Wonder While You Wander: Black Children in the Outdoors

By Jesus Montaño 

As a celebration of Black History Month, each week a Hope College professor or student will recommend their favorite books or films dealing with issues facing Black Americans today and throughout history. This week is dedicated to children’s literature and is written by Dr. Jesus Montaño, an associate professor of English. As a teacher/scholar of Latinx literatures and cultures, with special interest in children’s and young adult literary and cultural production, Dr. Montaño’s teaching and research examines the transformative and reparative power of writing and reading on young minds and spirits.

One can justly assume that this blog post took a wrong turn, got lost, then found itself in the woods. To be fair, it is easy to presume that a blog post on African American children’s picture books would not be concerned with Black children wondering as they wander in the outdoors. I would like to take this time and opportunity afforded to me by the Big Read Lakeshore to map what such a journey, via picture books, can offer us, that is, what can we gain from treading along these wild wonderscapes. 

We know that play is an important part of childhood, beneficial to learning and wellbeing so much that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children lists it as one of its international rights and that playing outdoors in particular helps children to learn science, practice social and emotional skills, and develop the lifelong habit of being active. Wondering and wandering in the great outdoors, we might say, is an important part of childhood, and of being human. 

Yet, as children’s literature scholar Dr. Michelle Martin at the University of Washington Information School notes, Black kids are rarely featured playing in nature. This lack of representation can be a detriment to Black children who do not often see themselves represented in picture books, much less in picture books in nature. For Professor Martin, this is important right now not only because of health issues, such as obesity, that disproportionately impact kids of color, but also because this lack of representation can communicate ideas about to whom nature belongs. Given the state of our environment, it is essential to consider issues of equity in terms of access to natural spaces and the role of Black and Brown people in environmental conservation efforts. 

By diversifying our bookshelves to include picture books with Black kids exploring nature, we can help kids find themselves in literature and in the great outdoors. During this Black History Month, take a moment to check out some picture books that show Black kids leading us as they wander and wonder in nature. Here are a few favorites to get you started:

Where’s Rodney? by Carmen Bogan is a story of a young Black student who can’t keep still. When Rodney visits a national park for the first time, he finds that the outdoors can be a majestic and peaceful place. 

The Hike by Alison Farell features a multi-racial group of three young female explorers as they wonder and wander in their local forest park. Each girl engages with the woods in a unique way, teaching us the value of observing, appreciating, and learning in the natural world. 

The Thing about Bees by Shabazz Larkin is a love poem to the author’s two sons that helps kids understand the role of these some-times scary pollinators. Perfect for a read-aloud, this book helps kids understand the importance of bees and the natural environment. 

The Camping Trip by Jennifer K. Mann is a picture book/graphic novel hybrid about Ernestine, a city kid, and her first adventure camping in the Pacific Northwest. This book shares the frustrations and delights of camping and how time in nature can transform our way of seeing the world. 

Buzzing with Question by Janice Harrington tracks what is possible when Black youth place their love of nature at the service of answering the world’s “buggy” questions, such as how ants find their way home or can bugs see color. About Charles Henry Turner, the first Black entomologist, this picture book provides a look at the obstacles as well as the promise of encouraging Black youth into the sciences. 

What would our world look like if we encouraged all kids to wander and wonder in the outdoors? Specifically to this blog entry, what would our world gain if we envisioned Black youths treading into wild wonderscapes? This is to say that changing the world begins in such imaginative ways. I highly encourage you to read these books, to yourself and to those you love. 

Celebrating Black History Month: Young Adult Literature

As a celebration of Black History Month, each week a Hope College professor or student will recommend their favorite books or films dealing with issues facing Black Americans today and throughout history. This first week is dedicated to Young Adult literature.

