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Parenting for Revolution: Guess Who?

Parenting for Revolution

I recently came across the most beautiful crowd funded game. It’s a version of Guess Who? featuring 28 women called Who’s She?. You can see that campaign here, although it will be over by the time this post publishes. Oddly, I had come across something else about Guess Who? recently. Or maybe I played it recently and noticed a distinct lack of diversity? I don’t remember exactly. The game has improved in terms of gender and race since I owned a copy in the early 90s, but it still leaves something wanting.

Unfortunately the donation amount required to get a copy of the Who’s She? game is prohibitively high for us at $75.oo and I suspect would be out of reach for many families. With one day to go the campaign has raised over half a million dollars so I don’t feel too bad not being able to contribute. But it got me thinking. First, the use of all women is an interesting one and would really allow parents to talk about a variety of women who don’t normally get center stage in history classes. The women included aren’t all that surprising, nor are they unknown, but I don’t remember any except one or two coming up in any history class I took. This is great exposure for kids playing the game.

I also realized that when playing Guess Who? as a kid I never mentioned race when trying to determine which card my opponent had pulled. I know now that as a white person I was taught not to speak about race as a way to uphold and perpetuate white supremacy. We know that “ignoring” color does not, in fact, breed anti-racism, nor does it acknowledge that we all do see color and race as well as erasing the very real ways race impacts people’s lives. Guess Who? also focuses exclusively on appearance, something that can get toxic pretty quick, particularly with girls, whereas Who’s She? turns the focus onto the women’s accomplishments. And they’re all smart, remarkable, strong women. 

I think if you have the game Guess Who? it would make a great jumping off point for getting comfortable saying “black” and “white” (and possibly “Latinx” but a number of the folks pictured in the game are kind of racially ambiguous) out loud. I know this can be a real hurdle for white people to jump, especially with children. I know I used to worry about offending people using the terms or worry about using the wrong term (black vs. African American; Hispanic vs. Latinx). I would also worry that if I used the terms, my kid might repeat it in front of someone and create a cringe-worthy faux pas. I had to get past that and it took some time, but having a place like a board game between my child and I would have helped get the ball rolling.

Wanting our own copy of the game, Cam and I came up with our own list of women to include in our version. Many of them are the same as in Who’s She? but quite a few are not. I bought a copy of Guess Who (which weirdly is not any of the versions I see on Amazon) at the thrift shop and created a board to insert into the game. I color coded the women according to general characteristics (activists, artists, scientist/mathematicians, and athletes). Many of the women fit into more than one category (did you know Mae Jemison did dance too?), but for simplicity sake I assigned them a color/category. We chose a range of women both living and dead, young and old. I also made a point to include women who have a children’s book written about them. 

Which leads to the next piece of this project. For Advent we’re reading one book a day about these women. Guess Who? happens to have 24 slots and there are 24 days in December leading up to Christmas. We aren’t actually celebrating Christmas this year, but I can’t quite get rid of Advent calendars and Advent. I dunno. This gives us an opportunity to talk about these impressive women and about any of the issues that were/are a part of their lives. 

I’m going to share the game cards that I made so others can print them out and use them. I suggest printing either on cardstock or laminating them so they hold up for longer. Also, the version of the game we got looks similar to this although I cannot find the exact version on Amazon. That being said, you can still use the cards I made if you have the normal version. Print them out, laminate them, and cut them out to slip into the traditional version of the boards. I am in the process of making cards for each woman that features her name, her picture, and a few sentences about her life and what she is known for. I will post those as soon as I have them, but in the meantime you can print a second copy of the first page and cut those up to make a deck of cards. 

Click here to download the game boards for printing: Guess Who Women

Color scheme:

purple = athlete

green = mathematician/scientist

pink = artist

orange/yellow = activist

Our Goodwills are full to the brim with board games, please go buy a used version if you don’t already have one. There is no reason to spend $10-$15 and create more waste with a new one when I suspect there will be at least two copies at your local thrift store for $5 or under. Remember, you only need the boards, not the cards so if the game isn’t complete it doesn’t much matter.  

