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Allie’s Reflections (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 4)

August 13, 2015

I’ve learned a lot from three years of teaching Loudness in the Library.  Here are some of my oft-recurring thoughts.

  1. Conversations about present-day inequities and injustices are all complicated, but some subjects are more difficult to talk about than others.

Our conversations about sexism flow beautifully.  Kids look at images of covers, and observations about gender and sexism pour out of them, sometimes so fast I can’t record all of the wonderful things they say.

By contrast, conversations about race consistently feature silence, at least initially.  Kids struggle to find language to express their ideas.  They preface their thoughts with “I really hope I won’t offend anyone.”  They start to say something, then shake their heads and say “nevermind.”  This doesn’t happen with 6th-graders as often as it does in adult conversations about race–but there is more silence than occurs in race-related conversations I’ve had with 1st-graders.

Eventually, a brave soul–usually a kid of color–gets it going.  And once it gets going, it’s great.   But there are often one, two, or three kids who say nothing, deciding that it is safer to stay quiet.

As a white teacher, I find that leading race-related conversations is both more invigorating and more draining than leading conversations on any other topic.  Three years in, I still find myself tossing and turning the night before these lessons–partly from eager anticipation, partly from nervous anxiety.  I worry that I will burden kids of color with the task of educating white children, or that I myself will unwittingly commit microaggressions against children of color.  I worry that rather than engendering a sense of responsibility in white kids, leaving them energized and active, I will merely make them feel shame and guilt, which are paralyzing.

The fact that race-related conversations are so very fraught is a huge part of the problem.  We must be able to communicate in order to solve problems that exist at interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels.  If kids in 6th grade already have the inclination to stay silent in conversations on race, how much stronger will that inclination be in adults?  And if we can’t talk about race and racism, how will things ever get better?

Having said all that, I’ve also concluded that…

  1. …6th grade is a great age for kids to have race-related conversations.

Of course, parents and teachers should start talking about race with toddlers, but I have a special fondness for holding these conversations with 11- and 12-year-olds.  6th-graders can think abstractly and love to grapple with big ideas (such as problems that exist on societal levels), but they haven’t developed as many of the cautionary filters that prevent adults from having honest and productive conversations.  I’ve been amazed at how quickly and smoothly these kids identify their own prejudices, name them, and resolve to do better.  In that respect, they are role models for me.

  1.  Every school should have a qualified Diversity Director who takes her (enormous) job seriously.

As I’ve stated above, conversations about prejudices, injustices, and inequities that exist today are hard to navigate.  Teachers need training, practice, and professional guidance in these areas.  I am so lucky, and so grateful, to work with Anshu Wahi, Bank Street’s Director of Diversity and Community, on this and other projects.

This is Anshu.

That’s all for this year, folks!  Thanks for reading, and be sure to tune in again next summer.  I, for one, cannot WAIT to do Loudness with this year’s incoming 6th-graders, and to see where the kids take it, how they grow, what they learn, and how they teach me.

-Allie Jane Bruce

Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series.

For my older posts about our first year of Loudness, start here.

Allie Jane Bruce

(This is me.)

Rewriting History: American Indians, Europeans, and an Oak Tree (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 3)

August 12, 2015

I did a double-take when I cracked open As An Oak Tree Grows*, a 2014 book that inaccurately reflects the history of European and Native American interactions.  In the story, which traces the life of an oak tree (planted as an acorn by a young Native boy), the Native character simply disappears as the Europeans move in.  Bank Street students, who participate in extensive curricula on unlearning Native stereotypes, immediately recognized this as problematic, because it erases the conflicts and violence that arose when Native people fought to defend their homes and land from colonial invasion.  As one student noted,

“Because it’s a children’s book, they wanted to make it ‘nicer.’ ”

Working together, teachers and kids identified three primary areas of concern with As An Oak Tree Grows:

  1. The pictures show a lot of empty land, as if it was uninhabited; one wigwam appears in the first two pages, alongside a vast wilderness.

1 2

Where is the Native child’s community?  The pictures send the message that the land was largely empty and there for the taking.  Students said:

“If you don’t give kids the right images, they get the wrong ideas.”

“If kids don’t see other stories, they might think this is the truth.”

“These books shape a child’s mind.”

“The illustrations should show more of the truth.”

  1. Then, there’s this text:

“The boy grew up and moved away.”

Kids were puzzled because they knew that the larger story of Native/European interaction is one in which Europeans forcibly removed and/or killed huge portions of Native populations.

“‘The boy grew up and moved away’?  That didn’t happen.”

“They were there first.  It is very unlikely that the boy just moved away.”

A teacher asked: “Keeping in mind that this book is meant for young kids, how could we re-write this so that it would tell the truth?”

“They could have said ‘Europeans took his home’ instead of ‘The boy grew up and moved away.’”

“It could say ‘Different people came and forced the boy’s people out.’”

“It could say ‘Sadly, they were forced away.’”

  1.  The next sentence reads:

“Farmers now lived here.”

