Upbringings and Imaginings

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our third edition  of  “A Little Birdy Told Me…” in which we feature a guest writer who shares about her favorite cultural children’s books and ideas connected to them.  

Meet Erin Conway–friend, teacher, writer, educational coach and weaver of both textiles and words–as she delves into the importance of “upbringings and imaginings” in children’s literature.

In her own words:

In my previous post, I wrote generally about the opportunity to read stories across reading/age levels within a particular geographical category that Amanda uses to organize her blog in a post titled Family Engagement. The focus of this blog post, Upbringings and Imaginings, is literary biography. In content, this includes traditional tales told to us across our lives and identity assigned texts of which we may or may not be aware. In form, I focus on the strength of shared literary biography created when authors write their narrative into multiple works aimed at varying ages, preschool to adult readers.

Upbringings

In my previous post, I provided conversation starter questions two of which were: What were your favorite books as a child? How? Or, why are they still relevant today? To these I add several more. This time they are common questions to ask an author: Is this story biographical? Which characters are based on people in your own life?

It isn’t difficult to find award winning examples of “Yes”:

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson discusses the author’s childhood as an African American growing up in the 1960s in South Carolina and New York (National Book Award winner and Newbery Honor).

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Enchanted Air by Margarita Engle narrates her experiences growing up as a child of two cultures during the Cold War (Pura Belpré Author Award, YALSA Nonfiction Finalist, Walter Dean Myers Award Honoree).

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Dreamers by Yuyi Morales traces the journey that she and her small son took in 1994, when they immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Almost working as a bridge to the focus of this post, the “My Story” section included after the text, supplies the details of Morales’ experience (Pura Belpré Illustrator Award).

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While these are all books worth reading and discussion, my greater intent of Upbringings is to focus on examples of one author, one story, multiple expressions and decisions about details for all ages. I selected two authors previously recommended on Sailaway Story: Juno Diaz and Sherman Alexie.

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Sherman Alexie’s writing first inspired my exploration. I immediately fell in love with The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, but I never asked the question which of the events in the novel were his own. Instead, I loved his writing and his unapologetic tone. My knowledge of him might have stopped there except for the recommendation by a colleague of his memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. Again, I appreciated his matter of fact expression of even the most difficult aspects of his life. I let the poetry sift through the net of my attention and smiled at his references to indigenous language, language so close to my heart after my experience learning Kaqchikel in Guatemala. Then, memories of events from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian returned on the pages to cut a little deeper when he mentioned them in the context of his real life, for example the death of his sister in a fire. Some weeks later, I passed by the new books display in the Children’s Room. I found an image of a little boy on his father’s shoulders accompanied by the title Thunder Boy Jr and the name Sherman Alexie. I smiled remembering the number of pages spent in Alexie’s memoir around the common practice of the name “Junior” and his own internal reflection on identity. I saw the book listed on a storytime event centered on Native American literature, and I wondered what that conversation would be like if the adults were exposed to You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me at the same time the children read Thunder Boy Jr. For me the depth of understanding of any of those texts would have been much less without the other, and the strength of the author writing across ages allows conversation within families around the same author’s stories and how different members of the same family tell their own to themselves and each other.

Islandborn_CV_HR-233x300My second encounter with this type of author crossover occurred through Juno Díaz’s picture book Islandborn. For a more detailed summary of this book, I refer you to a Sailaway Story post https://sailawaystory.com/category/central-america/. I was drawn to the main character, Lola, and the way she was able to construct her story through multiple stories in the community around her. When I realized Islandborn was Díaz’s first picture book, I wanted to read an adult novel with the hope of a similar kind of insight that Alexie’s memoir had provided into his children’s literature.

I selected The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I was not disappointed. I will warn that this novel is not for the feint of ear. Díaz’s language is harsh and his description of discrimination in the Dominican Republic based on skin color and societal attitudes toward women are not easy to read. Teenage Oscar who lives in New Jersey with his mother and sister dreams of being the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkein. Oscar guided me from the first pages through the harsh realities of Trujillo’s dictatorship, also alluded to in Islandborn as simply “A monster fell upon our poor Island. . . It could destroy an entire town with a single word and made a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.” Set against the backdrop of the adult detailed narrative, the themes of history, memory and immigration explored by Lola are richer in opportunity for deeper conversation.

