Anansi and the Golden Pot (DK Children) Written by Taiye Selasi Illustrated by Tinuke Fagborun
For ages: 3-5 This remarkable retelling of an Anansi story centers on a little boy named after the fabled spider trickster. Anansi, the boy, travels with his family on a plane to Ghana, where the family’s relatives live. While staying at his nana’s seaside home, Anansi meets the actual spider, who gives him a golden pot. This magical pot will fill itself with whatever the boy desires most. However, there’s a catch; he must share the pot with the people he loves the most. This is a fantastic introduction to the stories of Anansi, one of the most well-known African folklore characters. I went in expecting just another simple retelling but placing this in the present day does a lot to freshen up some retold tales.
From top to bottom, Jacqueline Woodson is someone who was born to write. She grew up splitting her life between time in South Carolina and New York, learning a lot from both places. After college, Woodson did a lot of technical writing, from children’s packaging to the California standardized tests. After enrolling in a children’s book writing class led by Delacorte editor Bebe Willoughby, Woodson finally found someone who saw the immense talent she possessed. I find Woodson’s work to be some of the most beautiful and pointed in addressing the social-emotional needs of children, especially Black children. She has been forthright in her opinion that “bleakness” and “hopelessness” have no place in children’s literature without at least a strong notion of hope added to counter them. While Woodson has written for all ages, I am only familiar with her picture book work, and it is some of the best out there right now. She can deftly tackle things many educators may be scared of at the moment, aggressive right-wing movements making it “awkward” to talk about. Woodson’s writing is so laser-focused on speaking to the child that she is not interested in catering to adult hatemongers who want to muddy the child’s thinking.
Duncan Tonatiuh was born in Mexico City in 1984 to an American father and a Mexican mother. Duncan’s family moved to the States when he was a teenager, and he finished high school in Massachusetts. Growing up, Duncan was drawn to the vibrant art of comic books and anime. This inspired him to make his own comics and prompted his exploration of art. In high school, he took up painting and claims his most significant influences to be Vincent Van Gogh and Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. In college, Duncan began studying Mixtec art, the painting style found in indigenous Mexican art of the Oaxaca and Puebla peoples. This art style is the core influence in the children’s books Duncan writes & illustrates. It’s his way of reviving an old art form in a contemporary context that tells relevant stories to children.
I have been increasingly ashamed of the various state legislatures around America who have chosen to devote their energy to eliminating meaningful classroom instruction for people of color. Framed as “Critical Race Theory,” which is a legal theory, not an elementary school concept, these racists intend to hide the truth and promote white supremacy. While activism in some corners has been successful, sadly, in other spots, the majority seem to be clamoring for censorship. Not talking about race as an educator is to do a disservice to your students. Part of me is pleased I walked away from teaching in Tennessee when I did, but I can’t help but feel deeply saddened by the students who will have their history hidden from them. If you are a teacher who refuses to hide the truth, these books provide a fantastic jumping-off point.
It’s calculated that at least 26.4 million people worldwide are classified as refugees, but the number of people displaced as a whole is closer to 83 million right now. If you live in North America or Europe, your life has been touched by these people seeking a safe place to live their lives. To not have the refugee experience represented in your school or classroom library is to do a disservice to the children coming in and out of your classroom. Adults often have the most difficult time getting outside of their comfort zone, and we see it so often with the most pressing human rights issues of our day. Children who are refugees and the children of refugees have a right to be seen in the literature they and their peers are reading. I hope you find some great selections here that you can add to your stacks.
The Water Protectors (Roaring Brook Press) Written by Carole Lindstrom Illustrated by Michaela Goade
For ages: 3-7 Indigenous people have long been protectors of the natural world against industrial expansion. Recently, the Dakota Pipeline was the focus of years of protests by native groups trying to keep their water sources free of contamination. The young unnamed narrator tells us how “water was the first medicine,” the origin of life in all communities. She tells of a prophecy about a black snake who would come to poison the land, and this turns out to be a pipeline pumping oil. The imagery here is gorgeous, rich with metaphor, and incredibly evocative. Throughout the text, the idea of community responsibility and ancestry is emphasized. Students will walk away realizing they are part of a continuum that goes back generations, so they need to think about how they leave this world for the generations to come.
