—Jada Pinkett Smith
—Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, philosopher and Detroit community organizer
—ECO Girl Parent
Reviews for Parents and Teachers
Parents and teachers will find reviews of lectures, conferences, books, children’s books, and websites that focus on girls, children of diverse heritages, and environmental issues here.
This is a great list of over 100 top African-American children's books, a mix of new contemporary adventures and classic favorites.Read the top 100 reviews
Dance educator Camille A. Brown recently directed, choreographed, and performed in a new piece entitled BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play along with a team of wonderfully creative and talented dancers. Gracing the stage of Ann Arbor, Michigan’s Power Center this past February 13th, 2016, Brown celebrated the many sprawling narratives of black girlhood. Brown brought rhythmic language and movement to the forefront of the stage as she elevated the beauty and complexity of black girlhood.
In her own words, Camille A. Brown describes BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play as a piece that:
…Shows the power of sisterhood and the fact that, as we mature, Black girls still play. It is remembering, conjuring, honoring, and healing. It’s a Black girl’s story through her gaze. This work is a gift to myself and Black girls everywhere. If our audiences see parts of themselves in our work – their struggles and their joys – regardless of their color, gender, or socioeconomic background, then I know we have done our job.
On the stage in Ann Arbor, Camille Brown captivated audiences through energetic beats and youthful dance moves reminiscent of double-dutch and other playground games. The unfolding of Brown’s black girl narratives illustrated the complexity of communication – verbal, bodily, historic, and other unspoken communications.
Camille A. Brown is a dancer, choreographer, director, and dance educator who earned her B.F.A. from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. After earning B.F.A., Brown joined Ronald K. Brown’s Evidence, A Dance Company (2001-2007) and performed as a guest artist with Rennie Harris Puremovement, and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (in 2008 and 2011). Brown then started up her own dance company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, and has since earned numerous awards and recognition for her choreography which has sparked innumerable discussions and commentary around race, identity, and girlhood. Camille A. Brown & Dancers have a number of upcoming performances, and continue to choreograph and perform in New York.
I recently attended the 2013 NASCO Institute, which took place in Ann Arbor, MI. NASCO is a cooperative education and training institute that brings members of housing and food cooperatives across the country together to engage in important topics and conversations. The theme for this year was Food Justice and Food Security. "Food Justice" means that everyone has a right to access healthy and culturally appropriate food. Panels and conversations highlighted food insecurity in our own city of Detroit, as well as individuals and communities working together to catalyze social change.
Malik Kenyatta Yakini, Founder and Executive Director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, was one such activist and educator highlighted. During his keynote speech, Yakini gave a succinct overview of Detroit's changes over the decades. From the 1950's when Detroit's population reached close to 2 million, to the divestment in the city's infrastructure and black communities for investment in the mostly-white suburbs, to the post race riots of 1967, Yakini pointed out how social factors have contributed to Detroit's current reality of vacant lots, unemployment rates that are twice the national average, and over 550,000 people living in a "food desert" where there is not close access to healthy food.
Yakini works to identify and alleviate the impacts of racism and white privilege on the food system. Founded in 2006, The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network farms on under-utilized land and seeks to create jobs, train urban farmers, and increase the access to healthy food. Most importantly, Yakini pressed the importance of having those most impacted by food insecurity to be at the heart of the urban agriculture movement. Yakini asserted, "The black community has the right to own our identity and define our own reality." ECO Girls is familiar with Yakini’s mission, and visited the D-town farm last October where the girls toured the farm and learned about the farm’s role in the community.
The NASCO conference overall urged participants to continue to think about how we use land, how cities feed themselves, how we can take control of our food system by being self-sustainable, and to continue to complicate the dichotomies of rural vs. urban and producer vs. consumer. Lastly, grow where you are!
To learn more about the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network please visit http://detroitblackfoodsecurity.org.
