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Can we read? No. 49
Alone time, sibling love, body boundaries, and good old Mother Goose made new
Hiya. How are you? How are you really?
Unrelated: in case you ever wonder why I trust Debbie Reese of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature so much, go read her latest book review of We Are A Garden: A Story of How Diversity Took Root in America by Lisa Westberg Peters.
I’m not saying I wouldn’t have noticed some of the problems with this book had Reese not analyzed it all so expertly, but I am saying she does it better than anyone else, and I’m grateful for all that I’ve learned from her thus far. (H/t to librarian Rachael Page at the Mount Horeb Public Library for introducing me to Reese and the blog last year when I was struggling through my thoughts re: Little House on the Prairie.)
Understanding the negative, stereotypical, and damaging ways that Native Americans and First Nations peoples are depicted in children’s literature (and how to spot these things, if you don’t already know) is important — as I wrote at length a few weeks ago, representation matters; I’m just going to keep repeating it — and I feel it’s especially critical to understand this leading up to Thanksgiving, when the majority of books Amazon is going to recommend to you (and certainly many Instagram moms are going to flat-lay amidst mini pumpkins and handcrafts) are problematic at best and sometimes even outright racist.
It takes a minute to unlearn and relearn or learn anew but as someone who spends a lot of time in this space, the world of children’s literature old and new, I can’t think of anything that’s more worth the effort. You can have a house chock-full of beautiful books for your kids but if they misrepresent entire nations of people, forget it. I’d rather have 20 accurate and inclusive books than 200 erroneous and harmful ones.
Alright. It’s a long step down off this soapbox today 🪜
Let’s get to it.
A Space for Me by Cathryn Falwell (2020)
If you’ve been around here for awhile, you know my love for Cathyrn Falwell runs deep — I’ve reviewed Feast for 10 (our all-time #1 favorite book), Mystery Vine (an excellent read for fall!), David’s Drawings, Dragon Tooth, and Christmas for 10 (it’s never too early to start shopping for Christmas books, in my opinion) — and this is the last title of hers on our shelves that I haven’t covered. (I take this not as a sign that I should stop reviewing her books but rather that I need to own more of them.)
This quiet, even tender story also feels apropos at the moment — here, an unnamed young boy has to share a room with his little brother, Lucas. He tries to make his boundaries clear, but Lucas forgets, and it doesn’t take long until big brother has had enough. He goes outside “to look for a space all my own.” In his yard he finds some discarded items, and with the help of his older sister, crafts a fort-like structure in which to be alone. This doesn’t go over all that well with Lucas, until big brother helps Lucas build a space of his own, and peace is restored.
Falwell’s cut-and-torn-paper collage illustrations are as warm as ever, rendering the complex emotions of family life with honesty and care — “Some days I spend time in my space all by myself. Some days Lucas plays in his space all by himself. And some days we play together.” It’s not either/or, it’s both/and — and I love the message that we all benefit from alone time, and from a space of our own (I mean, Virginia Woolf was onto something…)
This book is a lovely testament to honoring our own needs and setting our own boundaries, as well as the ways in which we can hold those boundaries even if other people — even our loved ones — don’t necessarily like it.
I Can by Susan Winter (1993) and Me Too by Susan Winter (1993)
I normally don’t review two titles together, but these companion volumes not only go together, one without the other is worth less than both.
I Can is the story of a sibling relationship told from the perspective of the older child: in repetitive text, he talks about the things he can do that his younger sister can’t, page after page, until the penultimate scene shows a moment when he needs her — but he frames this as, “She needs me.”
Me Too is the story of the same sibling relationships told from the perspective of the younger child: in repetitive text, she talks about the things her older brother can do, always adding that she can do it too (“Me too”), until the penultimate scene shows a moment when she needs him — but she frames this as, “He needs me.”
Both titles showcase Winter’s comforting, mellow watercolors, which are priceless for the way she depicts the facial expressions on each child as they feel all the possible feels when one has a brother or sister — frustration, adoration, anger, comfort, envy, surprise, joy (I have both a brother and a sister and I can confirm these feels are real, and authentically portrayed).
These books stand alone, don’t get me wrong — but it’s almost as if, without the companion volume, you’re missing half the story (because you are). You’re also missing the nurturing messaging that while siblings are different people with different abilities and different strengths and talents, they still need — and love and care about — one another deeply.
These books were so beloved to us when I was still getting used to having two children (a newborn and a new 2yo), that for the first and only time in my life, I modified the text to better reflect our specific family. This was possible because in my opinion the older child in these titles — the one with short dark hair — doesn’t necessarily have to be male, and for a long while my elder, dark-haired child accepted this (she doesn’t now, but she is able to recognize how this altered narrative fits us even if the images don’t anymore, and in any case I refuse to change the language back).
