Aug 18, 2021

What Is A Family? What Is A Kid? Changing Up Those Back-To_School Activities

 During my long teaching career, it was increasingly obvious that all kiddos (from preschool to teen) are  very different people, from very different families; ones that may not look or live like  the cookie-cutter, LEAVE IT TO BEAVER world in which I was raised.

It's wrong to believe that those familiar back-to-school, get-to-know-you questions are as comforting as we assume, whether in open discussion, on pre-printed posters, or in assigned essays. Families can be among the most loving and supportive ones, but still have young members who hesitate because their beloved family has a very different configuration or connections than a perceived "normal" family. The thought of describing or drawing a picture of one's family may be more stressful than positive.

Groundwood Books, 2019

That's why I urge anyone and everyone who will be interacting with "kiddos" in a back-to-school or get-to-know-you situation (that means ANY age) to get your hands on these two picture books and launch your discussions with these companion books by a gifted pair of creators.

Sara O'Leary is the wordsmith (evidence will follow) and Qin Leng is the brilliant illustrator. The first title, A FAMILY IS A FAMILY IS A FAMILY, launches this diverse and friendly-looking group into a classroom in which a single first-person voice responds with concern to the seemingly-safe teacher question- What makes your family special?

"I went last because I wasn't sure what to say. My family is not like everyone else's"

Moving on, page by page, each child's response is unnamed but recognized through quotation signals and delightfully distinct voices as child after child recounts a family in which love is secure but characteristics are distinct from others. The diversity on every level reveals families with few or MANY children, same-sex parents, blended families, divorced parents, extended generations until, finally, that hesitant speaker repeats what their foster mother said when asked which were her "real" kids. 

“Oh, I don’t have any imaginary children,” Mom said. “All my children are real.”

Each simple quotation and brightly depicted spread reveals child-centered persepectives, voices, and experiences. Like the line above, and like this:

“Because I live with my grandmother, people sometimes think she’s my mother. She’s not. She’s

my everything.”

The text alone would have won me over, and yet the illustrations deserve equal praise for their simplicity, personality, and individualism. They incorporate the full panorama of humanity in size, shape, style, skin tone, age, physicality, and expressions. The kids themselves are indistinct in age, allowing a wide spectrum of audiences to find themselves within the pages. Throughout each scenario, there is plenty of white space to imagine (and sense) the strength and extent of love that is present in each family. 

Groundwood Books August, 2021

With wide praise and three starred-reviews, it's no surprise this delicious and important  book now has a companion book, hitting the market just this month. A KID IS A KID IS A KID leads us into a celebration of individuality and community, beginning with the exuberant cover. But first, a similar opening anxiety is captured in perfect kid-speak and with exactly the right voice:

“Being the new kid is hard,” a child in the school playground tells us. “I can think of better things to ask than if I’m a boy or a girl.”

That sensitive reflection is followed by (again) unnamed quotations whose identity and personality are vividly evident in illustrations and voice. Each begins with "I get asked..." or something similar, relating the kinds of seemingly innocent (but insensitive and NOSY) questions that wound, or annoy, or even infuriate. 

Revealing both expected and unexpected diversity, the speakers embrace their identities or welcome those who speak out on their behalf. Then they propose a variety of BETTER questions to ask kids, like:

“Ask me what I can do, not what I can’t!”

“I wish you would ask me about my grandmother’s house. I was so happy there.

The structure of this new title is an opportunity for an ideal shared reading experience of ways we feel, and can make others feel. It (entertainingly) offers ways we can reframe and imagine kinder, more welcoming questions. As with the original picture book, the individual kids display physical, social, and emotional diversity on spreads that will feel like "home" to "kids" of all kinds and ages. I won't spoil a perfect ending by giving away the final line and page turn, but only because I am counting on each and every one of you who reads this to get both titles and read them, too.

Don't disappoint me. The books won't disappoint you, I promise!


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.