Is My Character “Black Enough”? Advice on Writing Cross-Culturally

Stacy Whitman photoStacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers. This blog post was originally posted at her blog, Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire

I recently got this question from a writer, who agreed that answering it on the blog would be useful:

My hero is a fifteen-year-old African American boy [in a science fiction story]. A few of my alpha readers (not all) have said that he doesn’t sound “black enough.” I purposely made him an Air Force brat who has lived in several different countries to avoid having to use cliche hood-terminology. I want him to be universal.

Do you have thoughts on this either way?

Is there a possibility that my potential readers could really be offended that a) I am “a white girl writing a book about black people” and b) that my character doesn’t sound black enough? I’ve looked through your blog and website and haven’t found anything specific to my needs on this particular question. Perhaps I missed it?

…should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics?

First of all, black people—just as white people or Latino people—are a very diverse group of people. There are people who speak in Ebonics (which I believe would be more accurately referred to as BVE–Black Vernacular English) and people who speak plain old suburban English, people who speak with any of a variety of Southern accents and people who have Chicago accents, people who speak with French or Spanish accents (or who speak French or Spanish or an African language). So the question of whether a particular character in a particular situation sounds “black enough” is a complicated question, one that even the African American community can’t necessarily agree on. Within the community (and I say this because I asked a coworker who is African American, who can speak with more authority on the subject than I can) it’s often a question that draws on complicated factors, such as money, privilege, “selling out,” skin tone (relative darkness or lightness—literally, being “black enough”), and hair texture, which all relate to how much a part of which community a person might be.

The question, then, is fraught with loaded meaning not only to do with stereotypes, but also socioeconomic meanings. The question can also tend to be offensive because of that diversity and the loaded meaning the question carries.

Which leads me to the question of your alpha readers. What are their demographics? Is it a diverse group? What is their experience with the military? Is more than one of them African American? When writing cross-culturally, you’ll want to be sure that your beta readers include sufficient numbers of the member of the group you’re writing about. Every individual experience will be different—one person’s opinion on whether a character reads as African American will probaThe question is fraught with loaded meaning not only to do with stereotypes, but also socioeconomic meanings. The question can also be offensive because of that diversity and the loaded meaning the question carries.bly differ from another person’s, especially if their socioeconomic background and regional experiences are different. An African American from the St. Louis suburbs will have a different life experience than someone who grew up on a farm in Louisiana, whose experiences will probably be different from a kid who grew up in Harlem or someone else who grew up in Seattle.

If your local writing group isn’t very diverse, you might need to branch out for beta readers who you can rely on to comment on that particular element of your story—perhaps through an online writing group, perhaps through the SCBWI. You might even approach a local high school and ask if any of their students who come from a similar background to your character might be willing to give you feedback on your manuscript. Do you have connections with a local Air Force base? Perhaps you might network with people you know in the military to find someone who can give you feedback on that aspect of the character building.

To answer your other questions: it’s always possible that someone will be offended by a white person writing about a person of color, but generally, most readers I’ve talked to who care about diversity in fantasy and science fiction want that diversity to come from everyone, not just writers of color. This is why I emphasized alpha readers—it’s important to make sure that if you’re not from that background, you do your research (which it sounds like you have) and then run it past someone other than yourself who understands that culture or background (in this case, you’ve got two cultures going on: African American and military, particularly Air Force, which has a completely different culture than Army).

A few someones is even better, to ensure that you get different points of view and can mesh that feedback into something that works for your particular character, who will be an individual in his own right and not a representative of a group that plays into a stereotype.

Which leads into yourPeople often have different vocabularies when talking to different groups of people...Ask yourself, What's the context my character is in? next question: should you use Ebonics? And the answer to that is: I don’t know. Do African Americans in the military use Ebonics? Do only some of them, and does it depend on their family history/region of origin? Do their kids speak to each other in Ebonics? Or do they have their own way of speaking that’s particular to the Air Force community? (My uncle was in the Air Force and I have a couple cousins who might read this who may be able to answer that question; they’ve never spoken anything but “Midwestern” to me, but they might have spoken differently to their friends who were also Air Force brats.)

