On safe spaces and speaking up

jacobseyepatchLast weekend, I visited a Sunday School class at my church to talk about disabilities.  I gave my usual explanation of my prosthetic arm and read Jacob’s Eye Patch, which has become one of my go to picture books on the subject of differences.  I love that way it makes it clear that questions and curiosity are okay. Instead, it puts the focus on how and when you ask questions or express curiosity about people’s differences.  The kids seemed to get that. They all agreed that there are times when they don’t want to talk about themselves or be in the spotlight, especially about something different.

Then I asked the kids if they had any questions for me about my prosthetic arm or about how I did something.  “Anything,” I said.  “This is a safe space where I encourage questions.” Hands went up slowly, shyly.  Still more kids asked their questions quietly when other things were happening in the class.  For some people, curiosity doesn’t care for the spotlight any more than differences do.

As I left, I said, “If you think of a question later, I’m around on Sunday mornings.  You can always ask me.”  It’s true.  I am a walking safe space.  I wasn’t always this way, and in all honesty, I don’t always feel up to it even now.  There have been several times, usually on a bus ride home after a long day of work, that I’ll purposely avoid potential questions that I don’t feel up to answering right then.  That, of course, is why Jacob’s Eye Patch hits so close to home for me despite my having no personal connection to eye patches (other than the obvious pirate connections that plague both Jacob and me).

The truth is that when I was a kid I didn’t want to be the person who always had to answer questions, explain myself, or have patience with rude comments.  I was more likely to tell some sarcastic story about a car accident or animal attack than answer any real questions.  I’m not proud of that, but I think that it’s probably true for a lot of people with disabilities.  Even for those of us who have been born with our differences, it can take a while to get comfortable with the reality of our story.  I’m not sure exactly when the shift to purposely creating a safe space for curiosity happened for me, but I think part of it started, or at least started growing, in sixth grade when my reading teacher took me aside to invite me to share my perspective of life with a disability to the class as we began a unit on challenges.  At the time, I declined the opportunity to speak up.  I didn’t like the idea of drawing attention to myself as different at that age, and I didn’t have anything important to say on the subject of “challenges.”  Or so I thought.

To start off the unit, my teacher booktalked related titles from our school library.  I don’t remember any specific book titles from that booktalk, but I do remember that they all seemed to have the same theme: life with any kind of disability is really hard.  I remember feeling irritated by this, but I still didn’t think I had anything important to say on the subject.

When the class discussion started rolling, I sat quietly, listening as my fellow students spoke of the characters in the books we were reading for the unit.  I thought: Is that how they think of me? Did they pity me like that?  Was I as “inspirational” to them as the characters in those books?  Was that okay with me?

Eventually I did raise my hand to speak.  I don’t remember what I said.  What stands out to me all these years later isn’t so much that I said the perfect things.  It’s that I was given space to speak and that I was allowed to stay silent, to listen, until I had something to say. I felt valued but also respected and that was so important to my feeling safe enough in that class to speak up.

onehanded-300x442To be honest, I haven’t really stopped speaking since then.  Now that I know the power of sharing my perspective, I have made it an integral part of my personal and professional life.  Last summer, I was invited to be part of a book discussion group at a local public library as they read One-Handed Catch by MJ Auch.  In the group of middle schoolers, I shared how my experience as a congenital amputee compared to Norm’s experience with an acquired amputation in the book.  If the kids took away nothing else from what I had to say, I hope they realized that there is no single disability experience.  There’s not even a single experience of being one-handed!

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her TED Talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

I’m still grateful to that sixth grade teacher who invited me to share my story and let me speak my truth even when it differed from the narratives presented in the class reading material.  She fostered in me an appreciation of safe spaces and open discussion and that has shaped so much of my life now, both professionally and personally.

So, thanks Mrs. MacDonald from Lewis-Palmer Middle School in Monument, Colorado.  I hope you know that you had a positive impact on at least one of your students.

What YA Needs

Back in July, the #YANeedsMore hashtag turned my Twitter feed into a wish list of what librarians, readers, and book people wanted to see published for teens.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I want to add my own. YA needs more congenital disabilities.

