A Spirit of Community

The word “omu” means queen in the Igbo language of Nigeria. In Thank You, Omu!, by Oge Mora, Omu makes a delicious stew and its aroma spreads throughout her urban neighborhood. Omu appears to live alone and the stew was for her dinner, but each time a new person comes to her door to comment on the delightful smell, she offers them a bowl with a smile. Throughout the day, her pot of stew empties, until she is left in the evening without any dinner. Luckily, the people in her community are filled with gratitude for her generosity and they come to her door with a feast that everyone can share.

Thank You, Omu!, also reflects the diversity within our communities especially within race, ethnicity, and gender. Mora’s use of descriptive language is fantastic including such phrases as: scrumptious stew, big fat pot, thick red stew, and shiny red envelope. Mora’s collage illustrations are exceptional with their mixture of cut paper, paint, pastels, and book clippings. Thank You, Omu!, was the recipient of a 2019 Caldecott Honor and the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe New Talent Illustrator Award.

This would be a great picture book to share with students in the early elementary grades to talk about sharing, friendship, and community. It would also be a great introduction to a new style of illustration for young readers.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

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

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.

Something We Must Learn

I often find myself sinking into despair when thinking about the news these days. I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for children and young adults who are experiencing their formative years in these troubled times. That makes it all the more important that we find stories of people who are doing all that they can to make the world a better place, even in the midst of great suffering.

Two books that I read this week seem, at least on the surface, to focus more on terrible events than on compassion and heroism. Someday We Will Fly by Rachel DeWoskin, is a young adult historical fiction novel about a Jewish family that flees Poland in 1940 to seek safety in Shanghai, China (here is a New York Times article that gives more information on Jews in Shanghai). Lillia, the protagonist, and her family live in crowded conditions without a steady supply of food or a method of maintaining hygiene. China had already been invaded by Japan at this point in time and after Japan joined the Axis Powers, fears of concentration camps in China must have been extreme. Lillia and her family suffer tremendously, but there is still an element of hope and a belief in humanity communicated throughout this book. The Jews of Shanghai started a school to make sure that their children still had some elements of a normal life. American aid workers stayed in China even after the United States went to war against Japan and continued to provide supplies and medical care to the Chinese. The Japanese, encouraged by Germany to exterminate the Jews of China, refused to do so.

Never forget or never again are phrases that are often used after wars or other horrible atrocities. Seventy years after the Holocaust, countries around the world are still participating in ethnic cleansing and genocide. Other countries are still refusing to accept refugees from these persecuted groups. Maybe the phrase should be: never forgotten, but frequently ignored. There I go again, focusing on the negative. Don Brown’s graphic novel, Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees, does not cover up the extreme violence taking place in Syria or the reluctance of many nations to accept those who have fled. These stories should not and cannot be ignored. However, he also recounts tales of police officers who offer food instead of pulling their weapons or of volunteer teachers who work with traumatized youth to prevent them from losing educational opportunities.

These are the kinds of stories we need to share with our students. Stories of people who don’t just fight against hatred, but teach and practice love.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

RL.6- Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.

A Testament to Courage

Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson are an author/illustrator team made in heaven. They are legendary on their own, but together they pack an extraordinary punch. It only makes sense that they worked together on The Undefeated, which is a picture book that belongs in every school be it elementary or high. It is a testament to the strength of black America.

As with all of Kwame Alexander’s poetry, every word is chosen carefully and speaks volumes. Certain words are bold or bigger than others to emphasize their importance. Many of the words that are highlighted in this way are positive and empowering such as unforgettable, audacious, and righteous. A few are reminders of the incredible violence and costs of racism such as chains and unspeakable.

The language in this book is equally matched by the illustrations. Kadir Nelson has the ability to capture images with his paintbrush that rival photographs with their intensity and accuracy. His paintings communicate strength and vision on every page. There is also a helpful reference at the end of the book to the historical figures and events featured within the text.

Our nation claims to have “liberty and justice for all.” It doesn’t. This book doesn’t attempt to cover that up. Instead, it is a celebration of those who have fought and continue to fight to break down barriers for themselves and for others. Not all of these battles were successful and some had the greatest of costs. However, Alexander and Nelson remind us that black Americans have never given up and that there is no reason to give up now. This is a message of hope.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Justice 14: I know that life is easier for some people and harder for others based on who they are and where they were born.

Justice 15: I know about the actions of people and groups who have worked throughout history to bring more justice and fairness to the world.