Book: Gifted Hands by Ben Carson (1990)

Reading Level: 3rd-5th grade

Gifted Hands is an inspiring autobiography about the neurosurgeon and politician Ben Carson. In this touching story of his journey to becoming a successful neurosurgeon, he describes growing up with a single mother who suffered from depression in inner-city Detroit. Though the odds were against him, Ben Carson graduated from Yale University and went on to University of Michigan Medical School. At the young age of thirty-three, Dr. Carson became the director of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and has performed many life-saving surgeries on children, as described in his book.

Faith is an important aspect of Dr. Carson’s life, and therefore his story. Throughout the book, Dr. Carson mentions the hands of God directing him in miraculous ways, from his childhood to life as a successful surgeon.

Gifted Hands is a great book for anyone looking for an inspirational story focusing on one perspective of the Black experience in America.

Book: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Reading Level: 4th-6th grade

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is about a Black family of sharecroppers living in rural Mississippi during the early 1930s. Although set at the height of the Great Depression, the story mostly focuses on the economic disadvantages caused by racial disparities in the South during the Jim Crow era. Throughout the novel, multiple characters encounter racial discrimination and hate crimes like lynching at the hands of white southerners. This book explores the importance of family, racial equality, and faith during hard times. 

Book: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2018)

Reading Level: 6th-8th grade

The Poet X  is about a fifteen-year-old Afro-Latina girl living in Harlem, born into a religious family. Through writing her own slam poetry, Xiomara reflects on the religion she was born into and the way her race and gender have impacted her life. This coming-of-age story is about making sense of personal identity at a time when racial tensions are high, and is essential for a society that still represents many minority groups as stereotypes. Therefore, this novel is a breath of fresh air in that it is a more realistic depiction of a young girl wrestling with her identity as an Afro-Latina woman.

Book: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014)

Reading Level: 6th-8th grade

Written in verse, this novel is about the author, Jacquline Woodson’s childhood growing up near the end of the Civil Rights Movement. While born in Ohio, Woodson ends up moving to South Carolina at a time racism and discrimination are rampant in the South. Eventually, Woodson moves to New York, and she grows to love it. Throughout the novel, Woodson learns more about the Civil Rights Movement, Black Panthers, and feminism, and by the end, considers herself to be an activist and writer. Overall, this novel describes the experiences of one Black writer and activist and her journey to self-discovery amidst the tensions of race in America since the Civil Rights Movement.

Book: All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely (2015)

Reading Level: 9th-12th grade

All American Boys is a co-written novel that deals with the racism Blacks still deal with today, focusing primarily on law enforcement. This book has two main characters, Rashad, an innocent Black teenager who gets beaten by a police officer, and Quinn, a white teenager who slowly comes to realize the unfair treatment Blacks in America still receive today. It would have been easy for this novel to paint the racial disparities depicted as good versus evil, but instead it shows the humanity of every character, no matter what choices they make, good or bad. This novel is a great way to look at issues that face Black Americans today such as police brutality and unfair representation in media.

Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Brooke Carbaugh

I am a senior English Secondary Education major at Hope College with a minor in history secondary education. I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and other than the Big Read I am involved with Residential Life and the Education Technology Team on campus.

What’s your role on the Big Read team?

 My role on the Big Read Lakeshore team is communicating with the teachers that work with our program. I help send out information about teacher meetings, resources, and how many books each teacher would like for their classrooms. Additionally, I manage the blog by writing posts or setting up a schedule of what will be posted and when.

What did you learn from the program?

Through my role, I have fostered my love of reading and seen how much literature matters. I get to work with the teachers and hear about the impact that simply getting a book can have on a student. I have enjoyed learning from our authors and reading alongside the community. Also, I learned the value of working with people that you admire.

What’s your favorite book (and why)?

At the moment, my favorite book is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. I love that the book is both a murder mystery and about the human connection with nature. My favorite book before that was Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan because I love a good memoir, especially one with some twists and turns.

Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Shelly Arnold

Shelly has been with Hope College since 2003. Her main role is the office manager for the Center for Ministry Studies. She earned a second post-secondary degree in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree from Hope majoring in history with an art history minor. 

What’s your role on the Big Read team?

