We Need Diverse Books

The most recent issue of Kirkus is a “diversity issue,” with about 40 pages of articles and essays that give different perspectives on diversity in literature. I’m still making my way through it, but I loved this quote from author Padma Venkatraman:

“Books are more than mere mirrors or windows; they are keys to compassion. And novels don’t just expose readers to differences, they allow readers to experience diversity. They allow us to live within another’s skin, think another’s thoughts, feel the depths of another’s soul. Novels transport, transform, and, most importantly, allow us to transcend prejudice. When we immerse ourselves in characters whose religions are different than our own, our empathy is enhanced. We move closer to embracing people of all religions.”

It reminded me a bit of the way Neil Gaiman talks about fiction (“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been”), and what Caitlin Moran wrote in her essay “Alma Mater” about growing up in the library:

“The shelves were supposed to be loaded with books – but they were, of course, really doors….A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination….They are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead.”

When Venkatraman writes about mirrors and windows, she is referencing Rudine Sims Bishop’s 1990 article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Books that are mirrors reflect the reader’s self and own world back at them; books that are windows show the reader another person or people and world; books that are sliding glass doors allow the reader to “enter” another world.

The San Antonio Public Library page “Diversity in the Classroom: Building Your (Early Childhood) Library with Mirrors and Windows” has a video clip of Bishop from January 2015. In it, Bishop says, “Children need to see themselves reflected, but books can also be windows, so you can look through and see other worlds, and see how they match up or don’t match up to [your] own. But the sliding glass door allows you to enter that world as well, so that’s the reason diversity needs to go both ways.” She says that just as children of color need to see themselves in books, white children – who see plenty of themselves in books – need to see characters of other cultures, races, and religions as well, to provide a more accurate picture of the world as it is (“colorful”).

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement FAQ page cites an infographic produced by multicultural publisher Lee & Low Books (“About everyone. For everyone”), which used statistics from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and census data. Although 37% of the U.S. population are people of color, only 10% of published children’s books contain multicultural content. Note that that includes books where the main character might not be a person of color, and it also doesn’t mean that the author was a person of color.

We Need Diverse Books virtual buttonWhere do we go from here? We need more diversity at all levels of publishing, in libraries, in schools, in the bookselling business. We need to write, publish, read, and promote diverse books; “multicultural books don’t sell” is no longer a valid argument, if it ever was. We need more stories about more different people and places. We’re getting there, but too slowly.

8/17/17 Edited to add:

As I made my way through the rest of the issue, I found two more quotes I wanted to share. The first is from Megan Dowd Lambert, an author, senior lecturer in children’s literature at Simmons, and Kirkus reviewer; she in turn is quoting Mary Robinette Kowel:

“It’s not about adding diversity for the sake of diversity, it’s about subtracting homogeneity for the sake of realism.”

Though our society is far more segregated than it ought to be, and some kids may rarely see people outside of their own race, culture, or class, the world is “colorful” and literature ought to reflect that. In fact, books are where many people encounter new ideas and perspectives and learn about the world. “Armchair traveling” isn’t just for seeing the lives of ancient royalty, dangerous mountain-climbing expeditions, or sea voyages; it may be a way to see into the next neighborhood.

“…Disability comes from scarcity and environment and other people’s prejudices as much as the body. Silencing the word can silence real injustices, emotions, and experiences. Diverse books are tools for empathy, but we can’t address what we won’t say.”

This is from Amy Robinson, children’s librarian and Kirkus reviewer. She makes an important point about environment contributing to disability. Are our built environments inclusive, or do they present barriers? (Do elevators work? Are aisles wide enough? Are there ramps or only stairs? Is signage large and clear? Are there curb cuts on sidewalks? Are sidewalks even or broken, covered in snow or cleared?) In many cases, a disability may only present extra difficulty because of obstacles in the world – in the built environment or as part of prevailing cultural and societal ideas. Let’s figure out what those obstacles are (it’s often very hard to imagine, so ask people who confront them) and start removing them.