Imaginings

Individual groups name and have varying affinity for different types of traditional tales: fairy tales, faith based narratives, legends, myths, creation stories, to name a few. It makes me wonder, when authors are not telling about themselves in small or large ways, how often are they retelling their own favorite stories? My most recent example is Pride: A Pride and Prejudice Remix by Ibi Zoboi which I serendipitously read after Díaz’s works had provided me with context surrounding the Dominican Republic and Haiti and another young adult novel steeped in Yoruba religion, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi.

Documented research on mirror neurons details how stories shape who people see themselves as and who they want to become. This is also true when looking at the way in which stories are retold, who is in charge of the retelling and how variations are labelled: multicultural, fractured, feminist, to name a few. Moreover, discussions about diverse literature address the fact that the success of the retelling is very much dependent upon the author and his or her previous connection with the story itself. Amanda has created a community of education and storytelling that is not only geographical but generational. So, in order to explore this dynamic a little more, I consider not individuals, but families. From my own interactions, or lack of, with my parents, I pose that the discussion of upbringings makes the imaginings even more meaningful.

My father is the constant rewriter. My earliest memory is how he had changed the lyrics to children’s stories and songs we listened to on old 45s. While the retellings remained purely fiction, he wrote his life and himself into them. He does it so frequently that I keep my notebook nearby for use in my own novels. He does it so easily that he forgets the ideas he gives me. While he thinks I am the reader in the family, the repetition of particular titles mark those stories that made the greatest impact on him. Our most recent conversation was about the controversial picture book, Little Black Sambo. He was the first to admit, “I didn’t remember the story. Just the pancakes. I loved pancakes too.”

The first published version of this story was a rewrite built upon colonialist views, identity confusions, poorly assigned/considered character names, and prejudiced caricature.   I shared Chrisopher Bing’s version with my father. This version illustrates Sambo as an African child in the country of India. This Handprint Books version with Christopher Franceschelli’s notes on the fluidity of setting as culture and geography is particularly interesting as well as articles like the one found at https://www.saada.org/tides/article/little-black-sambo.

I would encourage you both to seek out diverse and/or recently published retellings of the stories you remember affectionately as well as to read the back pages and author biography’s to understand more about the individual doing the telling. Sailaway Story recommends many selections to help you to begin.

My mother claimed not to be creative. Regardless of what she may or may not have come to imagine, she died before she could. This means that I rely on other author’s imaginings of womanhood and Judaism at the same time I seek to write characters with both of those identities. The novel in verse, Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough is an interesting example of this kind of story. I knew that the narrative based upon the life of painter Artemisia Gentileschi would stress historically erased examples of strong women. Artemisia is more talented than her father but her life decisions are framed by the choice of either grinding his paint pigment’s for the rest of her life or becoming a nun. What I did not realize prior to reading was the embedded role that the Jewish heroine Judith would play. As fate would have it, I had also come upon Judith’s story when I was looking for a strong female heroine from the Jewish canon. Like McCullough, I had included her history in my novel. Still, the connection to Judith’s tale is relatively new for me, and McCullough’s imaginings made me feel a part of a community of storytellers that could validate my own.

There are a variety of questions to consider when selecting a story that you do not consider “your own”:

  •  Does the author share background or common experiences with the book’s content?
  • How or where did the author conduct his or her research?
  • Do the illustrations support diverse/multicultural book initiatives?
  • How could you verify or who do you know that might verify the veracity of a particular book about a field in which you have little experience?
  • Does the picture book authentically capture the nuances of a particular group or does it generalize or stereotype?
  • Are you selecting a balanced collection between books that celebrate a group, honor their past and/or struggles, and reflect an everyday experience?
  • How does the book positively frame identity development and self-esteem?
  • Is the author or group the usual subject for this particular content? If so, who else might be a less known figure with a similar message?

In closing, I admit to an inclination for reading nonfiction about histories of storytelling as a narrative all on its own, how creation stories form identities, how stories have identities and the importance of story as history and memory. If you share this interest, I recommend the books below:

Bernheimer, Kate, ed. (1998). Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their

Favorite Fairy Tales. Anchor Books: New York.

