Alternatively titled: How reading a book by a white author with my white daughter reminded me – a white person – about why diversity in children’s books matters, and why everyone has a part to play – perhaps white people most of all – in ensuring all children have access to culturally responsive books.
By Daniele Berman, Communications and Events Manager
My seven-year-old daughter Anastasia declared at the beginning of this summer that she was only reading chicken mystery books from now on. Chicken mysteries as a genre, you wonder? Well, I did, too. But maybe I should back up a bit to where it all began.
I am a strong proponent of allowing children to read what excites them. Even before I joined the team here at Book Harvest, my now-fourteen-year-old son devoured Captain Underpants books (in spite of my distaste for them) and Diary of a Wimpy Kid books (doesn’t every child?) and various other books and series that are far from the top of my list of favorites – but he was (and still is) a voracious reader. So I loved his choices, and so did he.
Of course, you can’t hang around Book Harvest long without catching the book choice bug. If I didn’t already know from my own son how important book choice is, I would have figured out pretty quickly that one key to helping children become readers is allowing them to choose and read books they love. Just one visit to a Books on Break event at a school where children are “shopping” for their summer reading selections or one glimpse of a child selecting books from the hundreds on the shelves in our office and I would’ve figured it out had I not already known: choice is key.
Over the past several years, as my daughter has become more and more obsessed with all things pink and sparkly and fairy-focused, she has also become laser focused on fairy books. Do you know the Rainbow Magic Fairy book series by Daisy Meadows? I do. All 400+ books in the series, or so it seems. Anastasia loves fairy books, and so fairy books it has been. Every night at bedtime. Every weekend. Every time she needed to log minutes on her reading log. And while I longed for a bit of variety in our reading selections, I also knew how important it was for my developing reader to be in charge. So I learned all about the color fairies and the pet fairies and the holiday fairies and the sports fairies. I tried not to be exhausted by the “special edition” books – three whole books in one! I continued to suggest we try other book series, too – Magic Treehouse? Choose Your Own Adventure? Captain Underpants, even? I may have been all fairy-ed out, but she wasn’t. So we fairy-ed on. (And for the record: there’s nothing wrong with the series! In fact, there’s a lot that’s great about it. But I longed for just a bit of variety…)
And then, one day last spring, I spotted a book in the office that caught my attention: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. Can I tell you why it caught my eye? I cannot. Can I explain what inspired me to bring it home to Anastasia and suggest it as yet another fairy alternative? Nope. Nor do I have any idea why the suggestion was a winner. But it was. So one evening, we started in on the book.
Here’s your spoiler-free plot summary: twelve-year-old Sophie moves with her family from L.A. to a farm in a rural community, as her mother has just inherited the farm from her deceased uncle. Sophie discovers that there are some chickens living on this farm who have superpowers – unusual indeed. The book is a series of letters from Sophie to various important characters (who never respond and whom we never meet): her deceased great-uncle, former owner of the chickens; her deceased abeula; a defunct chicken supply store. In those letters, which function more like a journal, we follow along as she unravels the mystery of her unusual new companions.
Anastasia and I couldn’t put it down. We laughed and wondered and fretted and guessed along with Sophie as the mystery twisted and turned. We learned weird but true facts about chickens and marveled at not-so-true “facts” about Sophie’s particular brood. And what I noticed (but Anastasia didn’t, which was the most brilliant part of all) was that there was more to Sophie than her chicken sleuthing efforts.
What the journal-like format of the book allowed Sophie to do was to share her struggles as the new kid in town in the midst of her adventures. As the bilingual daughter of a Latina mother and a white father, she stood out from her primarily white neighbors and classmates in her new rural home. As a city kid from L.A., she wrestled with understanding life in the country. As the daughter of an unemployed father and a hardworking but undercompensated mother, she didn’t quite fit in with her classmates whose family situations were different from hers.
My white daughter (who is notorious for keeping a running commentary throughout our read-alouds) would interject her thoughts and questions along the way, many along the lines of, “Wait, did the chicken just disappear?” or “Maybe Gregory the mailman knows the secret!” as well as others, just as offhand, like, “Oh, her mom is brown and her dad is white? That’s like my classmate,” or, “Oh, she writes Spanish words in her letters to her abuela because she spoke Spanish, like my friends at school.” Her observations were as pure as any from a seven-year-old growing up in a diverse community, attending a diverse school, and observing and learning about the world around her. The book is about chickens, not diversity. But among and between impossible poultry happenings, the author of this book had managed to tell a whole other story, almost without even mentioning it.
Which is why I tracked down the author, Kelly Jones: I wanted to thank her for the way she handled the “issues” of race and language and difference and diversity in and among a story so quirky and fun that they weren’t even “issues” at all. And can you guess what I discovered? Kelly Jones is white.
Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Where did you get the idea for Unusual Chickens?
I wrote Unusual Chickens while observing my own brand-new backyard chickens. I’d grown up in a small town, and some of my friends had chickens, but I’d never had any of my own before. I thought everything they did was fascinating. I’m always thinking about what kind of superpower I would pick, and I started to wonder what they’d pick, too… Superspeed, for the chicken who’s trying to get that tasty slug away from the others? Camouflage, for the chicken hiding from the dog who scared her? And a few more too…
Tell us a little about Sophie. Who is she, and why?
Sophie is a twelve-year-old girl who fit comfortably into her Los Angeles neighborhood, among people she’d known all her life. Her Mexican-American mom and white dad fit in there too, and she was surrounded by friends and family. So, moving to a rural farm in a mostly white community and being the new kid for the first time is pretty rough. Her parents are struggling financially, and don’t have as much time as they’d like to help her make that transition. She’s lonely, but she’s still trying to make the best of things, so she decides to see about getting some chickens – and writes her first letter to Redwood Farm Supply, purveyor of unusual chickens for the exceptional poultry farmer.
