A Dream Read

An exquisitely rendered depiction of life in a Black community, Dream Street is a joy to read. Written by Tricia Elam Walker with collages by Ekua Holmes, Dream Street introduces readers to the unique and dynamic individuals who make up this community. The book is based on the neighborhood in which Walker and Holmes grew up and the vibrancy of the writing and illustrations make readers feel like a part of the story.

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Simply Delightful

To me, reading Black Boy Joy was as delightful as the first bite of Happy Winter Fudge cake with vanilla ice cream (in other words: quite delightful). Edited by Kwame Mbalia and with stories by 17 Black male and nonbinary writers, this collection is one that I simply devoured. Of course, this left me wishing that I had savored it a bit more. I will do this on my second read (and third…and fourth…).

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Living on the Border

We hear a lot about the crisis at the border between the United States and Mexico. In My Two Border Towns, written by David Bowles and illustrated by Erika Meza, the struggle of immigrants on the border is addressed, but we also view this location from the perspective of a Mexican American child for whom the border is simply home. For him, going back and forth between Mexico and the United States is a typical experience, allowing him to stay in touch with his entire identity while also supporting those in his community who cannot travel freely.

While the picture book is written primarily in English, there are a few Spanish phrases throughout the text. This demonstrates the many benefits that come from being bilingual. On el otro lado (the other side), the little boy describes the language use like this, “This town’s a twin of the one where I live, with Spanish spoken everywhere just the same, but English mostly missing till it pops up like grains of sugar on a chili pepper.” This vivid explanation is just one example of the exquisite writing in this picture book.

The illustrations are also extraordinary and add so much vibrancy to the text. As the little boy is leaving his home in the United States early in the morning, the colors of the shops in the community and the landscape along the Rio Grande are more muted and pastel in color. Once he and his dad cross into Mexico, the colors are bright and bold. Both sides are equally beautiful.

My Two Border Towns is a celebration of kindness, joy, and humanity.

Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of me–but that I am always ALL me.

Diversity 6: I like being around people who are like me and different from me, and I can be friendly to everyone.

Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others and the reasons for that are not always fair.

Action 17: I can and will do something when I see unfairness–this includes telling an adult.

Building Community

One of the foremost results of community activism is, of course, policy change. But another, less acknowledged, impact that community activism can have is a sense of belonging. In Laila Sabreen’s young adult novel, You Truly Assumed, three Black Muslim girls begin a blog for other young women to share their thoughts and feelings after a terrorist attack in Washington, D.C. Sabriya, Zakat, and Farah, live in locations around the country and practice their faith in different ways, but they come together to fight against Islamophobia in the best way they know how.

The decision by Sabreen to tell this story from three different perspectives works exceptionally well. Each of the characters is well-rounded and the story is multi-dimensional, demonstrating that every individual who shares a group identity has different experiences and beliefs. This is powerful considering the one-dimensional focus of the hateful individuals who comment on the YTA blog. While these views and messages are frightening, they are not powerful enough to overcome the community that these young women have established.

You Truly Assumed is a book that will inspire readers to speak out when they see injustice, but it will also remind them that they do not need to do this work alone. Building community can make us all stronger.

Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards:

Identity 4: I express pride and confidence in my identity without perceiving or treating anyone else as inferior.

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

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

Action 20: I will join with diverse people to plan and carry out collective action against exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, and we will be thoughtful and creative in our actions in order to achieve our goals.

A Title that Fits Like a Glove

The Summer of Bitter and Sweet, by Jen Ferguson, has a perfect title. Rarely does a title match the text quite so brilliantly. The title, however, is just the beginning of Ferguson’s excellent young adult novel, which will enchant readers of all backgrounds. The book is full of rich character development and multiple stories which center around love and identity.

