What Makes a Book Good, True, and/or Reliable? Conversations for Kids.

Growing up in a strong, Christian home, I often heard in reference to scriptures, “This book is true.” And when I was about 19 or 20, there was a moment when I paused and thought, Do I sound crazy to people if I say that? What do I even mean by that? Of course, in religious contexts, people do tend to be trying to convey something much deeper than just true vs false, but it got me thinking. Lots of books are true. And lots of books are false. But how do we recognize and sort that kind of information?

If you’ve already received the I Spy Racial Awareness Expedition, then you will have maybe discussed this in your home. I’m going to share some of the same prompts that are included in the I Spy in My Books activity, as well as maybe some new points. The goal of these questions is to help children think about how “good, true, and reliable” their book collection is.


I Spy Racial Awareness

18 Pages of printable activities to start conversations and evaluate questions such as, "What if everyone in your family looked exactly like you?" and "Imagine that your friends are like the colors of the rainbow. What if every single friend was red?" and "What if most of the time you read a book and saw a picture of someone like you in it as the good guy, would that make you feel good?" and MORE! Plus it's all very hands-on fun!

$3.00

Click HERE to donate to the June fundraiser for Operation Underground Railroad and recieve the I Spy Racial Awareness


Do you like to read books about people like you (basketball player, dancer, comedian, animal enthusiast, musician, etc)?

Seems like an obvious question.

So consider the young Indian child who is an animal enthusiast. Specifically, they adore crocodilians, or maybe apes, but can only find books about White animal activists and zoologists. A child is going to quickly piece together that the books are telling them that animal activism is for rich White people, not them. Find a new interest or prepare to fight your heart out for what you love, kid. That’s hardly fair. Steve Irwin, Jane Goodall and Ellen Degenerous can hardly be the only celebrity animal activists out there.

They shouldn’t be, because people like Jadav Payeng exist, and I only just learned of him this month!

What if every time you read a book and saw a picture of someone like you in it as the bad guy, would that make you feel bad?

Yes. Of Course! I imagine it’s like seeing someone draw a mustache and horns on you in the year book. Hmmm, I have a picture of 15 children here, which one should I give an angry look to – oh! The red hea- no! The Black one! It’s got to get exhausting to see that.

What if most of the time you read a book and saw a picture of someone like you in it as the good guy, would that make you feel good?

Let’s flip that last question around now. If I open a book to read a description of a person that looks like me, has similar interests, problem solves, and is praised for helping people, then what does that do to empower my belief that I can do the same?!

And what if I can’t find books with characters that look like me or act or talk like me?

So, remember when Tarzan is like, “Kala! Why didn’t you tell me there were other creatures like me?!” And she’s all, “I should have shown you this a long time ago…” And then he sees for the first time (maybe ever) what a human structure, bedding, tools, and pictures look like.

Now imagine in today’s more realistic scenarios that you’re a child missing limbs, or an amputee patient and have never seen someone comfortably in public wearing prosthetics or a wheelchair. What is that poor child supposed to expect the rest of their life to look like? To think that they’re one of a kind suddenly doesn’t sound like such a compliment to them anymore.

If I want to know about William Kamkwamba’s life, should I ask William Kamkwamba, orrr my neighbor Peggy? Why?

Probably the most important question for kids when we’re trying to determine how good, true, and reliable a book is this. Sorry, Peggy, but I just don’t trust your insight of the goings-on of Malawi. I just can’t. You’ve never been there.

In the same way we should teach our children to avoid gossip, we should try to model getting firsthand sources where possible about someone’s life in books and media outlets.

This is tricky because some authors and reporters put in tremendous amounts of research to find real sources and can do a fabulous job of presenting unbiased details about the events of another person’s life. It’s hard, but it’s possible.

Does the author and/or illustrator have a legitimate connection to the subject of the book?

An Australian writing about North Korea? My other neighbor, Sharon, writing about Malala Yousafzai? Neither of these are sources I’d trust without some serious display of research to back it up. An easy way to guide even little children through this difficult question of credentials is to start with the author and illustrator’s names.

