Top Ten Books as Additions to Your Ethnic Studies by Valinda Kimmel
Those of us from minority backgrounds often fail to see ourselves in our school texts, let alone have opportunities to engage with the kinds of knowledge that meaningful representation makes possible. By that we mean representation that transcends mere depiction to encourage meaningful engagement with and reflection on diverse experiences and ways of knowing. As educators we must provide students with texts that reflect their respective backgrounds and engage the perspectives they bring to the classroom. (Cedillo, 2016)
Day after day, many of our students are being asked to abandon their own ethnic and cultural identity in favor of assimilation. We have a responsibility as educators to affect change. The NCTE Position Statement in Support of Ethnic Studies suggests that teachers “provide students with texts that reflect their own cultural backgrounds and histories.”
Questions I consider before sharing books with teachers and students that reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity on our campus: Are these books, for the most part, written by voices from the original culture? If not, is there evidence of extensive research and collaboration with those who have first-hand knowledge and life-experience in the culture? Do these texts dispel or promote stereotypes? Are individuals and their culture represented in a respectful way that honors the uniqueness of their experience?
Following are just a few of the many remarkable books for kids in grades K-12 that could be included in ethnic studies to promote inclusive learning communities and encourage social action.
Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins (2017)
The story of Edmonia Lewis, daughter of an Ojibwe mother and Haitian father is told in captivating verse by Jeannine Atkins. Set in the post-Civil War era, Lewis attended Oberlin, found herself falsely accused and subsequently acquiited of a crime and then fled to Boston where she began work as a sculptor. She eventually traveled to Italy where she became well-known for her artwork. Atkins’ fictionalized account of Edmonia’s life has received celebrated reviews. Due to mature content, it would be well-suited for secondary classrooms.
The Red Bicycle: The Extraordinary Story of One Ordinary Bicycle by Jude Isabella (2015)
Leo, who lives in North America, outgrows his bicycle and decides to donate it to an organization that will transport his recycled bike to the continent of Africa. “Big Red” finds a new owner in Burkina Faso who is now able to carry sorghum to the market for her family. Soon the bike is again passed on to a girl named Haridata who uses it to transport patients safely so they can get medical treatment. Information is included in this beautiful nonfiction book for readers to learn about other organizations that take donated bicycles. This picture book is text heavy and probably more appropriate for upper elementary students unless it’s paraphrased to read to younger elementary.
A Movie in My Pillow/Una pelicula en mi almodada by Jorge Argueta (2007)
Jorgito lives in the Mission District of San Francisco, but he cannot let go the memories of his beloved homeland of El Salvador. Argueta’s beautiful poetry in both English and Spanish honestly convey the pain of leaving home and the beauty adopting life in a new land. Delightful childhood moments expressed in verse and brightly colored illustrations guide the reader to imagine longing for the past while discovering joy in the present. Argueta has published numerous works of poetry, but this is his inaugrual work for children.
The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle (2015)
Margarita Engle’s books never disappoint. Another fictionalized biography in verse, Engle tells the story of abolitionist poet, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda. Lightning Dreamer is a compelling account of Avellaneda, know to the reader as Tula, in her teenage years as she finds hope for equality in a culture that forces arranged marriage on young girls. Tula is comforted and emboldened by Heredia’s works and begins writing herself on women’s rights and abolishing slavery.
(Read an excerpt in the poem “Tula (‘Books are door-shaped’)” online at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/141835/tula-books-are-door-shaped.)
King for a Day by Rukhsana Khan (2014)
Malik is anxious to show off his self-made creation in the annual spring kite-flying festival of Basant. Being wheelchair bound does not stop this young boy from working to realize his dream. He is confident he can capture the most kites and defeat the neighborhood bully. If he is able, Malik can become king of the festival.
Sparkle Boy by Leslea Newman (2017)
Leslèa Newman created a sweet story of acceptance and freedom—this one is a read for all ages. Casey is a young boy who loves things that glitter, and sparkle; his sister’s shimmery skirt, glitter nail polish and his Abuelita’s sparkly bracelets. Casey’s older sister, Jessie, is convinced that glitter and sparkle are only for girls. When some kids at the library question Casey’s love of glittery accessories, Jessie realizes he has the right to express himself in any way he pleases.
Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi (2015)
Lailah leaves her home in Abu Dhabi and moves to Georgia. It’s Ramadan and she’s missing her friends back home more than ever as she worries that her new classmates might not understand why she’s fasting at school. Lailah is afraid to explain to her teacher and the kids at school why Ramadan is important to her family until the librarian shares a surprising idea for solving her problem.
The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson (2017)
Nokomis, grandmother Josephine Mandamin, because of her great love of nibi (water) has walked from oceans to Lake Superior to raise awareness. As a proud Ojibwe woman, she longs for future generations to protect water which she believes is the giver of life. A two page spread at the end of the book provides a glossary of Ojibwe words and their pronunciations.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna (2016)
Francesca Sanna, author and illustrator, made the acquaintance of two young refugee girls while living in Italy. She was inspired to tell the story of brave families giving up their lives and leaving family behind to start a new life. Sanna writes a beautiful story of loss, tragedy, shared pain and finding hope in her book. Exquisite illustrations help to reveal the heartache of a mother and her two children as they abandon all they know to escape the violence of war.
Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai (2013)
Thanha Lai, inspired by her own childhood journey as a refugee, writes about a family’s experience leaving Saigon and coming to America. Hà and her family are sent first to a refugee camp and later find a new home in a small town in Alabama. This touching story written in verse, tells the story of Hà as she battles grief, isolation, and loss eventually overcoming to find healing in a new home. Lai’s book has been out a while, but I still had to include it in my top ten. Read the excerpt in the poem “Black and White and Yellow and Red” (available to read at http://www.cbcdiversity.com/post/58272343107/inside-out-back-again) and you’ll understand why.
As teachers, we have the delightful privilege and the weighty responsibility to fill classrooms with books that allow our kids to step inside the lives and rich culture of others different, and yet not so unlike themselves.
Valinda Kimmel has flipped through lots of calendar pages since beginning a career as a teacher nearly three decades ago. She currently works as a K-6 instructional coach on an elementary campus in Texas. After hours, Valinda loves lazy evenings and long conversations with her husband Mark, and spending time with her adult children, their spouses, and five of the most brilliant “littles” in her world. She hopes that you’ll engage in spirited conversations with her on Twitter (@vrkimmel) and on her blog at valindakimmel.com.