2 African-American cyclists of note, 1 century apart

Marshall “Major” Taylor was an elite cyclist in the 1890s and early 1900s. He was the first African-American to win a world championship in any sport.

Ayesha McGowan is a contemporary cyclist on a mission to become the first female African-American pro cyclist. Ever.

Chances are you haven’t heard of either of them.

I don’t recall how I first encountered McGowan — an Internet rabbit hole of some kind, no doubt — but I recently had the opportunity to interview and write about her for Excelle Sports. Check out the profile and then follow her blog or Instagram for a chance to see history as it happens.

Just keep pushing. #aquickbrownfox

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While researching that Excelle piece I came across Taylor’s life story, and I did what I always do after “why haven’t I heard of this person before?” moments: checked the local library for children’s books about him. I found the following picture book. Perhaps one day, if McGowan achieves her goal, there will be a biography of her on the shelves, too.

Major Taylor, Champion CyclistMajor Taylor, Champion Cyclist by Lesa Cline-Ransome

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the turn of the 20th century, “Major” Marshall Taylor was the fastest cyclist in the world. In this picture book biography, Lesa Cline-Ransom and James E. Ransome recreate Taylor’s journey from a bicycle shop stunt boy to a world champion who battled racism by winning races.

Major Taylor’s name should be on any list of American sports heroes and notable African-Americans in history. Today a network of cycling clubs across the U.S. bear his name but few outside those groups know his story. This book is a good starting point for bringing Taylor’s legacy to the fore, though the word count could definitely be pared down and the language punched up.

View all my reviews

Muslims in Kidlit Friday: The Sandwich Swap by Queen Rania

Another lunch-related picture book! This one is by Queen Rania of Jordan, inspired by one of her own childhood memories. Experiencing new foods and food-related traditions is, in my opinion, one of the great joys of traveling abroad and/or making friends from different backgrounds than yours.

The Sandwich SwapThe Sandwich Swap by Rania Al Abdullah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My thoughts: Salma and Lily do everything together, until one day lunchtime differences come between them. After calling each other’s sandwiches — one hummus, one PB&J — gross, the feud spreads to their classmates and sparks an all-out food fight, leaving Salma and Lily to clean up the mess in the cafeteria and their friendship.
This book has a positive cross-cultural message, which of course I like. I also like that instead of one character being ostracized for an unusual lunch, the two characters are already friends. The small comment that leads to an out-sized fight is something so common in childhood. Luckily, kids are also capable of moving past such spats and treating each other better, as Salma and Lily show.

Other things to read this week: The Unleashing Readers blog this week has a list of of “Books to Deepen Our Understanding of the Countries on the #MuslimBan List.” The post includes one book for each of the 7 countries in Trump’s executive order.

Introducing Muslims in Kidlit Friday


Charminar mosque and monument in Hyderabad, India. 2010

For those of us who value diversity and social justice, the past year was tough, and the rhetoric of our incoming U.S. president alarming. After the heartache of the election came the question: what do we do? From looking at history, I believe that political change comes from groups of coming together to build power that can’t be ignored. I’m not just talking about showing up at mass mobilizations. Those are one tactic. What I’m referring to  is community organizing, which takes collective strategizing and sustained commitment. That’s the kind of work it will take to prevent the creation of a Muslim registry, for instance.

But what about interpersonal and social progress? What’s often referred to as changing hearts and minds? That’s where cultural work plays a role. How much of impact, for example, have gay characters in shows like “Will & Grace” and “Glee” had on the acceptance of LGBT peers among younger generations? As so many have written in regard to the We Need Diverse Books movement, seeing all kinds of people represented in books and other media decreases isolation and increases empathy.

Over the past few years, I have shined a spotlight on children’s books with diverse characters and also books that highlight struggles for social justice (though the former is easier to find than the latter). In 2017, I am going to be more intentional about this. Specifically, every Friday I will be writing a post related to Muslims in children’s literature.

