Representing the 14%

We need more books for children and young adults that feature main characters with disabilities. This seems evident even without statistics, but just to provide a bit of context: The most recent figures that I could find which specifically focused on children’s books featuring characters with disabilities were from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2017. Focusing specifically on the 698 picture books that they received, only 21 (3%) included characters with disabilities. Of those 21, only 2 included main characters with disabilities (that would be 0.2% of the picture books received). While we cannot entirely generalize this information to all books for children and young adults and while small changes might have been seen between 2017 and 2019, we can be fairly confident in saying that the 1 in 7 children with disabilities are not represented at that rate in the books written for children their age.

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How We View the World

When someone experiences a trauma, or is close to someone who does, there can be a shift in worldview. Sometimes our lives are split in two- life before the event and life after. Or it can feel like you are living in one world, where the trauma remains, while everyone else carries on in their day to day to lives in another world. Akwaeke Emezi has made these feelings into reality in their book Pet which explores the complexity of ridding the world of injustice.

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Keeping Cultures Alive

I am in no way an expert in culturally sustaining pedagogy. Still, it is something that interests me and something that I would like to learn more about. Social justice isn’t just about accepting differences and fighting against inequality. It also involves making sure that cultural traditions, languages, and beliefs remain active and appreciated. One book that highlights the importance and challenge of keeping cultures alive is The Book Rescuer written by Sue Macy and illustrated by Stacy Innerst.

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The Danger of Silence

Exposing Hate: Prejudice, Hatred, and Violence in Action by Michael Miller is written for young adults. I would, however, recommend it to any educator of children, teens, or college students who needs a brief introduction to the importance of teaching social justice within the school system. Exposing Hate is not an easy book to read. While it is not a particularly long book, it took me several days to read due to its disturbing content. Miller has done a significant amount of research into the various beliefs and actions of hate groups, particularly in the United States, and into the organizations that combat the spread of this hatred.

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Developing a Dream

Sometimes I question whether or not I took enough time to talk with my students about the process and effort involved in creating works of wonder. We read plenty of books, but I don’t know if all of my students realized that some of those books took years to write. One book that does an extraordinary job of outlining the process involved in developing a history-making speech is A Place to Land written by Barry Wittenstein and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

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Never Have I Ever…

Last year, my students told me about the game Never Have I Ever, which they enjoyed playing in their classrooms. In this game, someone says something that they have never done or has never happened to them and those people who have done it would respond. For example, a student might say, “I have never traveled outside of the state,” and those students who had traveled outside of the state would then share where they had gone. Different phrases came to mind while reading Kekla Magoon’s new book, Light it Up, and these were not at all playful.

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Some Things Stay the Same

I read two adult nonfiction titles last month that have influenced my reading of children’s and young adult literature. The first was The Plateau by Maggie Paxson which looked at a region of Southern France called Plateau Vivarais-Lignon. This region is best known for the number of individuals and families that hid Jews during World War II. Now, the people within the region are accepting refugees from a number of countries into their community. Paxson attempts to answer the question of what makes the people within this region sacrifice their own comfort to help others. She does so in exquisite prose that demonstrates the complexities of what is, quite simply, showing humanity.

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A Guide to Anti-Racism

Tiffany Jewell’s book, This Book is Anti-Racist, is not just a fantastic book for youth who are looking to increase their own activism. It is also a tool for young adults to make sense of their own identities and to dive deeply into issues of privilege. Jewell does a remarkable job of conveying the importance of activism, without making it seem like this will be easy for teens who are still concerned with social image.

I was lucky enough to receive an Advance Reader Copy of this book through NetGalley and Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. It is one of the best tools that I think a family or classroom could have to introduce a variety of identity groups, institutional racism, and methods for combating racism in communities. In a relatively short text, Jewell provides an enormous amount of information. While this could have been overwhelming, Jewell thoughtfully includes opportunities for reflection at the end of each chapter in her book (there are 20 chapters, so many opportunities to reflect). Readers are asked to think deeply about their own identities, their histories, and their actions when they encounter racism in their communities. These opportunities for reflection also allow for readers to process the large amount of information that is packed into each chapter of the book.

While the information throughout the text is very intense and readers might start to feel a bit overwhelmed by all that they are facing as anti-racism activists, the illustrations by Aurélia Durand are bright and vibrant, showing the power and energy of small groups and individuals taking action against injustice. While Jewell never makes it seem like the journey will be easy, this book provides hope that young activists will prevail.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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 14: I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages I have in society because of my membership in different identity groups, and I know how this has affected my life.

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

Action 18: I have the courage to speak up to people when their words, actions or views are biased and hurtful, and I will communicate with respect even when we disagree.