Urban fiction is a genre written by African Americans for a primarily African American audience. Critics and reviewers praise the genre for its authenticity and the creative way it includes hip hop culture and the Black experience. Critics also comment positively on the ability of this genre to attract young black girls as readers, thereby engaging them in a culture of literacy. In the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, for instance, Simone Gibson concludes that: “There is a particular significance to urban fiction as a genre, because it engages the reading interests of an overlooked and understudied population of readers—adolescent African American girls.” But despite a positive reception by some book critics, the popularity of this genre with young adult female readers is cause for concern. This review will examine the lessons and values this genre presents to African American girls by looking closely at one of the most commercially successful works of the genre, The Coldest Winter Ever, by popular author Sister Souljah.
Sister Souljah’s first book, The Coldest Winter Ever, was published in 1999. The tone of the novel is casual; the grammar, like that in most urban fiction, is informal. Major themes in the novel include: drug abuse, materialism, violence, hyper-sexuality, and disrespect for women. The story centers on an African American teenaged girl named Winter Santiaga. Winter’s father, Ricky Santiaga, is the top drug dealer in Brooklyn. From the beginning of the novel, it seems as if Winter is born into “Black Royalty.” Winter, along with her three younger sisters, mother and father live like the rich, indulging in the newest and best electronics, jewelry, and clothing. Ironically, they live in the housing projects alongside people who are completely impoverished. Soon after the story begins, Winter’s father moves the family out of the projects and into a mansion on Long Island. When her father is caught by the FBI and imprisoned, Winter’s siblings are placed in child custody. Winter escapes and runs away to live on the streets. Throughout the remainder of the novel, Winter uses her beauty, street smarts, and even more disturbing, her sexuality, to get ahead in life. This works pretty well for Winter, until she finally gets caught. The novel ends with Winter being sent away to prison for fifteen years.
A primary focus of the novel is drugs; Souljah spends most of the book glamorizing the drug lifestyle. Drug dealing is portrayed as the only way of becoming rich and earning ultimate respect in this novel. Money is the prime objective of all the characters; they pursue whatever means necessary to achieve monetary gain. Early in the novel, Winter introduces her father and describes her love and respect for him: “I loved my pops. He was the smoothest nigga in the world. When he came in the room he made a difference...He never wore the same shirt twice. He never used the drugs he sold.” Winter looks up to her father because of his high status in the drug world. She goes on to explain how he is able to provide for his family due to his involvement with drugs, but she speaks little on what kind of person he is outside of his money and status. Winter thinks highly of the drug trade and associates her identity with her father’s activities: “The drug dealers helped America to be rich. If it wasn't for us, who would buy the fly cars, butter leathers, and the jewelry? We put so much money into circulation.” Even by the middle of the novel, Winter still has not grasped the point that drugs are harmful to a community and that this is the reason they remain illegal. Winter remains an immature character and shows little growth. Souljah misses the opportunity to address the seriousness of the drug problem and the negative effects of drug use in Black communities. Most adolescent girls who read the book are incapable of reading into why the selling and consumption of drugs are illegal, and can only relate to how Winter feels.
Trust is an important human value that is absent from this novel. Characters constantly turn their backs on one another, disregarding any type of loyalty or relational bond. Rather than trusting one another, the characters resort to violence with friends as well as enemies. Violence is used as a way to solve conflicts between the characters. In a scene where Winter and her best friend have a misunderstanding, they go back and forth insulting each other and then turn to fighting. Instead of speaking to one another and expressing their differences, Winter and her best friend act as if they are not friends at all by saying things to hurt one another. Through moments like this in the novel, young girls are being told that friendship means nothing and that violence is okay when you get angry. Instead, fiction should reintroduce young girls to the idea of being true to one another and building one another up instead of tearing each other down.
