The Power of a Name: A Top Ten List by Amber McMath
On the first day of school while students are reading silently around the room, I scoot around to each one and we introduce ourselves. I left my interaction with Shouacua feeling defeated because, even after listening to her say her name several times, she said I wasn’t pronouncing it correctly. I was one of at least six adults who should make her feel safe and valued on her first day in a new place, but a mispronounced name made her feel misunderstood and out of place.
Children’s and young adult literature abounds with examples of how names affect us. This top ten list is a place where readers can pull at the strings of names and identity. How are they connected? What matters? How can I relate?
These six brief quotes from young adult novels exhibit adolescents struggling with their names, providing for some very real text-to-self connections. The four picture books reflect how powerful one’s name can be in invoking both shame and pride. Together this collection is a resounding reminder to treat with dignity every sound and spelling of every name, for that extends respect and value to the person who bears it.
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984) Page 10-11
Cisneros creates a lifelong friend for the reader in the character of Esperanza. Esperanza bemoans her long name that resembles a “muddy color.” The sound of schoolmates saying her name is like the “syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth.” This excerpt contains the most vivid descriptions of not just how a name sounds but how it feels.
- Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan (2016) Page 3-4
Ravi Suryanarayanan. The detailed explanation in Save Me A Seat of how to pronounce this name is perfect! You not only get a lesson in syllable emphasis, but you also connect with Ravi’s frustration. This excerpt paints an all too familiar picture of a teacher’s attempt to get it right: “‘Sur-ee-ah-neh-Ri-ya-nan,’ I say slowly. She tries again, but it is no better. ‘I’m going to have to work on that,’ she says with a laugh.” Ravi–and the reader–do not find this funny.
- Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan (2017) Page 7-13
The interaction between Amina and Soojin in this excerpt will make you ache for these two precious girls. Their names are what connects them. When a substitute has to ask how to pronounce Amina’s name, she knows Soojin is rolling her eyes with empathy. However, as the story continues, the reader is alarmed at Soojin’s persistence to find a new, better name. This scene of the novel sets up how much middle school will change these two friends and how it all starts with a name.
- Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (2018) Page 8, 30-31, 33, 93
His mother bestowing him the name Langston meant nothing until a librarian helped him discover the original Langston. With his mother gone, his attempt to figure out her love for Langston Hughes keeps him connected to her. His father isn’t a poetry buff and preferred his son be name after himself. “She never told him that Langston Hughes made her heart sing the way he does mine. That she wanted to name her baby boy after the poet she copied in her letters.” This book is well-suited for a reader with a curiosity for their own namesake. And all adoring fans of Langston Hughes!
- First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (2017) Page 40-43
The conflict between Malú and her mother goes back as far as her naming. Malú, a punk at heart, would have love the punky name her dad might have come up with. But her mom won with the name Maria Luisa, an artist who is barely in a photo with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Malú doesn’t feel like the perfect Super-Mexican her mother intended when she gave her that name. “It’s like Mom’s María Luisa and my Malú are two different people.”
- Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai (2011) Page 139-141
Hà’s first day of school is painful to read. The teacher will make you cringe. The writing will make you cry. She has endured so much to make it to America: escaping Vietnam, surviving at sea, being taken in by a cowboy’s family. But this scene takes the cake for hopelessness. “She points to her chest: MiSSS SScott, saying it three times, each louder with ever more spit.”
- Name Jar by Yangsook Choi (2001)
Unhei just moved from Korea and the Name Jar is her solution for getting a new name that people can actually pronounce correctly. She puts her name’s destiny in the hands of her classmates. Of course, none of the names seem to fit quite right, the Name Jar disappears, and she is able to teach her friends how to say Unhei.
“But I realized that I liked my name best, so I chose it again. Korean names mean something. Unhei means grace.”
- Alma and How She got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal (2018)
Each page is a gorgeous but delicate explanation of Alma’s six names. The stories within a story her father tells are exactly what Alma needs to realize how perfectly suited she is for her many names.
- Seven Pablos by Jorge Lujan and Chiara Carrer (2018)
Travel the world to visit these diverse Pablos from Chile, Ecuador, Mexico, New York, Peru, Rio de Janeiro, and Guatemala. While they share a name, their stories are vastly different. Leave this story feeling even more connected to the world around you!
“There are many Pablos in the world, yet they are all one. Inside of each is a heart that beats with the same rhythm as the ocean’s waves and the rotations of the planet.”
- My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams (2009)
As a refugee, Sangoel’s name is all he brought with him from Sudan. It’s a name he was proud of until he goes to school where no one can say it correctly. The final pages are a delight to see readers laugh and try Sangoel’s pronunciation solution with their own name!
“Remember you will always be a Dinka. You will always be Sangoel. Even in America.”
My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits (2003)
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (1991)
My Name is Jorge On Both Sides of the River by Jane Medina (1999)
My Name is Bilal by Asma Mobin-Uddin (2005)
Amber McMath gets a little crazier each day she spends with her seventh grade readers and writers in Owasso, OK. She is kept sane by her loving husband and adorable son. Before serving in Oklahoma she taught in Mali, West Africa. You can find a whole slew of stuff she shares for language arts teachers at www.imthatteacher.com. Follow her on Twitter @mrsmcreading and Facebook @ImThatTeacher.