Let me put it another way. YA does not need any more stories about tragic accidents or illnesses that affect the protagonists’ ability to do what they love most.  A few examples:

  • A runner loses a leg in The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen.
  • A dancer loses a leg in A Time to Dance by Padma Venkatramen.
  • An artist loses her drawing arm in Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham.

I like all of these books and recommend them often, but I want to tell future YA writers: this story has been told.  Let’s tell a new story.  Some people have had physical differences our whole lives.  Perhaps that could be a story, and I can tell you from experience that story isn’t a tragic one.

Start with a book

I have been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be an ally to people of color or other marginalized groups.  I’ve been seeking out commentary about what someone like me can do to make the world a better place for everyone.  I don’t have all the answers, but I would like to amplify the words of children’s author/poet Nikki Grimes.  She writes:

“Instead of looking the other way while hatred takes root in young hearts and minds, why not try this: Plant the seeds of empathy. Teach the young to feel the heartbeats of races and cultures other than their own. Replace any possible fear of the unknown, with knowledge of the knowable. Teach them the ways in which we humans are more alike than we are different. Teach them that the most important common denominator is the human heart. Start with a book.

Give young readers books by and about peoples labeled ‘other.’ I’m not talking about one or two books, here and there. I’m talking about spreading diverse books throughout the curriculum, beginning in elementary grades, and continuing through to high school. Why? Because racism is systemic and teaching empathy, teaching diversity, needs to be systemic, too.”

I agree wholeheartedly.  Perhaps one of these books will be a good place for you to start:

marketstreet_bg onefamily iamtheworld

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña, One Family by George Shannon, and I am the World by Charles R. Smith.

But don’t stop there.  Keep reading diverse stories and talking about them with kids.  We will change the world one story at a time.

Read More:

A Doll Like Me

dollslikemeI don’t think I would have appreciated a “doll like me” when I was young enough to play with dolls, but I still wish I had had one.

I occasionally saw toys that attempted to represent kids with differences on display at clinics.  There were dolls with hearing aids, stuffed animals wearing braces, and others.  I never saw any with a limb deficiency or a prosthesis like mine, and I was glad because I was mortified at the thought of my parents getting me a disability doll.

I’m not sure I gave it much thought at the time.  I was an introspective kid, but when it came to the toys I liked, I mostly went by feeling.  My feeling was pretty strong that I didn’t want anything “special.” I knew that I felt just like other kids.  I felt totally normal, and so I felt I should have the same toys from the same stores  as other kids.  Not special ordered through a clinic.

I didn’t want to talk about my arm or answer questions about it. Like most kids, I wanted to talk about the things I loved, the things made me me.  My physical difference felt like a distraction from the me I was inside.  Why would I want a toy that emphasized it?

I still understand those feelings, but I’ve thought a lot more about it in the years since I stopped playing with dolls.  I’ve considered issues of representation and identity as they relate to the media kids are consuming and the toys that kids are playing with on a much deeper level than I did when I was eight.  I’ve thought about what it means to have one’s identity erased from public view, and I’ve felt the thrill–yes, I do mean to use that strong of a word–of seeing a usually invisible part of myself represented in the media. Not to mention, I’ve had enough people say “That’s weird” when I say that I was born without an arm to know how important being visible really is.

It took me a long time to realize that I didn’t have to blend in or erase parts of myself to be considered normal.  I just had to move past the obstacle.  I’ve said before: sometimes talking about things makes them less of an issue.  That certainly has been the case for me.

It is because of my childhood feeling of wanting to avoid being special that I am excited about Toys Like Me.  I felt normal, and I wanted normal toys.  So let’s normalize me.  Let’s normalize all sorts of different bodies and experiences for our kids.  Makies, a company that makes customizable dolls, is taking suggestions.  What do you want to see?  Let them know.

Perhaps if I’d had a doll like me when I was a kid, I wouldn’t have spent so long trying to be invisible.

Diversity at AWP15

awpIt’s about listening and humility.

