Nov 12, 2016

Women (and Girls) and Glass Ceilings: Part One

"Kids are curious about the world around them and nonfiction is the perfect way to introduce them to that amazing world. History? Biography? Art? Science? Math? Animals? Sports? It's all here and more besides!" 
(From the Cybils Awards description of Elementary and Juvenile nonfiction)

After more than a month of reading, relishing, and examining Cybils nominated titles, I've moved along to the sorting and comparing stage. With such a variety of topics and types to consider, I've been grouping into related stacks of outstanding books: quirky animal books, straightforward animal books, inventors/inventions, history... you get the drift.

My eyes locked onto the perfect stack of books for this post, for this week. Each presented a young girl who had defied expectations of her place, time, or gender to pursue her dreams.  

Until recently, one of my most frequently-viewed posts ran in the early days after I launched this blog. WHAT'S SO SPECIAL ABOUT FEBRUARY was the first of many references I've made over the years to the dual-edged sword of theme months. My concern has always been that flooding a specific month with attention and featuring books on a particular theme (Black History, Women's History, Hispanic Heritage, even Poetry) is dangerous. That goes beyond the obvious message that such narrowed awareness and exploration isn't "real" learning, that each only merits one-twelfth the attention of all our "more important" studies. Too often this approach also results in unpacking a "theme" collection of books for use, then packing them away again until the next year.
I'll climb down from my soapbox and urge anyone who cares to read more of my eloquent arguments on this thesis in the original post, here.

Assigning such a secondary significance means that the history-making stories of half the population of the world get about 8.5% of the annual educational focus. "HER-story" is stuffed into the month of March then buried under another box of books for a year. That's why November (and every other month of the year) offers a perfect opportunity to celebrate young females who faced challenges and barriers without flinching.

Let's start with THE FIRST STEP: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial. Written by Susan E. Goodman and illustrated by E. B. Lewis, the story of equal-education-seeking young Sarah Roberts couldn't be in better hands. Many young readers have come to know Ruby Bridges and her solitary studies during the civil rights school integration enforcement in the 1960's. The little-known case of Sarah Roberts, though, set the groundwork for establishing desegregation through the courts those many years later.

Back in 1847, four-year-old Sarah was escorted out of her all-white classroom by a police officer. This launches the heartbreaking story of her family's legal, political, and social battle to gain equal educational opportunities for Sarah and all children of color.
Despite set-backs and disappointments, in 1855, before the Civil War, Boston became the fist major American city to integrate its schools. That was more than a hundred years before the BROWN vs. The BOARD of EDUCATION case that finally established "separate is NOT equal". As Goodman says midway through Sarah's process, 
"Every big change has to start somewhere".

The back matter in this picture book is particularly well-suited to close reading and discussion. As she often does, author Goodman doesn't shy away from significant truths. (After all, she's the author of The Truth About Poop and Pee.) In this case she addresses her remarks to young readers, discussing reliable research sources, making decisions about depicting "cloudy" aspects of history, and using modern language within historical context (when the words used for people of color at the time were insulting and demeaning). She provides a timeline of desegregation landmark events with a challenge to readers to decide for themselves which ones are steps forward and which were set-backs.

Stay tuned in coming days for reviews of other outstanding books in which young girls are depicted rocking the boat, making waves, rattling at doors, pushing envelopes, and otherwise cracking, sometimes breaking, those glass ceilings.

And don't you dare put those books in a box and save them for March.

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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.