What’s in a Name?

It’s a small but positive sign that many people have moved beyond that pinched phrase “tolerance for difference.” What a dull, diluted substitute for the richer alternative of cultivating a mind open to change, to difference, to the dazzling diversity of life. That, to me, is one of the most powerful transformations an education can bring about in an individual and, ultimately, in a culture. This openness, aligned with such traits as curiosity and a generous spirit, should not be confused with an unwillingness to grapple with complexity or evil. Rather, it’s a life-affirming approach that fully engages the whole person: intellect, body, emotions, and spirituality. Each school year offers excellent opportunities to set a positive, respectful tone. As Aristotle wrote, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”Favorite Daughter by Allen Say

The Caldecott-winning author/illustrator Allen Say (Grandfather’s Journey) has once again found inspiration in his past and created a sensitive children’s book that adults can use to instill in children respect for all. His recently published The Favorite Daughter relates a story involving his own daughter Yuriko, as she grapples with her identity as a biracial child.

Her school year begins with an opportunity to share an early photo. In the midst of pages with realistic watercolor paintings showing the two going about their lives that week (her time to stay with Dad rather than Mom), Mr. Say includes an actual photo of his two-year-old blond-headed daughter in a cherry-red kimono from Tokyo. Yuriko gladly chooses this sweet photo to take to school. The next day, though, her joy has turned to self-doubt.

This is how she describes her rotten first Friday: “They said Japanese dolls have black hair. ‘Yoo-REE-ko in ki-MO-na!’ They sang it all day long. … And the new art teacher called me ‘Eureka.’ So everybody calls me that now … .”

The girl’s immediate response is to deny a major part of her identity: “I want an American name, Daddy.” She settles on Michelle. Rather than trying to dissuade her, Father suggests they go out and talk about it. She ironically chooses to eat at a local sushi restaurant, where, upon leaving, the friendly chef gives her a stash of chopsticks.

The next morning, he takes his little girl to the Japanese Garden at the Golden Gate Park, where Yuriko happens upon a sumi-e demonstration by an elderly expert in the art of Japanese ink painting. When he asks her name, I admit I held my breath briefly, hoping she would reply Yuriko, which, thankfully, she does. Then we discover the name’s appealing meaning: Child of the Lily.

The happy ending involves two bridges: one, Yuriko’s clever solution to an art project on the Golden Gate Bridge and the other, her own journey back to self-respect. The Favorite Daughter concludes with a lovely photo of the adult daughter in a pale pink kimono as she visits a garden in Japan. Use this eloquent picture book with grades 1 through 3.

As Fast As Words Could Fly by Pamela M. TuckFor older children (grades 4 through 6), consider the recently released As Fast As Words Could Fly, the debut picture book by Pamela M. Tuck and illustrated by the masterful Eric Velasquez. Winner of the Lee & Low’s New Voices Award, this historically based story about a gifted boy attending a formerly all-white Southern high school provides an interesting, relevant perspective in the midst of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Fourteen-year-old Mason Steele makes great use of the manual typewriter his dad gave him. He learns that keyboard, types Pa’s letters for the local civil rights group, and excels at his new school in Greenville, North Carolina.  He and his brothers, though, encounter hostility from the bus driver, the students, teachers, and even the principal.

One distinguishing aspect of this story is its clear depiction of the family’s activism and how that effort manages to bring about positive change. When Mason is fired without explanation from his after-school job of typing catalog cards for the school library, Mason’s dad gets on the phone with Golden Frinks, a field secretary for the SCLC. The next morning, Pa and other civil rights workers go to the Board of Education. Mason was rehired.

Mason goes on to participate in the regional typing tournament. “How can a Negro represent our school?” one student complained. Mason, dressed in a suit and tie, makes his own kind of statement by winning the contest. The afterward relates the personal and historical context for this inspiring story.

See also …
my post on One Green Apple, as well as my post on My School in the Rainforest: How Children Attend School Around the World.

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