Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Seeing All of Us in Diverse Children's Books

This past March I sat around a table with a group of women, discussing my latest picture book, A Path of Stars, the story of the relationship between a young Cambodian American girl named Dara and her grandmother, a survivor of the "Killing Fields." The group happened to be inmates at the local women's prison, participants in a wonderful reading and writing program led by author Monica Wood (When We Were the Kennedys); I was the visiting author-illustrator. 

Going around the circle, each participant--mostly white women raised in Maine--shared a response to the book. No one said, "I really liked this opportunity to learn about another culture," though I'm sure they did absorb new information. Instead, what I heard again and again was, "I really loved this book because it reminded me of my relationship with my grandmother."

In the course of the conversation, we discovered another connection between the characters in my book and the women. Like Dara's grandmother, they were survivors.

A scene from A Path of Stars; Dara and her grandmother

So often, "multicultural" books are relegated to the purpose of examining differences, such as during Black History Month. What if books with diverse characters and cultures--like the ones in the previous post--were seen as being about, and necessary to, all of us?

Face research for Dara in A Path of Stars
In 1998, I traveled with a black South African friend to southern Africa, as preparation for illustrating a nonfiction book, Africa is Not a Country by Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove. I wasn't planning to do any specific research so much as to look for some sense of connection, some insight that would inform my attempts to portray the diverse range of African cultures, none of which I belonged to and all of which I knew little about. I expected the countries I would be visiting--Swaziland and Zimbabwe as well as South Africa--would be the most culturally different of anything I'd ever seen, the equivalent of traveling to the moon.

That wasn't my experience. As I shopped open air markets in Capetown, walked the dusty paths of my friend's hometown neighborhood of Dube in Soweto, and bought food from street vendors in Durban, instead of a sense of curiosity at the exotic, my response was recognition. Despite the different colors of the landscape and the different customs of people's lives, I kept seeing things that seemed somehow familiar. It took me days to realize that I was reminded of the neighborhoods I'd grown up in in 1960s South Korea, of the ways in which daily life--from brushing teeth to bathing to baby care--was communal and took place in plain sight in the streets and alleyways. In the streets of southern Africa, I saw my own story. 

This was the insight that I brought back with me from my trip, the touchstone I held onto as I went through the lengthy process of research, consulting, collaboration, and critique, to create accurate and respectful images. It taught me that after all the essential work, there's another aspect to authentic representation that can't be found in the data. If we are to truly connect across all our differences, we have to let our hearts respond, and we have to trust those responses as true expressions of our common humanity.

I don't leap over differences to get to commonalities. As I'm researching and creating, I'm focused on the particular details of what defines human uniqueness, in groups and in individuals. The details of difference matter, and have meaning. I keep remembering how little I know, what blinders I'm wearing, that I often can't even imagine what questions to ask. I assume I will make many mistakes. I seek lots of input from primary source experts, people with lived experience, to help me see what I can't see.

But the North Star towards which I am navigating is the core belonging of each of us to one human community. In the images we communicate of "other people"--through the words and pictures we create as writers and illustrators, and the books we share with children as educators and parents--the sweet spot is lively, particular human being. To see, and reach for, our own selves reflected there. Anything less is not enough for our children. 

Ultimately, authentic diversity isn't about getting it "right." It's about getting each other. 

Posted by Anne Sibley O'Brien, author and illustrator of several books for young readers, including A Path of Stars. Anne blogged for Unabridged about the process of creating A Path of Stars here.

Meet Anne during Children's Book Week! 
In partnership with Primary Source and Charlesbridge, Anne Sibley O'Brien will be discussing race, ethnicity, and diversity in children's books. 

Her program, entitled "From the Heart: Illustrating Across Race and Culture," will take place on Tuesday, May 14th from 4:00 PM to 6:00 PM at the Watertown Public Library, 123 Main Street, Watertown, MA

A reception and book signing will follow at the Charlesbridge Original Illustration Gallery 
at 85 Main Street, Watertown, MA (two doors down). Free and open to the public! 
For more information about this event, please click here.

Monday, April 22, 2013

A List of Books to Promote Community and Peace

In light of the recent events in Boston, and here in Watertown, Massachusetts, we have heard from many teachers, librarians, and parents looking for books that will help open a line of communication with children about how to deal with these tragic events. While Charlesbridge does publish books that help young children learn to discuss loss, they don't touch upon the themes of the recent events and why someone would cause so much pain.

However, one thing that Charlesbridge does very well is publish books about community, humanity, and the beauty in diversity. We want to share these books with you here.

Please share your suggestions in the comments. Perhaps we can build a huge book list and through books we can build a bridge to a better world.

Global Baby Girls

From Peru to China, from Russia to Mali, this board book features captivating photographs of baby girls to share a simple, yet powerful message: no matter where they are born, baby girls can grow up to change the world. 

