Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

May 16, 2006 > Footnotes


by Joyce Peters and Dominique Hutches

We've all heard the adage, "Never judge a book by its cover." Admit it, we do. We have set ideas about people different from ourselves, sometimes it's unconscious. It takes effort to overcome those first impressions even when all the evidence points the other way.

It makes us physically uncomfortable when someone acts or looks different from what we know. If you watch a group of preschoolers meeting a "different" playmate, most of them look a little wary, some may not even notice. Just because it's a natural reaction, doesn't make it right. Children get clues about how to react from adults, whether it be acceptance, fear or avoidance. For example, one of Joyce's kids loved basketball at three years old. After many of months of watching games, memorizing players and learning rules, one day he noticed that some players were black; some were white. We adults were taught by personal experience and the media to notice.

To raise adults who can get along with others, teach by example. Hypocrisy doesn't work - saying the right words while being intolerant is the worse way. The following children's books have underlying messages about not judging people by the way they look or dress. It's difficult to convey that without coming across as being preachy or heavy-handed, but these books succeed.

"It's Okay to Be Different" by Todd Parr, Little Brown hardback, $15.99 (2001)

Parr uses rainbow colors, simple drawings and reassuring statements in this optimistic book. A purple elephant stands against a zingy blue background ("It's okay to have a different nose") and a lone green turtle crosses a finish line ("It's okay to come in last"). A girl blushes at the toilet paper stuck to her shoe ("It's okay to be embarrassed") and a lion says "Grr," "Roar" and "purrr" ("It's okay to talk about your feelings"). Parr cautiously calls attention to disabilities by picturing a smiling girl with a guide dog ("It's okay to need some help").

To teach about racial differences, he poses a multicolored zebra with a black-and-white one. An illustration of two women ("It's okay to have different Moms") and two men ("It's okay to have different Dads") handles diverse families sensitively. This could cover either same-sex families or stepfamilies. On the opposite page, there's a kangaroo with a dog in its pouch ("It's okay to be adopted"). He wisely doesn't zero in on specifics, which would force him to establish what's "normal." Instead, he focuses on acceptance and individuality. Picture book recommended for 4 to 7 year olds.

Define "Normal" by Julia Ann Peters, Little Brown paperback, $7.99 (2003)

Antonia figures this assignment is impossible - she's been paired with her total opposite for peer counseling, a wild-looking tattooed, pierced girl named Jazz. Antonia is the studious, responsible type while Jazz is the in-your-face rebellious type. What on earth could they have to talk about? Not to mention, how is Antonia supposed to connect with and counsel this...person?

All is not how it seems, though. The responsible, 'I have it all together" person is barely holding her personal life together. When it all falls apart, Antonia is going to find herself leaning on the person she's supposed to be helping. And Jazz has a deep dark secret of her own, one that she wants no one to know about.

Dominique says, "I loved the fact that the characters start out as the stereotypical punker and geek, but end up having so much more to them. Like many teenagers I've known these girls are more compassionate than they are given credit for, and their outward attitudes can mask a wealth of worry, frustrations and despair." A truly heartwarming book about friendship found in the most unlikely places. Recommended for grades 7 to 10.

"Stargirl" by Jerry Spinelli, Random House mass market paperback, $6.99 (2004)

Newbery award winner Jerry Spinelli tells the story of a girl who is so different that she goes to the top of the teenage popularity pyramid only to be knocked down for those differences.

She's as magical as the desert sky. As strange as her pet rat. As mysterious as her own name. From the day she arrives at quiet Mica High School in a burst of color and sound, the hallways hum with the murmur of "Stargirl, Stargirl." Leo Borlock, who knows the rules for being popular, loses his heart with just one smile. The students of Mica High are first. Then they turn on her. Stargirl is suddenly shunned. And Leo, panicked and desperate with love, urges her to become just like a hundred other girls at Mica High... I had never been so happy and proud in my whole life." Later the former Stargirl, Susan, and Leo miss that girl he loved.

Spinelli respects his readers by allowing them to form their own opinions about what it means to be an individual and the hard choices to be made about loyalty to oneself and to your friends.

Recommended for grades 7 to 10.

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