Twice a month, we invite an educator to share their perspective on essential books for your classroom. To apply to become a contributor, please send us an email!
I recently attended a fascinating conference that focused on strengthening neighbourhoods and building community. The workshops brought together many voices, all passionate about the places where they live. There were many opportunities to learn from one another about how to galvanize change in everyone’s own neighbourhood. Storytelling was at the heart of all the sessions, and what struck me the most was the importance of seemingly small individual acts that everyone can do.
Classrooms are also communities where every student is a member and can make a difference. Take a leisurely stroll through these outstanding picture books and non-fiction titles that introduce and celebrate diverse neighbourhoods, and be inspired by stories that show the magic that happens when individuals work together to create positive change and a welcoming community.
In Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden written by Andrew Larsen and illustrated by Anne Villeneuve, two little boys play an impromptu tossing game with what appears to be worthless balls of dirt and unexpectedly transform a drab grey, empty lot into a colourful, blooming city oasis. Neighbours tend to the thriving community garden and new friendships take root. This is a perfect pick for sparking discussions on kindness and civic engagement.
Another picture book about the power of collaboration to savour is Community Soup, written and illustrated by Alma Fullerton. In this Stone Soup flavoured tale, students in a Kenyan school harvest the produce they have grown in their community garden and cook up a tasty broth together. A recipe for pumpkin vegetable soup is included, serving up additional math and literacy extension ideas. In true community building spirit, a portion of the proceeds of the book is donated to the Creation of Hope Project, which supports schools in Kenya in the building of community gardens.
Placemaking is an international movement to personalize outdoor spaces and intentionally bring people together. For the definitive children’s non-fiction book on the subject, check out Home Sweet Neighborhood: Transforming Cities One Block at a Time by Michelle Mulder. This is a celebration of community building ideas from near and far, including a revitalized park in Toronto that not only has a basketball court, and a skating rink, but also has wood-fired public ovens so neighbours can bake bread together; and an Australian initiative that brings elementary school children and residents from an aged-care facility together in an uniquely engaging and active way. With a conversational style, Mulder encourages readers to think creatively and help turn their own neighbourhood into a place that’s more fun to live for everyone.
Look Where We Live! A First Book of Community Building, written and illustrated by Scot Ritchie, offers a good introductory home base for primary grades starting to learn about the people and places that contribute to a community. Opening pages show a neighbourhood map, and the text offers a guided tour, complete with running commentary and open-ended questions posed throughout the text, like “How about creating your own community? What do you like to do? Swim? Dance? Speak another language?” A glossary and instructions for a related art activity round out this valuable entry in the interactive “Exploring our Community” series.
Social Justice & History
In the poetic and affecting picture book Africville by Shauntay Grant, a little girl visits the annual Africville Reunion/Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia and imagines the vibrant Black community that lived there for more than 150 years before being demolished by the government in the 1960s. Eva Campbell’s exquisite painterly illustrations depict warm, joyful scenes of children rafting down at Tibby’s Pond, enjoying a bonfire on a warm summer night, and gathering around a dinner table laden with apple pie and blueberry duff. In addition to being an excellent read-aloud choice for primary grades, an afterword explains the history of Africville and what became of it, which could be used in social justice discussions in middle grades as well.
Indigenous Cultures & Lands
The diverse lands and cultures of the Northwest Territories are authentically introduced by elders and Indigenous community leaders in a 10-book series, written with provincial and territorial curricula in mind, called “The Land is Our Storybook.” In We Feel Good Out Here: Zhik Gwaa'an, Nakhwatthaiitat Gwiinzii, Julie-Ann André, a Canadian Ranger, and residential school survivor, personally shares her family’s story and the story of her land — Khaii luk, “the land of winter fish.” The accompanying candid photographs by Tessa Macintosh make you feel like you are part of a conversation and looking through a family album. Gwich’in is one of the official Indigenous language groups in the Northwest Territories, and words in Gwichya Gwich’in are woven seamlessly into the text. An “Our Words” sidebar offers English translations.
The vital importance of farmers and rural communities is observed and appreciated in Up We Grow: A Year in the Life of a Small, Local Farm by Deborah Hodge. Highlighting the hard work being done on a co-operative, sustainable farm, Brian Harris’ vibrant close-up photographs capture seasonal snapshots: seeds are sown in spring; farmers dig potatoes, pick strawberries and cut lettuce in summer; bustling outdoor markets are loaded with produce in fall; and fruit trees are pruned in winter. Informative and engaging, this non-fiction book will also spark many discussions about where our food comes from and how we can care for the earth and our future.
Imaginative City Planning
Budding city planners and engineers will find much inspiration in Mattland by Hazel Hutchins and Gail Herbert and illustrated by Dušan Petričic. Bored and lonely, a little boy new to the subdivision picks up a stick and uses it to draw a river in a nearby muddy field. Moving some rocks into a jagged row, he builds what he creatively calls “Dog Tooth Mountains.” Gathering more materials, such as pine needles and fuzzy seeds, he crafts a railway line and sheep in a pasture. Intrigued, other kids join in the imaginative play with scrounged submissions of a single Popsicle stick, an empty berry container and a broken key. Ideal for a loose parts activity station, this picture book offers a world of possibilities.
Jane Jacobs, the journalist and activist whose writing championed a community-based approach to city building, is introduced to a new generation in the compelling biography, Walking in the City with Jane by Susan Hughes and illustrated by Valérie Boivin. An inquisitive young girl, Jacobs loves exploring her surroundings. When she moves to New York as an adult, she makes the visionary realization that just like animals, plants, and rivers all work together as a healthy ecosystem, “a city is also an ecosystem.” Back matter provides a further overview of Jacobs’ contributions to urban planning. Use this picture book to facilitate a virtual or actual “Jane’s Walk” throughout your community.
Adapted from the National Film Board of Canada’s web documentary of the same name, Highrise by Kristy Woudstra and Katerina Cizek offers a fascinating glimpse into sky-high residential structures around the world, and the communities who live inside them: “This story is less about buildings than it is about people, the places we call home, and how we decide who will live where.” Senior elementary students will find an in-depth study of urban geography, as well as interviews with tenants that provide insight into community-based activism.
Linda Ludke is a Collections Management Librarian at London Public Library. In her 29 years at LPL, her focus has been on Children's Services. She reviews children’s books for Quill & Quire, CM: Canadian Review of Materials, and The National Reading Campaign.