Lee & Low Blog | Exploring Children's Books Through The Lens Of Diversity
LEE & LOW BOOKS an independent children's book publisher specializing in diversity. It is the company's goal to meet the need for stories that children of color can identify with and that all children can enjoy. A blog on race, diversity, education, and children's books.
Thank you to everyone who joined us last week for our webinar, “LGBTQ+ Children’s Books: A Conversation with Authors.” If you missed it live, or just want to watch it again, here is a recording of the webinar:
Webinar: LGBTQ+ Children's Books - YouTube
These three titles were showcased in our webinar by our amazing authors, Kyle Lukoff, Lesléa Newman, and Maya Christina Gonzalez:
As we continue our “For Fans Of” Summer Reading blog series, we’ll spotlight books for children in grades 3 through 5 in this post. In order to keep kids thinking critically about the books they’re reading during the summer months, it’s great to pose a few questions to engage in a conversation about books in a low-stakes discussion:
How were the main characters similar? How were they different?
What kinds of problems did the characters face in both of the books? Were any of their problems similar? Why or why not?
Would you recommend this book to a friend? What would you tell them about it? Why did you enjoy it?
Similarly set during the Great Depression, fans of Esperanza Rising will love The Wind Called My Name and the similar themes and issues presented in both books. Margarita Sandoval and her family navigate the shifting winds of belonging in their new Wyoming town in this heartwarming historical fiction novel set in the 1930s.
Do you have kids or kids you work with that tear through the Who Was? series? Fear not, because The Story Of series will keep them reading and learning about new, important historical figures that may not be covered in traditional school curricula! Check out our new chapter-book biographies focused on historical figures of color that feature informative sidebars, highlighted vocabulary words, a timeline, a glossary, bibliography, and recommended reading. Nonfiction lovers will devour these new titles!
The Birchbark House, a wonderful middle-grade title written by Anishinaabe Native author Louise Erdrich, is a great title that complements our newest release, Stone River Crossing. From Tim Tingle, the award-winning Choctaw author of How I Became a Ghost, Stone River Crossing is a tale of unlikely friendship and miracles. When Martha Tom helps Lil Mo and his family escape from the plantation across the river, it’s just the beginning of a Choctaw adventure of a lifetime.
For purchasing information, you can also view our complete collections from the Summer Reading List below:
In this guest blog post, Monica Kleekamp, a PhD candidate in the department of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum at the University of Missouri-Columbia, discusses the importance of inclusive children’s literature and how to critically select texts with regards to representations of disability experiences.
What is inclusive children’s literature? What is it not? Why is it important?
Inclusive children’s literature that features characters who are either physically and/or intellectually diverse—characters who have been labeled as disabled—remain few and far between. Additionally, those texts that do exist often follow tropes of pity or dehumanization. These texts have also been heavily critiqued for their over-representation of white male characters who access prosthetics.
Educators, librarians, parents, and others interested in getting high quality literature into the hands of children must give critical attention to representation in texts that feature characters with disability labels. Disability labels placed on children by school or medical professionals are never neutral. Rather, these labels bring with them histories of exclusion and a tendency to universalize the disability experience. “Disability” is an umbrella term that carries many different meanings to those in the larger public and individuals with labels. However, we tend to use the word often—without really unpacking what we mean by it, which ends up suggesting that there is only one experience of disability.
Sharing high quality inclusive literature offers an opportunity to talk with and through books that challenge ableist norms—or the standards that have been normalized over time for how bodies and minds “should” function and perform. If we seek to thoughtfully select children’s literature with characters who may look, know, and act in diverse ways, it is first imperative to describe what this kind of literature is.
Inclusive children’s literature is not necessarily designed to teach children about what a disability is. Instead, this literature serves as an opportunity for those with disability labels to see representations of experiences like theirs in the books they pull from our shelves. These texts also provide opportunities for students who live without labels—those who are deemed educationally typical—to see characters who experience the world in different ways. Immersed in these texts are varied and multiple bodies and minds playing active roles as main characters who tell their own stories through their engagement in authentic relationships.
How can I make an informed decision about which books to select that include disability experiences?
Here, I offer 4 Guiding Questions to consult in your selection process. They are meant to guide your interrogation of the written and illustrated narrative. These questions are not exhaustive, but they do offer entry into making informed decisions when critically selecting inclusive children’s literature.
Does the author/illustrator present the character with a disability label as multidimensional?
