Some Favorite Books for Young Children

By the editors of Rethinking Schools

In December, with the support of the Peppercorn Foundation, Rethinking Schools sponsored a writers’ retreat near Portland, Ore., for a number of early childhood educators from around the country. We asked retreat participants to share with us a few of their favorite books for working with young children. We include some of them here. 
-The editors

From Janet Schmidt Speech-Language Pathologist, Wellesley (Mass.) Public Schools

Best Day of the Week 
By Nancy Carlsson-Paige 
(Red Leaf Press, 1998)  
32 pp. $10.95.

Calvin and Angela are friends who clash when they find an old table and imagine two different types of play: Angela wants to play store, and Calvin wants to play pirates. This book contributes to lively conversation, either in the whole group or—even better—in small groups. Whether it’s talking about conflicts with siblings or with each other, Best Day of the Week helps challenge children’s thinking as they learn to get along with each other.

Before Push Comes to Shove:  
Building Conflict Resolution Skills with Children 

By Nancy Carlsson-Paige and Diane Levin 
(Red Leaf Press, 1998) 
93 pp. $11.99

This is the accompanying teacher’s guide to Best Day of the Week. It offers valuable suggestions for continuing the process of developing conflict resolution skills—especially for 4 to 6 year olds.

Shoes, Shoes, Shoes
By Ann Morris, photographs by various photographers 

(Mulberry Books, 1995) 
32 pp. $5.95

Photo-graphs can be authentic representations of people’s lives, and the text used in these books is simple and engaging. Children will be likely to see both familiar and unfamiliar images. Similar books by Ann Morris include Bread, Bread, Bread; On the Go; Loving; Houses and Homes; and Tools. When appropriate, images from specific countries or regions of the world can be highlighted across books.

By Gwenyth Swain 
(Carolrhoda Books, Inc., 1999)
24 pp. $9.95

This book presents examples of a single human experience across cultures. It stimulates interest and questions without simplifying or stereotyping. It is part of the “Small World” series, which includes Smiling, Eating, and Celebrating. The books can be used with children as young as three and throughout the early childhood years. If it makes sense for a particular class, a map or globe can be used to identify where the photos were taken.

From Jearlean Osborne 
Community Organizer/Trainer

Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative, Biloxi, Miss.

The Day Gogo Went to Vote 
By Eleanor Batezat Sisulu 
(Little, Brown and Company, 1996) 
32 pp. $6.29

In this book, Thembi accompanies her 100-year-old grandmother to the polls in the first election in which black South Africans are allowed to vote. Though she is housebound, Gogo is determined to vote, and ends up doing so with help from the community.

A Kwanzaa Miracle 
By Sharon Shavers Gayle 
(Whistlestop/Troll, 1996)
32 pp. $3.50

This is an intergenerational story about an elder who is misunderstood and two children who are excited about Kwanzaa holiday preparations.

The Colors of Us 
By Karen Katz 
(Owlet Paperbacks, reprint 2002)
32 pp. $6.95

Karen Katz says she created this book for her daughter, who was adopted from Guatemala. It celebrates the many different skin colors and affirms our differences.

From Cirila Ramírez 
Interim Executive Director, COPE, Centro Familiar, Watsonville, Calif. 

Whoever You Are
By Mem Fox, illustrations by Leslie Straub 
(Voyager Books, reprint 2002)
32 pp. $6.00

I like to use this book to introduce issues of diversity to children. I especially like to use it with migrant children to introduce them to the diversity within their own culture and their surrounding communities.

Gathering the Sun
By Alma Flor Ada 
(William Morrow and Company, 2002)
40 pp. $10.99

This is a book of poems about nature and working in the fields. One poem represents each letter of the Spanish alphabet. I like to use Gathering the Sun to instill in migrant children pride in the work their parents do. It also validates the rich vocabulary of their home language.

Mean Soup
By Betsy Everitt 
(Voyager Books, 1995) 
32 pp. $7.00.

Horace has had a tough day, so when he comes home it is up to his mother to find a way to lure him out of his terrible mood. I use this book for discussing children’s feelings. I like to follow it up by making our own “mean soup.”

From Theressa Lenear 
Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Childcare Resources, Seattle, Wash. 

Two Mrs. Gibsons 
by Toyomi Igus 
(Children’s Book Press, 2001)
32 pp. $7.95

Two Mrs. Gibsons is the author’s story about two important women in her life as a young girl. It explains the blending of her Japanese and African-American culture, identity, and family.

Uncle Carmello 
By David Zucker 
(MacMillan, 1993) 
23 pp. $14.95

After he turns 10, David is supposed to spend two weeks in Boston visiting his Uncle Carmello. His uncle seems to always be shouting and it’s hard to understand him because he speaks mostly Italian. But David’s assumptions about his uncle melt away as they spend the day together.

