Hikes and Hair

 This is the view from the playground by our house. We love standing on the hill and looking out over the rolling prairie and farms. It’s like a picture book scene: a little town in the distance, trains chugging by in the valley, livestock dotting the distant grass by miniature barns and houses. The ridge always catches a breeze, and hiking trails lead off through the long grass and wildflowers. We stop by as often as we can to savor the changing seasons. Last week I took the big three while The Man stayed with the napping baby. After playground time and a short hike we switched off duties so The Man could take Jack to the barber.


Though we have much to learn yet adoption has already forced us to grow, change, and challenge our own assumptions. For example, before adopting African American kids we had no idea how important hair is in black culture. Hair must always be moisturized and well-groomed. Girls typically wear their hair in protective styles like cornrows or twists. Putting girls’ hair down in a twist out or an Afro is for special occasions only. Many white adoptive families (us included before we learned better!) keep their black daughters’ hair loose and dry. However, that choice leaves kids outsiders in the black community; unkempt hair outside the home is on par with wearing filthy clothes, not brushing your teeth, or never bathing. Likewise, many white families  just buzz their black sons’ hair at home – after all it’s cheaper and easier than heading out. However, black barbershops are a community cornerstone for black men and boys. Many black males get their hair lined up by their barber every week. Black barbershops are a place to socialize, develop inter-generational ties, share news, and learn skills for thriving as a minority in our society. Many adult transracial adoptees regret a childhood of standing out everywhere as the only representative of their race in white communities. They remember being the token black student in their grade, the only non-white kid at the park, and so on. Later, as independent adults who’ve lost the visible connection to their parents and token “white card” black adoptees often find themselves on the fringe of the white community, but unfamiliar with and uncomfortable in the black community as well. As adoptive parents, we believe adult adoptees are one of the best resources for learning pitfalls and plusses in adoptive parenting.


Although we have several African-American neighbors, on average our new town is much less racially diverse than our old town. Since moving we’ve been hunting for church, school, commercial, and social opportunities with positive racial mirrors for our kids. Thanks to a recommendation from friends we finally found a great black barbershop. I grew up oblivious to racial issues and assuming that racism was rare or non-existent in our Midwestern town. Most neighbors would have said they didn’t see or care about color. But there, as anywhere, overt and systemic racism was all around us. My kindergarten teacher sent the only black students to the principle constantly because she didn’t want them in her class. Police stopped black boys just for waiting in their cars in predominantly white areas. A large group of young black men would have been viewed with suspicion by people in the community. What a healthy adjustment now, after lots of hunting, to find a barbershop full to bursting with black teenage boys sent by their parents for fresh cuts before church on Sunday, dads with young sons, businessmen, seniors out to socialize on a weekend morning. Where, for a change, our son blends in with the majority and my husband is the sole white guy in the room. Jack came back bursting with pride in his sharp looking bald fade (and delighted with the three lollipops he scored for a haircut). We’re happy to have another great resource for our son as he matures. That’s not to say he’s so mature right now. This is what happens when I ask him to smile for a photo with his sister:

7 Quick Takes: African-American Picture Books, Part 2

To those who’ve commented and emailed: I’m so sorry it’s taking me a long time to respond. We’ve had a very busy month and I’m quite behind on correspondence and writing. Your thoughts and comments are very much appreciated, though!

A few weeks back I reviewed a few picture books featuring black main characters. Thank you so much to the many people who commented on the last post with additional book suggestions! As I mentioned, it’s hard to find picture books featuring African-American or African protagonists at our local bookstore. The few books our store carries tend to focus on the Civil Rights era and racism; important topics, but surely not the only time we should see black kids as the main characters in picture books. Good books are out there, but it takes a little hunting. As with any genre, some of the books are “twaddle”, some have good stories but weak illustrations (or vice-versa), some do not share our values, and some are truly excellent. I plan to continue to review books as we try them from the library.

1) Please, Puppy, Please by Spike and Tonya Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Carl and I both loved this funny, well-illustrated text, and the babies were captivated by the vivid illustrations. This sweet, simple story follows a day in the life of two children and their exuberant puppy. Appropriate for young children, though bigger kids might still enjoy the pictures and the humor while newly independent readers will enjoy the simple text they can read by themselves. 5 stars.

