Laurel Dykstra’s Uncle Aiden (2005)

Uncle Aiden (2005), written and illustrated by Laurel Dykstra, might just be my favorite gay uncle book. And, there are probably as many gay uncle books as there are books about boys who wear dresses, which is to say competition is fierce.

The first-person narrative is relayed from the point-of-view Anna Maria Flannigan Cruz. She has a lot of aunts, uncles, and cousins, but red-haired and pierced Uncle Aiden is her favorite. He plays pirates and tea party. He introduces Anna Maria to all his boyfriends, and he takes her to Pride. He’s wise and willing to learn Spanish.

Anna Maria wishes everyone could have an uncle like hers.

It’s a fun book and very accessible to even the youngest readers. I appreciate the incorporation of cultural diversity, eschewal of gender stereotypes, and inclusion of polyamory.

I like Anna Maria and Uncle Aiden, and I think you will too! But, it’s not easy to find so if you stumble upon a copy pick it up!

Tomie dePaola’s Bonjour, Mr. Satie (1991)

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Bonjour, Mr. Satie (1991) by Tomie dePaola is the story of two children, Rosalie and Conrad, their uncle, Mr. Satie, and his “companion,” Ffortusque Ffollet, Esq.

When the two world travelers visit their family, they bring Paris to America through French cuisine, a smattering of French words, and enchanting stories of the artists, authors, and other characters they befriend in Paris.

The story manages to be kid-friendly and subtly sophisticated through references to Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Matisse. This is an early and quite casual representation of homosexuality that is both campy and cozy. It remains well worth the read nearly THIRTY years after it was originally published and is widely available used.

Jennifer Carr’s Be Who You Are (2010)

Be Who You Are by Jennifer Carr (2010-11-23)Be Who You Are (2010), written by Jennifer Carr and illustrated by Ben Rumback, explores a young transgender girl’s transition. Although Hope’s sex assignment was male, she always felt like a girl. She tells her very accepting parents while she is quite young, and they support her. However, Hope isn’t comfortable being as open about her gender identity at school, and her gender is repeatedly policed by a teacher who sees her as a boy. This happens when Hope draws a picture of herself as a girl and when she stands in line with other girls. When Hope shares her discomfort at school with her parents, they become advocates. They introduce her to a therapist who encourages her to share her feelings about gender. Hope soon begins to transition; first growing her hair long, and then wearing girl clothes more and more frequently. Like her parents, Hope’s younger brother becomes a supportive ally.

This is one of a small handful of books about transgender children. Carr is a parent-advocate of a transgender child and Be Who You Are is unambiguously trans* affirming throughout. It provides an accessible trans* narrative for young readers.

I prefer Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ I am Jazz, which delivers the same story but is co-authored by a transgender child and told in the first-person. However, this book predates I am Jazz by several years and depicts its important lesson of transgender acceptance very nicely.

Samantha Thornhill’s A Card for my Father

A Card for My FatherA Card for my Father, written by Samantha Thornhill and illustrated by Morgan Clement, is brilliantly and beautifully told from the point-of-view of Flora Gardner, a little girl who has never met her father.

Flora has light brown skin and big expressive eyes underlined by a dash of freckles. Readers are introduced to her as she sits in a classroom, head resting on her hand as she contemplates how much she dislikes Father’s Day.

Flora has never met her father. The awkwardness of her classmates excitedly crafting Father’s Day cards makes her want “to melt into her chair.” She notices another student, the pale-rosy skinned loner Jonas Borkholder, slouching in his seat instead of participating in the card making frenzy. It’s later revealed that his father has passed away. Clement carefully communicates their pain in images that disrupt the lighthearted atmosphere in the classroom. The reader is forced to take account of those children who don’t have fathers to celebrate.

The text gracefully moves back-and-forth through time. but with purpose and control that makes it easy for young readers to follow. For instance, in an extended flashback it is revealed that Flora’s mother shuts down whenever Flora asks about her father. When her mom has had enough, she tells Flora her father is “a ghost with a heartbeat.” And, his absence haunts her.

Back in the text’s present, Flora sits in class listening to her peers tell stories about their fathers. She imagines herself in their tales, with a father like the ones they describe. But when she remembers the “faceless phantom” who is her father she feels “like an eel at the bottom of the sea.”

Flora tries to avoid going to her school’s Father’s Day picnic, but her mother isn’t having it. At school, instead of sharing a blanket with her father she shares it with her teacher. That is, until her mom surprises her by showing up at the picnic. Although Flora’s thrilled, she is still consumed with contacting her father and asks her mother if he might write her back if she sent a letter. Her mother finally relents and says: “There’s only one way to find out.” The phantom takes solid form through Clement’s illustration of a man wearing a shirt with the letters INMA… scrolled across the back.

I participated as a reviewer in Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2019 and during the group’s Twitter party so many people were asking for children’s books about incarcerated parents. A Card for my Father doesn’t just fill a gap on the bookshelf, it does it very well. This book is special.

Thornhill can’t stop herself from writing poetry, and Clement’s images play an integral role in the story. Her illustrations give Flora’s feelings a heavy presence on the page. Word and image pair perfectly giving the subject matter engaged the dignity it deserves and gifting the world with a brilliant book.

Penny Candy Books sent me a copy of the book to review (at my request).

