reading log: challenged/banned books

Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin (challenged picture book)

Something Happened In Our Town made the 2020 list of Top Ten Most Challenged Books, compiled by the ALA.

Cover of Something Happened In Our Town features two kids, a white girl and a Black boy, their footprints are imprinted on a blank newspaper behind them imprinted with the book’s information.

Reasons: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views

ALA, “Top Ten Most

Celano, Marianne, with Marietta Collins and Ann Hazar, and Jennifer Zivoin, illustr. Something Happened In Our Town. Washington, DC: Magination Press, 2018.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the uprising around the country, I searched for books that could help facilitate a conversation with students who might be reckoning with the events and the legacy of racism in this country. This title, aimed at children aged 4-8, was one of the ones I soon discovered and would have presumably leaned on heavily to facilitate conversations about racial biases had we been in person. With my district virtual for a full calendar year, from March 2020-March 2021, conversations did not evolve as I presume they would have in the classroom. I made resources available to those who needed them but to my surprise – and woe – many of my elementary school students, even the upper level, did not know what was happening in the country. Given the trends of this society, it follows that the book would make its way to the list of those most challenged. I am happy to see that despite this, many libraries in Rhode Island are currently cataloging and adding it to their collection. I hardly think the challengers have even read the book since it hardly seems “anti-police,” perhaps “anti-police brutality” is a more apt and legitimate description. One kid is seen doodling pictures of police officers and the Black father clearly states, “There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices.”

The picture book is written by psychologists, whose careers have been dedicated to working with children and social justice, and as such handles the hard subject material comprehensively and thoroughly. The text features the aftermath of a Black man being shot by police in their town. Two families, a white family and a Black family, discuss the situation and the history of racism with their respective children. “I have power, and I am smart,” says one child, to which his mother answers, “and you can change people’s hearts by sticking up for someone who is not treated fairly.” I do wish the book used more people centered language, such as “people who were enslaved” rather than “slaves.” I do believe that the book is a necessary one to have on the shelf, as students will inevitably encounter instances of community violence, as well as racism and prejudice.

The text moves through each family’s conversation providing adults with a starting point to discuss racial biases with children of all backgrounds. The illustrations are digitally rendered and serve to supplement the text without distracting a child who may be listening to the read aloud. Inset boxes, akin to comic books, move the listener along the page and focus their attention on details.

Just as valuable as the text itself, the end of the book features an extensive Note to Parents and Caregivers with guidelines for discussing race and racism with children, definitions that are child-friendly, and sample dialogues for having these conversations with kids. I especially appreciate the notes for having conversations with children, and the reminder to respond with “What makes you say that” without judgement when a child passes a comment that might be racially biased. I appreciate that the definitions do not stop at simple definitions, rather including for example what prejudice is (believing negative or bad things about someone who is different from you without proof), where it might come from, why it is a problem (because you have already made up your mind or have a bad belief about someone before you know the person), and that it is wrong! I look forward to checking out the recent publication by the same authors and illustrator, Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence.

From the Note to Parents and Caregivers:

There are many benefits of beginning to discuss racial bias and injustice with young children of all races and ethnicities:

  • Research has shown that children even as young as three years of age notice and comment on differences in skin color.
  • Humans of all ages tend to ascribe positive qualities to the group that they belong to and negative qualities to other groups.
  • Despite some parents’ attempts to protect their children from frightening media content, children often become aware of incidents of community violence, including police shootings.
  • Parents who don’t proactively talk about racial issues with their children are inadvertently teaching their children that race is a taboo topic. Parents who want to raise children to accept individuals from diverse cultures need to counter negative attitudes that their children develop from exposure to the negative racial stereotypes that persist in our society.

Free resources, including a teacher’s guide, specific read aloud tips, and other book lists are available here, on the APA’s website, apa.org. Sample pages, care of the American Psychological Association, can be accessed here. The book was also published in Spanish.

reading log: diverse voices

Milo Imagines the World, words by Matt de la Peña & illustrations by Christian Robinson

de la Peña, Matt, and Christian Robinson, illustr. Milo Imagines the World. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2021.

“What story do we want to put into the world next?” This was a question posed by Matt de la Peña to his frequent illustrator collaborator, Christian Robinson. The story, in the vein of Toni Morrison, would be the story Robinson wished he had as a child…and that his classmates and teachers had, too. It is the epitome of a diverse story.  Christian said of the book: “So I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion.”

Milo imagines the world, words by Matt de la Peña and pictures by Christian Robinson, is evocative of Last Stop on Market Street as the title character takes a ride on public transit with his older sister.  Along the ride, Milo, beanie on head, sketchbook in hand, imagines the lives of all the people he encounters on the trip, observing from behind his glasses and pencil. As we arrive at Milo’s destination, where he goes to visit his mother, who has been incarcerated, we – like Milo – are forced to face implicit biases and second guess our first impressions. Can you really tell who someone is, just by looking?