A disability label is one identity marker—and often not one a character has necessarily chosen for themselves. Memorable main characters are multidimensional and complex. Additional layers of identity are presented in a variety of ways over the course of a story. This might be through decisions characters make, the situations they find themselves in, or the relationships they build. If characters with labels do not develop over the course of the story or do not demonstrate themselves as dynamic and varied, the reader is left with little information other than a label itself.
Whose story is this and who gets to tell it?
There is currently an over-abundance of texts that feature disability from the perspective of a sibling or friend. These characters speak for the individual with a label. In these instances, the story does not belong to the character with a disability label but rather is a narrative about them. Humanizing texts are written from a first-person perspective, centering the voice of the character with a label. There are instances when a third person narrator might also offer the character’s thoughts through ideas embedded in the story.
As a reader, how have you been positioned to think about feel about the character with a disability label in this book?
Representations of disability experiences often position characters as individuals worthy of pity who need to be cared for, without offering any insight into the contributions the character makes to their community. This is especially true in texts that feature school settings, where characters with disability labels may be positioned as class pets while other students take turns supervising the individual. Humanizing inclusive children’s literature may tackle moments of marginalization, but they do so in complex ways. These texts acknowledge lived moments of exclusion but also include character agency and perseverance in addressing difficult circumstances.
What opportunities does the character with a disability label have in the book to engage in authentic relationships?
Many texts with disability experiences feature one-dimensional friendships—such as the idea of individuals as class pets. In these instances, the character with a disability label is positioned as having a flat identity whose only role is to require support from those around them. This is dehumanizing and suggests that individuals with disability labels do not and cannot contribute in meaningful ways to the relationships in their lives. High quality texts offer representations of relationships in which both individuals contribute to fostering or maintaining that relationship. Humanizing literature may tackle complicated relationships in which characters grapple with peers or adults in moments of exclusion, bullying, or adversity but might also serve as models for friendships that do exist and are possible for individuals with labels.
But if I want to start selecting humanizing inclusive literature to add to my collection, where can I turn for high quality titles?
Each year, the Schneider Family Book Award, in partnership with the American Library Association, awards inclusive literature winners in the categories of teen books, middle grade texts, and books for young readers. While this is a great starting place if you are just beginning your collection, there are other places you can go to read important reviews by #ownvoices such as Disability in KidLit, or the Indigo Project, sites and blogs reserved for inclusive book reviews by individuals who identify as disabled. You might also check out the Disability Visibility Project, which addresses issues of disability representation across media including news, film and television series, etc.
About the Author: Monica Kleekamp is currently a PhD candidate in the department of Learning, Teaching & Curriculum at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Her research centers the literature responses of students who have historically been classified as having significant disabilities in an effort to disrupt what counts as literacy and who counts as literate.
Just in time for Pride Month, join Lee & Low Books for a special free webinar focused on LGBTQ+ books for youth! Join Katie Potter, Lee & Low’s Literacy Specialist, in conversation with Lee & Low authors Kyle Lukoff (When Aidan Became a Brother), Lesléa Newman (Sparkle Boy), and Maya Christina Gonzalez (Call Me Tree/Llámame Árbol), as they discuss the inspiration behind their books and the importance of LGBTQ+ representation in children’s literature.
Come away with applicable classroom and library activities for elementary and middle school, resources for using LGBTQ+ books in your respective setting, and a Lee & Low book list and additional LGBTQ+ information.
The award-winning picture book Crossing Bok Chitto captured the strength, bravery, and heart of the Choctaw Nation as they helped enslaved people find their way to freedom. Set to be released at the end of this month, Stone River Crossing (Tu Books) by acclaimed Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle, is the new middle grade expansion that illuminates a snapshot of Native and African American history, reminding readers that the strongest bridge between cultures is friendship.
Martha Tom knows better than to cross the Bok Chitto River to pick blackberries. The Bok Chitto is the only border between her town in the Choctaw Nation and the slave-owning plantation in Mississippi territory. The slave owners could catch her, too. What was she thinking? But crossing the river brings a surprise friendship with Lil Mo, a boy who is enslaved on the other side. When Lil Mo discovers that his mother is about to be sold and the rest of his family left behind. But Martha Tom has the answer: cross the Bok Chitto and become free.
Crossing to freedom with his family seems impossible with slave catchers roaming, but then there is a miracle—a magical night where things become unseen and souls walk on water. By morning, Lil Mo discovers he has entered a completely new world of tradition, community, and . . . a little magic. But as Lil Mo’s family adjusts to their new life, danger waits just around the corner.