These titles are a bit of a time capsule for me, and I’ll never them let go. If you have two children, especially if they are little littles, they are worth tracking down.
Let’s Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent & Respect by Jayneen Sanders, illustrated by Sarah Jennings (2018)
We’ve been talking to and teaching our children about feelings and emotions, body ownership and boundaries, consent, and sex (in age-appropriate ways, though wow, have I answered some questions 😂 ) since the minute they could understand what we were saying, so this isn’t a new topic for our family: but I have to admit, sending both my kids to school for the first time in exactly a week has me hyper-focused on reiterating, reminding, and refreshing their understanding and confidence in this area. (What this really means is that I have been reading them a handful of books during our Morning Time all summer, in preparation for 4K and 2nd grade.)
Jayneen Sanders is, at least currently, my favorite resource for this topic — she’s a body safety advocate as well a classroom teacher and mother — and since I first read her book for grownups, Body Safety Education: A parents’ guide to protecting kids from sexual abuse (which I recommend), she has been my go-to.
This title, aimed at early elementary-aged kids (though preschoolers with good attention spans could absolutely handle it), is my favorite of all her work, explaining not only various body ownership-related topics in clear, concise language but offering a wonderful variety of situations and examples in which these topics arise. This is hands-down the most valuable part of the book — it’s one thing to talk to my kids about their rights and staying safe, and it’s another entirely to run through scenarios with them, discussing what’s okay and what’s not okay, and what they can do if they find themselves in tough spots. (The discussion questions and tips in the back run a close second in value — I have zero problem talking to my daughters about anything and everything because that’s just who I am, but if you’re at a loss or you’re uncomfortable broaching these topics, this information alone is worth the price of this book.)
Jennings’ colorful, inclusive colored pencil illustrations give the text an even more accessible feel, which is an added bonus, because if a picture book isn’t interesting to look at it really doesn’t matter how excellent the text is — it’s not going to get read. I want to empower my children to know absolutely, at their core, that, as Sanders writes on the opening two pages: “Your body belongs to you, and you are the boss of it. You are very special. There is no one exactly like you!”
If I could I’d put this book on the shelf in every home, daycare, classroom, library, community center, pediatrician’s office, and any other place children gather — it’s that important and that useful.
The Neighborhood Mother Goose by Nina Crews (2004)
I suppose if I haven’t convinced you by now that poetry is important for kids there’s not much else I can say that will sway you: but in the event you’re teetering on the edge of believing me (or entirely new to this argument and open to my aggressive persuasion): read your children poetry!
Nursery rhymes are, basically, the single most important thing you can give your children as babies and toddlers. I’m not exaggerating. Forget your organic puréed squash (100% guilty here), forget your baby sign language (guilty again), forget whatever ways in which you’re trying to raise a healthy, happy, well-rounded kid — just apply copious nursery rhymes. There is oodles of evidence (I like these short, straightforward bits of information to this end); or you can just believe me and move on ✅
Of all the nursery rhyme books out there — and there are many, and many of them are good — this is my favorite. Nina Crews hews to the originals in every way — not a word is altered — but the game-changer here is her photo collages, which depict real kids in a real city neighborhood, as opposed to the traditional pastoral (almost always English) scenes one normally associates with nursery rhymes.
This is a welcome break from tradition — an inclusive collection of nursery rhymes fills a void in equitable representation of this specific niche of literature, for sure — but it’s also just really nice to see real people. My kids were past their tiniest years before I shared this title with them, but they poured over it nonetheless — and since the poetry was familiar to them, it has always been fun to revisit it: they delight in reciting along, while also looking at the creative ways Crews shares the life and spirit of this neighborhood.
I have a list on my Bookshop.org storefront called The Best Nursery Rhymes and I recommend any of the titles there — but none more than this one. If you have a baby or toddler or preschooler (or early elementary! it’s never too late!), if you need a gift for a new arrival in the world or in a family, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, just get this book.
If you like this one, you might also enjoy its companion volume, The Neighborhood Singalong.
Just a heads up that I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click those links above and make a purchase through my storefront. (I try to mention this as little as possible but am legally bound to notify you — and, I do want to offer my thanks for this small-but-meaningful bit of support. It adds up, and as such, I have more books to review for you. Win-win.)
Thanks for reading today. I’ll be back in your inbox next Wednesday, same bat time, same bat channel 🦇
I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you make a purchase through my storefront.