Aug 12, 2017

Mirrors and Windows: Our Most Amazing World

Much is being made (justifiably) of the need to create and circulate books in which people from all backgrounds can find themselves. Of equal importance is that books depicting varied peoples, places, and points of view offer windows to a wider world for individuals whose world experience is narrow.
If this is in some way news to you, please learn more about the discussion and drive by checking into the WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS website and resources, here. 

It's not as if excellent books serving these purposes haven't available in the past. The tragedy is that the percentage of such books is vanishingly small, and has remained so for far too long. You'll find documentation of those facts and the decades-long publishing patterns in children's literature in this post from the reliable CCBC, as shared in Horn Book recently. 

In this post I'd like to share and recommend two books, one older and one very recent, that allow ALL readers to explore the world and find themselves along their reading journeys.
Candlewick Pres, 2010

Jeannie Baker is the multi-talented author/illustrator of MIRROR, published in 2010. This still feels like a "new" book to me, but it made its way onto store and library shelves nearly eight years ago. That was long before the current movement for more diverse books was underway. 
Ms. Baker's award-winning art wins praise from many quarters for it's technical and interpretive skill. More importantly, it draws young eyes magically and won't let them go until they have scoured every square inch, commenting and comparing,  turning pages forward and back, again and again.
In this case, her power is magnified by an incredible book design.

MIRROR is meant to be laid open to allow it to reveal, front to back, the English/Western life of a family in a modern urban setting. At the same time it can be read, visually, from back to front, following Arabic literacy conventions. That half of the book depicts the  life of a Middle Eastern rug-weaving family, turn by turn, until they meet the Western family at the center fold and their lives intersect. It's an intriguing and simple-but-brilliant look at the interdependence of all lives, of the many ways in which human commonalities define us even more than differences.

Compare Mirror to a very recent release by author/illustrator Matt Lamothe, THIS IS HOW WE DO IT. Rather than explore only two families and cultures, Lamothe selects seven families from around the world to portray and label the intricacies of those similarities and differences through the course of a day-in-the-life. 
He doesn't attempt to weave a storyline throughout their lives. In fact, he chose to shift the positioning of each character/culture instead of locking each in the same orientation on the page. The labeling is still effective and offers an oppportunity for kids to  eagerly challenge themselves, turning back often to remind themselves of who is who and where they live. 
Chronicle Books Canada, 2017
Endpapers do a a great job of showing just how small our world really is. Back matter provides a simple but helpful glossary (in natural, kid-friendly language) to expand on specific terminology from various scenes and cultures. The author's note explains how he was inspired to create the book and describes the complex process he used to assure authenticity for this nonfiction treasure. It's worth a read in and of itself, and the final double spread using photographs of the seven actual families should lead many young readers to explore Lamothe's final notes.

I particularly appreciate these two titles for use in presenting a balanced view of kids and families in far-flung parts of the world. I've shared  some recent  titles here and here that focus on refugees and immigrants.Presenting objective and realistic stories that  share those harsh experiences is essential, but it's all too easy for young readers to develop a false concept: that all "others" are destitute or desperate or seeking to leave their homes. These two titles provide a healthy contradiction to that misperception. They show a variety of daily life patterns in which the children and families are comfortably settled in routines and relationships that feel familiar and safe. In fact, they make the prospect of traveling and meeting people around the world quite appealing. 
We could use more with that attitude at every age, in my opinion.

Jul 29, 2017

Our National Parks: In the Canyon and Other Wonders of Nature

It's midsummer. 
There's no better time to  gather 'round the old blog-campfire to share books about our amazing National Parks. The titles include a light-but-illuminating journey into the Grand Canyon and a pre-park-designation foray into the wilderness. In the first, the trails and travails are manageable, even for the young girl gracing the story in verse. It is fiction, but depicts realism in image and words. In the second, the effort to "tame and claim" the wild (and eventually preserve precious spaces) involves attempts at refinement and formality that defy imagination. It is an historically accurate portrayal of the people and places involved, with informative and impressive back matter.

Beachlane Books, 2015

IN THE CANYON is written by word-master Liz Garton Scanlon and illustrated by Ashley Wolff.
Scanlon's rhyming text blends expository content with a poetic adventure in this engaging story of a girl's travels to the "rocky cup" of the Grand Canyon floor. The illustrator's saturated colors and detailed images, often accented with heavy black lines and dramatic perspectives, will take readers along on a physically and emotionally engaging story. 
Back matter includes a glossary that clarifies some terms and phrasing. This is obviously written by someone who knows the Grand Canyon firsthand and shares the narrator's affection for it. The endpapers incorporate labels for significant landmarks within the canyon, and
the final spread allows for discussion of figurative language in which sprawling cities present opportunities for readers to explore their own "rocky" canyons and integrate memorable travels.