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Board books for babies and toddlers

A friend with a four-month-old recently asked me for recommendations for board books for babies – not because she couldn’t find any, but because the selection in bookstores and libraries was overwhelming. Of course, I suggested she ask booksellers and librarians, who usually know exactly what book(s) to give to kids of every age, but here is my own list:

  • I Kissed the Baby by Mary MurphyI Kissed the Baby! by Mary Murphy: This is my favorite for little babies! It has the high contrast of Tana Hoban’s Black & White books, but also has repetitive, sing-song words and a touch of color.
  • Peek-a-Who? by Nina Laden: Another favorite for little babies, or kids of any age who still enjoy peek-a-boo.
  • The “That’s Not My….” series: These touch & feel books are thin on plot, but nice and tactile for when infants start reaching for the pages. They’ll start to remember where the different textures are on each page.
  • The BabyLit series: These board book versions of classics are a little silly, but a good introduction to the world of literature. We like Jabberwocky (though it’s not the complete poem), and Don Quixote, which is bilingual.
  • A Kiss Like This by Mary Murphy: Murphy’s books are sweet without being cloying. Again, this one has the repetition that kids love, and you can do the different kinds of kisses (gentle and tall, quick and small, etc.).Wow said the owl
  • Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood: A little owl stays up all day and is wowed by all the colors she sees.
  • What a Wonderful World, illustrated by Tim Hopgood: Can you sing as well as Louis Armstrong? Give it a try! Or just read it.
  • Happy Hippo, Angry Duck: A Book of Moods by Sandra Boynton: Boynton is one of the queens of board books. I don’t love all of her books universally, but Happy Hippo, Angry Duck is just the right amount of goofy (and also teaches that moods change). Others of hers that I like are Hippos Go Berserk, But Not the Hippopotamus, Tickle Time, and The Belly Button Book.
  • Orange Pear Apple Bear by Emily Gravett: Gravett’s watercolors are simple and charming. For babies who like single images on white backgrounds, this is a good choice; toddlers will enjoy the fruit and the bear.Orange Pear Apple Bear
  • I Dreamt I Was a Dinosaur by Stella Blackstone: These unique illustrations are made from felt, sequins, beads, and other craft supplies, and the text rhymes.
  • How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? by Jane Yolen: A perfect rhyming goodnight book, this outlines all the bad behavior and ends with the good (“they tuck in their tails, they whisper ‘good night’…”).
  • All three of Chris Haughton’s board books: Oh No, George!, Shh…We Have A Plan, and Little Owl Lost. The first is my favorite but they all bear up well under endless repetition. The illustrations look like they were done in MS Paint, but don’t be put off.The Monster at the End of this Book
  • The Monster at the End of This Book (Sesame Street): Grover is frightened of the monster and implores the reader to STOP TURNING PAGES, taking more and more extreme measures…but it turns out the monster is not so scary after all. Great opportunity for dramatic reading here.
  • Hug by Jez Alborough: A baby monkey observes other animals hugging, then goes in search of its mommy for a hug.
  • Good Night, Gorilla by Peggy Rathmann: Should you get sick of Goodnight Moon, here’s an alternative featuring a mischievous gorilla and a clueless zookeeper.
  • Finger Worms by Herve Tullet: This book has holes in the covers and through the pages so readers can stick their fingers through to become part of the illustrations – very interactive! (Older kids will enjoy Press Here and Mix It Up by the same author.)
  • Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? by Dr. Seuss: Rhymes and sound effects, what could be better?
  • Dr. Seuss’s ABCs: The board book version is slightly abridged from the picture book version; both are good and include plenty of Dr. Seuss’s invented words.Chu's Day
  • Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman: This is a huge hit with my toddler (she also loves Chu’s Day at the Beach and Chu’s First Day of School). Fake sneezes are very entertaining! (See also: The Mitten by Jan Brett)
  • I Want My Hat Back and This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen: stories of hats stolen and retrieved, the implications are dark but babies won’t notice. Anything Jon Klassen and Mac Barnett write together is worth checking out; I love Extra Yarn.

