A Day to Be Inspired and Informed…

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The JFK Library’s annual conference for educators took place last Thursday, and I had the pleasure of serving as co-coordinator. It was a pleasure in every way: the satisfaction of watching teachers and librarians talk about their work, the panelists sharing their stories, the keynote speaker who gave an inspiring presentation, and most of all, the chance to reconnect with an institution – and people – that mean so much to me.

This year’s theme, We the People: Stories of Strength and Struggle in Challenging Times, had a special resonance in this polarized era. Teachers and librarians are navigating the choppy currents of passionate feelings and hard issues, and the opportunity to step back and talk with others is a gift – especially when you are joined by the conferences’ award-winning participants:

Erica Armstrong Dunbar: the Charles and Mary Beard Professor of History at Rutgers University and author of Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, a finalist for the National Book Award.

Joseph Bruchac: Bruchac has been writing novels and picture books that reflect his Native American heritage for over thirty years. His most recent novel is Two Roads, which Horn Book calls a “tautly paced and compelling story of self-discovery, family, belonging, and friendship.” He is also the author of Code Talkers, a novel About the Navajo Marines of World War II.

Lesa Cline-Ransome: the author of many picture book biographies, many of them about prominent African Americans, including Frederick Douglass, Louis Armstrong, and Harriet Tubman. Her two most recent works for young readers are Game Changers: The Story of Venus and Serena Williams and Finding Langston, the story of a young boy growing up in Chicago who discovers the poetry of his namesake, Langston Hughes. In January, Finding Langston was named a 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor Book.

Pam Muñoz Ryan: the author of over forty picture books and novels for young readers, including Echo, a Newbery-Honor book. Esperanza Rising, a fictional account of her grandmother’s immigration story from Mexico to California, is a modern classic and has received multiple awards, including the Pura Belpré Award and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award.

Megan Dowd Lambert is a Senior Lecturer in Children’s Literature at Simmons University. She is the author of Reading Picture Books with Children: How to Shake up Storytime and Get Kids Talking About What They See, which introduces the Whole Book Approach that she developed in association with the Eric Carle Museum in Picture Book. Megan has also written several notable children’s books including A Crow of His Own. She also writes for The Horn Book and Kirkus Reviews, and is a Staff Blogger for Embrace Race: A Community about Race and Kids.

During Erica Armstrong’s keynote address, she talked about the process of writing both the adult version of Never Caught and the new Young Readers Edition.  She also shared more about Ona Judge’s story and the questions that guided her search to learn more about Ona. Dunbar first “met” Ona through a small ad in a New Hampshire newspaper that caught her attention:

“I was totally geeked,” Dunbar said. “Who was this woman and why did she run away from the President’s house?”  Dunbar spent the next nine years trying to answering that question. When George Washington was elected president, he had to leave Mount Vernon to live in Philadelphia which was then the capital. He took several of his enslaved people with him, including Ona Judge. The problem Washington faced was that Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after they had lived in Pennsylvania for six months. Washington decided to work around that law and would rotate his enslaved people between Mount Vernon and Pennsylvania.

Ona Judge was in Philadelphia long enough to meet free blacks and naturally wanted that freedom for herself. “The black freedom,” Dunbar said, “was palpable for a young woman who only knew life at Mount Vernon.” Ona Judge took part in this “slave rotation plan” for six years according to Dunbar, but when she learned that she was to be given as a “gift” to Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Judge had a decision to make: stay in Virginia or try to escape.  In an 1845 interview with a New Hampshire newspaper, she said “I was packing and left while they were eating dinner.”

“I was attempting to re-center the story,” Dunbar said, “to reconcile the Father of Our Country with the fact that he was a slaveholder.”  She challenged us to think about “how image and myth are created.”

One story I found especially interesting is the one about the title of Dunbar’s book: Never Caught. The publisher, she said, had other ideas, but to the author, the words “never caught” tell a story. Ona Judge was not caught; she died in New Hampshire at the age of 75. But, Dunbar said, “she was never free; she spent two-thirds of her life as a fugitive slave.”

