Archive for May, 2014

Culturally-Themed Children’s Books: Three Short Reviews

May 21, 2014 2 comments

Note: This is not a sponsored post.  I have no business interest in any the books about to be discussed and received nothing for discussing them.  I don’t know anyone involved with them personally.  I wish I knew Sharon Robinson, but I don’t think that counts as an official disclosure.  


A recent post on a fellow fatherhood blog got me thinking about some of the various books I’ve read to RJ that involve culture in one way or another, and thusly the idea for this review post was born.  We read him three books every night, and obviously not all of them deal directly with culture.  That being said, I feel like we’d be doing a disservice to him if we didn’t try to address culture with him, so we are always looking for good books to aid in this process.   Here are some mini-reviews of three books we’ve enjoyed so far.


First up is The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.  This is a very popular book in the genre, and it does well at honoring the fact that none of us are actually “white” or “black,” but rather various shades of brown, as a young girl learns from her mother as she is trying to create artwork of herself and others.  The girl just wants to use brown paint, but her artist mother tells her that we all come in different shades, and that brown paint just won’t do it.  She needs to mix different shades by using red, yellow, black, and white paints.  To illustrate her point, the mother takes the daughter out into the city to see various people they know.  The skin color of each character they come across is described using food items (cinnamon, peachy tan, chocolate, peanut butter, etc), and the girl gets the point, goes home and does the artwork well.  The ultimate message was well received by my son., as evidenced by the day he put his hand, my hand, and my wife’s hand all together and described their different tones.  This book has taken some criticism for stereotypical portrayals of some of the characters, most notably the dark-skinned female babysitter and the spice-selling Indian man.  I wish these were avoided.


Next on the slate is Jackie’s Gift by Sharon Robinson (Jackie Robinson’s daughter), and illustrated by E.B. Lewis.  Anyone who knows me well or avidly reads this blog knows that the “J” in RJ is after Jackie Robinson, and #42 is a hero of mine.  This true story is set in Brooklyn during Jackie’s first year with the Dodgers.  Jackie befriends a kid in the neighborhood, and invites the boy over to help decorate his Christmas tree.  During the decorating, Jackie asks the boy about his own tree, and the boy replies that his family doesn’t have one.  Jackie, presumably assuming the boy’s family can’t afford a tree, brings one over to his house the next day, only to be embarrassed when he finds out that the reason the boy’s family doesn’t have a tree is because they are Jewish.  I love the irony here, that Jackie Robinson, the ultimate symbol of civil rights and cultural tolerance, made a cultural mistake.  It just goes to show that no matter who we are or how culturally competent we think we might be, cultural competence is never perfectly achieved by anyone.


Last and absolutely not least (it’s actually my favorite of the bunch), is Spork, written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault.  The concept is genius in its simplicity; in a kitchen of personified utensils, Spork has a fork for a father and a spoon as his mother.  He sticks out in the crowd, gets asked “What are you, anyway?” a zillion times, gets accused by the forks of being too round, gets accused by the spoons of being too pointy, and like the random spork that many kitchen drawers still have from back when KFC was still known as Kentucky Fried Chicken in the 80’s, he doesn’t get used.  He becomes sad and envious that the other utensils get to play in food, while he sits in a drawer.  Then a toddler hits the scene, and Spork becomes the perfect culinary instrument of choice for the little dude.  He finds out that he was just right all along.


Any thoughts on these books?  Other books I should know of?  Let me know by leaving a comment!



Happy Teacher Appreciation Week

I think we all have certain teachers who were special to us and we remember fondly throughout the rest of our lives. I wrote about one of these teachers of mine, Mr. Tefft, in a post you can find here. My 11th grade English teacher is another who, as long as my memory stays sharp, will always be with me. For one thing, the dude’s actual first name is Brainerd. I’m pretty sure there’s a rule in the universe that says any time you have someone whose name is some combination of the words “brain” and “nerd” they must grow up to be in academia. True to his name, Mr. P. LOVED books. Thinking back, it seems like every day he was talking about some new-to-him first edition he found by accident at an obscure used bookstore. Moreso than his name or his book collection, I remember the passion with which Mr. P. taught. In high school I was much more of a math and science guy, and English and Spanish were my worst classes.  But with Mr. P., English became my favorite class that year.  He wouldn’t have it any other way. I fed off his passion to really try to see what was so great about the books we read, and to try to understand them on a level that I could write something about them that Mr. P. would find compelling. Mr. P. was a tough grader too, and I was always walking the line between a “B” and a “C” in his class. When my final grade came out to be a “B-,” I felt proud of that, and stayed more proud of it than I was of the “A” I pulled off in English the next year, with a teacher who went through the motions and wasn’t nearly as tough or engaged.

Although he’s not even four yet, RJ has already had a variety of teachers. I’m not sure if this is typical of Montessori or just something his school is working through, but there seems to be a high turnover rate. His favorite teacher last year left the school abruptly after a dispute with the owner, a month before RJ was scheduled to move on to the next level of classroom. When he did move, the particular classroom he went into was having such a hard time finding a consistent lead teacher that the director is currently teaching the class herself. There is a new teacher hired to step in and take the lead role, although secretly I wish the director could just stay there. She’s to preschool Montessori what Mr. P. was to 11th grade English. I often can’t help but to think beyond the preschool years to wonder what RJ’s schooling will be like once he moves into the public school system. We plan on having him in public schools for elementary through high school. I see what both kids and teachers have to deal with in the “Stakes is high” ((c) De La Soul) environment of public education, with standardized testing results serving as a measure of performance for both students and teachers.  I see the emphasis that schools are putting on the testing at the expense of other things.  As I write this, I’m wondering how Mr. P., and some of my other favorite teachers would have done things in this current era of standardized testing.  I wonder if the backdrop of standardized testing would have stifled any of the creativity with which he taught, in favor of making sure we knew word definitions and analogies.

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week to all teachers out there.  You clearly have your work cut out for you and you have my respect and admiration for rising to the challenge.