Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Anthropomorphized Monkeys and Racist Stereotypes in Children's Books

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I LOVED LOVED LOVED The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee from the minute it was published. I am a HUGE Marla Frazee fan and love all of her work. Walk On! and The Farmer and the Clown are definitely two of my favorite picture books.

So I was VERY excited to read that this wordless book, The Farmer and the Clown, was going to grow into a trilogy! What a treat!  I couldn't wait to get a copy.

Then, I saw the title of the second book and I worried: The Farmer and the Monkey.

I have only recently started to pay attention to monkeys in children's literature. Edith Campbell led a Highlights Foundation workshop that I attended last year where she shared the problems with anthropomorphized monkeys in children's literature. She writes a bit about it here. The idea was new to me then (which in itself is a problem I take full responsibility for) and although I still don't completely understand it to the extent that I should, I can now see it as a huge problem.

If this is something you need to learn more about, Elisa Gall at Reading While White also wrote about this over 2 years ago in the post Knowing Better, Doing Better.

I am still continuing to learn more about this, but as I do, I am looking at children's books with monkeys with a more critical lens. I've recently realized this is something I've been missing all these years. When I revisit and learn more about Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, Voices in the Park and others, I missed so much as I continued to share these books with children and teachers for so long.

So, back to The Farmer and the Monkey, the sequel to The Farmer and the Clown.

I ordered the book the day it came out. Even though I knew the issues with anthropomorphized monkeys in children's literature, I was hopeful.  Very hopeful. I trusted that maybe since this was about a circus, it would be okay. As I said, I LOVED The Farmer and the Clown and I really wanted to LOVE this one too.

My hope disappeared after reading just a few pages of this new book.  This adorable monkey caused trouble the minute he entered the farmer's house.  It was clear from the visuals early on that this monkey was a troublemaker and misbehaved often.  This thread of this character as "troublesome" and "behavior problem" works through the whole book.  When I thought about this as related to Edith Campbell's work, I couldn't help but see how this was a problem. The racist stereotype of Black children as troublemakers is something that this book amplifies. 

I was compelled to dig a bit more.  I went page by page in the book and here are some problematic things I noticed:

  • The monkey appears to me to be sneaky. Before he even enters the farmer's home, he is sneaking around, climbing on the roof, peeking in windows.
  • The monkey is only in the farmer's house for a few minutes before the farmer sends him away--kicks him out of the house in the dark night. Alone.
  • The monkey is left alone in the night and is buried in snow while the farmer presumably sleeps peacefully, not checking on the monkey through the night.
  • The next morning, the farmer sees the monkey in the snow, (seemingly waiting to be saved), feels sorry for the monkey and brings him in and cares for him. but the monkey still causes immense trouble on the farm and although the farmer doesn't seem to enjoy the monkey, he is more patient with him. 
  • The farmer sends the monkey off on his own to meet the train/his circus family, with a full picnic basket strapped to his back so that finally the farmer can rest peacefully on a haystack. The ending shows that the farmer's life is much better after he sends the monkey away.
Even after noticing these things, I was still a tiny bit hopeful. I remembered the clown in the first book being troublesome too, so I went back and compared the books, page by page, assuming I might see that the clown had been similar in character but that I forgot.  Here is what I noticed:

  • The clown visibly presents as a white child.
  • When the farmer sees the clown all alone, he immediately takes him in and cares for him, holding his hand as they walk to the farmer's house. The clown seems compliant and happy to have the farmer as a friend almost immediately. This is a huge contrast from the monkey, sneaking in and causing trouble immediately and the farmer becoming flustered.
  • In the home, the little clown is sweet and compliant. He does everything the farmer does.
  • The farmer is so loving toward the clown that the clown sleeps in the farmer's bed while the farmer stays awake making sure the clown is comfortable. In contrast, the farmer sleeps in his own bed while the monkey sleeps on the floor in a small picnic basket, or even stays awake at night while the farmer sleeps.
  • The clown was NEVER kicked out of the farmer's home. Instead the farmer did everything he could to help the clown feel welcome and to be comfortable.
  • The farmer works hard to entertain the clown and to make sure he is happy. The clown also appears to be VERY helpful with chores on the farm. 
  • In the first book, the farmer and the clown go on a fabulous picnic using a full picnic basket as they wait for the circus train. They eat together under a tree. When the train arrives, the farmer holds the clown's hand and waits until the family comes out and greets him. The farmer and the clown have an emotional goodbye that is filled with hugs and love. The farmer seems to keep the clown's hat to remember him.
  •  In contrast, the monkey is sent on his own, loaded down with a heavy picnic basket that they packed with food. Instead of hugs and love, the farmer shakes the monkey's hand and sends him off, without enjoying the meal together, never making sure he gets where he is going.
  • The farmer appears relieved when the monkey is gone as he rests on the haystack.