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Decolonize Your Bookshelf: We Are Grateful by Traci Sorell

Decolonize Your BookshelfWe Are Grateful

 

 

 

 

 

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga written by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac

From Goodreads: The word otsaliheliga (oh-jah-LEE-hay-lee-gah) is used by members of the Cherokee Nation to express gratitude. Beginning in the fall with the new year and ending in summer, follow a full Cherokee year of celebrations and experiences. 

This year we decided to go camping instead of celebrate Thanksgiving. I have mixed feelings about the holiday and my husband is not a holiday person so it worked out. While I like the idea of being grateful, I want a day to do it that doesn’t celebrate a flat out historical lie and that celebrates genocide. If you are like me (and us, because my husband agrees with the idea of not celebrating genocide), but do want to share books about gratitude with your children here is a phenomenal book to do that with. 

For starters, this book celebrates contemporary Cherokee. So many. SO. MANY. kid’s books show Native Americans as something from the past. The stories are set in the past. Their clothing is historical. Their way of life is historical. And this translates into children believing that Native Americans are all gone. Which both erases their current struggles and oppression and continued colonial violence against them, as well as erasing their past struggle and resistance. These stories are never more prevalent than in November with the confluence of the Thanksgiving myth/lie and Native American Heritage Month. We Are Grateful shows Cherokee people today in clothes they would wear today. Sure, some of them are traditional looking and maybe they aren’t the street clothes a suburban, white mom or dad would wear, but they are clearly recognizable as people who are alive right now, celebrating. The settings are modern looking too, if rural or pastoral. It’s beautiful and modern and one of many stories we need showing Native Americans alive and unapologetically embracing their culture. 

Second, this book is #ownvoices. It’s written by a member of the Cherokee Nation. This is an essential criteria for books that feature Native Americans. Yes, other people can write about Native Americans, but the books in which someone other than an Indigenous person writes a story about them without it being a total and utter travesty are few and very far between. I think in this case it is much better to ere on the side of caution and ensure your books about Native peoples are #ownvoices. Which isn’t to say those can’t be flawed (communities aren’t a monolith and there can be disagreement about representation), but you’re getting closer to having books that do the people justice. 

Finally, the book is about gratitude in a lovely and organic way. It’s not about trips to Disneyland or scads of money. It’s not about one big meal once a year. It’s about the little things in life that make up a life well lived and appreciated. I am sucker for books that travel through the seasons and children’s books are often framed with this cycle. We Are Grateful shows us that there are things to be grateful for all year round. 

Be sure to add this one to your bookshelves this season and read it throughout the year. 

Friday Five: Transgender Awareness Week

Friday Five Banner

The second week in November is always Transgender Awareness Week. Below is a list of five books you can read with your child during that week. However, you should have these on your shelf throughout the year so as to dispel the idea that transgender people only pop up one week a year or need to be relegated to one week in November. It is doubly important this year with the current administration threatening to erase trans people and their rights. 

I Am Jazz1. I Am Jazz written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas

This is a must-have for anyone creating or cultivating a decolonized bookshelf. With author Jessica Herthel Jazz Jennings explains how she grew up knowing she was trans. It’s incredibly simple yet complex and will likely open up conversations between you and your child. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations with your child (although read the parent resources at the back first) and don’t be afraid to tell your child you don’t know an answer and will have to get back to them once you’ve done some research for yourself. The illustrations in the book a so sweet and gentle with a bright palate that make it very inviting.  

They She He Me2. They She He Me: Free to Be! by Maya Gonzalez  

They She He Me is a very, very simple reader that has two-page spreads of a variety of children and people with pronouns repeated underneath. It’s a visual of how people who identify as one gender or pronoun can present so differently physically. Gonzalez is always good at being inclusive so there are disabled people as well as a variety of skin tones. This book is fine on its own and, as with I Am Jazz, can be a great jumping off point for talking about how gender is not binary and up to the individual to determine.  

