The Family Room
Grab a comfy chair and join us in our Family Room. Families come in all shapes and sizes and in this room everyone is welcome. We invite you to share your experiences of family, through the wonders of children’s literature.
A wonderful book that I never tire of reading to children is My Rows and Piles of Coins, written by Tololwa Mollel, and beautifully illustrated in watercolors by E.B. Lewis. The story is set in the 1960s in Northern Tanzania, where the author spent his childhood. The main character in the story is Saruni, a young boy who yearns to buy a shiny, blue and red bicycle that he saw at the local market. He decides to save all the money that his mother, Yeyo, gives him for helping her each Saturday at the market where they sell eggs, dried beans, maize, pumpkins, spinach, bananas, and firewood.
Every day after school, Saruni practices riding his father’s big bicycle, but he crashes into the coffee trees and the children from his neighborhood laugh at him. His father, Murete, gives him several lessons and eventually Saruni is able to ride the bike on his own. However, Saruni’s personal goal is to eventually ride his own bicycle to market while proudly carrying a load of produce on the back of his bike, so that his mother will have less to carry on her head.
For several months, Saruni earns money by helping his father on the coffee farm and by helping his mother sell their fruits and vegetables at the market. He secretly puts all his coins in his moneybox, and from time to time, he empties the heavy box, arranges the coins in piles and the piles in rows. Then he counts the coins and thinks about the blue and red bicycle. One chilly day in July, Saruni goes to the market with plans to buy the bicycle with all three hundred and five coins that he has saved.
“I must be the richest boy in the world, I thought, feeling like a king. I can buy anything.”
However, when he tells the bike vendor that he wants to buy a bike, the man simply laughs at him because Saruni has only thirty shillings and fifty cents (at that time, the cost of a bike was at least 150 shillings). Saruni confides in his mom and tells her about his secret plan to buy a bike so that he could help her. She places her hand on his head and tells him confidently that one day he will buy a bicycle.
The next afternoon, Saruni’s father offers to sell his bicycle to his son “For thirty shillings and fifty cents”. Saruni is surprised and wonders how his father found out about his secret moneybox. Saruni is ecstatic about having his very own bike and he gratefully gives Murete his moneybox. Murete gives the box to Yeyo, who in turns gives it back…. to her son, Saruni, to thank him for all his help to them over the past months. It’s no wonder that this moving story about determination, love and generosity has received the Alberta Writers Guild R. Ross Annett Children’s Literature Prize; the African Studies Association Children’s Africana Award, and it is a Coretta Scott King Honor book.
By Jarrod Francis
“We see them come, we see them go,
Some are fast, some are slow,
Some are high, and some are low
Now one of them is like the other,
Don’t ask me why go ask your mother”
-Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish, Red Fish Blue Fish
It is one of those unwritten rules among junior high students that anything that makes you different is a bad thing and will make you a target. The last thing any adolescent wants to do is stand out from the crowd. I believe that, because of this, it is important to begin urging students to celebrate their individuality at a young age and begin imparting on them the message that serves as the title of Todd Parr’s book “It’s Okay to Be Different.”
Parr’s book looks at many types of difference in a fun, light hearted way with amusing, clever illustrations. Differences from the small, trivial things which make us insecure, “It’s okay to have big ears;” “It’s okay to have no hair;” to physical disabilities “It’s okay to have wheels,” are looked at. Throughout the playful tone and sometimes comical examples the book contains a serious message, appropriate for all ages. “It’s okay to be different” helps students realize that in their difference they are not alone. Other people finish last some times, other people talk about their feelings, and other people have imaginary friends. I know for me in school the worst feeling was the thought that I was the only one who struggled with certain things or who felt a certain way.
Parr’s message of embracing difference is also apparent in his book entitled “The Family Book.” “The Family Book” discusses and celebrates all sorts of difference in family, from families of different sizes and different colors, families live far away from each other, families with step parents and families with adopted children. While celebrating difference “The Family Book” also celebrates the things which connect all families, “all families like to hug each other;” all families are sad when they lose someone they love;” “all families can help each other be strong.” Much like “It’s Okay to be different” “The Family Book” uses fun light hearted examples to convey a serious message.
Continuing on the themes of difference and family allow me also to suggest “All Families Are Special” by Norma Simon, Illustrated by Teresa Flavin. This book is set in a classroom where the teacher announces she is about to become a grandmother. The students are intrigued by this and are inspired to share about the families they come from. Throughout the students stories we hear about extended families, with grandmothers, grandfathers and cousins; small families, one boy lives just with his father after his mother passed away when he was young; separated families, a boy who’s grandparents live in Pakistan and visit every year, and families of divorce where the students have step parents and brothers and sisters and, in some cases, have two families. The main messages of the book are that we share sad times and glad times with families, no families are the same, and, as the title states, all families are special.
