This post is both about a book in general, and about a particular copy of that book.
While I was pregnant, a friend sent me a link to an Etsy shop displaying a copy of this 1968 book about the Hebrew alphabet. She is a queen of vintage and I was thrilled she had picked out something just for me. (Thanks again, Tracie!) The book is full of bold and brightly-colored block prints that immediately called out to me and brought me back to my childhood. It offers a beautiful contrast to the slick, computer generated look and feel of many contemporary alphabet books on the market. A few months later I ordered a copy. I’m glad I took the recommendation, but I’m also glad I waited because I wound up with a copy that had a history, discarded from a school library in Jenkintown, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia.
I’m not familiar with Jenkintown, but I am familiar with being a Jewish-American kid. There are times when it can really make you feel like a stranger in a strange land. Like in spring when you have matzoh for lunch and all the other kids have ham sandwiches and Easter candy. I’m sure the Jewish kids who came across this book at the public school library were comforted by it. It demonstrated that their culture had value and was worthy of a place in the library’s collection of knowledge. I like to imagine a small group of them leaned over a library table, closely examining the illustrations and proudly pointing to the letters and saying their names. In the 1970s, this probably didn’t happen that often.
Today there’s much talk in education about culturally responsive teaching. (I wrote about it twice over the course of the winter holidays – “Cultural Responsveness Begins at Home” One & Two.) What this comes down to or me, is seeing students for who they are as individuals with their own backgrounds and stories, honoring those influences, and teaching to them accordingly. Providing picturebooks from various cultures is one increasingly easy way to do this, as the variety of characters in picturebooks start to look more like the diverse communities we live in.
The contemporary Jewish community is fortunate to have a program called PJ Library which I hope to explore more in future writings. It is an incredible example of cultural heritage preservation through early childhood education. In short, the program sends Jewish families a free picturebook, music CD, or video each month, courtesy of a local philanthropist. Through PJ Library, Jewish children build a collection of books that allow them to see the details of their lives – the foods they eat, the holidays they celebrate, and religious objects they live with – reflected on the pages of a book, in the songs on the radio, or the characters on TV. Every child should be so lucky.
Have you read any good books lately that illustrate life from a cultural perspective other than your own? One of our favorites is Big Red Lollipop that tells a story from a Pakistani-American perspective.