Friday, August 27, 2010

Meetin' the Locals

It's been a busy few weeks here in the Cusolito household, with a 10 day trip to our Nation's Capitol and then the birth of my niece.

Here's a post I started before we left but was only able to finish tonight.

Kids offer a great way to meet new people. I've been especially aware of this fact as I take my kids to swimming lessons each day. The beach is full of families, most of them with young children. Children automatically gravitate to each other on the beach, at the playground, in the park, on the city bus, etc. All parents have to do is take the opportunity to say hello to each other and chat a bit.

So far at the beach we've met several families from our own town that we didn't know and many from the neighboring towns. I met a mom who literally lives around the corner from us. I've also been the "local" person others meet. Just the other day, a dad said hello when his son wandered nearby. Turns out, they're on vacation here from California, so by talking to me, he got to "meet the locals."

As you venture out, look for ways to interact with others- whether you're on vacation or in your own hometown or city. Your life will be richer for it. And so will your kids' lives.
I also encourage you to consider who you tend to interact with and to stretch yourself a bit.  People tend to stick to their own social, ethnic, or racial group. I'm NOT suggesting that you approach someone purely on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or social standing. But pay attention to your internal inclinations and try to break out of them.

If you are Caucasian and a Chinese-American child talks to your child, don't simply smile politely at the other parent or caregiver from a distance. Walk right up. Say hello and introduce yourself. If you meet someone new to the area, share a few local spots a new resident or vacationer might not know. I did this last fall in a coffee shop. I later ran into that person in the very store I had suggested. Our later interactions developed into a new friendship. Last week, my daughter kept watching a couple of girls. They were doing the same- watching and seeming interested but too shy to talk to each other. I said hello to the girls and struck up a conversation with their mom. She seemed new to town so I told her about the Farmer's Market. We ran into each other there later in the day. My daughter was so excited. (I confess, so was I!) When we saw them at the beach another day, my daughter reacted as if they were old friends.

(Obviously, you'll want to talk to your kids about stranger safety. I basically tell mine that talking to unknown adults is OK as long as a known adult is with them. Remember: other than blood relatives, everyone was a stranger to you once.)

Here are some suggested ways to enter into a conversation:
  1. Many people read on the beach, in the park, on the T (or Metro, L, or Tube). Strike up a conversation about the book a person is reading. I asked a woman about the book she was reading (I had just finished it). Days later, we spoke about it again. 
  2. Ask a simple question. For example, "Do you live in town?" or "How old are your kids?"
  3. If your children are already interacting with their kids, focus on the kids. What are their names, ages, grade in school, etc. Eventually you may move into other territory.
  4. