Picture Book Suggestions: Respecting Race, Ethnicities, and Differences

Because the news has been so grim, I’ve seen several picture book recommendations for young children pop up on the web. This is a great idea. Let’s talk to our kids about tolerance, about understanding and respecting differences, at a young age. All differences. All tolerance. Let’s really talk about race with our kids. And what better way to get the conversation rolling than through books?

The picture book suggestions in this post at Cool Mom Picks are great, including several titles about Malala Yousafzai. I want to offer some alternative suggestions that, I believe, deal more directly with race relations in a straightforward, but loving way. My list includes one historical book, and two slightly older titles that I haven't seen in other posts, but given the tension in communities all over the nation, I think all of these titles are relevant and beautifully written.


Global Babies - The Global Fund for Children (board book) 

The Global Fund books are lovely board books featuring close-up, full color photos of babies from around the world. Babies enjoy looking at other baby faces, so why not introduce your infants to faces that are unique and different from hers?


The Sandwich Swap - Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan Al Abdullah, with Kelly Dipucchio

I only recently learned that Queen Rania of Jordan wrote this book (along with the help of Kelly Dipucchio, master picture book writer). To be honest, I didn’t look at the author when I read it; I just gravitated towards the story of two very different friends who judge each other’s sandwiches — one, peanut butter; the other, hummus. It’s such a great strategy for discussing race, heritage, differences, tastes, and friendship.


My Two Blankets - Irena Kobold and Freya Blackwood

Similar to The Sandwich Swap, My Two Blankets is about interracial and cross-national friendship. The difference is that the main character of My Two Blankets is a refugee escaping a worn-torn country and coming to a peaceful land where the children do not look like her or dress like her. Her blanket is all that is familiar. Friendship changes that. This picture book is stunningly illustrated with sweeping persimmon and gold watercolors.


The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage - Selina Alko

Not many people remember the Lovings. Mildred and Richard Perry Loving were the first interracial couple who challenged the right to marry, in 1967. This is the story of the Lovings and their three children who were legally married in Washington, D.C., but upon moving to Virginia were arrested for breaking state law against interracial marriage. What a great true story to demonstrate how love wins over hate and discrimination.


We Came To America - Faith Ringgold

I fell in love with Faith Ringgold when I first read Tar Beach, her 1991 semi-autobiographical story of a family in Harlem who enjoy togetherness on the roof of their apartment building. Ringgold’s bright and colorful illustrations come directly from the story quilts she designs. In We Came To America, Ringgold is dedicated to children who have immigrated to America, celebrating the diversity of race, religion, families, and stories. With sparse narration, the picture book is perfect for children 2-6, but can resonate with any reader, young and old.


Grace for President - Kelly Dipucchio

I love Grace for President. This is an older title, published in 2012, but I love how race and gender are never an issue in the conflict. They are facts about the characters, but it doesn’t devolve into an us versus them plot. The title character, Grace, asks her teacher why there has never been a woman president of the United States, and then decides to run for president in a mock election. Grace is African-American and her opponent is a white boy. When the race is tied and one person must decide the end result, it’s lovely to see another white boy weigh the options and decide on the best person for the job: Grace.


The Other Side - Jacqueline Woodson

This is the oldest title that I want to promote, but I haven’t seen it on other lists. Published in 2001 by award-winning author and all-around awesome person Jacqueline Woodson, the book follows Clover, a young African-American girl, who wonders why Annie, a white girl, sits on a fence every day. Why is the fence there? Why do the girls need to be on opposite sides? This is a gorgeously illustrated story about friendship that crosses imaginary boundaries.



Please click on the links for the books and learn more about them. Each link will take you either to the author or illustrator's website or publisher site, rather than to an online bookstore. Consider finding these books at the library or visiting your local, independent bookstore for purchases.

Entering contests

Emerging writers receive all kinds of advice about whether or not to enter literary contests. The odds are steep with hundreds of competitors for even the smallest publication or press and the entry fees add up.