 I'm in Love with a Big Blue Frog

A huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in 1967, this song has been a favorite in classrooms, camps, and at sing-alongs ever since. Not only do children delight in the playful tune, but adults also embrace its lyrics, which gently send a message of tolerance in the most light-hearted, humorous way. 

Camille's Team

Camille loves to build sand forts at the beach. But it's hard to build a big fort alone. Camille and her friends make a plan. They find that they can get more done--and have more fun--when they work together.


Percy's Neighborhood

Percy helps his dad hang signs for the Neighborhood Fun Run. Along the way, Percy meets the community helpers who make See and Learn City a better place to live, work, and play. Percy is excited to tell the gang about the new friends he met in the neighborhood.

 Kenya's Song

Kenya’s homework is to pick her favorite song and share it with her class. Sounds simple, but for Kenya, it’s anything but. With all that beautiful music in the world, how can she possibly choose? 

 Over the Rainbow

 Leading into the song's familiar chorus is a lesser-known verse describing the world as a "hopeless jumble," portrayed in Puybaret's acrylic paintings as a rain-soaked, windblown cityscape. Giving a nod to the film, the setting shifts to a farm, where a rainbow appears at a girl's window to lead her to "a place behind the sun, just a step beyond the rain."  When she returns to her barnlike home, the creatures and celestial objects from her magical journey remain, turning the wistful tenor of the closing lines ("Why, oh, why can't I?") into a statement of defiance that speaks to the power of imagination. Grammy-winner Judy Collins sings the title track and two other songs on an accompanying CD.
                                                                                                                -- Publishers Weekly

I Am Different!

This clever picture book presents sixteen visual puzzles. On every page, readers must pick out the one item that is different from the rest--a different color, a different shape, reversed from left to right, or just asleep when others are awake!

The phrase "Can you find me?" is shown in a different language on every page.

 Children from Australia to Zimbabwe

Celebrate the many faces of children around the world.

Vibrant color photographs portray positive images of children that help foster a sense of global citizenship. With an abundance of information about cultures, languages, and environment, this fascinating journey around the world will inspire both young and old alike. Readers will also discover Xanadu, an ideal imaginary land described and illustrated by elementary school children.

 Children of the U.S.A.
 Celebrate the diversity of the United States!

There is no typical American child. Children may share similar activities and pastimes, but they represent a variety of ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. Striking photographs showcase fifty-one cities -- one from each state, as well as our nation's capital, Washington, D.C. The photos and facts feature common activities and interests, as well as varied foods, languages, entertainment, sports, and other examples of daily life throughout the country.


Families around the world celebrate faith in many different ways—through praying, singing, learning, helping, caring, and more. With stunning photographs from many cultures and religious traditions, Faith celebrates the ways in which people worship around the globe.

 Be My Neighbor

Around the world, children live in community with others, sharing homes, resources, and experiences with their neighbors. This book celebrates what it means to be a neighbor the whole world over -- from Vietnam to the United States, Austria to Kenya and everywhere in between.

With Words of Wisdom from Mr. Fred Rogers.

 To Be a Kid

Unquestionably, to be a kid is the most exciting thing to be. Filled with beautiful photographs, To Be a Kid celebrates kids as they play and learn, as they spend time with their friends and family, and as they discover their environment and the world. Kids, no matter where they are from, share this same wonderful adventure and at the heart of it a kid is just a kid.

 Somos un arco iris/We Are a Rainbow

We Are a Rainbow helps young readers begin building the cultural bridges of common human understanding through simple comparisons of culture from breakfast foods to legends. Colorful cut-paper art and gentle language deliver this universal message eloquently.

 The ABC Book of American Homes

Houses in trees, houses on water, houses with wheels! America is a country of diverse people who live in all types of homes--homes made of wood, metal, glass, even snow! In the desert, on a farm, or by the beach, American houses have only one thing in common--they provide shelter and comfort to those who live in them. No matter the size, shape, or location, they are places to call home.

 Candy Shop

When an act of bigotry scars the sidewalk in front of the candy shop and frightens the store owner, Daniel knows he must do something to fight back. A tender story of a young boy's courage in the face of prejudice.

 Different Just Like Me

This celebration of a world of difference is sure to make every reader appreciate the distinctive qualities in themselves and everyone around them.

 Don't Say Ain't

In the 1950s, Dana struggles to live in two worlds—her Harlem neighborhood and the advanced school she attends—while staying true to herself. Irene Smalls and Colin Bootman team up in this heart-warming story of friendship, integration, opportunity, and hard choices.

The Flag We Love

This spirited tribute to Old Glory will inspire readers, young and old, to take a new look at the greatest emblem of the United States of America. With patriotic verse and historical facts, The Flag We Love explores how our flag has become an enduring part of our nation's proud history and heritage. From its earliest designs to its role in peace-time and war, the Star-Spangled Banner will take on a whole new meaning for all readers.

 Hats Off To Hair!

