Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth. Illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet
Published by: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. New York, New York. 1998
Borrowed from: South End branch of The Boston Public Library.
At first, I hesitated about the decision, but finally decided that I would keep this book in the classroom. My hesitation came from my ultra-sensitivity to children’s emotions and thoughts. I am so sensitive to children’s literature, these days. I find myself critiquing every corner of a page, in every picture book I open. Asking myself questions like, ‘Will they be able to process this image in a healthy, constructive way? Are they resilient enough to deal with any kind of reality this book presents in this moment? ‘. (‘They‘ meaning my students).
As their teacher, it is my duty to protect the mind of a child. Protect their mind against oppressive language, uncomfortable images, or anything else that blocks their healthy desire to be their best. I cannot foster an environment of education with images that do not foster a student’s understanding of life, leadership, and longevity. This book does not oppress. I think. But what do I know really? So much of a child’s thoughts are scarred. Not all children, and maybe not even most, but some.
When I was in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade, I was chubby. Yes, chubby. I hated it. I was so embarrassed anytime the word ‘fat’, or ‘big’, was said in a picture book. If the word ‘fat’ was said in my childhood classrooms, I thought that everyone must be picturing me in their heads at that moment. I wasn’t obese. There were larger kids in my grade, but still my self perception, and self worth were already oppressed at a young age. I don’t recall feeling oppressed by literature or by my teacher, but I still felt less than beautiful, or not beautiful at all really. So even if the word ‘fat’ was used to describe someone beautiful, it still made me incredibly uncomfortable. “Even though the other girls called her ‘fat’, she would ignore them, and was eventually chosen to be the ballerina queen. She was beautiful.” This is not a real quote. It is a hypothetical quote from a hypothetical children’s book. If a line like this was read, in one of my childhood classrooms, it wouldn’t have made a difference in my self worth. I wouldn’t have magically believed that yes, I am beautiful and everyone thinks that now, and they don’t look at me as if I’m chubby. No. I was not resilient enough as a child, to process such a mantra, in a way that would have made a positive impact. Even if the book’s message was to show that ‘fat’ is beautiful, it would have done more damage to me than good. I would literally think in my head ‘doesn’t the teacher know how uncomfortable this is for me? She must not care, if other people think I’m fat.’ Even though just in 2nd grade, I recall having of issues that the majority of children (two-parent household, affluent children that is) I knew did not have to deal with. Because of the added challenges I faced, compared to my peers, I was less resilient than other children; making my classroom needs different than the rest. If our needs are different, then our educational needs are different. If our educational needs are different, then so are our literary needs.
So with all this being said, Something Beautiful is a beautiful book. My hesitation came from imagining some of my students being too sensitive to the main character living in a neighborhood with lots of trash and neglected spaces. At what point in the story would my students ingest the positive message of the story? How many negative feelings will pass through them first? Will any of my students think, ‘Why is my teacher reading a story about the bad parts of my neighborhood? Is she going to tell everyone that I live in a neighborhood like this? Will the other kids not want to be my friend?’.
Anxiety, fear, sadness – are all feelings that block a child’s reception to educational information (a.k.a their ability to learn).
This is a book that I will read to children individually, not as a whole group read aloud.
There is nothing negative about this book. It is beautiful. A child just must be emotionally strong and healthy before they can process, and then benefit, from it’s message – … within the classroom time allotted. Read-alouds ought always proceed with mindfulness of the whole child. Thank you for reading The Picture Book Pusher