Monday, November 21, 2016

“Literature Teaches Us Empathy”

by Karen Leggett Abouraya

Usually when we talk about diverse books, we mean books that enable children of all ethnic groups to see themselves in the books they read. In this year’s Zena Sutherland lecture, the African-American poet Marilyn Nelson added this notion.


“While reading about characters and experiences we already know is affirming, and while self-affirmation is an important aspect of self-knowledge, literature offers more than the experience of reading in a cubicle with a mirror. Literature allows us to extend our understanding beyond ourselves; it asks us whether we can understand others. Literature teaches us empathy.”

And this year’s Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Gene Yang wants young readers – all of us for that matter – to have empathy with people who are not like us. He is asking children “to read a book about a character who doesn’t look like you or live like you.” He calls it his “Reading Without Walls Challenge.”

Such reading opens the door to countless writing prompts.

· How is the child in the book different from you? What is the same?

· How are your days different or the same?

· What would you like to do with that child if you could meet her?

· What would you show that person if he came to your school?


The next question might be where to find such books – especially good, accurate ones. One answer is to look at awards such as the Children's Africana Book Awards (CABA) - and the African Studies Association’s Teacher’s Workshop Dec 3 in Washington, D.C. - the Middle East Outreach Council, and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.



This year’s recently celebrated CABA awards include an exuberantly illustrated folk tale from Nigeria, Chicken in the Kitchen, written by Nnedi Okorafor, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria, and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini, an Iranian artist living in Great Britain. Elizabeth Wein wrote Black Dove White Raven, a World War II young adult novel about a black boy and a white girl raised together in Ethiopia. Miranda Paul wrote One Plastic Bag and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon, about Isatou Ceesay’s efforts to recycle discarded plastic bags in her community. An earlier Pencil Tips Workshop focused on the CABA honor book, Emmanuel’s Dream, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, about Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboa who was born with a deformed leg yet grew up to play soccer and raise money for people with disabilities in Ghana.

The opportunity to read, think and write about any of these books gives children a chance to deepen their awareness of countries where they may one day live or travel or have a friend – and build pride in their own countries of origin.

http://childrensbookguild.org/karen-leggett-abouraya

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