For a class project, Workshop School teachers Kathleen Melville and Swetha Narasimhan asked their 9th-grade students to study the importance of culturally relevant children's literature by reading an essay by Walter Dean Myers and reflecting on their own experiences with books. On a trip to the Free Library, each student selected a culturally relevant children's book to review and share with a small group of 1st graders at Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia. Then they wrote and illustrated children's books that are culturally relevant to their 1st-grade partners. Here are two student book reviews from that project. You can read two other book reviews from these students here.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Review by Salena Robinson
The Snowy Day, a book by Ezra Jack Keats, is a memorable piece that we should all remember reading at one point of our lives. Particularly me, when I was 6 years old. The art style and vibrant colors always intrigued me, and I remember reading it many times in my younger years. Ahh, I can visualize it now. Me in my warm bed, awaiting a warm mug of hot cocoa, reading this book among others ... those were the good days.
The Snowy Day is one of my favorite children’s books, but is it still relevant in today’s culture? Or is it still just an old classic from 1962? Let’s analyze.
Now, a thing that’s important in 2016 is cultural relevance. The reason? Well, most books have staged, fake-smile plots, which give the reader no sense of identity with the characters, setting, or the experiences that this particular character or characters have in the story. It may not have a huge impact on me, but I know that it’s a big deal for others. Which is why it’s imperative for stories to be relevant.
There’s no real factor in stories today, just some dull, make-believe events with your generic, average, poster children as your characters. "Reading came early to me, but I didn’t think of the words as anything special," as Walter Dean Myers says. Reading should be a realistic, yet fun experience for all children of all ages. As leaders of tomorrow, I think we deserve a little better than some plain fairy tale, don’t you think?
The Snowy Day is culturally relevant for me because it reminds me of the good times I’ve had in the snow. Let’s see if this agrees with cultural relevance as a whole.
The Snowy Day is about a young boy named Peter, who goes out into the snow for a day of fun. It takes place in a snowy city, in the presumed early 1960s. The book highlights what he does, which includes making snow angels and a smiling snowman, participating in a snowball fight with older kids, and bringing snow home as a souvenir of the day’s event. Of course, when he brings the snow inside and leaves it in his coat pocket, the snow does what glaciers do in Antarctica: It melts. Peter looks in his pocket to find the snow, now a dripping catastrophe, and gets sad. That night, he dreams about the snow melting and when he wakes up, surprise, surprise, the snow is still there and even new snow is falling. He goes outside and gets his friend for another day of excitement.
This book is a really relevant piece, in my opinion. Take the place, for example. Though it’s assumed to take place in the 1960s, I believe that a snowy city is something that never gets old. Especially here, of all places. Last season, we had a full-on 22.4 inches of snow, so I think that snow is a common thing that we’ve all known about for a while now. And the character(s). I don’t know about everyone else, but I have brought snow inside, thinking that it would stay snow forever. It’s an innocent thing that most young children in this decade do often. Speaking of young innocence, Peter’s age is a big part of why this book is relevant. I’m definitely sure that Peter isn’t exactly my age, no matter how immature I am, but he is the age of many other children in the world. And I can name a couple kids to prove it. The only thing that isn’t relevant is how often I read this type of content and it really isn’t much. It’s a shame that there aren’t more books like this, honestly.
In conclusion, this book is an example of what books today should be: fluid, natural, original. Sure, there are many books around the world about snow days, but many of them have zany adventures and unrealistic scenarios. And too much of a good thing can get bland and dull. Just like other books that the big-top companies think are relevant. They’re boring, problem-and-solution, fairy tales.
The Snowy Day gives me a breath of fresh air from these monotone literary masterpieces. It takes me back to when the book industry actually made interesting books. When you could identify with the characters. We, as the doctors, artists, and lawyers of tomorrow, should get this type of literature, just like The Snowy Day. People should get to read these types of books. They deserve to get this type of stuff so that they know they’re not alone in this world.
The Snowy Day may not be a crazy adventure, but sometimes a little reality goes a long way.
Nappy Hair, by Carolivia Herron
Review by Shia Burton-Fishburn
Look at all those curls! Most children’s books are whimsical and just generally mainstream, but Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron and illustrated by Joe Cepeda, published in 1997, is about a little African American girl named Brenda. I identify with this book because my family is similar and we do a lot of "together" things, such as parties, gatherings, picnics, etc.
The story takes place in the backyard of Brenda’s family’s house, where Uncle Mordecai, an old guy, tells Brenda, a school-age girl, and her family a story about Brenda’s hair. Brenda has nappy hair, and everyone can’t help but talk about it. She is told her hair is a nuisance and everyone is constantly trying to straighten it. But she is proud of her hair and doesn’t want to change. The story teaches kids to embrace their hair, among other ethnic features they may have, and feel good about themselves.
This book is culturally relevant because a lot of people, including but not limited to kids, have self-esteem issues rooted in their ethnicity or nationality. Some are persecuted for having skin “as dark as night” or “pale as day.” It is also relevant because families like hers react with one another very similarly. My family is like this. I have family members who seem to like to tell stories. There’s always that one family member who interrupts everyone’s conversations to tell a boring story. It does have reference to specific religious terms, but these are for the reader’s discretion. I am used to seeing this demographic within my African American family.
As a call and response book, where the adult reads Uncle Mordecai’s part and kids read the family’s part, this book is great. For instance, if Uncle Mordecai says, “her hair is the nappiest in the land.” the children would say “Ain’t that right!” It is engaging, unlike today’s school classes, where the students sit around and the teachers talk at them. If more books were like this, it is my belief that more children would enjoy school.
In conclusion, Brenda’s family is very realistic and has realistic situations and problems. This fun, interactive story will help encourage self-esteem and kids will feel, in the words of Walter Dean Myers, "part of the mosaic around them." It is, however slow and not very exciting to read alone. Overall, this book is a good read about an ethnic girl who encourages self-esteem.