The Gender Wheel3. The Gender Wheel: A Story About Bodies and Gender by Maya Gonzalez

If you want a lot more in-depth coverage of gender, read Gonzalez’ The Gender Wheel which is PHENOMENAL. Be aware that it is much longer and more text heavy than They She He Me which may make it less accessible to younger kids. But don’t let that be the reason you pass it up. You can break it up over a few days or nights or just dip in from time to time. If you are not familiar with talking about gender outside a binary or you are not comfortable with it, buy this book and read it again and again. And if you are familiar or comfortable with it, buy this book and read it again and again. While I personally talk all about bodies and body parts with my kids in an effort to avoid teaching shame around nakedness, your mileage may vary. There are two versions of the book- one with naked bodies and one without. I recommend you go for the naked bodies, but you’ll need to be the judge of that for your family. 

One of a Kind Like Me4. One of a Kind Like Me written by Laurin Mayeno, illustrated by Robert Liu-Trujillo

While this isn’t necessarily about a transgender child, it does show that clothing can be fluid and does not have to be limited to the narrow idea that girls wear dresses and boys wear pants. In One of a Kind Like Me, Danny wants to dress in a purple princess dress for school but he’s having a hard time finding the costume he imagined at the local thrift shop. After a little worrying Danny and his mom realize that they’ll have to get creative to make Danny’s idea a reality. Again, refer to The Gender Wheel to help you frame your conversations. Clothes may or may not be tied to gender for children, but it’s important to get away from the idea of a binary.

Sparkle Boy5. Sparkle Boy written Leslea Newman, illustrated by Maria Mola

This is in a similar vein as One of a Kind. Here Casey likes to wear things that are considered girly- bracelets and a sparkly skirt. What I like about this book is it shows Casey’s sister grappling with the idea of her brother not conforming to what she thinks boys should be wearing. Casey doesn’t seem to notice that he’s not conforming to gender norms which is great and while we don’t really need to center cisgender voices when talking about these things, it’s good to see how his sister struggles because some kids and people will and do struggle to wrap their minds around a new way of thinking about gender. By the end of the story Casey’s sister 

Books to warn against:

Jacob’s New Dress. The dad is kind of a dick in this one and I think the books above do a much better job addressing the issues. 

Julian is a Mermaid. This one just came out and it looked promising, but it’s written by a cisgender white lady and has a lot of problems. Read this critique by Laura Jimenez for more information. 

Parenting for Revolution: World Pizza and Subtle Messages

Parenting for Revolution

We recently came into possession of a book titled World Pizza. It came as a part of a book subscription service we use. My daughter was excited to read it and we sat down one evening to do that. The book is about a misheard wish for world peace that becomes world pizza. It’s silly and sweet and on a level that young children can grasp the meaning of world peace. 

And yet as we were reading I came across this illustration:

IMG_4846

As you may notice the text that accompanies this spot illustration doesn’t specifically call for this depiction. I immediately stopped reading and told my daughter, “I don’t like this picture.”

She asked why and I explained that it was showing a stereotyped image of people in Africa that was neither culturally accurate, flattering, nor historically accurate. My daughter said she thought some people in Africa might look like that. I was kind of horrified by the response, but figured she was extrapolating from images of various indigenous people in Africa she’s seen in books and on TV shows. 

I told her that it was true some people still dress in their traditional clothing and live in ways that reflect their traditional cultures. I then explained that the picture was not showing any of those people, or if it was it was not identifying them. Either way the illustration was wrong. It would have been better if it had showed someone in a specified African country living in a modern city or if it had specified which culture they were from and depicted their dress accurately. 

