My Top 10 Children’s Books

Inspired by this Buzzfeed post about the 37 children’s books that changed lives, I’ve created my own list of ten books that changed my life as a reader.

where-the-wild-things-are-2-1024x466

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

I always read this Sendak classic as an example of how imagination plays out in kids’ lives until I heard this NPR interview.

arms-are-to-hug-with1

A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss

This book’s simple explanations for everything—a hole is to dig, hands are to make things, the ground is to make a garden—is a revolutionary celebration of the everyday.

images

Corduroy by Don Freeman

As a child, I was obsessed with the idea of what happened when night fell on the department store and Corduroy had free reign. (I’m not the only one; Slate editors discuss children’s books, including Corduroy, in this podcast.)

Unknown

The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton

The cyclical nature of this story was fascinating to me, as well as the personification of the little house.

Unknown-1

Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary

The antics of Ramona were worth reading, but I really related to the character of older sister Beezus.

Unknown-3

Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder

There is a scene in this book, where a boy gets attacked by bees and has to wrapped up like a mummy in mud and cloth, that I could not get out of my mind.

images-1

The Hobbit by J. R.R. Tolkien

For me, this book is a tribute to the power of reading aloud. When my mother read me this story, she created a voice for Gollum that haunted me up until and through seeing the movies 20 years later.

Unknown-4

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

From the Doldrums to the Dodecahedron, The Phantom Tollbooth is full of language, ideas, and whimsical places and characters that stayed with me long afterwards.

Unknown-5

The Baby Sitter’s Club by Ann M. Martin

I believe I read every single book in this extensive series that, at the time, I desperately wanted to be my life. (Who, growing up in the 80s, didn’t start a baby sitter’s club at one time or another?)

Unknown-6

Matilda by Roald Dahl

I think Matilda is on every bookworm’s list. She’s the ultimate literary underdog, and Dahl creates the best everyday villans (long live the Trunchbull).

Now, finishing this list I’m thinking only about the books that I left out—Frances, Dr. Seuss, The Runaway Bunny, and on and on.

On Diversity: Disability in Children’s Literature

The recent posts I’ve done about diversity got me thinking about how the diversity of ability is portrayed in kids’ books. As a special education teacher, I tried to incorporate books with characters that my students could relate to and found that (perhaps no surprise here) the identities of my students with disabilities were as varied as their disability classifications.

 Unknown-1

Teaching students with learning disabilities, the book that was most reflective of my students’ experience was Eleven by Patricia Reilly Giff about a boy who struggles with reading. I’ve also seen middle schoolers engage with the theme of identity and disability by reading Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper. Still, I wonder if diversity and disability in children’s books follows a similar pattern as ethnic and racial diversity—when a book features a character with a disability, the disability is the main focus of the book or character. 

“Perhaps no group has been as overlooked and inaccurately presented in children’s books as individuals with disabilities,” wrote Joan Blaska in Disability Studies Quarterly in 2004. She points out that children with disabilities were either left out, or included as pitiful or burdensome characters. A 1992 study that reviewed 500 books for young children, found that 2% or ten books included people with disabilities, and only six of those books featured kids with disabilities who were central to the story. In comparison, according to the U. S. Census 19% of Americans report having a disability in 2010. 

Blaska also identified ten criteria that we can use to assess how children with disabilities are incorporated into children’s literature. We should promote books with characters that:

  1. Promote empathy,
  2. Depict acceptance,
  3. Emphasize success,
  4. Promote positive images,
  5. Promote an accurate image of a disability,
  6. Demonstrate respect,
  7. Promote an inclusive “one of us” attitude,
  8. Use people-first language,
  9. Promotes a realistic portrayal of a disability, and
  10. Provides realistic illustrations.

Essentially, characters with disabilities should reflect the actual life experiences of kids with disabilities—they’re friends, students, math-afficionados, video gamers, artists, future chefs, and a myriad of other identities and qualities in addition to having autism, ADHD, a learning disability, or a physical disability. 

It occurs to me that reading about multi-dimensional characters who have disabilities in children’s literature, is important for a variety of reasons—literature serves as a mirror and a way for children to understand the world, it also helps students develop empathy, and normalizes experiences. For children, reading about dynamic, robust characters who are more than their disability, can help them gain an understanding of what it means to have a disability, and how to befriend and engage with children who have an obvious difference. Reading helps children “act out” how to handle situations that are uncomfortable or out of their normal experience, and quality characters with disabilities can help set the stage for children to befriend and engage with the people they meet who have disabilities.

That said, there are books to turn to that address disability in deep, meaningful ways. Rules by Cynthia Lord and Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine feature characters who have autism. Joey Pigza Swallowed a Key by Jack Gantos addresses ADHD. And, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick combines image and text to tell a story about a character who is deaf. The next step is to publish more books that feature these engaging, memorable characters with disabilities, and to incorporate children with disabilities into children’s literature for who they are rather than because of the disability they represent.

images images-1Unknown-3images-2

(For more, here’s a list of books that address diversity and ability from the ALA. And,

Susan Nussbaum also reflected on how disability is represented in literature for The Huffington Post.)

