By Guest Blogger Dudley Carlson
all that we must, as another song says, teach our children well.
And for those of us engaged in raising or teaching children about birds and their environment, it is astonishingly difficult to find good books about birds – or nature in general - in which any of the people shown are other than white. Birds go everywhere from the North Pole to the South Pole, touching every continent. They are known to and by people of every sort. But in the United States, few of our books for children show black or brown children looking at them or even enjoying the out-of-doors. And for the many inner-city children who are taken to the Bay to experience its wonders, there are few books showing characters that look like many of them to follow up with when they go back to the classroom.
So here are a few suggestions. And while these are books featuring children of varied colors, mostly brown, they are inviting for any child interested in the natural world. One way to teach our children is by example: show them that all kinds of children enjoy nature. If our children are brown, here is someone just like them. If they aren’t, here are others who enjoy the same things they enjoy. Come, read; share together.
Carme Lemniscates, in Birds, points out to very young children the wide variety of colors, sounds, shapes, and behaviors among birds before adding some of the reasons people enjoy them. On the cover is a brown girl with dark hair; inside she shares her enjoyment with others who look different. The message is subtle but clear.
Another picture book for somewhat older (4-8 years) children, Birdsong follows a young Cree girl who moves with her mother from their home in a city by the sea to a new home in a colder countryside. Agnes, an older neighbor who shares her love of art and of nature, helps her to become comfortable there and learns a few of her Cree words. Birds are in the background as the girl draws; but when Agnes becomes ill her daughter helps the young girl to hang her drawings of birds all over Agnes’s bedroom walls. “When we’re done, Agnes says it’s like a poem for her heart.” Visual and emotional learning are deeply embedded in both text and pictures.
In Hiking Day, a young brown girl in cornrows sets out with her parents for a day hike. Among the animals they see in the woods are a toad, a porcupine, a chipmunk and a Pileated Woodpecker. The story is young and simply told, but the message is clear: hiking is for anyone, and it’s fun.
And then there are fears. A boy and his brother, both African-American, set out from their family’s lake house in We Are Brothers to swim to “the rock,” where the older brother jumps from the top of a high promontory into the water. Afraid to go so high, this is the year the younger brother is challenged to try. Gripped by fear, he tries to climb and is surprised to find that he can do it; but at the top of the rock he realizes how far down the water is. Still, challenged by his brother, he spreads his arms, makes the leap and thinks, “I am bird.” Shared fear and accomplishment are enhanced by handsome charcoal and pastel illustrations.
Finally, Where’s Rodney? follows an antsy city boy who can’t pay attention in class. It’s more interesting to watch a bird out the window, but Rodney’s antics prompt his teacher’s threat to leave him behind when the class goes on a field trip “to the park on Friday.” Thinking that she means the tiny park down the street, all too familiar, he doesn’t care. But when Friday comes and he’s included, he thinks the bus driver has made a mistake when they pass the little park and head into the countryside. Fascinated by all that he sees, Rodney is truly excited when they reach Yosemite and he can run, climb, yell, look and enjoy – just what he’s been missing in the classroom. And when, on the way home, the teacher asks whether he liked the park, he demonstrates that he’s been learning all along. Floyd Cooper’s splendid illustrations capture Rodney’s boredom, his frustration, and finally his delight as he experiences something new and wonderful.
Please share these books with the young children you know, whoever and wherever they are. And if you know or discover others that show black and brown children enjoying the natural world, especially the world of birds, please let us know. There aren’t enough out there, but they’re beginning to show up. And we need them. All of us. Together.
SFBBO member Dudley Carlson, a biologist’s daughter, grew up in a family of birders and was Manager of Youth Services at Princeton (NJ) Public Library for 25 years. She believes that if children enjoy learning about birds and understand how important they are to our environment, then birds, nature and people will have a better chance at a healthy future. You can see all of Dudley's book recommendations here.
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