Not Alone

Lynne Kelly dedicates her book, Song for a Whale, to everyone who’s ever felt alone. This is the perfect way to introduce a story that highlights the experiences of an underrepresented group, while also reflecting the thoughts of children from every background. Kelly’s book centers around Iris who is twelve and the only Deaf student in her school. While Iris has a sign language interpreter with her all of the time, she still feels incredibly disconnected from her teachers and fellow students. When Iris finds out about Blue 55, a whale whose song is at too high a frequency for other whales to understand, she can completely relate. Iris becomes determined to help Blue 55 to make connections.

In Song for a Whale readers are introduced to a young woman who is Deaf, but Iris is so strong and resourceful that the only people who seem to have a disability are those who treat her differently or seek not to communicate with her at all. Iris is an engineering genius and the creativity she shows throughout the book is limitless. Her intensity and commitment to her cause are also truly admirable.

Iris’ story will appeal to a wide audience and might even inspire some budding marine biologists or STEM trailblazers. We have all felt alone at one time or another, but there are some students for whom this feeling is constant. As educators we need to make sure that we identify these students and do all that we can to connect them to others who share their interests. Everyone needs to know that they are not alone. Even whales.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Action 20: I will work with my friends and family to make our school and community fair for everyone, and we will work hard and cooperate in order to achieve our goals.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.

RL.3- Describe characters in a story (e.g., their traits, motivations, or feelings) and explain how their actions contribute to the sequence of events.

RL.6- Distinguish their own point of view from that of the narrator or those of the characters.

W.2- Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

 

 

Picturing Home

Home is a bit of an abstract concept. While the dictionary defines home as the place where someone lives, people have been expanding that definition for many years. We have all read things or said things such as: home is where the heart is, home away from home, or home is the people who love you. At the end of the school day, we say, “It’s time to go home.” But what if “home” is where students have been all day. School can be a home for many students, others have multiple homes, and some aren’t quite sure where home is yet. There might be as many definitions of home as there are people.

In Jasmine Warga’s, Other Words for Home, Jude is coming to terms with the idea of having more than one home. Syria was her first home and it was full of people and experiences that she loved. When her brother joins the resistance against Assad’s government, Jude and her mother travel to the United States to live with an uncle, leaving her brother and father behind. At first, her uncle’s house and the United States do not feel like home to Jude. Her cousin isn’t particularly welcoming and, while Jude learned English in Syria, she is not entirely comfortable with the language.

This novel in verse chronicles Jude’s journey to find home. It certainly isn’t an easy task and home ends up being more about Jude herself than about any one place. As the school year is just starting and students are getting used to new classrooms and people, Other Words for Home might be the perfect book to share in middle grade classrooms.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2-Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

RL.3- Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).

RL.5- Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.

 

Safe Spaces

As the new school year begins, I want to emphasize the crucial role that schools and classrooms can play as safe spaces where students can be themselves. Most students, hopefully, go home to families where they are accepted, but we know that this is not true for every child. In I Wish You All the Best, Mason Deaver introduces us to Ben, who is an extraordinary artist, caring friend, loving sibling, and who happens to be nonbinary. When Ben is kicked out of home they move in with their sister, Hannah, who has been estranged from her family for many years. Hannah is married to Thomas who is a teacher at the nearby high school. While Ben does not come out to anyone else at school, knowing that Thomas is aware of Ben’s truth and that he accepts it makes an enormous difference.

I Wish You All the Best is a love story in every sense of the word. It tackles the true meaning of unconditional love and what can happen when, all of a sudden, conditions seem to appear. Hannah and Thomas show Ben what familial love should be. They are also tremendous examples for readers of what it looks like to be accepting of a difference that we do not completely understand. They make mistakes, they ask questions, and they constantly try to learn and improve. Finally, there is Nathan, who becomes Ben’s romantic love interest. Ben struggles to understand their feelings for Nathan and deals with anxiety over how Nathan will react when he finds out that Ben is nonbinary.

Deaver made an excellent choice to write this book from Ben’s perspective. Deaver is a nonbinary author and therefore is able to write this story using a first person point of view, which gives the reader a different experience than reading about a nonbinary supporting character in a book written by a cisgender author. Obviously, this book is not a reflection of every nonbinary person, but it is an entry point for understanding some of their experiences. I have written about the importance of using students’ correct pronouns and this book is a wonderful testament to why that is so crucial in schools. I recently misgendered someone on Twitter and a reader was kind enough to correct me so that I was able to apologize and make changes to my post. Reading I Wish You All the Best helped me to realize that mistakes can be made and will make me more conscious of pronouns in the future. Using this book in classrooms can help to make schools safer spaces for all students.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1: I have a positive view of myself, including an awareness of and comfort with my membership in multiple groups in society.