I have entered a fair amount of writing competitions over the past 5 years. Last summer, I earned a semi-finalist ranking for the Mark Twain House Royal Nonesuch Humor Writing Contest, an honor that came with neither publication or mention on the contest website. Don't get me wrong, I was thrilled with this honor, and I do consider it an honor.

I believe that every notch you earn by entering literary contests earns you something, be it prize money, publication, recognition, or at the beginner's level, experience. That said, choose those contests wisely! My strategy is to choose around 5-8 contests a year -- that is what I can financially and emotionally budget. If each entry fee is approximately $20, you're talking $110-$160 for the privilege of landing in the slush pile. 

On the other hand, many contests come with a free subscription to whatever journal you are submitting. In other words, your $20 entry fee is really paying for an online subscription to a journal you should probably be reading in the first place. Consider the entry fee your commitment to read more of your contemporaries, a valuable research tool as you figure out how to get published.

My last word of advice on literary contests is this: apply -- if you qualify -- for conference scholarships! While I am not broke, I am a struggling artist and my family lives on one full-time salary. In this day and age that is considered stretched thin. I don't set aside much money to advance my writing career because it cannot always be a priority. My kids, the house, the pets -- these are my pressing financial priorities, leaving me a few hundred dollars, if I'm lucky, to invest in my writing. I have -- I'm truly pleased to say -- received my third conference scholarship. I have either received a full or partial scholarship to attend The Kentucky Women Writer's Conference, where I attended a workshop with the fab Meghan Daum, and the River Teeth Nonfiction Conference, where I had an essay critiqued by Hope Edelman. These were critical experiences I would not have had had I not applied for admission scholarships. This summer, I will attend the Hippocamp Nonfiction Conference in Lancaster Count, PA as one of 2 partial scholarship recipients and I couldn't be more thrilled. Hippocampus Magazine, the literary journal which sponsors Hippocamp, will also be publishing my scholarship application essay, "Live to Tell. Tell to Live."

Keep checking those classifieds in the back of Poets and Writers and The Writer's Chronicle and CWROPPS. Make sure the contests are a good fit between what you write and the publication or contest to which you are applying. And best of luck!

Teaching community workshops

Two weekends ago I taught my second community workshop for Shape & Flow, a writing studio owned and operated by my dear friend, Kim Crum. I was nervous. This was a new venture in many ways for me. I am trained as a university writing instructor, with over 7 years of classroom experience, so I wasn't nervous about teaching or standing in front of a group. I've taught community workshops before, 2 for Arts and Healing/Hope Scarves/The Norton Foundation and another at Shape & Flow that I co-taught with David Domine, so I wasn't nervous about community participants and the structure of the class. This workshop was only 2 1/2 hours, so it wasn't a long commitment, unlike a semester of Composition 101. And I chose all of the material -- both what we would read together and the writing exercises. Aha, I think that's it! I was responsible for everything -- I came up with the topic (Imagery in Creative Nonfiction), found pertinent examples in contemporary literature, and asked the participants to write and really use what we discussed to create a short essay rich in imagery. If the students didn't understand the reading material or the assignments, if they left feeling less than satisfied with their writing, then it would all reflect on my teaching abilities. That is a bear of responsibility and I take that responsibility very seriously.

By the end of the workshop, I am pleased to share that not only were my students happy with what we discussed and surprised by what they had written, I was awash with emotion: happy that all 5 students were pleased, blown away by the powerful imagery my students created in a short half-hour of writing, and proud that with a little information and a few examples 5 women sat down to write a personal narrative feeling hesitant and nervous themselves and proved they had deep reservoirs of beautiful words. My students spun images of satin and African violets and bicycles tumbling down Italian lanes. Their writing was poignant and funny.

And just like that, 2 1/2 hours flew by.

Let's do this again! Soon.