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Turning pages leads children to turn inward

Maya Chen, 4, looks at a book during the first day of the annual Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

There is more to reading than developing comprehension skills, increasing vocabulary, and nurturing a love of books (though those are all great things!). When families share stories and read aloud together, they open up avenues to exploring identity. While the following three books have beautiful narratives that can very much stand on their own, they also allow for meaningful discussions, even with young children.

Take the natural science lesson wrapped in an existential question in “Carl and the Meaning of Life” by Deborah Freedman. An earthworm whose everyday life includes burrowing through the hard dirt, Carl is thrown when a field mouse asks him, “Why do you do that?” He sets off to find out why, indeed, eventually learning the important role he plays in an interconnected world. Carl’s journey of self-awareness can help readers realize that what they do has value and how their unique talents can make a difference.

While Carl’s story surrounds his questions with gentleness and meaning, “Where Are You From?” by Yamile Saied Méndez is the title and question that brings frustration to the book’s protagonist. Children on the playground, teachers and other adults seek a place of origin for a young girl, and her answer of “I’m from here, from today, same as everyone else” is not the easy label they are looking for. She turns to her abuelo, and he frames the answers with imagery of the lands of her ancestors, the sacrifices and hopes in her family history, and her importance to the people who love her. Identity is separate from appearance in Abuelo’s ultimately comforting message.

Neither do looks dictate a child’s worth in “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers. Lyrically affirming similes infuse joy into the characters, whether they are pictured alone or interacting with each other. “Like a champ, I am here to fight” shows two girls competing. The match is over on the next page, and though we do not know who won, the children are in a congratulatory embrace underneath the words, “Like a heart, I’m here to love.” There are so many examples of how to simply be, and to do so triumphantly, even after a defeat or failure. This is unfiltered encouragement for finding accomplishment in pursuing personal passions and goals, with kindness above all.

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By sharing, reading, and discussing books like the ones listed above, trusted adults have the opportunity to demonstrate the extra care needed for kids to build resilience, and children get the emotional space to form and articulate their identity.

Book recommendations

This article is part of A Guide to Storytime, L.A. Times Reading by 9’s 2020 parent reading guide. It was produced in partnership with local literacy nonprofit Ready, Set, Read! Check out the rest of the project here.


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