Over the next few months, we’ll be hearing from different community voices about what a Modern First Library means to them! Below, author Xelena González shares her story. If you missed the introduction to the series, you can read it here.
Before becoming an author I was a librarian. And before librarianship came motherhood. It was in that egalitarian bastion of imagination where my young daughter Yemaya and I spent many hot afternoons. Where else, besides the park, can you hang out half the day with your messy baby for free? I joyously fell in love with the public library all over again.
Our children’s librarian smartly shelved the board books in colorful bins placed on the floor for easy toddler browsing, and soon Yemaya knew to go directly there for fun. She also began gravitating to certain books–the same books, in fact, every single time. Sometimes she would rummage through the bins with a frustrated look on her face, as though she’d lost something important. Then, as soon as the library staff replaced the board books we had just returned, she would hug and stack her favorites with relief, insisting we check them out all over again.
Many parents and librarians have encountered these tiny obsessions kids have with their beloved books. But there was something interesting about Yemaya’s top picks, which included titles like Please, Baby, Please (Spike & Tonya Lewis Lee), Whistle for Willie (Ezra Jack Keats), Shades of Black (Sandra L. Pinkney), and the perennial favorite, Welcome, Precious (Nikki Grimes). The common thread in all these books: they feature black children on the cover and in the story.
Just so you know, Yemaya is not black; her deep brown skin comes from her indigenous roots. So even though I wanted her to diversify her book choices, I was also highly intrigued and amused by them. Since Yemaya was an early talker, I was able to ask her one day, “Sweetheart, why do you choose the same books every time?” Her two-year-old squeaky reply came: “Because the babies have brown skin like me. See?” She tapped on the book covers then on her own skin to prove her point.
Now, we can research, evaluate, argue, and pontificate all we want, but, as ever, the plainest truths come from the mouths of babes. My own saw her image in the gorgeous renderings by the likes of Bryan Collier and Kadir Nelson. She was able to articulate at such a tender age what I was unable to understand in my own heart as a preteen, standing with tears in my eyes at the grocery store magazine rack, struck by an image of the Tejano star Selena on the cover of a fashion magazine. (This was before her passing, when she was a burgeoning musician and designer.) To see her dark hair and full lips framed stirred something mysterious inside, something that said, “You are beautiful too.”
Yemaya is now a preteen herself. It is her pretty brown skin that graces the cover of my first children’s book, All Around Us–a small exploration of our Mestiza heritage that I am honored to add to the canon after all these years. My commitment to creating stories for our children–all our children–started with that moment of recognition in our neighborhood library, and likely in the grocery store long before.
Finally, we feel the pendulum swinging these days, in many ways. At times it seems wise to stand back for fear of getting struck; in other instances it’s smarter to jump on board and swing with the change. The BookPeople Modern First Library is a simple, elegant way to do so. This initiative excites the mother, librarian, and writer in me. It cherishes old favorites while offering new perspectives. When choosing the first stories and artwork to place in the hands of our children, there is no better gift to give. Every child should see their own reality reflected in stories, their own skin celebrated. For to love oneself is to love the world in a better way, and to understand one another expands the gift beyond our sphere.
- Please, Baby, Please by Spike & Tonya Lewis Lee
- Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats
- Shades of Black by Sandra L. Pinkney
- Welcome, Precious by Nikki Grimes
- Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye
- The Bus for Us by Suzanne Bloom
Xelena González is the author of All Around Us (Cinco Puntos Press, 2017), winner of the 2018 Tomás Rivera Mexican American Children’s Book Award, the Texas Institute of Letters “Best Picture Book” award, an American Indian Youth Literature Honor Award, among others. She is happy to be back home in San Antonio, after recently serving as an international school librarian in Guangzhou, China. For more, please visit allaroundus.info or look for this Luddite on Facebook, where she occasionally posts important stuff.
Looking for more thoughts on the Modern First Library? Check out the rest of the posts in the blog series:
What is a Modern First Library? by Meghan Goel
And a few from the series in 2016:
Modern First Library by Chris Barton
The Word Library by Ellen Oh
I Need a Diverse Book by Phoebe Yeh
Everett Anderson Was My First by Angie Manfredi
Starting the Conversation by AISD educators Claire Hagen-Alverado, Nancy Valdez-Gainer, and Brennan Cruiser.