Burger, Ariel. (2018). Witness: Lessons from Eli Wiesel’s Classroom. Houghton Mifflin

Harcourt: Boston.

Conway, Jill Ker. (1998). When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. Alfred A.

Knopf: New York.

Wall Kimmerer, Robin. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific

Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Editions: Canada.

For further information about my history collaborating with Amanda you can refer to my first post, On Family Engagement, in her “A Little Birdy Told Me” category. For more of my book critique or short essays/literary posts on diversity and identity, check out my blog at http://www.erinconway.com.

Big Red Lollipop

Regional focus:  South East Asia Diaspora

Author: Sophie Blackall

Illustrator:  Rukhsana Khan

Genre:  children’s literature

I’ve been away from academia for a long time…two decades to be exact.  While I love children’s literature and enjoy delving deep into the cultural themes depicted in stories for young audiences, I am rarely challenged to explore all angles of  my book choices.

Mohit, a friend for years, bilingual educator, teacher trainer, global citizen and a current graduate student at the University of Texas, Austen has been visiting La Puerta Abierta for the past two weeks leading teacher workshops, modeling multimodal language activities and living the day-to-day with our students and staff at our center.

In between his activities with our school community, I take advantage of ten minute time gaps to “talk” children’s literature with him and to catch the pulse on current trends and on-going controversies in the realm of education.  There are moments when I fear that I’ve been away from the academic circuit for too long, like when we plunged into the children’s classic Tikki Tkiki Tembo by Arlene Mosel, published in 1968.  I remember repetitively  listening to a recording of Tikki Tikki Tembo on my plastic record player as a child, marveling at the illustrations that transported me to far away and “exotic” places.  I memorized the tongue twister of sounds that accompanied the name of the main character.  In fact, Tikki Tikki Tembo has also become a favorite for teachers and students at La Puerta Abierta.  Hence, when  Mohit discussed the cultural misreprestentations so abundantly present in the story, I was bewildered.  I pulled my tattered childhood copy of Tikki Tikki Tembo off my  shelf and reread the text and examined the illustrations.  The lack of cultural authenticity was startling.

I  recently purchased Big Red Lolipop when a friend recommended it and I quickly fell in love with the bright, bold illustrations by Sophie Blackall and Rukhsana Khan’s tale of  sisterly dynamics.  Khan and Blackall  create scenes that are in many ways universal, and yet, provide the reader with a unique glimpse of life of a Pakastani family living North America that is distinctly authentic.

I was convinced that I had discovered my next title for Sail Away Story, and then…I talked with Mohit! I learned that yes, in the academic world, there is some criticism of Big Red Lolipop.  For example, why does Ami (the mother of the main character) not know what a birthday party is?  Many Pakastani’s do celebrate birthdays and a reader might make assumptions that Ami is simple or unengaged.

That said, Mohit did endorse Big Red Loliop.  In his words:

The book will resonate with South Asian children and allow  all readers a window into the domestic life of a Pakistani family in North America that is “just like other families” in some ways, and different in others.

Later in the day he sent me an essay by Rudine Sims-Bishop which he had studied in a previous graduate course.  Sims-Bishop states “books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange.  These windows are also sliding doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author.  When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.  Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of a larger human experience.  Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

Big Red Lollipop provides both windows and mirrors for our young readers as they begin to understand themselves and the world at large more profoundly.

While I have no plans of returning  to the world of academia in the near future, I remain grateful for friends and colleagues who connect me to current trends in education and cultural representation, and in turn, encourage me to delve deeper in my understanding of children’s literature.

About:

Big Red Lollipop is a story told from the perspective of Rabina, who is invited to her first birthday party.  When her mother (Ami) insists that she must bring her little sister Maryam along to the celebration, Rabina is mortified and worried not only about what the other children will think of her, but what disasters her sister will ignite.  Maryam does spark a whirlwind of chaos, and Rabina is furious.  However, as the story progresses, we learn that sisterly love often surpasses sibling squabbles and that  forgiveness is a powerful tool.

What I love:

  • Blackall’s artistic choices and attention to detail  with Ami’s salwar kameez (traditional dress of women in the Punjab region), the raja (quilt) on the children’s bed and the embroidered pillows on the sofa allow the reader to glimpse into the lives of a Pakistani family living in North America.
  • Khan’s message goes deeper than “fair is fair.”  She explores real solutions of compassion and forgiveness.
  • In a time when islamophobia is very much alive, I am hopeful to find children’s books that represent Muslim characters in dignified, every-day roles.