2) Where’s Jamela by Niki Daly

The Jamela books are a South African series. We’ve only tried Where’s Jamela so far, and I was very impressed. The illustrations are brilliant – full of life, action, and humor. The story is enjoyable, and the flavor of life in South Africa adds special fun to an already great story about spunky Jamela, her concerns about an upcoming move, her family and her warm and engaging neighborhood. We will definitely collect these books for our own shelves. 5 stars.

3) Whose Knees Are These? by Jabari Aseem

A simple board book, appropriate for babies and toddlers. A mother wonders aloud about the owner of these fine strong brown knees she sees dangling from trees, etc. They turn out to belong to her son. Sweet, but not particularly interesting to read as a parent, and kids will outgrow it quickly. We will get this one out of the library but don’t plan to buy it for ourselves. 3 stars.

4) Where Does the Trail Lead? by Burton Albert, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

A boy explores a coastal trail passing tide pools, sand dunes, and driftwood, eventually arriving at his family’s campsite. While inoffensive and perhaps a nice add-in for a unit study on coastal areas, this book doesn’t have much of a story to catch kids’ interest. Overall the pictures felt a bit gray and bland. There’s nothing especially wrong with this book but it wasn’t my cup of tea. 2 stars.

5) He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson

Kadir Nelson’s warm and beautiful illustrations bring the classic American spiritual to life. There’s no “story”, per se, just the lyrics of the hymn with images of a family enjoying time together in the world God created and shepherds. One thing I hadn’t realized before reading this book is that hymns/songs in book form are fantastic for babies. The music really helps them engage with books and enjoy reading together when they’re too small to truly understand the stories. It’s tough to say if older kids would enjoy this book – I suppose it depends on the child.  5 stars.

6) Lola at the Library, Lola Reads to Leo, and Lola Loves Stories by Anna McQuinn, illustrated by Rosalind Beardshaw

I have mixed feelings about these books. Lola is very cute, and the illustrations are bright and happy. However, the text reads more like an advertisement for the library or books than a story. For example, Lola goes to the library and describes everything she likes to do at the library. There isn’t really a plot. Also, while I know the illustrations are cartoonish and I’m sure it’s not intentional, the illustration of Lola’s Dad almost looks more “monkey-like” than human. It was a bit unsettling and an unpleasant stereotype. Overall, these might be good books to read once to explain how a library works to a small child (Lola at the Library ) or accompany the arrival of a new baby sibling (Lola Reads to Leo). 3 stars.

It’s rare to find a book that features transracial/mixed-race families like ours. This book has very nice illustrations. That said, I don’t think the text would appeal to most kids (or to the parents who have to read it out loud). The words are rather stream-of-consciousness, a free-association description of all the skin colors in the children’s family. I’ve read comments from others describing this book as very meaningful to them as they grew up in mixed-race families so we may revisit it when the kids are bigger. For now it remains a library book. 2 stars.

Seven Quick Takes: Race and Picture Books

Race! And adoption! How’s that for a non-controversial start to a Friday? At least most people have no quibble with picture books.

Adopting kids of another race changes your perspective. Overt acts of racism aside, picturing myself in my kids’ shoes has made me realize how different the experience of everyday life can be for people of other races in our town. Early in our adoption process, I headed to the bookstore to pick up gifts for the babies’ half-brothers. It’s the only “new books” provider for 45 minutes around – a major national chain. At first, I reached for my favorite classic kids’ books. Maybe Mike Mulligan or Make Way for Ducklings or Ferdinand or… I flipped through the pages. In every single book, every single character was white. I paused. They’re wonderful stories, but it’d be thoughtful if the gifts showed someone of the boys’ race. I browsed through the children’s area for half an hour, growing increasingly frustrated. Almost every human character was caucasian. At best, some books portrayed a side-kick of another race. Only a handful of picture books featured an African-American or African kid as the main character, and an even tinier percentage weren’t specifically about the Civil Rights era (an important topic, but not the only one we want to read about with small kids). Of those (perhaps four or so) books, almost all were poorly written with mediocre illustrations. I walked out of the store with a new perspective and two “safe” human-free stories about construction trucks and  dinosaurs. 30-40% of our town’s population is black. What if I were an African-American five-year-old going to the bookstore? Wouldn’t I wonder why I couldn’t find a single fun story about a kid who looked like me?

