Skin Again (and bell hooks)

Maybe you’ve seen this story circulating on Facebook and from pretty much every major daytime news network for almost the entirety of 2017, and with renewed passion in the wake of the atrocities of Charlottesville:

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People feel really good about it, and it’s easy to see why: five-year-olds are particularly adorable when they’re hugging/wearing sweaters and particularly hilarious when they are failing miserably at being sneaky; and, perhaps above all, the implication that younger generations are less racist than the old, that undoing racism is just a matter of white people letting their five-year-olds be friends with black kids offers hope. As each new day seems to bring new lows in explicit demonstrations of racism and toxic masculinity, who wouldn’t welcome the relief of seeing these incredibly cute little boys be nice to each other?

So it’s not without understanding and love that I ask a few pointed questions.

What lesson are these boys likely to take away from a situation in which both of their faces have been plastered all over the news for a year so that the white one can be praised for simply treating the black one as a friend?

The white kid’s mother is very proud of herself and her son, according to The Today Show,

She sees Jax’s inability to see a difference between himself and his friend as a parenting win.

“I just taught him to love everyone the same,” she said.

and hers are indeed laudable parenting goals. But…

where is the praise for little Reddy? Jax’s mom says, “Obviously, they see they are different colors, they just don’t care”—-but what about the fact that “not caring” is likely a lot harder and higher-stakes for Reddy than it is for Jax? We don’t actually know how Reddy feels about this little haircut scheme, since the story is literally not about him in any way except as an accessory to the little white boy’s heroism. But it’s likely that Reddy either knows people or has himself been called the n-word in a hateful manner, even by first grade—–and that if they stay friends, Jax will eventually ask him why he’s not allowed to say it, and Reddy will have to try to explain. Reddy’s family is far more likely to have been harassed by the police. And yet he still has a heart open enough to be able to trust a white boy to be his friend.

And that’s before we’ve gotten to an even more basic question. Considering that our first teaching tools for our children involve helping them notice differences among things in relationship to each other—-“this is red, and this is blue,” “this is up, this is down”—-you have to wonder: why do we encourage our children get to know their world through its differences, and then in this one instance, demand that they ignore the fact that skin comes in different colors, lest they force adults to explain things they’d rather not explain?

White friends, the above story is well-meaning, but it is not an all-inclusive model for handling race with our children. It is not even close to good enough to pretend to our white children that race doesn’t matter—-and it’s worth considering that doing so actually perpetuates racism, not eradicates it. By bringing up your white child to believe that race doesn’t exist, you are only protecting your own child from racism, not their black and brown friends, who still have to live with its effects every day, and who might actually prefer a friend who recognizes that and gives a shit about it over one whose eyes and ears are closed to it.

But these are really hard conversations to have. Parents of nonwhite children sadly often have natural openings to discuss the hard things about race (e.g., when something racist happens to them or their child). For white parents, such natural openings are more rare—-and while I’ve said before that it’s great to get to introduce a human to great things like rainbows, who on earth wants to introduce the ugly concept of racism to any child, anywhere?

I have a book that might help.

Skin Again, by bell hooks and Chris Raschka (illust.). Hyperion, 2004. 51q4whmag2l

Dr. V.’s take:

Though she is not a purely uncontroversial figure in feminist, anti-racist activist circles, in the history of such movements, bell hooks is a Big Deal. In the mid-aughts, hooks wrote a handful of children’s books in her signature irreverent cadence, beautifully illustrated in Chris Raschka’s bold, precisely crude style.

Her third effort, Skin Again, is affirming, optimistic, and gently pedagogical—-the kind of book that’s good for the soul of both the child being read to and the adult reading aloud.

Because Skin Again outlines the parameters in which race matters—-which isn’t measured in terms of how much but in what ways. It boils this layered, complex topic and its thousands of years of history down to twelve simple but not simplistic sentences.

(Note: I recommend reading this one silently to yourself before reading out loud, both because it’s worth sitting with yourself and also because trying to read it aloud the first time you open it is likely to result in some inelegant stumbling over the rhythm. )

The goal of Skin Again is not to erase racial difference or cast aside the meaning of identity in favor of a homogenized neutral, but rather to “become real” to one another. Because our skin is part of who we are, but “we are all inside made up of real history, real dreams, and the stuff of all we hope for when we can be all real”—-and as you’re getting to know someone, take your cues from them about it, okay?