Let’s look first at this book, “The Proudest Blue”:

Based on the pictures, (because we absolutely do judge books by their cover, I don’t know why we act like that’s bad) this book is about a girl who wears a hijab and has dark skin. Maybe she lives somewhere by an ocean? Now, the author’s name is Ibtihaj Muhammad. I know that is a very Arabic name, and many Arabic women wear hijabs. Maybe this story is about her. That sounds pretty likely. If we look further at the other names, Ali is a common Arabic family name, and Hatem Aly also sounds Arabic. Wow! This whole trio worked together to make a book of a culture they’ve been raised in. That seems like a safe guess. Of course, this isn’t something to quiz your kids on. I would be shocked if they could identify the origins of names. But it’s something as an adult that you can narrate to them.

And if you open the book to the author’s bio or notes, you can probably find a picture and the appropriate info to back up what their connection to the story is.

Now, let’s check out this book for a trickier example:

Trevor Eissler. He’s white. I’ve checked and he doesn’t mention having ever been to North Korea. His thing is Montessori learning, and I’m not sure where his interest in North Korea stemmed from.

But in this book, the words aren’t nearly half as important as the illustrations by Matthew J Baek. Now, Baek is a common Korean last name, but should I believe that this man is a North Korean defector now illustrating awesome children’s books? When we check the dedication in the front of the book, we see:

To my mom and her family who escaped North Korea by rowboat, in the darkness.

MJB

In this scenario, the illustrations are 100 times more valuable than the words because this is the story of the illustrator’s family! I mean, he story is cute, but the details in the illustrations tell so much of the story of North Koreans. I recommend that adults read a novel like Nothing To Envy, or A Girl With Seven Names to be able to talk about what you see in all the illustrations.

My assumption is that Matthew J Baek went to this author to get his family’s story out since the author already had something of an audience and connections. And how neat to see him bring to life in his illustrations things that his mother has probably told him about! Again, these are things you can narrate to your child as you read. Maybe the story itself isn’t fully true, but the pictures show things as they really are, so talk about what you see!

What makes a book good?

Well, I guess this one is up to you. Does it make you feel good? Does it make you want to be better? To be more kind? Compassionate? Curious? Creative? Does it use hard facts meant to bring light to a situation? Does it offer creative solutions to some problem?

These are just some of the things, when answered ‘yes’, that I think make a good book.

What do you think makes a good book? Can you share a favorite illustrated book in the comments or on social media? I’d love to extend my ever-growing wish list and library search!

What do Catherine the Great, Roller Coasters, and Matryoshki Have in Common?

(If you would like to purchase the Expedition Catherine’s Russian Mountains, scroll to the bottom, or click HERE.)

Recently, I came across something that suggested that the first ever roller coaster had been built by the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. I was so intrigued that I dug in to every record of this that I could find! After so long in self isolation, this little fun fact had me reeling for a good amusement park.

My initial interest was mostly just in the roller coasters, but pretty quickly I became infatuated with Catherine herself. Like, I-just-listened-to-a-20+hr-long-audio-book-of-her-whole-life infatuated. If you’re new to audiobooks like me, that translates to a 6 Part, 73 chapter, 625 page textbook of her life. And like a true nerd, I loved every second of it!

I learned so much about Catherine, but here are some of my favorite snippets of her life:

Impressing an Emperor

Before moving to Russia to be betrothed to the heir selected by Empress Elizabeth, Catherine had to first win over Emperor Peter the Great’s approval. Peter. The. Great. No big deal. As a 15 or 16 year old minor princess, she sat across from this great monarch and impressed him so much, that she was invited to sit next to him and discuss literature and other pretty refined topics for a 16 year old at dinner. The whole situation seems just absurd today. I can’t even imagine!

Throw A Coup

When her husband took the throne, everyone knew he was unfit to rule, but she was as good a wife as I can imagine the circumstances allowed her to be. If you’ve seen the Hulu trailers for the satirical show about Catherine the Great, then you might agree she could have acted like this:

Subtitles read: “I could kill you. You are a bad person.”

But she didn’t. So kudos to her. So maybe my bar is low, but she’s got patience I aspire to.

Eventually though, she caved to the pressure to throw a coup d’etat (a violent coup, as opposed to the peaceable ones that are so common, ya know) for the sake of Russia, BUT she didn’t want any blood shed. The army obeyed and they walked into the palace and took over while Peter was away. I guess it was violent only in that the army escorted her and was prepared to forcibly remove Peter from the premises.