Frustratingly she has asked to read the book again several times. Or at least I was frustrated at first. But during each reading I have taken the opportunity to stop there and have a shortened version of the same conversation again. Certainly her thought that it could be accurate was a call to me to ensure that she sees more images of people across the African continent living much as we do. And to draw attention to that to counteract the stereotyped images she has clearly absorbed. 

IMG_4844The bigger issue here is that these kinds of subtly incorrect depictions turn up everywhere in children’s books. Sometimes it’s the fact that an older book has been republished or reprinted again and again so those images are still with us. Sometimes it’s just plain ignorance on the part of the author or illustrator. Whatever the case maybe for the appearance of problematic content, it’s how children quietly internalize these ideas and that’s why it’s so important to call them out when we see them. To name them and make it explicit that they are not okay.  

Parenting for Revolution: Popcorn by Frank Asch

Parenting for RevolutionpopcornDo you know this story? It’s an old one. And it is incredibly funny. But what do you see when you look at the cover of this book? When I bought the book a few years back nothing about it seemed amiss, but now that I’ve started learning about diversity and whiteness and cultural appropriation, the “Indian” headband jumped out at me. 

Here’s the thing, I really like the story and I decided to keep it. But I have to be able to talk to Cam about why his costume is not okay. So we read it together and the first thing I told her was that I did not like Sam’s costume. She asked why and we talked about how he’s supposedly dressed as a Native American and that the costume is both wrong and a stereotype. It doesn’t give any hint about what nation it was taken from and even if it did, it was taken from someone’s culture. 

These conversations are hard because I’m not used to having them. They can also be hard to gauge both what level to have them on and what Cam is getting out of them. I hope we reach the point where she can roll her eyes at me because she knows what I’m going to say when I see something like this (let’s face it the eye rolling is bound to happen in the adolescent years). Or even better points it out.

Here are some resources about costumes and why cultural dress is not okay to use as a Halloween (or any holiday) costume: We’re a Culture Not a Costume

Here is some information on the controversy over the Disney Moana movie and some of the dress-up merchandise they were selling: Moana Costume Controversy on LATimes

And finally here’s an excellent article on this particular book: Popcorn on American Indians In Children’s Literature

Parenting for Revolution: Baby Dolls

Parenting for Revolution

So after several years of learning about diversity in this country and the problems around it (i.e. racism, Islamaphobia, police violence, etc.) I’ve started to learn about how to talk about it with Cam. In case it wasn’t obvious from my picture or from the fact that I’m blogging and other indicators, I’m white. As a White person I’ve been blind to a lot of these issues. Now that I know, it’s incredibly important that I talk to Cam about it, point it out, and name it. And for those of you that are unconvinced that knowing requires action, research points to the importance of talking to children as young as possible in age appropriate ways about these issues.

I am using diversity here as short hand for about 12 major categories including race, religion, SES and orientation to name a few. While it is imperative I talk to her about diversity and name it and make sure she isn’t internalizing the wrong messages about it (those tacit ones we’re fed by American culture, politics, media, white privilege and other avenues), I won’t be getting it perfect or even right. But I’m trying and I want to encourage you to as well. We need to get it wrong to get it right and we need to listen to people who tell us when we get it wrong.

My daughter has one completely white friend. Admittedly she doesn’t have the widest of social circles and she’s not in school, but out of the ten or so kids she interacts and plays with on a regular basis only one is white. I think that’s wonderful and am relieved that it happened organically. We would be having a very different conversation, probably about moving neighborhoods, if this wasn’t the case.

The other day her one white friend brought over a new doll she had gotten. A doll with a purple outfit. Cam totally wanted that purple outfit, so she asked me if we could get another, new doll. I’ve looked recently at her dolls and she has several dolls with darker brown skin, but there are several clearly white dolls. (If you aren’t familiar with the doll experiment look it up. It’s incredibly disheartening and eye-opening.) So when faced with buying her another doll I decided to talk to her about the color of her dolls.