And that’s important too: people often have different vocabularies when talking to different groups of people. When my roommates from Georgia talked to their family, their accents became stronger. When I talk to my rural family, the word “crik” has been known to creep back into my lexicon. So ask yourself, “what’s the context my character is in?” as well.

And of course, that’s just me spouting off from the point of view of an editor. Here are some great answers we’ve gotten from readers:

Ari:

The question about Ebonics is just…. I don’t know. Being “black enough” does not mean you use Ebonics so that shoudln’t be the deciding factor. However, my guess is that as a “military brat” he wouldn’t use Ebonics. I know some African American people who were in the army and they don’t use it. But that’s the army, not the Air Force, so it could be different.

I would be offended if your black character never talked about certain issues we face like the subtle racisim, especially as a black guy. But since’s science fiction it may never come up, although if it starts out in the 21st century in America then the character should acknowledge the fact that he gets looks of suspicion in certain areas because he is an African American guy…

That is so true about how people speak differently wiith different groups of people. When my mother is back home down South, she regains her Southern accent. My father speaks Spanish with his relatives. I use a lot more slang/Ebonics with my African American friends and Latino friends. So that is a key factor. Something an African American person has to learn to do is be able to “speak two languages” in a way. Around white people and authority figures, most of us speak properly, no slang. But I know from what I’ve done myself and from what I’ve seen my parents and their friends do, when African Americans are just with each other, they loosen up and their is less of a concern for “speaking properly”

Cleve:

I’m an African American dad & writer, and my advice to the writer is to skip the ebonics. Not every African American speaks with ebonics, and I fear it may come off as condescending and offensive if you attempt to tell your story in such a way. “Not black enough,” is offensive as hell, wether voiced by black or white people. The character is African American, there’s nothing wrong with him sounding like an American. Period.

Doret:

I believe all writers can create believable characters of another race. But to do this writers must be familiar that race.

Should I use Ebonics or not use Ebonics? – that question makes me cringe. A White author asking this should really take a look at their character and ask themselves, what do I know that will give life to this character of another race.

If they still want to do it, research. Listen in on conversations. Read books by Black authors. Ask around find out which non Black authors have created believable Black characters and read those , also read the Black characters by non Black authors people found unrealistic.

AudryT:

IMO, your character needs to speak based on their influences, not on readers’ opinions of the world. Where do their parents come from? How do individuals from their parents’ backgrounds, childhood neighborhoods, and social class speak? How does that influence your character? Does your character have an opinion about how their parents speak and do they make conscious decisions about their own way of talking? How can you use the character’s voice and upbringing to flesh out the character better and further serve the plot of the novel?

Readers, feel free to chime in and help out writers who write cross-culturally: what other issues should they be aware of when writing African American characters?

Further reading: 10 Great Resources for Writing Cross-Culturally

Eight Ways to Help Students Remember that Books are Fabulous

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

Dissecting excerpts, highlighting evidence, defending one’s answer choice, bubbling in exit slips. As necessary as all that preparation for upcoming state assessments may be, March and April for teachers and students can be arduous. In some cases, students are learning how to take a test for the first time. For many, the third quarter risks turning enthusiastic momentum for reading, developing interests, and taking academic risks into a trudge of review and re-teaching.

Now more than ever, students need the bigger picture of how literacy helps us as citizens, the experiences of deriving joy from print, and practice using books for stress management.With all this reading in overdrive, it is understandable that few students (and teachers) want to keep reading at home for pleasure. Yet we need to sustain student excitement for reading and prevent testing anxiety. Now more than ever, students need the bigger picture of how literacy helps us as citizens, the experiences of deriving joy from print, and practice using books for stress management.

Where On Earth Is My Bagel?

Where On Earth Is My Bagel?

