Constable: Books with diversity foster empathy
Something magical happens this time of year when you give a child a book. Choosing a book with some diversity provides more than a simple story.
"It's putting an idea in their minds that they might not have thought of before," says Toby Rajput, National Louis University's children's literature librarian, as she gathers some of her favorite books at the library on the Lisle campus. "We need diverse books."
In suburbs where people often are surrounded by people who look and act like them, it can be difficult to find other voices, cultures and religions.
"Books help children experience a diverse world," Rajput says. "Some worlds aren't very available, so you have to read books."
The children's book "Big Red Lollipop" by Rukhsana Khan tells of a Pakistani family that immigrates to the United States and doesn't quite grasp one American tradition. Thrilled to be invited to her first birthday party, Rubina is mortified when her hijab-wearing mom demands that she bring her little sister, Sana, to the party.
"It's a sweet, family story," Rajput says. Seeing characters who resemble their own immigrant families helps some kids fit in, while children who don't know anything about that culture can still relate to the universal issues of sibling rivalry and having an annoying younger sister.
"Diverse books help children develop empathy by imagining themselves in the lives of the characters in their books," Rajput says.
"Take Me Out to the Yakyu" by Aaron Meson tells the story of one boy who goes to two baseball games -- one with his grandfather in the United States and one with his grandfather in Japan. The boy has a great time, whether he is eating soba noodles and edamame with Ji Ji or enjoying hot dogs and peanuts with Pop Pop.
"It's important for kids to feel comfortable with everyone," says Leslie Abbott, 27, who grew up in Palatine, lives in Wheeling, teaches kindergarten in Waukegan and studies with the Center for Teaching Through Children's Books at National Louis University.
"A lot of my kids (kindergartners) come from places where they don't have homes every day," Abbott says, explaining how some spend time in shelters or with relatives or friends. "Kids are trying to fit in somewhere."
One of Abbott's favorite books is "And Tango Makes Three," written by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell and illustrated by Henry Cole. The book tells the true story of two male zoo penguins that bonded, built a nest and were given an egg, which hatched and became their daughter, Tango.
"I have kids who might have two moms or don't have a dad or live with the aunts," Abbott says, explaining how this book can make them realize "it's OK to be different."
The university compiled a list of books at nl.edu/ctcb/holidaybookrecommendations2015 that offers stories with diversity for all ages.
"You have to be deliberate about it. Some of these books are published by smaller publishers," Rajput says. "If you're just going to scan the shelves in the bookstore, you might not find it."
Some parents know only the books from their own childhood. The 1938 classic "The Five Chinese Brothers" ends happily but includes plenty of outdated stereotypes. "If that was the only book about Chinese people at your school, that would be a problem," Rajput says.
The university's recommended books include "Little Melba and her Big Trombone," a biography of black jazz musician and composer Melba Doretta Liston; "Grandfather Gandhi," by Mahatma Gandhi's grandson, which tells a story about how to deal with anger; as well as titles for teenagers that include the autobiography by Nobel Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban when she was 15, and "Dreaming in Indian," which features modern writings and art from today's Indian teens and young adults.
"A book like that helps to balance the stereotypes," Rajput says, pointing to a photograph of a woman wearing a pair of contemporary 5-inch stilettos adorned with stylized art depicting a traditional bird of prey.
Fictional characters can go where people sometimes struggle.
"A children's book is a great way to talk about something that's hard to talk about," Rajput says. The book "Red," by Michael Hall, tells the story of a blue crayon who comes wrapped in a red label. The crayon fails at all the typical tasks for a red crayon but thrives after allowed to be true to his blue self.
"Research does show that children develop empathy from reading fiction," Rajput says.
And empathy is one of those rare gifts that can last a lifetime.