As 2016 comes to a close, year-end lists of best books are in high circulation. As a mother of two who also works 50+/hours per week outside the home, I miss a lot of “must reads.” However, one genre I am able to continually consume is children’s books. In the spirit of The New York Times “The Year in Reading,” I’m using this space to share brief descriptions of the books that accompanied me through the year, and resonate with me as I reflect on 2016.

My 4-year-old and I read together every day. We read my old favorites (ex. The Snowy Day), silly stories (ex. Pete the Cat), stories I find incredibly boring (ex. the Disney fanfiction volumes that detail the happenstance goings-on of trademarked princesses) and books on topics my daughter asks about (dinosaurs, hot air balloons).

The books that resonate with me as I think back across our year in reading are those I see as laying an anti-racist foundation for a child born with white privilege who could too easily dismiss issues and histories that she might not see as her own. The books included below highlight the American ideals of equality and ingenuity through American perspectives that differ from my daughter’s experience.

While I certainly do not claim that racism can be dismantled through children’s books, the act of reading — listening to someone else’s story — is a crucial component of ally work for racial justice (as has been noted by many others).

“A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream” by Kristy Dempsey

My daughter consumes everything “dance” and was drawn to this book because of the cover image of a girl suspended in a graceful leap atop a city building. The book introduced my daughter to the racial segregation of the 1950s through a straightforward plot point: “The Ballet Master made an arrangement for me to join lessons each day from the back of the room, even though I can’t perform onstage with white girls.” As a young dancer who herself has worked hard to perfect a dance for a performance, my daughter took this discrimination to heart. The story is inspiring, and powerful to read snuggled in a blanket under a Misty Copeland poster in my daughter’s bedroom.


“When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop” by Laban Carrick Hill

My daughter was captivated by this accessible biography of hip hop’s founder because of (again) the significance of dance: DJ Kool Herc inspired by “dancers danced crazy hard during the breaks in the song when the lyrics ended and the music bumped and thumped,” and the street gangs inspired by DJ Kool Herc’s music “to dance, not fight.” I appreciated Hill’s author’s note, in which he shares his own experience hearing early hip hop in the Bronx.

“of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters” by Barack Obama

As President Obama’s time in office comes to a close, it is time to return to this inspirational book for young Americans, a tribute to notable historical figures (Cesar Chavez, Maya Lin, Jackie Robinson, and ten others). One of the closing questions he addresses to his daughters, “Have I told you to be proud to be American?” prompted my daughter to ask what an American was. Even though she’s had many conversations about the U.S., somehow the term “American” had not factored into her absorbed understanding. This book provides an answer to her question through a collective of individuals who worked to shape the term American into an identity that celebrates difference, inclusivity, and opportunity.

We’ll be kicking off 2017 by reading these books next: Naomi Shihab Nye’s Sitti’s Secrets (we want to be sure to read this before Shihab Nye comes to UMA in April!) and Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (a jam-packed collection of stories about ground-breaking women with full-page illustrations).

An English professor at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2014, Elizabeth Powers teaches introductory and advanced writing courses, and coordinates a writing lab which allows her to work individually with students on their writing skills. Powers’ scholarly focus is on Rhetoric and Composition, especially rhetorical theory, visual rhetoric, and writing center studies.

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