Category Archives: multicultural

Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee!

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Andrea J. Loney and Keith Mallett’s New Voices Award Winner Take a Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! is one that, according to author Loney herself, “celebrate[s] the humanity of all children.” In this case, the child celebrated is James VanDerZee, an African-American boy born in 1886 to the former butler and maid of President Ulysses S. Grant. James himself, however, has a different future in mind: He wants to be an artist. James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart,” but his drawings of people never turn out quite right…so he ends up entering and winning a contest for his very own camera. Here, James does something quite mature: he neither gives up on a dream nor remains desperately grasping at an impossibility, instead adapting his plan as he sees and learns new things. Such a nuanced message is not often found in children’s books, and I wonder whether its poignancy stems from the fact that the story of James VanDerZee is a true one.

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James craves a way to “share the beauty he [sees] in his heart.”

This authenticity is evident in Mallett’s artistry as well. Illustrations in a book that centers on the life of an artist have high expectations to meet – but these delightful images deliver. The pictures of James with his camera are almost reverent, a beautiful glow from the device lighting James’ body and face so that he melts like butter against the soft, dark backdrop of the page.

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But the book is not all beauty and light. Loney does not shy away from reality, acknowledging in no uncertain terms the racism that James faces. I admire her willingness to speak of “segregation,” of the way that 19th century “customers would not want their portraits taken by a black man” – and also the way that Loney is able to illustrate resilience of black people in the face of these obstacles. James’ foray into the Harlem Renaissance comes alongside vivid depictions that are as jubilant as the “cultural celebration” itself.

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The book ends with a historical exploration: real photographs, as well as information about James that was not found in the book. It is always my hope that this type of story, told compellingly, will engage children not only in literacy and reading but in history and activism as well; the notes at the end of Take A Picture of Me, James VanDerZee! are ideal to pique a child’s interest in research after being drawn into James’ life through the narrative. 

-Addison Armstrong

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Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons

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Rabbi Benjamin’s Buttons is a beautifully illustrated picture book with a unique topic that will bring diversity to any classroom’s library. Written by Alice B. McGinty, the book tells the story of a welcoming Jewish Rabbi who loves for his congregation to be happy.

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At the beginning of the story, the congregation gives Rabbi Benjamin a beautiful holiday vest that has four silver buttons. He is so excited to wear his new vest to all of the special holiday celebrations. The Rabbi eats the food that has been specially prepared, and he is excited to see the smiles on peoples’ faces as they watch him enjoy the food they have made. As the year goes on and more Jewish holidays come and go, Benjamin’s stomach begins to grow because of all the delicious food, and his vest gets tighter and tighter. One night, while he is celebrating Sukkot, one of the silver buttons pops off his vest! He is so worried that his congregation will notice, so when he goes home he fixes the vest with a pin. He continues to wear his vest to more holiday celebrations. Finally, the vest has had enough and all four of the buttons pop off and fly into the bowls of food on the table.

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 7.58.32 AMThe Rabbi is sad, but he has an idea! That summer, he helps a family plant a garden, picks apples, goes on a hike, and his stomach shrinks! He hopes that the vest will fit again, but when he puts it on it is saggy and ruined. The Rabbi worries about what his congregation will think when he shows up without his holiday vest! Thankfully, his doorbell rings and he finds his congregation on his porch. They hand him a box with a new holiday vest, featuring the same four shiny silver buttons.

Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 7.58.57 AMI was excited to find this book, because it provides the opportunity to teach young students about the traditions of a religion that they may have never heard about. It can also serve as a mirror for Jewish students who might have struggled to find books that represent children like themselves. The end of this book contains short definitions of the Jewish holidays and foods featured in the story, as well as recipes of the food that the Rabbi eats. This provides a unique learning opportunity for students who have not experienced Jewish culture. In addition, the themes of service, joy, and helping others are featured prominently in this book, making it relatable and pertinent for all students to enjoy. Jennifer Black Reinhardt’s illustrations in this book are colorful, fun, and beautifully done. The families she drew in the congregation are diverse, with varying skin colors, hair styles, and ages. The story even says that the Rabbi “welcomed everyone who entered,” and on the first page he stands on the porch with his arms wide open and a smile on his face, portraying a message of acceptance. Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 7.57.38 AMThis message is especially important for students to understand in the classroom to foster a safe and welcoming learning environment for all. It is critical to expose students to diversity through literature that offers positive representations of various cultures.

Teresa Heckman

 

 

Last Stop on Market Street

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I cannot say enough good things about Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson’s 2015 Last Stop on Market Street. I stumbled upon it quite by accident, tugging on its bright orange spine in the hopes that the book would be less dusty and worn than the others I’d found in the library…and I was not disappointed.