I pointed out that she has a fair number of dolls with skin that looks like ours and only a couple with light or dark brown skin. She agreed. Next I told her to think about her friends and named several of them. I asked her what color skin they had. She, correctly, answered that they had various shades of brown skin. Then I explained to her that I wanted her doll collection to reflect her friends and her world. I told her I would be happy to look for either 

Sadly, Target didn’t have either a purple outfit or any color doll with a purple outfit. Damn. They also changed their dolls a bit so they have these much bigger eyes and less realistic faces. Cam wasn’t much of a fan of those either. She had her heart set on a new doll and after crying over not liking the new look of the dolls she cried over not getting any doll. *Sigh* Being five is tough. 

In the end what did she take away from this? Well, she did finagle my mom into buying her a doll with a play potty (using the potty is a BIG deal for her). Unfortunately it came with a white doll, but in their defense my mom didn’t know about the conversation we had had nor was there an option for any other color of doll in the store. This is another issue for another day. I’m not really sure how much she took away from this one conversation, but we are continuing to have many more so we’ll see what the cumulative effect will be. Ultimately it will be positive. I know that, but it’s hard when your kid is sobbing in Target over all her non-options. I am worried that experience will be what sticks out to her, so I need to be sure we have lots of positive conversations. 

I will say Target seems to be introducing other dolls into their store brand line which is a good thing. There is one listed as Latina and one listed as Asian. They do all have different skin tones and facial features, but with those big googly eyes they still bear a striking resemblance to one another. However, none of the dolls besides the white ones and a tiny handful of the black ones are available in the stores. Many aren’t even available yet online. Do better Target. Get those dolls out there. 

Friday Five: Families

I’ve talked before about how different our family structure looks when you take in all the grandparents. Even though divorce seems to be fairly common it isn’t the majority of families and I think this generation of children is seeing it in the grandparent generation more than, say, my generation did. That being said, there are all kinds of family structures out there when it comes to parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. Today I’m going to feature five books (plus a bonus book) that reflect different family structures. Be sure to share these with kids who have a “traditional” family structure, too. Even if their home doesn’t look like these, their friends’ homes might and we need to build awareness, empathy, and competency around that for those kids.  In other words, don’t hesitate to read this even if you have a “traditional” family. 

families-families-families1. Families, Families, Families written and illustrated by Suzanne and Max Lang

We got this one out of the library and it was a hit. Instead of using people the book uses animals to reflect all kinds of families- step, adoptive, “traditional”, same sex, single parent, grandparent, lots of kids, only children, etc. Each family is shown in some kind of portrait or snapshot that is framed on a mantel or wall and it’s fun to pay attention to the decor in each house you glimpse. After seeing all the different families the point is made that it’s love that binds families together, not what they look like. As much as I hate the idea that animals can count as diversity, I think it’s handled well here and I know for my animal-loving, people-shy kid this book hit home more than any other. 

 

two-is-enough2. Two is Enough written by Janna Matthies, illustrated by Tuesday Mourning

As you might guess from the cover and title this book features families that have only two people. I actually bought this one for my library and haven’t spent a lot of time with it. As you can see there is racial diversity in the families as well as gender. Some are single dads and some are single moms. What I don’t remember is if this book implies that any of the single parent families are single because of divorce. Either way I think a child living with one parent at a time would also find themselves in the pages of this book. 

 

 

one-family3. One Family written by George Shannon, illustrated by Blanca Gomez

This is an interesting take on the counting concept book. Instead of a simple 1-2-3 counting pattern One Family counts parts of a whole. Everything is always one family, but then it counts up to ten looking at things like cookies shared in a family. While kindergarten and younger children will enjoy the predictability of the pattern of the text, older kids (up into first grade) will enjoy the peek into such a range of families. My daughter enjoyed finding all the animals and pets in the pictures, but she also really enjoyed “checking” the math and counting the objects shown in the illustrations. I find the sharp digital illustrations really modern and appealing, too. 