It asks readers to “imagine” a “place” where “skin again” can be something, but not everything—–a difference, but not an impasse. It doesn’t suggest that this place already exists, but rather tells the reader: you, and me, and everybody together have the power to make this place. I think more white parents talking to their kids about race like Skin Again is much more likely to take us to that place than asking our kids to ignore their skin (again).




The Very Best Books About: Dinosaurs

Almost every kid has a “thing”; some topic or other that he/she is laser-focused on pretending, reading, watching, hearing, or talking (and talking and talking) about.

My youngest is very much about dinosaurs right now.

I blame this guy:

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What do you think, Brett? Uh, gosh, I don’t know Chad…how about a show about dinosaurs? And also trains? And time travel? Great idea, it’ll be a huge success.

Despite The Conductor‘s offensively goofy voice, I’ll be damned if my child has not absorbed an absurd amount of paleontology from this show. At this point, if my child says something about the characteristics of sauropods or shares a fact about what a pachycephalosaurus eats…I pretty much just assume he’s right.

Dr. Scott looks like a stock photo search result for “Canadian paleontologist who does research in Utah.”

Dr. Scott the Paleontologist has the dinosaur facts pretty much handled, so the only question Dr. V. the Humanist needs to answer is: which of the bazillions of books about dinosaurs are most likely to satisfy my weirdo dino-obsessed kid’s need for a steady stream of dinosaur facts without making me want to gouge my eyeballs out in boredom and despair?

The best dinosaur books have a few things in common. For one, they are as accurate as possible. If a dinosaur book lists “Pterodactyl” as a dinosaur, give it a miss. Though a casual reader might not be confused by it, a kid who’s really into dinosaurs will spot that for the BS that it is (and let you know about it); plus, it’s a good indication that whoever put the book together was being kinda lazy, and thinking “how about dinosaurs? Kids like dinosaurs, right? Dinosaurs are cool?” and maybe not taking their audience as seriously as they ought.

Secondly, illustrations are paramount. Realistic and honest, but not nightmare-inducing, is a surprisingly difficult balance to strike.  Plus, because paleontologists aren’t in universal agreement with what any one dinosaur looked like, illustrators also have to balance their audience’s canonical expectations with their own interpretations of the available data. Children’s dinosaur-book illustrators may be the only real rock stars we have left. (<–reasonable opinion)

And finally, all the standard rules of non-boring children’s nonfiction apply here, as well: not too long, not too short, engaging but straightforward, etc.

With those standards in mind, here are Dr. V’s top 3 books about dinosaurs:

51fln3iqg6l3. The Big Book of Dinosaurs. Discovery Kids, 2015.

Less scary than the cover would lead one to believe, this one is great if you don’t actually feel like reading. Pages and pages of pictures of dinosaurs, and their names, and that’s it. Diverting, low-maintanence, great. My only wish is that it included more full-size pictures of dinosaurs; most of the images are portraits of their heads. Still, it gives the book almost a baseball-card sort of efficiency.




53eff90a-1961-4cdc-925a-eee512fde49d_1-4710b1281c2a2164af101a634cec6f572. Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs, by Catherine D. Hughes and Franco Tempesta (illust.). National Geographic Society, 2011.

It’s from National Geographic, so of course the illustrations are on point, filling multiple pages with close-ups and full body shots that have a photojournalistic feel. Grouping the dinosaurs by size is clever as well; seeing how they match up to one another, as well as how they measure against the scale of an average human, offers interesting perspective.

The book also highlights a unique fact about each dinosaur to help kids remember the different types, which can be fun and handy.



97815157279271. The Dinosaur Fact Dig books, by Kathryn Clay—-especially Triceratops and Other Horned Dinosaurs: The Need-to-Know Facts and Stegosaurus and Other Plated Dinosaurs: The Need-to-Know Facts. Capstone, since 2016.

