Checking Our Biases When We Check Out Books

Checking Our Biases When We Check Out Books

by Laura Koennecke
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The other night I was telling my son about a book I wanted to read to him called Little House in the Big Woods; it was one of my favorites as a child. He really likes non-fiction, so I told him that it’s autobiographical, explaining that meant it was based on a real person’s life. I thought that might stoke his interest. I’ve been itching to get him interested in a good story, but aside from Frog and Toad books, which are amazing by the way, and a few Dr. Seuss books, we mainly read facts.

I also told him that I especially liked that I share my name with the main character, Laura. He thought that was pretty cool.

As I was telling him about the book, a weird sense of doubt surfaced. I wondered if Little House was a girl’s book. I wondered if that mattered. After all, little girls read books with male characters all the time. My Side of the Mountain was about a boy, and I loved that book. I had no trouble identifying with Sam.

But there were other books that I read and identified as being girls’ books, like Misty of Chincoteague, even though it has both a boy and girl for main characters. That one I chalk up to the fact that most of the girls my age at the time were obsessed with their Breyer collections and all things horse-related.

So if I identify certain books as being girls’ books based on my own childhood reading, does that mean I shouldn’t read them to my son? Of course not, but how much do we unwittingly withhold from our sons this way. It really bothered me that I considered not reading him a great story based on a little voice that said it was for girls.

When my daughter was younger, I was always happy to see a strong female lead character. She latched right on to Tamora Pierce’s books when they were introduced to her by a grade-school friend. And as parents more actively look for female protagonists, they have a great resource for girl-empowered books in amightygirl.com, which provides characters from many different cultures that young girls can identify with.

This is great, but what if we also started reading stories to our sons with girl protagonists – asking them to see through another person’s perspective?

As the 48-year-old mother of a 6-year-old son (advanced maternal age I’m considered), I sometimes think there’s a cultural divide between myself and younger parents in their 30s. I worry that I’ll become the old person who says the awkward things at the soccer field, you know, uses the words that expose my outdated, uninformed biases like the drunk uncle at a family gathering that everyone rolls their eyes at.

After all, my childhood was firmly in the 1970s. And the fruits of second wave feminism were just starting show themselves. For my older sister to change into jeans after leaving the house was an act of rebellion and a strike against gender norms. Now everyone wears jeans and nobody thinks twice of it. She also wanted to be an auto mechanic and go across country with our cousin Karen who wanted to drive an 18-wheeler. This raised some eyebrows at the time, but now women are excelling in what used to be traditionally male job markets. And the idea that they wouldn’t is simply foreign to many women born in the 1980s.

It’s quite possible that younger parents don’t think twice about gender when they pick out a book, that deep into third wave feminism people don’t project gender norms onto their kids. They say to each other “Let’s get David this biography of Danica Patrick – he loves race cars.”

But we all know that for the most part that’s not true. Just look at the uproar Target caused by removing gender-based signs from their toy sections. Side note: For a fun response to that check out Renegade Mothering (unless you are satire-averse and don’t like salty language, then don’t).

Anyway, as the mother of a son, I’d like to see feminism work for him too. I don’t want him cut off from strong female role models, and I don’t want him walled off from the empathy that comes from reading about people who are not like him. Empathy can only help us all. So dear parents, young and old, maybe we can turn down the little voices that tell us what’s meant for boys or meant for girls, and use books to break down barriers instead of reinforcing them. Let’s loosen the reins and see what happens.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Review: Finding Wild


Finding Wild
by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Pictures by Abigail Halpin
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers (May 10, 2016)
Ages 3-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:

Living in the city certainly has its perks – a short commute and access to cultural and social events, just to name a few. But, whenever I’ve lived in a city, as I do now, I’ve always had a deep yearning to keep the natural world as a part of my life. Whether it’s attempting to grow a garden in the backyard or getting out of the city every now and then, a connection to nature keeps me sane. If that connection goes unattended for too long, things get ugly. There have been times when I’ve had to make do with buying a couple of houseplants to satisfy that calling. Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd with pictures by Abigail Halpin spoke to that part of me that understands finding wild in the hidden places.

Finding Wild opens with two simple questions. “What is wild? And where can you find it?” Readers follow two children as they explore their world from top to bottom and discover that nature is everywhere, even on the urban streets where it appears, at first, to only have concrete buildings that block the sky.

In this thoughtful, quiet exploration of nature, the author and illustrator take us on a journey through the many facets of the living world, including its gentleness, its roughness, its beauty and its tenacity.