Sophie is resourceful, hopeful, and shy – and she knows she’s at a disadvantage when a respected local farmer tries to steal her new chickens. Sophie reminds me that there are a lot of different ways to be brave, and that not all of the challenges we face are best solved with superpowers.
Your biography on your website identifies you as a white writer who “respectfully write[s] people who are not like her.”
I talk about the tools I use to try to do that on my website, yes. I’m not the best judge of whether I succeed, though, and that’s why I feel so lucky to have had so much help.
My stories start with a character. For Sophie’s story, it was very easy for me to imagine what she might be feeling and experiencing in some parts, and really hard in others, because I don’t share one of the cultures that are a huge part of who she is, and I haven’t experienced being bicultural, or the microaggressions she has, or been part of the communities she has.
She’s a fictitious character, so I could have just decided to make her see things my way instead. But that didn’t feel respectful to the character or the story to me, and it also didn’t feel like good writing. So, I searched out the tools and the help I discuss on my website to try and do right by her, including cultural experts who were willing to tell me when things didn’t feel right, and when my assumptions and biases were taking the story in directions I didn’t consciously intend.
What is your role as a white person in the work to diversify children’s literature?
My main role is as a consumer of and an advocate for other writers’ and illustrators’ work, particularly diverse stories told by people who are part of those communities. I also occasionally mentor marginalized writers to help them tell the stories that are important to them.
One small boots-on-the-ground example of how I can boost others’ stories and lay groundwork for future writers is school visits. Sometimes I’m the only author to visit a school, and it’s important to me that the kids who see me also understand that not all authors look like me, and that they could do this work someday too. So, I always include photos of diverse books that I love in my slideshows, and the diverse authors who wrote them.
I also talk with other writers about being a white writer who has written characters whose lives have been different than mine, the tools I’ve found, what’s been difficult, and the ongoing questions I have about the stories I tell. I believe in paying knowledge forward, so when someone has taken the energy to educate me, I try to share what I’ve learned. I’m never going to have all the answers or be done learning, though.
What has the response been to Sophie and Unusual Chickens?
It’s been a mix, like any book. I’m a former librarian, and I don’t believe in the Ultimate Good Book. I believe in the right book for a particular reader. Some readers liked the realistic chicken care aspects, and wonder why I included magic too. Some would love more magic, less science. Some readers love that it’s written in letters, and some really don’t. I’m pleased and proud that the book earned some very lovely reviews and acknowledgements from librarians. But, the most important responses for me have been from kids.
Kids on farms tell me what breeds their chickens are, and ask about my chickens, and tell me they don’t know of many books set on modern farms. Students at schools I’ve visited come up to me and whisper that Sophie speaks Spanish, just like them, and that their abuelas make migas too. It’s a book about a girl, but I hear boys recommend it to other boys without any sort of qualifications. And, kids tell me how funny it was, and how it made them think of a story they want to write too. Responses like these make me hope I did something right in this unusual story of my heart.
Jones was kind enough to direct Anastasia and me to some more chicken mysteries – because once we had finished with Sophie’s story, she no longer had eyes for fairies and was fully focused on this very specific (and unusual) sub-genre. So we read The Hoboken Chicken Emergency by Daniel Pinkwater and The Trouble with Chickens by Doreen Cronin. And we’re eagerly awaiting the second installment about Sophie, coming out this fall. Jones also shared a fantastic list of books she recommends for kids in second through sixth grades, which you will find at the end of this post.
As for Anastasia and me, we’ve moved on from chickens and have branched out to other mysteries – whew! – A to Z Mysteries and Calendar Mysteries and Ballpark Mysteries. Because of Unusual Chickens, Anastasia developed a new passion for a new genre, and I have been reminded yet again how important it is for my white child to be exposed to books that function as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors: mirrors so that she sees herself reflected in what she reads, windows so that she can see beyond her own world, and sliding glass doors that give her access to new places and new worlds, be they fairy worlds or farm worlds or whatever might come next. (You can read Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal article “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors” to learn more.)
And as for future chicken mysteries? I asked Jones, of course, and it sounds like the next installment might appeal to the middle school crowd.
No spoilers, but…what’s next for Sophie?
Well, in this case, the egg’s coming after the chicken… Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? will be in bookstores this November! Sophie is nervous about hatching her first chicken eggs and starting middle school, so it’s a good thing she’ll have some new friends to help her, too. (And yes, there are more chickens, with new superpowers…)
At Book Harvest, we are always collecting recommendations of books by diverse authors featuring diverse characters for readers of all ages. We’re working on updating our Mirrors and Windows list, and we want to hear from you about books you’d recommend. Do you or your children have favorite books that should be on our next list? Would your child like to write a book review or record a video entry for our upcoming blog series featuring kids’ book recommendations? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a message through Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
Secret Coders series by Gene Luen Yang & Mike Holmes Stella Díaz has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez The Magnificent Mya Tibbs series by Crystal Allen The Cilla Lee-Jenkins series by Susan Tan & Dana Wulfekotte El Deafo by Cece Bell Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper & Raul the Third Whoosh! Lonnie Johnson’s Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton & Don Tate The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (can’t wait to read the sequel!) The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (the sequel is great too, and I hear his new book is amazing!) Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly The Tía Lola series by Julia Alvarez Hoodoo by Ronald Smith (can’t wait to read his Black Panther: the Young Prince, too!) Geeks, Girls, & Secret Identities by Mike Jung The Love, Sugar, Magic series by Anna Meriano Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence
Would you like to donate copies of Jones’s recommendations to Book Harvest so we can provide them to kids who will love them just as much as Anastasia and I loved Unusual Chickens? You can find them all on this special Amazon wishlist and have them sent directly to us!