Today is the Fourth of July, a day which many of us mark by spending time with family and friends, having cookouts, watching parades, and perhaps end the day with a fireworks display.
The Fourth of July is also a fitting day to reflect upon our country's history. The freedom that many people purport to celebrate on Independence Day has not been always been fully available to everyone. The Fourth of July is a time to honor the people and moments that call us to live up to this country's professed ideals— that "all [people] are created equal."
I am reminded of Frederick Douglass' 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:
"What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour."
Yes, these are blistering words. But they are true words. That distance between rejoicing and mourning is still felt by many. How do we, then, both celebrate and lament?
Luckily there are picture books—remember, they are for everyone—to help show us a way forward. In this blog post we highlight honest, nuanced, and sensitive portrayals of what the Fourth of July means to different people, appropriate for sharing and discussing with children. Instead of dealing in nationalistic tropes, these books acknowledge that the United States has long wrestled with the work of "forming a more perfect union."
Illustrated by the incomparable Kadir Nelson and written by former elementary school teacher and librarian Sarvinder Naberhaus, Blue Sky White Stars is a poetic celebration of the U.S. American flag. In text accessible to even the youngest readers, descriptions of the flag—its colors, its shapes, and even its nicknames ("Old Glory")—are paired with luminous, moving paintings that feature the United States' natural wonders, its landmarks, its symbols, and its diverse people and complex history. See the Statue of Liberty standing tall against a starlit blue sky coupled with the white stars and blue background of the American flag. See a young woman, presumably Betsy Ross, sew the flag of a "won nation" next to a group of diverse people of various ages, races, and religious backgrounds representing "one nation."
This is an extraordinary book. This book can readily be read aloud with preschool children; the text is short, and the art is bound to catch their interest. In the early childhood or early elementary classroom, Kadir Nelson's paintings can be used to help students learn the significance of various U.S. American symbols, such as the bald eagle, or historical events, such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century.
Written and illustrated by Daria Peoples-Riley, America, My Love, America, My Heart is a love letter to this country we call home, as well as an interrogation of it. "Do you love me?," the narrator asks. "When I speak in languages other than English? When I speak up? When I stand out? Do you love me all the ways that I am?"
"Do you love my black? Do you love my brown?" The question is devastating, and the recurring answer even more so. In free verse poetry, the narrator asserts that they are worthy of love, and that they [too] are America, as America is them. The powerful and sparse text is accompanied by monochromatic artwork punctuated by red, white, and blue accents. For children and adults who have been made to feel that they cannot share in American's "rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence," this book is a resounding counternarrative.
My Red, White, and Blue is a multifaceted exploration of patriotism and the meaning of the American flag. A young black boy looks upon with pride at the American flag flying in the breeze outside his house. To him, it is a symbol of freedom and hope for his whole community. According to his grandpa, however, the story is a bit more complicated.
"America's history left long-lasting scars," grandpa explains. Some "decide not to praise when the flag flies." That is their right, he says. Other folks see in the flag people like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr., ancestors "who left their marks and helped make America great." The older man stresses to his grandson that it's up to him to decide whether to stand, kneel, or raise his fist. Having listened attentively to his grandfather, the young narrator makes the choice to salute the flag "with my heart and my hand," and "find pride in the red, white, and blue."
The illustrations, in acrylics, textured cut paper, tissue paper, and colored pencil, depict scenes from American history as well as lovingly render the bond between grandfather and grandson. Written in rhyming text, this book is well suited for reading aloud to children in grades Kindergarten and above. The conversation between the narrator and his grandfather is an excellent model for how to have perhaps tougher but nevertheless important conversations with children; with patience, acceptance, and the recognition that children have their own autonomy and agency.