The picture shows people, identifiably European by their clothing, houses, and skin tone, now occupying the land:


Together, teachers and kids revisited what we know about American history: that Native people in fact taught Europeans how to farm in North America, and that Europeans depended upon Native populations to provide food.  If someone didn’t know these facts, they could get an incorrect message from this book.  Kids said:

“It shows that people don’t think of Native Americans as farmers.”

“Instead of ‘Farmers now lived here’ it could say ‘Different farmers now lived here.’”

The kids were deeply troubled by these few pages in an otherwise-beautiful book.  Our conversation turned to other examples of rewritten history that students recalled from books, movies, and TV.  Examples included Peter Pan and the Little House on the Prairie series.  One student mused:

“A lot of times kids’ books have the most stereotypical things, when in fact they should be the most honest.”

It was a sober conversation, and many of these 6th-graders left the room angry.

Tune in tomorrow for one last post, in which I reflect on this curriculum from a teacher’s point of view.

Catch up on Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them.

Update: Part 4 is up!

-Allie Jane Bruce
*Karas, G. Brian. As An Oak Tree Grows. New York, NY; Penguin, 2014.

Representations (and the Lack Thereof) of Race and Hair (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 2)

August 11, 2015

By now, many of us are familiar with the statistics kept by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that reveal that the number of books by and about people of color has hovered between 9% and 14% over the past 20 years, despite the fact that children of color now constitute more than 50% of U.S. public school students.

When the Loudness in the Library curriculum emerged three years ago, my fellow teachers and I realized that it is both possible and necessary to have developmentally appropriate conversations with children about the hard truth that whiteness is vastly over-represented in children’s literature.  We discovered that book covers can be a remarkably accessible entry point into this conversation.

This year, we discussed many of the same points that we have in previous years: how book covers can “disguise” a character’s race with a symbol, a blurry photograph, or a silhouette.  But one pattern–how often tightly curly hair is disguised, obscured, or altered on book covers–particularly resonated with this group of students.

For example, compare these covers (all of which feature Black main characters)…



…with these, which feature East Asian, Middle-Eastern, White, and South Asian characters:


Here’s what 6th-graders had to say:

“You couldn’t see the hair on the African-American people, but you could on the others.”

“Certain types of hair is what you are supposed to have.”

“People could think they have to change their hair to fit in.”

“You could say, ‘My hair isn’t liked.  I should straighten it.’”

“If people read the same types of books a lot, they can have a stereotype in their head.”

“People might think, ‘I need to change.  I need to be that way.’”

“People might change their hair because of what someone else–not them–thinks.”

“Because of the media certain people are excluded from being considered beautiful.  Because of this, people’s self esteem lowers and they are made to feel insignificant.”

“Why are there barely any books featuring minorities in the plot, let alone with minorities being featured on the covers? This sends the message to people that they are not worthy enough to be shown on book covers.”

One student later wrote an essay about a personal insight gained from our discussion:

“I remember when I was four years old, and I went shopping with my mom to buy my first doll. My mother and I went to Target to look around for the doll. She asked me which one I would like. I pointed to the Barbie doll that was caucasian and had blonde hair. My mother thought otherwise. She wanted me to get the one that looked like me. All of the Barbies on the shelf were white. I had to search for one that looked like me. I eventually found one with brown skin and curly brown hair. I still have it. Back then, I just thought that the white Barbie dolls were prettier. I didn’t understand how problematic that really was until just a few years ago…

When I recently took a trip to Barnes and Noble, I was quite disappointed with their book selections. The store displays did not feature diverse or realistic looking characters. If I wanted to find books that had characters that looked like me, I would have to search for them. This means that bookstores and libraries are supporting the media’s definition of beauty, not real people, not people that I can relate to.”

Stay tuned; next, we’re talking about a problematic portrayal of American Indian history.

Missed Part 1 of this series?  Don’t panic, here it is!

Update: Part 3 is up… and so is Part 4!

-Allie Jane Bruce

Kids’ Thoughts on Censorship (Loudness in the Library Year Three, Part 1)

August 10, 2015

“Activism is standing up for what you believe in, especially if someone says it’s bad.”

Three years ago, as I was booktalking realistic fiction titles to a 6th-grade class, a girl asked a seemingly simple question: “Why is there a bird on that cover?”  This question launched a year-long curriculum that used book covers as a starting point to examine biases and stereotypes in children’s literature and the wider world.  We engaged in conversations about race, gender, sexual orientation, body size, and more.

The curriculum was so successful that we’ve repeated it every year since.  Students and teachers (Humanities teacher Jamie Steinfeld, Diversity Director Anshu Wahi, and Librarian Allie Jane Bruce) look forward to the time we spend together, talking and learning about identity.

The program has evolved over the years, and I’m constantly delighted by the new discoveries kids make, and by the wisdom and insight already present in 11- and 12-year-olds.  This year, in addition to our discussions about race, gender, and sexual orientation, and our annual field trip to Barnes & Noble, we discussed censorship, hair, and American Indian history and stereotypes.  Oh, and we attended an event with Jacqueline Woodson.  So, there was that.

