Just Like Me, Just Like You: The Importance
of Representation in Children's Books

by Pam Leo

“Our greatest strength lies not in how much we differ from each other but in how much, how very much, we are the same.” - Eknath Easwaran

It matters, not only THAT we read books to children; it matters WHICH books we read to children. Ezra Jack Keats believed that “...all children should be able to see themselves in the books they love.” He broke the color barrier in children’s literature in 1962 when he wrote The Snowy Day. He wanted “...no child to be an outsider.” Whether they are white, children of color, have physical or mental challenges or family members who do, whether their parents are divorced, or they have two moms or two dads, no matter what culture they are growing up in, children need books about children like them and they need books about children who have different lives than they do. The same book that is a mirror for one child will be a window into another world for another child.

Reading aloud to our children can provide even more than the opportunity to connect and strengthen our bond while building their foundation for literacy. It can be a way of teaching important values without ever lecturing. When it comes to teaching children anything and everything, stories are the best teachers. There is even a very popular math program called The Life of Fred that teaches math through stories. Stories engage more than children’s brains; stories speak to their hearts.

There are so many children’s books whose characters model courage, compassion, loyalty, honesty, respect, tolerance, persistence, and love. From books like The Little Engine That Could and Amazing Grace, to The Giving Tree and A Chair for Mother, stories can foster values from persistence to generosity.
The book I have chosen to share with you is, The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah, by Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Paul Meisel. This little red hen is much funnier and more forgiving than the hen in the traditional version. My granddaughter received this book from the PJ Library because she attends a Jewish preschool. We are blessed with receiving a free PJ Library book every month. I say “we” are blessed, because I have been enjoying these books for six years now, since my grandson began preschool there. “The PJ Library shares Jewish culture and values through quality children’s books that reflect the diversity of Jewish customers and practice”.  Children growing up in Jewish families or going to Jewish preschools and schools are eligible to be signed up to receive the free monthly book until age 6. When I shop for gently used children’s books for the Book Fairy Pantry Project, just as I always know it will be a quality children’s book if it comes from the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, I always know it will be a quality book if it comes from the PJ Library.

Children living in Jewish homes will see themselves and their families preparing for Passover in this very funny book. For children (and adults) who may know little, if anything, about matzah, or Passover, this book is still fall down funny, and it provides an opportunity to learn about how other families celebrate the holidays of their faith. To make this story really come alive, we can use the simple recipe in the back of the book to make our own matzah. Can you make it in only 18 minutes, from the time you pour the water into the flour till the time the matzah comes out of the oven, just like the book says?

To me, reading stories about children from another culture, then preparing the foods of that culture is family time, times ten. Not only are we having connection time while we read and while we cook together, cooking with children builds their self esteem and makes them smarter because cooking incorporates math, geography, science, nutrition, measuring skills, and kitchen safety. If you like this idea of learning about other cultures through reading stories and cooking the foods of that culture together, you will love Norah Dooley’s books, Everybody Bakes Bread, Everybody Brings Noodles, Everybody Cooks Rice, and Everybody Serves Soup. These books can provide hours and hours of reading, cooking, and connection time for the whole family.

Every minute we spend reading aloud will strengthen our connection with children. Every word we read to them will feed their brains and, when we include stories whose characters live in other lands, who face different challenges and who model courage, compassion, kindness, perseverance, honesty, and integrity, those stories will help us teach our children what it means to be a “mensch.” Mensch is a Yiddish word that means a decent person, someone who is basically good. The word mensch comes from the Jewish culture, but there are children in every culture who grow up to be mensches. Let’s read them the stories mensches are made of.
Martha Crippen of Luther College writes that children’s literature can:

  • Foster personality and social development.
  • Develop emotional intelligence and promote moral development.
  • Develop positive attitudes toward our own culture and the cultures of others.

Pam Leo, is a family literacy activist, the author of Connection Parenting, and a new poem, Please Read To Me. Her enduring love of children's books, her passion for literacy, and her commitment to empowering parents, are combined in her new role as the founder of the Book Fairy Pantry Project, whose mission is "No Child With No Books," because "Books change children's lives... For good."