Wherever You Go ...
In Why Am I Here?, by Constance Ørbeck-Nilssen and Akin Duzakin, a picture book for ages 5 to 9, a child ponders the many different places she could be: a huge city, an isolated forest, a war zone, fleeing to a strange land. A book that encourages empathy and acknowledges the big questions that kids ask themselves. Eerdmans
Faith for the Struggle
Shannon Daley-Harris, religious affairs adviser for the Children’s Defense Fund, offers scriptural meditations to inspire and sustain advocates and nurturers in Hope for the Future: Answering God’s Call to Justice for Our Children. Includes questions for faithful response. Westminster John Knox
No Easy Road
Activist and artist Anthony Papa writes about the challenges of rebuilding his life after serving 12 years for a nonviolent drug offense, his work to change oppressive drug-sentencing laws, and memories of prison in This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency. 15yearstolife.com
Life Out of Death
“I did not understand how people changed so much: Some became executioners, others became victims,” writes Holocaust survivor Magda Hollander-Lafon in Four Scraps of Bread, a slim volume of piercing, simple-yet-profound reflections on her journey through hell and back. Notre Dame Press
Where do we find quality stories for children about a diverse world? Not books that preach, but that evoke empathy and curiosity and different perspectives through good stories and/or art? As is the case across all publishing categories, books by and about people of color (or people who are not able-bodied or citizens or middle-class or otherwise conforming to a mainstream standard) are in the minority.
TO FIND BOOKS for young people by and about people from a variety of perspectives—including race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, class, and disability—the children’s librarian at your school or the public library will often be the place to start (read why we need diverse children's literature in our December issue article, "Stories for All God's Children"). If you’re fortunate enough to have an independent bookstore in your area with a robust children’s department, the staff there may also be of help.
If in-person advice is in short supply where you live, several online sites can also provide ideas. These include the website of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books), which has bibliographies and booklists on a wide range of topics and population groups. The We Need Diverse Books campaign website (weneeddiversebooks.org) has a variety of resources for finding diverse books for young people, including a list of other websites that focus on books featuring certain demographics or on diversity in specific genres. ThePirateTree.com features interviews, reviews, and other articles from a collective of children’s and young adult book writers interested in children’s literature and social justice issues. School Library Journal (slj.com) is a key source of reviews and other publishing information for librarians and teachers who work with children and teens.
The following are examples of recent books that break free of the restraints of a “single story.”
Families, by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly, is a picture book for very young children that describes and celebrates all different configurations of families. Holiday House (Ages 2 to 6)
Thunder Boy Jr. is the first picture book by beloved young-adult fiction author Sherman Alexie. Illustrated by Mexican- American artist Yuyi Morales, it is the exuberant story of a little boy who is nicknamed after his father but wishes instead for a name “that celebrates something cool that I’ve done.” Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (Ages 4 to7)
WHEN I ROAMED the Flushing Public Library as an immigrant child, I encountered mirrors and windows—in Little Women, Jo loved her sisters as I did mine; in A Little Princess, Sara Crewe’s heart for the disenfranchised stirred me to compassion; and in Anne of Green Gables, I found another child who loved to write.
It didn’t strike me until later that I never encountered a hero who reflected my ethnicity or brown skin. If Indian culture showed up at all, it was portrayed negatively, as in The Secret Garden, where Indians were described as “natives” and “pigs.” In another book, a lone Indian character was a mysterious servant without any back story. I still reread those two books regularly and know they were crucial in my formation. But I wonder if their portrayal of my ethnicity underlined the truth that my Indian-ness was a liability in wider culture. It took years for me to be grateful, instead of ashamed, about being Bengali. A good book or two with a Bengali protagonist might have helped.
Stories are powerful, and Jesus modeled storytelling that changes the hearer for good. But other stories can be propaganda that causes us to hate or fear the “other.” Jesus raged at those who harm children by causing them to sin: “It would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck.”
When it comes to race and power in books for children, questions abound. Must I have experienced the same lack of privilege as my main character to tell her story? When is storytelling a form of cultural exchange and when does it disintegrate into cultural appropriation? Does the fear of making a “fatal flaw” hinder creativity? Who decides that a story should be kept from children because it might teach them to hate the “other” or even themselves? Does this kind of protection violate freedom of expression?
"I'm finding out as I'm aging that I am in love with the world. And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees and my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they're beautiful. And you see I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are."