Poems

  • My First Winnie the PoohClassic Mother Goose poems in board book form, such as The Real Mother Goose Board Book and Tomie’s Little Mother Goose (that’s Tomie dePaola, author/illustrator of Strega Nona).
  • My First Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne: short versions of the gentle poems we all know and love, including “The Engineer,” “Halfway Down,” and “Us Two.”
  • The Random House Book of Poetry for Children, compiled by Jack Prelutsky, is a collection that truly has something for everyone: poems short and long, funny and saccharine and sad, rhyming and not.

Read-aloud tip: “For infants, what book you read is less important than your enjoyment of it. If you have fun, baby will too!” (From my library’s pamphlet on Books for Babies, which also includes a book list by section: Board books, nursery rhymes, picture books, lullabies and songs, and poetry.)

Read-aloud tip: More often than not, the character(s) in children’s books is/are male. If this isn’t an important part of the story (e.g. the character is nameless), try using female pronouns some of the time. There’s no reason the default needs to be male.

 

Reading Passport: Book a Trip Around the World

Reading Passport

Reading Passport, 1994-1995

During the 1994-1995 school year, the school librarian (we had those, back then) issued the students a Reading Passport, which entitled (pun intended?) the owner to Book a Trip Around the World (pun definitely intended)! Because I am a highly organized pack rat whose mother had storage space in her garage until recently, I still have mine.

Like many of today’s popular reading challenges, students chose books in various categories (and got stickers for each book read. Who doesn’t love stickers?). Categories included classics, mystery, “true to life” (i.e. realistic), fantasy, humorous, adventure, historical fiction, animal, sports, and biography.

Some of these books I have entirely forgotten; others I remember vividly from re-reading them so often, and still adore – The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop, Matilda and The BFG by Roald Dahl, and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher by Bruce Coville. Though it’s not on the Reading Passport, 1994-1995 was also the year I read Buffalo Brenda by Jill Pinkwater. I think it was the following school year when I first read Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, and the year after that when I first read The Giver by Lois Lowry.

reading passport with stickers

Since 2007* when I first joined Goodreads and LibraryThing, I’ve kept a record of all my reading, but I’ve often wished for a lifelong record. I’m pleased to have unearthed this piece of my elementary school reading history, and grateful to the librarian who made it a fun experience worth documenting.

*TEN YEARS AGO.

 

 

2016 Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

Number of books read in 2016: 201

Picture books: 90

Partially read books: 8

Books read in 2015 minus picture books and partially read books: 103

YA/children’s books read: 40

Average number of books read per month (including YA, excluding picture books and partially read books): 8.58

Audiobooks: 11

Nonfiction (adult/YA): 22

Total page count: 27,536 (This seems suspiciously low, given that the last two years my page count was just over 50,000, but exporting the data I want from LibraryThing is frustrating, and honestly I don’t have the patience to dig into this. It’s still a pretty good chunk.)

Male or

Female/male authors: Tipping female for the second year in a row but still pretty close to 50-50.

Five-star ratings: 23, including re-reads; lots of childhood favorite re-reads this year, including The View From Saturday and Ella Enchanted. And Greenglass House, again.

Previously: 2015 Year-End Reading Wrap-Up

Again, no specific reading resolutions for the year. I have continued to winnow down my book collection at home, and have just a few books on the shelf that I’ve been meaning to read; one of these is The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande, which I suppose would be appropriate to check off the list.

I have enjoyed reading without the lurking feeling of each book being part of a “to do” list. I’ve discovered (and revisited) many, many picture books, from my own childhood copies (One Woolly Wombat!) to the brand new and delightful (too many to name). I’ve ventured more into children’s chapter books and met Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine.

Like many others, I’m also trying to read a broader variety of perspectives: books by women and people of color and other minorities, books whose subjects or main characters are something other than straight, white, middle-class Americans. There have been some spectacular collections of scathingly funny and serious feminist essays (Lindy West, Caitlin Moran, Mindy Kaling), and Rebecca Solnit has a new book coming out in March). And YA authors have been at the forefront of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks charge from the beginning, which means we’re growing a generation more open-minded than any before it.