At the AWP conference this past Saturday, I made it a point to attend as many discussions about diversity as I could.  The conference is aimed at writers not librarians–I only dream of calling myself a writer–but I found the perspective quite valuable.  I attended panels that featured writers of color discussing their work and their experiences in the publishing world, and the conversations kept coming back to listening and humility.

Can you write outside of your own experiences, including those of race, culture, and gender?  Sure.  But be aware of the complexity there.  Be aware of the history and the stereotypes that exist. Do your research, but–perhaps most importantly–beware of research.  Facts are good, but they only take you so far.  Facts read from books or gleaned from acquaintances don’t tell the whole story of a race or culture.  Facts don’t get at the intricacies of humor and language.  In her panel Navigating the Waters of Authentic Voice in YA Native Fiction Debbie Reese, who writes the fantastic blog American Indians in Children’s Literature, cautioned that even primary sources about American Indians can be problematic.  She urged non-Native writers to focus on being allies rather than being voices for Native people.

WNDB_ButtonIn the Race in YA Lit panel, writers from various cultural backgrounds shared their experiences with micro-aggressions, self silencing, and burn-out at always having to educate people about privilege and race issues.  There was some frustration in the conversation, but there was also optimism.  A lot of optimism actually.  Just the fact that we were having that conversation about race at a major conference means something.  The fact that #weneeddiversebooks wasn’t just a hashtag fad means something.

“Allies are important,” moderator Swati Avasthi (author of Chasing Shadows) said as she noted that the audience was mostly white. But there were cautions in this session too.  Avasthi said, “If you’re trying to do your research, do it with humility. Don’t go in and speak first.” Varian Johnson (author of The Great Greene Heist) offered this consideration: “Are you writing to exploit or enrich? Are you writing to expand the conversation or because you heard diversity is trendy?”

I spend a lot of time on this blog asking people to listen to me or explaining what people aren’t getting about my experience.  My day at AWP was a really valuable chance to stop talking and listen.  I don’t remember who said it, but this sentiment got a lot of nods: We are all on this journey.  No one has all the answers.  Let’s do what we can to keep this conversation going rather than shutting it down.

In the spirit of enriching the conversation, I offer these links:

Looking beyond labels

goldendomes

Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns by Hena Khan is a beautiful book that provides a child’s eye view of Muslim culture.  The book has received several positive reviews and honors, but it still managed to spark a social media controversy when children’s book author and former educator Kate Messner recommended it to her Twitter followers.

The School Library Journal article about the incident quotes Messner as saying that the Twitter user who took issue with her recommendation, then using the handle “atheistactuary,” seemed to have “set up a search for  Islam, and made it their mission to seek out anyone that had something positive to say about the religion.”  Messner, for her part, maintained a diplomatic tone throughout the exchange.  She promoted diversity and openness in her original post, and she didn’t back down from that in a multi-day back and forth with this Twitter user who seemed intent on painting all Muslims as terrorists, misogynists, or otherwise dangerous.

I can’t be alone in thinking that this controversy shows why books like Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns are important.  We need to humanize people who are different if we want to raise kids who are willing to see beyond their own experiences to make the world a better place.  To see people as individuals rather than as a label full of our preconceived notions.

While I have made no secret of my non-belief–thus making me an atheist or agnostic depending on your definitions of the words–I do believe in people.  I prefer to wear “Humanist” over “atheist” most of the time since that puts people first.  It emphasizes values over beliefs, and that’s important to me.  The specifics of my beliefs about the universe are less important than my values of openness and diversity.

I suppose I am still glowing with a cooperative spirit after reading Chris Stedman’s Faitheist, which encourages non-religious people to get involved in interfaith activism.  It was hugely inspiring, and it has motivated to me to share this specific message: not all atheists are like the Twitter user in this incident.  Please don’t use this as a reason to add to the already strong prejudice against the non-religious.   We are people beyond our label just like Muslims, Christians, and others.  We are as committed to the common good as anyone else.

No matter what your religious affiliation (or none at all), do check out Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns as a way to open a conversation about another culture with young children.  The lush illustrations portray every day life in a Muslim family.  It builds understanding without preaching, and I recommend it highly.  Teen readers might find Growing Up Muslim by Sumbul Ali-Karamali or Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah provide a similar glimpse into Muslim culture.