Finding Wild is Megan Wagner Lloyd’s first book. I look forward to reading more from her, as this debut, in this nature-loving girl’s opinion, is a solid introduction to a concept that’s important for all children to understand. Nature is everywhere. You just have to look.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Review: Hello, My Name is Octicorn


Hello, My Name Is Octicorn
Created by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe
Additional illustrations by Binny Talib
Published by Balzer + Bray (May 17, 2016)
Ages 4-6

My rating: 4 Stars

Review:

As the title and cover suggest, Hello, My Name Is Octicorn is a humorous take on what it’s like to be different.

Octicorn speaks directly to the reader – asking questions, telling the story of how he came to be the only Octicorn in the world, and letting the reader in on why it’s sometimes difficult to be a half unicorn, half octopus.

In a friendly way, Octicorn also tells the reader what he likes to do. One could almost imagine Octicorn as a young child introducing himself to another young person his age.

With its likable character, Hello, My Name Is Octicorn is a lighthearted approach to the concept of being different from the crowd. It would make a fun, interactive introduction to kindness and not judging a person based on their looks. The suggested age range is 4-6 years, but I can see this being read to much younger children because of its simplicity and engaging character.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

 

 

Review: RAIN!


Rain!
by Linda Ashman
Illustrated by Christian Robinson
Published by Houghton Mifflin Books for Children (March 5, 2013)
Ages 4-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
On a rainy morning in the city, a young boy’s excitement and an old man’s grumpiness go head to head in Linda Ashman’s Rain!, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Rain! is about the power of attitude and its contagiousness. To the old man, the rain is misery – the reason he has to put on galoshes and an overcoat to go get his cup of black coffee. To the young boy, it is an opportunity to pretend he is a frog – the reason he gets to jump in puddles on the way to get his hot cocoa and cookies.

The two characters’ journeys to the Rain or Shine Cafe show us how each affects the people they come in contact with. When they finally meet each other, the fireworks fly. The old man turns his grumpiness on the boy, who is simply trying to do a kindness for him. When the boy turns grumpy in front of the old man’s eyes, he sees what he has done. Rather than letting his grumpiness influence the boy, he opens up and lets the boy’s cheerfulness change him instead.

Christian Robinson’s colorful illustrations shine, providing a glimpse of how every one of us can both sway others with our mood and be swayed in return.

An accessible, fun-to-look-at introduction to the power of attitude!

Other work from prolific children’s book author Linda Ashman:

Recent work by Christian Robinson:

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

 

Untold Stories

Untold Stories
by Laura Koennecke
10924747_10203407812172599_3398855842908337277_nWhen I was eleven, we lost my brother Kurt and almost every material thing in a house fire. It was a terrible time for my family that was softened by the kindness and generosity of the people who came together to help us. It was an overwhelming and foggy time, to say the least, but there are a few memories that stick out.

There was all the food being delivered daily. That was the year we had lasagna for Thanksgiving. There was Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s and the special gifts they picked out for us – including the stuffed bear for Sheryl that needed an x-ray at my uncle’s vet office for some reason.

And there were the socks. A boy from my bus route, a year or two older than me, showed up at my Grandpa’s doorway with a huge department store bag filled with socks. Brand new, never-been-worn socks in all sizes and colors. To this day, the thoughtfulness of this gift stays with me.

A few years later, this same boy’s father ended his own life. I cried for him, and I wanted to somehow return the kindness that he had shown my family. So I baked him some chocolate chip cookies. I put them on a plate, wrapped them in aluminum foil and set them on the table in the front hall. All that was left was for me to knock on his door and hand them to him.

They sat on that table for at least a week. I’m not sure what even happened to them. But I know I didn’t bring them to him. I didn’t know how to face that much pain, and I didn’t know if he wanted anyone to know what had happened.

I don’t know what led up to his father’s decision, but I do know that people didn’t talk about mental health much thirty years ago, at least not in front of kids. Thankfully that is changing, but there is still a dearth of information about it.

So why talk about this on a children’s literature site? Because books are powerful. Because they have the power to help heal, to start a dialogue, to let a child know that he or she is not alone, to provide an escape.

Because teachers and librarians can include books that deal with mental health on their shelves.

If you look for books addressing issues such as depression, suicide and addiction, there are plenty for teens. The School Library Journal has an excellent article by Erin E. Moulton about bibliotherapy and an extensive list of books by subject area. 

But according to the Educational Research Newsletter, “School personnel need to be aware that many learning disabled children appear to experience depression during the elementary years.” 

Obviously, this is important for parents to know too.

So where are the books for younger kids? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m curious. And I’m not talking about “how to” books; I’m talking about books with nuanced characters that young readers and listeners can relate to.

And, are we as parents, teachers and counselors misreading the signs of mental health issues? According to the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “The presence of depression in school-age children may not be adequately recognized by teachers. Teachers may be misdiagnosing depressed children as having a specific learning problem.” 