If you have observed your students retreating from the idea that books are an escape and hobby to an unpleasant, stressful task, here are some techniques to increase the joy factor in reading and keep kids hooked:

  1. After lunch, recess, or the morning message, bring the class together to listen to you read a poem or a chapter from a longer book that is not connected to a skills or strategies lesson. This daily activity exposes students to books beyond their reading levels, bolsters classroom community in an otherwise competitive time, and communicates that books have calming, revitalizing effects.
  2. Continue to highlight books with relevant holidays, core value themes, or S.T.E.M. content using designated bins or book cover displays at child height. Even during crunch time when it is hard to infuse lessons with interdisciplinary connections and core value applications, these exhibitions or quick booktalks allow students to explore and develop their interests. Consider creating collections for Women’s History Month, Cesar Chavez Day, baseball season, National Poetry Month in April, and Earth Day.
  3. Lead students with books in arms to another classroom or outside for a “field trip.” This physical change of scenery reinforces that books are a mental change of scenery and a respite.
  4. Set aside 20 minutes every day just for independent reading instead of squeezing in one more skills mini-lesson. Preserving time for students to interact with books of their choice in independent reading allows students to take a break, manage tension, and re-focus their energy. During this time, students self-select books they enjoy, exercise literacy strategies, and feel in control of their learning. This commitment and preservation of independent reading time conveys to students how seriously you value and respect this sacred time to enjoy a book.

    Ten Oni Drummers

    Ten Oni Drummers

  5. A lot of test preparation and review involves independent work and sitting quietly. For an end of the week reward, let students choose a classroom peer to read to instead of independent reading that day, invite a younger grade to your classroom for your students to read to, utilize siblings and family relationships at the school, or invite other stakeholders in your students’ educations (like the cafeteria or main office staff) to enjoy a book with students. Reading to someone (buddy reading) allows scholars a chance to talk, enjoy a book in a low-stakes environment, and escape to a new world in a wonderful story.
  6. Encourage parents to lead a whole-class read aloud in the classroom. This time gives you a chance to conference with struggling readers, celebrate parents as teachers, and encourage the intergenerational fellowship of books.
  7. Invite an author to school or hold an online interview . There is nothing quite like reinvigorating young readers and writers than with a real author. This bright treat gives students a badly needed broader perspective of books beyond assessments. For more information on how to bring authors into your unit of study no matter what your budget is, check out this post.
  8. Change up the routine! Have an “opposites day” in which two teachers switch for a read aloud/poem one day. Or engage other school community members (like the principal, school nurse, and other non-teaching staff) to read to the whole class so that your students can see that they have a whole team cheering for them and invested in their growth, health, and success.

Do your students need a distraction? These joyful books offer just enough silliness, escape, or suspense to remind students that books are also for entertainment!

Lee & Low Likes… Djuan Trent

In 2010, Djuan Trent made history when she became one of four African-American women to win the pageant title of Miss Kentucky. Earlier this month, she made history yet again.

On her blog, Life in 27, Trent opened up about her sexuality and announced that she was “queer,” becoming the first contestant to publicly come out as queer.

djuan trent

Former Miss Kentucky Djuan Trent. (Photo courtesy of Facebook/Kellie Carter Photography)

In the world of beauty pageants, an industry often accused of objectifying women and embracing outer beauty rather than inner beauty, it’s refreshing to see someone who is breaking down the barriers of what is “beautiful.” Trent struggled with whether she should come out or not, but ultimately, she decided it was something she needed to do, especially after a Kentucky federal judge overturned parts of Kentucky’s same-sex marriage ban in February and set an effective date for his ruling today.

Trent encourages others to follow her lead, saying, “People can’t know that their best friend, brother, sister, co-worker, neighbor, news anchor, favorite singer, or local coffee shop barista is being oppressed and denied the rights in which their heterosexual counterparts are so happily welcomed partake, unless you open your mouth and say it.”

We couldn’t have said it better. 

Where can I find great diverse children’s books?

Recently The New York Times paired articles by Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers, discussing the lack of representation of people of color in children’s literature. Those excellent articles—which pointed out that in the long history of children’s literature we haven’t made much progress—caught the attention of best-selling author Jennifer Weiner, who started the #colormyshelf hashtag on Twitter asking for suggestions of diverse books that she could go purchase for her daughter. What a wonderful way to bring attention to what parents can do!

