Every Good Thing about I Am Every Good Thing

Lynn: The current schism in this country often has me attempting to build a nest of blankets and bury myself in them. The only way to keep moving forward is to search for the good things and focus on them. One of the really bright spots in our dysfunctional culture the last few years has been the movement for diverse and “our own voices” in youth literature. The stories are powerful, heartfelt and important. They are also excellent examples of writing and illustrating. I love seeing these outstanding books that offer kids the chance to see themselves in books and for all of us to see and hear those stories.

This year, in particular, we have a treasure trove of such books and my absolute favorite so far is I Am Every Good Thing (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen, 2020) by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James. We loved Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Bolden, 2017) by this same duo and I think I love this one even more. There is such joy in this exuberant picture book that celebrates all the good things about young boys of color. Barnes’ lyrical text soars. It is radiantly proud, dynamic and oh so tender. It is reassurance and it is a confident statement that goes straight to the hearts of readers.

Gordon James illustrations are a vibrant emphasis to the text. A rich energetic palette underscores the strength and the humanity of each scene. I would love to frame each and every illustration. I simply cannot say enough about this outstanding and deeply moving picture book. It demands to be read aloud and shared again and again.

Cindy: When I opened this book and saw the first spread of a young, black boy soaring through the air, superhero style, I thought, this should be a poster in every classroom and in every young boy’s bedroom. The words by Derrick Barnes are as powerful as the image painted by Gordon C. James:

I am
a nonstop ball of energy.
Powerful and full of light.
I am a go-getter. A difference maker.
A leader.

Imagine who these young black boys would grow up to be with those words in their heads instead of slurs and demeaning dismissals of their worth? Political yard signs were popping up this fall in West Michigan where we live with the slogan: “Joe and a Hoe, Vote NO.” Is this who we are as a nation? Do we want our young people growing up thinking this is okay? Do we want young people to internalize this message about the first woman Vice President?

What I want is the message on the final page of this book. The rival for a poster for every classroom and kid’s bedroom: A  young black boy smiling, eyes sparkling, hugging himself, with these words:

And without a shadow
of a doubt,
I am worthy
to be loved.

I am worthy
to be loved.

Pair this book with Hey, Black Child (Little, Brown, 2017) by Useni Eugene Perkins for another empowering book that features both boys and girls.

The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth

Cindy: Can we talk? A few years ago when one of my white 8th-grade students read The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas, she talked with me about it afterward. She expressed her shock at learning about “The Talk,” the one that black parents need to have with their children as they become drivers to help keep them safe during traffic stops. She said to me, “My parents never had that talk with me.” It was an important awakening for her. The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth (Crown, 2020) edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson will cause similar awakenings for some children and teens, and for others, the experiences and stories related here will be all too familiar. This illustrated collection of stories, poems, and essays illuminates the need for many different “talks” as parents help their children navigate prejudice due to race, religion, gender, sexuality, and other ways that people find to categorize people as “other,” “less than,” and “dangerous.”

Renee Watson launches the collection with a powerful talk for black girls in “Remember This,” as she reminds them of the many black heroines who led the way, of the power of your voice, and the encouragement to be your best self even when others around you cannot be theirs. Grace Lin takes on Asian stereotyping and female diminishment in “Not a China Doll, an illustrated letter to her daughter at ten (five years in the future). “Why Are There Racist People,” was generated by a school visit question asked of Mexican author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh, one that he struggled to answer. This talk is the result of his research, reading, and thought. Tonatiuh illustrates his own entry, others are done by other talented artists. I read this in an advanced reader copy and I’m eager to see the finished copy including the unavailable backmatter. Talking to our children and to each other is a powerful way to build relationships. Let’s talk.

Lynn: This year especially has seen the publication of several outstanding books for teens on the subject of racism and authored by the voices of writers who have first- hand experience. All of them have informed and challenged me. Perhaps it is the teacher in me but this slim book tops the list for me. Its format of short contributions is perfect for reading aloud in a classroom where instructional time is often highly regimented. Each piece is powerful, moving, and absolutely ideal for use as discussion starters or writing prompts. The wonderful variety means that there is something here for every reader and every reader will find a favorite.

My own favorites start with Derrick Barnes’ story about a kitchen-table conversation with his young son while helping him with math homework. It is an experience most of us, young and old, have had and the commonality of it contrasts starkly with the racism the little boy has just experienced. For young readers of color it will be instantly recognizable and for white readers it will be, as it was for me, jarring. For all readers it will be incredibly moving and deeply memorable.

There are so many powerful pieces here and I also especially appreciated Tracy Baptiste’s driving lesson advice to her son, Nikki Grimes’ poem about choosing “not to pick up the hurtful words thrown like stones,” and Adam Gidwitz’s essay that brought a wholly different look at racism. The black and white illustrations are as varied and as effective as the text contributions and add greatly to the overall impact of the book.

This slim but important book should be in every classroom and library collection in the country. It is truly a gem and opens the door to conversations among all of us about racism, discrimination and the social condition of our country.