Author Tim Tingle says Stone River Crossing is based on stories “documented in the Indian way, told and retold and then passed on by uncles and grandmothers” among the Choctaw people. “This book extends my tribute in Crossing Bok Chitto to the Choctaws, Cherokees, Creeks, Chickasaws, and Seminoles—and Indians of every nation—who aided people escaping from bondage.”
Stone River Crossing has already received three starred reviews from major review journals:
★ “This vital story will deepen readers’ understanding of the nation’s complex history.” —Kirkus Reviews
★ “Richly descriptive and leavened with humor, Tingle’s complex novel offers valuable insights into rarely told history.” —Publishers Weekly
★ “[Stone River Crossing] is a potent mix of history, folkways, and friendship, often wrapped in a gossamer web of magic realism. The book soars, almost literally, when Lil Mo’s soul is stolen by an Owl Man, a witch, whose dramatic machinations, along with those of other spirit-filled characters, give this an indelible glow.” —Booklist
Tim Tingle is an Oklahoma Choctaw and an award-winning author and storyteller of twenty books. In 1993, he retraced the Trail of Tears to Choctaw homelands in Mississippi and began recording stories of tribal elders. From talks with Archie Mingo emerged Crossing Bok Chitto, Tingle’s first illustrated children’s book. This history-based tale is the inspiration for Stone River Crossing. The plot is filled with elements of Choctaw culture, plus a colorful dash of Choctaw magic realism. Tingle lives in Texas.
We’re excited to reveal the full cover for Indian No More, a moving middle grade novel about Regina, a ten-year-old Umpqua girl, whose family is forced to relocate from Oregon to Los Angeles during the Indian termination era of the 1950s. Written by the late Charlene Willing McManis, and completed by author Traci Sorell, Indian No More (September 2019) draws upon Charlene’s own tribal history and we are so excited to see it all coming together!
In this blog post, editor Elise McMullen-Ciotti dives into the symbolism and meaning behind the cover of Indian No More and how the cover came to be.
FINDING THE ARTIST
It was very important for me as an editor and for our writer, Traci Sorell, to have a Native American artist illustrate the cover of Indian No More. As Native people ourselves (Cherokee Nation), we knew that a Native artist would “get it” and make it a priority to reflect and represent the protagonist’s and author’s tribe.
After reviewing the work of about 30 Native artists with Tu Books publisher Stacy Whitman, we approached artist Marlena Myles (Spirit Lake Dakota, Mohegan, Muscogee Creek) to do the cover—and we’re so glad she said yes!
GUIDE TO THE COVER
Marlena deftly and beautifully incorporated meaning that may not be noticed without knowing a bit about Umpqua art and culture. However, those at The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde certainly will! Here’s a guide for our soon-to-be-readers:
The Street Sign: Regina, our protagonist, is caught in the middle of two worlds, the life she left behind on her reservation in Grand Ronde, Oregon (back cover and left of Regina on the front) and her new life in Los Angeles, California (shown on Regina’s right) on 58th
The Beaver: Indian No More incorporates a traditional story about the beaver and the coyote. The coyote tricks the beaver into going off to find the perfect pond, only to lose the perfect one he already had.
The Plankhouse: On the back cover, you will see a wooden structure that looks like a barn. This is a traditional plankhouse. Plankhouses are usually made of cedar, where many families traditionally lived under one roof. They are also called big houses or longhouses. Today tribal citizens gather in the plankhouse for community events.
The Symbols in the Trees and Mountains: Within the large cedar trees and in the mountains, there are traditional symbols used in artistic decorations within The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. In the trees are symbols for fingers and hands, and in the hills are symbols for fishing spears and mountains.
Regina’s Hair: For Regina, her hair is a powerful part of her Umpqua identity.
Regina’s Gaze: Regina gazes back at the home she left behind on the reservation. She looks back with longing to her history and roots.
ABOUT THE BOOK
When the federal government signs a bill into law that says Regina’s tribe no longer exists to them, Regina becomes “Indian no more” overnight—even though she lives with her tribe and practices tribal customs, and even though her ancestors were Indian for countless generations. Now with the tribe losing its land base in Oregon, Regina’s father signs the family up for the Indian Relocation program and moves them to Los Angeles. Regina finds a whole new world in her neighborhood on 58th Place. She’s never met kids of other races, and they’ve never met a real Indian. For the first time in her 10-year-old life, Regina comes face to face with the viciousness of racism, personally and toward her new friends. The family struggles without their tribal community and land. At least Regina has her grandmother, Chich, and her stories. And at least they are all together. In this moving middle-grade novel drawing upon Umpqua author Charlene Willing McManis’s own tribal history, Regina must find out: Who is Regina Petit? Is she Indian? Is she American? And will she and her family ever be okay again?