She repeatedly throughout her reign enforced her stance that torture and bloodshed were no way to get to the truth or desired outcome of any situation. Even in the coup, she did not want any harm to come on her awful husband. Instead, she provided him with a very comfortable home and ordered that he should be given everything he wanted. Her letters and recorded commands around this time seem to suggest that she genuinely held to this position regarding her husband, but soon after going off to his superb quarantine, a fight broke out and some guards killed him, arguably on purpose, but officially on accident. If not for that, she would have pulled off an entirely bloodless coup.

Matryoshka, Forgive Me

Empress Elizabeth was vain and had an unpredictable temper at times. A lady-in-waiting hinted to Catherine that one of the things the Empress wanted most was to be seen as a good Matryoshka (little mother) to her people, and that if Catherine ever displeased the Empress, she might get out of trouble by calling the Empress “matryoshka”. Sure enough, the Empress eventually flew into a rage at Catherine’s expense. Catherine remembered the advice and tested it out, saying, “Matryoshka, please forgive me!” It worked!

I learned that this is very common to refer to the Empress or Tsarina as “little mother”, since the Russian tradition upheld that the royal ruler should be like the overseer of the whole Russian family. Likewise, male leaders are also referred to as “Batyushka”, or “little father”. Matryoshka is also the name of the iconic Russian toys we know often as “nesting dolls.”

The Royal Library

Catherine the Great often showed wild generosity beyond just political cunningness. My favorite example of this is the story of Diderot’s library. When Empress Catherine learned that Diderot, a French philosopher, was selling his library to come up with the dowry needed to marry off his daughter. Catherine purchased the library, left it in his care, and gave him a salary to be able to call on him for his books and intellect! I wish there were a Catherine in the world that would pay me for my library without taking away my books and give me a big enough stipend to continue building my library!

The Hermitage

One of the first Russian movies I ever watched in my undergrad was “Russian Ark”. This movie was a big deal, as I remember, because the entire film was taken in one continuous shot inside the actual Hermitage Museum in Russia. Catherine the Great is mainly responsible for this incredible collection of art. The only thing that could have made it more impressive is if she had focused more on supporting Russian artists and representing their art in the museum.

Russian Mountains aka Roller Coasters

If you know anything about Russia, you know that it’s cold. The winters are long and there is a lot of ice and snow. Walking down steep, icy roads is almost impossible at times, and some people I knew actually put spikes on the bottoms of their boots to go out in winter. If I had a recording of every moment in Russia, I could create a montage of moments when I decided (thinking no one was around to see) that I would rather just sit down and slide down some road, rather than try to walk it and risk wiping out. Obviously, I did not have those nifty boot spikes.

In the time of Catherine the Great, building giant mountains of snow/ice to slide down (katalnaya gorka) was a thing. Apparently the long winter of this winter sport wasn’t enough for the Empress. Also, she was adventurous and loved to be loved by people, and brilliant with design. So she built herself a dacha (getaway garden home) where she constructed the first type of roller coaster using cars that could be used year round.

The Common Denominator?

Do you see what I did there? Catherine the Great, Empress and Matryoshka of the Russian Empire built the first roller coaster! That’s what they all have in common. To learn more, you can purchase this Expedition of Catherine’s Russian Mountains here! It’s perfect for all your little explorers who are working on counting to 25, or who are ready to be introduced to simple addition or subtraction! It also includes plenty of reading, tracing, coloring, building things, and playing! (5 detailed lesson plans and suggestions included)

Expedition Catherine’s Russian Mountains

Read, Count and Color your way to being an expert about Catherine the Great of Russia and the first roller coaster made by her!

$5.00

  • Book Recommendations (A Royal Ride: Catherine the Great’s Great Invention, and others)
  • Catherine the Great Coloring Booklet
  • 2 Coloring Pages
  • Stackable, Printable Nesting Dolls Activity
  • Copy the Shapes and Matching
  • Tracing Pages
  • Scissor Skills
  • Tens Charts
  • Matching Number Forms activities (standard form and word form)
  • Roller Coaster Addition and Subtraction
  • Build Your Own Roller Coasters, and more!
  • A total of 40 pages plus detailed Lesson/Activity Suggestions!