I’m the mother of two boy kids, aged 6 and 3.
I’ve always loved picture books and libraries, so I did expect to enjoy discovering new books and reading with my kids, but I hadn’t anticipated the extent to which books would become a life line or the extent to which books would become their own storyline in my parenting journey.
First, what I love most about children’s books: they are place savers, they are conversation starters.
As I embarked on the politically intimidating task of raising two race conscious, feminist, and progressive white, blond haired, blue eyed, boy kids in (our homogenous) rural Canada, I remember reading an article on a great website called ‘Raising race conscious children’ (race conscious.org) about the importance for white kids to read picture books with protagonists that do not look like them. It said something along the lines of “you’re going to have a hard time talking about the concept of racism with your kids when they’re 4, 5 or 6 if you don’t name race when they’re 1, 2 and 3.
Two things about that speak to me.
First, we hear a lot about the importance of representation in books. That it’s so important for kids to see themselves reflected in the books they read. For biracial kids to see families that look like theirs, for kids with two moms to see families like theirs, for kids with disabilities to see protagonists that look like them.
And anyone who’s done a diversity audit of their school libraries will probably tell you that there is a huge gap in what the school body looks like and what’s reflected in that schools resources. (see http://www.parentsfordiversity.com)
But what we too often forget is that the kids who DO see themselves reflected most of the time badly need to read books where they can see other realities represented. Too often, everything aligns for them to think that their experiences are universal (that white is universal, that male is universal).
I see this in the random books that end up on our shelves and in our library bags. They’re great books, there’s nothing wrong with them. But if we’re looking to raise a generation of empathetic young people, I believe we need to reinforce the message that all kids can relate to all kids, that is, reading a great book about a black girl protagonist is interesting for black girls like it is for white boys. Children of colour, girl kids have been asked to stretch their imaginations so that stories about white boys are relatable to them. We need to expect and foster the same imagination in our white boys.
The second thing I love about the idea that we talk about skin colour and race to our toddlers to have the foundation to talk about racism with our preschoolers and youth is the reminder that we need to be in it for the long game.
In other words, I want to be able to talk to my teen boys about how to combat rape culture on their campuses in 15 years, so I talk to them about consent a lot right now.
My second top reason for turning to children’s books is that I really believe that it takes a village to raise a child. But when it comes to a number of values that are important to me, I don’t have that village. For example, no one else is telling my gender creative first grader that kids can wear dresses and identify as boys. And that’s a lonely place for both of us to be.
Books are authoritative. Their messages are published and real. Finding books that reinforce progressive messages that my kids don’t hear in their day to day, messages that a lot of the time contradict what they hear, gives weight to the lessons I’m trying to teach them.
My third reason for turning to children’s books: they help me talk about issues I don’t know how to talk about.
I read Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress with my kids—a book where a boy child who wears a beloved tangerine dress is excluded from games and friendships—because I want to talk about bullying and gender identity but don’t know how to bring it up without sounding like a nosy, frightened mom.
I love reading about Florence Mills in ‘Harlem’s Little Blackbird’ or about Viola Desmond or Rosa Parks because I’m not sure how to talk to my kids about where segregation comes from and how it shapes, limits and annexes lives.
One of my favourite finds when it comes to giving me tools to talk about a big issue is When We Were Alone.
This book was written by David A. Robertson, illustrated by one of my favourite illustrators Julie Flett and published by Highwater Press. To my great joy it was translated into French by Les Éditions des Plaines in 2017 and titled Quand on était seuls.
What I really appreciate about this book is that it’s in a vivid, resilient, strong present day where a grandmother explains parts of a past that are extremely relatable to children.
Young children can easily empathize with the examples brought up in this book: of not being able to wear your hair the way you want, not being able to wear the clothes you feel good in, not being able to be with your parents, your siblings. Kids GET that. They FEEL that.
This book also highlights that you don’t need to tell the whole story right away, that a 5-6 year old doesn’t need to learn the traumatic details of residential schools to start learning about the history of residential schools. But they do need to be exposed to this part of our history. And when the topic gets revisited, as they grow, we add layers. Much like we do when we teach math or languages. We don’t start with algebra or complex verb conjugation. You need a foundation and you need to build on it over time. The long game.
Books like When We Were Alone set us up to be able to start having these conversations. My hope is also that by being willing and eager to broach difficult topics with the children in our lives, they will be willing and able to do the same with us.
As a closing word, I’d like to share 3 reminders that I repeat to myself often. With kids and equity/justice issues, be explicit. Kids pick up on all of the unspoken and condoned unfairnesses in the world. They pick up on the biases, on the prejudice. They need to hear their grown-ups counter these before they take them as fact. And I’ve found that in explaining things to my kids, I need to remember to keep it really simple.