For those of us who teach in the public school system in this diverse city we are privy to a wide range of difference amounts our students. It has been a rewarding experience for me being exposed to all this difference after attending a far more monogamous school out in the suburbs. Every student brings to us difference, difference in who they are as people, and difference in the background they come from. We must start them in embracing this at a young age, and ourselves embrace it.
I Love You, Stinky Face
The word “unconditional” has been part of my vocabulary for many years. I have loved my parents, my sisters, my nieces, nephews and family unconditionally. And yet, until I had children of my own, I truly did not understand what it meant to love someone unconditionally. Being a mother has brought another dimension to the words and feeling associated with loving someone unconditionally. I love my children wholly and completely. And there is not a day that goes by that I don’t tell my children how much I love them but I often wonder if they are able to grasp the concept.
When I discovered the book, “I Love You, Stinky Face” written by Lisa McCourt (1997, Bridgewater Books), I thought what a perfect book to help me teach my children what it means to be loved unconditionally.
The book begins the way I end every day with my girls, a mother tucking her child into bed and telling her child, “I love you, my wonderful child.” And just like every other curious child, the child asks, ”But, Mama, but, Mama, what if I were a big, scary ape? Would you still love me then?” The mother replies, “If you were a big, scary ape, I would comb your whole hairy self to make sure you didn’t have any tangles. And I would make your birthday cake out of bananas, and I would tell you, ‘I love you, my big, scary ape.” But it doesn’t stop there. The child goes on to ask, but what if I was a smelly skunk named Stinky Face, or an alligator with big sharp teeth, a terrible meat-eating dinosaur, or a swamp creature, maybe even a Green Alien from Mars. And after every different scenario the mother answers, to no surprise, that no matter what he looks like, no matter what he smells like, and no matter what he acts like, her love for him is limitless. A true example of unconditional love.
Along with the wonderful imagination of the child in the story, the illustrations in this book are bright and cheerful despite the scary monsters. Normally when I read a story, my children are trying to turn the pages of the book before I have finished reading the text and yet with this story my children love to stare at the pictures and are often eager to turn back the pages to take a second or third look at the friendly monsters.
After reading this book I discovered that this book is part of a series. One other book in the series is called “I Miss You Stinky Face” also written by Lisa McCourt. (2009, Scholastic). This book continues to demonstrate the unconditional love between parent and child. This time the mother is away from the home for work and phones home to talk to her child. Again the child’s imagination runs wild asking his mother, “Mama, do you miss me so much that you’re coming right home to me, NO MATTER WHAT?” And to demonstrate that nothing will stop her from getting home to her child, the mother whispers into the ear of a magic dragon, races a cheetah and crew of unhappy pirates and braves hungry sharks to get home to her son.
One of the things that made these books so real for me, was the mother’s constant reply that she would love her child despite the fact that he might not be ‘perfect’ in the eyes of society. She would be there for him, to cheer him on, to bake him birthday cakes, to comb his hair and love him- forever. When I want my children to understand the concept of selfless love, I turn to the pages of these books. The author does a wonderful job of reiterating that love is all encompassing, non discriminating and noble. She does this in a manner that both children and parents can appreciate and understand and her primary theme of unconditional love shines through brilliantly. With its’ colorful illustrations and animated words, the author is able to appeal to all audiences. My primary focus as a mother is to ensure the safety and well-being of my children. To provide a loving home where they can feel secure and cherished- for who they are and for what they do to make our family complete. I love my children profoundly, passionately and unconditionally. As a parent, the love I have for my own children helps me to understand the love my parents have for me and it has helped our relationship flourish and mature. The message in both these stories is very clear and powerful, a parent’s love for their child is never ending and endearing, NO MATTER WHAT!
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis
Imagine being an eleven year old girl who has to disguise herself as a boy in order to become the breadwinner to help her family survive. If you’re looking for a contemporary children’s story about a family who faces hardship and oppression with determination and perseverance, Canadian author Deborah Ellis’s The Breadwinner provides an engrossing read. Parvana is the second youngest daughter in an educated family who find themselves trapped in modern day Afghanistan under the Taliban rule, forced to wear burqas when they leave the house.
