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Picturebooks are transformative. There is a Scottish proverb that speaks to the work picturebooks can do: “you ask about my drinking but you never ask about my thirst.” When children have challenging behaviour, we often feel frustrated, and in the moment we forget to ask about the need that has motivated that behaviour. Part of the magic of picturebooks is that they facilitate hard conversations between adults and children about that thirst, or what author Anastasia Higginbotham calls “ordinary terrible things.” Ordinary terrible things can include being left out, a hurtful remark from a sibling or larger issues like death, divorce, racism, sexism, ableism or just how uncomfortable it is to feel sad for a long time. This month, Dr. Shoshana Magnet shares picturebooks dealing with the subjects of anti-racism and Indigenous resurgence.
One of my most enduring struggles as a parent is balancing how much to tell my children about the world and how much to protect them. All of my own decisions about what to share are steeped in privilege and they simultaneously remain a major stressor. In The Book of Delights, poet Ross Gay aims to chronicle the delights of a single year—with a particular focus on Black joy. Reminding us that white people love to consume stories of Black suffering (as he says “If I had a nickel for every white person who can recite lines from The Wire”), Ross Gay instead both explores anti-Black racism and simultaneously catalogues everyday delights, from the sweetness for him of the “pear tree already wealthy with sun-blushed fruitlets” to the pleasures of greetings between people of colour in largely white spaces.
As many parents struggle with how to share an ongoing climate of racist violence with our children and how to change it so that they might live in a different world, I turn to 3 books for librarians to recommend that manage to carve out a landscape of joy for children while not shying away from the urgent need for education on QT/BIPOC (Queer, Trans/Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) issues for young children.
The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali
In this lovely and loving ode to sisterhood, Asiya and her sister Faizah head off to their first day of school. Asiya is wearing her first day of school hijab, the one that is the brightest blue, “the color of the ocean, if you squint your eyes and pretend there’s no link between the water and the sky.” Two princesses off to school.
And yet, by the end of the first day, Asiyah has been questioned, bullied and subject to racist remarks by kids at their school. Asiya and Faizah are both wounded and frightened by the teasing, but they hold on to their mama’s words: “Don’t carry around the hurtful words that others say. Drop them. They are not yours to keep. They belong only to those who said them.” Asiya and Faizah draw close together to protect one another and Faiza draws her sister a beautiful picture of two princesses wearing hijabs, letting her sister know that “I’ll always be here, like sisters.”
This book opens conversations with our children about bullying as a structural problem—one connected to existing systems of discrimination. As Muslim women and girls remain primary gendered targets of anti-Muslim racism, this book provides a beautiful and uplifting opportunity to speak with our children gently about the world as it is and the world as it should be.
You Hold Me Up by Monique Gray Smith
I know parents are struggling to speak with the children about what is going on in the news with respect to ongoing settler colonialism and the horrific legacy of residential schools. Monique Gray Smith has an excellent video on how to speak with our kids about settler colonization and Indigenous resurgence (which can be found here) where she also suggests authors for kids of many ages.
I wanted to flag Monique Gray Smith’s amazing book You Hold Me Up. This book is so beautiful and so profound. I’m so tired of hearing Goodnight Moon is poetry. Yes, yes, it’s true, but let’s update. Here is the poetry that we need for this moment, to grow compassionate, resilient, empathetic and loving kids with an awareness of to whom Turtle Island rightfully belongs. You Hold Me Up reminds all of us that what we need is more care for all our relations. As she tells us, we don’t need self-care when care for ourselves and our communities are one and the same: “You hold me up when you are kind to me. When you share with me. When you learn with me. When you laugh with me.” The beautiful finale of this book reminds us of that most basic feminist tenet, our interdependence: “You hold me up. I hold you up. We hold each other up.”
We have been going through some big family changes this year and in sometimes-quiet moments of despair that I do not want to share with my children, I survey my bookshelf. You Hold Me Up gives me so much hope and uplift. Pulling it out for just that reason, I read it to my youngest son. “Mommy,” he said, “this book makes me feel good somehow.” Thanks so much to Indigenous artists and movements like #Idlenomore in this moment for continuing to blaze a way forward.
Don’t Touch My Hair by Sharee Miller
Much like The Proudest Blue is a book that is simultaneously about bullying and about gendered racism, Don’t Touch My Hair seamlessly weaves together narratives of anti-Black racism and the importance of bodily autonomy and consent. Here, a little girl is constantly besieged with a sea of hands wanting to touch her beautiful hair. No matter where she goes, whether the highest mountain or the farthest castle, she cannot escape. Although she spends much of the book in flight from grasping hands, finally she cannot hold it in any longer and a long, loud “NO!” bursts forth from her. And she is free.
While taking a parenting workshop in the last year, my partner and I listened in amazement as parents were encouraged “never to say no to their children, because no is perceived as a threat.” I do realize that an unending series of no’s is frustrating and demoralizing to children, but my partner wondered aloud, what does it mean to raise children who never hear and can never say no? What does this mean for the women in the future, for BIPOC communities? What does it mean for the world? This book usefully connects the importance of no to consent while showing how the importance of developing a firm no for bodily boundaries can help to shift our existing world.
I know that these times remain rough. If you or your family or a teacher or anyone you know is looking for books, please feel free to contact me. I’ve got lots of books to recommend on divorce, on grief, on anxiety, and other topics that may be of interest to folx.
Shoshana Magnet is a mother of two as well as professor of Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of Ottawa. She writes a listserv on picturebooks that talk about big feelings and topics, including divorce, grief, anger, sadness as well as issues related to social justice like on racism, sexism and homophobia. Subscribe to her listserv: https://www.picturebookstogrow.com/