Diversity 6: I interact comfortably and respectfully with all people, whether they are similar to or different from me.

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.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

Define “From”

Chants of, “send her back,” accusations of “invasions” and “infestations,” have all become a part of our political narrative. While none of this is new, the outspoken and “everyday” nature of these messages seems significant. Children hear this language and see its effects on a daily basis. While some of it might be difficult for them to understand, they are probably able to identify the intent behind these messages.

The picture book Where Are You From? written by Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jaime Kim, starts with a little girl being asked where she is from. She responds, “I am from here, from today, same as everyone else.” This answer is apparently not satisfactory and her inquisitors ask, “No, where are you really from?”

The little girl asks her abuelo and he gives her many answers to this question– none of which include the name of a specific place. It turns out that the little girl’s family can be traced back to all kinds of places and people. Gauchos who grazed cattle, mountains which were home to wild animals, beaches where hurricanes roared, and women who searched for missing relatives after conflicts. Finally, he says, she comes from his heart, and the love of all of the generations that came before her. Isn’t that where we all want to come from?

How does one answer the question, “Where are you from?”? That might depend on the intent behind the question. Is it being asked because the questioner wants to know where we grew up or because they do not believe we look like we “belong”? We should all have the opportunity to share and learn about our ancestry, but I hope one day that we all can answer, “I am from here, from today, same as everyone else” and that this will be accepted. In the end, it is the absolute truth.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Describe characters, settings, and major events in a story, using key details.

RL.4- Identify words and phrases in stories or poems that suggest feelings or appeal to the senses.

RL.7- Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.

 

Essential Conversations

A recent article in the journal Language Arts addressed the importance of sharing children’s books about death and grief in elementary classrooms (Husbye, Buchholz, Powell, & Zanden, July 2019). Often, as educators, we like to have a deep understanding of topics that we are going to discuss with our students. Death is one issue that we are not able to completely understand, as no one is able to provide us with a first person perspective of the experience or what comes after. Death and grief are not easy for anyone to talk about, but since they affect everyone, they are essential topics of conversation.

While the article in Language Arts was specifically about picture books, there are also many juvenile fiction titles that include death or grief. One such title is Pie in the Sky, by Remy Lai. In this illustrated novel, we are introduced to Jingwen, who has just immigrated to Australia. He makes this transition with his mom and his little brother, but without his father who died in a car crash. Jingwen remembers spending hours on the weekends with his father planning for the cake shop they would open in Australia. It would be called Pie in the Sky and would serve only the most special cakes, ones that they baked together on the weekends.

Jingwen struggles in school when he arrives in Australia because he doesn’t speak English. It sounds like an alien language and this is depicted in Lai’s remarkable illustrations. The only thing that brings him comfort is baking the Pie in the Sky cakes with his little brother when his mom is at work. She has forbidden them from going anywhere near the stove, but Jingwen comes up with a plan that will allow them to continue baking without telling the worst kind of lies, which his father defined as, “those that will benefit oneself but will hurt others.”

Pie in the Sky is a book that has so much to share with its readers who are asked to step into the shoes of a boy who is not just moving to a new school or even a new country, but to a place where he cannot understand the language or customs of those around him. He is also dealing with the trauma of losing a parent. Jingwen has so much to overcome and he has to learn to trust those around him in order to move forward. This would be a great book to choose as a read aloud or for a novel study. There are so many complex issues to discuss and Lai addresses all of them with a deep sensitivity and a sense of humor that will appeal to young readers.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

RL.3- Describe in depth a character, setting, or event in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., a character’s thoughts, words, or actions).

RL.7- Make connections between the text of a story or drama and a visual or oral presentation of the text, identifying where each version reflects specific descriptions and directions in the text.

Reflecting the Passage of Time

Twenty years ago, Tricia Brown and Roy Corral interviewed children from seven Alaska Native cultures and produced the book Children of the Midnight Sun. Recognizing that cultures are constantly evolving and being influenced by global changes, Brown and Corral returned to create Children of the First People. They interviewed kids from the eight Alaska Native groups featured in their first book and the three groups that had not been included originally.

In Children of the First People, we are introduced to kids and families who have been shaped by their modern day experiences as well as the cultural traditions that they have inherited. They participate in many of the same activities as children worldwide such as playing video games and basketball. Many of them attend church services. One boy from the Iñupiat group is featured in social media videos that his mom produces. Some of them live in small towns and others live in big cities. Each child included in the book has different experiences and traditions and the author does a nice job of ensuring that none of the children are considered “cultural representatives” for their Alaska Native groups. Educators also need to make sure that students understand that each of these children is just one individual in a larger group and that they do not speak for the group as a whole.

