Janelle Mathis, University of North Texas, Denton, TX
Week three of reflecting on trends I observed while serving on the Notable Children’s Book Committee of ALA finds me thinking about the many books that speak to the social-emotional aspects of a child’s life. Specifically, I was impressed by the number of picturebooks that had the potential to support the development of identity and agency while acknowledging that such development is a process that is impacted by how one approaches life situations and how the self is positioned and perceived within these situations. The previous year, 2019 publications seemed to reveal many books focused on worry, sadness, and dealing with such through mindfulness and awareness of emotions. This year, I was drawn to various books that take these feelings into positive spaces across different situations. As a reminder, I am not making generalizations about the publishing field as a whole during 2020 but only sharing titles that impressed me out of the many diverse books explored while on this committee.
Three books that immediately come to mind and are now prominent on my shelf are titles that link to last week’s blog: a girl like me (Angela Johnson, illustrations by Nina Crews), I Believe I Can (Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo) and A Place Inside of Me (Zetta Elliott, illustrated by Noa Denmon). Each title is honoring Black childhood while providing universal messages that speak to shared celebrations of life, self-confidence, and the emotions we use to help navigate who we are. a girl like me is a previously published poem in the poignant style of Angela Johnson that shares the narrative of girls using their imaginations to go beyond their dreams despite those people who discourage them. Illustrations in a photocollage by Nina Crews create a visual that places these independent girls in sky, city and beach scenes with varying shapes, colors and symbols for the background of the photos of girls. I Believe I Can continues the theme of confidence with rich text full of metaphors that emphasize the many abilities and activities that children have and can accomplish. Readers are greeted on the cover by pleasant faces reflecting Black childhood but illustrations are inclusive of children from diverse races, genders, and abilities – all believing in themselves even when things don’t go quite as planned. A Place Inside of Me explores the changing emotions within the life of one young man – times of joy, fear, anger, pride, peace, and love. He negotiates these emotions during times of fun and times of tragedy as news of violence lead to the Black Lives Matter movement. In concluding images, he shares the struggle and ultimate peace and love that he chooses to define himself. Bold collage illustrations use color, placement, and expression to visually share his emotions and, with the text, share a message for all readers about the emotions that shape us.
Two other books from 2020 that speak more generally about celebrating self are Be You! (Peter H. Reynolds), and you matter (Christian Robinson). Each double page spread of Be You! offers a way that children can express their individuality. Examples are Be curious, Be adventurous, Be different, Be your own thinker. Each statement of individuality is followed by a brief explanation of what this might mean as one goes through life. Illustrations are mostly simple but imaginative figures in action on solid background. Some pages take me back to the ideas in a girl like me as far as imagining the possibilities of being oneself. you matter draws on readers imagination as they envision situations that may cause one to doubt if they are important. The collage and text narrative takes readers from the smallest of life to the larger elements of the world in relating that all matters, all is connected.
Stories that show characters in realistic situations as they work through issues and build confidence, identity, and often agency, point to two of my favorites from last year. Allen Say uses simple but sensitive text and beautiful portrait style illustrations created from charcoal, pastel, and photographs, to share the theme of being oneself in Almond. Almond feels she has no talent as she compares herself to another child, a musical prodigy. However, as she discovers what seems to be her talent, Almond begins to realize she has the power to be anyone or anything. Danbe Leads the School Parade by Anna Kim is a delightful story about a Korean immigrant child and her experience in a new school and is based on Kim’s own experiences immigrating to America. Danbe is spunky as described in text and pictures and while her efforts to participate are not successful at first, she is very persistent and eventually uses her imagination to engage her classmates in play. With colorful images on white background, the children’s expressions reveal their uncertainty about this new class member; however, as they interact more with her vibrancy, their expressions change to smiles and energy that leads to a parade. While we know that many immigrant children experience loneliness and difficulty making friends, Danbi’s story reflects the possibilities of a positive experience that is determined largely by those who receive the new child. It also sends a message about being oneself, which is what won over Danbi’s classmates.
One more small group of books that remain important to me are those that focus on overcoming fear. These three were created by global authors but published in the USA in 2020: Cannonball (Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan), Don’t Worry, Little Crab (Chris Haughton), and Scared of the Dark? It’s Really Scared of You (Peter Vegasi, illustrated by Benjamin Chaud). Cannonball comes to the USA from New Zealand and shares the delightful adventure of a young boy who wants to perform the perfect (and most impressive) cannonball. He begins asking his Nan for advice and ends up getting advice from numerous family and friends – to no avail. Finally, Nan reminds him to be listen to his heart and do it his way. The digitally created illustrations are full of energy, humor and variety in placement and framing on the page, and there is a sprinkling of Māui words throughout. The story is fun-filled while carrying the message of being oneself. In thinking about negotiating the emotion of fear, Don’t Worry, Little Crab (Chris Haughton) uses simple words with illustrations that depend largely on color and shape, frequently on a white background. It tells of little crab’s fear of the large ocean waves but the beauty he encounters once he overcomes his fear. Scared of the Dark? It’s Really Scared of You was also written by a New Zealand author and the illustrator is from France. Dark is personified and is given the shape of a ghostly rounded figure that is black, of course, and quite shy. The simple text and boldly colored images tell Dark’s life story – what he does, can’t do, where he hides and what he fears. Such humorous images and story line have the potential to remove fearful notions from young minds.
Many of these titles are probably familiar so I hope I have created a pleasant reminder of them while sharing some new titles. Of course, your additions and suggestions are welcomed. Given that picturebooks have been the main focus thus far this month, next week the focus will be on chapter books that deal as well with social-emotional traits in young people dealing with family loss.
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