In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Tough topics, good books

Dear Annie,

Today was the last day of the comment challenge.  I have to confess I didn't get near 100 posts -- more like 28 or 30.  But it was quite interesting, I found a number of blogs I really like, and I've developed a bit of a commenting habit.  A good experience all around.  And the folks over at Mother Reader and LeeWind who organized it posted this amazing graphic of all the participants.  Look closely: we're there:

Thank you so much to Denise for her wonderful Picture Books that Raise Social Awareness post.  Such a great topic!  And Denise, you sound like such a fantastic teacher.

As Denise showed, there are a number of excellent picture books out there on some pretty heavy issues.  My experience selling books is that a large majority of kids and their grownups tend to reject all picture books -- no matter what the topic -- if the child has progressed to being able to read chapter books on his/her own.  By around second grade -- eight or so years old -- picture books which tell a story are seen as something for younger readers.  Schools have a huge advantage in being able to keep kids engaged in picture books -- especially if they're doing it in the kind of creative ways that Denise is using.

One of the heavier subjects picture books help to introduce to younger kids is slavery.  Most of the slavery books for young children tend to focus on the heroic narrative.  There are some wonderful stories about the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, and dramatic escapes.  I'm quite partial to
Henry's Freedom Box
by Ellen Levine, illustrated by the amazing Kadir Nelson.  It's the true story of Henry Brown, a slave in Richmond, Virginia who, with the help of two other men, was closed into a wooden crate and mailed to Philadelphia.  The trip took 27 hours, and he arrived safely.  For a good deal of the time the This End Up sign was ignored, and Henry was upside down stuck in the box (see picture).  Two men on the ship carrying the box eventually put it right side up, going through a series of moves wonderfully drawn by Nelson.  The book opens long before the escape, with the young Henry being taken from his mother, and later Henry's wife and children are sold away, both horribly traumatic events.

As Denise points out, the civil rights movement is another way to introduce injustice to younger ones.  I think of A Wreath for Emmett Till as a poetry book for much older kids, given its horrific subject.  The younger Freedom Summer, which Denise also writes about, is by Deborah Wiles, whom I've mentioned more than once in this blog as the author of Countdown.  Good writer. There was a period when Mona was 5 or 6 when she became fascinated with The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. It's the true story of the first black child to go to a previously all-white school in New Orleans. The white families all pulled their kids out of the school, so every day for months this incredibly brave girl, flanked by armed federal marshalls, walked through a crowd of screaming whites and was the only child in her first grade class.  Mona, who at 19 is immersed in issues of social justice, remembers the book fondly, and says she thinks she picked it out at a library because she was drawn to the picture of the girl on the cover.  One can always wonder when the seeds of understanding and activism are first planted.

I feel like I could talk about a raft of books on tough topics, but it's not just the books, it's what surrounds the reading.  Parents can explain more about why those crowds were yelling at Ruby Bridges; teachers can place a heroic escape in a bigger context. And when children are old enough to be in a school setting, they're more aware that there's a wider world out there, with people going through many different kinds of experiences.

I'm  really looking forward to what you're thinking on this subject.




  1. My sons are 9 and 12, and we still enjoy picture books. My nine year old and I will cosy up on our bed and choose who reads and who listens while the 12 year old prefers to grab the book and read it himself. His class just walked down to an elementary school to read to first graders, and he was clearly enjoying himself as much as the boys he read to.

    At least when we family read he sticks around so we can talk about anything when we read the tougher books.

  2. Thank you for these titles (I just put all of them on hold at the library). These are great books to read when thinking about justice. I think picture books are a great way to teach elementary and middle school children about historical and social issues. I will read the book you recommended about slavery and the one mentioned in an earlier post, Dave the Potter. I also forgot to mention another great book, Where the Sunflowers Grow by Amu Lee-tai. It's about a Japanese-American family living on an internment camp.

  3. Denise - I've just put Where the Sunflowers Grow on a list to bring into the store. I wanted to recommend one more for your class. From Slave Ship to Freedom Road is a series of paintings by Ron Brown for which Julius Lester wrote a very powerful text. He tries to create a feel of what it was like to be a slave, and then prods both African American and white readers (in separate questions) to examine their feelings about it.

  4. My older boy is in 2nd grade. He loves to read, but he's not always in the mood for chapter books. I get a bunch of books out of the library while he's at school to surprise him when I pick him up, and he's just as happy to see the picture books as he is to see the graphic novels and chapter books. I'll have to look for some of the ones above next time.

  5. You won a prize in the Comment Challenge! Send your address to MotherReader AT gmail DOT com. Congrats!