 

 

stella4. Stella Brings the Family written by Miriam B. Schiffer, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown

Stella’s first grade class is going to have a Mother’s Day celebration, but Stella doesn’t have a mother in the traditional sense. She thinks a lot about what she’s going to do about the party. In the end she brings all the people who “mother” her and it ends up being the whole family. I particularly like the message that we needn’t be so rigid in how we view parental roles. A mother is someone specific, but mothering people can be done by many people in our families. And I think Stella’s dilemma will familiar to single parent families and families where it isn’t a mother or father who cares for the children (like a grandparent or aunt/uncle family). Be sure to notice the little boy thinking of his two moms on one of the last pages when the kids take home an invitation to a Father’s Day celebration.

 

home-at-last5. Home At Last written by Vera B. Williams, illustrated by Chris Raschka

This one just released a week or so ago and I haven’t had a chance to read it, but it’s about a little boy adopted by two dads. It unabashedly shows the little boy crawling into bed with them when he’s scared at night, just like any child with a mom and a dad would. The little boy, Lester, is scared at night and needs help feeling secure. Despite all his dads’ efforts to make him comfortable and secure it’s the dog who solves the problem. Nighttime uncertainty and fear are not reserved for adopted children and while the story may have special significance for two-dad families and adoptive families, I think plenty of kids will know how Lester feels. 

 

 

After creating this list I realized I have two books with two dads and no books with two moms. (I was going for adoption with Home At Last.) in-our-mothers-houseNecessary Bonus Book: In Our Mothers’ House written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco.

I have not read this one, but I do know Polacco’s work. She often writes books that are a bit longer and deeper than picture books traditionally are. That being said I don’t think there is any reason you can’t share this will young children. I think it really means that it will have appeal much further up the age range. Here the children of two moms are challenged by a lack of acceptance in their neighborhood. They need to rely on the love their family has built to help them feel confident and secure. As I haven’t read it, I can’t be sure, but knowing Polacco I suspect this is a lot more about the love and fun in the house than it is about the negative attitudes of the neighbors.

 

misadventures-of-the-family-fletcherBonus chapter book: If you’re looking for a read aloud that is funny and sweet be sure to check out The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher. It features two dads and their adopted kids. It follows them through all kinds of hilarious and eye-opening situations during the course of a school year. It’s what you would expect from a funny family book, but just happens to feature a two-dad family. It’s well worth reading.  

Decolonize Your Bookshelf: The Parakeet Named Dreidel by Isaac Bashevis Singer

 

Decolonize Your Bookshelf

Parakeet Named DreidelThe Parakeet Named Dreidel written by Isaac Bashevis Singer, illustrated by Suzanne Raphael Berkson

Today the book I’m sharing features religious diversity. While we have a lot of holiday picture books that line up with the religious and cultural celebrations that are specific to our family, but I also love to expose Cam to other holidays and celebrations. Since we aren’t about to crash Friday prayer or someone’s shabbat, I try to share books with Cam that give her a peek inside other families traditions. 

We are bird people in our house with all the chickens and ducks and the conures, so I thought this one sounded interesting. The author is very well known for his works for adults, too. That can be hit or miss with children’s book because, contrary to popular belief, writing good books for children is hard. I was delighted by the story, though.

One cold, snowy Hanukkah night a small parakeet turns up at David’s window. The family lets the bird in and spends a few weeks trying to locate the owner. The only real clue is a Yiddish phrase the bird can say (“Go to sleep, Zelda”). When no one comes forward the family keeps the bird and enjoys his company for nine years. Then, when David is off at a Hanukkah party in college, he tells the story of how they found Dreidel, the parakeet. A girl at the party, a girl David has been taking out on dates, excitedly tells him that she is the Zelda the bird knew. The next day the two families meet and Zelda’s family is overjoyed to see their beloved pet again. Except, with two attached families, who will keep the bird?

