Teaching values through literature

In many ways, landisdad and I face the same challenges that are faced by set of parents who both work outside the home. (Well, okay, I mostly telecommute, but the challenges haven’t changed that much since I’ve been working at home.) We juggle the daycare and school pickups against our need to work late nights sometimes. We slide in calls to the doctor’s office to schedule annual check ups while we’re on the clock. We fight rush hour traffic, hoping to make it to the meeting on time. And we balance the competing demands of home and work, which causes us to lose sleep, because we’re always remembering one last thing to do right before bed time.

But there’s one major way that we’re different from many other families. We both work as organizers, in movements for social and economic justice. And as part of our talking to our kids about work, and the need for us to not be home all the time, we need to give them the larger context of the work we do. It’s not always easy to explain to my children why I need to go to one more community meeting, or why landisdad is wearing a suit today. The advantage that we have is that kids seem to have an innate sense about what’s fair, and what’s not fair, and we are able to describe our work in a way that lets them know that we are on the side of restoring fairness.

There are a number of books that I’ve collected over the past six years that help us with these explanations. One of the Bee’s favorite books when she was about three was Si Se Puede, a book about the janitor’s strike in Los Angeles told in Spanish & English from the point of view of the son of a striking janitor. The refrain of the book is, of course, “Se puede? Si se puede!” (loosely translated: “Can we do it {win the strike}? Yes we can!”). For a few weeks, she would walk into daycare every day shouting “Si se puede!” I can only imagine what the daycare teachers thought.

Some of our other favorite books that emphasize the positive value of collective action include Click Clack Moo, Harvesting Hope: The Cesar Chavez Story, and Swimmy. There are a number of other books that we’ve bought that the Bee isn’t quite ready for yet, including Missing From Haymarket Square, and Witnesses to Freedom, about young people who fought for civil rights in the south.

It’s important to me to be able to tell the stories of social change to my kids in a way that doesn’t leave out the organizing involved in winning those changes. There was a day last winter (during Black History month, natch) that the Bee came home and told us about how she had learned at school that day that Rosa Parks got arrested for sitting down on a bus, “and she was just tired!” I almost cried, because I know that too many people–especially whitefolks–think that, and I don’t want my kids to be among them. I don’t expect kindergarteners to understand the enormously difficult decision that Rosa Parks had to make when she decided to get arrested that day, but I do expect them to be taught that she made the decision.

I know that for myself, my own life has been enormously expanded by reading about the struggles that different groups of people have gone through, at different moments in our history. I’ve blogged before about the influence that books about Nellie Bly and Malcolm X have had on me, and about the reading I continue to do about the history of social change. I’m really grateful for the books I’ve mentioned above, and others too numerous to mention, that are helping me teach that history to my kids.


July 27, 2005. books for kids, politically motivated.


  1. Comfort Addict replied:

    Wow. I admire both of you so much for doing what you do.

    I loved “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Can you recommend any other works of his that I should read?

    By the way, have you seen the movie Bread and Roses, directed by Ken Loach? I think that you and landisdad would enjoy it. I also highly recommend The Navigators by the same director (can you tell? I’m a big Ken Loach fan).

  2. Elizabeth replied:

    I’m guessing that you’ve read the Kohl essay about how the Rosa Parks story is taught in schools? If not, you should — it’s in the collection of essays called “Should We Burn Babar?” (I blogged about it a while ago.)

    When Bob the Builder is translated to Spanish, does he say “Si se puede!”?

    What do you think of the children’s books from The Heifer Project?

  3. Metrodad replied:

    You and LandisDad sounds like amazing parents. What an amazing way to teach your children about social injustice and the struggles of the oppressed. I agree with you that children have an innate sense of what is right or wrong. It’s the exposure to it all that needs to be emphasized today.

    Aside from the tales of sociall injustice that you mention in your post, I’ve always thought that adults really underestimate the power of literature as a guiding moral force in young people. Personally, I feel like my sense of ethics was formed less by my parents than by various literary influences from when I was young…JFK’s Profiles in Courage, the Knights of the Round Table, and Encyclopedia Brown.

    Great post!

    (By the way, I’d like to read the entry where you blogged about Malcolm X. Can you point it out to me?)

  4. chip replied:

    unfortunately it seems public schools dilute the struggles down to stories about individuals, and even then remove hte real content. So my kids learn only that Martin Luther King Jr wanted all people to be equal; his message is now translated as just about being “colorblind.” Nothing at all on his later years, his struggles for economic and social justice, his denunciations of capitalism, of US foreign policy and exploitation of workers around the world. No, it’s reduced to, “boy are things better now!”

    It is a real struggle to make sure our kids understand the political, social and economic context, the real struggles that working people have carried out in the face of horrible violence, because those facts have been whitewashed from much of what they learn about history.

    You guys are doing an excellent job! Your kids are so lucky…

  5. Rainbow Momma replied:

    Your work must be very interesting.

    I worry sometimes about the questions my daughter will have for us. But hopefully, social change is going with us, not against us (if that makes sense).

  6. Betty replied:

    The job that you have right now sounds incredibly rewarding. It must feel wonderful to know that you can be a catalyst for positive social change like that.

    I had a similar issue at my house with the Rosa Parks story. In kindergarten last year and 1st grade this year, my DD was told the story of Rosa Parks for Black History Month, and each time, I got the sense that she was extremely puzzled by the whole incident. My DH and I tried to explain it to her, but I don’t think that we were very successful. In her young mind, she couldn’t grasp the concept of racial discrimination, and what types of cruelty that people had suffered at the hands of societal racism. It’ll be interesting to see how she reacts to the same story in 2nd grade!

  7. landismom replied:

    Elizabeth, I’ve often wondered that about Bob the Builder–is he the Si Se Puede guy in Mexico? I haven’t read either of the things you refer to, so I’ll have to check them out.

  8. Simon replied:

    I believe when sharing ideas about literature you will always face the dilemma of explaining about a lot of social issues (past and present) that go along with it. And it gets better, since almost every culture respect literature as a means of exposing the “good” side of life. I came to that respect when I was teaching at WorknPlay http://www.worknplay.co.kr in Korea. I always found the ‘literature subjects’ to be plotted differently that in the US, but they possess the same basic structure as to how to better explain a certain type of value.

  9. BBSP at five years « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

    […] #6–Teaching Values Through Literature. On my worst days, I’m afraid that the people who are searching for advice on this topic are really looking for James Dobson. This ain’t it. […]

  10. One year of BBSP « Bumblebee Sweet Potato replied:

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