I cannot explain how much I love these books. They hit on all of the high points of the Little Kids First Big Book, but they’re broken down into smaller volumes, which helps ensure that your kid doesn’t respond to your “let’s read a book” by putting a five-pound tome in front of you right before bedtime. The tone of these books is also much more conversational, though still mercifully brief, which makes these the easiest dinosaur books I’ve ever found to read 9781515727910aloud—-the captions are there, but if you don’t feel like reading them the book can have a more narrativized feel, too. The way they group dinosaurs by type helps the little ones make distinctions between the smaller details. Not every dinosaur with a frill is necessarily a triceratops, for example, and having them all side-by-side is a great teaching tool—-for learning the dinosaurs, specifically, I suppose, but also for the skill of distinguishing superficially similar things in general.

Seriously: these are THE BEST. Go to your library and request one!

How to Color with Poetry: Colors! ¡Colores!, Luján and Grobler (illust.)

Colors! ¡Colores!, by Jorge Luján with pictures by Piet Grobler. Groundwood books, 2008.41wqqtzvonl-_sy376_bo1204203200_

Dr. V’s take:

This book. I love this book. Everything about it is ridiculously beautiful, from the pictures to the verses.

About the verses. I like the idea of poetry in theory, and I like the idea of my kids liking it. Sitting at the foot of my child’s tidy bed surrounded by his child-appropriate decor reading him a poem so that he might dream literary dreams as he drifts to sleep sounds like the sort of thing beautiful, cultured people do.

But it’s also very boring.

And I feel like if I think it’s boring, it’s got to be excruciating for someone who hasn’t been trained up the wazoo about reading as I have—-and certainly for someone who doesn’t really like or “get” poetry at all.

The problem isn’t poetry, exactly. It’s how poetry is often packaged for children. Lots of kids’ books rhyme, which can be fun or super annoying, depending on the book, but there are far fewer books that are true volumes of poetry for kids. Yes, Shel Silverstein was brilliant—-I’m sure we all pretty much agree—-but if you take a look at your children’s library’s poetry offerings, probably entirely contained by one shelf of the “nonfiction” section, it….doesn’t sound fun.

Weirdly, books of poetry for children are often books of epic poetry—-the whole thing will be one long poem describing an adventure or mythical beast of some kind, with painstakingly detailed illustrations, and….after 5 pages my voice is hoarse and my kid doesn’t care. Or, they’re the work of people trying to adapt adult poetry for kids: Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost or whatever. This, my friends, is literary broccoli. It’s something you’re supposed to feed your kids because it’s good for them; if you read them an illustrated Wordsworth collection at age 4 they will for sure get into your state’s flagship university and become a really nice, well-read dentist.

Colors! ¡Colores! isn’t like that. Sure, it incorporates a bunch of good-for-devel0pment stuff: it’s poetry, it’s bilingual, and it’s about the color wheel.

But Luján’s book is so much more than rote information transfer: it itemizes the colors, yes, but it invites readers not only to memorize what the colors look like, but to consider how they  feel in context, and all the different ways they can surround us. Luján’s brief but evocative verses, lovely to the ear and a pleasure to read aloud in both English and Spanish, combined with Grobler’s illustrations that directly translate the 10-ish-word poems into gorgeously detailed two-page visualizations, take readers beyond “what are the colors”: Colors! ¡Colores! is “why are the colors” and “how are the colors.”

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I don’t know if it will make your kid a well-read dentist. But “yellow” really does “roll through the sky like a warm gold coin / rueda por el cielo como una moneda de oro tibio,” doesn’t it? And Colors! ¡Colores! is the loveliest book of poetry I have encountered for very young children so far ❤

The Book Itch and Book History 101

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore, by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and R. Gregory Christie (illust.). CarolRhoda, 2015.  61mw2wmdjtl-_sx258_bo1204203200_

Dr. V’s take:

The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth, and Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore  tells the fascinating story of Lewis Michaux’s bookstore of the Harlem Renaissance: the National Memorial African Bookstore.  Written by Michaux’s great-niece, Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, the book continually zooms in and out from the personal to the political, showing the impact of the death of Malcolm X on black America more broadly by telling us of its impact on Michaux and his son. Paired with R. Gregory Christie’s gorgeous illustrations, and closing with an affirmation of the power of literacy, reading, and access, this book wins all the things.