After learning from Edith Campbell and others, this is the first time that I have actually SEEN for myself -- without someone else pointing them out -- the racist stereotypes and the problems with anthropomorphized monkeys in a children's book. When I look at these two characters critically, I now see a sweet white child and a troublesome monkey. I see too many anti-Black messages in this book to look away. I am not the only one who has concerns about this book. Michelle Knott also mentioned her concerns in a recent blog post.

As I said earlier, this understanding about anthropomorphized monkeys in children's literature is new to me and I imagine it is new to many educators, authors, parents and publishers. I hope that we can all do better now that this information about the problems with anthropomorphized monkeys is readily available for us.

It is not my intent for this post to end up starting a conversation about this specific book, but instead for it to act as a call for all of us who work with children and children's books to commit to learning, understanding and critically analyzing books with monkeys and to understand the problematic history of these images.

I will continue to be a huge Marla Frazee fan even if I cannot be a supporter of this book.  I am hoping that that authors and publishers take this issue of monkeys in picture books more seriously in the future.

If you'd like to learn more, here are a few things I've read:

Edith Campbell reminds us in her post about Grumpy Monkey, "Regardless of the creator’s intent, there are social, cultural and political forces that shape the messages we find in books. Hundreds of years of equating blacks with simians cannot help but be seen in anthropomorphic pictures books"

Friday, September 25, 2020

Poetry Friday: Not Ponderous


photo via Unsplash

The World Itself is Not Ponderous

Feathers and giggles,
monarch's first flight,
petals unfurling,
equinox light.

Leaves in the fall,
bulbs in the spring,
in the yard after rain --
a fairy ring.

Fleetingly brief.
Here and then gone.
Like the flash of lightning,
or a chickadee's song.

©Mary Lee Hahn, 2020

I am joining the Poetry Seven's monthly challenge to explore "ponderous" or "hippo" or both. I went with "or neither" when I got weighed down (ponderously) by The Heavy Issues of Humankind. I did so want to include the factoid that the collective noun for hippos is a bloat. But that poem didn't happen. What I realized became the title of my poem, which was written in one of the "flipside" parts (if you remember my NPM project) of remote teaching -- two hours of silence while I proctored a test through my screen. 

Happy Autumn! Happy Almost October!

Jone has the Poetry Friday roundup this week at her new website.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Poetry Friday -- Orion

Photo via Unsplash

Winter Stars
by Sara Teasdale

I went out at night alone;
The young blood flowing beyond the sea
Seemed to have drenched my spirit’s wings—
I bore my sorrow heavily.

But when I lifted up my head
From shadows shaken on the snow,
I saw Orion in the east
Burn steadily as long ago.

From windows in my father’s house,
Dreaming my dreams on winter nights,
I watched Orion as a girl
Above another city’s lights.

Years go, dreams go, and youth goes too,
The world’s heart breaks beneath its wars,
All things are changed, save in the east
The faithful beauty of the stars.

I go out alone into the early morning dark almost every day to walk through the neighborhood. From August through late December, Orion keeps me company. His constancy, and the constancy of the stars, give me hope.

Matt has the Poetry Friday Roundup at Radio, Rhythm & Rhyme.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Remote Learning with Spencer's New Pet: The Power of Wordless Books

As I work with teachers across grade levels, many are thinking about how to build community and create a space that is safe and inviting for important thinking and conversation. Whether they are in person and social distanced, whether they are hybrid and have their kids both live and in remote spaces or whether they are fully remote, this is something on every teachers' mind, as it is every fall. So much of the fall is often spent building community, learning how to have thoughtful conversations, building on one another's thinking, learning to disagree and learning to support claims and ideas with evidence.  This year is no different in that regard.

Spencer's New Pet by Jessie Sima has been a great wordless book to share early in the year. Mary Lee reviewed the book a while ago and I fell in love with it this spring when I shared it with my 5th graders. 

As a reader myself, I am not so great at reading images. I prefer words.  But I have come to fall in love with wordless picture books over the past several years. I have learned the power of wordless picture books, especially during the first several weeks of the school year.