Saying that teachers are misdiagnosing is a bit misleading as they aren’t doctors, but they are often the first people to see signs that a child is struggling.

The Educational Research Newsletter also notes that “Researchers do not agree on which is the primary condition; does being learning disabled lead to depression or are learning problems a symptom of depression?”  

There is so much to learn and so much more research that will be done, but ultimately we need to be aware that mental illness can affect anyone, even young children – either as someone suffering from it personally or someone trying to understand what a parent or sibling is experiencing.

So where do we go from here? I guess we keep talking about it, sharing our stories and reading about it. We talk to our children’s doctors. And we stop being afraid to knock on the door and deliver the cookies.

Do you know of a children’s book that addresses mental illness? Let us know in the comments.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Celebrating the 20th Annual National Poetry Month (Giveaway!)

April is National Poetry Month, a celebration of the writing craft that often speaks most directly to the heart and soul of life.

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful. – Rita Dove

There are plenty of ways for children and parents (and aunts and uncles!) to take part in the celebration – from reading and writing poetry together to attending local readings and events. And don’t forget, April 21st is Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Here are just a few books of poetry that you might like to try reading with your kids.


Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems
Selected by Paul B. Janeczko
Illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Published by Candlewick (March 11, 2014)
Ages 6-9


Hi, Koo!: A Year of Seasons
by Jon J. Muth
Published by Scholastic Press (February 25, 2014)
Ages 4-8


A Child’s Garden of Verses
by Robert Louis Stevenson
Originally published in 1885
Reissue Edition published by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (February 1, 1999)
Illustrated by Tasha Tudor


The Random House Book of Poetry for Children
Selected by Jack Prelutsky
Illustrated by Arnold Lobel
Published by Random House (September 12, 1983)
Ages 7 and up


Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost
Edited by Gary D. Schmidt
Illustrated by Henri Sorensen
Published by Sterling Children’s Books, New edition (March 4, 2014)
Ages 8 and up


Poems to Learn by Heart
by Caroline Kennedy
Paintings by Jon J. Muth
Published by Disney-Hyperion (March 26, 2013)

Giveaway! [Update: this giveaway has ended. Stay tuned for more giveaways in future posts]
Some books are too good not to be shared, so I’m giving away 2 copies of Poems to Learn by Heart through an Amazon giveaway. Click here for your chance to win. Good luck everyone!

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Review: Twenty Yawns


Twenty Yawns
by Jane Smiley
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Published by Two Lions, an imprint of Amazon Publishing (April 1, 2016)
Ages 3-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Review:
Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley will have her first children’s book, Twenty Yawns, released at the beginning of next month. The bedtime tale is illustrated by Lauren Castillo, author and illustrator of Nana in the City, a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book. With its engaging story and warm, inviting illustrations, Twenty Yawns is a worthy addition to the nighttime arsenal of soothing bedtime stories.

We meet Lucy as she’s digging a big hole at the beach. We then travel with her as she spends a fun-filled, sunny day playing with her mom and dad and other kids by the ocean. When the day is done and it’s time for bed, Lucy’s mom starts to read a bedtime story, but after such an exhausting day she falls asleep before the story is finished – leaving Lucy wide awake. The dark, quiet house makes it even harder for Lucy to fall asleep, so she gets up to find her bear, Molasses. As she’s carrying Molasses back to bed, she looks back to see her other stuffed animals looking lonely. She drags them all to bed, and with big yawns from the stuffed animals, the moon and Lucy herself, she finally falls fast asleep.

Castillo employs soft, boldly outlined illustrations to set the tone throughout the story. With an impeccable use of color, she transitions the mood from the bright beach to the sleepy bedroom and from sleepy bedroom to spooky bedroom and back again.

Smiley’s text holds its own – painting a picture of a little girl enjoying an exciting day, then struggling to fall asleep because of the quiet, “mysterious” atmosphere that descends upon a house at night. From the opening line to the very end, you could read the story without the illustrations and still see the scene in your mind’s eye.

The combined strength of the illustrations and storytelling, plus its gentle tone, makes Twenty Yawns an excellent choice for exploring the theme of nighttime fright with a child. And it’s enjoyable to read.

Diversity in children’s books is a hot topic right now, and rightfully so. The We Need Diverse Books™ organization makes the case that all children should be able to find books that allow them to see themselves in the story. The fundamental story in Twenty Yawns could be any child, but the illustrator, writer and publisher have done a great service for our culture at-large by simply making the family in the story bi-racial. Kudos!

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Interested in Lauren Castillo’s work? Here are links to some of her other books:


FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.