Jacqueline Woodson reading to kids

In this blog series, I will share a few of the new areas into which we’ve expanded.  The first new topic: Censorship.

There were two components to the censorship lesson.  First, I read Justin Richardson’s, Peter Parnell’s, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three (Simon and Schuster, 2005) out loud; most kids were already familiar with the gentle, loving story of a family of two penguin dads and their chick, Tango, and were delighted to hear it again.  Then, I shared a fact:  And Tango Makes Three is one of the most censored books of all time.


The kids were shocked.  What could make someone want to ban Tango?  What did “banning” even mean?  I gave them some definitions, and explained the difference between a challenge and a ban.  Here are the kids’ reactions:

“What if you think it’s not OK or normal to be gay because you never see it in a book?”

“You don’t need to ban it, just don’t check it out!”

“We need to let kids know that it’s not bad to be gay.”

“If kids don’t get a chance to see gay people in picture books, they won’t know about it, and they will think it’s weird.  Books can help you learn that it’s not weird.”

Next, we watched this Cheerios commercial, which was the target of racist backlash.  The kids’ thoughts:

“I noticed that they were two different races, but I thought ‘It’s normal.  I see that all the time.’”

“It shows what actual families in this country are like!”

“Biracial kids may feel different if they don’t get to see kids like themselves in commercials.”

“It’s not like one of the parents is a hippo.  This is normal.  I have friends with parents like them.”

We finished with another new word: Activism.  Students examined the word and discussed its meaning.  In the end, we finished with a fantastic, student-generated definition:

“Activism is standing up for what you believe in, especially if someone says it’s bad.”

Next time: We talk about the representations (and the lack thereof) of race and… HAIR!

For anyone who missed them, here are the blog posts from our first year.

Update: Part 2 is up!  So is Part 3!  And Part 4!!

-Allie Jane Bruce

Save the Date: BookFest @ Bank Street 2015

July 29, 2015

BookFest Logo

Please Save the Date!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Registration will open on Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Keynote Speaker:

Rita Williams-Garcia (Gone Crazy in Alabama)

Authors and Artists as panelists:

Jeanne Birdsall (The Penderwicks in Spring)
Elizabeth Bluemle (Tap! Tap! Boom! Boom!)
Raúl Colón (Draw!)
Adam Gidwitz (A Tale Dark and Grimm)
Beth Kephart (One Thing Stolen)
Liz Kessler (Emily Windsnap and the Ship of Lost Souls)
Christopher Myers (Jake Makes the World; My Pen)
Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper)
Laura Amy Schlitz (The Hired Girl)
Shadra Strickland (Bird; Please, Louise)
Sara Varon (Robot Dreams; Bake Sale)
Cynthia Weill (Mi Familia Calaca / My Skeleton Family)
Tim Wynne-Jones (The Emperor of Anyplace)
Kat Yeh (The Truth about Twinkie Pie)


Monica Edinger, The Dalton School
Leonard S. Marcus, children’s literature scholar and Honorary Degree holder from Bank Street College of Education
Joe Rogers, Jr., Founder & Facilitator of Total Equity Now
Vicky Smith, reviews editor, Kirkus Reviews

Book Discussion Leaders:

Rita Auerbach, chair, 2010 Caldecott Committee
Stacy Dillon, Little Red Schoolhouse
Jennifer Hubert Swan, Little Red Schoolhouse and Elizabeth Irwin High School
Jon Peters, formerly of New York Public Library
Keira Parrott, editor-in-chief, School Library Journal
Susannah Richards, Eastern Connecticut University
Julie Roach, Cambridge Public Library
Karyn Silverman, Little Red Schoolhouse and Elizabeth Irwin High School
Margaret Tice, Magen David Yeshivah Elementary School
Luann Toth, reviews editor, School Library Journal
Caroline Ward, Ferguson Public Library
Mollie Welsh Kruger, Bank Street College graduate faculty

Friday Afternoon Tea at Bank Street

July 9, 2015

Join us for our next Bank Street Library Salon!

Friday, August 7, 2015

5:00 to 6:30 p.m.


We are very happy to host a high tea featuring author Sam Gayton. Sam is
joining us to talk about his new book Lilliput (Peachtree).

Register here. 

Children’s Book Committee – July Pick

July 1, 2015
Boys Don’t Knit (In Public)
by T.S. Easton
Feiwel & Friends, 2014
When Ben Fletcher, 17, inadvertently signs up  for a knitting class as part of his probation, he has a hard time keeping it from his friends and family.
Our Young Reviewer says:
This story is mainly about gender roles, because a boy starts knitting and feels embarrassed about it. You don’t have to stick with your gender role. I like that people are starting to explore themselves and see and do new things. So they need to know it’s good to do what they want and not to feel pressured by society and other people’s beliefs. The author should make more books!
– Karolina, 13, New York, NY
Want to become a Young Reviewer?
See our past monthly picks.

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