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We’re all hyphenated Americans really. It’s the way we identify our backgrounds and that’s fine. If, however, identification by self or others becomes a way to maintain separation, well, that’s not fine.

I was reminded recently that books are important as both “mirrors” and “windows” as I introduced books to a group of teenaged parents. They were learning about their children’s development and the role of literature and language in it.

How sharing books with babies and toddlers develops empathy came up when we read Ten Little Fingers & Ten Little Toes (Harcourt) by Mem Fox.

One young mother exclaimed that the babies were multicultural — and that one looked like her 8-month old daughter. She figured out that the range of faces in Helen Oxenbury’s simple but appealing line and watercolor illustrations reflected the diversity of the world in which this child was growing up; that the child would eventually grow beyond her family.

What this suggests is that books introduce readers to myriad people of all backgrounds — even in homogeneous communities. Children need to see themselves and meet others. These books must have a universal appeal, an emotional authenticity, and enough story to keep readers engaged.

Ezra Jack Keats’ Snowy Day (Viking) celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. Peter, a young African American boy, enjoys a snowy day in the city — just like children everywhere. That the book is older than the teachers and parents sharing it is a testament to the book’s widespread appeal.

I’m no longer in 3rd grade, my parents didn’t divorce, but I do remember trying to make new friends like Dyamonde Daniels. Dyamonde is a bright child whose everyday ups and downs in her new neighborhood ring true not only for newly independent readers but for readers of all ages. And Dyamonde is an African American girl.

For middle school readers, the difficulty and joys of growing up in Planet Middle School (Bloomsbury). An African American girl gradually comes to accept the inevitable changes of growing up in this sometimes funny, sometimes touching, novel in verse. All girls (and guys) old and young will see themselves in Joylin as she starts to come of age.

It’s Black History Month. Let’s try to continue it beyond February. African Americans and other hyphenated Americans should be recognized and celebrated throughout the year. It’s sure to help children develop empathy to last a lifetime.

About the Author

Reading Rockets’ children’s literature expert, Maria Salvadore, brings you into her world as she explores the best ways to use kids’ books both inside — and outside — of the classroom.

Publication Date
February 3, 2012