The Name Jar 
By Yangsook Choi 
(Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2001)
40 pp. $6.99

Unhei moved to the United States from Korea. She’s the new kid in school and she’s worried about getting teased about her name. Instead of introducing herself, she tells her class that she will choose a name by the following week. Her classmates help out by filling a glass jar with names for her to pick from. She practices being Suzy, Laura, or Amanda until one of her classmates goes to her neighborhood and discovers her real name and its special meaning. On the day she’s supposed to choose her new name, the name jar disappears. Encouraged by her new friends, Unhei chooses her own Korean name and helps everyone learn to pronounce it: Yoon-Hey.

Lights for Gita
By Rachna Gilmore 
(Tilbury House Publishers, 2000)
24 pp. $7.95

Gita and her family recently moved from India to the United States because her father got a new job. This will be her first time celebrating Divali in this new country. Divali, the Hindu festival of lights, is a favorite holiday. Gita invites some of her new friends from school to join in the festivities, but with the arrival of a winter storm, her plans seem to be ruined. Things take a turn for the better as Gita enjoys the festival with her family and friends.

From Ann Pelo 
Teacher, Hilltop Children’s Center, Seattle, Wash.

Freedom Summer 
By Debbie Wiles 
(Atheneum Books, 2001)
32 pp. $6.88

This potent story of the friendship between an African-American and a white boy unfolds in the deep South as civil rights legislation is enacted. Joe and John Henry are eager to swim together in the town pool now that desegregation laws have been passed. The boys are stunned when they arrive at the pool to see it being filled in with cement. This moment is a turning point for both boys, and arm-in-arm they take a bold step into anti-racist activism. When I read this with preschoolers, we tell the story sometimes from Joe’s perspective and sometimes from John Henry’s perspective, to give the kids opportunities to experience the injustice of racism and the power of activism from the vantage points of white people and African Americans.

Click Clack Moo—Cows That Type 
By Doreen Cronin 
(Simon and Schuster, 2000)
32 pp. $15.95

This wacky book captures the power of collective action in an engaging and playful way, as the cows and chickens on Farmer Brown’s farm strike for better conditions. I love the way this book introduces serious political strategy in a screwball context. I often follow this book with more serious books about collective action , like Si, Se Puede!, which describes the Los Angeles sanitation workers’ strike, and Harvesting Hope, the story of César Chavez and the farmworkers’ movement.

King and King 
By Linda de Haan 
(Tricycle Press, 2002) 
32 pp. $14.95

It’s time for the prince to marry and, while many wealthy princesses are trying to marry him, he falls in love with a pageboy. The prince and the page marry and ascend the throne as King and King. This book, with its fabulous illustrations, turns the cultural storyline of prince and princess on its head. Children are usually really jolted by the book the first few times we read it together—often exclaiming that I’ve made a mistake in my reading. When they see the illustrations back me up, big conversations unfold about boys marrying boys, girls marrying girls, and boys marrying girls. Typically, several children have family friends who are gay or lesbian, and our conversation leads us to their stories, and to confront their marginalization.

Fly Away Home
by Eve Bunting 
(Clarion Books, 1991) 
32 pp. $5.95

The boy who narrates this story lives with his father in an airport, moving from terminal to terminal in an effort to stay inconspicuous. As the story unfolds, we meet other homeless people and learn about the ways they support each other. The boy longs for a home and feels angry as he sees people come and go through the airport on their way to their homes. I like the way this book introduces young children to homelessness from the perspective of a five-year-old child. Kids form an empathic connection with this boy and are quick to point out the unfairness of his life. Reading this book often sparks passionate conversation about how we can help homeless people and spread the word about the injustice of a community in which some have homes and others don’t.

From Mayra Sanchez-Negrón 
First-Grade Teacher, La Escuela Fratney, Milwaukee, Wis.

Mr. Bow Tie 
by Karen Barbour 
(Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991)
32 pp. $13.95

In this book, a family who befriends a homeless man helps him find his family. I use it because it reminds me of an aunt who actually did take in a homeless man and help him find his way home. I ask children whether everyone has a home, or if they have ever seen anyone sleeping on a bench or on the sidewalk. Every year so far, someone has mentioned that they have seen someone sleeping out on the street and that they smell or look dirty. We explore why a person would not have a home and how it would feel not to have a warm place to sleep or warm water to take a shower. Then we discuss what we can do about it.

Lalo . . . And the Red Hot Chile Pepper
by Elizabeth Jimenez 
(Span Press, 1995) 
16 pp. $1.83

Lalo, the six-year-old son of a Mexican father and a white mother, gets teased because he doesn’t have dark hair like his cousins. They tell him that if he eats a lot of chile, he will become Mexican and have black hair like them. The book explains in simple terms that he has blond hair because his mother has blond hair, and he is Mexican because his father is from Mexico. After reading this book, we discuss what gives people their ethnicities. Do you have to eat a certain kind of food, or do you have to have been born in a certain place? These discussions always leave kids thinking.