If we want our students to talk about books in critical ways, if we want them to be able to talk about issues in our world, if we want students to learn to grapple with ideas, agree, disagree and grow their thinking, I find that wordless picture books are perfect tools for inviting students into this work early in the year.

This fall, I've been fortunate to work in a few Zoom classrooms, supporting teachers in their work with students.  Spencer's New Pet has worked so well with several groups of students. I find that it is a book children (and adults) of all ages engage in joyfully. And it provides so many natural stopping places to notice and celebrate thinking and talk. Because there are very few words, the book is accessible to everyone and children are anxious to share thinking as there is so much to notice in each illustration.

This book was good for several reasons. It helped start discussions around these important behaviors and strategies:

  • changing thinking is something readers do
  • readers support thinking with evidence
  • building on ideas of others is valued here
  • we think before, during and after we read
  • reading is about more than words; it is about thinking and understanding
  • we think in so many different ways as we read
  • there is power in rereading 
  • creators make so many decisions that help us understand

Spencer's New Pet is my most recent favorite wordless book, but I have several and I am always on the lookout for a new favorite to share with students.  Sharing a few wordless picture books over the first several weeks of school helps build an intellectual community of talk and collaborative thinking.   Here is a link to some other wordless books that are perfect for remote learning. 

Friday, September 11, 2020

Poetry Friday -- How to Be a Poet


image via Unsplash

How to Be a Poet

by Wendell Berry

(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.  

    You can read the other two sections of this wise poem at the Poetry Foundation.  I'm sharing it today as a reminder to myself. Maybe you needed to hear that, too?

    Kiesha has this week's Poetry Friday roundup at Whispers From the Ridge.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Writing Workshop: The Possibilities for Remote Learning

The struggles of remote teaching and learning are real. Figuring out how to hold onto best practices with 29 students on a Zoom call is tricky at best. But as always, educators are figuring it out! I am amazed at all that teachers are doing to make this the best possible experience for students of all ages. 

This week, Seth's Godin's blog post, Self-Directed, Project-Based Learning got me thinking again. 

Since spring, I've been reflecting on my experiences with remote teaching. As I work with teachers now, I continue to think about what worked and what didn't when we moved to remote teaching last year. I am also thinking about the possibilities and surprise joys that came with remote teaching and learning. One thing I discovered was that Writing Workshop was an area that allowed me to offer choice and good teaching while making sure to meet required standards. I see how much is possible with remote teaching when it comes to writing.

I wrote a bit about it here after learning a bit from Julie Johnson on the blog this spring. I created a board for students that focused on writing choices and also met the standards that needed to be covered. Each choice led to a slideshow specific to the genre that helped kids do a bit of their own study while still having the support of our live writing workshop sessions.

I was mostly focused on providing choice and independence at that point. But once I opened up possibilities for kids, so many more good things happened.

Writing Workshop in a remote learning setting reminded me of the thing I know but sometimes forget when I am caught up in the day-to-day work of teaching--the more I let go and the more choices I give students, the more authentic and rich their writing experiences are and the more they learn and grow. The more choice and ownership I gave to students, the more they were able to do as writers and the more they were able to surprise me with their brilliance.

When given the choice, lots of time, and response from both home and school, students came up with so many great ideas:

  • One student created her own cooking show, using some of her favorite TV shows as mentors for her writing.
  • One student created a news show with her older sister and together they crafted stories, created a set and recorded those.
  • One student created a new version of a board game with directions on how to play.
  • One student interviewed family members about a memory, so that all perspectives could be part of the final piece.
  • A student who has major talent in art had time to create several pages of a graphic novel.
  • A student created the first chapter of Frozen fan fiction, planning to go on to write more over the summer.

One big lesson for me was when one of my students shared her process in creating a podcast. She had enjoyed the podcast series The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel and wanted to create her own fiction/fantasy podcast. We met several times in small groups and one day she said, laughing, "I spent all day yesterday looking for just the right sound effects. I found so many apps and so many sound effects. I wanted to find the perfect ones!" (You can listen to the podcast, "Sabrina and the Unexpected Fortune" below.)

In that moment I realized that the things we know that are important to any writing workshop (time, choice and response), were already so much a part of this pandemic life. Even though we provide these things in the classroom writing workshop, much has been taken away over the years because of time constraints, district mandates, state testing, etc.). In school, time for writing is limited, but because students had extra down time due to the pandemic, writing became playful and fun and so authentic. They could spend as much time as they needed or wanted to on parts of the process.  They were able to go above and beyond in areas of writing that they wanted to. It seemed so authentic. I know that when I write, I sometimes get caught up for hours on one word or on one sentence. Or I work to try to find the perfect image to go along with a message. This is the fun of writing on some days. 

