Sesame Street was as urban as it got for me, growing up in leafy, suburban Raleigh, North Carolina (“City of Oaks”). My parents took my sister and me on trips across the country that included big city visits, but we saw those cities as tourists. Sesame Street showed me in a more personal way – in an imaginative way – a different kind of neighborhood than mine. Everything was crowded in right next to each other – houses, shops – and people who looked and sounded very different from me and each other were talking, laughing, even arguing a little if memory serves. They were loud. Oscar was a little scary but seemed to me an essential part of the urban landscape. Urban meant a little scary, a little loud, and also – very often – friendly. One of the best things this version of urban did for me, I think, was to normalize a colorful world.
Since my girls are grown, I’m not on top of hot programming for the preschool set. But I’ve got a friend who’s recently done a deep dive into current preschool lit. She’s found some wonderful children’s books that make a multicultural world look normal, amidst a sea of less great books with the same (or similar) intent. I’m so thrilled that Jennifer Bostwick Owens is stopping in at Bacon today to share her top picks!
From Jennifer Bostwick Owens:
Winter has come to a close, and the last of my postage stamps featuring The Snowy Day were mailed out with Valentines. Ezra Jack Keats’s acclaimed 1962 picture book starred for the first time a young black boy, and its wide appeal prepared the soil for many vivid multicultural characters to come. Over the years, The Snowy Day has led to a flowering of picture books featuring kids—including memorable heroines—of diverse heritage and of color.
In the way that we parents identified with Peter as he made angels in the snow, preschoolers now will bond with these spunky, caring multicultural girl-protagonists. The books they star in are not didactic—they don’t teach about great achievers or about history, and they don’t overtly emphasize political ideas like inclusivity or female empowerment. These are year-round classics about love, curiosity and possibility. In the five picture books I recommend below for three to five year olds, modern multicultural heroines express the joy of growing up in this wide, colorful world.
I am Josephine (and I Am a Living Thing), by Canadian author Jan Thornhill, stars beginner scientist Josephine narrating a simple story of classification: she is a human being, and she is also a mammal, an animal and a living thing. Kids will be engaged in her project of naming and counting the many cheerful living things that fill the pages. The book has a cumulative effect: it gradually creates the awareness that trees, flowers and ants are alive, just like us. It makes us feel part of the natural world, nurturing empathy for other living things.
Illustrator Jacqui Lee uses an appealing palette of tropical colors—aqua, coral, orange and yellow—to give the book a modern, happy feel. Young kids will want to study the picture of the charming town, with its range of humanity in the windows and on the street. There’s a lot to look at—on one page Josephine snorkels among snapping lobsters, pink jellyfish and a smiling whale, and on another children play soccer and girls carry jugs of water on their heads.
The pictures help tell the story. Josephine has brown skin, curly hair, a baby brother, a dog and plenty of personality. She is a magnetic character, and kids will be interested in how she becomes annoyed with the cat and takes a spill on her rollerskates. Her curiosity and enthusiasm bring her to life. It is Josephine who leads us in counting the human beings on the page, as well as in counting and noticing so many other wonderful living things. (Owlkids Books, 2016.)
Days with Dad, by Korean author-illustrator Nari Hong, is a quieter book of a girl recounting how she loves spending time with her dad. In words and drawings, the young narrator introduces us to her dad and shows us activities they like to do together—ice-fishing, bird watching and singing along to his ukulele. Her dad, she explains without pity, can’t walk. She shares what some of her friends like to do with their dads—ski, ride bikes, etc.— conveying that she doesn’t lack for anything.
Hong’s colored-pencil drawings are charming and cheerful. The narrator’s dad is introduced first in portrait style without his wheelchair and then with it. Depicted in warm colors and solid, large shapes, the dad is a comforting physical and emotional presence. He is joyful and kind. Kids will immediately feel the warmth of this father-child relationship. The two-page spreads are inviting, welcoming us to use our imaginations to join in drinking rainy-day cocoa and building sandcastles.
While she does not have a name, the young narrator (presumably of Korean descent) is an impressive character, not easily forgotten. She helps create the positive relationship through her generosity of spirit, reassuring her dad, for example, when he apologizes that he can’t play soccer with her. She asserts the many wonderful ways they spend time together, focusing on their connection and shared experience. The narrator in Days with Dad is exceptional in her early capacity for gratitude and embracing difference. (Enchanted Lion Books, 2017.)
Latina heroine Rosalba also exhibits a great capacity for love and connection in the beautiful book Abuela, written by Arthur Dorros. This is the story of Rosalba’s flight of fancy—in which she and her grandmother, an immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country, soar over New York City, over the park, the shipyard and the Statue of Liberty. Grandmother and granddaughter give joy and meaning to each other, sharing experience and adventure. Mostly in English, the text contains Spanish phrases that are easy to decipher and fun for non-Spanish speakers to try.
Elisa Kleven’s folk-art illustrations form an intricate tapestry of bright, melding colors. New York City, which elsewhere might be depicted as threatening, is shown here to have pattern and harmony. It is a place of beauty. Kids will be entranced by the gorgeous details in the cityscapes and the imaginative nature of the artwork. At one point, young Rosalba imagines the whole sky as her house, and the accompanying illustration shows her resting in her grandmother’s lap in a chair made of clouds.