Themes:  South East Asia Diaspora, forgiveness, family

Discussion:

  • Why do you think that Ami might not be familiar with birthday parties?
  • What are a few clues that help you to understand that Rabina’s family has origins in a different country?
  • What is forgiveness?  When have you had to offer forgiveness to another person?  Have you ever had to ask for forgiveness?
  • Who do you identify most with in the story?  Why?

Connections:

  • What is your favorite sweet?  Draw an exaggeratedly big picture of it in the style of Blackall’s  lollipop.
  • Rabina’s family is originally from Pakistan.  Find Pakistan on a map.  Investigate interesting facts about the country and culture.
  • Make a list of ways you could welcome a new immigrant  like Rabina into your school, community or neighborhood.
  • Listen and watch  Rukhsana Kahn read Big Red Lollipop here.

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We’ve Got the Whole World in our Hands

Regional focus:  The Whole World

Author & Illustrator: Rafael Lopez

Genre:  children’s literature

Collecting my thoughts for Sail Away Story is a weekend indulgence.  My day job is Director of La Puerta Abierta School and Library in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala.  Last month, our project embarked on a large-scale fundraising campaign to ensure a forever home for our school and outreach programs.  We’ve been busy sharing our story of growth and achievements with supporters and potential donors.

Recently I was challenged by a family friend from California who asked,  “How does a contribution to a school project in Guatemala affect me?”

For a second I was silent and stunned.  I felt myself crawling inward, like a turtle withdrawing into her shell; clearly the potential donor and I  had different global perspectives and priorities.  And then, I found my voice, which wasn’t exactly a roar,  but more like the steady and stable dialog of a melodious blackbird in my garden at  dawn.

“How does supporting education in Guatemala affect me?”

 Let’s talk!

We  live in a world that is an intricate  web of connections and interdependencies.  When we are encouraged to think about what is equitable and just, we can see beyond the initial “me.”  We become aware of the wider world and our role as global citizens.  We understand the complexities of social injustices and feel inspired to be agents of change for the well-being of our world.

If we are to examine the question in more tangible terms, we can connect current issues of immigration of Central Americans north, as they flee social and political injustices.  Among the long list of injustices sits the right to a dignified education.  While I understand that I am oversimplifying complex issues (I am a preschool teacher after all:), I recognize that if we, as global citizens were able to invest in education across boundaries, some families would have more investment in staying in their country of origin and have less necessity to flee.  And now let’s imagine that those children who stayed in their country of origin and received a dignified education grew up with the skills and tools to be agents of change, and then invested in their community, both locally and globally.  Might this one initial act of kindness affect you?  I’ll let you decide.

While I was born and raised in California, I have spent more than half my life in Central America.  My husband was born in Brazil and his parents are Belgian.

My daughters (E) who is twelve and (C) who is nine were born in Guatemala and their first words were in Spanish, “agua,” “mama” “nana.”

While there is a sprinkling of expatriates in our town, the foreign community is small, and my daughters are often asked in casual conversation to share their stories.  Visitors will probe, “Where are you from?”  What languages do you speak?”  “Who are you parents?”  and eventually, “What is you nationality?”

The last question in particular, one that seems simple and straight forward, takes curious minds down a windy road of explanation.  (E) might share that her mom is from the United States and that her father is Belgian, but born in Brazil, and that she was born in Guatemala and possesses both Guatemalan and US citizenship. At the end of the dialog, she’s likely to confess that she feels Guatemalan but looks North American.  (C) might say that technically she’s Guatemalan, but that she is also a mix of Belgium, the United States and Brazil.  After a long-winded dialog (she likes to talk), she’d reveal that she’s a global citizen, a child of the world.

At then, my heart skips a beat, as I imagine a world without boarders, where empathy flows across religion, culture and nationality. When packaged in a child’s perspective, world-peace almost seems attainable.

As I struggle to make sense of the psychology of adults, I often look to children’s books that illustrate in both words and pictures complicated topics in approachable packages.  The joyful picture book, We’ve Got the Whole World in our Hands, by Rafael Lopez gracefully brings insight into the concept of Global Citizenship.

