Well, here we are again. I’m writing this two days after another white terrorist attack in which eight people, six of whom are Asian women, were murdered. To be honest, putting together book lists starts to feel hollow. The truth is that no book will solve the problem of white supremacy and systemic racism. Only people can do that. We can read book upon book, but if the messages of antiracism that we read about don’t make it into our actions, what’s the point?
As a parent, this examination is vital. Part of our activism is raising antiracist kids. If we read them stories about kindness and acceptance and gentleness, we must also live those lessons each day. I don’t know about you, but for me, a year into a pandemic in which we pulled our kids from childcare and have them home with us where we're also working, kindness, acceptance, and gentleness can often feel like an impossibly tall order. When I read to my kids, I try so hard to breathe, to internalize the words that I’m reading to them. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail; sometimes I need these books even more than they do.
Be kind to yourselves. Be kind to your kids. Be kind to your neighbors. I’m holding out hope that they’ll take that kindness with them for the rest of their lives.
Edmond the Squirrel and George the Owl are down by the river collecting supplies for George’s latest costume when they hear a strange sound. They look across the river and see a Thing. Terrified, they run away, assuming that the unknown Thing must be dangerous and scary. The friends try to calm down, but in haste and fear, Edmond draws a picture of the Thing with an X through it and posts the sign down by the river. George, on the other hand, goes home and looks through his books, trying to learn something about the Thing. After a good night’s sleep, the two friends come to the realization that their response to the Thing was unkind and motivated by fear of the unknown. Then, they work to repair the damage they’ve done.
Edmond: The Thing is one of my favorite books about kindness. Marc Boutavant’s illustrations are magical and engaging and Astrid Desbordes shows the utmost respect for the children who read her book. We all make mistakes, especially when we’re scared. The thing that matters most is what you do when you realize that you were wrong, that you were hurtful instead of loving.
The next two books on this list are about being kind to yourself. They also highlight the importance of representation in children’s books (ALL BOOKS!). When children are given a chance to see themselves on the pages of their stories, on their screens, in the food they eat, everywhere, they are validated. They are shown that they matter and that they’re beautiful.
Everything about Eyes that Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho is beautiful. Dung Ho’s illustrations glow from the inside out, radiating beauty and kindness and connection to the people who love us. The little girl in the story begins by pointing out the difference between her eyes and her classmates’ eyes. Quickly, she moves on - admiring her mother’s eyes, her Amah’s eyes, her little sister Mei-Mei’s eyes. In those eyes, she sees generations of strong women, their beauty and perseverance and joy. She sees connection and belonging and safety and so much love. She sees herself. And she is beautiful.
Sulwe is the story of a girl born with skin the color of midnight. The rest of her family has lighter skin than she does. She is taunted at school and, despite the fact that her mother often tells her of her beauty, she always feels ugly and ashamed. Her mother reminds her that her name means Star - and one night, a star comes into her room and whisks her away into the night sky. She is told the story of two sisters, Night and Day. They loved each other very much, but people treated them very differently. They loved Day and spoke of her warmth and beauty, but Night was often feared and hated. Eventually, Night leaves. At first, all of the people celebrate and jump for joy. Endless Day! Then, they get very tired. Day is too long. She searches for her sister and begs her to come back. The people of Earth need both sisters, Night and Day. Both are beautiful and to be celebrated. When Sulwe wakes up the next morning, she understands her beauty and is ready to celebrate it too.
In her Author’s Note, Lupita N’yongo writes “While both Sulwe and I had to learn to see our beauty, I hope that more and more children begin their lives knowing they are beautiful. That they can look to the beauty in the world and know that they are part of. And yet what is on the outside is only one part of being beautiful. Yes, it is important to feel good about yourself when you look in the mirror, but what is even more important is working on being beautiful inside. That means being kind to yourself and to others. That is the beauty that truly shines through.”
Leuyen Pham’s incredible picture book, Outside, Inside, is dedicated to first responders and essential workers and its beauty, simplicity, and hope have caused me to break down and weep each time I’ve read it. It is a necessary balm for the strangeness, pain, and beauty of this past year. The sacrifices that we’ve made, that our children have made, can often feel harder and harder to bear. What difference are we making by staying inside, not seeing our friends, not playing on playgrounds?
This book highlights the importance of our sacrifice and the sacrifice of others. It feels a little cliche to say “We’re all in this together,” but we really are. The choices that we make impact the people around us, whether we’re in a global pandemic or not. My hope is that by thinking of others throughout this past year, we’ve modeled the importance of kindness and selflessness to our children, our families, our neighbors, our communities.
And now, as birds sing outside and buds form on the trees, and vaccinations become available to more and more people, we can step outside and feel hope and joy and gratitude to the people around us who have been sacrificing and surviving inside their homes, just like we have.
Our Little Kitchen is the story of a community kitchen filled with lots of different people, coming together to make a nourishing meal for anyone who needs one. Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations are lively and exciting. Her words highlight the ingenuity of the helpers, searching through their garden and various donations to make delicious food for those in need. Sometimes they have a lot, sometimes they have a little. They work hard, they give of themselves, and their love and kindness finds its way into their food. They respect the people who come in for a meal, talk with them and listen to their stories. The people who come for a meal leave feeling dignified and full. This book is a gift to all who read it.
This blog post was written for Northerly, an online magazine that celebrates family life in Wisconsin.