Reading and telling stories about the Black experience
For a class project, Kathleen Melville, a teacher at the Workshop School, asked her 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 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 2nd graders at the Powel School in West Philadelphia. They are now working on writing and illustrating children’s books that are culturally relevant to their 2nd-grade partners.
Two student book reviews were published last week. Here are two more.
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman
Review by Tyasia Fuller
Most books these days are about White people and animals, rarely about Black people. But when I came across the book "Amazing Grace" by Mary Hoffman, I remembered relating to it when I was 7 years old. Part of the reason I could relate to it is because the main character, Grace, was a lot like me. She is African-American and has a big imagination. "Amazing Grace" is a culturally relevant story for me, because the main character and experiences remind me of the way I was when I was younger. We need more books like this. According to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in 2013, out of 3,200 books for children, only 93 were about Black people.
"Amazing Grace" tells of a girl named Grace who loves stories whether they’re in movies or in books. She acts out the most exciting parts like Hiawatha, Aladdin, or Joan of Arc. There’s nothing she loves more. A major part of this was when she wanted to be in a play at school and her classmates were doubting her because the part she wanted was Peter in Peter Pan , and she ended up being Peter Pan and did a good job. Even though everyone told her that she was a girl and couldn’t do it, she auditioned and was better than the boys.
Grace and the other main character in this story are Black. I connected to the story because I have also been doubted because I am a girl. For example, people don’t think that I like or be good at football and fixing. But I love football; I was the only girl at football camp when I was twelve. I also love cars; I’m on the EVX team at my school, where I work on improving a hybrid car. In "Amazing Grace" her grandma reads her books and tells her stories. My dad and mom always read books to me and told me stories, too. I thought about dressing up and making up a story that I could read to my family. Grace and I both go against stereotypes and have big imaginations.
"Amazing Grace" is culturally relevant for me. This story has characters whose experiences are the same as mine. The setting is in a home in the city, just like mine. The main character is younger than me, but when I was around her age, I was the same way. If you have a wild imagination, you would love this book as much as I did and still do. I feel as though people should make more books like this that Black girls can relate to.
"Ellington Was Not a Street" by Ntozake Shange
While reading "Ellington Was Not a Street" by Ntozake Shange, I remembered some of the musicians my dad always played in the car. This character grew up with some of the greats of American Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement. Both of us grew up with them, while she did in a much more literal sense. She grew up with them in her house, and I grew up with their legacy. The music some of them created was the backdrop of my childhood. It’s been there with me through everything. ‘ellington was not a street’ is culturally relevant because of the language, age, and race of its characters as well as their experiences of music.
Ellington Was Not a Street" tells of the memory of an adult woman, who remembers when she was little and her father had his influential friends or coworkers come over. Her father knew some of the greats of jazz, like Dizzy Gillespie, the Clovers, and Duke Ellington.
This story means a lot to me because I admire many of the characters, such as Gillespie, and Paul Robeson, and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. This group of people left similar impressions on both me and the main character. While growing up reading and listening to them isn’t the same as having them there in your house, these heroes remind us of our self-worth. The language of the book is like poetry. For example, one page reads, “politics as necessary as collards/music even in our dreams.” At my family’s dinner table, music, collards and conversation about politics have always been present. The world of this book feels familiar and comfortable.
Growing up with books like this one, with characters who were like me, was fundamental to the reason I love books so much. In the essay “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Walter Dean Myers describes “the shock of recognition on its highest level” when he first reads a culturally relevant book. But for me, that realization came at such a young age that it feels like it has always been there. I have always known that my story is important enough to be written down and shared. And this book was a huge part of me realizing it.