Bright and determined, the female protagonist, Parvana, has become frustrated at not being able to go outdoors or no longer attending school because she is a girl. The situation becomes desperate when Parvana’s father is abducted and jailed, forcing his wife and daughters to fend for themselves. Because their brother has been killed by a land mine during an earlier conflict in their home country, there is no other male in the family to provide for them. Living with the uncertainty of their father’s whereabouts, Parvana’s mother and siblings, Nooria and Maryam, must make do as best they can living in a crowded one room apartment. It is then that Parvana agrees to disguise herself as a boy to go out to get supplies and to become the breadwinner of the family at the marketplace in town.
As with most families living in close proximity Parvana and her older sister, Nooria, succumb to the typical bickering and rivalry of sisters. Because Nooria is older and more physically developed than her younger sister she cannot pass as a boy. So it is Parvana, the middle daughter, who takes on the responsibility of providing for her family out of both a sense of duty and adventure. As Mrs. Weera, a visiting family friend who has been left alone herself says, “These are unusual times. They call for ordinary people to do unusual things, just to get by.” At the marketplace Parvana and her friend Shauzia use their ingenuity to read letters, sell trinkets and eventually dig up bones to make money for their families.
Well worth a read, Parvana’s story is one of universal perseverance and hope and personal maturity. Although the father is eventually freed, the novel ends with a cliffhanger, leaving readers wanting more. In fact, Deborah Ellis has written a trilogy continuing Parvana’s story with Parvana’s Journey and Mud City.
What is family worth?
Family is something we often take for granted. Children are especially good at expecting to have certain luxuries (video games, toys, expensive outings) and at times forget that the adults in their family have worked hard to provide these things. Children seem to be becoming more demanding and less grateful every year. They tend to thank their families by being unappreciative. Often the more children have the more they want and the less they appreciate what they have.
A favourite book of mine, The Table Where Rich People Sit does a great job of addressing the issues of money and family. It explores the idea of having a rich life without having a lot of money. The book accomplishes all of this without being negative or preachy. The main character is a young girl who worries that her family doesn’t have enough money. She thinks her parents need to get better jobs and start providing their children with more expensive material possessions. She is embarrassed about some of the things her family has (including their kitchen table) and worries about what other people must think. Her parents walk her through all of the “riches” that their family has and she begins to realize that she has taken some things for granted. By the end of the book, she decides that she would not trade any of her families “riches” for more actual money. She understands that they are blessed with many great things and that the money doesn’t matter as much as she originally thought. This is a great book for starting a discussion about the idea that money can’t make you happy. Children often think if the money tree in the backyard began to grow they would be happy. They don’t realize that there are always more things to want and it is important to take time to enjoy what we have.
Another book that touches on this subject is Gifts by: Jo Ellen Bogart. This is a sweet story of a grandmother who travels all over the world. Every time she is leaving to visit a new place she asks her granddaughter what she would like her to bring back. The granddaughter is not greedy and usually asks her for things that cost nothing or very little. Most of the things she wants her grandmother to give her are in the form of memories, stories and time spent together. This book is a great way to lead into a discussion about special times with family being more important than presents in pretty bags with ribbons. The most important thing family can share is love and that is not something you can buy at any store.
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Not many of my books are as cherished from my childhood as my faded copy of the Canadian classic, Anne of Green Gables, by native Prince Edward Island author, L. M. Montgomery. It is with fond memories that I gingerly flip the pages every decade or so and delight in its poignancy and charm. Anne Shirley, siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert comprise an unconventional family of an adopted, redheaded, orphan waif, an old bachelor and a spinster. Not a traditional family, theirs is a family of necessity and duty, but ultimately love. Due to a communication mix-up, a little girl is sent to fulfil the request for an orphan boy from Nova Scotia to help out on the farm of aging siblings, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert. Although unwanted and expected, their affection for the young girl gets the better of them, and both Matthew and Marilla welcome the young girl into their home and lives to create a caring family. Although clichéd, heart warming would be the term I would use to describe this historical novel set in turn of the century rural Avonlea, P.E.I.
Each chapter title provides a charming hint at the whimsical episode awaiting the reader. From the first chapter when “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Surprised” to “Marilla Makes Up Her Mind” to “Matthew Insists on Puffed Sleeves” to “Mrs. Rachel Lynde Is Properly Horrified,” Anne bewitches us with her quirky imagination and idealistic dreams. Witness her penchant for dramatic verbosity when she explains to Matthew the reason for her sorrow —
“Now you see why I can’t be perfectly happy. Nobody could who had red hair. I don’t mind the other things so much – the freckles, green eyes and the skinniness. I can imagine them away. But I cannot imagine that red hair away…It will be my lifelong sorrow.”
