some ways. He’s sweet and kind, but he can easily blend in to the background because he does as he’s told but doesn’t “stand out”. In preschool a teacher once said she almost “forgets he’s there” referring to my son because he’s so good and quiet. While she meant it as a compliment, I was sad… knowing that to her, my son was invisible. When I first read this book I was taken back to that moment. Fortunately for my son he doesn’t struggle socially the way Brian does, but for many kids, that struggle is so real. When Brian couldn’t find a partner I could remember all the times I told kids to “pick a partner” and you see the frantic eyes as they search for someone to partner up with. When the kids were picking teams at recess and Brian wasn’t chosen, I thought of my own experiences in gym class. I was always chosen last because athletic abilities are pretty low down on my list of strengths. Brian provided so many mirrors for me to my own life that I instantly loved him.

Yet, this book also gave me the brilliant exposure to a mirror through Justin. Justin comes to school and is new to class. He is Korean and has bulgogi for lunch. He faces the experience of being an outsider culturally and the implications it has on his first day. Yet, we also have Brian… sweet, sweet, Brian, who extends himself to include Justin, literally breathing light and color into Brian’s life. The illustrations and the use of color/black and white added such a deep element of conversation for my students.

The Invisible Boy was a valuable book that showcases a child from a diverse background without the whole focus of the book being on his “differences.” It showed the importance of reaching out to others and being inclusive. It taught kindness and compassion. It touched me and I think it’s a book we all need in our classrooms.

Alma and How She Got Her Name

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Today was day #8 of school and this wonderful story, Alma and How She Got Her Name is the fourth book I’ve read that focuses on a child and their name. To some that may seem like overkill, but I’m doing it with a purpose. The purpose is to make it clear to my kids that their name has value. That their identity has power. That who they are is enough, is worthy, and should be respected. I’m driving the point home by repeatedly reinforcing through the use of diverse children’s literature that our cultural identities are who we are and that should not be hidden or something to be embarrassed by.

In this story we meet Alma, who doesn’t like her name because it is so long. As her father explains to her what each of her names means and why they were chosen she comes to see that each of these names truly represents her, making it the perfect name for her. It’s an adorable story, perfect for young elementary kids (although my 5th graders enjoyed it). My personal favorite part was the last page where the author explains why she wrote this book and explains how as a child in Peru she didn’t appreciate her name until she came to America. The questions posed open up conversation and allow kids to share their own identities.

All of these books focusing on the power of our names have had a huge impact. For years I’ve been teaching in a school where the vast majority of my students have names that are traditional to their various cultures. For years and years I’ve said their names wrong and the kids never corrected me, even when I asked them to. But this year? This year is so different. My kids are really working with me to help me learn their names and pronounce them correctly. They aren’t scared to correct me because we are building a community of respect. They believe me when I say I want to say their names correctly because I’m devoting so much time to sharing with them the value in a name. I now see that while I told them to correct me if I was wrong in the past I didn’t reinforce the value of their identity, and these books have made all the difference.

Always Anjali

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Today I read Always Anjali to my class and I can say, with complete confidence, that this book embodies why I have made my mission as an educator to spread the value, necessity, and importance of reading diverse books. I held this beautifully illustrated book in my hands, and before I even read a word, a little girl in my class raised her hand  and said, “Anjali is my grandmother’s name.” A little boy from the back chimed in, “Yeah! That’s my sister’s name!” Prior to me even reading the book my kids knew this was a book that would represent their culture. One little girl raised her hand and asked, “Is this an Indian book?” I told the class it was and she said, “Oh, cool!”

This opened up the conversation I’ve been dying to have. My kids don’t know me yet, we’ve only been together 7 days, so they’re not ready to open up their hearts and souls. And that’s ok- that’ll come. But I’ve been dying to ask them if they feel represented in traditional literature. So I asked, knowing the conversation would likely be very surface level. One boy, oh so eloquently and well beyond his 10 years, said, “Even if Indian students are the majority in our town, we make up only 2% of the population in America. We are not represented in books.” We went on to discuss how sometimes we see traits of ourselves in books and characters, but many of us don’t see our cultures, religions, family dynamics, and countries of origin. (Well, except for in book 4 of Harry Potter as both classes quickly pointed out!)

I loved the conversations that Always Anjali opened up with my class, even with us still not knowing each other the way we will a few months from now. We discussed what it’s like to find our names on fun souvenirs at amusement parks, and why many of us don’t. We discussed outright racism and how using something that is valuable to one’s culture (specifically a bindi) and using it as an insult is demeaning. We marveled at the incredible illustrations that truly set this book apart from many others. We cheered for Anjali as she found her confidence in herself to be proud of who she was. Whether your name is Mary, Courtney, or Anjali, this book showed us the value of embracing who we are, and with my students approaching that tender age of pre-teen life, I can’t think of a more important lesson.