All Kinds of Friends, Even Green!
By Ellen B. Senisi 
(Woodbine House, Inc., 2002)
28 pp. $10.17

One of my favorite books is All Kinds of Friends, Even Green! The book is about making connections and the wonderful things that surround children who might look like they have a tough time in life. In the book, Moses, a seven-year-old with spina bifida, is given an assignment to write about his favorite friend. After considering all his friends and the reasons he could write about them, he chooses instead to write about his neighbor’s disabled iguana, who has figured out a different way to get around, just as he has. This book leads to many discussions, from the way we decide what to write about during writing workshop to why Moses looks so little and needs a wheelchair.

From Jane Williams 
First/Second-Grade Teacher, Kelly Elementary School, Portland, Ore.

The Other Side 
by Jacqueline Woodson 
(Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 2001) 
32 pp. $16.99

Two young girls, one black and one white, question the view of their parents, friends, and society regarding the racial divide. The fence that separates their properties acts as a metaphor for racial division. The book provides opportunities to discuss history, friendship, differences and similarities, and inclusion.

The Recess Queen
By Alexis O’Neill 
(Scholastic Press, 2002)
32 pp. $16.95.

In this book, the “recess bully” is changed from “Mean Jean” to Jean through an offer of friendship. Although the message may seem over-simplified to adults, it is clear to students. They cheer, raise hands, shout “Read it again!” It pushes students to look at solutions to some of these issues by means of inclusion and identifying misunderstandings.

I Look Like a Girl
By Sheila Hamanaka 
(Morrow Books, 1999) 
32 pp. $15.95.

This book explores the idea that people cannot be understood from appearance alone. Although it is written in a strong female voice, it examines many qualities of an individual child using descriptive language, allowing both male and female students to build connections. Another book by the same author, All the Colors of the Earth, gives us opportunities to discuss physical characteristics of children around the world.

Shades of Black, A Celebration of Our Children 
by Sandra L. Pinkney 
(Scholastic, 2000) 
40 pp. $15.95.

This book describes a tapestry of different skin colors, hair textures, and eye colors woven together by the refrain, “I am black. I am unique.” It encourages the celebration of similarities and differences in the classroom through oral sharing and written word.

From Laura Linda Negri-Pool 
Child Development Specialist, 
Portland Community College Child Development Center, Portland, Ore. 

On Mother’s Lap 
By Ann Herbert 
(Clarion Books, 1992) 
32 pp. $6.95.

This is one of my favorite books. I discovered it early on in my career. It was first copyrighted in 1972. The story is about a little boy who wants his mommy to himself, but has to share her with his little brother. The setting is an Alaskan village, and the family members are indigenous. The message is universal.

Angela’s Airplane 
By Robert Munsch and Michael Martchenko 
(Annick Press, 1988) 
24 pp. $5.95.

When Angela’s father gets lost while at the airport, Angela winds up flying—and crashing—an airplane. Even though she’s unhurt, Angela promises her dad she will never fly a plane again. The final page shows Angela all grown up and in the cockpit of a 747! I like the adventure, the fact that Angela and her dad are African-American, and that it addresses gender stereotypes related to careers.

From Josefina Padilla-Martínez
Kindergarten Teacher, Hooper Elementary School, Los Angeles, Calif.

Yo! Yes?
By Chris Raschka 
(Scholastic, 1993) 
32 pp. $16.95.

This book exposes young students to essential topics such as human relations, difference, communication, body language, and friendship. It is one of the main texts I use to teach about friendship. My bilingual kindergarten students enjoy it and request it throughout the year.

Follow the Drinking Gourd 
By Jeanette Winter 
(A.A. Knopf, 1992) 
48 pp. $7.99.

Follow the Drinking Gourd is a young readers’ story. Although the reading level is too advanced for kindergarteners, young students can understand the book with help—translation, paraphrasing, or “picture reading.” It helps me teach bilingual kindergarten students about the history of slavery and African-American struggles and contributions to the United States. It can also introduce topics of racism, discrimination, justice, inter-racial collaboration, freedom, methods of transportation, methods of communication, geography, astronomy, and landscapes.

El Dia de Los Muertos
By Tony Johnston 
(Voyager Books, reprint 2000)
48 pp. $6.00.

I recommend El Dia de Los Muertos to teachers who find multicultural curriculum to be an integral part of their instructional practice. It offers colorful, bright, expressive illustrations and information on a rich cultural tradition celebrated in Mexico and in other countries. It allows the audience to reflect on death, family, celebrations, respect, remembering, forgetting, relationships, and community.