My book group buddies and I talk, occasionally, about books.
In our monthly meetings, complete with wine and nachos, we are sure to give the book we’ve chosen at least a portion of our discussion. The lion’s share goes to our children, relationships, job changes, health, travels and recent political events.
Though I’m often the one to say, “Okay, to get back to the book…” I suspect that if someone mapped our conversations, they’d be able to trace a fairly direct line from most of our “digressions” to the book on the table.
This month’s selection, for instance, was Americah, a rich novel about a Nigerian woman who emigrates to the United States, where she works, attends college, teaches, has relationships and blogs about being a “non-American Black,” before returning to Africa and reconnecting with an old flame. This provided us with jumping-off points to interracial marriage, divorce, relations between New Mexican Hispanics and Mexican immigrants, Berkeley in the ’60s, Ferguson and the midterm elections — all this before the check arrived. All issues close to our personal lives, all connected to themes in the book.
For young readers, whose developing minds are still rooted in imagination, a book might take them anywhere, provided that it engages them to begin with. That’s why I’m excited to see a trend in the world of children’s books. Kids’ lit characters — limited not long ago to nuclear, white, two-parent families with a dog and a cat — reflect a growing range of ethnicity, nationality, ability, disability, gender orientation and family composition.
Judith Nasse, in her article “Imitating Life,” emphasizes that the diversity reflected in children’s books still falls far short of the diversity of real life. Existing book collections, particularly in underfunded schools and libraries, are likely to have a disproportionate number that fit the old image of “normal,” providing too few faces with which minority children can identify.
Yet she also notes a groundswell of activity in the past few years to get people from diverse segments of the population to write books for children. Not long ago, an African-American character in a children’s book was a novelty. Spanish-language novels had to be printed out of the country, because publishers didn’t believe there were enough Spanish speakers in the United States to support them.
Her article made me remember back when I used to shop for children’s books for our now-26-year-old son. A local bookstore had a section in their children’s room for “Difficult Subjects,” which at that point was devoted primarily to the “D’s”: divorce, death and disability. These issues can indeed be challenging to discuss with children, and a great, age-appropriate book can open, or deepen, our conversation and understanding.
Today’s brave new world of children’s literature includes books for children with two mommies or two daddies, children with no mommies or daddies, and children with nontraditional gender identification. There are more books by Hispanics, African Americans and Native Americans.
This is a heartening trend, as children feel validated and respected when they see themselves reflected in books they read, or that are read to them. Books also give any of us the opportunity to learn about people who are different from us, a tool Nasse encourages with her anecdote of a teacher who read to her preschoolers about a child with a vision challenge, when one of her students came in with glasses for a wandering eye. Her article lists books with a diverse range of authors and characters, as well as websites to visit to search for more.
My own contribution to my book group’s tangled web of tangents was an attempt to describe Devi Borton’s article, “Transformation: A gender journey,” also in this issue. Borton, whom many of you know as the director of Fam Jam, writes about her own journey to understand her second-grade child, who identifies as a girl despite having the anatomy of a boy. (Connection to themes of Americanah: Nonstandard identity; self-acceptance; recognition from others.)
Questions arose among my book group mates. Could a child at such a young age truly be “transgender”? Mightn’t she still “grow out of it” and return to her anatomical gender? Do we help or harm a child by letting them change their gender identification before they’ve even reached puberty?
I backed off on trying to speak for Devi, which she does beautifully on her own. The power of her story lies in the fact that she writes as mom about her relationship to her child. Whatever conclusions readers will reach, they will leave her article with new awareness of a situation they might not have considered.
We’re all a little more accustomed to seeing young adult books that stretch the boundaries (hello, vampires and the undead). But I was surprised to see in Borton’s list of resources several early readers and even picture books on transgender children — a message to me that there are many others who need these stories.
The expansion of children’s literature into new areas requires the courage and compassion of writers, book publishers, booksellers, newspapers and readers. We here on Team Tumbleweeds were deeply moved by Borton’s story, and Nasse’s passion, and are honored to be able to share these articles with our readers.
That’s not to say that kids’ lit must be politically correct, or meet a checklist of timely topics. There’s always room for marvelous children’s books that speak to pure imagination — the worlds of cats who wear hats and balance fish bowls on rakes.
But books provide an invaluable opportunity for “stealth learning” — the lessons that sneak up on us, without the need for teaching or preaching. Story allows us to recognize ourselves and understand others. We don’t have to be lectured about tolerance or understanding when we find new characters in books that touch our hearts.
Books alone can’t end intolerance, but they are an invaluable resource, since — as my digressing, meandering, tangent-jumping book group members and I prove every month — there’s no limit to the places a book can take you.