Look for Indian No More to be released by the Tu Books imprint of Lee & Low Books in September 2019. Let us know what you think of the cover in the comments below!
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
The late CHARLENE WILLING MCMANIS (1953–2018) was born in Portland, Oregon, and grew up in Los Angeles. She was of Umpqua tribal heritage and enrolled in The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. Charlene served in the U.S. Navy and later received her Bachelor’s degree in Native American Education. She lived with her family in Vermont and served on that state’s Commission on Native American Affairs. In 2016, Charlene received a mentorship with award-winning poet and author Margarita Engle through We Need Diverse Books. That manuscript became this novel, which is based on her family’s experiences after their tribe was terminated in 1954. Charlene passed away in 2018, knowing that her friend Traci Sorell would complete the revisions she was unable to finish.
TRACI SORELL writes fiction and nonfiction books as well as poems for children. We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga ᎣᏣᎵᎮᎵᎦ, her Sibert Honor and Orbis Pictus Honor award–winning nonfiction picture book, received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, The Horn Book, and Shelf Awareness. A former federal Indian law attorney and policy advocate, she is an enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation and lives in northeastern Oklahoma, where her tribe is located. For more about Traci and her other works, visit tracisorell.com.
ABOUT THE EDITOR
Elise McMullen-Ciotti is a freelance editor, writer, and educator who has worked in children’s book publishing since 2012. Her clients have included Scholastic, Arthur A. Levine, Coffee House Press, Macmillan, Roaring Brook Press, Outland Entertainment, Shadow Mountain, Lee & Low and its imprint Tu Books. A member of the Cherokee Nation, Elise’s biggest goal as a book editor has been to promote and publish Native stories and authors. As a writer, she is an essayist and blogger and is set to publish two books (TBA) in 2021. Before her career in publishing, Elise worked in food, television, and then food in television. She lives in New York City with her husband, a large personal library, and an open kitchen.
Books can encourage kids of all ages to enact change in their communities. Because it’s never too early to make a difference, we’ll be sharing a list of social activism books for each grade level. Check out our social activism book roundup for third grade below and for more social activism titles, check out our full printable Social Activism Diverse Reading List!
Focusing on the role of prairie dogs as a keystone species, this book tells the connected histories of the North American grassland prairies and current efforts to preserve and recover the Janos grasslands in northern Mexico.
This poignant immigration story captures not only the hardship of daily life on the border, but also the beauty of the landscape and the dignity and generosity of spirit that Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants share.
In this guest post, Rona K. Wolfe, Junior Kindergarten Teacher at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School, explores methods of teaching her kindergarten students about the experiences of refugees around the world.
As a kindergarten teacher, I wanted to expose my students to global experiences. What does that look like in a class with our youngest students? After careful thought, I wanted the young children in my class at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School to learn about the difficulties and experiences of refugees living in our community.
What I Know
The students in my class have a deep understanding of kindness. It is our core value. It was my intention to bring to this kindness a true appreciation of difference among us, but also similarities. We all love. We all come from families. We all need to be safe. I also know that my strength as a teacher is the value I place on truly seeing and hearing my students. This would be my goal in these lessons to develop appropriate schema for learning about and appreciating differences. Teaching my youngest students the value of reaching out and really seeing others was by educating them to listen and view others’ perspectives.
Is kindergarten too young? No, but here were my guideposts: We will get comfortable talking appropriately about big ideas. I will model behaviors and attitudes for my students. We will bring our knowledge to the present. History is important but what can we do now? I will encourage complex, critical thinking. And, our thoughts and conversations will empower us to do more. We will increase our opportunities for real, truthful contact by inviting refugee families into our classroom and into our lives. We will become aware, and awareness will change our perspectives, and our world.
What We Did
We talked about what it means to be a refugee. We discussed the choices these families have to make and what it might feel like. We learned about different countries that refugees come from; about what it feels like to be different or a stranger in a new place. Great children’s books on this subject easily led us to discussions and connections.
Through a local advocate we contacted several refugee families with young children in our community and invited them to spend a day at school with us. We ate, played, created art work together, and more. We kept in contact with these families and some chose to visit us again during our school year. These visits led to organizing children from these families to attend a week of summer camp with us.