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.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative language such as metaphors and similes.

RL.7- Analyze how visual and multimedia elements contribute to the meaning, tone, or beauty of a text.

Make Sure They All Stand Out

One of the most challenging tasks a teacher can have can be recognizing when a student is not safe at home. When children are treated as though they have no value by the people who should value them the most, they often internalize that lack of value and are afraid to talk about it with other adults who can help them. If they are being abused at home for their mere existence, blending in becomes a method of survival. When educators get to know their students as individuals, so each student stands out, they have a better chance of recognizing the signs of abuse. Here is an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development that highlights some of these signs: Supporting Victims of Child Abuse

The Dangerous Art of Blending In is a young adult novel by Angelo Surmelis and this story of coming out and finding love, while also escaping hatred, is based on Surmelis’ own teenage experiences. Reading this book could trigger intense emotions from readers who have experienced abuse and that is important to consider and to share with students ahead of time. It is also an essential story to be told and should be shared with as many people as possible.

Evan Panos is the protagonist in this book and he has been covering up his mother’s physical and emotional abuse since he was a small child. At seventeen, with the help of his best friend and eventual romantic partner Henry, Evan starts to realize that the abuse he is suffering is unacceptable (as all abuse is) and that he deserves to be loved. Readers will empathize with Evan and will love Henry, but conversations around some of the other characters will be more complex. Evan’s father does not exactly condone the actions of his wife. He repeatedly tells her that she needs to stop and he physically restrains her when she becomes out of control. Is that enough? Evan’s pastor seems to be aware of what is happening within Evan’s home, but he suggests family counseling. He also seems to find homosexuality and child abuse equally reprehensible.

Reading this book requires adults and teenagers to consider the responsibility that they have for the emotional and physical safety of the people they care about. How much do we know and not say? When does knowledge become complicity? When does the bystander become one of the bullies?

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

Action 19: I stand up to exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, even when it’s not popular or easy or when no one else does.

Common Core Standards:

RL.1- Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

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.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

Someone I Would Like to Meet

When we embrace social justice, we honor differences while also celebrating our similarities. In Meet Yasmin! by Saadia Faruqi and illustrated by Hatem Aly, readers can do both. Meet Yasmin! fits between early readers and short chapter books in a category that includes books such as Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder and Barkus by Patricia MacLachlan. These books have generous illustrations with limited text, but include chapters to introduce this new feature to young readers. In Meet Yasmin!  readers are also introduced to a new character in children’s literature who reflects the culture and experiences of two of her identity groups : Pakistani and American.

Yasmin loves to explore, dress up, and be creative. She goes to the park with her mom, who wears a hijab when she is not at home. She stays home with her grandmother and grandfather, Nani and Nana, when her parents go out for date night. Yasmin experiences joy, frustration, worry, and relief, just like every second grader. Readers just get the added reward of learning a few words of Urdu and gaining knowledge of a specific culture as they read.

This book is perfect for early elementary classroom teachers to suggest to their readers. Hopefully Meet Yasmin! is just the first in a series of books by Faruqi and Aly.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 1: I know and like who I am and can talk about my family and myself and name some of my group identities.

Diversity 7: I can describe some ways that I am similar to and different from people who share my identities and those who have other identities.

Diversity 10: I find it interesting that groups of people believe different things and live their daily lives in different ways.

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Describe how characters in a story respond to major events and challenges.

RL.6- Acknowledge differences in the points of view of characters, including by speaking in a different voice for each character when reading dialogue aloud.

RL.7- Use information gained from the illustrations and words in a print or digital text to demonstrate understanding of its characters, setting, or plot.

Finding a Community

In Iowa, where I live, Governor Kim Reynolds recently signed a bill that will allow legislators to deny state funding through the Medicaid program for transition-related care to transgender Iowans. This means that reassignment surgeries would have to be paid for exclusively by the patient. Considering that reassignment surgeries can cost over $30,000, these often lifesaving treatments are off limits to most if not all individuals who qualify for Medicaid. Governor Reynolds’ reasoning for signing this piece of discriminatory legislation was that it simply returns us to what had previously been the standard before the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that this provision was unconstitutional. After all, everyone knows that going backwards is the best way to create positive change.

