ST PAUL, Minn. — Tuesday, March 2 is Read Across America, and this year, the National Education Association is encouraging schools and families to seek out stories that promote diversity and inclusion.
The St Paul Public Library has been doing exactly that for several years now through its Read Brave program, which offers book recommendations and free resources online, which can be accessed by anyone looking for some inspiration.
Astrid and Apollo and the Starry Campout is the kind of story tailor-made for early readers and their parents in search of deeper messages.
"It talks about Astrid, the main character, who is dealing with a little bit of anxiety about going camping for the first time," said author Vong Bidania. "I think a lot of young readers – even adults – can kind of relate to having that kind of anxiety because of what we're going through at this time."
Bidania isn't the only one who feels that way. The St Paul Public Library has selected Astrid and Apollo as one of it's 2021 Read Brave selections. Not only does it have a timely message, but Bidania is also St Paul native whose Astrid and Apollo series centers on Hmong American kids.
"It means so much to me," Bidania said. "I want Hmong children to be able to see themselves reflected in kids books, but not in always the usual, stereotypical way or as minor characters. I wanted them to be able to see themselves as the heroes and stars of their very own books."
That kind of diversity is on display through all of the 2021 Read Brave books, which range from Pre-K to adult stories:
We Are Water Protectors, by Carole Lindstrom
Astrid & Apollo, by Y.T. Bidania
Front Desk, by Kelly Yang
The Stars and the Blackness Between Them, by Junauda Petrus-Nasah
"Each one of these books, even the picture book, has some meaning," said Don Allen, an English teacher at Humboldt High School in St Paul. "My saying is you cannot be, what you do not see. If my kids can't sit down – I don't care if they're Hispanic/Latino, Somali, Asian – if they can't sit down in my classroom at some point, in one week, can't read something about their culture, then I failed them, and that's how we need to look at this overall picture."
Because many teachers in classrooms across St Paul and the state, don't come from diverse backgrounds themselves, Allen helped the St. Paul library with age appropriate curriculum guides for each of this year's books.
The guides are also available online for free, and they are easy for parents to follow if they're looking for new ways to engage with their kids.
"You go with what you know and so if they don't know these authors, who is really going to make them read and teach these books?" Allen said. "That's the juggernaut in this situation."
And the lessons in the pages go far beyond St. Paul and relate to far more people than those who see themselves in these characters.
"I've been doing so many virtual school visits and the thing that I always hear from the kids, the kids who aren't Hmong ... they always tell me they can really relate to the feelings that Astrid was having about being anxious going camping," Bidania said. "Even if their anxious feelings have nothing to do with going camping."
Allen says the content is an important resource for anyone looking to connect with kids and young adults through reading, and he says the local authors take it to another level.
"The local author thing is huge," Allen said. "That gives a whole new meaning to this reading because you say, the author, the person who wrote the pages, is going to walk into your classroom and they're going to tell you about this book. That's very important to do, to make sure that we spark that one curiosity in these kids."