The story is set on a backdrop of Hanukkah, but it isn’t a particularly religious story. It’s really a book about how attached we can become to our pets and the joy they bring to our lives. This is a perfect theme for our family with all our animals. I like that it gives a glimpse into Hanukkah, but I wouldn’t use it as my only book about Hanukkah to teach Cam about the holiday and its significance to Jews. Still, we enjoyed the story. 

I had a couple complaints about the story. There are a few places where the text is a little overly descriptive or includes details that seem important to adults, but will just annoy kids. I think this may be a function of the story being written by an adult author or the book was originally a short story forced into picture book format. Also, it’s unlikely that the bird described would be a parakeet. They don’t live particularly long and rarely learn to speak understandable words. Its more likely that this would be a conure.

All told, I’ll be adding this to our collection and repertoire of holiday books. It was such a heartwarming story.

Diversity Swap: Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang

Ten, Nine, EightTen, Nine, Eight written and illustrated by Molly Bang

From Goodreads: Bedtime! A happy game to lure the most persistent sleep evader. A warm and reassuring countdown to the land of dreams.

I am not sure how many parents are aware of this title. I don’t tend to see it out on baby shelves at large commercial bookstores and it hasn’t come across my Amazon account so I’m guessing it isn’t as well known. This was apparently one of my favorite books as a child, but I have little recollection of loving it even though I do remember the book. 

It’s just a simple countdown book. As a little girl gets ready for bed you are taken around her room seeing different important objects and parts of the room, much like the rabbit in Goodnight Moon. Slowly she moves toward her father who picks her up and snuggles her before putting her in her crib. The colors are bright and inviting. It’s a quick story to read just before bed, but has a lot to look at if you want to extend the reading. 

If you read and enjoy Goodnight Moon try this one out too. It’s in the same vein of quiet bedtime book, but features a black father and daughter pair. 

Decolonize Your Bookshelf: Gordon Parks by Carole Boston Weatherford

 

 

Decolonize Your BookshelfGordon ParksGordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America written by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Jamey Christoph

From Goodreads: His white teacher tells her all-black class, You’ll all wind up porters and waiters. What did she know? Gordon Parks is most famous for being the first black director in Hollywood. But before he made movies and wrote books, he was a poor African American looking for work. When he bought a camera, his life changed forever. He taught himself how to take pictures and before long, people noticed. His success as a fashion photographer landed him a job working for the government. In Washington DC, Gordon went looking for a subject, but what he found was segregation. He and others were treated differently because of the color of their skin. Gordon wanted to take a stand against the racism he observed. With his camera in hand, he found a way.

Don’t let the heavy-sounding description deter you from this fantastic little book. It does tackle some very difficult issues, but it does it in such an accessible way for young audiences. Carole Boston Weatherford tends to write picture books in verse, collections of poems that tell a story, and they are usually fairly lengthy books. I was surprised to discover that Gordon Parks was fairly sparse in terms of text. Each page has just a few short sentences with fairly easy vocabulary.

Of course, the simplicity of the text belies the difficulty of subject. Parks grew up and lived in a segregated country, and he was not living in the South. When he became a photographer he decided to document the racism and inequality he saw between the black and white communities. It’s here in the story that the book really shines. So much is said with so little and it leaves us, as parents and educators, with the perfect entree into asking open ended questions about these hard topics. Topics like racism and inequality that seem to be so front and center lately. Things that kids notice, but we (and by we I mean white parents), often try very hard not to look to directly at. 

The art in the book is wonderful. It has that vintage and modern feel to it, but instead of featuring buildings and classy inanimate objects, the focus of each illustration is the people. They fill the frame, they draw the eye. And that ties in so beautifully with the story itself. One about seeing blacks as human. Seeing working class people as human. The color palette is limited which makes it feel sophisticated, but also warm, inviting, and cozy. 

If you’re looking for a book about an interesting Renaissance man, this is it. If you’re looking for a book to help you start difficult conversations, this is it. Or just read the book and let your child make inferences. The message is there.