The protagonist of The Summer of Bitter and Sweet is Lou, a recent high school graduate who is spending the summer working at her uncles’ ice cream shop. The ice cream here is different than what you would typically see in a grocery store, because its flavors are based on the native plants in this area of Canada, where many Metis people still live. The book describes the conflicted, and sometimes violent, relationships between white and Native residents. In fact, one of these incidents is the reason why Lou is alive in the first place.

Lou’s parentage is just one way that this book balances both bitter and sweet. Her relationships with friends, her uncles, and romantic partners all come with both of these elements. This is so intricately woven into the story that it only became apparent after finishing the book. Lou’s understanding of romance is colored by experiences of women in her past as well as her own relationship history. Lou is one of the few asexual or demisexual characters that I have encountered in young adult literature. The story is told in her voice, which could be very empowering to individuals who are feeling similarly.

This is one of the best young adult books that I have read this year. It is a complex, thought-provoking, and rewarding text to engage with as a reader.

Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities and the intersection of those identities create unique aspects of who I am and that this is true for other people too.

Diversity 9: I relate to an build connections with other people by showing them empathy, respect and understanding, regardless of our similarities or differences.

Honest History

In Imani Perry’s excellent new book for adults, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, she points out that, “even if you are a lover of the national romance, integrity requires that the stories be at least halfway honest…Because history is an instruction. And what you neglect to attend to from the past, you will surely ignore in the present.” (228-229). That is why I believe the 1619 Project’s Born on the Water, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and RenĂ©e Watson, and illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, is so essential to our classrooms and school libraries. A story including slavery, it is, of course, all of the things that so many individuals now say they are opposed to. It is uncomfortable, disturbing, and painful for readers. It is also thought-provoking, powerful, and a catalyst for seeking to create a more perfect union today.

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The Politics of Personhood

According to Freedom for All Americans, there are twenty-five anti-transgender bills currently being proposed in states across the nation. Laws that attack members of marginalized communities are certainly not new to the United States. It seems that there are always groups who are seen as “less-than” or who we prefer to not see at all. The current conflicts around what books should or should not be available in schools and libraries certainly suggest that there are specific groups of people who many adults wish to see erased from children’s knowledge, and transgender individuals are high on that list. Both Sides Now, by Peyton Thomas, explores the question of how to respond when one’s own personhood is an issue of political debate.

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Celebrate Talent

There should be many more books like J.D. and the Great Barber Battle, written by J.Dillard and illustrated by Akeem S. Roberts. Luckily, this is the first title in a series (with two additional books available now), so I can look forward to many adventures with J.D. and his community in Meridian, Mississippi. I have known many young entrepreneurs who have started lemonade stands or sold scented “slime” creations, but never a third-grade barber. Of course, the author of the series started cutting his own hair when he was 10 so he is writing from experience.

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Seeing People

Every once in a while my soul aches to read a story where every character, even the most challenging, eventually shows a redeeming quality. In Anybody Here Seen Frenchie?, by Leslie Connor, I found a book with so many loving, quirky, and accepting characters that it makes me want to pack up and move to Maine. These characters are not perfect and they still have struggles, but their ability to work together and to see each other as equally worthy despite their differences makes them stand out as exceptional in our world today. On this first day of the new year, maybe we could all take a step in their direction.

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Secrets and Lies

The title of my blog, Teaching Social Justice with Children’s Books, did not seem dangerous or problematic when I chose it several years ago, but it does today. Parents, school boards, and government representatives across the country are demanding that children’s and young adult books which address certain aspects of a person’s identity be removed from the bookshelves of classrooms and school libraries. Teaching students about “social justice” is being equated to indoctrination. I think about social justice as meaning fair treatment in society, and fairness used to be something that was encouraged in classrooms. As many young students would be able to tell you, fair is not always equal. They know that some of their classmates might need additional support in the classroom to meet grade level goals. They know that a student with diabetes might need to have an extra snack to treat a low blood sugar. My intent is not to diminish the challenge of creating a fair or just society. I simply want to point out that knowledge, or at least acknowledgement, is a necessary first step.

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