“Do you have the new Dogman yet?,” Julio earnestly asks as he rushes into our K-8 Spanish bilingual library. His face visibly deflates as I tell him that I do not. Edward, another second-grader standing nearby says casually, “Just tell your mom to go on the computer and get it for you.” Julio looks very confused, “How do I do that?” Edward insists, “She just goes on the computer and orders it!”
At this point, I insert myself. What I’m witnessing is the confusion that arises from differences in privilege, something which is very common in our school which consciously attempts to bring together students from different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.
I tell Julio and Edward that what Edward has seen is his mom BUY books online and that I sometimes buy books online too for the library but they can be very expensive. Julio totally gets it now, “Oh yeah,” he says matter of factly, “we don’t have money.”
We talked a little more about how some families have more money than others and how different people get books and by the end, Edward suggests that he bring in his copy to lend to Julio. Both students find another book. We haven’t solved the inequities in our society but everyone leaves a little more informed and with a book.
This example illustrates what we strive for as educators in diverse schools: honest sharing, shared respect and the genuine connection which results. And, so often, this happens through the prism of a book.
Recently, I fell in love with the book Dos Conejos Blancos. In this beautifully illustrated simple picture book, a young girl is traveling across Central America and Mexico with her father to get to the border. This very challenging experience is conveyed through the voice of the girl who finds little bits of beauty all along the way. It is that rare kind of book that brings lightness to a very heavy topic without in any way diminishing the gravity of the story.
I read the book aloud to second through fifth grade classes in our library, noting the developmental differences that arose during our conversations as we read. One especially noteworthy interaction happened during my time with the fifth graders, a class of 31 of whom 5 were recent arrivals from Latin America.
Towards the middle of the book, the father and his daughter ride on top of a train as part of their journey. I explained that this is very common in Mexico and mentioned a book for older children and adults called Enrique’s Journey which I thought was an excellent read on this subject. I also noted that it is very dangerous but that so many do it because they cannot afford to pay for a train or bus fare. Then one student blurted out, “That looks like fun!” A few others nearby nodded and softly chuckled.
Grrr…my immediate reaction was irritation. I couldn’t help it. I’m sure I would have scolded them for an inappropriate, insensitive reaction and shut them down when luckily I was saved by a gentle voice at my feet.
“I did that,” Daniel said. We all turned to him.
A couple of his companions were shocked. “YOU did that?!” “
“Yes, when I came with my aunt and mother.”
“Daniel,” I asked him gently, “was it fun?”
“No,” he said, “it was really scary.”
You could hear a pin drop in the silence that followed. His very plain statement was a million times more powerful and effective in generating understanding than my thankfully interrupted lecture would have been.
This is the power of children’s literature which focuses on real, societal issues. These stories are not only adult stories. They are the lived experience of countless children and their families. We often assume that by putting people in close proximity, understanding will naturally occur. But these two incidents illustrate that we can coexist in our own small bubble worlds. It is through actually sharing our countless small stories that we come a little closer to understanding one another.
Dos Conejos Blancos is a story which is a window for some into a world very different from their own. But it is a mirror to others who need to see their lives represented in the books they see. And, even more importantly, it was an opportunity for true sharing and learning to happen. As a teacher and librarian, I am very thankful for the books which put these opportunities within reach of us all as learners.