Guest blogger Katie Cunningham is an Assistant Professor at Manhattanville College. Her teaching and scholarship centers around children’s literature, critical literacy, and supporting teachers to make their classrooms joyful and purposeful. Katie has presented at numerous national conferences and is the editor of The Language and Literacy Spectrum, New York Reading Association’s literacy journal.
As we unravel the tragic events that took place in Newtown, CT, I am reminded of the dedication Jan Spivey Gilchrest wrote in When The Horses Ride By: Children in the Time of War:
For the beautiful, powerful and courageous children of the world, you are far more than dolls and toy trucks. You are real people only smaller. Know that we are here to love you, listen to you, respect you and protect you.
Gilchrest’s words remind us as educators, parents, and writers that there is great beauty and strength in the children who fill our lives. As the process of healing begins, stories can remind us of just how beautiful, powerful, and courageous children are. Stories can celebrate the simple acts of care people bestow on one another. Stories can, in turn, inspire acts of kindness.
Every semester I ask my students to consider how they will use children’s literature to help their own young students understand traumatic events. Rather than turning to texts that offer generic historical accounts, I find my students selecting stories that center the human spirit. The Classroom Bookshelf has generated a wonderful book list for supporting children with grief and loss. It’s a resource to turn to in the days and weeks ahead as we come together to grieve and to take action. As we move forward as a nation, we will also need books that celebrate children and the power of love and remind us to give thanks. The following books are stories that I continue to come back to as I work alongside teachers. Consider how these and other stories can provide comfort and build a community of care in your classroom. Let’s continue to recognize what’s most important in our classrooms—the children, their stories, and stories that inspire them.
Children that Inspire
I continue to turn to When the Horses Ride By to remember the hopeful spirit of children. In this book, it is children who are the helpers and the beacons of peace. It is the children who see beauty in the midst of devastation. It reminds us to see this spirit in the everyday lives of children.
In times like these, many of us feel upside down. Our children feel upside down as they encounter hurt, fear, and sorrow. The Upside Down Boy shares Juan Felipe Herrara’s own story of immigration and what it felt like to be new in a school, new to a country with new words floating around him. This is his story but this is also the story of the power of teachers and families to love and support children to find their voice.
What can a child draw when they don’t find anything beautiful in the place where they live? How can art provide a safe place when you are living in fear? A Place Where Sunflowers Grow is the story of Mari, one of the 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. With the help of her art teacher, her family, and her new friend, Mari finds hope in an unquestionably unjust place.
Our capacity to give is a great human strength. In The Can Man, Tim is hoping for a skateboard and inspired by a homeless man he decides to collects cans to have enough money to buy one. As he almost reaches his goal, Tim changes his mind. Your students and children will be left wondering how they can make a difference in someone else’s life?
Stories of Enduring Love and Human Dignity
Frederick Douglass is a figure we traditionally study in school. His words move us to consider his life as a slave and his fight for the rights of all humans. Yet, we don’t study the life of his mother. In Love Twelve Miles Long, Frederick’s mother walked twelve miles to visit him. How her love was with him no matter the distance between them. We need stories that continue to champion the power of love.
Where does courage come from? In a city ravaged by World War II, Irena Sendler was safe. Yet, at tremendous personal risk she smuggled food and clothing to Jewish prisoners in Warsaw and ultimately smuggled children out of the ghetto. She kept a list of their names in the hopes they would reunite with their families. Turn to Irena’s Jars of Secrets for a reminder of our great capacity to find courage within.
As a classroom teacher, I tried to build in a time at the end of the day to reflect on what we learned. In retrospect, I should have also used that time to share with my class how thankful I was for them. In Gracias – Thanks, this beautiful, colorful, engaging book, Pat Mora continues to wow and gently reminds us of thankfulness through the eyes of children.
I know of no better way to support the children in our lives to become empathetic, caring people than through the sharing of stories and the modeling of care. What stories are you using to center the strong voices of children? To empower them? To model care?