The things we share unite us. Our differences excite us! A guest post by Bridget Hodder
When Fawzia Gilani Williams and I first began work on our new Middle Grade time-travel, THE BUTTON BOX, we wrote from the heart–but with specific goals in mind. Troubled by the increasingly emboldened Islamophobia and anti-Semitism around us, we wanted to give readers the gift of genuine Sephardic Jewish and Muslim experiences, and shine light on our brilliant shared cultural past. But to our dismay, in the intervening years between the book’s beginnings and now, when it hits bookshelves nationwide, the need to counter anti-Semitism and Islamophobia has become more acute than ever.
For example, children in some schools have been asked to role-play the Holocaust, or make Nazi posters. Muslim students are openly told in some classrooms that they deserve deportation. Places where Jews and Muslims congregate (like the formerly safe spaces of other beleaguered groups including Black churches, HBCUs, and LGBQT gathering places) have become ever more frequent targets for violent hits of all sorts: arson, murders, armed invasions. And with each incident, it seems our national outrage level goes down rather than up. People scroll past the headlines and sink deeper into indifference as a self-defense against feeling overwhelmed and powerless.
But teachers, librarians and educators of all kinds are not powerless. I mean, we might not be able to get enough funding to stock classrooms with Kleenex, but we are well aware that we can move students’ hearts in positive directions. We always try to help kids learn the joy of being good to others. Yet what can we do now that socio-religious prejudice (alongside many other poisonous biases) has become so much worse?
Before we can answer that question, we might consider the problem from a new perspective.
One piece of the puzzle is that there is currently no national elementary or middle school curriculum that teaches children basic facts about world belief systems and the cultures associated with them. This leaves a huge educational gap in our students’ minds which is inevitably filled by stereotypes…most of them ugly, all of them dangerous. We can help fill this gaping hole with common sense facts, by giving kids engaging, enthralling books that include casual representation of many socio-religious groups.
What do we mean by “casual representation?” Stories that include diverse characters, not as victims (as in Holocaust narratives) or villains (as in portrayals of Muslims as jihadists), but as everyday human beings in universal situations. Like a hilarious Middle Grade tale where the protagonist, or his best friend, just happens to be Muslim. Or the story of a high school girl, learning to deal with the loss of her mother, whose family just happens to be Jewish. In such books, by authors who genuinely know what they’re writing about, the details of characters’ religious and cultural lives are a seamless part of the narratives. Readers learn about these characters’ religions in much the same way that we would if we knew them in real life.
Such casual representation in school reading–whether on library shelves, during read-alouds, in homework, or in free-reading times — can free Muslim and Jewish kids from having to act as de facto representatives of their entire socio-religious identity for everyone else. And for students who are not Jewish or Muslim, learning about interesting, relatable Jewish and Muslim characters will give them the tools they need to stand up and counter prejudice and bullying with baseline facts. No, of course Jews don’t drink the blood of babies or have secret space lasers. No, of course the Qu’ran does not teach terrorism and hatred.
This transition can happen naturally when we acquire a diverse array of books for our shelves, making sure their contents reflect the peoples of our nation as a whole, as much as we can. It doesn’t take a lot of active pedagogy. So long as we’ve made thoughtful reading choices, we can relax a bit and allow kids to learn on their own about the colorful kaleidoscope of identities that make up our world. All they need is unfettered access to multiple books that tell the stories of many different religious, cultural, racial, gendered, economic and social experiences, among others. This is why Fawzia and I included learning resources like historical notes, a map and a glossary in The Button Box; so kids could fully explore the ancient and contemporary facts upon which the book is based, either alone or in discussion with librarians, teachers, or parents.
For decades, our nation has tried to promote tolerance between different religious (and other) groups. But as a goal, “tolerance” is a pretty low bar. How can anyone get excited about tolerance? Would you tell your football team to “Get out there and tolerate the game!” just before they run onto the field?
Let’s raise that bar. Fawzia Gilani Williams and I would like to propose that we stop encouraging kids to tolerate each other… and invite them to celebrate each other, instead. In service of that purpose, we must first help them understand each other, by letting them discover the truth in the materials we provide.
Toleration is something a privileged group confers upon others; by contrast, a celebration is a space where all groups can meet in the middle and have a wonderful time. Don’t tolerate; celebrate!
You’re all invited to the party.
In the spirit of celebration–
Meet the author
Bridget Hodder is an experienced educator and reading and communication specialist, working primarily with young people with learning disabilities. She worked in the Massachusetts Public School system for several years, and then became a consultant to schools. Like Ava in “The Button Box,” Bridget is Sephardic. She is also the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Her first middle grade book, “The Rat Prince,” was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “The Rat Prince” was an ILA -CBC Children’s Choice List starred selection, an Amazon Hot List pick, and was a finalist for the Mythopoeic Society award in Children’s Fantasy Literature. To learn more about Bridget’s life and work, visit her website: http://bridgethodder.com/
About The Button Box
After Jewish fifth-grader Ava and her Muslim best friend Nadeem are called hateful names at school, Ava’s Granny Buena rummages in her closet and pulls out a glittering crystal button box. It’s packed with buttons that generations of Ava’s Sephardic ancestors have cherished. With the help of Granny’s mysterious cat Sheba, Ava and Nadeem discover that a button from the button box will take them back in time. Suddenly, they are in ancient Morocco, where Nadeem’s ancestor, Prince Abdur Rahman, is running for his life. Can Ava and Nadeem help the prince escape to Spain and fulfill his destiny, creating a legendary Golden Age for Muslims, Jews and Christians?
Publisher: Lerner Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/01/2022
Age Range: 9 – 10 Years
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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