On the front page of The New York Times Sunday Review section on March 16, 2014, were side-by-side opinion pieces by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers titled, “Where Are The People Of Color in Children’s Books?” The former wrote, “As I discovered who I was…I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine… What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.” While both father and son agree that there are not enough children’s books being published to address this still-pressing need, Rukhsana Khan is on a mission to write stories that children can identify with, and, at the same time, show Western readers that Muslim families are pretty much the same as theirs.
Born in Lahore, Pakistan, Khan immigrated to Canada with her family when she was three. At the school she later attended, Khan and her sisters were the only students of color. The author echoed Myers’ sentiments when she wrote that there are groups of children who “…don’t have stories to validate their existence.” However, the author is a bit more optimistic about the future of children’s literature: “…I think…we’re headed towards a world where the cultural background of the author does not matter. It is the work itself that will stand on its own merit [as exemplified in]…The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats…. As children’s writers, that’s what we should be aiming for; that kind of colour blind apolitical masterpiece.”
Big Red Lollipop (Viking, 2010; K-Gr 5) is one such work, based on an incident in the author’s childhood. The narrative conveys Rubina’s excitement at being invited to a classmate’s birthday party; her embarrassment at having to call to ask if her little sister can come along; her anger when the ungrateful sibling eats her own lollipop then finishes off Rubina’s; and empathy for the same sister a few years later when she is placed in a similar predicament of being told to ask if she can bring her younger sibling to a birthday party.
On a more sophisticated level, Khan’s story also reveals how this immigrant mother learns from her mistakes (second children always have it easier). Universal themes of sibling rivalry and greed, and cultural traditions make this story relevant to all children (and popular), but the distinctive shalwar kameez in Sophie Blackall’s signature illustrations and the appellation “Ami” for mother, allow Muslim children to own it. The experience of reading a book that affirms one’s identity, yet speaks to all readers, both validates and empowers.
After sharing the story with the youngest students, teach them this fingerplay: “Four lollipops for me to pick./I pick the red one and lick, lick, lick./I lick slow, and I lick quick./Now all that’s left is a sticky stick./Ick!” Count down to zero choosing other flavors such as green, orange or purple. The final line is: “No lollipops for me to pick./ That’s okay, cause I feel sick!/ Ick!” (www.susanmdailey.com). Children can also design a lollipop craft with a paper straw and large circle of paper inspired by Blackall’s wonderful endpapers, which feature circles in a variety of colors and patterns. Teachers can use the title with older readers to introduce personal narrative, and ask them to make text-to-self connections based on the story as they pen their own narratives. These students will also enjoy watching the author recount the anecdote on her website. Khan reveals that she was actually “Sana,” the greedy little sister, and delivers a hilarious version of her consumption of Rubina’s big red lollipop: “It all started with a bump and ended with a little triangle.”
Silly Chicken (Viking, 2005; PreS-Gr 2), winner of Ezra Jack Keats Book Award, features childlike, chunky pictures by Yunmee Kyong. “I’d like to cook you up and eat you!” Rani tells her mother’s hen, Bibi. The jealous girl is convinced that Ami loves the foolish bird more than her own daughter. Ami even gives her precious pet the child’s old dress to line her nest.
The daft chicken doesn’t even have the sense to sit when she finally does lay an egg, so it cracks on the ground. Ami “brought her to the nest and explained how it was done. Bibi cocked her head and listened… [then]…sat down on the nest just as if she’d understood. Show-off!” When the chicken disappears, Rani feels guilty, but soon discovers the egg that the bird left behind.
There is humor and suspense in this circular story, which ends with the line, “Ami says I love Buchi more than I love her, but that’s just silly.” Not only is this a delightful read aloud, but it also provides a glimpse of life in rural Pakistan. Pair with a nonfiction title about the life cycle of a chicken, or ask students to turn and talk about a time they felt jealous of a sibling.