The next time someone asks “How does supporting education in Guatemala affect me?” I’ll be better prepared.  I may suggest that they read We’ve Got the Whole World in our Hands, or invite them to join a class at La Puerta Abierta.  

I might simply share the wise words of Rafael Lopez, “It seems wherever we look these days, there is talk of the things that divide us.  With this book, I wanted to express a message of hope to children that we are all in this together, that each and every child is an essential part of the big, amazing planet we call home.”

About:

Lopez’s We’ve Got the Whole World in our Hands brings new life and perspective to a beloved  folk song first published in 1927.  Using the metaphor of a ball of yarn which soars across the book’s  pages, across boarders,  and with the aid of his vibrant illustrations, Lopez demonstrates how we are all connected and celebrated in the spirit of friendship,  love and peace.

What I love:

  • Lopez’s illustrations are cheerful and diverse.
  • Lopez uses a very simple concept as a tool for complex topics and discussion.
  • Lopez has also published a bilingual (English-Spanish) version of his book.

Discussion:

  • In your own words, what does the metaphor “We’ve got the whole world in our hands,” mean?
  • Have you ever helped another child, adult, or animal?  What inspired you to lend a hand? How did you feel while you were helping?
  • Do you feel that you are similar or different from children who live in other parts of the world?  Why or why not?

Connections:

  • Become a global citizen.  Learn about children from different cultures or countries than your own.
  • Create a collage of the diversity that can be found across the globe.  Keep in mind that there is diversity amongst people and geography.
  • Exchange letters with a pen-pal in another city, state or country.  Ask questions. Share stories.
  • Represent the metaphor “We’ve got the whole world in our hands,” in a drawing.

 

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We Are Grateful–Otsaliheliga

Regional focus: The Cherokee Nation, North America

Author:  Traci Sorell

Illustrator:  Frane Lessac

Genre:  children’s literature

I have lived in  an indigenous Maya community in Guatemala for 17 years now, nearly half of my life, and for most of my adult years.  While I am not an expert on the Tzutuhil Maya who have lived for generations in Santiago Atitlan, the village I call home, I have accumulated a deep appreciation and understanding of the Tzutuhil culture via daily immersion in a highland Maya town.

I grew up in California, which is also land deeply rooted in Native American history.  Ironically, I learned very little about Native American culture as a child.  What exposure I did receive about the indigenous people was generic and superficial.  I remember tasting fry bread at town fairs and assuming that the greasy snack was “authentic” and learning to make “leather” vests out of crinkled paper grocery bags around the time of Thanksgiving to replicate the clothing of  Native Americans.  Rarely did I learn of the cultural values, traditions, folklore or struggles of  Native Americans.

 I recently had the opportunity to travel to the East Coast of the United States with Ana, second-grade teacher at Puerta Abierta Atitlan.  The journey was a year-in-the-making colaboration between Living Threads Co. and The National Museum of Women in the Arts.  In addition to being a phenominal educator, Ana is also a valued artisan of the Mothers’ Artisan Initiative at La Puerta Abierta . She was selected to be the first recipient of the Global Artisan Exchange Scholarship via Living Threads Co.  I could dive into a deep tangent about our amazing week on the East Coast, but instead, I will encourage you to read more about our experience here.

When Ana was asked where she’d like to visit in DC on her free day, she quickly selected The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, and I was over the moon to join her. We walked the multi-story museum in awe of  artifacts and exhibits of the Native cultures of the Western hemisphere.  

While perusing the museum gift shop, I discovered Traci Sorell’s picture book “We are Grateful,” and instantly fell in love.  Perhaps her words won me over, or Frane Lessac’s bright and cheerful  illustrations caught my eye.  Maybe, in the moment, I was simply overcome with gratitude for the experience to be soaking in and celebrating indigenous culture with  a friend.   Most certainly, I was overjoyed to discover a beautiful children’s book that so accurately and honestly represented a deep value of the Cherokee Nation, otsaliheliga or, gratefulness.

About:

Traci Sorell introduces us to the Cherokee Nation concept of otsaliheliga, a word used to express gratitude.  As we journey through the year with a contemporary Cherokee family and their tribal nation, we learn how they  express thanks for celebrations big and small.

