Teaching Cultural Compassion

November 30, 2019

Children’s books as presents: Don’t buy just any book

Now that Thanksgiving is past, we have hit the time of year we are often inundated with thoughts of buying presents for the children in our lives. This year, I encourage you to buy children’s books, but not just any children’s books — books that teach cultural compassion. For a few winters, I worked at a major book retailer. Though not assigned to the children’s department, I often covered breaks for co-workers. There, I was often asked for opinions and suggestions for books to buy as gifts. The shelves were filled with books to suggest, but sadly we lacked books with girls and children of color as protagonists. I realized how important it is for every kid to see themselves in the books they read, to identify with the characters. I worked hard to keep books with diverse characters in stock and available.

YOUR favorite books

If we aren’t buying gifts for the kids in our lives, we often volunteer to buy things for an Angel Tree or are asked to provide books for holiday baskets or book drives. At the bookstore, we had a sponsored book drive. Many people didn’t care what book they bought for the drive and allowed us to pick within a price range. As the booksellers, we knew the audience for whom the books were being purchased, so we would pick accordingly.

Many people, however, wanted to buy their favorite book for the drive. This is great in spirit, but in reality may not be as helpful as intended.

Many people are unaware of the bias currently shown in children’s books. Most books with human characters feature a white boy as the protagonist. How does that help children who are girls and/or children of color see their innate worth?

Keep in mind

Please keep some of these things in mind when buying books for children you know and children you don’t know this holiday season:

  • Know your audience. If you want the child for whom you are buying books to believe that all people are of sacred worth, buy books that challenge stereotypes by having girls and people of color in positive, leading roles. Keep in mind that finding a book that reflects this may be harder and more time consuming.

  • If you don’t know your audience. If you don’t know the child for whom you are buying the book, buy a book that shows several children of multiple genders and multiple races or ethnicities.

  • Look for the message. Read the book before you buy it. If the lesson learned isn’t positive or if the book engenders stereotyping, look for a different book.

  • If you just aren’t sure, check out the “Book Search” feature at the top of this page to help you narrow things down.

If you’re looking to buy books about Christmas or other winter holidays, here are some of my favorites:

Between Us and Abuela: A Family Story from the Border by Mitali Perkins

Dear Santa, Love, Rachel Rosenstein by Amanda Peet and Andrea Troyer

Jackie's Gift by Sharon Robinson

Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas by Pamela Ehrenberg

'Twas Nochebuena by Roseanne Greenfield Thong

I hope your winter holidays create more joy than stress and that you enjoy these books as much as I do!


November 15, 2019

Giving Thanks for Thanksgiving

It’s the time of year when we remember to give thanks for what we have. But this holiday comes with a lot of historical context and baggage that we don’t always unpack for our kids. On the positive, did you know that Thanksgiving became a national holiday because of a WOMAN who wouldn’t give up? There are several great books about her out there, but my favorite is definitely Thank You, Sarah! By Laurie Halse Anderson.

There are also books about more modern Thanksgivings and new people coming to this country. If you haven’t read Eve Bunting’s How Many Days to America? I would highly recommend it as well. It’s a beautifully written story about children from an unidentified Caribbean country who escape persecution by getting on a boat. A little like the Pilgrims, these children are looking for a new, better life in America. Amazingly, they arrive at Thanksgiving and their first impression is one of unity, gratitude, and giving. We certainly need more of that in this country today.

If you want to teach your children a little more about the early origins of this country and the origin of some of our unique foods (like pumpkins and corn, often on our Thanksgiving tables), I highly recommend Yum! ¡MmMm! ¡Qué rico! America’s Sproutings by Pat Mora. Pat gives us wonderful short haikus she has written along with a small box of facts about each native plant!

Unfortunately often, especially in gen x, Thanksgiving brings memories of being dressed as "Pilgrims" or “Indians” for school plays, or even at home for Thanksgiving. We now know a LOT more about what that initial encounter may have been like, and we know that our cultural appropriation and bolstering of stereotypes was at the very least in poor taste, if not downright offensive. You may or may not know that November is also “Native American Heritage Month.” If you want to talk to your kids about American Indians, I highly suggest going to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. It’s a beautiful, Smithsonian, FREE museum with an AMAZING food court. (Definitely my favorite lunch stop if I’m on the National Mall.) Short of traveling, though, you may be able to turn to books to offer your kids a broader idea of American Indian life.

So, if your kid comes home from school with a construction paper feather headdress, these might be your key to opening their eyes to some of the greater historical context--and the fact that American Indians are STILL HERE. American Indians/Native Americans are not only the smallest demographic population in the United States, but also the least represented in picture books. It is important to find the right representation, and finding books by Native authors is the best way to do that. All of these books are #OwnVoices books, meaning they are written by American Indian writers and/or illustrators. For more on why reading Own Voices books are important, click here. For your further information, the tribal nation of each author is offered after their name.

Some of my favorites are:

Sky Sisters by Jan Bordeau Waboose (Nishnawbe Ojibway)

Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Maillard (Seminole)

Greet the Dawn: The Lakota Way by S. D. Nelson (Standing Rock Souix)

Jingle Dancer by Cynthia Leitich Smith ( Muscogee - I also recommend just about anything by her)

Shi-Shi-Etko by Nicola Campbell (Nłe’kepmx, Syilx and Métis)

And if you really want to chat with your kids about different tribes and their distinctions and the history of these tribes in this land, you can educate yourself at https://americanindian.si.edu.

If you encounter something in a picture book and aren’t sure if it’s a stereotype, you can also make use of Debbie Reese’s (Nambé Pueblo) American Indians in Children’s Literature, where she covers many books for children. (She has some Thanksgiving recommendations as well!)

I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving and I’m so glad you’re here to make the holiday a deeper, richer tradition for your kids!