Shelly began working part-time with Big Read Lakeshore in 2017 providing administrative support and now works primarily with budgetary details.

What did you learn from the program?

Even though the basics of carrying out the program is the same, each year is very different from the previous. All the hard work is worth it in the end when you learn so much more beyond the pages of each book through speakers’ stories and artistic interpretations. The written word comes alive, reaching out in ways you wouldn’t have imagined.

What’s your favorite book (and why)?

She has many favorite books, but most recently it was a Big Read selection, Station Eleven, read prior to the COVID pandemic.

Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Nancy Gately

Next up in our series, we have Nancy Gately. Nancy is a fifth-year senior majoring in English for Secondary Education with minors in History for Secondary Education, K-12 English as a Second Language, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Nancy is also a Holland native and is a fan of a good cup of coffee. 

Q and A with Nancy:

What’s your role on the Big Read team?

 I have been working for the Big Read for two years now, and my role can be described as anything and everything having to do with libraries and non-profits. I’m the point of contact for libraries and non-profit organizations. In the summer, I ensure they still want to participate in the program. In the fall, I finalize the events that the libraries and non-profits are hosting, and in the winter, I gather the attendance information for all events. 

What did you learn from the program?

Through my role, I have learned the importance of a good email. Being the point of contact for so many libraries and non-profits has made it so that I am sending many emails throughout the day and answering many emails. Though by sending good emails, specifically, those that are clear, to the point, but also kind, make it so all the people I am in contact with know what is going on, and I can build a good relationship with them so that the Big Read can keep as many library and non-profit partners as possible. 

What’s your favorite book (and why)?

I have many favorite books. While it is not really a book one author that I always find myself coming back to, and would consider a favorite is John Grisham. I love the court scenes that he writes and how the pace of his books is fast, yet the storyline is not that predictable. 

Behind the Scenes Spotlight: Addie Wilcox

We’re starting a new series to feature all of our workers behind the scenes that make the Big Read and Little Read Lakeshore happen. Come back each Monday to learn more about our team members, what they learned from working for the program, and their favorite books!

Introducing Addie Wilcox

Addie is a sophomore at Hope College majoring in Secondary English Education, Creative Writing, and Classical Studies.

Q&A with Addie

What’s your role on the Big Read team?

This year, I was responsible for all things Greek mythology. This meant that I worked a lot with the podcast by getting interviewees, coming up with the questions for the podcast, and also editing it. I helped at all the events by taking pictures, introducing speakers like our kick-off speaker Dr. Maiullo, getting speakers ready, running around with a mic for audience members to ask questions, etc. Additionally, I wrote multiple blog posts relating to Greek mythology and even one Op Ed for the Holland Sentinel. If you saw any poster for the Big Read and Little Read events, I created those as well!

What did you learn from the program?

 I thought I had a pretty firm grasp on Greek mythology before, but after hearing each interviewee on the podcast, I learned so much more about it as well as how Greek mythology transfers to, and informs, modern society. Throughout the program, I was forced to think about the historical context of different Greek myths which is something I had not considered before, so my grasp on ancient history improved. I also learned how to create, produce, and edit a podcast which is something I had never been exposed to before.  

What’s your favorite book (and why)?

My favorite book is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I love how the main characters are female victims of a patriarchal society who come up with a way to combat the system and decide to live the life they want despite the consequences. I also love Hawthorne’s use of motifs and symbolism throughout the book. 

Takeaways from Circe

Part of the joy of the Big Read Lakeshore program is reading a book on your own and then learning about the book from different perspectives. 

One of my biggest takeaways from the programming around Circe was how ingrained storytelling and myths are in culture. Every civilization has stories and oral traditions to pass down that help them make sense of the universe. Even if these traditions are different, having these stories links cultures together. 

Another thing I learned from programming was to pursue your passions. Madeline Miller was interested in Greek mythology from a young age and studied classics, Latin, and Greek extensively. Eventually, this study and a lot of research led her to become a popular author. Her passion for Greek mythology was evident in her talk and she created a relevant version for our time. 

