There are many books in the niche of challenging gender norms… and most of them are a waste of time because they are such an amazing mismatch with the day to day lived experience of their target audience. Read a book like that to a group of six year olds and they’ll dismiss it in seconds AND give you an emphatic earful to boot. (It seems to me that culture often trumps education).
Fortunately, Of Course They Do shows examples of men and women who violate norms without moving so far to the edge of culture that students can easily dismiss them. The opening line states, “Boy’s don’t dance” is accompanied by an image of two young female dancers. But turn the page and you find a male hip-hop artist in motion. “Boys don’t jump rope” is followed by an image of a male boxer jumping rope in an urban looking gym. “Girls don’t know about cars” is disarmed by a female professional race car driver and so on.
Oddly the one exception to this is the cover image: boys playing with baby dolls still don’t get a pass in many US cultures. But this brings us to an interesting point. This picture book was originally published in France by author Marie-Sabine Roger and photographer: Anne Sol. Perhaps in France this is no big deal. Meanwhile on the US side of the equation Of Course They Do reminds us not to constrict definitions of gender norms to cultural expectations which (on closer examination) are a mismatch with everyday life.
Warsaw Ghetto: Photo from Jürgen Stroop’s report to Heinrich Himmler – Public Domain
On September 1st, seventy-five years ago, German forces swept into Poland to open one of the most demented chapters of the last century. A year later, Jews were forced into the infamous Warsaw Ghetto (pictured above) to be eliminated by starvation, exposure and infectious disease: after the Ghetto was liquidated, the Germans used camps to work their evil. Despite the grim nature of the Ghetto, Karen Hesse brought a kid safe story of resistance to us in the form of The Cats in Krasinki Square.
This is the tale of two Jewish sisters who have escaped the Ghetto and are posing as Poles in Warsaw. As the only survivors of their family, they have joined the resistance and sneak food to their friends within the Ghetto. But the Gestapo learns of their scheme to bring food in on a train and plot to sniff them out with a team of dogs. Undaunted the resistance releases cats all over the train station throwing the dogs into confusion and allowing the precious food to slip into the Ghetto.
Hesse’s smooth prose flows seamlessly through this story, masterfully balancing the atrocities of the Holocaust with the innocence of her target audience. Likewise, Wendy Watson‘s illustrations bring us the tension of the story without traumatizing students.
It’s extremely rare that I can bring such a harsh topic to young readers with confidence that the material is suited to my first graders. But once in a great while, I cross paths with such a book. The Cats in Krasinki Square is that book.
The intersection of bullying and picture books makes me cringe. The issue is extremely troubling; but most of the picture book “solutions” are worse: possessing all the street cred of a wannabe suburban gangster.
In this dreamworld, one act of kindness can reform a bully and saying, “STOP IT” works. Meanwhile, back on reality ranch, bullies target the isolated and exploit them because no one stands up for them.
Not in Leave Me Alone.
Despite the overwhelming feeling of hopelessness that dominates our unnamed protagonist, friends rally to his side and turn the bully back with a realistic solution: strength in numbers.
Unfortunately Kes Gray and Lee Wildish’s work is not completely uncontaminated by the picture book fantasy of easy solutions. (The bully never returns.) But Leave Me Alone reduces the disconnect between picture books and the playground by showing how to actually stop a bully; and I’m all for that.
Martin’s Big Words is the story of Martin Luther King Junior’s life. Briefly put, it’s…
Masterfully written… Like Martin Luther King Junior’s public speaking, there’s a beautiful cadence to Doreen Rappaport‘s writing.
No holds barred… He’s taken to jail. He gets shot. He dies. (Bryan Collier‘s illustrations don’t show King’s shooting or death; but the somber candles and black cathedral background, with Martin’s deep eyes, can bore an indelible mark in the mind).
Not devoid of context… Martin states, “God is with this movement”. He also prays with people. (Just like he actually did.)
Profoundly moving… I nearly cry (or actually do cry) every year when I read this book; and I’m not a crier.
So, how does one address this issue with a room full of 6-7 year olds?
From my perspective, there’s inevitable tension between the desire to talk about the problem and the desire to protect children’s innocence.
To balance these interests I begin with the historic context of slavery in the US and (of course) a picture book.
Henry Cole’s Unspoken is my current favorite starting point. There aren’t any words; and that makes for a great deal of student led questioning and inferring. With nominal guidance, they grasp what’s transpiring and the deplorable nature of slavery.
If you don’t know Sarah Josepha Hale, you most likely don’t know that Thanksgiving is a national holiday because she lobbied for well over three decades to make it a reality. Sound like a boring read aloud? Think again!
This book takes us from the first feast to football. Then adds the historical context of the Civil War, debates over slavery, humor and Matt Faulkner‘s impressive illustrations to teach that you can indeed make a difference in the world: even if you are a marginalized, nonvoting, member of society… just like Sarah Josepha Hale.
Eve Bunting made a career out of writing about topics few in the picture book world would even consider. The Wall is another offering from the land of taboo topics. This time it’s the Vietnam Memorial, which means that war and death are on the docket.
In Buntings story a father and son are visiting the wall to see Dad/Grandpa’s name. This is a children’s book, so she guides us through these topics gently. But the pain and loss are real, real enough for me to think over whether or not I would get an angry parent phone call for reading about death in school.
In the end I chose to read it. Those who served and made the ultimate sacrifice deserve to be honored, and Bunting masterfully delivered this book with reverence fitting the fallen.