Illustration of a hand holding an open book that says "Social Justice Begins with me!"

Social justice begins with me

Book club offers 'gentle introduction to hard topics'

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“What kind of dance did Jenna want to dance?” Jade Green asked the group of children as she held up a page from the book Jingle Dancer.

Several children listening to the story answered, “A jingle dance!”

Jade, 12, is Mexica/Náhuatl and from the Wolf Clan. With her parents and siblings, she attended a book club called Social Justice Begins With Me, which meets monthly at the Grand Rapids Public Library in downtown Grand Rapids. 

The book club is designed for children ages 4-11 and explores social justice topics that impact their daily lives through children’s literature. It was founded by Paola Leon, associate professor of social work, and is a partnership between the Grand Rapids Public Library and the School of Social Work at Grand Valley.

Volunteers from Grand Valley, the library and community serve as guest readers. Each month the books focus on a different theme; past themes have included poverty and hunger, racial justice, and prejudice against older adults.

Jade was a guest reader when the focus was first nations people. She showed the group of 6- to 8-year-olds her silver, black and turquoise jingle dress that she wears at pow wows and explained the regalia.

“The jingle cones are made from metal discs that make a jingling sound when we dance,” she said. “Each jingle cone holds a prayer inside that comes out when we dance to help heal people who are sick.”

While Jade explained more about Cherokee tradition, children ages 4-5 were gathered in another area of the library listening to a reading of We are Grateful. The picture book is about modern Native American life written by Traci Sorell, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. 

Those ages 9-11 were captivated by Rock & Roll Highway: The Robbie Robertson Story. Robertson, lead guitarist and songwriter for The Band, learned to play the guitar on a Native American reservation.

The book club for kids started at the library in 2018. Leon said her inspiration to organize it came from her now 6-year-old son, who asked her a few pointed questions when he was 3. 

“We read to our son a lot and he began to point out the skin color of the family members in the books,” remembered Leon, who is from Peru. Her husband is Canadian.

“Our son wasn’t seeing biracial families represented in the stories. His skin tone is like his dad’s. He could point out a child he identified with in a picture, but the mom with that child didn’t match me,” she said. “He would ask where I was or why I was with the other child.”

Leon said his questions gave her and her husband the opportunity to explore their son’s thoughts and open up a conversation.

Girl holding a book and reading to children
Jade Green, 12, reads ‘Jingle Dancer’ to book club attendees at the Grand Rapids Public Library.
Green and pink and gold embroidered dress with bells
Jade’s jingle dress that she wears at pow wows.

“At one point my son asked me, ‘Mommy, who painted you that way?’ There is nothing wrong or bad about these questions,” Leon explained. “Too often, children are shut down because parents are afraid they will offend someone and believe it’s more respectful not to talk about differences.

“We were able to introduce him to this concept that when you look throughout the world there are people of all different colors and shades of those colors.”

Leon said she was familiar with a children’s book club in East Lansing that offered a “gentle introduction to hard topics” and decided to establish something similar in Grand Rapids.

She involves undergraduate students from her social work courses who, using a social justice framework, analyze the books and help develop materials for the library program. 

Summer Mendez, a graduate student in the social work program, researches various books, assists students in the classroom and helps formulate foundational questions for each story.

For example, when Jade finished reading Jingle Dancer she asked the children if they had ever danced, and asked them what they like to do that makes them feel like Jenna when she dances. 

“The guiding questions allow the children to apply the story to themselves and to the world,” Mendez said.

Several parents sat in to hear the stories, too. Emily Klooster joined her 7-year-old son, Theo, to listen to Jade read. 

Klooster, from Grand Rapids, said she came because she was confident that a program at the public library would “ease children in” to various topics.

“It’s important for our children to learn about and respect other cultures,” said Klooster. “It’s important not only for them to learn about history but also to learn about a living people and their traditions.”

Lisa Haven, from Kentwood, has been bringing her children (Greyson, 7, and Ellie, 5) to the book club since it began.

“I want my children to value diversity and other people’s experiences,” Haven said.

Leon and Mendez determine the monthly theme and books for each age group and then submit their selections to the Board of Library Commissioners for approval.

Leon said while not every book is perfect, the stories give children the opportunity to learn and parents some tools that are developmentally appropriate.

She said the name of the book club, Social Justice Begins With Me, sends the right message.

“We wanted something that indicated that we have a responsibility as individuals in making social justice happen,” she said. “Social justice isn’t just something other people do, or something that other people have, it’s something universal that we need to engage in.”

Kids at a table doing crafts
Book club sessions include time for questions about the story and activities that complement the month's theme.
Woman sitting in a circle with children
Native American artifact: stick with feathers and beading

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