When I met with small groups, students weren't talking about their writing pieces as something they were doing for school or because of school. They started talking about their plans for summer and how they might build onto the work they had done so far to write more. They were choosing to use their summer to continue work on some writing projects as they knew they'd have lots of time. So many of them were living their outside-of-school lives as writers.

When I gave this kind of choice, small group work fell into place. I sometimes pulled groups based on the kind of writing they were doing but then other times we'd meet as a group based on the specific elements they wanted feedback on. When kids work on a variety of pieces, there are so many opportunities for teaching and learning from each other. The standards were so much easier to "cover" when there were so many different things going on in the classroom. 
  • Kids were exposed to writing they may never have thought of trying.
  • We could talk about craft across genres--word choice, conclusions, organization are important no matter the genre or format. This allowed students to see the ways skills could transfer.
  • Mentor texts became more important. I provided several but then students found some of their own as needed during the creation process.
  • Writers were not only learning about the kinds of writing they were doing themselves, but as participants in the writing community, they were learning about the many kinds of writing that others were engaged in.
  • Minilessons could be built using student work and could easily be planned to transfer to any kind of writing.
I'm certainly not saying that we need a whole year without time limits or units of study based on genre or craft. But what I relearned about writing workshop is that time is something that kids have a lot of these days, something that isn't always the case and something that is often limited during the school day. And when writers have time, choice and response, they do brilliant things. So many of my students took full advantage of that extra time they had at home to create things they were proud of--partly because of the time and partly because of the choice.  I'm saying that it might be a good opportunity for us to rethink how much time, choice, and authentic response has maybe been taken away from kids in writing over the last decade or so. I'm saying that maybe we should take advantage of this time to help students see all that is possible as writers.

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Unlearning and Relearning History: A Text Set on Women's Suffrage

After reading Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram Kendi realized how much I don't know about history. So, I set out to learn more. Early this summer I picked up the book Lifting as We Climb: Black Women's Battle for the Ballot Box by Evette Dionne thinking it would be a quick read. It is not long and meant for middle grade/middle school.

I thought I knew a lot about women's rights but realized immediately that this was not going to be a quick read.  I realized that what I knew was VERY limited and that there were so many women whose work I did not know.  

And then I started seeing so much about the 100th Anniversary of women's right to vote and so much of it left out the important fact that not all women were given the right to vote at that time. The fight for voting rights was not over.

I don't know enough about this but I know that there is a lot I have to learn. So, I decided I had to build my own text set and approach this a little differently. I needed a bit more background knowledge, some highlighters and lots of pieces to read and build understanding over time. 

One thing I have learned is that when I build a text set for myself, it also works well in the classroom and when I am working with teachers to plan. When I learn, I have better resources to share with students. And I must admit that so much of what I learn about history lately is from incredible books written for children. These are the kind of text sets we need to build--for ourselves AND for our students. 

There aren't a lot of books out there about people other than those we hear about often in the fight for women's right to vote. But there are several.

None of these books have all of the info or all of the voices so I will have to be a critical reader, asking myself these questions as I go. I need to really think about what is missing and who is included in each of these books. And I won't be finished learning when I finish this text set. It will be only the beginning but I am hoping it builds enough background knowledge for me to have a better sense of history.

Maybe if we build text sets like these, students today won't have to unlearn and relearn history the way that I have had to.

Here are the books I plan to read over the next several weeks or months. And then I'll go back to Lifting as We Climb.

Equality's Call: The Story of Voting Rights in America by Deborah Diesen

This picture book explains the sequence of the fight for voter's rights and that it is continued work. The simple text is great to show the events and battles fought for voter rights and there is information at the end of the book that adds more.

Finish the Fight: The Brave and Revolutionary Women Who Fought for the Right to Vote by Veronica Chambers and the Staff at the New York Times is a 100-page book that is told in narrative. The book begins with the words..."Here are some suffragists you may have learned about..." (above images of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other white women). "...but there are lots more you should know!" above images of a much larger number of women who were part of this fight. This book is filled with information, artifacts and photos and is written for middle grade/middle school readers.

