In his inauguration speech last week, President Joe Biden urged people to come together and end “this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal”. The overall theme of the speech was unity because, in his words, “this is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward.”
Creating the kind of unity Biden dreams of requires us to start at the very beginning, by educating our children to be accepting, respectful, and caring towards all people, regardless of how they look, what language they speak, and what religion they choose (or choose not) to practice. Picture books are a great starting point for this lifelong journey, so I have gathered together five recent titles that promote the same messages of unity and positivity we heard from the Capitol steps last Wednesday.
Please note: This post contains affiliate links.
I Am Smart, I Am Blessed, I Can Do Anything by Alissa Holder & Zulekha Holder-Young, Illustrated by Nneka Myers
My first book for this roundup was I Am Smart, I Am Blessed, I Can Do Anything by Alissa Holder & Zulekha Holder-Young. If that title feels familiar, it’s most likely because this sweet and uplifting book is based on a 2019 viral video in which three-year-old Ayaan Diop recited the same words while walking to school with his mom, the video eventually proving popular enough to earn the pair an invitation onto The Ellen Show.
In this picture book, written in part by Ayaan’s mother and starring Ayaan himself, Ayaan has awoken to feel a little worried and unhappy about attending school. He worries about not knowing the answers to his teacher’s questions, and not being able to tie his laces. His mom – along with some of Ayaan’s friends and neighbors along their walk to school – reminds him of his abilities through their daily affirmation: “I am smart, I am blessed, I can do anything!” and by the time he arrives at his classroom door, Ayaan is feeling happy, confident, and ready to face his day.
This is such a positive book that is ideal for any youngsters feeling nervous about school or any other challenges they might be facing in their lives. It’s also a great message for us adults who often feel just as incapable and nervous about facing new challenges too. The illustrations are bold, bright, and full of cheer, showing the loving relationship between Ayaan and his mom, and also with all sorts of people in his diverse community – the book as a whole gave me strong Mr. Rogers Neighborhood/Daniel Tiger vibes.
Ayaan’s daily affirmations work for all ages and faiths as a reminder of just what we are capable of when we put our minds to things, making this a fantastic book to read at the start of a new year.
How Do You Make a Rainbow? By Caroline Crowe, Illustrated by Cally Johnson-Isaacs
During the first wave of Covid-19, the rainbow became a symbol of hope to everyone and was used to show support to the key workers who helped to keep us safe. Children painted pictures of them to stick them in windows and chalked them onto their driveways. But what exactly is a rainbow made from? While it’s not the most scientific answer, a rainbow is made from all sorts of things including both hope and kindness.
In How Do You Make a Rainbow? by Caroline Crowe, a little girl asks her granddad to help her paint a rainbow on a grey, rainy day. Her granddad tells her that a rainbow isn’t painted, it’s made from other things. Over the following pages, the granddad and the girl explore the rainbow color by color and think about their favorite things that are found across the spectrum. From red jam on toast in the mornings to kicking orange leaves in autumn, sucking a yellow lemon, and getting grass stains on your knees, the pair work their way through the rainbow and gather together a collection of things that make them happy. In doing so, they create their very own rainbow together. The final pages of the book include spaces for you to add your very own favorite things in each color and make your own rainbow. You could paint, draw, or even stick in photos, and join in with the characters in the book.
How Do You Make a Rainbow? is a brightly colored, joyful book that is perfect for the Covid era where many of us are stuck indoors and having to find ways to make our own happiness. It’s also a great conversation starter because it is impossible to read this book without immediately looking around and finding objects that bring you joy in various colors: my bright purple water bottle, the green cactus on my desk, and the pink painted walls.
If you’re looking to help yourself and your children find extra joy in your lives, then this is the book for you.
My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang, Illustrated by Huynh Kim Lien
At the end of this next book, there is a note from American author Christopher Myers that reminds us that, “as important as difference is, and the recognition of difference; the world isn’t made up of neatly defined categories, of *sames* and *differents*”. That’s why My First Day by Phung Nguyen Quang is such an important story, it showcases how something so familiar to most of us can also be so totally different from anything we have ever experienced.
