Helping Kids Embrace Their Differences

This article caught our attention as we sit here, hurt and raging over the atrocious mass shooting in Las Vega: Illustrated Books to Help Children Embrace Their Differences, from the New York Times’s Match Book series. The article responds to a mother’s letter asking for books to offer her 4-year-old, on-the-spectrum son. She writes,

He’s just beginning to realize he’s a little different. He has always loved reading, so I’ve begun to use books to help him find comfort in this world.

The content is gentle and focused on the comforting fact that a picture book can help put little people a bit more at ease in the world. We also love that it starts with The Story of Ferdinand; one of us had a beloved doggie named after the gentle Spanish bull.

Writer Nicole Lamy’s response is reprinted below (original is here). We’ve added hyperlinks to the books she mentions.

“The serene, misunderstood bull who stars in The Story of Ferdinand, the 1936 classic written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, prefers sniffing flowers in the shade of a cork tree to butting heads with others in his herd or sparring with the banderilleros and picadores in the ring. The perceptive hero of James Marshall’s Snake, His Story (part of his droll, intimate 1970s-era quartet, “Four Little Troubles”) — whose ability to hear sets him apart from his slithery classmates and causes his parents much consternation — learns to appreciate his unique abilities after he thwarts a pair of criminal bulldogs. A fuzzy teddy bear named Tah Tah is the source of social anxiety for a hesitant boy in Bernard Waber’s conversationally on-the-nose picture book from 1972, Ira Sleeps Over. Embracing difference has long been a hallmark of children’s stories.

Contemporary picture-book authors carry on the tradition started by authors of classics; they’re champions of uniqueness, artfully celebrating the qualities of fictional children — and quite a few anthropomorphized animals, some crayons and even a piece of cutlery — while also tackling tricky social situations. The best among them sneakily construct bridges to real-life children struggling with understanding and self-acceptance.

Object Lessons—The dejected utensil in Spoon, the adorably punning tale written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Scott Magoon, longs to cut and spread like Knife or twirl pasta like his friend, Fork; little does he know that his flatware friends envy him too. Spoon’s mother comes through in the end, comforting her little guy by gently reminding him of the sweetest parts of his life. (You may have read Krouse Rosenthal’s essay in the New York Times this spring, You May Want to Marry My Husband –SmSt eds.)

More inanimate empathy arrives in Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story. Though his wrapper reads “Red,” the book’s hero is an erroneously labeled blue crayon who can’t color a fire engine or a stoplight with any kind of verisimilitude. When a new purple friend asks for his help with an art project, Red’s friends and family finally see his true color.

I’m O.K., You’re O.K.—Jewel tones and childlike drawings add to the joy quotient in The Okay Book, Todd Parr’s relentlessly affirmative, warmly oddball book. “It’s okay to have no hair,” reads one page. “It’s okay to wear what you like,” reads another. I wish my favorite line from the book, “It’s okay to put a fish in your hair,” could replace the banal phrase, “It takes all kinds,” as an offbeat expression of acceptance. (We wrote about another of Parr’s books, The Goodbye Book, here –SmSt eds.)

It’s All Relative—Two books about families tell stories about belonging, in very different styles. The flying squirrel in Zachariah OHora’s antic My Cousin Momo doesn’t fit in with the cousins he’s visiting: He thinks hide-and-seek is an opportunity to find mushrooms; he wears a giant muffin costume when his cousins dress as more recognizable superheroes. Heartache comes before acceptance for the saucer-eyed Momo. An interspecies separated-at-birth story with plot twists and a happy ending, Stellaluna by Janell Cannon shows the joy and freedom felt when someone—in this case a bat raised by a family of birds—is allowed to be herself.

Class Acts—Hidden talents are uncovered in two empowering school stories. In I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard, Jennifer K. Mann’s sympathetic and stellar portrait of Rose, who struggles in school yet longs for recognition, reveals a girl who feels like a misfit yet eventually discovers herself as an artist. The cleverly rhyming The Smallest Girl in the Smallest Grade written by Justin Roberts and illustrated by Christian Robinson tells the story of the unobtrusive, uncommonly observant Sally McCabe who finds her voice when she speaks up for compassion and unites her school.

Friend Requests—Two sensitive books about outsiders learning to make friends show kids the way in. Dennis, a silent boy who mimes in Be a Friend by Salina Yoon, prefers pretending to tangible play. His style is smart and creative, but it can be lonely when other children climb trees while you prefer to act like one. One day, though, Dennis kicks an imaginary ball. When a girl named Joy catches it, a friendship takes shape. In Jack and Michael Foreman’s simple, spare story Say Hello, a lonely, disconsolate boy on the sidelines is unsure how to break into a game. A serendipitous moment with a dog and red ball helps the boy to join in the fun and understand that he is not alone.”

Thanks for reading with us, friends.