Why did I choose the topic of Muslims in kidlit?

I grew up in a homogenous, white and Christian setting. I barely knew what Islam was in high school. Then came college. I learned about lots of different people and experiences, mostly unintentionally. By junior year, I found myself studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt and listening to the call to prayer five times a day. I have lived in several other predominantly Muslim countries and cities since then and been welcomed with open arms, tea and too many sweets. I would like to see my home country be equally welcoming to strangers.

Exposure normalizes differences, but I know that many non-Muslims in the U.S. haven’t had the experiences I’ve had. On top of that, books featuring Muslim characters or written by Muslim authors have been noticeably less represented in the books I’ve found in my active pursuit of diverse kidlit in recent years.

Many of these Friday posts will simply be book reviews. I hope some will be author Q&As. And some, like today, will point to other content and conversations related to Muslims in children’s literature. This is important, because I’m not an expert, and I think it’s important to listen to the voices of Muslim writers and readers.

In that spirit, I’m kicking things off by recommending that you listen to this recent episode of the “See Something Say Something” podcast. This show is about being Muslim in America. In this particular episode, the host, Ahmed Ali Akbar, chats with two children’s writers:

  1. Hena Khan, author of the picture books “It’s Ramadan, Curious George” and “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns.”
  2. Sara Farizan, author of the queer-themed YA novels “If You Could Be Mine” and “Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel.”

In the podcast, Hena and Sara talk about what they read as kids, how they develop characters, and the responsibilities that come with depicting underrepresented groups in writing.

Listen to the podcast here: http://app.stitcher.com/splayer/f/123109/48492912

2 Picture Books about Welcoming All People (and Pets)


Yard sign in Millersville, PA. Dec. 25, 2016

Is there room at the inn*? What about in your club? Your school? Your country?

Christmas 2016 seems like a pretty appropriate time to highlight two picture books about welcoming others. Please share your recommendations for similar titles in the comments!

Strictly No ElephantsStrictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: When the local Pet Club won’t admit a boy’s tiny pet elephant, he finds a solution—one that involves all kinds of unusual animals in this sweet and adorable picture book.

Today is Pet Club day. There will be cats and dogs and fish, but strictly no elephants are allowed. The Pet Club doesn’t understand that pets come in all shapes and sizes, just like friends. Now it is time for a boy and his tiny pet elephant to show them what it means to be a true friend.

Imaginative and lyrical, this sweet story captures the magic of friendship and the joy of having a pet.

My review: A picture book about a boy and his tiny pet elephant? I’m already sold, but what makes “Strictly No Elephants” worth telling everyone about is the timeless story about being excluded for being different and then finding the people (and pets) who will like and embrace you for who you are.
Published in 2015, the final message that “All are Welcome” feels particularly poignant and relevant in late 2016. Many adults could benefit from reading this as much as children will. It would be an especially great addition to classroom libraries in schools that have historically been homogeneous but are become more diverse.

My Two BlanketsMy Two Blankets by Irena Kobald

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Publisher’s description: Cartwheel has moved to a place that is so strange to her, she no longer feels like herself. This is a story about new ways of speaking, new ways of living, new ways of being.

My review: Told through the eyes of a Sudanese refugee, this is a universal story of loneliness transformed by a simple gesture of friendship. Anyone who’s ever felt like a stranger in a strange land will identify with the main character through her simple but evocative descriptions of her feelings. For example:
“Nobody spoke like I did.
When I went out, it was like standing under a waterfall of strange sounds.
The waterfall was cold.
It made me feel alone.
I felt like I wasn’t me anymore.”

The soft oil and water color illustrations subtly reinforce such passages by showing the main character dressed in orange amid scenes of blues, browns and grays. In the final scene at a park, other characters and features have taken on orange accents, just as the main character has become more comfortable under her blue “blanket” while still wearing her orange outfit. The author uses blankets as a symbol for the main character’s native language and her comfort with it, as well as for the process of learning a new language — woven together word by word, with the aid of a new friend.