Brown and Corral also describe the unique experiences of children within these Alaskan communities. Some of them live on islands that can only be reached by boats or small planes. While many of the kids eat hamburgers on occasion, some of them prefer dishes made of whale skin and blubber. This might be a point at which students in our classrooms bring up confusion or feelings of cultural superiority and it is important that teachers have these conversations with students. Asking students what they know about Native communities before reading and how their knowledge changes during and after reading is an important part of culturally responsive literacy practices.

Alaska Native people are a vital part of our national community. However, they are rarely part of our children’s literature. It is important to note that neither Brown nor Corral are Alaska Natives themselves, but the families and children within the book really do tell their own stories. I am hopeful that with books like this one and the PBS show Molly of Denali, children will take an interest in learning more about these cultural communities.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 6: I like knowing people who are like me and different from me, and I treat each person with respect.

Diversity 7: I have accurate, respectful words to describe how I am similar to and different from people who share my identities and those who have other identities.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

W.8- Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information, and provide a list of sources.

SL.1.C- Pose and respond to specific questions to clarify or follow up on information, and make comments that contribute to the discussion and link to the remarks of others.

A Turning Point

I recognize that, given the time of year, I am a little late with this reflection on two books covering the Stonewall Uprising. However, just like Black history should not only be taught in February, LGBTQ+ history should not be taught solely in June. This is especially true because many schools across the country are not in session during Pride Month. So, instead of making excuses about my tardiness, I will encourage reading Stonewall and The Stonewall Riots at any time of year.

Stonewall by Rob Sanders and illustrated by Jamey Christoph, is a picture book written from the perspective of the building located at 51-53 Christopher Street. This is such a creative way to tell the story of the Stonewall Inn and its importance to the Gay Rights Movement. The text and illustrations work together beautifully to reflect the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community within Greenwich Village before and during the uprising itself as well as the difficulties involved in expressing that diversity. The picture book is supported by supplemental materials including photographs, an interview with a Stonewall Uprising participant, and a resource list for further reading. This book is a perfect way to introduce LGBTQ+ history to a young audience.

A book meant for a slightly older demographic is The Stonewall Riots: Coming Out in the Streets by Gayle E. Pitman. This text is set up almost like a museum exhibit with 50 artifacts that tell the story of the Stonewall Inn and the history of the LGBTQ+ community in the United States. Pitman takes a wider look at what it was like to be part of this community over the course of the previous century especially in larger cities such as San Francisco and New York City. She considers the individual perspectives of gay men, transgender individuals, and lesbians who participated in events leading up to the Stonewall Uprising, the riots themselves, and in future advocacy within the Gay Rights Movement.

In 2016, Stonewall became the first National Monument dedicated to LGBT history. Hopefully, it will be the first of many. There is still a lot of progress to be made in this movement towards equality.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity Anchor Standard 7: Students will develop language and knowledge to accurately and respectfully describe how people (including themselves) are both similar to and different from each other and others in their identity groups.

Diversity Anchor Standard 8: Students will respectfully express curiosity about the history and lived experiences of others and will exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

Justice Anchor Standard 15: Students will identify figures, groups, events and a variety of strategies and philosophies relevant to the history of social justice around the world.

Common Core Standards:

RI.3- Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.

RI.6- Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.

Identity within a Community

I have to admit up front that I know very little about rap and hip hop. So writing about Angie Thomas’ new book, On the Come Up, is a bit of a challenge for me. At first, I felt like maybe my lack of first-hand knowledge of this musical style and the community that Thomas writes about made me a poor representative to speak for its message, but I was so impressed by the book that I don’t want to miss out on sharing it with educators.

In On the Come Up, Bri is a sixteen-year-old who has big dreams of becoming a rapper. Her father was a rapper and was shot by members of a gang when Bri was very young. But Bri doesn’t want to be defined by her father’s legacy. While she is very proud of who he was, she wants to be a unique individual with her own message to send to listeners. At the beginning of the book, we learn that Bri is bused from her low-income neighborhood to a school for the arts in a nearby, much wealthier, community. Bri, along with her fellow bus riders, is black and is targeted by the security guards at her school for random searches upon arrival. When Bri is violently searched, she decides to rap about the experience and about how people from her community are stereotyped. It doesn’t take long for Bri’s song to be heard and to be misinterpreted by those who already hold negative views about people from Bri’s neighborhood.

As a white woman living in a suburban neighborhood in Iowa, I have lived a very different life than Bri. However, I am able to relate to her conflicting feelings of pride and disappointment in the ways that her community is viewed. She is proud of the strength and determination of so many of the people in her community while also feeling let down by the choices that a few make. Of course, people outside of her community often choose to focus on those negative choices when they talk about her neighborhood publicly. I can relate to some of these feelings. I am proud of the many people in my community who are trying to make Iowa a more inclusive and diverse place for the next generation while also being disappointed that we are still seen as flyover country by so many.