Rosalba is a great multicultural heroine; she embraces both her grandmother’s culture and her own. She speaks English, explaining her grandmother’s history and translating for us. She is the active intermediary between her immigrant grandmother and those of us reading. This book is the young girl’s fantasy, yet it’s telling that it’s filled with her grandmother’s stories. Young Rosalba is capable of a wide embrace of culture, spreading a joyful desire to connect with difference. (Puffin Books, 1991.)
The Hello, Goodbye Window, by American author Norton Juster, is another outstanding book centered on the grandparent-grandchild relationship. A happy story of early childhood, this Caldecott winner depicts a family of multiple skin tones and backgrounds. Race is not a heavy theme here; the interracial grandparents simply share laughter and playfulness with their adorable granddaughter. I wish for every child the experience shown here—caring adults who envelop the child in warmth, security and attentive love.
Chris Raschka’s illustrations brim with life, like an overgrown garden in full bloom, created with watercolor, oil pastel and ink in varying lines and textures. In the manner of finger-painting or coloring outside the lines, the scenes are exuberant and free; it’s hard to tell where a house ends and a sky begins. The pictures express the theme: a happy childhood, rich with love.
The main character, a biracial toddler, narrates her own story about spending days at Nanna and Poppy’s house. The hello, goodbye window, she says, “looks like a regular window, but it’s not.” It’s where she playfully announces her arrival and where, from the sidewalk, she waves to the faces of her grandparents to say goodbye until the next visit. It’s her capacity to engage in the so-called regular activities of their days and to reciprocate her grandparents’ humor and love that makes this toddler-heroine stand out. (Hyperion, 2005.)
Finally, I recommend Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue, a beautiful book whose young heroine, stylistically inspired by Japanese comics, possesses special powers and a desire to help. There are no grownups in the story—only Red Knit Cap Girl, her forest friends and a polar bear cub that has lost its mother. Gently removing us from the concerns of everyday life, this is a tale about larger themes such as helping others and the expanse of our natural world. Young kids will love the happy ending when the cub exclaims, “Mama!”
Author and artist Naoko Stoop, of Japanese descent, creates gorgeous seascapes using transparent washes of acrylic on plywood. Like glowing real-life sunsets, the illustrations captivate us: kids and adults will be drawn in by the ethereal colors and mottled, streaked beauty. With varying saturations of yellows, peaches and blues, the grain of the plywood lends texture and nuance, adding to the splendor of the sky and ocean.
Among her small band of friends, Red Knit Cap Girl is the leader. She devises means to rescue the stranded polar bear cub and return him home, by first creating a hang glider out of newspaper and later a sailboat. Receiving help from her friends and guidance from the moon, Red Knit Cap Girl bravely sails north, encountering a violent storm and friendly Orca whales on her journey. She is a great heroine, full of childlike wonder, ingenuity and a big heart for the inhabitants of the natural world. (Little, Brown & Co., 2013.)
These five books would make excellent additions to the libraries of little girls or boys of any race or ethnic heritage because they bring to life memorable protagonists with impressive capacities for imagination and connection. They also forge a space for girls of color and for girls of non-Western-European heritage to thrive without heavy narratives of race or discrimination defining them. These are the types of books I sought out and read to my daughters, and I’ll be mailing these five in particular to my niece Josie in Switzerland this spring, for her fourth birthday. What better gift than inspiration to become a big-hearted author of one’s own life.
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List of books:
I Am Josephine (and I Am a Living Thing)
by Jan Thornhill. Illustrated by Jacqui Lee. Owlkids Books, 2016.
Days with Dad
by Nari Hong. Enchanted Lion Books, 2017.
by Arthur Dorros. Illustrated by Elisa Kleven. Puffin Books, 1991.
The Hello, Goodbye Window
by Norton Juster. Illustrated by Chris Raschka. Hyperion, 2005.
Red Knit Cap Girl to the Rescue
by Naoko Stoop. Little, Brown & Co., 2013.
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Vanderbilt is the gateway drug to Nashville for many, including Jennifer Bostwick Owens!
Jennifer grew up in Washington D.C. then went to college at Stanford, where she studied literature and photography. She stayed in Northern California for over a decade, completing her masters in English at Mills College. She and her husband and their two daughters moved to Nashville in 1998 so he could take a teaching position at Vanderbilt.
What she likes about Nashville? “Lots of creative, progressive, caring people.” She loves her neighbors – and the fact that her neighborhood has sidewalks. A historic overlay helps.
Her favorite ways to relax? Playing ping pong while listening to soul music and 70s R&B. Spending time with her sweet puggle. And – truth be told – she doesn’t mind folding the laundry.
A mutual friend, Katie Greenebaum, first met Jennifer at Whitworth Pool back in the early aughts “when she held court on the chaise lounges down by the shady shallow end. It didn’t take me long to discover that she was a lover of books and words and an irreverent commentator on all of society’s foibles. A fierce and protective mother of two beautiful biracial daughters, she has had a vested interest in the representation of minorities in literature since she met and married her wonderful husband, Vanderbilt Owen School professor Dave Owens, more than 30 years ago.”
“Jennifer is way smart and has a wicked sense of humor that can catch you off guard, meaning she has great timing. She is generous and kind,” adds another mutual friend, Deb Alberts.
Jennifer works part-time as a writing coach at Vanderbilt and enjoys teaching writing one on one. She volunteers reading to economically disadvantaged preschoolers through RIF (Reading is Fundamental).
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Today’s post is brought to you by the letter J.