It’s An’s first day of school and like most of us did when we were kids, he is up early to get ready and set off. However, An’s journey doesn’t involve a car, school bus, or even walking. He lives at the delta of the Mekong river in Vietnam and will be paddling himself to school alone across the open water and through mangrove forests. The journey is long and filled with dangers but An is excited to go.
For those of us who live in areas where we can have child protection services called on us for letting our children play at the park across the road unsupervised, the idea of allowing a child to travel to school alone through areas filled with alligators and pythons is beyond unimaginable, but An shows us that he is capable of taking on these challenges and facing his own fears, leaving behind the glowing eyes of predators to emerge into a colorful world filled with fish, birds, and eventually his friends.
This is one of the most stunningly illustrated books I have seen in years; every page filled with beautiful artwork that reminds me of the art style seen in The Great Wave off Kanagawa. The illustrations of the mangroves are dark and full of ominous shadows and scattered eyes that make you feel uncomfortably like you’re being watched, even when reading in a brightly lit room! My favorite pages by far were those when An emerged from the mangroves into open water and was instantly surrounded by bright colors; these illustrations were so beautiful that I would happily hang them on my walls.
This short book will open young readers’ eyes to the similarities and differences between them and children in other parts of the world and encourage conversations about how we differ from those around us.
Alex’s Good Fortune by Benson Shum
Next up in this collection is Alex’s Good Fortune by Benson Shum. In this story, a young Chinese girl named Alex invites her best friend Ethan over to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family. Ethan is not Chinese and doesn’t know the meanings behind many of the traditions, but Alex is excited to show him. Together they dance in the dragon parade, paint red banners for the door, help prepare the feast, and attend the lantern festival. Ethan even helps Alex with her least favorite part of the holiday: cleaning her room to wash away bad luck. Alex enjoys learning about the traditions and is welcomed by Alex’s family as he celebrates with them.
This book will be an ideal primer for learning about the Chinese New Year as it covers a whole lot of traditions while keeping things simple and fun. Young readers will enjoy finding out their own Chinese zodiac sign and its meaning, and will probably want to join in with many of the things they read about here – especially the tradition of receiving a red envelope with money inside! The story promotes unity by showing how kids from different cultures can celebrate together and enjoy sharing a holiday while having an opportunity to learn about others.
Sadly, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to attend any Chinese New Year celebrations in 2021 thanks to Covid 19, but Alex’s Good Fortune made me excited to attend them once again in the future.
Champ and Major: First Dogs by Joy McCullough, Illustrated by Sheyda Abvabi Best
My final book for this roundup was Champ and Major: First Dogs by Joy McCullough. Explaining major political events to our youngest readers can often be challenging, but animals always make things easier which is why this is the perfect book to read following inauguration day. This beautifully illustrated picture book follows Champ, Joe Biden’s pet German Shepherd as he welcomes a new dog – Major – to the family and prepares for the move to the White House.
The first few pages show life as it was prior to the Biden/Harris win, explaining that while Champ’s dad has an important job, so does Champ in making sure his dad “doesn’t work all the time”. Major’s arrival marks a turning point for Champ as he has to teach the new dog the ropes, just in time for the big win where the dogs are shown excitedly watching the news. The later pages show the dogs moving to the White House with the Bidens. Champ remembers visiting the White House before and we get to see him playing with the Obama dogs Sunny and Bo while their respective owners watch. This time, however, Champ gets to show Major around and curl up in their new Oval Office beds while dad sits at the Resolute Desk.
The book concludes with a short biography of Champ and Major (the first shelter dog to live in the White House), a timeline of previous presidential pets, and some information about adopting your own rescue animal.
With all the uncertainty and worries surrounding the 2021 inauguration, it’s great to read something so entirely wholesome and unerringly positive about it. Champ and Major are adorable and will bring a smile to everyone’s face as they read, making this a brilliant book to kick off a new political era.
GeekMom received a copy of these books for review purposes.