Second, I think a lot of adults worry about the questions kids will ask when we read books about big issues. Truth is their questions are usually fairly simple. They’re not looking for a history lesson. In the parent and teacher guide and accompanying video to When We Were Alone, a grade 1 teacher who reads this book with her kids says the bulk of the questions she gets are along the lines of “could the kids bring their stuffies?” or “could they call their parents?” A ‘No they couldn’t’ is enough. And to the big “why” questions (i.e. “but why would they take the kids from their families, maman?”), it’s a good opportunity to be really straightforward. My 6 year old doesn’t want to listen to me explaining the history of colonialism but he does want me to answer truthfully. Why? “because the European settlers who came here, thought they were better than the Indigenous people and taking kids from communities is the fastest way to lose languages and celebrations (cultures). Because it hurts people so so much to be separated from the people they love.” I might add that I can’t imagine how sad and unhealthy our town would be if all the kids were taken away. I tell them that they’re safe and that we need to learn about this together to make sure that all kids are safe.
Lastly, when it comes to giving hard, necessary conversations a go with kids: blunder on! We learn by trying and by making mistakes.
I brought a milk crate of books for people to peruse after the panel. Here’s a list of what I brought. It contains some of our favourites, the ones we own. (The all time favourites are marked with a * )
- Little You, Written by Richard Van Camp, Illustratef by Julie Flett (board book)*
- When We Were Alone, by David A. Robertson, Illustrated by Julie FLett (traduit au français sous le titre Quand on était seuls)*
- Shi-shi-etko, written by Nicola I. Campbell, Illustrated by Kim LaFave (a été traduit au français, même titre)
- Shin-chi’s Canoe, written by Nicole I. Campbell, illustrated by Kim LaFave (a été traduit au français sous Le canoe de Shin-chi)
- A Day with Yayah. Written by Nicola I. Campbell, illustrated by Julie Flett.
- My Heart Fills With Happiness. Written by Monique Gray Smith. Illustrated by Julie Flett. (board book)
People of Colour
- The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
- Joy, By Joyce Carol Thomas and Illustrated by Pamela Johnson (board book)*
- A Taste of Freedom. Gandhi and the Great Salt March. By Elizabeth Cody Kimmel, Illustrated by Giuliano Ferri
- Bagages. Mon histoire. Poèmes de jeunes immigrants illustrés par Rogé.
- Rosa Parks. Écrit par Lisbeth Kaiser, illustré Marta Antelo*
- A Sweet Smell of Roses. By Angela Johnson illustrated by Eric Velasquez.
- Susan and Gordon Adopt a Baby (Sesame Street). Written by Judy Freudberg, illustrated by Joe Mathieu.
- Something Beautiful. Written by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Illustrated Chris K. Soentpiet*
- Harlem’s Little Blackbirk. The Story of Florence Mills. Written by Renée Watson, Illustrated by Christian Robinson.
- Last Stop on Market Street. Words by Matt de la Pena, Illustrated by Christian Robinson.*
- Fatima et les voleurs de clémentines. Écrit par Mireille Messier, illustré par Gabrielle Grimard.
- Desmond and the Very Mean Word.Written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams. Illustrated by A.G. Ford.
- Counting on Community. Written and illustrated by Innosanto Nagara (board book)
- Tu Peux. Écrit et illustré par Elise Gravel
- A Girl Like Any Other. Written and illustrated by Sophie Labelle
- Ada La grincheuse en tutu. Écrit et illustré par Elise Gravel
- Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress. Written by Christine Baldacchino, illustrated by Isabelle Malenfant. (A été traduit au français sous le titre Boris Brind’amour et la robe orange)*
- Deux garçons et un secret. Écrit par Andrée Poulin, illustrée par Marie Lafrance.*
- The Great Big Book of Families. Written by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Ros Asquith
- The Family Book. By Todd Parr
- We Belong Together. A Book About Adoption and Families. Todd Parr.*
- Daddy, Papa, and Me, by Lesléa Newman, Illustrated by Carol Thompson (board book)
- Mommy, Mama, and Me By Lesléa Newman, ILlystrated by Carol Thompson (board book)
Being Different / Feelings
- It’s Okay To Be Different. By Todd Parr
- The Great Big Book of Feelings. Written by Mary Hoffman, Illustrated by Ros Asquith
Politics/Feminism for kids
- My First Book of Feminism (for boys) By Julie Merberg, Illustrated by Michèle Brummer Everett (board book)
- On n’est pas au centre du monde. Par Claire Cantais et Jean-Loïc Le Quellec
- Atlas des inégalités. Texte de Stéphanie Ledu et Stéphane Frattini, Illustrations d’Élodie Balandras et Julien Castanié.
- The Peace Book. By Todd Parr.*
- Le petit livre pour parler des sans-abri. Par Dr Xavier Emmanuelli, Sophie Bordet-Petillon, Rémi Saillard
- L’homme sans chaussettes. Écrit par Jennifer Couëlle, illusté par Ninon Pelletier*