A few weeks ago, I was blessed with a rare and coveted opportunity: to read a book to my 3-year-old son’s preschool class. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been such a big deal in other times, but in the era of coronavirus pandemic, such an opportunity felt bewildering and unfamiliar…and altogether invigorating. So when my son’s teacher sent a request for any fully vaccinated moms (it was for the week before Mother’s Day) who would like to volunteer, I jumped at it. The only question remained, which book to choose?
There were two roads to choose from. When your audience is a coterie of squirmy, nose-picking 3- to 4-year-olds, you can imagine what kind of books would attract them the best: funny, imaginative, silly ones. But…is that what I wanted to do? As a brown person living in a predominantly white, predominantly well-to-do neighborhood in the already exorbitantly priced Bay Area, was I doing a disservice to these children by opting for safe and simple? Or should I consider the other path, and choose a book with some weight behind it, whether a diverse voice, diverse character, diverse cultures honored, with a valuable and incisive message?
Don’t misunderstand me: there are an abundance of books that are hilarious and heartwarming and just happen to center non-white voices. My son’s all-time favorites would be 10 Gulab Jamuns, Bilal Cooks Daal, and The Blessed Bananas (okay, this one centers a baboon), to name a few. And there are countless others (Laxmi’s Mooch and No Kimchi For Me come to mind). But there would also be nothing wrong with choosing any book that brings joy and ease to children’s hearts. And if I were to judge from my son’s preferences, any joyful book like Dragons Love Tacos, High Five, Elmer, and Edwin Speaks Up would be an excellent choice, too. Animals are a common theme in our preferred programming for books, in case you were wondering.
I deliberated for days. I had less than a week to decide, and I was also constricted by what books I actually had at home (no chance to check anything out from our beloved library). Eventually my focus zeroed in on Our Favorite Day of the Year, because it talks about Eid al-Fitr (which was just around the corner for us), and also celebrates other cultures and faiths, and the special holidays and traditions that suffuse those cultures with delight. My son and I had read it a few times already, and he dazzled me with his curiosity and focus. Truly I will never, ever undervalue the import of seeing yourself in books, as well as seeing yourself in others (who doesn’t love a good pie on Pi Day, for instance!).
Alas, I was met with some hesitancy — from my husband. “Are you sure you don’t want to go with something lighter? Less political?” If you’re like me, then I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. Everything in life is political! Every choice we make, even the choice of picking a funny, seemingly innocuous book is political. What we choose to address or to ignore comes down to what we think is worthy, or safe, or not problematic, and what position that places us in the aftermath. But I don’t blame him. It’s been a tough year, tough few years. And would a book that centers an African Muslim American character — even while it lovingly handles the elation and wonder of other children and cultures too — be an uncomfortable choice for my audience? More importantly, would the children even like it and listen?
The morning of my lunchtime visit, I sat with my son at breakfast and offered an array of his favorite books for him to choose from. “Which one would you like me to read to your class?”
He didn’t even give me an opportunity to wait with bated breath — he instantly pointed to Our Favorite Day Of The Year, and even asked me to read it right then. Turns out, it’s becoming a familiar friend to him, and we all know how “book friends” get read on repeat ’til the end of time. And so we did, taking time to laugh at different illustrations and sections, ask questions, and just allow him to respond to the text however he felt. I took that as a lesson and a blessing. Here was my little one guiding me through the practice of being comfortable with a text so I might mitigate some of my anxiety.
Such anxiety does not exist out of thin air. Earlier this year, when Read Across America Day approached, and discussions around moving past Dr. Seuss to showcase diverse stories and experiences, my son’s school planned to celebrate Dr. Seuss all week. After some deliberation, I wrote a lengthy email to them with my concerns over that — namely, a whole week dedicated blindly to an author with some clear racist depictions did not fit well with the otherwise progressive and uplifting initiatives of his school. Rather than celebrate him for a whole week, perhaps incorporate the books and themes designated by the National Education Association during the week as well. I did not expect any change to be made last minute (and they weren’t), but I was afraid that months later, they may receive my perspectives as rocking the boat too much.
But we love literature because it does help us rock the boat, it helps us voice the concerns we otherwise struggle so hard to share, and it creates a safe space to explore topics that are new, maybe uncomfortable, maybe unpopular, maybe unfamiliar. So, helping little children get a better sense of awareness of a big Muslim celebration and tradition, that’s vital to increasing empathy. And empathy is severely lacking in the adult world.
So, I went with it. And…I had nothing to worry about. Reading Our Favorite Day of the Year, with my son perched next to me, to a crowd of 3- to 4-year-olds, outside on a sunny day, felt so good. Because they listened. Because my son was excited. Because I could hear the teachers whispering, “Wow, what a great book!” Because it’s a text that encourages and enables deep conversations, about holidays and celebrations, but also about friendships, and remembering the people around us even when we aren’t together.
It’s a small step in the great challenge of instilling a love of humanity, and proving that such a love should be the obvious course of society’s direction. Another time I’d like to take an even greater step, and provide a voice to otherwise voiceless perspectives in these circles: Palestinian voices, Rohingya voices, Syrian voices, Kashmiri voices, to name just a few. But for now, I’m going to continue trusting my instinct as well as my son’s. And if I ever get another opportunity to read to preschoolers, I’ll make sure my son picks that one as well.