Inspiring Activists

Thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books-

If ever there was a book to inspire future social justice activists, it is Saving Savannah by Tonya Bolden. This book also offers insight into a portion of African American history that we don’t often have the opportunity to read about in young adult literature. Saving Savannah takes place right after the end of World War I and the protagonist, Savannah, is growing up in a very wealthy African American family in Washington D.C. While the book primarily focuses on discrimination within the African American community between white collar and blue collar workers, readers also gain new knowledge of racial discrimination within the women’s rights movement.

Bolden alternates the perspective of Savannah, who is interested in learning as much as she can about the issues of the working class, and Savannah’s best friend Violet, who would rather remain solely within high society. One of the themes of this book is looking outside of one’s own experience to gain insight into the lives of others. This is a timeless idea and one that seems particularly relevant to young adults who are making choices about how they will relate to the world around them. Savannah chooses to open her eyes to different experiences, while Violet continues on the path that she views as normal.

Tonya Bolden is known for her diligent research efforts to create historical accuracy within her books. This research work is evident throughout Saving Savannah which introduces well and little known historical figures to young adult readers. Individuals such as W.E.B Du Bois have been huge influences on the lives of Savannah’s parents, but she finds heroes of her own. Nannie Helen Burroughs is one person who Savannah chooses to learn more from on her quest to greater independence. The Author’s Note at the end of the book provides excellent details about this time period and its influencers.

Saving Savannah certainly doesn’t make advocacy look easy, which is a good thing because activism never is. Savannah faces emotional as well as physical danger when she makes the choice to stand up for what she believes. This is something that activists, young and old, still face today and it is important that this is reflected accurately in literature for young adults. Bolden does a remarkable job of showing what it means to have the courage of one’s convictions.

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

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

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

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:

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).

Searching for Friends

There are many picture books about making friends and playing with friends. But few address the challenges involved in this process as beautifully as A Friend for Henry written by Jenn Bailey and illustrated by Mika Song. Henry is on the autism spectrum and he navigates the world of his classroom differently than his peers. He likes structure and order and wants a friend who feels the same. Sometimes a friend like that is hard to find when you are very young.

Henry tries to make friends with several students. They don’t think about rules and expectations in the same way as Henry and don’t really understand how he thinks and plays. Bailey does an exquisite job of explaining how Henry feels during these interactions, using both internal and spoken dialogue. The expressiveness of Song’s illustrations also help to articulate the intensity of emotions that are common in young people. It seems like Henry might stop trying to find a friend and play alone. Then he meets someone who can be calm and follow the rules, but also doesn’t do things in exactly the same way as Henry. She offers the perfect amount of security and flexibility.

A Friend for Henry works on multiple levels. It helps other students to understand what students on the autism spectrum might be feeling. It also lets readers know that it is okay if you don’t want to play in the same way as other kids. You can be friendly without being friends. You can also enjoy some activities that you share with your friends and some that are individual to you. A beautiful picture book on every level!

Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards:

Identity 4: I can feel good about myself without being mean or making other people feel bad.

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

Diversity 9: I know everyone has feelings, and I want to get along with people who are similar to and different from me.

Common Core Standards:

RL.2- With prompting and support, retell familiar stories, including key details.

RL.3- With prompting and support, identify characters, settings, and major events in a story.

Comfort Food

In Salma the Syrian Chef, written by Danny Ramadan and illustrated by Anna Bron, we are reminded of common bonds and universal languages that we all share. Languages like laughter, cooking, and beauty. In this book, which will be published in March 2020 by Annick Press (received as an ARC from NetGalley), Salma has just moved with her mother from Syria to a Welcome Center in Vancouver. Her father stayed behind in Syria, but they hope he will be able to come to Vancouver very soon. Salma notices that her mom seems quite sad and wants to do something that will bring joy back to her mother’s face.

Salma recognizes that no matter where the other residents of the Welcome Center have come from, they all miss food from their home countries. She decides to cook foul shami for her mother to bring happy memories of Syria to Canada. She needs help from some of the younger and older residents of the Welcome Center to make this dish and she encounters some challenges along the way.

Ramadan has taken the very complex experience of immigration and the simple, but profound, act of cooking a meal to create a feast of love and hope in this picture book. The bright and expressive illustrations by Bron bring the story to life and will draw in readers of all ages. This is a book to read again and again with children in schools and in homes.

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 and different.

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.1- Ask and answer questions about key details in a text.

RL.2- Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.

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

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

A Special Place

During World War II, there were many individuals from multiple countries who stood up against Nazi persecution. It still wasn’t the norm, though, as resisting took unbelievable amounts of courage and a desire/ability to see beyond the message that many government officials were delivering to the public. Therefore, the fact that so many of the residents of the Haute-Loire plateau in south-central France participated in small and large efforts to resist the Nazis is remarkable. Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus (ARC provided by NetGalley and Amulet Books) is a work of historical fiction that describes the efforts of several children and young adults who chose to aid refugees despite the risk to their own lives. The book might be a work of fiction, but many of the acts of the young people profiled are facts.

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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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