In The Coldest Winter Ever, women and girls are portrayed in a negative light. Female characters are shown as valuing their looks and material objects over everything else, and as being gold diggers when it comes to relationships with men. Winter disregards school entirely and sees it as waste of time. She learns early from her mother what beauty means: “Momma didn't work cause beauty she said was a full time occupation and left no room for anything else.” The female characters use their beauty and sexuality to get what they want instead of working for it. At the beginning of the novel, Winter admits that getting her first “sugar daddy” was easy, and explains how she used him: “He got paid every two weeks and so did I. I had him buying shit he couldn't afford...Whatever little money he took home in pay, I took my 25 percent like I was his freakin’ agent or something.” Though women mostly use men for money in the novel, there are many instances in the novel where women are subservient to men. The relationship between Winter and her boyfriend, Bullet, is disturbingly unequal and even abusive. For instance, after Bullet has locked Winter in his apartment for two days, he finally comes home with no concern for her and orders her to accompany him outside in a disrespectful tone. Winter acquiesces, thinking: “As I was learning not to resist him, I followed his instructions.” Moments like these in the novel suggest to young female readers that it is okay to be dependent on men and disrespected by men. These are dangerous ideas to teach young women at the adolescent stage. Instead, these girls should be developing self-respect and recognition of the importance of their future contributions to our society.
I must acknowledge that Sister Souljah tries to introduce positivity in the novel by using herself as a character. She represents herself as a fictional role model for African American women in the book. The character Sister Souljah tries to instill in her listeners basic values such as respect, protecting the family image, and the value of a dollar. However, Winter disregards all of this advice and despises Souljah. The novel concludes with Winter still not understanding what Souljah the character was trying to teach the community. Adolescent female readers of The Coldest Winter would be more likely to leave the book with the critical understanding that Winter’s lifestyle is damaging if Winter had developed as a character and finally come to recognize the value of Sister Souljah’s lessons.
The effects of urban fiction are mostly negative for the young girls who read the genre. I know because I was one of these girls. As a ten year old, I read The Coldest Winter Ever. I picked it up from my teenage sister who raved about how great a book it was. At the time, I had no idea how to interpret what I was reading. All I took in were the curse words and racial slurs, sexual experiences, and street life. My mother had no idea I was reading the book, and if she had known, I am sure she would have disapproved. As a college student, I am now able to understand and analyze The Coldest Winter Ever, and what I see disturbs me. I am disappointed that negative subjects are the main focus of urban fiction, especially given that increasing numbers of young readers are paying attention to the genre. There should be positive values and role models in these novels; they should tell stories of urban Black women who have made something great of their lives. As an African American woman, I cannot help but notice that from every angle, we as a people are being put into stereotypical boxes. Urban fiction is only contributing to our confinement.
For an ECO Girls research project on representations of girls of color in popular media, I set out to identify current television shows featuring girls of color. Out of twelve popular Disney and Nickelodeon television shows, five have at least one African American female cast member: Big Time Rush, Good Luck Charlie, Shake it Up, A.N.T. Farm, and Jessie. Other than one female actress of Latino decent, Selena Gomez of Wizards of Waverly Place, there were no other girls of color represented in these shows. Of all ethnicities, African American girls of color were most represented. I admit that I fell in love with a majority of the African American actresses that work on these shows while I was viewing the episodes for this project.
Good Luck Charlie, a sitcom aired on Disney, is a show revolving round a Denver family, the Duncans, as they adjust to the birth of their youngest child, Charlie. Charlie’s oldest sister, Teddy, creates a video diary for Charlie giving advice and showing her what she will be faced with as she grows into a teenager. Rayven Goodwin plays Teddy’s best friend, Ivy Wentz, the only African American cast member. Ivy’s character is outspoken and fashionable. She is a fairly accurate portrayal of the typical American teenager with her cell phone always in hand, texting away. What I liked best about Ivy was her self-confidence. Given the opportunity, Ivy could tell you a million and one reasons why she knows she’s fabulous.
Shake it Up is another Disney show with an African American lead. The main character, Rocky Blue, is played by fifteen-year old Zendaya Coleman. Shake it Up follows best friends Rocky Blue and Cece Jones, background dancers for a local show called Shake it Up Chicago. The show also narrates the many adventures of the two best friends. Rocky Blue’s character places a high value on school and education. Unlike her best friend Cece, Rocky has perfect attendance at her high school and is very studious. What’s even better about Rocky is that although she places a high value on school, she still knows how to have fun.