Just because diverse books don’t always show up front and center in bookstores doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Here’s a list of places to find great diverse books for young readers. Buy them, read them, recommend them. Showing demand for diverse books is one of the best ways to encourage the publication of more of them!

1. PublishersSeveral small publishers (us included) focus on diverse books. They’re a great place to start, and you can usually buy books from them directly, order them through an online retailer like Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or ask your local bookstore to order them (which also displays a demand for diverse titles):

Lee & Low Books (diverse books for young readers featuring a range of cultures)Rainbow Stew image
Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low (diverse middle grade and young adult speculative fiction)
Children’s Book Press, an imprint of Lee & Low (bilingual English/Spanish picture books)
Shen’s Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books (Asian/Asian American books for young readers)

Cinco Puntos Press (adult and children’s literature, and multicultural and bilingual books from Texas, the Mexican-American border, and Mexico)

Just Us Books (black interest and multicultural books for children and young adults)

Roadrunner Press (fiction and nonfiction for young readers focusing on the American West and America’s Native Nations)

Piñata Books, an imprint of Arte Público (juvenile and young adult books focused on Hispanic culture and by U.S. Hispanic authors)

Groundwood Books (Canadian publisher of books for young readers with a focus on diverse voices)

2. Blogs That Recommend Diverse BooksThere are some great bloggers out there who do the hard work of seeking out, reading, and recommending diverse children’s books, so you don’t have to! Just hop over to their blogs to find great new books to add to your collection:

The Brown Bookshelf (African American books)

American Indians in Children’s Literature (Native American books)

Latinos in KidLit (Latino books )

BookDragon (all diverse books, with a special focus on Asian/Pacific Islanders cultures)

Diversity in YA (diverse young adult books)

Rich in Color (diverse young adult books)

I’m Here! I’m Queer! What the Hell Do I Read? (LGBTQ books for young readers)

Crazy QuiltEdi (diverse books for all young readers)

Lee & Low Pinterest Board (diverse books searchable by genre and age)

playground image from Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash

3. AwardsIf you’re simply looking for the best of the best that’s been published each year, awards are the place. Books that win these awards have been vetted by experts (mostly librarians) so you can expect them to be top quality, beautiful, and culturally accurate.

Coretta Scott King Award (African American books)

Pura Belpré Award (Latino books)

Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature

Middle East Book Award

American Indian Youth Literature Award

South Asia Book Award

Rainbow Project Reading List (LGBTQ books for young readers)

Américas Book Award (Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino books)

Tomás Rivera Book Award (Mexican American books)

Notable Books for a Global Society (outstanding trade books that help promote understanding across lines of culture, race, sexual orientation, values, and ethnicity)

4. Bookstores: If you prefer to purchase your books through good old-fashioned browsing, there are several great independent bookstores that make it a point to stock diverse books. Below are a few we’ve been to, or that have been recommended to us by readers. If you’re in the area, be sure to stop by to support them!

Avid Bookshop, Athens, GA

Calamus Bookstore, Boston, MAGirl Reading, from Destiny's Gift

La Casa Azul New York, NY

Women and Children First, Chicago, IL

The Book Stall, Winnetka, IL

Politics and Prose, Washington DC

Teaching for Change Bookstore, Washington DC

The Flying Pig Bookstore, Shelburne, VT

Birchbark Books, Minneapolis, MN

Ancestry Books, Minneapolis, MN (coming soon)

Antigone Books, Tucson, AZ

Wellesley Books, Wellesley, MA

Librería Martinez, Santa Ana, CA

What did we miss? Let us know in the comments!

note: Updated 3/24 to add additional resources for finding books with LGBTQ content

Michelle Obama & Su Dongpo: A Character Analysis with Bloom’s Taxonomy

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

First Lady Michelle Obama travels to China this week from March 19-26 and will be focusing on the power and importance of education. In an open letter to American students, the First Lady writes, “During my trip, I’ll be visiting a university and two high schools in Beijing and Chengdu (which are two of China’s largest cities). I’ll be talking with students about their lives in China and telling them about America and the values and traditions we hold dear. I’ll be focusing in particular on the power and importance of education, both in my own life and in the lives of young people in both of our countries.”