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:

RI.5- Analyze in detail how an author’s ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs, or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).

RI.6- Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose.

Humanity Eclipsed

The last residential school for Native American Indian children in the United States was closed in 1973. The last residential school for First Nation Canadians closed in 1996. These schools were specifically designed to force children, native to their countries, to assimilate to the cultural norms of white people. The methods used to force this assimilation included physical and sexual abuse, changing the children’s names (in some cases to numbers), forbidding the use of their native languages, cutting their hair, and changing the way that they dressed. Not to mention that these children were forcibly removed from their families. Residential schools are not only a part of North America’s history, they are a part of our recent history. The effects are still felt in communities today.

I was recently given the opportunity, by NetGalley and Second Story Press, to read an Advance Reader Copy of I Am Not a Number written by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer and illustrated by Gillian Newland. This is the story of Dupuis’ grandmother, Irene Couchie Dupuis, who was taken from her family in Ontario and placed in a residential school in 1928. Irene is a member of the Nipissing First Nation community and this book is written in both English and Nbisiing (the dialect of her community). The Nbisiing text is placed in larger font above the English, which is a powerful shift in display from what many of us are used to seeing.

On the first page of this book, the Indian agent speaks the words, “I am here for the children.” This has sent shivers through me every time that I have read the text and I imagine that it always will. What could be more terrifying to a parent or to a child? When Irene arrived at the residential school, she is told that she will now be called 759. The nuns within the school attempted to erase every part of her culture and that included evidence of her humanity such as her name.

Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer use language throughout the book to keep this same feeling of tension flowing for readers. While this is a picture book, it is very intense, and might be best read with children in the upper elementary grades or above. Dupuis and Kacer do not shy away from documenting some of the abuses that occurred during Irene’s time at the residential school. The illustrations, by Gillian Newland, also mirror the fear of the children within the school. The white adults within the book all appear as though the reader is looking up at towering and intimidating figures.

Even surrounded by all of this anger and hatred, Irene stays strong. Her story is one of triumph, but that was not the case for all of the children taken to these schools. Nothing can make up for what happened to these families, but talking about it with the next generation could prevent it from happening again.

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.

Diversity 10: I know that the way groups of people are treated today, and the way they have been treated in the past, is a part of what makes them who they are.

Justice 13: I know that words, behaviors, rules and laws that treat people unfairly based on their group identities cause real harm.

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.

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.8- Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text, identifying which reasons and evidence support which point(s).

Becoming and Accepting

I often write about why individuals are not always able to live their lives openly. However, I have just finished a book that made me think about identity in a different way. I was lucky enough to receive an advance reader copy from NetGalley of Becoming Beatriz by Tami Charles and published by Charlesbridge Teen. This was a beautifully constructed story of how one teenager became (and accepted) who she wanted to be.

Beatriz immigrated from Puerto Rico to Newark, New Jersey, with her mother and brother in the 1970s when she was a little girl. As readers, we learn more about the reasons behind this departure in short vignettes interspersed throughout the book. Most of the story takes place during 1984, in the months after Beatriz turns fifteen. On her birthday, Beatriz had been dancing with her family, which she loved to do, when gunshots interrupted the celebration. Beatriz and her brother Junito belong to a gang and they know that the shots are being fired by a rival group. Beatriz follows Junito into an alley where she is beaten up and Junito is shot by members of a Haitian gang. He dies of his injuries.

Junito had been the leader of the Diablos gang and, within a few months, Beatriz resumes her role as the coordinator of drug sales within her school. Gang activity is really the only part of Beatriz’s life that seems to be unchanged after Junito’s death. Her mother is no longer able to speak and Beatriz will not allow herself to dance. That is, until she meets Nasser, a Haitian immigrant who, when not dancing, is involved in all sorts of intellectual activities. Nasser reminds Beatriz of who she once wanted to be and gives her the confidence to believe that these were not impossible dreams.

Tami Charles does a remarkable job of communicating the types of struggles that youth in urban areas experienced during the 1980s and, unfortunately, those struggles continue today. Joining a gang is not the only option for teens, but it often seems that way to those who are being encouraged to do so. Gangs give teens an identity. What young people don’t always see in the moment is that gangs also take individual identities away. They are a source of protection, but only if members do what they are told. They offer belonging, but at a cost.

One truly important reminder that Beatriz offered to me was that educators need to find ways to make school relevant to every child. Schools may not always be able to get every child to perform on grade level or to master every concept, but they can be places that inspire kids and young adults to take a different path. After school clubs, the arts, and building relationships with students are some wonderful places to start.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 2: I know my family history and cultural background and can describe how my own identity is informed and shaped by my membership in multiple identity groups.

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.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

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.4- Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g., how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).

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.