Yet I can’t urge you to run out and check it out for your children immediately, because, frankly, it sucks to read to a little kid. Each page has multiple dense paragraphs that are fatiguing to read aloud, with long winding sentences that are perfectly lovely yet unlikely to hold the attention of a wee one. Meanwhile, the prose is pitch-perfect for older kids (and, heck, adults), but the picture-book format is likely to throw off a ten-year-old who considers themselves to have outgrown the genre.

This is an issue of that pertains to the difference between the book and the text, and the material signifiers that unconsciously shape what we read (and read to people).

Excuse me for a moment….

[opens closet]

[digs in the back]

[retrieves Professor Hat]


Okay, now I’m ready.

As a really smart mentor of mine always says, the text is not the book.

The book is strictly material. It’s covers, paper, and glue. It has to be shipped and shelved; it has to be distributed; its materials have to be bought and then sold at a profit. There are a million decisions that go into making the book: what shape should it be? Should it be paper or a board book? Which of the 427,865 (approximately) kinds of paper should we use? How much does each cost, and would we make that money back? What about typeface—-if we make the font smaller, can we get away with one or two fewer pages per book, which will then equate to at least thousands of pages saved, or, if we’re lucky, a million?

The text is what the book means to you, the person who bought the book. It’s what the the words say, and whether they speak to you. It’s telling a good story. It’s what it teaches, or chooses not to teach. It’s what writers agonize over creating. But text isn’t only the hippy-dippy feelings-y stuff: it’s also what editors are paid to standardize; what has to fit into certain shapes and formats in order to see the light of day; what gets copyrighted and/or trademarked (which we’ll talk about later).


When it comes to children’s books, we can see how books and text work together (or against each other) even more clearly than books for adults. The differences among books for adults, though numerous and proliferating enough that I could spend thousands of words detailing them, are far more subtle than those among books for children in terms of their construction, size, shape, etc.



Cool. So now you know that. Who gives a shit?

Well, maybe you, maybe not. What might prompt someone to be interested in considering the books they read their kids as both material objects and immaterial catalysts for bonding would be any of the following: (1) you might know what you do and don’t like, but do you know why? Maybe you’re curious? No? Well, (2) knowledgeable consumers are discriminating consumers. The more you know about how books are made and who makes them, the better you’re able to tell at a glance what’s not going to be your thing, so you don’t have that moment where you’re in the middle of reading a new library selection to your child and OOPS HONEY JUST NOTICED THIS IS LITERALLY PROPAGANDA LEMME JUST CLOSE THAT HOW ABOUT WE WATCH TV INSTEAD. Not a thing that happens to you? Ok, so (3) knowing how books are selected, and why/how they get published has a way of bumping one off of autopilot: you don’t have to read certain stuff because it won an award, or  because it’s on a particular shelf at the library, or by a particular author. You don’t! Because you know that for a book to actually make it on your shelf it had to go through a winding process fraught with potential pitfalls, and that good stories are far more numerous than books. And if none of that does it for you, it’s possible that (4) you’re just weird and a nerd (guilty).

But in the case of The Book Itch, we also have (5), wherein we’re not really sure what to do with a work whose text is in a format we’re not trained to recognize as “for” us. The text of The Book Itch is interesting, moving, and masterfully concise. But its book—-those beautiful pictures, the 8 x 11 size, its distribution by a publisher of educational books for children—-leads us to presume a very specific audience for it.

But why?

Why don’t adults read stories with beautiful pictures? Why is it that, once we turn 10 or 12 or so, we feel that our books should be more like 5 x 8 inches, instead of letter or legal size?

The answer is: because we’ve spent the last hundreds+ years being trained about what a book looks like, and how to use things like cover size, construction, and color to distinguish genres from each other.

Unfortunately, that means a book like The Book Itch, whose book tells us it’s a read-aloud for little kids but whose text is much more for early readers on up, won’t get the audience it deserves.

It might be worth unlearning—-or at least becoming aware of—-some of this training, no? If only to resist the ways it limits us.