Bri’s message of hope and pride in her community and in her dreams is one that every student can relate to and that every high school classroom should promote. There are lots of opportunities to use this book to talk about the power of language and music to express deep feelings.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

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

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.

RL.3- Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed).

RL.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.

RL.6- Analyze a case in which grasping a point of view requires distinguishing what is directly stated in a text from what is really meant (e.g., satire, sarcasm, irony, or understatement).

Honoring her Stories

Dreamers, The Poet X, Lucky Broken Girl, Juana and Lucas, Niño Wrestles the World. All of these books have been recipients of the Pura Belpré Author or Illustrator Awards. But how much do our students know about this extraordinary and important individual’s contributions to the history of children’s literature?

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré, written by Anika Aldamuy Denise and illustrated by Paola Escobar, is a fantastic introduction to Pura’s story. In 1921, Pura left Puerto Rico to attend her sister’s wedding in New York. Instead of returning home after the wedding, Pura took a job as a bilingual assistant at the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. The Spanish speaking community in Harlem was growing, but there weren’t any books written in Spanish within the library’s collection. Pura set to work retelling the traditional stories that she had heard in Puerto Rico to the library’s young patrons. She sewed puppets to bring the stories to life, but there were still no books for children to check out. So Pura began to write them and send them to publishers.

Pura Belpré wasn’t just an author or a storyteller. She was a game changer. All of a sudden, children with no access to books or literacy within the libraries of New York were welcome and could see their histories reflected in written language. Pura empowered a generation and the books that receive the award named for her will continue to do so for generations to come.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Diversity 8: I want to know about other people and how our lives and experiences are the same and different.

Justice 15: I know about people who helped stop unfairness and worked to make life better for many people.

Common Core Standards:

RI.1- Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text.

RI.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases in a text relevant to a grade 2 topic or subject area.

RI.7- Explain how specific images (e.g., a diagram showing how a machine works) contribute to and clarify a text.

The Right Age

We are starting to see a greater range of relationships with LGBTQIA characters in young adult literature. There has been a demand for more picture books with gender fluid or transgender children and juvenile fiction has been expanding its depiction of families with two moms or two dads. However, most books that include main characters who are in same sex relationships or who are coming out to their families, are about teenagers. This means that children who are starting to question their sexuality at younger ages may not have access to characters they can relate to until they are much older. This may make them feel even less comfortable with their own identities and more hesitant to have conversations with trusted adults.

We know that students are reaching puberty at younger ages. Upper elementary teachers frequently encounter situations in which their students are starting to date or at least say that they “like” each other in that way. These feelings can be strange and confusing for children, but especially so for students who are not heterosexual. Being able to see themselves in characters their own age who are experiencing similar feelings is crucial.

Ashley Herring Blake’s, Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, is one example of the kind of representation that we need to see in upper elementary and middle school classrooms. Ivy is twelve and is starting to notice that, while her friends are becoming interested in boys, she can’t stop drawing pictures of girls standing close together or holding hands. In the midst of a great upheaval in her home life (her house has just been destroyed by a tornado and her mom has recently given birth to twins), Ivy is realizing that her life is not going to look the same as those she sees around her. What will that mean for her relationships with the people she cares about?

One of the most special things about this book is how natural and true it feels to this particular age level. Ivy’s realization is never overtly sexual, nor does it need to be. At twelve, attraction is that feeling of butterflies in your stomach and a desire to spend time with someone. As Ivy says, “Maybe perfect was just another word for belonging. For feeling like yourself…It just meant that things would get better, and make more sense, that your heart wouldn’t always feel so lonely” (287). Isn’t that what we all want to feel at twelve, regardless of who makes us feel that way? Blake also does a beautiful job of showing how realizations of identity can come at any time in a person’s life whether early or late.

Coming out, as anything that differs from the norm, is always going to be hard. But knowing that you are not the first person to feel this way, seeing yourself in books or on TV, can help. Knowing that your teacher or your parent chose to put this book on the shelf is a message that they are safe people to approach. That is the kind of message we want to send to kids no matter how young they are.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 3: I know that all my group identities are part of who I am, but none of them fully describes me and this is true for other people too.

Identity 4: I can feel good about my identity without making someone else feel badly about who they are.

Diversity 8: I want to know more about other people’s lives and experiences, and I know how to ask questions respectfully and listen carefully and non-judgmentally.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text, including how characters in a story or drama respond to challenges or how the speaker in a poem reflects upon a topic; summarize the text.

RL.3- Compare and contrast two or more characters, settings, or events in a story or drama, drawing on specific details in the text (e.g., how characters interact).

RL.6- Describe how a narrator’s or speaker’s point of view influences how events are described.