For ages: 3-7 In Cherokee, the phrase “Otsalihelgia” means “we are grateful,” It is a sentiment shown towards each day of life and the passing of time. Author Traci Sorrell was raised in the Cherokee Nation and presents a story about the seasons that also showcases how modern Cherokee life continues many of the traditions of their ancestors. Through a folk art style provided by Frane Lessac, we watch Cherokee people participate in contemporary life: dad’s staying at home to raise kids, a relative in the military deployed. This is intermixed with seasonal rites of passage & traditions like planting strawberries, playing stickball, and holding special community meals. The text also includes a glossary for the Cherokee words used, which helps expand the learning that can be done with this great book.
Bowwow Powwow (Minnesota Historical Society Press) Written by Brenda J. Child/Translated to Ojibwe by Gordon Jourdain Illustrated by Jonathan Thunder
For ages: 3-7 Windy Girl loves many things: Her dog Itchy Boy, her Uncle, and the annual Powwow. She rides around in Uncle’s truck listening to him tell stories about his youth on the reservation. When they arrive, Windy Girl begins to imagine what this big event would be like if the dogs ran it. She imagines the animals running the food stalls, wearing ornate costumes, and engaging in tribal dances. Author Brenda Child has worked with Gordon Jourdain to translate the entire book into Ojibwe, so students get a chance to not just learn about the customs of this particular people but also see their language side by side with English.
For ages: 3-7 First Laugh introduces readers from outside Navajo traditions to a unique cultural experience. For a Navajo family, their baby’s first laugh is a celebratory moment. The book follows a family as they anticipate this moment. Baby yawns and cries but hasn’t laughed yet. The family is shown living in a contemporary urban space with both parents working while Grandmother attends to the baby. Older siblings help take care as we see a beautiful depiction of an intergenerational household. The family also retreats to a rural area where Baby is bound upon a cradleboard as the parents attend to chores around the land. First Laugh reminds us of the beauty in everyday acts, showing how even a baby’s laugh is something to cherish. Unfortunately, author Rose AnnTahe passed away before her debut book was published. Still, she’s left behind a reminder of what we can learn from indigenous people. Celebrate every moment of life as time passes way too quickly.
For ages: 4-8 Award-winning musician Robbie Robertson tells a story close to his First Nations heritage. Hiawatha’s family is killed by an enemy tribe while hunting. This sends the man into a place of despair until the mysterious Peacemaker arrives to offer him hope. This Native wise man guides Hiawatha in forming the Iroquois Confederacy and working through his grief & anger. David Shannon makes many appearances on this list, providing colorful, dynamic illustrations for this beautiful story. The founding of this united tribal group would prove to have significant ramifications, working as a blueprint for America’s founding fathers when they penned the Constitution. One of the most engaging texts I’ve worked on with students.
For ages: 4-8 From the Algonquin people comes this variation on the Cinderella fairy tale. On the shores of Lake Ontario lives an invisible man. All the women in the region wanted to marry him. He was supposedly very handsome, rich, and powerful. The only way to marry him, though, is to prove to his ever-present sister that you have seen him. Woman after woman fails to prove it until the strange rough-faced girl comes to visit. The art here by David Shannon will shock those familiar with his cartoon-ier work; it’s incredibly effective and dark at some points. It’s also a Cinderella story in the most fundamental concept and is its own very engaging tale. Students will be left with a powerful message about the difference between honesty over dishonesty.
Encounter (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers) Written by Jane Yolen Illustrated by David Shannon
For ages: 6-9 The story of Christopher Columbus and his arrival in the New World has seen a lot of clarification in the last few decades. Legendary author Jane Yolen delivers an emotionally moving story of Columbus’s arrival told from the perspective of an indigenous child. The narrator sees both the beauty and the horror of what is happening to their home in some truly effective illustrations courtesy of David Shannon. Yolen has composed a story that is age-appropriate for primary students while not softening the blow of the harm done by the famous explorer. Encounter is a story both children & adults need to hear, and it’s an essential part of reckoning with our past to make a better future.