Ruler of the Courtyard (Viking, 2003; K-Gr 3), is another tale set in Pakistan featuring poultry, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. In this story, Saba isn’t jealous—she’s terrified. “…Bony beaks, razor claws, with GLITTERY eyes that wonder, wonder as they watch me, how easy it would be to make me scream.” She steals herself and races to the bathhouse. “How peaceful and silent it is…I take my time. Then I spy a curled–up something in the corner. How did I miss it? Within easy striking distance of the door.”
The girl wants to shout for her grandmother, but is afraid of the consequences—the snake might bite the old woman. Saba searches for a weapon, but decides to trap the creature with her bucket. Readers will hold their breath as she gingerly lifts the pail to reveal her grandma’s drawstring. “I trapped my Nani’s nala. All that fuss to catch the rope that ties up Nani’s baggy pants.” Relief and the humor of the situation embolden her: “Through many feathers flying, I run laughing, I run shouting, ‘I AM MIGHTY SABA! RULER OF THE COURTYARD!’”
Conquering one’s fears is a theme that will resonate with children. Have students turn and talk about a time they were frightened or had to confront their own irrational fears. Christie’s distinctive acrylic paintings capture Saba’s roller coaster of emotions: terror, suspense, and giddy relief.
The Roses in My Carpets (Holiday House, 1998; Gr 2-4) was inspired by the author’s visit to Afghanistan to meet her foster child, who lives in a refugee camp with his mother and little sister. Plagued by nightmares of the jet bombers that killed his father, the boy attends school and daily prayers, but his favorite activity is to practice his carpet weaving. Thanks to his sponsor, he is learning a valuable skill that will provide for him and his family. “When I am weaving I can escape….everything…with my fingers I create a world the war cannot touch.” Each color in his carpets has its own special meaning to him: white for his father’s funeral shroud; black for the night; green for life; blue for the sky; and red for roses. “I have never grown flowers. Every bit of land must yield food. So I make sure there are plenty of roses in my carpets.”
This important book reveals the harsh reality of life in a war-torn country. It is both sad and hopeful; in addition to depicting the horror of war, it also relates how sponsoring a child can change lives. If not for this help, the young boy in the story would not be learning a trade, nor would his sister be treated at the clinic when tragedy strikes.
Ask students to think about the colors in their design: what does each color represent to them? Ronald Himler’s illustrations capture life in the camp—bare, unfurnished mud huts, classrooms with no desks or supplies, and well water in a bucket The dark browns of the boy’s fears and memories provide a sharp contrast to the vibrant colors of his carpets.
Basant is a kite-flying festival that welcomes spring from the rooftops of Lahore. Malik’s small, speedy, handmade kite—Falcon—soars in the sky, dipping, circling and finally slicing the strings of the other kites nearby. Victory is sweet when he fells the oversize store-bought kite of the neighborhood bully—dubbed “Goliath” —as well as another smaller, fast-flying model. Malik’s expert skills and design make him King for a Day (Lee & Low, 2013; Gr 1-5). Later, when looking down at the street below, the boy sees a brute push down a little girl and snatch her kite; he is able to come down over the roof, to comfort her. Not only does the title introduce readers to a joyous seasonal ritual celebrated in much of Southeast Asia, but it also celebrates Malik’s triumph over a mean-spirited bully.
Christiane Krömer’s mixed-media collage illustrations utilize fabric, texture, and print materials to showcase Pakistani architecture and clothing. The colorful kites against the brilliant blue sky look like vibrant spring birds in flight. Pair this book with Leyla Torres’s The Kite Festival (FSG, 2004) about a similar competition the author celebrated as a child in Colombia. Students can design and name their own kites, and teach them the rousing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins to welcome spring.
Chris Myers ends his opinion piece by promising to do his part to continue creating books about children of color, but leaves us with a challenge: “The rest of the work lies in the imagination of everyone else along the way, the publishers, librarians, teachers, parents, and all of us, to put that book in [a child’s] hands.” Rukhsana Khan is doing her part; it is up to us to share her books with the children in our homes, schools, and libraries.
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