We at Lee & Low Books wish we could join the First Lady, but since we can’t this time around, we will be reading the biography of one of China’s greatest statesmen, poets, and humanitarians, Su Dongpo. This scholar is a shining example of how persistence and dedication to one’s studies lead to achievement beyond the classroom and enable one to affect meaningful change.

Su Dongpo, Chinese Genius

Su Dongpo, Chinese Genius

This biography presents a rich setting for Standard 3 of the Common Core State Standards: character analysis. We follow Bloom’s Taxonomy to illustrate the range of questions you can use to meet your students’ needs and access their literary strengths. By creating a progression of questions within one standard, we differentiate for students within a class, provide extension opportunities for ready learners, or move the whole class from literal- to higher-level thinking over the course of several readings.

Knowledge:

  • What are Su Dongpo’s appearance/physical attributes, deeds/actions, thoughts/dialogue, and feelings/emotions?
  • What are other character’s opinions of and reactions to Su Dongpo?
  • Can you select sections showing how Su Dongpo relates to other characters?
  • How would you describe Su Dongpo in a paragraph?

Comprehension:

  • How would you classify Su Dongpo’s character trait(s) based on these actions, thoughts, and feelings above?
  • How would you summarize Su Dongpo’s opinion or feelings about Wang Anshi?
  • How would you describe Su Dongpo’s feelings about being banished from his job and home?
  • What problems does Su Dongpo face and how does he solve them?
  • How would you summarize Su Dongpo’s opinion about the purpose of government?

Application:

  • When Su Dongpo was twenty, he took the official exams and earned status as the First Scholar for his academic achievements. Based on what you know about Su Dongpo’s character traits, how would he have handled the situation differently if he had not earned such high marks the first time?
  • How would Su Dongpo react if his brother, Su Ziyou, became a corrupt government official?
  • What would need to happen or change for Su Dongpo to work for Emperor Zhezong?
  • How would Su Dongpo distinguish a “good” government from a “bad” government?
  • What would Su Dongpo likely think about our end of the year state assessments or the Common Core State Standards?
  • What advice do you think Su Dongpo would have for students who take state and national tests today?
  • If Su Dongpo worked for the U.S. Department of Education, what might Su Dongpo feel and think about the role of education in America today?

Analysis:

  • How did Su Dongpo’s upbringing prepare him for his career in government?
  • What inspired Su Dongpo’s beliefs about the purpose of government?
  • Why did Su Dongpo not care about “instant glory” or “worldly fame” when making a decision?
  • Compare Su Dongpo and Wang Anshi’s motivations for working in the government.

Synthesis:

  • Compose and present a speech that will communicate the thoughts and feelings of Su Dongpo to the Chinese people after he is pardoned when Emperor Zhezong dies.
  • Imagine you are Su Dongpo and write a diary account of your daily thoughts and activities. What would you say about the work that you do, the people you meet in government and in the villages, and the challenges you face?
  • Rewrite the scene of Su Dongpo hearing he is pardoned after the death of Emperor Zhezong. What would Su Dongpo feel and what would the Chinese people think about him if he were not pardoned?

Evaluation:

  • Defend whether you would or would not like Su Dongpo to work in your government.
  • Argue what lessons Su Dongpo learned from his career in and out of government.
  • How effective is Su Dongpo as a humanitarian?
  • Determine whether Su Dongpo was or was not disrespectful of government.
  • Assess whether Su Dongpo changed from the beginning to the end of the book based on his character traits.

Additional resources:

Sign up for updates from the First Lady throughout her trips and opportunities to ask questions.

Explore PBS LearningMedia for the First Lady’s blog, a map of China, and other resources.

10 Great Women of Color Whose Stories You Should Know

In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ve rounded up ten of our books that feature some amazing women of color! From a baseball player to an American politician, these women have helped pave the way for many others.