*Did you know that the phrase “no room at the inn” in the story of Christ’s birth may be better translated as “no room in the guest room,” suggesting Mary and Joseph may actually have been staying with family? Shows the power of one little word to shape a story, right??

Mike Curato on “Unwelcomed Love”

Mike Curato, author/illustrator of the adorably charming “Little Elliott” picture books, has a disheartening story on his blog today about a school visit in which a principal discouraged him from discussing one of his other popular books: “Worm Loves Worm,” written by J.J. Austrian. “Worm Loves Worm” is an invertebrate allegory to gay marriage, so you can guess the gist of the principal’s sentiments. Go read the full story from Mike.

(Don’t worry, it’s not entirely a bummer. There’s some poetic justice at the end. But even if there weren’t, it’s important to be aware that people from all kinds of marginalized groups are having these experiences daily.)

And check out “Worm Loves Worm” next time you’re at the library or bookstore!


Miranda Paul on writing multicultural children’s books

I just came across this post from author Miranda Paul about writing across boundaries, such as race, and the need for diversity not just in kids’ book characters but authors and illustrators, too. It’s from 2014 but still very relevant and worth reading.

Here’s an excerpt:

Not every story is mine to tell.
I know that, and I respect that.
That doesn’t mean I only write stories that originate my Midwest hometown, about characters who look like me, grew up like me, talk like me, etc. In fact, those of you who know what I write is far more diverse. But what I write is also based upon experience, research, passion, and personal connection.

Weekend Round-up: #WhereIsRey & other problems in children’s toys and media


I’ve been reading/listening to some interesting debates and discussions on social issues in children’s books and toys lately. Here are a few links worth checking out.

1. Missing in action figures

Without seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I’ve heard enough about to know that the main protagonist, Rey, is female. So I was surprised to hear about her absence from most of the film’s merchandise. The Brood, a parenting podcast/radio show, dives into the details, reactions and corporate explanations.

2.  More smiling slaves making desserts, more controversy

You may have heard about the backlash a few months ago over the portrayal of slaves in “A Fine Dessert.” Now a new picture book, “A Birthday Cake for George Washington” is receiving similar scrutiny.

3. ALA’s Youth Media awards are here, and so are some ugly reactions

The Caldecott, the Newbery and all the other annual Youth Media Awards from the American Library Association were announced Monday. I was happy to see many great books I read last year in the mix, including a good number with diverse characters and authors. Apparently not everyone was as pleased. The Reading While White blog rebuts some commenters’ claims that committees must have been kowtowing to PC-ness. The short post ends in a perfect way, by using the beautiful last line from Newbery winner “Last Stop on Market Street.”

How I did on my 2015 We Need Diverse Books resolution


From August through December, I read 23 diverse children’s books, bringing my year-end total to 68.

That means I surpassed my We Need Diverse Books resolution of 50 diverse books even without counting adult books!

My grand total for children’s books this year is 151. Diverse books being 45 percent of that is a number I feel good about. But it didn’t happen by chance. I’ve found titles by following the Cooperative Children’s Book Center blog, reading recommendations in Rethinking Schools magazine, keeping up with the We Need Diverse Books newsletters and Twitter account, and participating a variety of other social media conversations. And also, of course, paying attention to the new children’s book shelves at my local library.

I plan to keep up those efforts in 2016 and will decide on my new We Need Diverse Books resolution next week. In the meantime, below are the diverse kids’ titles I read in August through December. To see the rest of my 2015 list, visit these posts: JanuaryFebruary, March, April through July.