 

 

 

 

Addressing Gender and Diversity Gaps with Fiction

This article by Julie Drew it today’s Huffington Post caught my eye. Apparently, adolescents are reading tomes (think the Harry Potter series at more than 4,000 pages in total and books like Divergent by Veronica Roth at almost 500 pages) and at record pace. “Young adults want to read,” writes Drew, “good stories, told well, fiction that speaks to the current young lives and that helps them imagine how they could and should act upon the world as adults.”

I’m always surprised at the idea that teens don’t want to read. Kids love books; they love good, strong stories that are engaging (just like adults). Which makes sense, as surveys show, kids and young adults read for fun. Given that, the current YA landscape is a fantastic place to read.

Drew’s article also reminded me of the recent research (see Scientific American and Edutopia) about how reading fiction cultivates empathy. Given the awareness that children growing up today have about conflict, strife, and uncertainty (true-life stories about bad economies, global warming, wars, are just a quick search away), gaining understanding, different perspectives, and problem solving ideas, seems a wonderful reason to read and write for teens. 

Even as literacy rates rise, there is a persistent gender gap; boys consistently score higher in science than girls. This presents an opportunity for YA authors to incorporate science into books that teens will love, and for teachers to start aligning YA fiction with informational text that supports the content behind each plotline. It’s intriguing to think how this shift could impact how teens develop their own perspectives. As Drew writes, “young adult literature, perhaps more than any other commercial genre, contributes to shaping the worldviews of its formative readers.” 

This is where I see YA literature, gender and diversity gaps, and the Common Core colliding. Teaching engaging literature that showcases characters of gender and ethnic diversity alongside informational text that builds students’ technical and science knowledge. After all, as Madeline L’Engle once said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.”

Let’s Prioritize Diversity in Children’s Books

Recently, this School Library Journal post caught my eye. In it, Kathleen Horning discusses why, even though Walter Dean Myers has posed the question “Where are the people of color in children’s books?” twice (in 1986 and again in 2014, both times in the New York Times), there are still few children’s books that feature children of color.

In fact, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, where Horning is the director, found that in 2013, of 1,509 children’s books published, 78.3% featured human characters, and 89.5% of those featured a White protagonist. I found this statistic surprising. First, I would have thought there were more books with animal characters. And, second, I would have thought the percent of non-White characters would have creeped up higher than 10.5%.

Within that 10.5%, though, I wonder how many books are cultural stories, like The Story of Ping by Marjorie Flack and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. How many are stories where the character’s ethnicity is a major part of the plot, such as Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez or Duck for Turkey Day by Jacqueline Jules. And, how many are books that just happen to have diverse characters, unrelated to the plot. For example, Corduroy by Don Freeman, The Snowy Day by Jack Keats and Mary Brigid Barrett’s books. (The GoodReads list of books with diverse protagonists currently contains 10 books.)

For young children, reading about a variety of protagonists normalizes diversity. As they grow as readers, children seek out books that reflect their own lives and books that let them into other worlds so they can experience something totally different. To that end, literature legitimizes or marginalizes experiences, making it increasingly important for young readers to experience the diversity that exists across the country through books.

The solution for the lack of diversity in children’s literature, as Horning sees it, is to start buying more books that feature non-White characters. “Buying a book,” she reminds, “is a political act.” Buying books is a campaign I can get behind, and I’ve included additional ways to make diversity in children’s literature a priority.

Corduroy

 

  • Check out The Diverse Books Campaign.
  • Use books lists like this one from NPR and this list from Amazon when shopping for kids books.
  • Teachers can post Donors Choose grants requesting diverse classroom libraries.
  • Teachers and parents can encourage kids to choose one diverse book each time they order from a school book order.
  • When it’s time for holiday and birthday presents, direct people to an Amazon wishlist of diverse books.
  • Teachers can invite diverse authors to participate in classroom conversations through Skype in the Classroom or Scholastic.
  • Use Good Reads to create, maintain, and update reading lists of diverse books, and have students read, share, and discuss diverse reads online.

New School Year Resolutions

In writing this blog post, Be Extraordinary for WeAreTeachers, I found myself reflecting back to my first years of teaching, when I felt exhausted and, well, burnt out. For me, and for many of my teacher friends, the feeling of burn out came mostly from feeling like a failure. Teaching is one of those jobs where you feel like you’re constantly performing a series of experiments on the children sitting in front of you and, when every moment matters, there’s no time to fail.

Fortunately for me, I was able to develop as a special education teacher, get my groove, learn what I hadn’t known the first time around, and continue teaching with a renewed sense of purpose, new strategies, and success. Part of this definitely came from working in a school where I was given freedom to try new things, had coworkers who helped push my thinking, and found my niche within special education.

A new school year is starting in a few weeks and it’s at this point in the year that I start thinking what I want to accomplish (work in education long enough and August becomes the new January). This year, with some projects already in the pipeline, I’m focusing on expanding my writing and solidifying my close reading know-how. Heading into back-to-school, what do you want to accomplish? What’s your new-school-year resolution?