Check out my For Secular Families page for more posts about children’s books related to religion to promote a people-first perspective in your family no matter what you believe.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.  A portion of purchases made from these links may benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support! :)

Families like Zach’s

This video of Zach Wahls, who was raised by two moms, speaking out about gay marriage has been going around Facebook and Twitter again.  I imagine you’ve seen it already, but if you haven’t, please take the time to listen to this well spoken young man’s words.

You might also be interested in this bibliography I made last year featuring books for kids and teens about LGBT families.  Please feel free to download and share the bibliography with anyone who might appreciate it.  I’m happy to say that the list already needs to be updated.  Here are a few more books for kids and teens that feature LGBT families:

  • Vanita Oeschlager has two books to choose from on this subject.  A Tale of Two Mommies has a boy recounting the ways his moms are different from each other.  It clearly shows how his family isn’t that different from any other.  A Tale of Two Daddies offers the same look at a different family make-up.  Both are reassuring picture books for younger kids.
  • If you are looking for something subtle, you might try Freckleface Strawberry: Best Friends Forever by Julianne Moore.  Now, I know some people have strong opinions on books by celebrity authors, but this book might be of interest for the fact that one of the characters has two moms.  It is a very brief mention, but it not a big deal at all.  Just one aspect of the character’s life.
  • For older readers, I have another celebrity authored title, Playground by 50 Cent. It is aimed at middle schoolers, and it isn’t revealed until well into the book–as the main character becomes okay with it–that the mom’s friend Evelyn is more than a friend.  The book also takes on bullying from the bully’s perspective, and it will probably appeal to kids with an interest in gritty urban fiction.
  • Teen readers might be interested in Calli by Jessica Lee Anderson, which is about a teen in a family with two moms and her relationship with the foster child they take in.  You can download the first five chapters on the author’s web site.

Feel free to share your favorite books featuring LGBT families in the comments. I’d love to have more to add to my list!

Exploring religious diversity from a secular perspective

Perhaps before children start asking questions about belief or spirituality, they start asking questions about people.  Kids notice differences, and it’s important that we, as parents, can listen and respond to our kids when they ask about these differences, including about the different religions in our communities.

Shelley Rotner has several books about diversity for young children, including one about religious diversity.  She writes in the introduction of Many Ways,

“This book is a modest attempt to help young children become aware of the diversity in spiritual traditions and of the similarities between their families and those whose faith-based traditions differ from their own.”

The focus is on the photographs in this book, and there is minimal text.  This may suit families who want to open a discussion based on the photographs while others may find the lack of details frustrating.  Nonetheless, the book is an opportunity to introduce several major religions to young children without overwhelming them.

Faith by Maya Ajmera is a very similar look at religion, though this book provides a bit more context with captions for the photographs as well as some back matter that discusses the elements of faith for older readers (including parents) who want more context.

The publishers description of the book puts it this way, “. . . Faith highlights the common threads that bring people together in reverence and joy.”  I think one of the more interesting opportunities with this book for secular families is to bring themselves into the book.  Ask your kids how we ‘come together in reverence and joy.’  Perhaps you talk about prayer or singing or one of the other aspects of faith pictured and come up with some things that your family does that are similar.  I’d love to see a secular family create their own version of this book with photographs of the ways they celebrate and care for their community or how they connect with something bigger than themselves.

A Unitarian Universalist pastor even wrote a sermon that incorporated Maya Ajmera’s take on faith, which he called  “Love is a Verb.”  Towards the end of the sermon, he lists the ways that Unitarians express their faith in the ways discussed in Faith.

Of course, we needn’t wait for a time when we can sit down with books to talk to our kids about our diverse world.  Look for opportunities to “toss tidbits of religious knowledge into your everyday conversations” as advised in Raising Freethinkers.  We can point out places of worship in our community and connect that with what our kids may know about the religion.  Really, it’s about talking.  And talking…. and talking.


More book recommendations on the For Secular Families page.