The text moves slowly like the train, asking us to slow down amid the hustle and carefully contemplate those around us, rather than dismiss and disregard.  The pictures which swap back and forth between spreads of the train and spreads of the world as Milo imagines it for each passenger. This picture book offers a look at stressors and anxieties that some children quietly face, and that Robinson himself faced as a child. 

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How many of us haven’t been there, as Milo is? Imagining where passerby are going, who they are, what they do?  How often are we pleasantly surprised or find ourselves mistaken in our assumptions? I imagine asking students these prompts, asking about first impressions and judgement, asking students to reconsider and to reimagine.

Text response ideas: Think of a time you made a judgement or assumption. What did you think? What did you later find out that made you rethink? 

*Have you ever felt like a “shook up soda”? Where were you going? what could help you feel better, to keep yourself from bursting? *Echoing the last illustration in the book, in which Milo imagines a day with his mother eating ice cream on the stoop, students could illustrate or write about the world they wish they could see. 

*With older students, the text could be used to discuss and dismantle implicit bias and stereotypes.  

Check out this resource guide for more ideas related to Milo Imagines the World, as well as Carmela Full of Wishes and Last Stop on Market Street. Check out the illustrator’s site here, and the author’s site here.

I feel like right now especially, it’s so important that we’re telling stories that ask each other to take a second look and to not make those easy, quick judgments about each other. …

As a kid, of course, not having my my mother there was painful, certainly, but probably even more painful thing was holding on to that experience myself and internalizing it and feeling disconnected, not having that connection with others. So I think this book has the potential to be healing, to create conversations, to create empathy and compassion.

~Christian Robinson
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reading log: realistic fiction

Front Desk by Kelly Yang (realistic fiction)

Front Desk: Yang, Kelly: 9781338157796: Amazon.com: Books
Front Desk by Kelly Yang, the front cover features a young girl managing a motel check in desk. She has shoulder length black hair and bangs, is standing in a power pose answering the phone while wearing floral cotton pants and green sneakers. On the desk are a tip jar and yankees hat, behind her are the keys to each room of the motel.

Yang, Kelly. Front Desk. New York: Arthur A. Levine, 2018.

All of my students who have read this middle grade novel have loved it, so it was with good reason a RICBA nominee last year. Still, I’m ashamed to say I was not familiar with the premise and went in with no expectations or knowledge of the subject matter! I’m so happy I’ve read this sweet book about Mia, whose story is based on the author’s real life experiences with her parents running a motel after having recently immigrated to the States in the nineties from China.

Mia Tang is a fourth grader, a writer, nd a Chinese immigrant whose parents have just taken over managing a motel (where they also live) for a nasty man who barely pays them enough to survive.  Mia encounters many a diverse guest and befriends many of the regular weeklies, establishing familial ties with their guests. While dealing with regular fourth grade woes, lying to friends to fit in, realizing you both lied for no reason, the teacher’s red ink shouting grammar corrections, stolen pencils, unwanted crushes from the mean boy, Mia also takes it upon her self to solve society’s woes, a microcosm of which are portrayed at the motel. Her parents secretly house immigrants escaping various situations where their labor was exploited and humanity demeaned, Mia reckons with the racial profiling of Hank, a Black man who helps her adjust to the motel, and helps him find a new job.

Although usually I steam through books written for kids, I had to keep putting it down because the content is so heavy. I needed time to process the sheer weight of every issue tackled and every stereotype dismantled by Yang. Anti-blackness, anti-immigrant sentiment, and other sorts of xenophobia and racism are all addressed by Yang in a way that is engaging and accessible for kids. I found Mia’s voice perfect, at each new obstacle or humorous debacle understanding clearly how Mia was feeling and processing her own emotions. Although my experiences are none too similar, I could easily empathize with many of her struggles, some of them were much more than I’ve ever even imagined.   I appreciated Mia’s love of writing, the way she worked through emotions by writing letters and how, like the protagonists of many children’s books, she took the problems of the world on her own shoulders to solve.  Luckily for her and those around her, she was able to solve a great deal of them. I wonder how many of those letters, written by Mia and addressed to various powers that be in order to change unfair events, the author might actually have written to help her friends as a kid. Originally published in 2018, is timely and highly topical given the heightened discrimination and violence faced by the AAPI community in the age of Covid. At the heart of this novel is a sweet girl reckoning with the world around her and unafraid to fight for what is right, despite being a kid, with her voice and her pencil.

In the classroom this text could be used with middle grade or upper elementary to discuss the class inequities and racism that pervade society while also  be used to discuss social emotional learning as Mia copes with each of the problems she faces with thought and grace. The author’s website features a corner for teachers, with guides and lesson plans. The paperback version from Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine features a discussion guide, along with an extensive note from the author on her real life inspiration, right in the back of the book.