The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

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One of the greatest truths in life is that we all, regardless of age, want to feel accepted. Accepted by peers, accepted by those in authority, accepted by our communities. The need for acceptance can often make us give up on parts of who we are that we feel are “less than” or “not as good” as those around us. As a child myself I never felt as good as my peers. I often made up stories to try to fit in, knowing that what I was saying was untrue, but desperately wanting the acceptance of others.

In The Name Jar we meet Unhei, a lovable little girl who has just immigrated to America from Korea. As she enters her American classroom she realizes that her peers cannot say her name, so she chooses to pretend she doesn’t have a name yet. Her classmates begin a voyage to choose a name for her, while she internally struggles with wanting to fit in and wanting to stay true to herself.

As I read this book to my class my heart tugged in a few directions. I loved that this story showed the struggle that children face when they are in a new land, with new people, and want to fit in, while also not wanting to give up on who they are. I also loved that ultimately the act of kindness that helped Unhei to be true to herself and her name was a friend taking the time to extend a gesture of acceptance. Her friend took the time to learn a little bit about her culture and show his appreciation for her differences, and this made all the difference.

This book also opened the floor to a discussion about the meaning behind our names. The kids were all eager to share what their names mean and why their families chose them. We discussed how when we say our names wrong, not only is it not our name, but it’s also no longer a word with meaning. So, on day 3 of the school year, while I still struggle to learn names and say them correctly, I continue to try because I do not want to rob kids of their meaning, their identity, and who they are. The Name Jar allowed us to have such rich conversations about our identity, the feelings of acceptance, and the struggle of wanting to be true to yourself as well as fit in with peers.

My Name is Sangoel by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed

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Before I even begin, I must tell you that when I read this book today TWO classes of 5th graders clapped at the end. I’ve been teaching 5th grade for a long time and I can’t recall many times kids clapped at the end of a book, but this book literally brought the house down- TWICE IN ONE DAY!

When I think about why… why was this the book that made them clap, the book that so deeply resonated with two separate classes- I think the answer is two-folds. On one hand my kids can so relate to Sangoel, but also Sangoel is just such a lovely character. He is composed and calm at times when he is frustrated, he doesn’t give up on who he is, and in the end he gets his whole class to say his name properly- he’s winning!

Most of my students are from India and have traditional Indian names. When I asked them today to raise their hand if someone has ever said their name wrong most hands went up. I then asked them to keep their hand up if they have ever gone a whole year in school with their name being said wrong every single day. Most of the hands stayed up. When I asked why the answers were as I expected- they felt too shy to tell the teacher, they didn’t want to be disrespectful, they tried to tell them but the teacher still didn’t say it right, and more.

What I find with my students is that most say, “It’s ok, say it the way you said it, that’s the American way.” But when we do that, when we accept the American way as “good enough” because the kids told you to, you are robbing them of their identity. I’m not going to pretend I can say all their names right- I have a few I’m totally butchering, but I told them that their job is to help me, daily, until I get it right. I go over to them quietly and have them help me. I practice and practice, at home looking at my roster, and in the classroom next to them. I am not going to rob them of their identity by accepting their permission to call them their “American name” when I know it’s not their real name.

What made Sangoel so incredible was that he held strong. He thought outside the box and found a way to show his classmates and teacher how to say his name. He also opened a door for deep, rich conversation with my students as we discussed the importance of our names. Sangoel provided my students with a safe place to discuss a topic that they often are too shy or embarrassed to discuss because they don’t want to correct their teacher, but when we discussed this concept through Sangoel, they were so incredibly comfortable sharing their stories.

And that, my friends, is the power of diverse children’s literature and why it matters. Not only does it show representation, but it allows conversations to naturally occur in a safe space. Kids deserve it.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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This summer I created a Donors Choose project to try to get more diverse picture books into my classroom. As the supplies came in last week I sat there, surrounded by all of these beautifully illustrated masterpieces, and thumbed through the pages. The first one I decided to read was The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson. Something about the cover called to me.

As I read the story I immediately knew this would be my first day of school read aloud. The story shares the tale of a first day of school for kids who are perhaps not just like everyone else in their class. We meet characters who face kids that laugh at their name, their lunches, or something else about their identity. As I read this I saw my students. Most of my kids aren’t named Nancy or Tom, with peanut butter and jelly in their lunch box. My kids come from all over the world, their names and lunches reflecting them. I just knew this story had to greet them on their very first day.

However, the part that pulled on my heartstrings the most was when the one character feels “less than” her classmates because she doesn’t have exciting stories to share about her summer, stories filled with travel and far away places. When I read this I felt like the author was reaching into my classroom, touching my students who are just like this character, and reminding them that does not make their story any “less than” their peers. While many of my students spend their summer in far away lands, many also spend it at home. With family. Reading books, playing outside, and living their life much the same as they do during the school year. Seeing a character embrace this and learn to be proud of her story was so inspirational that I knew it had to be shared immediately.

Both of my classes loved this story. They saw the beauty in diversity but also saw the underlying sameness, that we all just want to feel included and part of the whole.

Save Me a Seat

When I decided to buy my own domain and expand my vision for my blog I knew I wanted a focus of my writing to be on “reviews” of diverse books. Not reviews in the sense of giving a book a rating, but more so an explanation of how this book approaches diversity and how my students have responded to it. It was natural that the first book I’d focus on was Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks.

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It’s shameful to admit but prior to a few years ago I never really thought about the (lack of) diversity in the books I exposed my students to. Sure, there were books with diverse characters, but it was by chance- not a result of conscious effort to have all my students represented in the books they read.

Two summers ago I was browsing Twitter when someone mentioned the book Save Me a Seat and I was immediately intrigued. My students are largely South Asian (about 85%) with the majority being from India. It’s rare to find books with Indian main characters so I immediately picked it up, thinking, “Oh, this will be nice!” Little did I know that this one small gesture would revolutionize my teaching, my philosophy on education, and the way I structure my library.

I opened my school year with Save Me a Seat, setting aside my usual choice of Wonder for the first read aloud of the year. My kids were entranced. They corrected how I pronounced the words (which I still get wrong- but I try, boy do I try!), they shared ways their family structure was similar to Ravi’s, and above all else they enjoyed the story for what it is- an amazing tale about friendship, feeling like an outsider, and the struggles of being yourself in a world that often pushes us to be someone else.

I was so enthralled with this book that I connected with the authors who graciously participated in a Twitter chat with my class. A year later we had the opportunity to have Gita Varadarajan come to our school and share with us her writing, her story, and her experience of immigrating to America from India.

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(That photo is of Gita and I reading the beginning of the story, she is reading the part of Ravi while I read as Joe).

But what made this experience so life altering for me was watching the kids react to Gita’s stories…. they laughed at jokes I didn’t understand, they ooohed and aaahed at mentions of foods I had never tried, and they connected in a way I didn’t know how to reach them. They saw themselves in her, and she in them. I sat there with literal tears in my eyes and thought, “THIS is the power of representation. THIS is what happens when kids read books and can relate.”

Save Me a Seat shows diversity by sharing with us the lives of two students in the course of one week in their 5th grade year. Joe, from a Caucasian American background, and Ravi, straight from India, are forced to face their bully, Dillon Samreen, another Indian student who is more “Americanized” than Ravi.  The dynamic between Dillon and Ravi was particularly interesting, with the aspect of being “more Indian” or “more American” bringing up interesting conversations with my students as they decided whom they related to more.

I will forever be thankful to Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan for creating such an incredible novel that captures my students in a way no other book I’ve read to them has. Representation matters, and Save Me a Seat was the first book to open my eyes to just how important that is.