We became pen pals with a young refugee family living in Chicago with two small boys. We exchanged letters, drawings, and more throughout the year.
We partnered with a group of young high school students who are refugees in the city of Milwaukee. Over a few meetings, my kindergarten students interviewed the high school students, writing and illustrating books about each one. These books were then given to each of the high school students, were read to visitors at our school’s open house, and are proudly displayed in our school’s library.
What I know about teaching is that no learning happens without a connection. This is as true in kindergarten as it is when meeting someone new. It is my job to find connections with each of my students. To truly see them and to know them. This is what we each brought to our learning about our new friends. We heard each other’s stories. We spent time seeing each other and listening to each other. My student’s response to this learning was a true sense of wonder, empathy, and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). What I learned is I can trust myself and my students with big ideas. Silence increases a child’s prejudice. My kindergarten class is not silent in their learning.
About the Author: Rona Kader Wolfe has been a kindergarten teacher for 26 years. She earned her degree in early childhood and elementary education from University Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In her time as an educator, Rona has served both Milwaukee’s Indigenous community and its Jewish community as a kindergarten teacher at the Indian Community School and currently at Milwaukee Jewish Day School. In her summer months, Rona works for Milwaukee Public Library’s Super Reader program. Through this role, she visits city schools and works with educators to enrich their reading curriculum. Centered in social emotional learning, Rona builds her classroom curriculum around empathy and diversity inclusion. Partnering with Milwaukee’s refugee community, Rona’s kindergarten built relationships with refugee students of all ages and their families. Rona’s focus in this work centers on understanding and celebrating differences along with recognizing the similarities we all share.
Let’s kick off summer with our engaging, printable Diverse Summer Reading List that will get all kids engaged in reading! Our list includes both fiction and nonfiction, bilingual Spanish/English titles, and a diverse range of cultures—in other words, the right book for every reader! The collections are available on our website for purchase:
Want to expand your Summer Reading list, but not sure where to begin? Keep reading for pairings of diverse bestsellers with our favorite new picks for grades PreK-2, and stay tuned over the upcoming weeks when we’ll spotlight Grades 3-5 and Grades 6-8!
Encourage your young readers to try a new early chapter book series with Confetti Kids! Meet five friends from diverse backgrounds learning to navigate common childhood challenges, new experiences, and the world around them in realistic and kid-friendly stories!
If you have readers passionate about science and all things STEM, check out Galápagos Girl/Galapagueña, a charming bilingual picture book that introduces the fascinating creatures of the Galápagos Islands through the life of one very lucky girl! Pair this book if you’re working in an outdoor space this summer to get kids involved with preserving their community.
Discuss the importance of kindness and empathy with I Walk with Vanessa and Benji, the Bad Day, and Me. In Benji, the Bad Day, and Me, Sammy is having the absolute rottenest, worst day ever. His little brother, Benji, knows exactly what that’s like in this tender, neurodiverse story about siblings and being supportive of one another.
What other diverse books do your kids enjoy? Leave comments below to share!
Are you looking for high-quality, culturally responsive guided reading books for kindergarten? Bebop Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books, offers leveled reading books in both English and Spanish for readers at every level.
Our Early Emergent Leveled Reading Collection, with books in Guided Reading Levels A, B, and C, is a great place to start building your kindergarten library. Early Emergent leveled reading books are perfect for beginning and soon-to-be readers. Our Early Emergent collections offer books in both English and Spanish for classroom use, with culturally authentic texts and illustrations.
Whether your classroom has only a few English Language Learners (ELLs) or a majority, it’s critical to think about different strategies and skills that ELLs need to engage with books as they’re starting to read in kindergarten. It’s also essential that your classroom library has authentic and culturally relevant texts in both English and Spanish so that all readers can have texts that fit their needs and interests.
Every leveled book from our Bebop Books imprint comes in both English and Spanish; many were originally written in Spanish, so you can feel confident that they are authentic, accurate, and engaging for Spanish readers. Don’t miss this post on strategies for building skills with ELLs who are reading at levels A, B, and C.
Diverse Leveled Bookrooms and Customized Orders
If you are looking to bring more diversity to your school’s book collection, let us help! We work with schools and districts of all sizes to curate customized collections that will fit your needs. Learn more about our diverse leveled bookrooms or fill out our quick form to get started creating a customized collection for your kindergarten classroom, school, or district.
Here are just a few of our most popular guided reading books for kindergarten: