Growing up, I was the kind of kid who was forever awkward, and definitely not in the Hollywood-perpetrated way in which a young girl doesn’t know her full beauty potential until she switches out her glasses for a pair of contacts. I did make the switch from glasses to contacts, but it didn’t do anything for my bad posture, frizzy permed hair, and oblivion to picking up on general social cues.
What did help, however, was escapism. For a short time during my formative years my family and I lived in the bottom half of a little home that sat next to the town’s library. It felt like a natural, fluid movement to use its quiet rows as an extension of my own living room. Books were more than merely around; they were ever-present in their pages and with their variety. They needed to be read, and who was I to assume a position of indifference?
Living next to a library was certainly advantageous; I wandered the shelving until I had a pile of books with covers I found to be pleasing. I would shimmy back through the shrubbery and up the front porch steps with Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes in one hand and The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis in the other. It was between these pages that my world widened. I didn’t have to talk or find common ground to gain acceptance or a new set of friends; it existed from the moment I read the first line on the first page. Unlike the classmates in my real life, my character companions didn’t look at me funny, roll their eyes, or tease me for being strange or weird-looking.
Now, as an adult, I’m completely cured of my social awkwardness and introversion. Nope, I’m kidding! I’ve learned to own it much better, but am also lucky enough to yoke myself together with a lovely bunch of bosom buddies who don’t mind my quirks. One such friend, Janet, recently stirred up conversation about building a lasting library for her own two little girls. What struck me about her inquiry was that she is specifically seeking the sort of books that open conversations about the beauty of inclusion, kindness, and diversity. Like the good mama that she is, she is continuously expanding the ways in which she grows her little ones into beautiful people–the kind of humans who seek to understand the value in everyone, and who just may walk over to the different kid in class and sit with her, sharing stories or breaking through the barrier of awkward small talk.
So how do we use books as guides for bolstering discussions with our children about the importance of acceptance and understanding? I’m not a librarian or a child literacy specialist, but I’m pretty sure the first step is to do what Janet is doing: fattening up a home library with stories that widen our kids’ worlds and share tales of positivity and love. Of course, the next step is to reach for these books often, to snuggle up with our babies–or if they’re older, provide them with a comfy spot to snuggle in–and read. Keep the lines of communication open, ask questions, and expect to answer some in turn.
Below is a small sampling of some of my favorite fiction books that tackle subjects of self-confidence, friendship, acceptance, bullying, and differences and diversity. Please feel free to share your suggestions in the comments for everyone to see; the holidays are upon us, and new books make the perfect gifts!
Happy Hippo, Angry Duck by Sandra Boynton
A book about changing moods, this Boynton classic teaches the youngest of readers how to identify and name their feelings. It’s also an excellent building block for nurturing empathy; little ones learn that everyone feels different things at different times.
Goose Needs a Hug by Tad Hills
With simple language and colorful artwork, the Duck & Goose books have become nursery staples. In this short tale, Goose’s well-meaning friends offer her ways to feel better until she finally gets their attention; all she really needs is a hug!
Swim, Little Wombat, Swim by Charles Fuge
When Wombat first meets a new creature, Platypus, he laughs because Platypus is funny-looking, but the gentle friend teaches Wombat a new skill and readers learn the value of appreciating each other’s differences.
The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade by Justin Roberts
Small but observant Sally sees things that others do not, including the bullying that’s happening during recess. When she gathers up her courage to say something, the whole school takes notice and works together to be more inclusive and kind. The lyrical prose has made this one a favorite with my five-year old!
Spaghetti in a Hot Dog Bun by Maria Dismondy
This oh-so-relatable story drives home the idea that words really do hurt. Although she is teased by Ralph for being odd and different, when the tables turn, protagonist Lucy chooses to extend grace and kindness and everyone is better off for it.
Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña
Young CJ has lots of questions for his Nana while they take the bus through their urban neighborhood. Nana replies with patience and wisdom about finding beauty and gratefulness everywhere. The illustrations depicting people of all colors, ages, and abilities perfectly complements the story.
Ghosts by Raina Telgemier
Telgemier’s graphic novels are wildly popular, even with kids who aren’t big into reading. In Ghosts, Cat grapples with her family’s move and her relationship with her younger sister, Maya, who struggles with the limitations of Cystic Fibrosis.
The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes
A classic story that reminds the reader about the importance of friendship and standing up for victims of torment, The Hundred Dresses also highlights hardships of poverty and immigrant life during the mid-20th century.
Donavan’s Double Trouble by Monalisa DeGross
Donavan faces lots of relatable elementary school problems: he’s not doing so well in math class and his little sis is always annoying. But Donavan is also navigating his complex feelings about the return of his paraplegic war veteran uncle, Vic.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
When Eleanor starts taking Parker’s bus to school each day, the unlikely pair forms an intense bond that’s both complicated and amplified by bullying, poverty, and abuse. Love and acceptance don’t fix everything, but the story ultimately moves toward a hopeful ending.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Told by a young Latina Chicagoan in a series of short stories and vignettes, this beautiful and poignant coming-of-age book should grace all bookshelves. It shares observations of gender dynamics, poverty, and culturalism with raw emotion and desperation.
The Lumatere Chronicles by Melina Marchetta
In this trilogy, author Melina Marchetta expertly weaves a complex story that tackles difficult topics–such as the struggles of refugees displaced from their home nation, personal trauma and abuse, and political strife–all within the parameters of an epic fantasy adventure.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
As moms, we can count the minutes we have to read for our own pleasure on one hand, but in between reading to the kiddos, pick up Zadie Smith’s newest novel, Swing Time. Be prepared to brush up on your critical thinking skills; this dense story follows the lives of two young dancers into adulthood as they struggle with their personal, cultural, and economical limitations.
As a kid, I was fortunate to have such an easy path to reading, but it’s important to remember that not all kids have equal access to books. If you’d like to help change that, then consider working with the Head of the Lakes United Way to organize a book drive. You can also help fund school classrooms’ literacy needs through Donorschoose.org. And don’t forget to invest in a membership to Friends of the Library so they can continue to keep our Duluth area libraries accessible and inclusionary spaces for all people!