Rashad Malik Davis’s Chapter 1: Root the Brave

Carefree, Like Me! - Chapter 1: Root the BraveIn 2017, writer/illustrator Rashad Malik Davis published Chapter 1: Root the Brave, the first installment in his fun and suspenseful book series Carefree, Like Me!. Davis envisions creating a total of seven “chapters” released at the pace of about one a year. Two are currently available.

Davis describes the series as “an epic fantasy adventure, encouraging children to understand and develop a language for: empathy, emotional literacy, and diverse historical representation.”

Chapter One: Root the Brave centers the friendship of two nine-year old children: Amir and Neena. Amir is a super skinny brown-skinned boy with subtle glasses and amazing hair. Neena’s tan-skin has a rosy glow and her shaggy brown hair hangs over her face framing bold glasses. The two children obviously share a strong bond, even though they’ve grown bored with all their old games. It’s this boredom that prompts Amir to complain to his dad who gives him a very special necklace. The necklace transports Neena and Amir into another world. In this realm they are heroes tasked with saving King Root from the monsters under his bed. They are successful and the first chapter of their adventure ends. But as this adventure closes, they are sucked into another land!

Stay tuned for Chapter Two: Sacra the Joyous available for pre-order now!

Davis is a very talented writer and illustrator. He brilliantly captures his characters colorful emotions and caring relationships in his images. The story is written in clever rhymes that are fun to read out loud and will surely entertain young readers. The pace is perfect for building suspense, but the story isn’t too scary for its target audience of 6 – 10 year olds. I highly recommend this book. I am a sucker for girl-boy besties and really appreciate the cultural diversity in this series!

Davis won the 2017 Best Indie Book Award in the Children’s Category for this amazing debut.

You can purchase Davis’s books and prints directly from him at his website.

Bryan Smith’s Diversity is Key

Diversity if KeyAt first, I was suspicious of Diversity is Key, which is written by Bryan Smith and illustrated by Lisa M. Griffin. The first-person narrative unfolds from the point-of-view of a blond girl with pale white skin named Amelia. A new student from Japan will be joining her class, and this just happens to coincide with “diversity week.” The plot is a bit contrived and the tone is a bit didactic, but overall it works.

The narrator seems to have never heard of diversity before her teacher begins discussing “diversity week.” But she quickly catches on and is receptive to the lessons her peers impart about their cultures. For instance, the new Japanese student demonstrates how school in Japan differs from school in the US. She explains that in Japan students serve lunch, eat in classrooms, and cleanup after themselves. A Mexican American student describes the importance of family to her community through a discussion of Dia De Los Muertos. The week ends with a Hawaiian celebration at a student’s home.

Importantly, learning about cultural difference prompts the narrator to reflect on and change her own behaviors. She will clean-up after herself at school and she will celebrate her deceased grandmother’s birthday by making spaghetti and meatballs.

Although it’s not a must have title, I appreciate the book. Back matter introduces activities parents and educators can use to extend the story’s lessons.

*I received a review copy of the text via NetGalley.

Miranda Paul and Baptiste Paul’s I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon

I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon

I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon, written by Miranda Paul and Baptiste Paul and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, is a non-fiction account of environmental activism in Cameroon told through the story of farmer and activist Tantoh Nforba who works to bring organic gardening and clean water to Cameroon.

Tantoh is introduced as a young boy delighting in his grandmother’s garden. Sensual images and detailed descriptions of the land, and the vegetables that grow from it, pair brilliantly. The authors work the language of nature into much of the story.

Tantoh remains committed to learning about the earth in high school. His classmates nickname him “Farmer.” Miranda and Baptiste write: “It is not a nice name. It is a name that is meant to make him feel as low as the dirt beneath his feet.” But, it doesn’t have the intended effect on Tantoh who reveres the dirt. He claims the title, scrolling it in large letters on his school uniform.

Tantoh’s father gave him his first shovel and supported his love for the earth. However, his father passed away while Tantoh was still in high school and his brother became head of the house. Because farming was associated with poverty, Tantoh’s brother wanted him to study and get a more prestigious office job. Tantoh stubbornly writes the wrong answers on exams so he will be unable to qualify for the positions his brother has in mind.

After high school Tantoh farms the land, eventually going to college where he studies the environment and agriculture. While at college, Tantoh contracts typhoid after drinking contaminated water. It takes him seven years to recover.

After his long and frightening illness, Tantoh is committed to ensuring his community has access to clean water. He gets the opportunity to study in the US and pursues this goal. Upon returning to Cameroon, and with the help of community members, Tantoh creates botanical and rain gardens as well as springs that provide fresh drinking water.

Tantoh then created an organization called Save Your Future Association, to raise money for equipment to help with his work. He has taken on numerous increasingly large projects to bring clean water and healthy food to the people of Cameroon.

I Am Farmer: Growing an Environmental Movement in Cameroon will make a wonderful addition to personal and school libraries. It can be taught as part of lesson plans about biography, environmentalism and science, geography, or cultural diversity. It does a lot of work! Miranda Paul and Baptiste Paul do a great job balancing detail without being too text heavy. Thoughtful and engaging back matter concludes the book will extend the text’s lessons beyond the story itself.

Available February 15, 2019.

*I received a digital book through NetGalley to write a review.