Miller’s retelling of this story stuck with me as well. It was interesting to hear how reading The Odyssey inspired her to retell the story of Circe. She read numerous primary sources that mention Circe to piece together another version of the story. This illustrates the importance of looking at a different perspective and retelling stories that are relevant to modern times.

Connecting An American Sunrise to Circe 

This November marked my second year working for the Big Read Lakeshore. As a future teacher, the Big Read and Little Read Lakeshore programming has taught me a lot about the importance of reading and what it means to read in community. My first year working with the Big Read program and reading An American Sunrise helped prepare me to read Madeline Miller’s Circe. 

One connection I see between An American Sunrise and Circe is the focus on different perspectives and revisionist history. I did not learn about boarding schools and other aspects of Native American history until a course in college because that version of the story was left out of the history. Similarly, Circe’s version of the story was not included in the original Odyssey, so this book gives a new version of the story. This emphasizes the importance of looking at things from different perspectives other than your own. 

Another similarity between these two programs was the opportunity to learn from intelligent women that were passionate about their subjects. Both Joy Harjo and Madeline Miller have been teachers and authors. They studied and perfected their craft and are now able to share this gift with audiences like our community. 

Lastly, readers were able to get a broader picture of our book by bringing in speakers to approach things from all different perspectives. Last year things were approached from a poetry and a historical perspective. This year the program thought about Greek Mythology as a retelling from another point of view, her origins in the Odyssey, comic strips, and as a musical performance. 

What We Learned from Matt de la Peña

Photo Credit: Heather Waraksa

Matt de la Peña visited Hope College’s campus on November 9. He spoke to 400 elementary students in the morning, a college English class, and to the public in the evening. His message was funny and inspiring since it touched on why readings matters, a topic that is near and dear to our program. 

During his visit, participants learned that anyone can be an inspiration to others. In college, a professor gave de la Peña a book (he later revealed it was The Color Purple) and told him the book made her think of him. He gave himself until the end of college to read it and eventually in his senior year he read it on a basketball trip. The book touched him and he continued to read books like this title. 

Later on, de la Peña’s dad asked him to read the book he just finished and this eventually led to his father, who didn’t read often to become a book lover and go back to school to be a teacher. 

De la Peña shared that he didn’t expect to be a writer early in his life, but he gravitated towards these classes in college and discovered a passion for it. A few of his professors submitted an application on his behalf to graduate schools in creative writing and he was accepted to two of them. 

Now de la Peña travels the country to speak about his books and inspire others to follow their passions. 

From this message, the audience learns that simple things like recommending a book to a student does matter and can even change the trajectory of someone’s life. This happened in both de la Peña’s and his dad’s cases. The Big and Little Read Lakeshore believes that reading matters and Matt de la Peña certainly illustrated this when he spoke as part of our program.

Mythic: Kruizenga Art Museum

Each year the Kruizenga Art Museum (KAM) curates an exhibit based on the chosen Big Read Lakeshore book. This year the exhibit is based on Greek Mythology, specifically, characters included in Madeline Miller’s novel Circe. 

This photo was taken at the Big Read Lakeshore book discussion with KAM where Charles Mason explained aspects of the Mythic exhibition.

Charles Mason, the curator at the KAM, mentioned that he thought about a few different things when selecting artwork for this exhibit. 

One thing that inspired this exhibit was the Homeric language and the relationship between texts and images. Each reader tends to create a different mental image of something based on their reading of a text. This means that different styles in the exhibit represent the different interpretations of Greek myths. 

Inspiration for the exhibit was also taken directly from Madeline Miller’s book Circe by weaving together characters from her story into the exhibit. Some of these pieces include depictions of the Minotaur, Jason, and others. Miller gave cultural relevance to her retelling of Circe, so this exhibit contains different modern approaches to these characters as well. 

The Kruizenga Art Museum continues to feature this exhibit until December 17 and is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Come check out the artwork!