The perfect child literary hero, Anne Shirley is bewitching, irascible and unstoppable. As well, secondary characters, Diana Barry, Gilbert Blythe, Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, Mrs. Rachel Lynde and Ruby Gillis are so well defined by the author that you feel as if you know them too. Furthermore, the setting is almost another character as Montgomery paints such vivid settings for her story. As a child I envisioned the Lake of Shining Waters, Avonlea, Lovers’ Lane, Dryad’s Bubble and Willowmere and thought them to be cosy corners and nooks of the world, reminding me of visits to my grandmother’s farm.
Yes, it is with fondness and a sense of innocence that I recollect Anne’s dire scrapes like her fancy tea party fiasco where she serves best friend, Diana, homemade currant wine instead of raspberry cordial, thereby getting her drunk, the “red carrots” pigtail incident involving Gilbert at school and the fateful sinking of the lily maid flat during a production of the King Arthur’s Camelot story on the river. And of course, I wept during the most poignant and sad part of the story involving Matthew.
Interestingly enough, when reading L. M. Montgomery’s autobiography (Volume I) many years later, I was saddened to learn that the author’s own life was not as charmed or as carefree as Anne’s. Raised by a strict grandmother, Montgomery’s imagination seemed to only flourish on the written page as she lived a quiet life of personal disappointments and suffering despite her fame as a writer. While the Anne Shirley character shares some autobiographical qualities of the author and led a productive and happy life, the author’s journey was at times bleak and difficult, by her own admission.
To conclude, I must admit that I considered Anne a “kindred spirit” when I was caught up in her “scrumptious” world from grades 5-6. Luckily, as with any good book you never want to end, the Anne series has several volumes to satisfy your endless fascination with this red-headed waif. Never at a loss for words, Anne continues to engage young readers around the world with her boundless imaginative escapades.
and tango makes three By Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell Illustrated by Henry Cole
It is rare to find a good book with a sweet story that deals with diverse family structures. “And tango makes three” is the perfect example of a book to introduce diverse family structures to young children. It tells the story of two male penguins that fall in love. They do everything that the other penguin couples do but they quickly realize that they cannot have an egg. They long for a family and anxiously try many different things to make that happen. The kind and caring zoo keeper notices that they are upset so he finds them an egg and before long tango hatches to complete their small family. There are many animal families in the zoo but there are no other families that have two dads.
The zoo keeper is a great character to remind children that people can be happy in many different family structures but that sometimes they might need a little help making their family happen.
This book has won several awards including the ASPCA (The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award. At the same time it has been extremely controversial. The American Library association reported that it was the most challenged book of 2006, 2007 and 2008 (see link)
One of my classmates was presenting a project about homophobia and I mentioned my frustration with trying to teach children acceptance without good children’s books that portray diverse families. She recommended this book and as soon as I read it I couldn’t wait to share it with other people. The fact that it is based on a true story and that the penguins are still in the Central Park Zoo makes the story even more touching. Why would anyone ever want to split up two cute penguins that chose each other?
A book that I would recommend reading first is “Love is a Family” by: Roma Downey. This book reminds us that a family is about people that love each other. It doesn’t matter how many people are in the family or who they are as long as there is love involved. The love is what makes a true family. For young children it is important to be warmed up to the idea of diverse family structures before dealing with the more controversial issues in “and tango makes three”.
JUST ME AND MY FAMILY, BY Mercer Mayer – A Look At Unconditional Love In The Family
“Just Me And My Family,” by Mercer Mayer is a collection of books that showcase the unconditional love that I believe, resides in all families. I grew up in a family of five, and like so many other families, we were far from perfect. We had our quirks, our tiffs and our occasional catastrophes but through it all we always knew that no matter what, we loved each other and would always be there to support one another. The six stories that make up The Mercer Mayer Family Collection are charming tales about Little Critter and his outings with each individual family member. Reading these books with children is a wonderful way to illustrate the message that even through our many blunders, we are above all else… still lovable.
We, as children and adults alike, can sometimes get bogged down with their mistakes and faults that we start to believe we are not good enough. We can also become overwhelmed with frustration when things do not go the way that we had planned. The childlike texts of these stories, paired with the delightful illustrations help children learn that there will always be another chance to try again or to try something new.
“I built a sandcastle just for Grandma, but a big wave came. Grandma said that’s what happens to sandcastles, and we will build a new one next time.”
“I wanted to take my dad for a ride in the canoe, but I launched it too hard.” (The illustration shows the canoe sinking in the water and Little Critter’s dad with angry furrowed brows.)
Children of all ages can relate to these books and without even realizing it, they are learning the valuable lesson of unconditional love. True, Little Critter makes mistakes and his family does get angry from time to time, but in the end, all is forgiven and the knowledge of that they will love him no matter what is all that matters.