On placement day we again brought gifts for the twins’ half-brothers. Remembering the bookstore experience, I headed to the toy store instead. In the aisles of superheroes and dolls and Legos and balls every human character was white. I finally, after much wandering, spotted one Playmobil set of rescue personnel with a black ambulance attendant (I bought a playdough kit). While waiting for adoption news I borrowed a few library books on caring for babies. My husband started reading through the instructions on infant care illustrated with plentiful photos. After a while he paused, paged back through a few sections, then said slowly “…all of these babies are white. None of them look like the kids we’re going to adopt.” We started over from the beginning and finally found a brown-skinned baby on page 99. She was Indian.

I don’t want to oversimplify, but for want of a better way to say it, much of our social structure assumes “whiteness” (an idea I would have scoffed at a year ago). Naturally some stories feature only white characters – Mike Mulligan is a pretty accurate reflection of a rural New England town or village. But shouldn’t that “naturally” run in two directions? We’ll be reading plenty of classics like Mike Mulligan, but I realized that I will need to search hard and carefully to build a good supplement of quality resources featuring characters who look like my kids. Knowing there are many other parents in the same boat (and plenty of families, regardless of race, who just enjoy good children’s books) the homeschooled kid and future homeschooling parent in me decided to periodically reviewing the resources we come across, both good and bad. I keep a running Pinterest page of books to try. Feel free to chime in with your recommendations or thoughts!

1)

Please, Baby, Please by Spike and Tonya Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Highly recommended. A baby spends her day getting into mischief, testing her parents’ patience. The cover doesn’t do the bright, entertaining, full-page illustrations justice. The simple text is appropriate for small children. Detailed pictures draw the reader in, and we enjoy the humor as parents. Our babies can’t stop staring at the colorful pictures and trying to touch them. The Lees also wrote Please, Puppy, Please, which we’ve yet to read. Kadir Nelson illustrated a number of other books on our yet-to-try list including He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

2)

Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock. Highly recommended. Kondi, a resourceful little boy in Africa, spends his day collecting wire scraps to build a galimoto (a toy vehicle). An engaging storyline with great illustrations full of details from life in a small village. Neat, also, because I saw many handcrafted toys and masterpieces from wire scraps like this when in Kenya.

3)

The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair and the rest of the Peter series by Ezra Jack Keats. Highly recommended. Classics, and some of the very first US picture books featuring a black main character. Simple stories small kids can relate to. Creative illustrations made with Keats’ classic collage techniques.

4)

Corduroy by Don Freeman. Highly recommended. A classic most of us grew up with. A little black girl named Lisa falls in love with a bear in the store window, but can’t take him home. Corduroy spends an adventurous night in the department store before eventually finding a real home with Lisa after all. Fun, sweet and irresistible to kids.

5)

Hush Little Baby, Pegony-Po, Max Found Two Sticks, and numerous others by Brian and Andrea Pinkney. Pretty good. I have mixed feelings about these books. The Pinkneys are prolific authors and illustrators of children’s’ books featuring African American main characters. However, the quality is highly variable and despite colorful and vivid lines, the illustrations sometimes feel rather wooden. This is, perhaps, because the characters’ facial expressions rarely change no matter the mood or action in each illustration. Still, there are many more to try, the stories are clean, family-oriented, and gentle, and the pictures do capture our kids’ attention. Hush Little Baby tells, through the illustrations, a sweet story of a father and brother trying to comfort the baby of the family while Mama is off to town. We will try each potential option from the library before deciding to invest in a copy for home.

6)

Happy Christmas Gemma by Sarah Hayes, illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Recommended. Borrowed from the library at Christmas. A boy narrates preparations for Christmas and the antics of his baby sister. We both loved the illustrations. This story is nothing out of this world, just a warm, gently funny tale. A nice unique flavor, too, since the characters are a black family living in Britain with relatives in Jamaica.

7)

More More More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams. I don’t like to give negative reviews, but this book just did not appeal to us. On the plus side (and this is actually a big, rare plus) it features families of multiple races and transracial families with a white Grandma and a black grandson. Also, it won the Caldecott Honor medal for its illustrations which have gotten rave reviews from other readers. However, my husband and I both found the illustrations rather garish/clashy and not very enjoyable to look at. We also weren’t particularly interested in the text. I found it a bit hard to pick up the right rhythm for read aloud. It’s possible our kids would like it when they’re bigger, but as parents who would have to read it over and over, we’re exercising veto power and not buying it. I suppose this is another one to get from the library and choose for yourself – tastes differ.

Images from Amazon, Goodreads, and other linked sources. Most books available on Amazon. For other Seven Quick Takes entries please visit Conversion Diary.