“And so to read is, in truth, to be in the constant act of creation.” -Caitlin Moran, Moranifesto

Best books I read in 2016

There were many books published this year that I was looking forward to eagerly, and which I devoured as soon as I could get them. Other books sneaked up on me (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child!), some were recommended by friends or librarian-friends, others discovered serendipitously (my toddler pulling them off the library shelf), some a combination of the above. Links go to my LibraryThing reviews.

Cover image of My Real ChildrenAdult Fiction

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne, John Tiffany, and J.K. Rowling

My Real Children by Jo Walton

The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson

“And we can’t know the lives of others. And we can’t know our own lives beyond the details we can manage. And the things that change us forever happen without us knowing they would happen. And the moment that looks like the rest is the one where hearts are broken or healed. And time that runs so steady and sure runs wild outside of the clocks. It takes so little time to change a lifetime and it takes a lifetime to understand the change.” -Jeanette Winterson, The Gap of Time

Adult Nonfiction

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish

“Shame is a tool of oppression, not change….You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.” -Lindy West, Shrill

Teen/YA

The Leaving by Tara Altebrando

My True Love Gave to Me (short stories, edited by Stephanie Perkins)

Cover of I Am the Wolf...And Here I ComeChildren’s board books and picture books

Wow! Said the Owl by Tim Hopgood

There Is A Bird On Your Head by Mo Willems

I Am the Wolf…And Here I Come! by Benedicte Guettier

I Kissed the Baby by Mary Murphy

One Was Johnny by Maurice Sendak – I can’t believe I missed this one as a kid. It is the perfect counting book for introverts.

How to Cheer Up Dad by Fred Koehler

School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Children’s chapter books/series

Cover image of ClementineThe Clementine series by Sara Pennypacker – I listened to all seven of these audiobooks (narrated by Jessica Almasy) and loved every single one. Clementine reminds me of Ramona Quimby (especially when adults tell her to “pay attention” and she says that she was paying attention…to something else. Perfect kid logic). The parents are great characters too.

Coming soon…2017

I haven’t looked too far ahead into 2017, publishing-wise. The book I am most anticipating, of course, is the sequel to The Time Traveler’s Wife, but there is no new news about it, as far as I can tell, and the last I heard, it was looking like ballpark 2018. I’d be excited to read anything new by David Mitchell or Nick Hornby, but they each had books out in 2015 (Slade House and Funny Girl, respectively). I’d love to read whatever Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus) is cooking up next, too. I’m sure plenty of wonderful new books will come along while I’m waiting for these…what are you excited to read this coming year?

Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?

 

 

 

Early literacy: Baby sign language

Recently we attended a baby sign language class at the library, taught by Sheryl White of Baby Kneads. According to Sheryl, the benefits of baby sign language include:

  • reducing frustration for everyone
  • giving babies the ability to express themselves before they can speak
  • accelerating babies’ development of speech
  • enhancing early literacy skills
  • deepening bonding and increasing contentedness

Sheryl taught us several signs and when to use them: when you have the baby’s attention (when s/he is looking at you), before, during, and after the activity or item in question. For example, you might sign “book” before reading, during reading, and after reading. (The exception is “milk”: if the baby is already hungry and fussy, give her milk first, and make the sign for milk during and after she eats.) Always say the word along with the sign, and make your tone of voice interesting and relevant (exciting for “dinosaur,” soothing for “sleep”).

The signs to start with are milk, more, and finished/all done, and the usual recommended time to start is around six months, though Sheryl said starting as early as two months could help some babies start signing earlier. Babies will catch on and may start trying to sign well before their adults realize it, so watch closely if you’re trying this with your baby.

In addition to the four signs mentioned above, we’ve chosen a few others to introduce once she gets the idea: play, music, jump, ball, water, bath, diaper, yes and no, please and thank you (it’s never too early for good manners!), hello and goodbye, and mom and dad. You can tell by our selection what we’re up to these days…

We’re hoping these signs let us communicate with each other sooner than we would be able to otherwise, since she’ll be able to sign before she can speak. Have you used baby sign language? What was your experience with it?

Bye for now!