March was national reading month, and a couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go to Harrison Park Elementary as a guest reader in the 1st grade classroom. As I stared at the group of adorable faces looking up at me expectantly from “the reading rug,” it conjured up memories of my excitement for reading as a child.
Reading is incredibly important for children for the obvious academic reasons; however, it also has effects past test scores and reading levels. Books help teach children life lessons, right from wrong, the power of imagination, and the power of self. For me, it was incredibly impactful to picture myself as the protagonist in a book, especially books that affirmed a positive outlook on my identity. I'm happy that my mom made it a point to read books to me about African American history and culture, iconic people who came before me, and how awesome little black girls are when I was growing up in a predominantly white community with a predominantly white family. Two particular books that I will always love are “Tar Beach” and “Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky” about Cassie Lightfoot, a black girl who gets to fly through the sky and learn about segregation, racism, and slavery while helping to save her family and neighborhood. I was learning about history while having fun picturing myself flying along right next to Cassie.
This is why I’m so proud of Kids’ Food Basket’s Civic Engagement lesson plans and the books that we use to educate. One book in particular that we tend to read often is Maddi’s Fridge, which tells the story of two friends who help each other as one of them experiences poverty and food insecurity. I read Maddi’s Fridge to that group of adorable 1st grade students at Harrison Park. It was amazing to see students’ faces light up as they grasped the concept that being a good friend is also like being a good community member, and only if we all help each other and speak up when we see something wrong, will our community become stronger.
Maddi, whose family is experiencing food insecurity, always wins the race to the top of the climbing wall, but her friend Sophia is faster at climbing the stairs. I like that Maddi is not portrayed as less than because her family does not have enough money or access to the healthy foods that Sophia’s family does. Maddi is an amazing little girl and a fast climber who just happens to be experiencing food insecurity at home. That is powerful for any children who may see their own experience in Maddi’s story. Kids need to know that no matter their background or hardships, they are talented, they are powerful, and they are worth it.
Because Kids’ Food Basket serves Harrison Park Elementary, it is not a stretch to guess that a few of the students in the classroom identified with Maddi. In fact, during my discussion with the class after reading the book, one girl told me “I’m like Maddi.” I’m not doing my job, if that girl feels less than after hearing Maddi’s Fridge. We talked through why she’s like Maddi – by not always having enough food at home, but also by being really good at something (soccer) like Maddi is good at climbing.
Children build their sense of identity through the many messages they receive. It’s our job to ensure they are positive and empowered messages. I want every child listening to me read to feel just like I did picturing myself flying next to Cassie Lightfoot and Harriet Tubman – powerful.