The book itself – the text and the images – are beautifully done. In fact, Last Stop on Market Street won both the Newbery Medal and a Caldecott Honor in 2016. De la Peña’s writing is nuanced: simple and straightforward, easy for a child to understand – but also embedded with imagery and poeticism. The descriptions are as vivid for the scenery as they are for the characters: just as “Nana laughed her deep laugh,” the bus “sighed and sagged.” On the very second page, our young protagonist CJ steps out of church into “outside air [that] smelled like freedom, but […] also like rain”; toward the end, his grandmother tells him that “when you’re surrounded by dirt, […] you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.”

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“‘Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt […] you’re a better witness for what’s beautiful.'”

Nana is referring to the beauty of the sky – but she could easily be talking about Robinson’s pictures. They are colorful and detailed, done in strokes that give the book’s childish narrator a stake in the visual aspect of the story as well as the narration – Robinson colors the world as a child sees it. The images give off a mixed media feel: newspaper on one page, the birds on the page shown above as if they have been cut from paper. And the figures themselves, of course, are vibrant, colorful representations of all of humanity: in wheelchairs, on foot, with headscarves, with no hair at all, tattooed, light-skinned, dark-skinned, elderly, middle-aged, bespectacled.

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The book is not one, however, that is simply beautiful. It is an emissary of so many beautiful messages: on being grateful, being positive, finding beauty everywhere, helping others, and, above all, perspective. Each character is unique; though the narrator and Nana use Standard American English, CJ has a clear dialect (see image below) that is not looked down upon by the narrator or criticized. His skin color, too, is darker than the average children’s book protagonist’s – but the book is about more than diversity.

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Throughout the book, CJ whines about his responsibilities, about not having a car…but at the end, CJ is gently reminded – as is the reader – to shift his perspective and realize that we are all luckier than we think. Last Stop on Market Street is a reminder to be grateful, compassionate, and respectful, and is a touching story that crosses cultures and class without coming off as as preachy or, on the other end, pitying. Instead, it recognizes not the deficits of different groups of people but the strengths; it celebrates humanity and the goodness de la Peña sees in us all.

 

 

-Addison Armstrong

The Butter Man

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This book is titled The Butter Man by Elizabeth and Ali Alalou, illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli. I discovered this book when preparing to teach a lesson about different aspects of African countries and culture. The book begins with a little girl named Nora in America being told a story by her father (Ali) about his youth in Morocco. The story describes how when he was little his family was very poor and did not have much to eat due to drought. They had a cow and were able to make butter to make their plain hard bread delicious, however, when his father left to make money for his family he took the cow with him and Ali no longer had butter. Ali then waited outside down by the road that ran near his home and waited for the butter man, a man that would travel through town selling his butter. Ali waited day after day in hopeful anticipation, but the butter man never showed. Each day he waited, his serving of bread grew smaller and smaller as he grew hungrier and hungrier. One day when waiting for the butter man, he saw his father in the distance arriving with an abundance of food! The family had a celebration of love and food and as the town was graced with rain and crops, the family had full stomachs once again and were even able to buy another cow who produced butter. The story then reverts to Ali and his daughter Nora in the kitchen eating traditional Moroccan couscous and rejoicing in their ability to share the time together and also never have to worry about hunger.

I love this book for many reasons. The story contained a moral of rewards for patience and the keeping of hope. Additionally, the story offered a window into a culture that many American students are not familiar with. This culture was introduced with descriptions of customs, traditional foods, and images that showed the land and people. Also, the book contained several words in a Moroccan language of the Berber people. I thought this was very interesting because the book did not define these words within the text, rather the reader had to use context clues to determine the meaning of the words or refer to the glossary at the back of the book. All of these descriptions and aspects of the culture would be wonderful ways to spark conversations in classrooms and discuss different ways of life. Additionally, the book revolved around the character Ali who was speaking to his daughter Nora who both now lived in the US. In this way, the book can also be used to discuss immigrants, the infusions of multiple cultures, and the value of stories to share culture and life experiences to those who may not fully understand them.

Carly Hess

Free Friday: My Pen

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Free Friday: My Pen

My Pen is an incredibly creative picture book by Christopher Myers, a Coretta Scott King Honor author and Caldecott Honor illustrator. Through the pages, readers glance into the mind of a young boy who finds solace in drawing pictures with his pen. He describes his joy in drawing with an almost poetic flair. The boy’s narration throughout the story makes his adventure more inclusive for the readers, as if they were stepping into his shoes and picking up his pen. It is an excellent tale that promotes children’s imagination in an age where many kids would rather pick up a tablet or cell phone than a book or a pencil; Myers suggests that these “old-fashioned” tools are essential for the complete creative development of a child.

