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Finding Justice-Minded Books for Kids- Part 2

Depending on where you live, the new school year is either quickly approaching or has already begun! After noticing that some of the books we grew up reading were less than inclusive and made for attitudes about our neighbors that had to be unlearned, we started do parents and educators find books that both explicitly and implicitly support a cornerstone of our theology--that all people are made in the image of God? We've asked a number of justice-minded parents and educators for their thoughts. Today we hear from Liza and Steve van de Hoef, parents in Belleville, Ontario. 

1) What are the questions you ask yourself when deciding what books to read to your kids?

Our girls are still very young, so many of our books are silly and playful. However, we are conscious to avoid books that encourage violence or reinforce stereotypical gender roles. Having two girls, we try to have a hearty mix of books with strong, smart female role models, in a variety of jobs, ages, and adventures. We often ask ourselves "what does this book teach our children about the world? What does it teach them about themselves and others?" and "is this in keeping with what we believe?" 

We certainly find that we filter “Christian” books as much as those not written with an explicit faith perspective. We try to avoid books that are preachy or have a heavy-handed moralism. We also avoid books that reduce Christian faith to a series of moral principles or ethical behaviours, or which portray an unnecessarily simplistic faith (e.g. trust Jesus and you will be happy all the time). We appreciate books that teach ethical lessons through demonstrating healthy, constructive relationships.

2) What are some of the challenges you've faced when trying to incorporate justice into your kids' book selection, especially when searching for books?

When looking at old or new books, we consider how they might cultivate thought patterns and behaviours we find desirable, both when our children are small and also looking ahead to the people we are shaping them to be. We can’t think of a book on our shelves that addresses “justice” directly, but that might miss the point. We like books that encourage critical engagement with the world – as much as “Why?” can become tiresome, it is a healthy way of learning and engaging the world around them. Books that are imaginative and creative also help our kids develop a sense of wonder, curiosity, and possibility. These are helpful traits when imagining what a world that is different than the status quo could be like, an important aspect of working for justice.

We have found it particularly challenging to find a children’s story Bible that includes themes of justice and renewal of all things. The children’s Bibles we have encountered seem to have a narrow focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection as having only to do with personal salvation. Similarly, many of the gospel stories are told as lessons in ethical behaviour, not in living out a new way of being in the world – the Kingdom of God. Few point to the larger narrative arc of Scripture, and those that do don’t necessarily have an expansive view of salvation and renewal of all things. This broad view of salvation convinces us that justice is a core part of our Christian faith, and it is one that we want to teach to our girls.

3) Where do you see racism and injustice most prevalent in curriculum and "conventional" (or widely used) children books?          

We don’t interact much with formal curriculum, as our girls are not yet in school. We would assume, however, that no curriculum will intentionally perpetuate injustice. It is the subtle things – for example the language we use to portray other people and people groups – where unjust attitudes, prejudices, and actions are perpetuated. We try to be vigilant about this in the books we read now, as much as in the conversations we have.

We try to be intentional with what our children learn from us, explicitly and implicitly. Racism is taught. Prejudice is taught. Sexism is taught. Disdain for people in poverty, immigrants, and those who are different are taught. Our children do not come out hardwired to behave in those ways or believe those things. It is our job as parents to critically examine the exposures our children have, and to help them understand the world through a Christian world view. In some cases, instead of avoiding books where we dislike the message they send, or how characters interact with others, we can use these as starting points for discussion.

4) How can parents and teachers support each other in teaching solidarity and social justice principles to their children?

It is easy to underestimate a child’s capacity to think well, when in fact, the opposite is true. Children have a remarkable capacity to comprehend issues like fairness, kindness, and love. When we nurture and reinforce these behaviours and ways of thinking, we are laying the groundwork for solidarity, empathy, and acting for justice. As mentioned above, cultivating critical thinking and imaginative engagement with the world around us is also an essential skill and habit, enabling us to look beyond face value, and to imagine how relationships – personal, communal, and societal – can be different.  

5) As teachers are preparing for the school year, what are a few social justice-oriented books that you could recommend for them to share with their students? What are some of your favourite books that are especially inclusive of different races and cultures?

For pre-school age, we love Ten Little Fingers (Mem Fox) which shows babies of a variety of cultures that all have ten little fingers and ten little toes. We also frequently read Little Blue Truck (Alice Schertle) and the old fable of "The Lion and the Mouse," both of which focus on the importance of helping others.

For younger school-age children, we really love the Franklin the Turtle series. Franklin's parents are thoughtful and intentional, and both his mother and father are actively involved in parenting. He and his friends work through a variety of problems and situations common to children in ways that respect each other. In particular, Franklin’s New Friend addresses welcoming the stranger. In another story (Franklin is Messy), we particularly appreciate when Beaver, one of Franklin’s female friends, states emphatically that she will not be rescued by the boys simply because she is a girl – she will be a brave knight beside them.

In teen literature, there seems to be a prevalence of dystopian themes right now (see The Hunger Games, The Underland Chronicles, Divergent series, etc).  As people of faith, we have the ability to explore themes of fallenness, hope, and salvation, among others, through the lens of a Christian worldview. 

As our children grow, we expect that continuing to read with them (or concurrently reading what they are reading) will enable us to explore some of the topics that come up. Stories and literature open up worlds and help us to imagine, re-imagine, and interpret our own. We hope to be parents who can engage with our children about their ideas of the world, and explore with them how we can work together to make this world a better place. 

Interested? Read the first part of this series from Alyssa VanErden, a 3rd grade teacher from Grandville, Michigan. 

[Image: Flickr user yoshiyasu nishikawa]


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