What I love:

  • I appreciate the contemporary descriptions and illustrations of a modern Cherokee family.
  • Sorell’s message of acknowledging gratitude in our day-to-day is valuable for both children and adults alike.
  • Lessac’s illustrations are colorful, innocent and expressive.
  • The book contains  Cherokee vocabulary and  syllabary.

Themes:  indigenous people, gratitude, seasons,  community

Discussion:

  • In your own words, what does gratitude mean?  What are you grateful for?
  • Does your community/family honor traditions or celebrations during the different seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall)?  If so, how do you celebrate them?
  • In We Are Grateful, we recognize that the Cherokee people express profound gratitude to Mother Earth for her many blessings ( crops, seasons, trees, snow, animals, etc.)  What are  you grateful for that can be found in your natural surroundings?

Connections:

  • Create your own gratitude book with pictures or  words describing what you are grateful for.
  • Learn more  about the Cherokee Nation here.
  • If you live in North, South or Central America, investigate what indigenous groups of people were present where you currently live prior to the discovery of the Americas by European explorers.

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On Family Engagement

Today’s Sail Away Story post is our second edition  of  “A Little Birdy Told Me…” in which I feature a guest writer who shares about her favorite cultural children’s books or global schools.

Meet Erin Conway–friend, teacher, writer, educational coach and weaver of both textiles and words–as she delves into the importance of a book concept in education  called Family Engagement.

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In her own words:

I am not old, but I have lived many teacher lives.  I began my professional career as a bilingual teacher in the Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, but my desire to seek a deeper understanding of my students and foster intercultural connections in the field of education lead me to accept a Peace Corps assignment in Guatemala.  It was during my Peace Corps years in Guatemala that I first met Amanda, and I have been fortunate to benefit from both personal and professional exchanges since then. For ten years (2005-2015), I worked both teaching and training teachers in Guatemala. These experiences were instrumental in crafting my instructional practices with expanded definitions of teacher and continue to impact my current work in outreach, coaching educators and consulting on multicultural/diverse literacy programs and resources in Wisconsin today.

“Who is your blog’s primary audience?” I asked Amanda shortly after I began writing.

“My best guess,” she responded. “Would be educators and parents and people who like me.”

I read those final words multiple times incorrectly as “People like me.”

And who are those people?

Like Amanda, I was an avid childhood reader, and books remain a means to both expand my world as I look forward, as well as make sense of my life as I look back. But, it was during a writing class my first few months in Wisconsin after returning from Guatemala that I voiced how integral books had been to my profession as much as my person. For the workshop, I had written a modern fairy tale about teaching and blank books, travelling and (re)writing your own story. The day my story was critiqued, I had stayed behind after class, sitting side by side with my writing instructor.

“What do you like about teaching?” she had asked while I bit back tears of embarrassment. My classmates’ comments had not been exactly what I expected. “The purpose for this story, you have to narrow it down.” The instructor was very matter of fact. “Why are you a teacher?”

Once upon a time, I had started professional development with questions like that with classroom teachers and parents, with children and adults. My mind shot to the books my mother had written with me. Recycled paper with stick figures and a few words. “The storytelling,” had slipped out with tears I’m not sure I hid.

If you are an adult and enjoy reading books suggested on this blog, you are not alone. My own analysis of diverse book lists for adults are too often crowded with VERY academic/thick texts. This research also tends to be EXTREMELY depressing which I do not believe is the most effective way to inspire human relationships or agency. If you are a classroom teacher and/or parent reading Sailaway Story, you may be familiar with the concept of Family Engagement. Family Engagement in education is best described as commitment and intention developed through communication between all parties, child, caregiver, school/community. This ideal influences how I select resources.

At its foundation, themes addressed by the books described are similar to those integral to other selected books on Sailaway Story’s blog: adolescent leaders, bravery, courage, hardship, friendship, kindness, ancestors, traditions, war, loss, memory, immigration, family, journey, community, responsibility, survival, optimism, empathy, hope. My focus on book groupings made up of diverse stories is the variety of formats (adult/juvenile non fiction, picture books, graphic novels, illustrated fiction, juvenile/adult fiction) in order to facilitate conversations across ages. I create these book clusters because it provides links into diverse literature that allows for all experience and reading levels to read on the topics and to encourage discussions beyond school walls.