Dunbar’s keynote was both illuminating and inspiring – in fact, both the adult and young reader editions of her book sold out about an hour after her presentation concluded. She raised important questions about the books we select for our students to read, the history we teach, the news we hear.

Dunbar’s new project – which she emphasized is in its early stages – focuses on Mary Bowser, a former slave who ultimately worked as a Union spy in the home of Jefferson Davis.

Following Dunbar’s presentation, the panel discussion focused on timely questions about who tells stories. “There are more books being published about diverse people, but not typically written by people in that group,” Lesa Cline-Ransome said.  All of the authors agreed that there is a heightened awareness about who is writing stories. Pam Munoz Ryan spoke frankly about her acclaimed picture book, When Marian Sang. “Could I write that story today?” she asked. “I approached my subject with great respect and lots of research,” she said, “but I was writing outside my own history and culture. Today I would ask myself hard questions before I undertook it.”

Later in the panel, the conversation focused on sensitivity readers, Megan Dowd Lambert introduced a new term – targeted expert readers – that is increasingly being used in publishing.

Overall it was a wonderful day and I have pages of notes, but this is a long post so I’ll stop here!  If you’re a teacher or librarian, put next spring’s conference on your calendar. You will leave with a renewed commitment to teaching and reading books that reflect the lives of all children.

Finally, a few pictures from the day –

The lunchtime discussion leaders: Natacha Scott, Director of History and Social Studies for Boston Public Schools and Dr. Kim Parker, Assistant Director of Teacher Training at Shady Hill School:

Lesa Cline-Ransome signing books:

And me with Dr. Dunbar:

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Heroes and Heroines in Children’s Books

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I began to write an e-mail to a friend this morning and quickly changd my mind.  It occurred to me that the book list I wrote for her might be interesting to other readers, so I decided to respond via my blog.  My friend teaches elementary school, and she plans to open the school year with a discussion of role models. That’s a tough one today, isn’t it?  It seems like every time a public figure is held up as a paragon of virtue, it falls apart. Think Tiger Woods. On the other hand, that’s a great lesson for kids. People are complex, and understanding that every person has both positive and negative attributes enriches their stories.

What I love about school units that focus on heroes and heroines is that they show children what’s possible and how to persevere through challenges.  Kids embark on a creative process every time they open a biography.  While reading about another person, they are feeding their imaginations, and engaged in the work of constructing an identity. Reading is hardly a passive activity.  While a student is reading, they are not only learning something new, they are figuring out who they are, and identifying what’s important to them.  Most of all, through their reading, they are seeing themselves in relation to a bigger world. They are beginning to understand where they fit into their families, their neighborhoods and their world. 

These are the picture books I’m recommending to my friend:

Lou Gehrig: The Luckiest Man by David Adler

Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Kathleen Krull

Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull

Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  by Doreen Rappaport

When Marian Sang by Pam Munoz Ryan

Moses: When Harriet Tubman Let Her People to Freedom by Carole Weatherford

The Librarian of Basra by Jeanette Winter

The Watcher: Jane Goodall’s Life with the Chimps by Jeanette Winter

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter

One more thing….it occurred to me when writing this list that it’s time for a children’s biography about Paul Farmer, the American physician and anthropologist.  I hope it’s being written right now.

The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan

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Ryan takes readers into the world of the young poet who would become the Chilean Nobel Prize winner, Pablo Neruda.  At first, it seems that Neruda’s early life would not make for a compelling middle grade novel, but that idea changes after reading the first few pages of this imaginative and beautiful novel.   As The Dreamer begins, Neftali Ryes, the future Pablo Neruda, is eight-years-old.  My heart broke as I read the early chapters.  Neftali loves words and nature, but his father does not understand his creative and sensitive son. There is a particularly heart-wrenching scene where Neftali’s father forces him to learn to swim, and I found myself wanting to jump back in time and pull Neftali out of the waves.  Of course, Neftali’s passion can not be quenched by his difficult father, and he follows his dream to become a writer.

The book is enhanced by Peter Sis’s drawings.  His surreal images convey Neftali’s inner turmoil, and make the story even richer.  This is the perfect book for a young writer.  I know several students that would be inspired by Neruda’s story, and I’m going to put a copy in their hands as soon as possible.