History Smashers: Women's Right to Vote by Kate Messner

If you don't know this new series by Kate Messner, it is a great series for middle grade, middle school and anyone who is relearning so much history. This one on the Women's Right to Vote is an important one for this topic.  These books are chapter book length (about 200 pages) and filled with information that we may not have learned. There are also many great resources that can be explore independently after reading.  The tone of this series is conversational and accessible. 

Voice of Freedom: Frannie Lou Hamer: The Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford is a picture book biography. I am truly alarmed at how few picture books are out there about BIPOC women civil rights activists. And even few specific to women's right to vote. This one is a great one and I hope we get more published about important BIPOC women.

Ida B. Wells: Let the Truth Be Told by Walter Dean Myers is a picture book biography that tells about Ida B. Wells' life as an activist.  Although this book doesn't focus solely on the women's right to vote, it does include many of the causes Wells fought for as well as events in her personal life. 

How Women Won the Vote by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

This book focuses on the part of the story we know best but it does include information on the discrimination women of color faced in this fight.  The way this is embedded in the story is helpful to understand the way the events played out.  This book includes photos from the events from history. 

There are several good online resources that have been published recently so I started a Padlet for myself (and whoever else is interested) with recent publications on the topic. Teen Vogue is a great source for relearning history so there are some articles from that publication. I have also found some podcasts, etc. that look promising. I'll keep adding resources. I am looking specifically for the pieces of this story that I don't know, people who I haven't learned about.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Poetry Friday: Dear Candy Corn


image via Unsplash

Dear Candy Corn,


Thank you for your jolt of too-much sweetness

at the end of a too-long day

that was packed with too-much

of just about everything.


I have had enough.


One small handful of you,

one day like today.


I have had enough.



©Mary Lee Hahn, 2020

Carol has the Poetry Friday roundup this week at Beyond Literacy Link.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Looking for New Middle Grade Novels?

Even though 2020 has not been a great year, it has been a good year for middle grade books.  I am always on the lookout for books that would make great read aloud or great books for book clubs.  I think it's important that books we share with our students have lots to talk about and several entry points for middle grade students. This summer I read several that I'd put on my possible read aloud list. And of course, they would all be great additions to the classroom library. I think all of these are good for 5th grade. Some are good for 3/4 while others can work in 6th.  

What Lane? by Torrey Maldonado is a new favorite. This is a short book with so much pack in. Stephen is is in middle school. He is biracial and is beginning to experience how he is sometimes treated differently because of the color of his skin. The book is well done for middle graders. It has great characters, real issues and invitations to think and talk about the ways racism show up.

When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller is a book that will appeal to a variety of readers. Lily and her family move in with her grandmother who is ill.  Her grandmother shares a story with her and Lily meets a magical tiger. Themes of family and grief are embedded in a story of magic based in Korean folklore. 

Dress Coded by Carrie Firestone is perfect for readers starting middle school.  Molly and her middle school friend are tired of getting in trouble for dress code violations that seem sexist and unfair.  So, Molly starts a podcast to tell the stories of what is happening with their school dress code. The book does a good job of making visible some of the issues with a focus on the way girls dress and is well done for 5th/6th/7th grade readers.

Clean Getaway by Nic Stone is another short book (I love a short book for read aloud that gives readers lots to think and talk about.) In this book, Scoob takes an impromptu road trip with his grandmother.  This trip becomes quite an adventure with a few history lessons along the way. Scoob also learns a lot about his grandmother.

I am a big Phil Bildner fan and love all of his books for middle grade students. A High Five for Glenn Burke by Phil Bildner is another book with so much to talk about and one that will appeal to a variety of readers.  Learning about the story of Glenn Burke, a gay baseball player in the 70s, and then sharing the story with classmates helps 6th grader Silas, share the truth about himself.  

The List of Things that Will Not Change is another brilliant book by Rebecca Stead.  Again, another short book with so much to think and talk about. Bea's parents are divorced but she feels confident about the list of things that will not change--promises her parents made when they divorced.  But even with that list, changes are in Bea's future as her father is marrying his boyfriend who has a daughter. Stead's writing is incredible and all of the characters are characters that will stay with readers for a long time.

Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim is a fun read. Yumi Chung wants to be a comedian but her parents want her to focus on school. She finds a way to practice comedy and make new friend but her parents will not approve. In the meantime, her parents' Korean barbecue restaurant is struggling and Yumi's sister is being distant.  There are great themes and great characters in this one.

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks is a book with another character who will stay with readers. Zoe 's father is in prison. She has never met him but starts communicating with him in letters.  He assures her that he is innocent of the crime that put him in jail so Zoe wants to find out the truth.