My first Flannel Friday post of the year is a LONG one! I’d be honored if you read my story, and delighted if you added your thoughts.
Why Representation Matters
More than 25 years ago, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said that books are windows into other worlds and experiences, but also mirrors- a way to see our own lives as threads in the larger human story. It’s important that children see themselves or characters like them in all kinds of stories, from fairy tales to picture books about potty training. To sum up why representation matters:
The stories we share and the pictures we show shape children’s perceptions of themselves and the world.
What would it be like, then, to never see yourself?
Personally speaking, the absence of homeless kids in the books I read as a child deeply impacted my sense of self. Like because we bounced between shelters and apartments and even tents in backyards, there was something wrong with me. Or that stories like mine didn’t matter or were better left untold.
If songs and stories can be a source self-affirmation, they also have the power to invalidate our experiences.
Culture is More than Skin Color or Language
The kiddos we see at the library come from all places and spaces and walks of life. They come with diverse languages, belief systems, ability levels, cultures and experiences. However, as discussed in a 2016 article for Children & Libraries, Anna Haase Krueger and Tamara Lee point out how many libraries reduce diversity to the “Five F’s- food, folklore, fashion, festivals and famous people.”
Culture is much more complex than these surface characteristics. Culture is also things like where you can afford to buy clothes, how readily you can access medical care… or how much you rely on Fish Fridays at the local church to feed your family. And whether your child gets generic or Crayola crayons. And then gets sent home with said generic crayons and the school supply list, with “24 Ct. Crayola Crayons” highlighted by the teacher. Not that I’m still bitter or anything.
If librarians truly believe the “Every” in Every Child Ready to Read, then they need to ensure that the materials and programming offered in storytimes are racially diverse, equitable, and inclusive. ALL children need to see themselves reflected in storytime adventures and see others who are different from them represented with equal importance.”
-Krueger & Lee (2016)
Anna McQuinn, author of the Lola series, recently wrote a thought-provoking article about how picture book authors can address socioeconomic status and poverty in their work. She talks about her choice to include little details, such as Lola living in a high rise apartment, to “help a wider range of children to see themselves in the story.” Inspired by this article and my personal experiences, I recently decided to give my Mouse House flannel a makeover.
The Flannel Friday Part
In this traditional flannel game, children take turns guessing which color house the mouse is hiding behind. Most versions feature the same size, cute house cutout in different colors, like my first Mouse House attempt:
My new Mouse House features all kinds of homes – an apartment, a trailer, a lighthouse, a log cabin, a fire station, a barn, even a birdhouse.
“This trailer reminds me of where I stayed with my Grandma and Grandpa in the summer,” I said as I put the yellow mobile home on the board. It was like opening a floodgate – the kiddos couldn’t stop making connections! They were clearly excited to see themselves in our activity. They loved sharing pieces of their stories- where they had seen a lighthouse before, which house looked the most like their own, and so on.
- “We used to live in a trailer. Now we have an apartment.”
- “I live in an apartment! My apartment is even taller!”
- “Oh my gosh, that looks just like our house in the Netherlands!”
- “Miss, miss, I saw a lighthouse once!”
- “I live with my Grandma and Grandpa! And my Auntie!”
- “Where’s my pink house?! Can you make one?”
There were lots of opportunities for math talk, too, such as…
- “How are these homes the same?”
- “Which home is the tallest?”
- “Which home is the longest?”
- “Which home do you think the most people live in? Why?”
- “Are more people awake or asleep in the apartment? How can you tell?”
Variety is the Spice of Storytime
I’ve been talking a lot lately about the importance of adding variety to flannels to support math talk, but variety is also an essential ingredient to an inclusive storytime. Just like early math is much more than counting, diversity is much more than world holiday displays. Here’s some small ways I adapt my flannels to make my storytimes more inclusive:
Cast a wider net.
- Doing a cookie-themed storytime? Add cookies from other cultures! Ask your families what favorite cookies from homes you can add! Doing a feelings storytime? Use photos or make flannel faces featuring everyday kids of all colors! Using environmental print? Add signs from local markets, not just the big retail chains! Singing Old MacDonald? Ask families to share animal sounds in home languages!
- Variety is SO important for developing early math skills and building critical thinking, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked the kiddos a question during a flannel rhyme such as, “Do we have more on the floor or more on the bed?” or “Which bear is the biggest?” and they shout out a number, because they are so habituated to counting flannels.
Focus first on what’s the same.
- Whenever I make comparisons with the kiddos, I always start by asking them to look at and think about what is the same. My hope is that this practice will encourage them to look for similarities in their own lives whenever they encounter something – or someone – new.
- Sorting and grouping by multiple characteristics is an important early math skill, too. It’s something I assessed in both kindergarten and preschool. Most kids could sort objects by color, but fell flat at the fence when I asked if they could think of another way to group alike animal counters. Which brings us to…
Talk about differences in addition to color.
- DO talk about color and celebrate it!
- AND I wonder what subconscious message we send if we are constantly and ONLY drawing attention to color in storytime flannels. Are we implying that color is the only attribute that matters? The only thing worth noticing?
