As nebulous and constantly evolving in its very nature as culture is, one often wonders how best to nurture and pass on the desire and curiosity for learning more about “it”. Culture invades, permeates, flows in and out, then defines, transforms, and very surreptitiously normalises ideas, behaviours, postures. How do we dissect Culture? Where do we begin? Before my niece, nephew and now daughter were born, I had very precise – and relatively creative- ideas and wants when it came to partaking all of who we are as family, people, or even gender(s). Many of those ideas however could not necessarily be shared instantly with an infant or toddler, something my adult brain has yet to fully realise. My memories as a very young child are blurry and in disarray so using my own experience is not always the most reliable source. And I also know that there are what I refer to as “chronological” layers to the acquisition of culture… some things we find rebuking as a child become indispensable as an adolescent or an adult. Music, food, literature we praise today were the bores of yesterday… Human sensitivity works in mysterious (and often contradictory) ways. Nonetheless, my main focus, on becoming one of the knowledge bearers for my very small tribe is to build a vast cultural net – not so much foundations which can more or less be sapped- but rather an open-ended, flexible, all-encompassing, gentle, conscious, deliberate vessel of knowledge… A true and long-time literary devourer, I have been searching for and sharing children’s books for as long as I can remember.
Although I praise social movements that aim at finding self in literature, I would define my approach as holistic in the sense that I want my child to find and lose herself literally and figuratively in the process of reading. Being able to distance yourself from the protagonists of a novel is just as profound and enriching as completely relating to them. Seeing the many shades of our social comportment truly is what makes us whole and plainly said, captivating (at least to begin with). And then, as much as the oppressive forces have attempted (and to a relative extent succeeded) at labelling, limiting, categorising who and what we are, I want our children to navigate freely in the mosaic of our cultural expressions and histories. Names, geographies, physiques, personalities, melodies, languages, conditions, situations, vulnerabilities, empowerments, resiliences, failures, wins, laughters, tears, … the complexity of being human is at the very core what fiction and non-fiction should aim at revealing.
Having mostly lived in western or westernised societies, I feel deeply responsible for showing my children that the Western world is neither a beginning nor an end, neither a reference nor a norm, and that beyond and within it, lie many other worlds that they ought to seek in order to grow whole. Yet, one of the challenges in my quest is reviewing literary materials that inform, inspire, elevate, teach, and propose alternative ways of seeing and being (in) the world in the two languages that they are currently immersed in: French & English.
My recurring criteria are to select stories where the protagonists are curious, ingenious, not necessarily fearless because fear sometimes fuels ingenuity and resourcefulness. In these stories, depiction and representation of context are key and not just graphically but in how they either reinforce or replicate pervasive symbols or shift paradigms. Children should see the world as multiple and bizarre as it truly is. They need, as early as their critical mind allows them to, question practices, or architectures or even temporality. Before a child is able to structure, he or she begins by dismantling.
Believe there is infinite order in chaos.
Last, music constitutes a key aspect of storytelling and reading, I have always thought… the melody of language and ponctuation coupled with the chanting and rhythms that often accompany stories for young (and old) children usually make up my decision to propose a particular book to them. And with the realisation that stories with animal characters are most probably what leads best to comprehending our arrogant human ways, I still believe in early introduction of stories with and about people.
In times when some still feel compelled to question our humanity and in doing so, reference the animal kingdom with their bigotry and intellectual shortsightedness, we ought to defy those -ancient and ultimately tired- odds by producing and supporting works of art and culture that amplify the nuances of our humanity while respecting every aspects of the animal world. There undoubtedly is complementarity but one that provides perspective not hatred.
The long and arduous process of defining and positioning ourselves begins early as we identify (with) colours, shapes, and people. There are factually more and more children’s book authors who, paired with gifted illustrators, produce content that is both accessible and qualitative. Our role as parents, relatives, teachers and culture bearers is to seek plurality and excellence in the representations of our many selves.
Photos of the books in order of appearance (some of our current favorites):
Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (originally published in 1962)
Lola Plants A garden by Anna McQuinn (2014)
Diabou Ndao told by the late – and great- Mamadou Diallo (1998)
L’Oranger Magique told by Haitian storytelling guru – Mimi Barthélémy (2015)
Happy To Be Nappy by (the) bell hooks (1999)