1. Wangari Maathai, Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace - the first African woman, and environmentalist, to win a Nobel Peace Prize

seeds of change

2. Marcenia Lyle, Catching the Moon: The Story of a Young  Girl’s Baseball Dream - the first woman to play for an all-male professional baseball team

catching the moon

3. Anna May Wong, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story - the first Chinese American movie star

shining star

4. Florence Mills, Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up the Stage - an international dancing and singing superstar during the Harlem Renaissance

baby flo

5. Augusta Savage, In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savagea sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance who carved out her own special place in art history

in her hands

6. Pura Belpré, The Storyteller’s Candle / La velita de los cuentos - New York City’s first Latina librarian

storyteller's candle

7. Patsy Mink, How We Are Smart - an American politician from the U.S. state of Hawaii

how we are smart

8. Hiromi Suzuki, Hiromi’s Hands - one of a handful of women in the male-dominated world of sushi chefs

hiromi's hands

9. Rosa Parks, Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth - Mrs. Parks changed the course of history when she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, sparking the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement

dear mrs. parks

10. Zora Neale Hurston, Zora Hurston and the Chinaberry Tree - renowned African American writer

zora hurston and the chinaberry tree

Where Do Boys Belong In Women’s History Month?

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

Irena's Jars Of Secrets

Irena’s Jars Of Secrets

I entered the education field to broaden the minds of a new generation and teach the truths that I felt I had missed or was denied in my own education. Indeed, I was not alone in those motivations. According to the Primary Sources project by Scholastic and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, of the more than 20,000 public school classroom teachers polled, 85% of teachers say they chose the profession in order to make a difference in children’s lives.

Despite my righteous ambitions, once in the classroom, I was hesitant to broach the conversation about gender with a mixed class of boys and girls. So many of my own college classes that focused on social justice and equality issues were almost entirely women.

Acutely aware of my students’ fragile perception of themselves, I was intimated by the prospect of guiding the discussion. When I was leading a classroom of my own, it was often easier to concentrate on the benign world of synonyms, dictionary skills, main idea, and genre features than push my students to think about what role gender plays in achievement, history, and identity.

I wondered: How do we teach about women’s history and contributions without alienating boys? Will boys disengage if a girl or woman is on the cover or is the main character? In this day and age, do girls still need explicit attention drawn to high-achievers that share their gender?

Leading up to my first month of March as a teacher, I thought I would “just” read more books with women as the central figures during Women’s History Month, but not explicitly point out that these were all women so as not to freak out boys and hope the girls would pick up on my subliminal messages of empowerment….

Face palm

Insert face palm here.

This thinking was a huge disservice to ALL of my students’ educations. As I introduced books with prominent women historic figures or girl characters, I realized if the books were about gender, we would discuss identity and tolerance. Other times if the story just happened to have a girl character, but gender wasn’t a central feature of the story, my scholars just wanted to focus on the great story and how the universal lessons applied to their lives.

Four lessons to think about when teaching women’s history so both boys AND girls grow and learn:

  1. Two words: cool stories. Above all, if it’s a great story, it doesn’t matter who is on the cover. Everyone will want to sit up and participate.
  2. Pick contemporary and diverse stories. To continue to show the relevancy of the women’s movements and contributions of women to society, we owe it to all of our students to find more contemporary examples of women figures and showcase more diverse participants in equality. Let’s keep exposing our kids to women of today and of different backgrounds.
  3. Show explicit examples of men championing women. Boys need to see great role models of men advocating for women alongside or behind the scenes. There are plenty of men who have been in the trenches with women fighting for social If we want to instill resiliency and develop children’s imaginations, we need to present children with stories about long odds, big dreams, and fantastic leadership that come in all shapes, sizes, and bodies.justice and as invested in their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers achieving great success in a field of study as the women themselves. If we want future generations of men to respect and support women, we need to offer boys examples of how to recognize and champion women’s contributions. Boys and girls need to see that the struggles for equality impacted everyone and were not about one group’s success at the other’s detriment.
  4. Talk about the universal lesson and character traits. Everyone can learn from a story about overcoming obstacles, persistence, and courage. Women like Wangari Maathai and Pura Belpré fought for what they loved and believed was right first, and then fought for who they were and who they represented. If we want to instill resiliency and develop children’s imaginations, we need to present children with stories about long odds, big dreams, and fantastic leadership that come in all shapes, sizes, and bodies.

