We love hearing about how parents and educators use our books to introduce certain topics and ideas to young readers. And when we met Teresa Narey at NAEYC last year and later learned how she was using Susan Stockdale’s books to explore difference, we had to find out more! Teresa Narey is a curriculum manager and has over a decade of experience working in education, most recently having been an adjunct instructor and a pre-K teacher. She is a writer for FunShine Express, which features lesson plans and assessment materials for early childhood education.
As an early childhood professional, picture books have always been my greatest tool in connecting to and communicating with children. It was no surprise to me when it also became my greatest tool as a parent. I’ve been reading to my two-year-old son, Liam, since he was in utero. When I was pregnant, I would get up early in the morning and sit in a rocking chair and read a book to him. After he was born, we continued this tradition, though now it takes place while eating breakfast, in between playing with trucks, and at bedtime. When my position as a curriculum manager took me to the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children last November, I awaited the opportunity to visit book vendors and search for new reads for Liam. Peachtree Publishing was the first press I visited, and Fabulous Fishes by Susan Stockdale was the first book to catch my eye.
Fabulous Fishes is an unassuming tale about different types of fish. Kirkus Reviews raved, “Youngsters will tap their toes to [its] rhythm. . .,” and while I agree that Stockdale demonstrates a command of language, the feature of Fabulous Fishes that stands out most to me is its striking message: “No matter what [fishes] look like, they call the water home.” Parents and early childhood professionals alike often struggle to find a language for communicating with children about difference. Difference is inherent to being human, yet it causes so much strife in our world. In the context of Fabulous Fishes, the reader learns that fish can be round, striped, spiked, speckled, and spotted, among other things, yet at the end of the day, they are all fish and they all call the same place home. As an educator, I quickly saw the parallels between the book’s sentiment about fish and people and, of course, wanted to teach with it. As a curriculum manager, I have the unique opportunity to shape activities and learning content used in preschool classrooms across the country, so I wrote a series of activities about exploring difference with children, using Stockdale’s books as the impetus.
Many of Stockdale’s other stories communicate a similar message about creatures and the world in which they live. The next Stockdale book Liam and I read together was Stripes of All Types, which was the 2014 pick for the Pennsylvania One Book, Every Young Child program. Here, Stockdale uses stripes to connect creatures across ecosystems and continents. Stripes are the common characteristic among invertebrates, mollusks, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. This trend continues in her book Bring On the Birds, in which she describes whooping birds, hanging birds, drumming birds, riding birds, and many more, and yet again, despite these special characteristics, “all of them have feathers and all are hatched from eggs.” With each book, Stockdale reminded me that difference is a unifying feature; she taught me that such diversity is as observable and nuanced as it is essential and defining.
For me, Stockdale’s books spark some obvious conversation starters for talking with children about appreciating and valuing difference. Children as young as two can identify racial and gender differences, and books like Stockdale’s provide a context for helping children understand that difference is not just universal, but shared. Beyond the page, however, Stockdale’s work made me think about our approach to teaching children about difference―what if instead of teaching about difference as looking for something unique, we started to teach about it as looking for something we have (or things have) in common?
With this framework in mind, I developed a series of activities to help children understand how color exists on a continuum and to encourage them to think about why variations of so many common things exist. For example, one activity involves listening to variations of a familiar song, like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and talking about what we notice about these variations. Another activity invites children to do a picture dictionary scavenger hunt, during which they would choose a picture from the dictionary and look for versions of that item in their school (or home) settings. Such activities will support children’s understanding of difference as something we can notice everywhere, rather than defining it as something that is unusual and other-ly.
Liam and I look forward to reading more of Stockdale’s books. While I’ve identified a message in her stories that has framed my professional experience, Liam is captivated by her distinct illustrations and the inclusion of nature facts that end many of her books. He loves to pretend to be many of the animals, especially the birds, and will ask to see specific illustrations by Stockdale’s descriptors―“Liam see ‘dancing bird,’” he’ll say, and then we’ll talk about the blue-footed booby while he dances. With Fabulous Fishes, Stripes of All Types, and Bring On the Birds, he is undoubtedly developing a love for nature that will follow him through life. With Stockdale’s books, Liam is learning how to look closely and pay attention―to see and experience this vibrant world.
Thanks to Teresa Narey for sharing her great ideas of how to explore differences by using picture books with young readers! Check out the rest of Susan Stockdale’s books here. Do you have a favorite book by Susan Stockdale? How do you teach difference with your young readers? Let us know in the comments!