Alex Bertie, the author of Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard, lives in England where the National Health Service gives all of its citizens equal access to essential medical care. I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from Hachette Book Group (#LBYRPartner) and finished it in one sitting. Alex didn’t fully recognize that he was transgender until he was fifteen, but he was always drawn to things that were typically considered masculine. He had been documenting his life on YouTube for several years before he made this realization and that was where he truly found his community. Finding a community is important for everyone, but especially someone like Alex who lived in a small town in England and didn’t have many transgender role models or peers.

Trans Mission is a book that any high school student or adult could read to learn more about what it is like to live as a transgender man. Alex is very clear that his perspective and experiences may not reflect those of all transgender men and definitely not of transgender women who often have very different experiences. Still, his account of growing up and starting to transition is an important story for both cisgender and transgender readers. For those readers who are cisgender, Alex writes about standing up to bullies and has an especially strong message for teachers. He also gives great advice on transitioning, surgeries, and dating for transgender readers. Alex’s mom also writes a chapter that includes her reflections on the process of coming to terms with Alex’s gender identity.

Alex writes as if he is talking to the reader and the book’s use of language reflects that style of discourse. Teens will have a lot of fun getting to know Alex and will also gain insight into the incredible complexities of living as a transgender individual. If only some of our politicians could empathize with these experiences instead of casting them aside as something “other” and therefore unworthy of support.

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 8: I respectfully express curiosity about the histories and lived experiences of others and exchange ideas and beliefs in an open-minded way.

A New Look at an Old Story

One of the most iconic romances in literary history occurs between Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy and Miss Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. There have been many adaptations of Austen’s work in recent years, for adults and young adults alike, with varying degrees of quality. One recent adaptation is Pride by Ibi Zoboi, a story which takes place in Brooklyn and centers around the relationship between Zuri Benitez and Darius Darcy.

The way that Zoboi crafts this adaptation of Ms. Austen’s work is exceptional. While the characters come from completely different backgrounds and cultures, the parallels between the two stories are not strained at all. Anyone familiar with Austen’s work can make connections on every page. However, Pride is not simply a regurgitation of Austen’s work. While the characters’ personalities and their actions seem familiar, the events which influence their daily lives are very different from those experienced by Austen’s characters when Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813.

This would be a fantastic book to teach in high schools alongside Pride and Prejudice. Students can compare and contrast the period culture and gender norms in both texts. Pride also brings in the issue of gentrification which would be an interesting topic to discuss in the context of both books. It would be important for students to think about the role that race plays in these texts as well as its intersection with issues of class. Pride and Prejudice is still relevant to readers today, but introducing Pride alongside this classic work of literature brings the story to life in a whole new way.

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.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).

RL.7- Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text.

RL.9- Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work.

Unlikely Companions

One of the literary formats that seems to be introducing more and more diversity to children’s and young adult literature is graphic novels. Two recently published graphic novels for teens are Kiss Number 8 by Colleen AF Venable and Ellen T. Crenshaw and On a Sunbeam by Tillie Walden. Both of these works address the experiences of young lesbian women, but they do this in very different ways.

Mads is the central character in Kiss Number 8 and the book focuses on her relationships with friends and family as she comes to terms with her sexual orientation. While the book takes place in 2004, her coming out process is directly impacted by the experience of a transgender man who chose to live his truth many years ago. Mads’ coming out process is not at all easy or entirely her choice. She learns that sometimes those we love the most and who we count on to be unconditionally accepting, are not willing to alter their own perspectives for important people in their lives. Sometimes unlikely people turn out to be advocates, as well. Mads is lucky that her coming out does not result in homelessness or abandonment which happens for many LGBTQ teens.

In contrast, there is no coming out process in On a Sunbeam. This book takes place in a future in which there appear to be no men, though this is never mentioned in the text. Coming out would not be an event here because all relationships, friendly/familial/romantic, are between women. However, relationships and acceptance are still at the center of this story. The protagonist, Mia, is followed across two timelines. In the first, Mia is a student in boarding school who starts to open herself up to new experiences when she meets Grace and falls in love. In the second, Mia is serving on a crew that travels to different planets to repair old buildings. Over the course of the book, we discover how the two timelines are connected.

Sometimes seeing characters that resemble oneself in literature can be affirming, even if those characters spend most of their time on spaceships in an alternate universe. These two graphic novels would be worthwhile to include on shelves in any high school library or classroom.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

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

Common Core Standards:

RL.3- Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

RL.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure a text, order events within it (e.g., parallel plots), and manipulate time (e.g., pacing, flashbacks) create such effects as mystery, tension, or surprise.