Charlesbridge Publishing, 2016
Next up, you'll really want to know more about this book and the individual who helped change our history. MOUNTAIN CHEF: How One Man Lost His Groceries, Changed His Plans, and Helped Cook Up the National Park Service  is written by Annette Bay Pimentel and illustrated by Rich Lo. 
The timing on this book is ideal, but it is also a book that will appeal over time. Published in 2016, during the 100th anniversary year of the National Parks, it also intersects with a cultural cooking craze that integrates gourmet elegance, natural ingredients, and celebrity chefs. It describes an adventure that sets a high bar for the current trend of GLAM-ping (glamour-camping).
This is a kid-friendly biography of esteemed Chinese chef Tie Sing, and it deserves the multiple 5-star ratings it has received. It was also named to the NCSS (National Council of Social Studies) notable books list for 2016-17.
The story of Sing's part in the creation of the National Park Service begins with his reputation as the best of the trail cooks of that era. As such, he was hired by a millionaire to prepare and serve extraordinary meals to an entourage of potential supporters (early lobbyists?). The goal was to help them appreciate and preserve our national wonders for future generations rather than exploit them for private gain. Sing's incomparable meals were served on linen cloth with china and crystal table service, all hauled on the backs of mules along with gourmet ingredients.

Sing's story is told with illustrations that reveal the natural setting but remain firmly focused on Tie, his talents, and the near-tragic events that challenged him.  His creativity and resilience allowed him to successfully salvage the campaign to secure his beloved mountains for posterity. Backmatter adds intriguing details, including the harsh reality of discrimination against Chinese (immigrants and US-born) at that time. Even though Tie was a native born American citizen, his rights were stripped away because of his descent from immigrants and his surname.

Another author who appreciated and championed the value of the National Park Service is the incomparable Jean Craighead George. Together with the remarkable artist/illustrator Wendell Minor, she created picture books (and other formats) that celebrated, documented, and warned readers about the need for the parks to preserve and protect the complex wildlife within their boundaries. You can read about some of those powerful picture books in this post from several years ago, here.

Whether you've been park-trekking all summer or have never set foot in a single preserve, these books will make them matter to you. If you're already a committed supporter, you'll find your engagement swell. If you've managed to live contentedly without much thought for these resources, especially with warnings of budget cuts  coming soon (deep, stark cuts), these b looks are all the more important for you to read. 
And to share with young people.
It's their heritage, their world that's at stake. 

Jul 22, 2017

Refugees? Immigrants? Assumptions and Stereotypes

My previous post (here)  focused on a recent picture book about the all-too-familiar condition of being a refugee: STORMY SEAS: Stories of Young Boat Refugees.The details of even a few people and events throughout history are heartbreaking and powerful. In many cases, the refugees depicted were also immigrants.
Words matter, and using them accurately matters even more.
Striving to understand and use words accurately can be an effective way to begin to understand ourselves and others.
So...let's explore these concepts, as you might with young readers.

Are REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS the same? Are the words interchangeable?
Charlesbridge Publishing, 2015

In one important way they are all alike: 

Both refugees and immigrants are NEW.
That's why an ideal starting point is 
I'M NEW HERE, written and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien.

There are countless ways in which REFUGEES and IMMIGRANTS are similar, and significant ways in which they are NOT the same. Rather than link to just any source, one  that might be considered biased or even political, let's take a look at the two terms linguistically, on THE GRAMMARIST.COM, here. What do wordsmiths have to say about the two terms.

 "refugee is a person who is forced to leave his home and travel to another country in order to escape a natural disaster, war or persecution. ..."
"An immigrant is a person who leaves his home and travels to another country in order to become a permanent member of the population. ..."

Not all refugees are choosing to "never return", and would, in fact, return to their homelands if it were safe to do so.
On the other hand, some have suffered to such a degree that they abandon any thoughts of returning to their homeland.
Not all immigrants are moving to a new homeland entirely by choice. Conditions may not be such that they must flee for their lives, but may include situations that limit their choices, hopes, and future.
On the other hand, some are eagerly seeking a new homeland despite leaving behind safe and loving people and comfortable settings. They may, in fact, face more struggles in the new land, but welcome the challenge and adventure of the move. 

A Venn Diagram of the two words would reveal many elements in common, but some that are critically different. Both are leaving behind homeland, family, and history. Both include a wide range of ages, health conditions, and educational levels. Both immigrants and refugees may travel illegally, while others travel legally.

Despite all of the commonalities, the distinction is:
REFUGEES = No CHOICE, running AWAY FROM danger, might return if they could
IMMIGRANTS = CHOICE, running TOWARD a new home, no plan to return

In fact, especially in recent times, this essential distinction has been blurred in the public consciousness. This confusion is compounded further by social attitudes toward poverty and dependence. 
Some refugees have multiple resources, but the ones who are destitute are the subject  of our opinions and public discussions.
Some immigrants have adequate financial means and social supports in place, but the ones who are destitute or struggling are more visible and are also the subjects of public discussions.

In debates (and rants) about refugees and immigrants, understanding the nuances of the terms (and the individuals) is worth the effort, especially when it comes to the next generation. In order to explore these confusions and assumptions, offering and discussing a wide selection of books provides many examples over the course of history and involving varied circumstances and ethnicities. Many outstanding picture books that are worth including are featured in the following blog posts, and I recommend them highly:

Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.