Disney’s A.N.T. Farm follows the misadventures of three middle school friends enrolled in a program for gifted students at their local high school. The show centers on Chyna Parks, the newest student to be accepted into the Advanced Natural Talent Program (A.N.T.) at Webster High School in San Francisco, California. Chyna Parks, an eleven-year-old African American musical prodigy capable of playing more than fourteen instruments, is played by twelve-year old China Sparks. Chyna is self-confident and constantly encourages her more timid friends to break out of their shells. Frequently, Chyna’s encouragement pushes her friends to expand their intellects and adopt more optimistic outlooks in tough situations.
Before I began writing this review, I sat back and reminisced about my own childhood, full of Polly Pockets, My Little Pony mini plastic horses, Skip-Its, and the occasional brown-faced Barbie. Being the youngest and only girl of three, I had a toy chest full of toys, but I preferred going outside to run around with my neighborhood friends to sitting inside and brushing my baby doll’s hair. So I guess you could say I was the typical tomboy. I didn’t want to wear dresses to school, let alone play dress-up at home. My summers and after-school hours were spent chasing behind my brothers and scraping my knees. Unlike the little girls growing up in today’s society, I never felt the need to dress like a Disney Princess or wear hip clothes (I was more of the “vintage’ shopper, tagging along with my grandmother to the local Salvation Army), and I certainly wasn’t allowed to have a Facebook account until I was 16. Sure, I loved watching popular 90s television shows like Sister Sister, Moesha, and Cousin Skeeter, but I can’t ever recall looking up to the female characters in those shows as models for my own behavior. The closest thing I had to Hannah Montana was Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears as musketeers on The Mickey Mouse Club, and they certainly weren’t singing in sports arenas full of little girls screaming their brains out. What I’m trying to say here is that just ten years out of my own childhood and adolescence, the world in which girls today grow up has changed a great deal.
Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter is an excellent analysis of the culture of girlhood today that offers more that just statistical facts. Written by the mother of a biracial, Jewish and Japanese little girl of color, Cinderella Ate My Daughter gives insight into popular girls’ culture from a mother’s point of view. Orenstein, a journalist whose expertise is girls’ culture, has spent the last twenty years writing, thinking, and talking about how girls should be raised. After the birth of her daughter, Orenstein was thrown into the position of trying to practice what she had preached. Would she stick to her advice of raising a daughter without instilling the typical gender stereotypes of being prim, pink, and pretty? Or would she buy into the Disney-Princess-dominated, hypersexalized childhood of Beauty Pageants and Bratz dolls?
Cinderella Ate My Daughter is a great resource for understanding how little girls, starting from pre-school years, internalize the world of popular culture to use as a means of creating their own identities. It is a well-written easy read that I believe every mother of a young daughter should check out. Orenstein encourages her readers to think about the messages of popular culture in a new light. What I gained most from Orenstein’s writing was the realization that the influence of popular culture on young girls is somewhat inevitable. Peggy and her husband refused to buy their daughter Disney Princess items of any sort, yet those items still seemed to find a way into their home. Although Orenstein never told her daughter the story of the popular Disney Princess, Sleeping Beauty, she still found her daughter lying on the ground at a family bar mitzvah searching for just the right boy to awaken her from her sleep-induced coma by kiss. Despite these inescapable influences, parents can still offer their children alternatives, such as a toy, or a doll from the line of American Girl Dolls that represent ten-year old girls of various ethnicities living in American historical times, the more expensive yet age appropriate alternative to the short-skirt, knee-high-boot-wearing Bratz dolls. Even better than engaging in acts of consumption, parents can have an impact on how children interpret popular media images by sitting their daughters down and explaining that what they see on television is unrealistic.