What a family looks like

Recently, I was researching kids’ books for National Pet Month, and I came across Let’s Get a Pup!”, Said Kate by Bob Graham, which is a cute story of a family adopting a dog from a shelter.  What struck me as interesting about the book, though, wasn’t mentioned in the text.  If you look closely at the cover, you can see that the parents in the book are not the usual picture book parents.  The dad has a tattoo on his arm, and the mom has a nose ring.  This may not seem like a big deal, but it is pretty rare to see parents like this in a picture book.

Since most people my little one comes into contact with have tattoos or piercings or both (not to mention long hair on men or non-natural colored hair on both genders), I was tickled to see these things presented as a normal (not even worthy of mention) aspect of family life.  This is what my family looks like, after all.

Maybe your family looks like the mixed race family in Norton Juster’s Hello, Goodbye Window, which included a mixed race family in the illustrations without making it an issue book about a mixed race family.

Or maybe one of the families in Monday is One Day looks like yours. It features several different families as they count the days until the working parent(s) can stay at home with their family.  The illustrations show families of all sorts, including a family with two dads, as they go about their lives until the weekend comes.  In our family, we discuss the days as “work days” or “hang out days” each night as I put Ladybug to sleep.  I am excited to share this book with her.

These books are great ways to show kids examples of diversity without making a big deal about it.  It isn’t the main point, but it’s there.  Sometimes that’s all you need.

Of course, there are also times when you may want to be more direct about family diversity.  In light of the fact that  opinions are still divided on GLBT families according to a recent Pew Research Center study and the Marriage Amendment being put to a vote in Minnesota in 2012, I would say that it is time to be direct about our support for all families.  For adults that may mean becoming an informed voter.

Family Book Great Big Book of FamiliesFor our kids, it means talking.  Ask them questions to see what they have noticed or what they have assumed. What do they think of when they think of a family?  What kinds of families do they see in their communities?  You can use books like Todd Parr’s The Family Book or Mary Hoffman’s Great Big Book of Families. Both of these books show many ways families can be different from their houses or pets to celebrations in addition to the variety of people that can make up a family, including GLBT families.  This teacher’s guide from WelcomingSchools.org is a great resource for parents that builds on the ideas in the books.

Diversity is about more than just race.  It is as important to open a discussion with our kids  about family diversity as much as it is to talk about racial diversity.   This article on PBS Parents encourages parents to talk about diversity with their kids.  While the focus is on cultural/racial differences, I think the advice applies to family diversity as well:

“Teaching our children to accept differences may require that we use the power of the internet to learn about differences, that we seek out cultural activities that are out of our community and explore the strength and value in diversity. It is not enough to simply visit cultural events, eat ethnic foods and thus learn about differences from a voyeuristic point of view. Instead, we must make a deliberate effort to get out of the familiar and show our children we mean it. Accepting differences should be how we live our lives.”

We can help create a future in which differences are celebrated rather than feared or shunned by sharing these books with our kids.  We can also seek out community events that celebrate diversity.  Start by attending the Twin Cities Pride Festival this weekend (June 25th & 26th 2011).  You can even join the parade on Sunday with Minnesotans United for All Families to show your support.   Hope to see you there!

Talking about diversity with kids

Po Bronson writes in Nutureshock (which I blogged about here),

“We all want our children to be unintimidated by differences and have the social skills to integrate in a diverse world.  The question is, do we make it worse, or do we make it better, by calling attention to race?”

The book makes a strong case for talking about race with kids, and this column on Newsweek talks a little bit about why and when to start talking about race with kids.  But for those who are looking for concrete suggestions for the “how” part of the discussion, I think that Julius Lester’s Let’s Talk About Race is a great place to start with elementary-school-age kids.  This picture book is designed to generate discussion.  It asks questions and provides much food for thought about the ways that people are different and the ways that we are the same.

Whether talking about race will help or hurt when it comes to embarrassing situations for parents, I’m not sure.  But as I blogged about regarding my physical difference, I’d rather kids ask questions than learn that questions are taboo when it comes to people who are different.

What are your favorite books for talking about diversity with kids?  Share your recommendations here or let’s connect on Facebook.