Progress is not Always Linear

Carol Anderson has written about race and equality (or the lack thereof) for many years now. I read one of her most recent books for adults, One Person, No Vote, and was blown away by the research and analysis contained within. While I have not read her work White Rage, her version for teens, We Are Not Equal, which was written with Tonya Bolden has impressed me just as much as One Person, No Vote, if not more. She presents an argument that every time our country takes a step toward racial justice, the response from those in power is to attempt to roll back those rights.

History is nothing if not complex. Our textbooks are often written from the perspective of the victor or the majority. We often overlook or skim over issues that might be painful or controversial, mostly because of fear not hate. I am currently reading Biased by Jennifer L. Berhardt, PhD, who notes that in a 2017 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 8 percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the primary reason the South seceded from the Union (p. 220). In We Are Not Yet Equal, Anderson points out that we often skip directly from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement when covering race in social studies classes. If our coverage of slavery is so basic that students do not recognize its impact on historical events, there is no way that they will understand the need for the Civil Rights Movement or the effects that the slave trade still has on our nation today.

Anderson presents a much more complex picture of history than students are often exposed to in school. We always talk about how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but we don’t often talk about how he wanted to send free black people to South America because he blamed their race for the Civil War. We talk about Brown vs. Board and students like Ruby Bridges and the Little Rock Nine, but we rarely discuss the fact that educational segregation is still alive and well in our country because of policies put in place by local and national government policies.

We Are Not Yet Equal is truly a must read for students in high school studying American History. We are in a “roll back” period in history right now and we must make sure that this stops and that the, allow me to paraphrase, “arc of our universe bends toward justice” again.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

Justice 13: I can explain the short and long-term impact of biased words and behaviors and unjust practices, laws and institutions that limit the rights and freedoms of people based on their identity groups.

Justice 15: I can 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.2- Determine two or more 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 provide a complex analysis; provide an objective summary of the text.

RI.3- Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequence of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact and develop over the course of the text.

RI.6- Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

RI.8- Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the premises, purposes, and arguments in works of public advocacy (e.g., The Federalist, presidential addresses).

All Kinds of Powerful

Slowly but surely, children’s and young adult publishing is getting better at reflecting all of the diversity in society. There is still a long way to go to make sure that authors and illustrators from all identity groups are represented, but things at least seem to be heading in the right direction. One book that stands out for me is Amelia Westlake Was Never Here by Erin Gough which will be published by Little, Brown and Company in May 2019. I was lucky enough to receive an Advance Reading Copy (#LBYRPartner) and I am excited to share this new title with all of you.

Harriet Price and Will Everhart have very little in common. Harriet is a poster child for Rosemead School. She swims, plays tennis, holds bake sales for the school, and supports the staff in any way she can. Will is new to Rosemead and can’t wait to leave it, but before she goes, she wants to draw attention to the imperfections of this school which caters to the most wealthy and elite girls in Sydney, Australia. This includes the school administration which seems to be ignoring the misogyny and sexual misconduct of their Olympic-medal-winning swim coach. While it seems inevitable that Will and Harriet will connect, their incredibly different personalities and goals make the reading leading up to their romance tremendously fun.

Will and Harriet start getting to know each other when they create a fictional student named Amelia Westlake who responds to discriminatory practices in the school. Whether it is the inappropriate actions of Coach Hadley, the unfair grading practices of an English teacher, or the costly school uniforms, Amelia Westlake speaks for the voiceless. Through Amelia, Will and Harriet start to see that they are each holding something back from the world.

Many books about LGBTQ characters focus on either one character dealing with their identity or a romance between two main characters. While that is important and should be celebrated, Gough takes a different approach with this story. Both Harriet and Will are in relationships with other queer characters at the beginning of this book which expands the reader’s access to this community. And, most excitingly, they are all dynamic characters whose different personalities bring depth to the LGBTQ experience.

This book would be an excellent choice to share with students who are interested in activism. The voices of the characters are funny, honest, and reflective of the experiences and thoughts of high school girls. This book also examines issues important to teenagers such as power structure, cultural representation, and the inner conflict of fighting for others or staying silent. While Amelia Westlake may never have been here, I am really glad that her book is!

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

Action 18: I stand up to exclusion, prejudice and discrimination, even when it’s not popular or easy or when no one else does.

Common Core Standards:

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.5- Analyze how an author’s choices concerning how to structure specific parts of a text (e.g., the choice of where to begin or end a story, the choice to provide a comedic or tragic resolution) contribute to its overall structure and meaning as well as its aesthetic impact.

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).