Throughout the year and especially during Women’s History Month, we need to teach that gender shouldn’t be an excuse to bar someone from exploring or contributing to a field of study. Concurrently, we want to show all students that gender can offer a unique perspective or approach that should be recognized and celebrated.

Alongside our girls, boys need the language of equality and a broader view of history. Women’s contributions advanced our society and continue to impact all of us. We need to teach that gender totally does matter and, at the same time, totally doesn’t matter.

Shining Star: The Story Of Anna May Wong

Shining Star: The Story Of Anna May Wong

Susan B. Anthony Is Great, But Who Else Do We Have? Here are books about high-achieving women from diverse backgrounds with diverse pursuits.

Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up The Stage

Baby Flo: Florence Mills Lights Up The Stage

Women and The Men That Championed Them. Explore these books with awesome men celebrating awesome women:

Killer Of Enemies

Killer Of Enemies

Stories That Will Hook ’Em All. Here are stories so fun that it won’t matter who is on the cover…but the cover just happens to feature a girl:

Lee & Low Likes… The New ‘Annie’

The trailer for the upcoming remake of Annie is out, and we’re quite excited for the fabulously diverse cast! Quvenzhané Wallis, the talented young actress who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress (the youngest nominee ever!) for Beasts of the Southern Wildplays the star role of Annie. Jamie Foxx is cast as Will Stacks, the modern version of Daddy Warbucks, Rose Byrne cast as Stacks’ trusty assistant, and Cameron Diaz plays the dreadful Miss Hannigan.

the cast of Annie

the cast of 2014 version of Annie

We like that the story is updated a bit; it feels less like a copycat of the original Annie and more like a fresh, modern take on the story of the lovable orphan. In the 2014 remake, Will Stacks is running for NYC mayor and strategically takes Annie in for publicity purposes. Annie, of course, thinks that Mr. Stacks is saving her, but… we all know who saves who and how this story ends. Take a look at the trailer below and look out for the movie in theaters this Christmas.

The 86th Annual Academy Awards Wins for Diversity

The glitz, fashion, and the glamorous parties are over, but we at LEE & LOW BOOKS are still thinking about the 86th Annual Academy Awards. We were excited to see our infographic on the diversity gap in the Academy Awards shared in several places, including the New York Times Carpetbagger blog, MSNBC’s The Grio, and Colorlines. Even Ellen started off the night with a joke about diversity (“Possibility number one, 12 Years a Slave could win. Possibility number two, you’re all racists. Now please welcome our first white presenter…”). But the highlight of this year’s ceremony was seeing some big wins in diversity:

lupita nyong'o and cate blanchett

2014 Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o and Cate Blanchett

Lupita Nyong’o, Best Supporting Actress for “12 Years a Slave”: Lupita Nyong’o’s touching acceptance speech reminded every aspiring actor and actress that “no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

Cate Blanchett, Best Actress for “Blue Jasmine”: Cate Blanchett’s empowering speech was an inspiration for women everywhere, as she addressed the stereotype that “female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money. The world is round, people.”

Steven McQueen and Alfonso Cuaron

Directors Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón

Alfonso Cuarón, Best Director for “Gravity”: Alfonso Cuarón became the first Latino director to ever win an Oscar, and in response to a backstage interview with the world press, he said he would “love if that same support is given to some other films that are coming out of there with Mexican filmmakers, shot in Mexico, and with Mexican subject matters.”

Best Picture for “12 Years a Slave”: This film set in pre-Civil War America follows Solomon Northup, a free black man who is abducted and sold into slavery. This is the first time a film directed by a black filmmaker has won Best Picture. Director Steve McQueen dedicated the win to “all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

Congratulations are also due to Robert Lopez, the first Filipino-American ever to win an Oscar for his song “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen,” and John Ridley for his Oscar for the “Twelve Years a Slave” screenplay, marking only the second time that a black screenwriter has won the award.

