A Story Longing to be Told

This is one of those books that I read and then thought, “I was just waiting for you to come along.” The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is a heartwarming story of love in many forms. The two main characters in this book are a dressmaker named Frances and a prince named Sebastian. They have lived very different lives but it is easy to see that they were meant to meet. Sebastian is always a well dressed monarch, but as a non-binary person, doesn’t always feel like being Sebastian. Sometimes she is Lady Crystallia. Frances’ exotic style makes her the perfect dressmaker, and more, for Sebastian. The relationship between these two is very sweet as it grows, but equally exquisite are the relationships that Sebastian has with family and friends. This book was simply a joy to read and offers many opportunities for exploration in middle school or high school writing or literature classrooms.

This is a graphic novel and the question of how Wang uses the text and illustrations, separately or together, to advance the narrative is a great place to start classroom exploration. Theme and characterization are also intricately connected in the text and illustrations and breaking these down invites students to slow down and carefully consider each (the king’s transformation in this book is particularly memorable). Students might also be asked to compare and contrast this story to other popular tales with a similar story line. The story also offers opportunities for discussions of gender normative social structures.

Transgender youth are starting to be represented in juvenile fiction and young adult literature (though there is still a lot of room to grow), but this story’s introduction of a non-binary or gender fluid character is one of the first that I have read. I am sure there are many other books with strong representatives of this identity and I would welcome hearing about them.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 7- I have the language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including myself) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.

Diversity 10- I understand that diversity includes the impact of unequal power relations on the development of group identities and cultures.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Analyze how characters develop over the course of the text.

RL.5- Analyze how the author structures this story.

RL.6- Analyze a particular point of view and how it is expressed.

RL.9- Analyze how a modern work draws on themes of classic stories.

Lives to be Remembered

Knowing the accomplishments of those we identify with is one of the most powerful factors in seeing our own potential. Equally important is seeing people with identities we do not share achieving greatness. When history is taught in schools, teachers must ensure that a diverse range of identities are represented. Often textbooks are not the greatest sources for diverse historical figures. Strange Fruit by Joel Christian Gill would be a wonderful supplement to a textbook in a middle school or high school history classroom. There are two volumes of Strange Fruit and while I have only been able to read the first, I am confident that both volumes include historical figures and events that many students have not been introduced to in their studies.

The stories told in Strange Fruit also mirror many interests of young learners. Richard Potter was the first stage magician, Bass Reeves caught criminals in the Old West, and Harry “Bucky” Lew was the first person of color to play professional basketball. These are professions and passions that are not always a part of teaching Black History.

Strange Fruit might serve as a resource in a biographical research project or a tool for comparing and contrasting different experiences. The roles of text and illustration also beg to be considered. Mr. Gill’s use of black crows to symbolize Jim Crow laws is particularly powerful. The book’s title might also lead to a discussion of the meaning of “Strange Fruit” and the Billie Holiday song that promoted awareness of despicable hate crimes across our country. Regardless of how this book is used in schools, it definitely has a place in our educational system.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8- I am curious and want to know more about other people’s histories and lived experiences, and I ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Diversity 10- I can explain how the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, shapes their group identity and culture.

Justice 12- I can recognize and describe unfairness and injustice in many forms including attitudes, speech, behaviors, practices and laws.

Justice 14- I know that all people (including myself) have certain advantages and disadvantages in society based on who they are and where they were born.

Common Core Standards:

RI.3- Connections among and distinctions between individuals, ideas, or events.

RI.5- Analyze the structure of a text.

RI.7- Use of different mediums to convey information.

Messages for Our Heroes

One of the major strengths of Adrienne Kisner’s book, Dear Rachel Maddow, is the depth of her main character Brynn. While the book could have focused solely on Brynn’s sexual orientation, it does not. Kisner could have made the focus Brynn’s learning disability, but she didn’t. The focus also could have been the family struggles with which Brynn is dealing. None of these are the sole focus of this 263 page book. Just like none of these define the people who possess similar identities. Brynn is a character with whom many teenagers can relate.

In Dear Rachel Maddow, a high school English assignment in Brynn’s Applied English class to write to a hero becomes an opportunity to share her life in email drafts that will, theoretically, never be seen. First love, new love, loss, and belonging all matter to Brynn and they are all addressed in this book. Brynn also discovers truths about politics that many of us would rather forget.

In many ways, this is a book that should be read for enjoyment alone. Brynn’s voice is raw and funny in all the right ways and I would not recommend picking it apart. However, there are many opportunities for discussion and writing that this book could inspire. Due to the depth of Brynn’s character, Teaching Tolerance’s Justice and Action Standards (listed below) are especially relevant. While letter writing is not specifically addressed in the Core, the prospect of writing to a hero is often an impetus for research and careful editing. Who knows, they might even get a letter back!

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards especially relevant to this book:

Justice 11: I relate to all people as individuals rather than representatives of groups and can identify stereotypes when I see or hear them.

Justice 12: I can recognize, describe, and distinguish unfairness and injustice at different levels of society.

Action 17: I take responsibility for standing up to exclusion, prejudice and injustice.

Shared Experience

In Saffron Ice Cream, an autobiographical picture book by Rashin, our students meet a little girl who enjoys swimming and ice cream. These are experiences that many children can relate to right away. We learn as we read that Rashin immigrated to the United States with her family from Iran where she also enjoyed swimming and ice cream. As Rashin describes her adventures at the beach in Iran and the beach in the United States we are invited to experience the similarities and differences in each country. In Iran, boys and girls swim on different sides of a curtain, but they are still just as curious and mischievous as the children in New York.

This is a fantastic book to use for the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards of the Core. The illustrations in this book provide details, like the pear tree in Iran and the subway in New York, that invite readers to return to the book many times to find new things. Students can also compare and contrast Rashin’s experiences in both countries. This book can also lead to discussions about “the lived experiences of others” from the diversity standards created by Teaching Tolerance. Students can discuss their own swimming experiences in relation to Rashin’s.

Let’s Get Started!

Our name is the way that we present ourselves to the world, especially when so much of our communication occurs over email or online. When their name seems long or unique among peers, it can be a challenge for students. Alma and How she Got Her Name, by Juana Martinez-Neal, comes to the rescue. Alma’s name is long, “Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela” to be exact, and she wonders why it was chosen for her. Her father describes each family member who contributed their name to Alma’s. It doesn’t take Alma long to realize that she shares characteristics with all of these people. Her name is a perfect representation of who she is. The illustrations in this book further strengthen the connections between Alma and her strong relatives.

This would be a wonderful book to share with students at the beginning of the school year to inspire them to learn more about the history of their own names (writing standard, “gather information from sources to answer a question”). It also opens up opportunities to address the Social Justice Identity Standard: “Students will express pride, confidence, and healthy self-esteem without denying the value and dignity of other people.”



Hello everyone,

My name is Leah Cole and I am a special education teacher in Iowa. I have always been passionate about social justice, children’s books, and education, but I have recently become very interested in doing a better job of joining these passions to make a bigger impact in my classroom. Students are faced with issues of justice and fairness from the time they are very young. The Social Justice Standards developed by Teaching Tolerance help teachers to support the development of students who recognize and embrace their own identities while respecting and valuing those who are different. In this blog, I will attempt to identify books that teachers can use in their classrooms and develop questions and activities that support the social justice standards.