August through October mosaic.jpg

Row 1: (All related to civil rights) “Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer” by Carole Boston Weatherford, “Voices from the March on Washington” by George Ella Lyon and J. Patrick Lewis, “Lillian’s Right to Vote” by Jonah Winter, “Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama” by Hester Bass

Row 2: (All fictional picture books) “One Word from Sophia” by Jim Averbeck, “Last Stop on Market Street” by Matt de la Peña, “Lion Lion” by Miriam Busch, “Mango, Abuela, and Me” by Meg Medina

Row 3: (All middle grade or YA; 1st three deal with LGBT themes) “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash, “George” by Alex Gino, “Lies We Tell Ourselves” by Robin Talley, “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio

Row 4: (All picture books; 1st two are nonfiction) “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table” by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, “One Plastic Bag” by Miranda Paul, “The Big Box” by Toni and Slade Morrison, “Please, Louise,” by Toni and Slade Morrison

Row 5: “A Storm Called Katrina” by Myron Uhlberg, “Mama’s Nightingale” by Edwidge Danticat, “Minna’s Patchwork Coast” by Lauren A. Mills, “The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade” by Justin Roberts

Row 6: (All fictional picture books) “The First Day in Grapes” by L. King Pérez, “Little Kunoichi: The Ninja Girl” by Sanae Ishida, “Langston’s Train Ride” by Robert Burleigh

World War II children’s books: “The Whispering Town” and a blog recommendation

The Whispering Town

As I’ve mentioned before, I went through a period of reading a lot of books about the Holocaust as a kid. As an adult, I’ve spent more time learning about other periods of mass atrocities, including ones where my country was not on the good side.

But recently I’ve read a few books (for kids and adults) that brought Holocaust/WWII history back to my radar with new perspectives and stories. Among them were “The Book Thief,” a YA novel which you’ve probably already heard is amazing, and “The Whispering Town,” a picture book written by Jennifer Elvgren and illustrated by Fabio Santomauro.

“The Whispering Town” was released last December by Kar-Ben Publishing. Here’s what I wrote about in on GoodReads:

Through Anett’s eyes, children get a glimpse into one of the creative ways brave families (in this case in Denmark) helped Jews escape the terror of the Holocaust. Difficult subject tackled in a developmentally appropriate way in this picture book. Best read with an adult who can give context or as part of a school unit on this period of history.

As I looked for more information on the book and also the town it involves, I came across a more detailed review at The Children’s War blog. I agree with blogger Alex’s comment, “Jennifer Elvgren’s simple depiction of this dangerous, yet heroic rescue makes this story all the more poignant. There is no sentimentality, but this gentle story shows ordinary people just doing what needs to be done to keep other people safe from Nazi hands.”

Alex also notes that Gilleleje, the Danish fishing village depicted in “The Whispering Town,” is also part of “Number the Stars” by Lois Lowry. I’m pretty sure I read that as a kid but I don’t recall the story at all, so I’ll have to re-read it soon. And if I’m in the mood for any more books like this, I’ll be sure to return to The Children’s War blog, where Alex has written an extensive collection of reviews on children’s books covering all aspects of WWII, ranging from the Dutch resistance to a Chinese American girl’s participation in the war effort in San Francisco.

Book trailer for “The Whispering Town”

6 picture books to celebrate marriage equality


If you’ve spent any time online since Friday, you already know that, after decades of activism, gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states in America. Here are three picture books to help celebrate this historic moment, plus a link to list with three more.

1. King and King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland

A bossy queen insists that her son must get married, but the princesses that parade through aren’t quite what the prince is looking for.

2. And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, illustrated by Henry Cole

Two male penguins pair up to raise a penguin chick. Inspired by a true story from the Central Park Zoo.

3. The Case for Loving by Selina Alko, illustrated by Alko and Sean Qualls

Mildred and Richard Loving just want to raise their family in their hometown in Virginia, but they can’t, because Mildred is black and Richard is white. This book (which I reviewed in more detail in February) is about the family at the center of the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision ending bans on interracial marriage. That case set the precedent for Friday’s ruling.

4-6. The Human Rights Campaign has a blog post of tips for talking to children about marriage equality. It includes recommendations for three books to start the conversation. I haven’t read any of those yet — let me know if you have!