My Pen immediately stands out due to its incredibly detailed illustrations. Myers cleverly drew each picture with pen and ink. One would think that a picture book containing only illustrations drawn with a simple black pen would be boring, but this book is anything but. Myers creates more lifelike scenes with a pen than some artists do with watercolor or oil paint. Each drawing includes so much depth; Myers details every wrinkle and shadow with subtlety and finesse. Just as impressive, each of the protagonist’s drawings look authentic, as if a child actually drew them. The contrast between these drawings and Myers’ actual illustrations is astounding–they couldn’t possibly have been drawn by the same hand, could they? The detail Myers brings to each of his illustrations is what makes them truly outstanding.

Myers’ subtlety in My Pen continues beyond the illustration quality. In my favorite spread, one in which the author draws a collage of children, he includes many children of color. Because the illustrations are black and white, and because it is not mentioned in the text, this is not something that a reader would notice upon first glance, but when I looked closer I saw shading, hair textures, and facial features that indicated that many of these children were black. Myers also included some white and Asian children, but the overlying majority is black. This is a perfect example of a multicultural book that doesn’t rely on its multiculturalism to tell the story; rather, it includes multicultural characters to provide readers of color with representation in literature and show the world that each ethnicity has diversity within itself. When I first read this book, I didn’t even ponder the race of the narrator or the author until I reached this page, but after backtracking and examining the pictures closely, I realized that they both were black as well. It is such an achievement to find a book that authentically represents our diverse population, and this book does that perfectly. I would recommend this for any teacher’s bookshelf and for any reader from kindergarten to fifth grade because the lessons it teaches are ones that anyone learn and appreciate.

By: Lexi Anderson

Winners Wednesdays: Art and Flying

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A book about a boy who tries to understand the hardships of life through art….

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Bird by Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Shadra Strickland (2008)

How does this book qualify for Winner Wednesday, you ask?  Well, it won the…

  • Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award
  • Best of 2008, Kirkus Reviews (& starred review)
  • 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book
  • Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent & Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Award (won by Shadra Strickland)
  • Bank Street College Best Children’s Book 2009
  • 2009 Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers
  • 2011 West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award

Zetta Elliott tells the difficult story of a boy named Mehkai (nicknamed Bird), who is trying to understand the conflicts occurring between his older brother, Marcus, and his family.  Marcus is a victim of drug addiction; he constantly fights with the family, vandalizes public spaces with graffiti, and hangs out with the wrong crowd.  Even though Marcus couldn’t beat his drug addiction, it is obvious that he still deeply loved and cared for his family, especially for Bird. ‘“Do what I say, not what I do,” he would snarl like a fierce pit bull.  Marcus could be scary sometimes.  But then he’d smile a little so I’d know we were cool.’    

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Bird really loves to draw.  He does it to pass the time and to help him think through all the things happening around him.  Drawing helps him to cope with his brother’s drug addiction and Granddad’s death.  Readers look up to how Bird deals with his family’s problems by using pencil and paper: a positive outlet for his confusion and mix emotions.    b_ze_3

This picture book is beautiful in many ways.  The illustrations are thoughtful and they blend the world of reality with the world of imagination.  It is also written in free verse, which reminds me of a street-style, loose rap.  

This book addresses hard topics: deaths of loved ones and drug addiction.  It may be difficult to use in a classroom; however, depending on where you are teaching, maybe most of the kids in your classroom are dealing with these things in real life.  That said, if Mekhai is a child they can relate to, then this book could be even more valuable to them and is worth bringing into the learning space.

~Posted by: Cynthia Vu  

 

Smooooooooth Jazz

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new-doc-2_3Take a trip back in time with Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph. Using a collection of original poems, writer Roxanne Orgill tells the stories of jazz musicians like Thelonious Monk, Rex Stewart, and Maxine Sullivan who all gathered one day on  126th Street.

This story started with an idea—all the good ones do—and this idea was a spectacular one in its own right. As told in the book’s introduction, Art Kane, in 1958, decided to take a picture. But not just any picture mind you, but rather a picture containing as many American jazz musicians as possible. Not even owning a camera, Art Kane partnered with Esquire magazine to help make this photograph a good one.

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Armed with the Francis Vallejo’s tantalizing artwork, Orgill tosses us lightly onto those sun-bathed sidewalks, surrounded by laughter, chatter, and smiles. We are no longer viewing the book from 2016, because we are standing next to Rex Stewart as he passes a small cornet to a little boy named Leroy. We are standing next to a group of men wondering where Duke Ellington is at the moment. We are comforting a frantic photographer who is attempting, without prevail, to get everyone’s attention.

This is a great book to remind kids that history isn’t dead. Instead history is in the poetry found between the covers of a book, or in Vallejo’s exquisite illustrations, or in the smooth jazz that they might hear in an elevator, or even in a single photograph.

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Post by: Stephanie Thompson