Hair is our most versatile feature and kids everywhere have created their own unique styles. Exquisite paintings of kids from many cultures show us the beauty, splendor, and wonder of our hairstyles.

Magic Trash

Magic Trash offers strong themes of working together, the power of art, and the importance of inspiring community--especially kids--to affect action. The Heidelberg Project is internationally recognized for providing arts education to children and adults and for the ongoing development of several houses on Heidelberg Street. Not only does the Heidelberg Project prove that when a community works together it can rebuild itself, but it also addresses the issues of recycling, environmentalism, and community on a global level.

A Path of Stars

Dara's grandmother, Lok Yeay, is full of stories about her life growing up in Cambodia, before she immigrated to the United States. Lok Yeay tells her granddaughter of the fruits and plants that grew there, and how her family would sit in their yard and watch the stars that glowed like fireflies. Lok Yeay tells Dara about her brother, Lok Ta, who is still in Cambodia, and how one day she will return with Dara and Dara's family to visit the place she still considers home. But when a phone call disrupts Lok Yeay's dream to see her brother again, Dara becomes determined to bring her grandmother back to a place of happiness. 

 Priscilla and the Hollyhocks
Priscilla is only four years old when her mother is sold to another master. All Priscilla has to remember her mother by are the hollyhocks she planted by the cow pond. At age ten, Priscilla is sold to a Cherokee family and continues her life as a slave. She keeps hope for a better life alive by planting hollyhocks wherever she goes. At last, her forced march along the Trail of Tears brings a chance encounter that leads to her freedom.

A story of how love overcomes hate.

Subway Ride

A fantastical journey introduces young readers to subway travel. Five children pay the fare, pass through the gates, and zip through the tunnels of subway stations in ten cities around the globe. The trip around the world underscores how travel and cultural connections create community.

The Searcher and Old Tree

Beloved author-illustrator David McPhail crafts a simple, yet powerful, allegory about the safety of home and the strength of unconditional love.

This Is America

What is America? It's the special places that remind us of important events. It's the people who have dedicated themselves to improving our country. And most of all, it's the ideals and beliefs that we share. Informative text and bold scratchboard illustrations pay homage to our country's past and present.

The Ugly Vegetables

The neighbors' gardens look so much prettier and so much more inviting to the young gardener than the garden of "black-purple-green vines, fuzzy wrinkled leaves, prickly stems, and a few little yellow flowers" that she and her mother grow. Nevertheless, mother assures her that "these are better than flowers." Come harvest time, everyone agrees as those ugly Chinese vegetables become the tastiest, most aromatic soup they have ever known. As the neighborhood comes together to share flowers and ugly vegetable soup, the young gardener learns that regardless of appearances, everything has its own beauty and purpose.

Yum! Yuck!

At a busy street market, kids eating ice cream exclaim, "Yum!" in English, "Geshmak!" in Yiddish, and "Nam-nam!" in Danish. But disaster strikes when a little dog overturns a spice cart, showering pepper on everyone's ice cream. Will the kids end up crying, "Hai hai," or cheering, "¡Yupi!"? energetic art and a lift-the-flap feature make exploring languages fun.

 You See a Circus

A young acrobat shows his friends around the big top, but all is not as it seems. His uncle, the strongman, always manages to lose their wrestling matches. The scary-looking tattooed man is a regular Joe who likes to pull funny practical jokes. And the daring trapeze artists make their son do homework just like everyday parents! Lively watercolors capture the excitement of the circus and the coziness of home.

After Gandhi

In 1908 Mohandas Gandhi spoke to a crowd of 3,000. Together they protested against an unjust law without guns or rioting. Peacefully they made a difference. Gandhi’s words and deeds influenced countless others to work toward the goals of freedom and justice through peaceful methods.

Bamboo People

  "Perkins seamlessly blends cultural, political, religious, and philosophical context into her story, which is distinguished by humor, astute insights into human nature, and memorable characters."
--Publishers Weekly

Camel Rider 

War has broken out in the Middle East and all foreigners are fleeing. Instead of escaping with his neighbors, Adam sneaks off to save his dog, which has been left behind. Lost in the desert, Adam meets Walid, an abused camel boy who is on the run. Together they struggle to survive the elements and elude the revengeful master from whom Walid has fled. Cultural and language barriers are wide, but with ingenuity and determination the two boys bridge their differences, helping each other to survive and learn what true friendship is.

Candy Bomber

After World War II the United States and Britain airlifted food and supplies into Russian-blockaded West Berlin. US Air Force Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen knew the children of the city were suffering. To lift their spirits, he began dropping chocolate and gum by parachute.

Michael O. Tunnell tells an inspiring tale of candy and courage, illustrated with Lt. Halvorsen's personal photographs, as well as letters and drawings from the children of Berlin to their beloved "Uncle Wiggly Wings."

Flying the Dragon

"A quiet, beautifully moving portrayal of a multicultural family."
--Kirkus Review