- Color counts, but it’s not the only thing that matters – in life or in math. Most caregivers know their kid needs to learn the colors. Do they know about the importance of spatial vocabulary? Do they see us model how to do things besides count and name colors with kids?
- This is also important for your kiddos with low vision, because distinguishing colors can be difficult. Asking questions such as “Which building is the tallest?” that can be answered using other identifying characteristics (such as type – e.g. the apartment) gives everyone a chance to be successful… and build more vocabulary, too!
Treat all colors/varieties as equally valid and worthy of celebration.
- While doing Mouse House, I modeled appreciation for each and every type of home on the board. For example, “One of my favorite things about living in an apartment was looking outside the windows from way up high. What do you like about living in an apartment?” Or, “Imagine living in a log cabin in the forest! I think my favorite thing would be smelling the trees when I walked outside the door.”
The White Elephant in the Room
If you’re like me (and the majority of the profession), you’re an English-speaking white female. You may be unfamiliar with the diverse cultures you come into contact with and you’re worried about making mistakes. It’s okay to feel apprehensive. It’s good to want to wait, and learn more, and make sure you’re choosing high-quality storytime materials with accurate representation. But even with the best of intentions and research and personal experience you will make mistakes. We all do.
Here’s a big one that still twists my gut, months later:
We were talking about dinosaur bones in storytime. I asked the kiddos where we could see dinosaurs today. Nobody answered. I followed up with, “Have you ever seen the dinosaur bones at the museum?” Another awkward silence. Then I asked, “Have you ever been to the museum?” The atmosphere among the adults visibly shifted – shoulders tensed, eyes looked away. Not a single storytime family that day had ever been to the Nature and Science museum. Thanks to clumsy questioning, I inadvertently shamed my caregivers. It was never my intention to single out my families for not taking their kids to the museum, but that was exactly my impact.
Have you ever wished you could stop time and rewind it? I knew I messed up as soon as the words came out of my mouth. They just sounded so… accusatory. And how could I mess up like that? I don’t think going (or not going) to the museum means you love your kids one iota more or less. If it weren’t for school field trips and free days as a young child, I wouldn’t have had context for the pumpkin patch or penguins. Obviously my 0-5 target audience isn’t going on school field trips yet. My recent migrant families probably haven’t learned about free days. They might not have transportation to get there even if it is a free day.
What did I do? I apologized. I also later shared with my families how to check out free museum passes with their library card. I’m so humbled by their forgiveness – every single family that day has since returned to storytime (many times), and smiled at me, and even trusted me by asking for help with sensitive home situations. This painful experience was an important reminder to check what assumptions I’m bringing into storytime. What do I think is the norm? Do I make people outside of my culture feel like “the other” through the questions I ask, the songs I sing, the stories I share?
DO care about getting things right. DON’T let fear of making mistakes paralyze you and stop you from discussing race or answering kids’ questions, like “Why is he wearing lipstick?” Jacob Tobia, talking about their experience as a gender-nonconforming person, says this:
Beneath every observation of difference is an implied question about whether or not that difference is acceptable… When you turned to your child and awkwardly said “It’s not nice to talk about strangers,” you not only didn’t answer their question, you effectively shut down what could’ve been a productive and affirming conversation.”
It’s this same kind of silence and fear of awkwardness that led 26% of children in a 2006 survey to believe it’s illegal for people of color to be President! In summary:
Our polite silence does far more harm than good, leaving kids to fill in the blanks with their own interpretations.
You wouldn’t let them drive a car without context. Likewise, how can we expect kids to do well in a beautifully diverse world if we never talk about it? How will they work well with people personally or professionally they don’t have practice recognizing and appreciating differences in others?
Bishop, R.S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).
Krueger, A.H. & Lee, Tamara. (2016). Storytime-Palooza! Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 14(3), 18–22.
Olson, K.R. (2013). Are kids racist? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/developing-minds/201304/are-kids-racist
McQuinn, A. (2018). Why inclusive picture books need to think about class and poverty. BookTrust. Retrieved from https://www.booktrust.org.uk/news-and-features/features/2018/july/why-inclusive-picture-books-need-to-think-about-class-and-poverty-by-anna-mcquinn/
Tobia, J. (2018). A letter to parents whose children stare at me in public. BuzzFeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeed.com/jacobtobia/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-gender-nonconformity
Here’s some of the resources I’ve found most helpful/inspiring to inclusive storytime planning. Please let me know what I’ve missed!
ALSC White Paper: The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children by Jamie Campbell Naidoo, PhD
Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books by Louise Derman-Sparks
Storytime for Social Justice Toolkit by Storytime Underground
Storytime-Palooza! Racial Diversity and Inclusion in Storytime by Anna Haase Krueger & Tamara Lee (full of fantastic ideas and great references to learn more)
Talking to Kids About Race: Racially Diverse Storytime Books by Jbrary (really helpful picture book resource lists!)
Talking with Young Children About Race by Meredith Steiner (also full of great ideas and links to even more resources!)
Storytime Saves the World: Social Justice, Diversity and Inclusion by Soraya Silverman-Montano (this was the AMAZING 2017 Storytime Underground preconference at ALA)