Author Spotlight: Nic Bishop

Just FYI: if you do a Google image search of “Nic Bishop” you get a bunch of pictures of this guy

and a few of this guy

The guy we’re talking about today is the second guy: the one who looks like he might put gum and carved soap in a tree hollow for neighborhood children (rest Harper Lee’s soul).*

This guy is a great guy, because this guy takes absolutely hypnotizing photos of the kinds of animals you don’t see every day and collects them in the very dopest nonfiction books for children available.

Besides the fact that kids’ nonfiction is often offensively dull, which I’ve covered before, it’s also often written by corporate authors or ghostwriters, which means it’s really rare to be able to have a go-to author in this genre. But you can feel confident that if “Nic Bishop” is on the cover next to a startling picture of a snake, it’s a solid choice, which means making good nonfiction a regular part of your library rotation just got easier.

In my experience, children’s nonfiction tends to either read like a standardized test or try so hard to be accessible they end up sort of weird and pointless. It’s almost as if writing them was as much a chore for their authors as reading them is for us—-we’re all in cahoots to Make Kids Learn using various complicated strategies. But if you’re reading a nonfiction book to a kid in your down time, it’s because that kid is curious about the actual world around them, and that world is full of interesting stuff all by itself. Bishop must understand this, because he doesn’t interfere too much with his subject matter. Did you guys know that some frogs are gliders? And they look like this?

From Frogs, Nic Bishop, 2008.

That’s hella engaging! Those colors are way more intense than a cartoon—-and you can actually see all the little sinews in the critter’s feet! And that’s what Bishop does: he offers the clearest possible look at tons of actual awesome living things for kids—-without dressing them up with cartoons, or mediating how much truth about nature we share with them (one picture features a frog with a mouse’s tail sticking out of its mouth). Bishop writes brief, descriptive captions, and then lets his stunning full-page photos do the rest.

Bishop’s work does what books do at their best: they take us to places we couldn’t otherwise go. That the places Bishop takes us actually exist on Earth makes them even more fascinating. That he does so with kids in mind (so, leaving out graphic images of, like, mating and killing or whatever that you might see in National Geographic—-the aforementioned frog picture is pretty clean, and not too scary for littles), means you get to learn cool stuff at the same time as your kids. Around here, we call that a good day at the library.

*I think it’s the straw hat and gentle aura.

The Kingfisher Encyclopedia of Life (Banes)

The Kingfisher Encyclopedia of Life, edited by Graham Banes. MacMillan, 2012.

Dr. V’s take:

A little kid who likes nonfiction—-and I’m assuming it’s not just my weirdo kids who do, although I guess that’s a possibility—-is of course very precocious and all that, but it can also be…….how can I put this delicately………soul-suckingly tedious to be the person whose job it is to read things aloud to said kid. We all love when the bespectacled mop-top says “the human head weighs 8 pounds” to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, but does anybody spare a thought for poor Renee Zellweger, who probably had to read him all the dull-ass captions in whatever dusty 1987 children’s reference material he plopped in her lap at the library? I do, Renee. I get you.

If you’re somebody whose kids are always harassing you with, like, the pursuit of knowledge or whatever when all you want to do is read about some stinkin’ fairies or some shit, you may really appreciate The Kingfisher Encyclopedia of Life.

Kingfisher is an imprint of publisher MacMillan devoted specifically to illustrated nonfiction for kids. It’s all they do, and they do it well, particularly their releases that focus on animals.

The Encyclopedia of Life, however, is especially great, because it’s organizing principle is legitimately fascinating: how long does life—-whether animal, vegetable and/or mineral, the text treats them equally—-last on Earth? It offers a way to understand the elements of nature in relationship to one another, and puts the life span of, say, Humans (pg. 116, in the “50-75 Years” section) in perspective when we see it on a timeline with Bristlecone Pines (pg. 146, in the far more impressive “1,000-5,000 Years” section).

With lots of pictures, and enough information contained in the captions to feel worthwhile but not so much that it’s taxing to read, Encyclopedia of Life works well for an older child to peruse on their own or as a read-aloud for the little ones—-and if you can get an older one to read it to a younger one, highest of fives to you, you evil genius of a caregiver you.