A while back, a blog post by SF Dads Group member Mike Heenan got me thinking about some of the culturally themed children’s books I’ve read to my son, and thus the idea for this review post was born. We usually read him three books or three chapters of a book every night. 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 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 tries to create artwork portraying herself and others. The girl just wants to use brown paint, but her artistic 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 on an adventure 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 knows that Jackie Robinson is a hero of mine, and my son is named after him. 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, shows up at the boy’s house the next day with a new Christmas tree for him, 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 and silliness; 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. He gets asked “What are you, anyway?” a zillion times. He gets accused by the forks of being too round and 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 we should know of? Let us know by leaving a comment!