Parents and classroom teachers, young and old, readers and listeners are all storytellers. No matter who you are, as you read I would encourage you to talk about:

  • What were your favorite books as a child?
  • How? Or, why are they still relevant today?
  • Do you see any of your favorites reflected in children’s selections?
  • How might a children’s book engage adults in conversation? And, vice versa, how might you encourage complex themes to be discussed with children?
  • What is your story? How would you tell it? In paragraphs, pictures, poetry?

In honor of the region of the world where Amanda and I first met, the first selections are all related to Latin America. I arranged them from general to specific to general in scope and somewhat chronologically.

Since the Peace Corps welcome packet had arrived at my door complete with a recommended reading list, I was familiar with U.S. intervention in Latin America. Amanda referenced this type of story in her previous selection of Caminar by Skila Brown. What I learned while reading Tango War: The Struggle for the Hearts, Minds and Riches of Latin America During World War II by Mary Jo McConahay was the fight for the allegiance of Latin America beginning during World War II and the impact still felt today. One example of the implications of World War II politics is detailed in the young adult book in verse Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba. Margarita Engle is a masterful voice of little known stories and her young adult novel in verse illustrates in the story of a young Jewish boy’s attempted escape from Europe the complex themes in McConahay’s large scope.

An Uninterrupted View of the Sky by Melanie Crowder speaks through present day voices about the same struggle for hearts, minds and riches of Latin America. In order to appease U.S. efforts to win the “war on drugs” Bolivia responded to pressure to make increased numbers of drug related arrests. Crowder’s novel follows the arrest of a father on false charges and sent to prison by a corrupt system that targets the uneducated, the poor, and the indigenous majority. The final books, a picture book and an adult novel, illustrate the narrative of immigration, its hope and its obstacles. In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende is narrated by three different people, a Chilean lecturer who completed her education in Canada after securing escape from Chile in the 1970s, a human rights professor, son of Jewish immigrants and an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant. Each one of them, if not in the political definition of the term, are dreamers. And, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales is the illustrated autobiography of her immigration story.

Recommended Websites:

http://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/documents/tt_abc_respect_for_families.pdf

https://www.edutopia.org/blog/kitchen-table-connections-re-envision-homework-clare-roach

socialjusticebooks.org

weneeddiversebooks.org

“What do you like about teaching?” This question that I return to for purpose is the question I pose to you, Sailaway Story reader, because my heart will always be in the answer I gave to my writing teacher on that October evening with my own narrative swirling in red ink. It will be the same as my classroom days when I impressed upon my students that everything was a story and that the same story could be told in an unnamed number of ways. I am an educator. I am not a parent. I do like Amanda. And, the books we choose to read make us storytellers.

When I have the opportunity to post as a guest storyteller on Sailaway Story, my contribution will be to connect books that connect individuals to more ways, formats, languages, to tell and hear stories. I also manage a website and blog that can be found at www.erinconway.com where I often write about diverse books as both a reader and author. Previous publishing credits include the Midwest ReviewThe Sonder ReviewVine Leaves Press and Adelaide Literary Magazine.

La Puerta Abierta

 

Sail Away Story is a celebration of children’s books and innovative schools from  around the world, and while our lists of children’s books and juvenile novels continue to grow, our selection of innovative global schools remains small and incomplete.  I sigh and chuckle…why have I not written about la Puerta Abierta, the school I co-founded in rural Guatemala 12 years ago, the learning center I love and know intimately?   How does one begin to describe a “project” that feels much more like a daughter or a son, a living being that is growing, changing and evolving over time?  How can I find the objective voice in a creation that remains so close to my heart?  How do I wrap a school that I live, breath, experience every day into one short blog post?  I am still not sure, but the glass of wine at my side and the glorious setting sun over Lake Atitlan that meets me at my office window is offering guidance and support on the first night following the first day of school of the 2019 school year.

La Puerta Abierta which now hosts 118 students from preschool through fifth grade has grown into so much more than a school.  It’s a culture, an ambiance, a sentiment.