It was also a breath of fresh air to see new Academy Director Cheryl Boone Isaacs walk out onstage to introduce herself.

While the wins will certainly change the bleak numbers we reported last week, one year alone is not enough. Here’s hoping this year’s big wins mean more people of color in front of and behind the cameras in the future!

The Best Cheerleaders May Come In the Smallest Packages: How Siblings Affect Literacy Education

Jill_EisenbergJill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators. 

Home to Medicine Mountain

Home to Medicine Mountain

My students and their siblings were often alone or spent a lot of time with each other. For some, siblings were the only constant in their lives. Fittingly, siblings and close-in-age relatives held powerful sway and influence over each other.

I found that brothers, sisters, cousins, and neighbors saw each other’s success as their OWN success. One of my third-graders danced in the middle of the carpet for twelve minutes after he heard the intercom announcement that his fifth-grade sister would be the new school president of the student council. What if I could channel that excitement towards literacy?

Brothers and sisters WANTED to see their siblings succeed. Sure, when one of my third-graders struggled to translate from English to Spanish that she hadn’t turned her homework in for a week at the parent-teacher conference, her older sister was delighted to impart the correct information to their mother.

In addition to using siblings for accountability and parent-teacher bridges, siblings became an incredible reward and relationship in my classroom. When my students, especially the struggling readers, made it to a new level, aced an assessment, or turned in excellent high-quality work, I wrote laudatory notes and let those students deliver them to their siblings in another classroom.

Mama Elizabeti

Mama Elizabeti

This system turned out to be just as powerful as a celebratory phone call home to adults, but I was recognizing the child in real time and recognizing the strength of the family presence at school. And it went further: the younger or older sibling was able to celebrate my student in their classroom and admire them publicly amidst their peers for academic achievement. There are not enough Dollar Tree prizes to compete with that kind of reward.

Beyond my school, psychologists have noticed the effect older brothers and sisters can have. In fact, NPR explored the positive and negative consequences of older sibling influence in a segment called, “Big Sibling’s Big Influence: Some Behaviors Run In The Family.”

At Arlington Elementary in Arlington, Tennessee, The Jackson Sun reported how teachers are recruiting older students to read to younger students in their Big Brothers, Big Sisters Reading Club every morning before school. More advanced students can relate to struggling readers and explain strategies in a friendly, non-high-stakes atmosphere.

In Carmel Valley, California, the Read To Me Project is an early literacy program that builds school readiness by engaging elementary brothers and sisters to read to their siblings. So far, 350 participating older siblings are reading to 443 young children across four school districts.

For Dr. Seuss’ Birthday last year at my school in the Bay Area, our kindergarten teachers invited the third-graders to read to them. Everyone was ecstatic to read to their brother, sister, cousin, or neighbor. My scholars had the opportunity to show off the chapter books they were tackling and feel like experts as they helped the kinders decode and recognize sight words. The kinders, in turn, received extra reading time, exposure to high-quality texts, and an opportunity to show off how remarkable their older sibling was.

One of my students who was an advanced learner, but had a very unstable home life, was very, very protective of his three younger brothers. His active kinder brother had refused to read with any third-grader, hiding each time another class of third-graders came throughout the day. Not until the last period arrived and his third-grade brother, my student, finally appeared did this kinder cuddle up to read. Even though my student brought a dense, picture-less chapter book on sharks and their presence in Fiji cultural traditions, his kinder brother sat in rapt attention for nearly an hour soaking in every word from his big brother.

We know the results on a child’s motivation and confidence when parents relish in their child’s success, so why don’t we harness that effect from siblings as well? Equipping our children with the love for reading and the skills needed to confront real world problems involves every stakeholder in our children’s lives—and that may include their smallest (but loudest!) cheerleaders.

If you need more inspiration, check out these books with strong sibling relationships:

Summer of the Mariposas

Summer of the Mariposas

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