Intentional Reading

One of our cherished summer rituals is the boys’ and my weekly trip to the public library. They get their reading logs stamped for a new prize. Ethan quickly gathers an armload of books whose heavy weight challenges his walk back to the car. Not wanting to struggle in the same way, Connor only grabs a short stack. I dutifully supplement with a handful of my own choices for him and maybe one for his brother that covers subject matter other than Star Wars and dinosaurs.

This summer I have been much more intentional about what I choose for them. Last year it came to my attention that only 6 percent of children’s books published in 2012 featured diverse characters. For our first trip to the library this summer, I went equipped with a list from NPR’s Mind Shift blog post: “25 Books That Diversify Kids’ Reading Lists This Summer.” Ever since then, I have found myself following the same pattern almost without thought. I really did not need to have a proposed list in hand. The books are there; I just needed to be a little intentional in my search.

Over the past month and a half, the boys and I have enjoyed numerous books that have broadened our horizons in subtle but sure ways. The kids may not recognize it, but I sense the widening of our minds in the stories that are authored by marginalized voices or feature characters that are less represented in mainstream society. It is especially heart-warming to be able to read a story that resonates into our personal experience. When we read Dumpling Soup by Jama Kim Rattigan, we could think about making mandoo with Grandma Kim and hear Korean words in the landscape of that activity. What may seem strange and awkward to the many peers around them was validated and normalized by virtue of the printed words and illustrations on their laps.

We do not just get books by or about Koreans. First of all, we would have probably been finished by now in terms of how many are out there and readily available. More importantly, I want the boys to read about ALL cultures and perspectives. It’s the world we live in and the one I want them to be able to navigate with comfort, familiarity, and understanding.

When Ethan was born, we lived in a high-rise condo in downtown Chicago. Living there for his first two years of life definitely shaped him. He could sleep peacefully undisturbed in the constant cacophony of sirens and nearby L train tracks. He did not know how to climb stairs when visiting friends in the suburbs because he rode an elevator every day to go up and down. When we visited his grandparents in Michigan while he was finally walking on his own, he froze on their grassy lawn. The boy was freaked out by the texture and unsure of how to navigate on such an unfamiliar surface when he was usually surrounded by concrete. Adjustments came through our move out of downtown and natural exposure to other settings. Had he remained strictly in the confines of the urban jungle 24-7, his life experiences would have been limited. We love that he had that start for many reasons, but we also love that here he can see the stars on a clear, dark night and find countless creatures in the yard to observe. Books are just one means to expand the boys’ minds to life outside of their own somewhat broad but still limited experience. I feel a deep commitment to expose them to the beautiful stars and interesting creatures outside their current realm.

The same goes for their mama. I have also gone searching for my summer reading along the library shelves with intention. Anyone who looks for reading in public libraries or used book stores knows that finding something may not come easily. It can be like combing through the clothing racks at Marshalls. Many days you may leave empty-handed, but once in a while you find a gem. This summer the library has been a treasure trove for me. I started with Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth written when women were expected to play hostess not win Pulitzer Prizes in literature. Then came Susan Choi’s American Woman whose Asian American authorship and main character resulted in a refreshing voice with whom I felt a kinship. Today I just finished Sharon Robinson’s Stealing Home. She shares the story of Jackie Robinson not just as the baseball legend but as her father in the intimacy of family. After personally encouraging the nine Little Rock teens who were being integrated into previously segregated high schools amidst harsh opposition, he explained this to his children.

“I suppose we all fear the unknown–the strange, the different. The natural fears of parents are made worse by ignorance, and unfortunately they pass them down to their children. In the process, the stories get more and more distorted and eventually become fact in the minds of the storyteller. The sad part for everyone is that prejudice prevents people from sharing their talents which could benefit the whole community. The only way racial discrimination can have a hope of being erased is through exposure. The more people understand each other the less they will fear the differences.”

It has been a pleasure exposing my kids to the relatively unknown and making it less different and strange in terms of their own contexts and the contexts of many others. Alone it may not bring complete understanding but joined with varied sources of exposure I hope my children will not only have that precious understanding but be the bridges to understanding for every community of which they are part. Tomorrow is library day. We are so excited to discover the treasures awaiting us.

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