At the 4th grade parent orientation meeting last week, we shared hopes and dreams for the children of our families.  Words like empathy, humanity, friendship and generosity were bounced between the conversation as if they were common parts of speech.  My heart melted.  I remembered asking parents the same question 8 years ago when we welcomed our first group of students at our center.  The discussion was focused on academic accomplishments.  Parents had dreams of their 4 year olds learning to write, complete math equations and speak English in the duration of a year.  While I was touched by their ambitious scholastic dreams, I understood that a successful early childhood experience would also need to embody creative play, socialization, problem solving, and exploration.

Today I watched with a giant smile as those once preschool students walked confidently into 5th grade and were greeted by an amazing mentor and teacher who is committed to collaborating with them throughout the school year.  I observed our kindergarten class listen with captivation to a story read by their teacher under a tree in the school garden.  I saw Angel, our first autistic student join into the morning meeting in 2nd grade and I witnessed a new group of preschool students begin to play, explore, dream.  I watched Jaunita, the genuine and talented director of la Puerta Abierta, welcome parents with a warm “buenos dias,” as she was simultaneously greeted by new and old students with warm hugs.

Love.  Gratitude.  Kindness.  Creativity.  Compassion.  Ingenuity.  Appreciation.  Acceptance.  Integrity.  These are the ingredients for a dignified education. This is the recipe for la Puerta Abierta.

To learn more, please visit our webpage at www.atitlanabierta.com.

At the Same Moment Around the World

Regional focus:  The Whole Wide World

Author and Illustrator:  Clotilde Perrin

Genre:  children’s literature

It’s 9:00 am on a Sunday morning in Brussels, Belgium and the colors from my window have only now changed from black to gray.  My daughters are preparing for the cold outside as they layer their sleepy, warm,  bodies  in tights, pants, shirts, sweaters, scarves, thick socks and mittens.  Soon, they will journey to the neighborhood bakery for fresh croissants and petit pain au chocolat which they will bring back to the apartment in a paper bag.  In the meantime, I’ll heat milk for hot chocolate,  and water for black tea.

We are 7 hours earlier than our friends in Guatemala, three hours earlier that our friends in Brazil, 9 hours earlier than our family in California and 4.5 hours behind  our friends in India! These are the time zones I have saved on the world clock app on my iPhone.  Nearly every day my youngest child Chloe, will ask about her friends in various places around the world, and she will wonder where they are and what they are doing at the same exact moment.  When she is on the metro at 4:00 PM in Brussels, her best friend Lupita in Guatemala might be making tortillas with her mom where its 10:00 AM and her friend Khushi in the Indian Himalayas  might be crushing cardamom and ginger to make a spicy cup of chai tea to keep her warm where it’s 8:30 PM.  Chloe and I will marvel over the idea that not only the hour changes according to time zone, but also the daily activities of children around the world change.  Her morning commute to school in Guatemala which includes a tuc-tuc, a boat, and a walk looks very different from her Belgian cousin’s commute.   Nell rides her bike to school every morning.

As an adult I continue to be mesmerized by the mini worlds within our big world. The act of boarding a plane in Central America  and exiting an airport in Europe 15 hours later  still feels like a feat of the future, a science fiction fantasy.  I imagine the magic of travel is all the more potent for the child mind.

About:

In Clotilde Perrin’s whimsical book, At the Same Moment Around the World, we peek into the lives of individuals around the globe and catch a glimpse of the lives of Benedict drinking a cup of hot chocolate in France, Mitko catching the school bus in Bulgaria, and Lilu enjoying lunch on a Himalayan mountain. Clotilde Perrin takes readers eastward from the Greenwich meridian, from day to night, with each page portraying one of (the original) 24 time zones.

What I love:

  • Time zones are fascinating and confusing for children and adults alike.  “At the Same Moment Around the World” provides a fun and informative platform to teach children about the topic.
  • Perrin’s illustrations are whimsical and magical.
  • “At the Same Moment Around the World” creates a platform for young readers to learn about children in other countries and cultures.

Themes:  culture, time zones, diversity

Discussion:

  • Do you have friends who live in countries different from your own?  What do you think they are doing in this moment?
  • How is it possible that it might be day in one country and night in another?
  • What would snapshots of your day in different moments  look like (7:00 AM, 1:00 PM, 4:00 PM)?

Connections:

Sun Unit Study - Day and Night (4)