Sacred Water: Water for Life takes as its premise the Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) cultural notion that water is the lifeblood of the earth. As such, water supports all life, connects all life, and must be respected and protected in order for life to thrive. The voluminous edited collection produced by the Native American Water Office, a non-profit indigenous environmental organization based in Minnesota, seeks first to explain the special value of water through Anishinaabe points of view that are at once poetic, historical, spiritual, and cultural. The volume then describes the contamination of lakes in Ojibwe country resulting from toxins released by industrial processes and other sources of greenhouse gasses and the concomitant risks to the health of Native people, many of whom rely on fish as a mainstay of daily diets. Because water’s importance is vital, its place in human, animal, and plant life pervasive, Sacred Water is necessarily a wide-ranging book that describes the historical meanings and contemporary state of water, specifically in the lake territory of the Upper Midwest of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada. Over the course of nearly 500 informative pages, the book takes on the diverse characteristics of an oral history, encyclopedia, public health pamphlet, scientific primer, and coffee table book of wildlife images and cultural drawings.
Sacred Water is at its most compelling when the editors produce Ojibwe origin stories from multiple perspectives as well as interviews about how people lived on the land and lakes in both English and the Anishinaabe language (inclusive of multiple dialects) and implicitly link these stories and interviews to pressing environmental issues. An additional strength of the book is the editors’ ability to clearly define terms and processes throughout in a manner that is accessible to a wide range of readers. The book also offers a series of solutions in full explanatory and visual detail, including how to start clean energy projects, how to grow edible, native plants, and how to safely catch and prepare fish given the current levels of mercury contamination in many lakes.
The variegated and at the same time holistic nature of Sacred Water may feel unfamiliar to some readers. However, the book offers not only practical knowledge about environmental hazards and solutions, but also deeper interpretations of why the earth and its/her waters must be held sacred. This volume would be of special interest to readers who want to educate themselves and others about at-risk food supplies and safety measures, as well as to those who wish to learn about the state of water in the Great Lakes as related to cultural understandings of the First People to interact with those waters. The plentiful stories, interviews, and images would also be useful for teachers and community organizations in the development of lesson plans about Ojibwe cultural perspectives and indigenous knowledge. The significant native language component of the book makes it a potential resource for the Ojibwe language classroom as well.
Thanks to the Animals, by Allen Sockabasin, is about the journey of a Passamaquoddy family moving to their winter home. As they travel, Zoo Sap--the youngest member of the family--tumbles out of their very large, horse-drawn bobsled. One by one, the animals of the forest gather round to protect and keep Zoo Sap warm until his dad returns at sunrise the next day. Rebekah Raye's watercolors effectively convey the cold of winter snow and the warmth of the animals care for Zoo Sap. The final page in the book includes information about the Passamaquoddy people and a pronunciation guide. Readers can visit the website for the book and listen to Sockabasin and his daughter read the story aloud in English and Passamaquoddy.
To read more reviews and commentary by children's literature specialist, Debbie Reese, visit her blog.
In Jan Bourdeau Waboose’s SkySisters, Ojibway sisters Allie and Alex bundle up and head outside for a walk on a cold, winter night. They do the sort of thing children do in winter — making snow angels and trying to catch snowflakes, but they also lie down in the snow and look up at the SkySpirits, known to others as the Northern Lights. Big sister Allie looks out for little sister Alex throughout the story. Brian Deines chose a vivid palette to capture the brilliance and depth of the night time and the warmth of the sisters relationship.
To read more reviews and commentary by children's literature specialist, Debbie Reese, visit her blog.
It’s important for kids to have access to environmental education starting at an early age. 10 Things I Can Do To Help My World by Melanie Walsh is an excellent introduction to eco-friendly actions for young children. The book has a pleasing layout and colorful pictures that will make kids want to keep turning the pages. It also has the added bonus of the book being made out of 100% recycled material.
The easily understood text makes it accessible to early elementary aged children, but might hold the interest of older kids if they haven’t studied the subject before. The suggestions themselves are easy for kids to implement in their daily lives. This book also can aid parents by helping kids understand the environmental reasons behind household rules. The list of ideas is limited to 10, but can act as a great start to challenge kids to come up with a longer list of actions they could take.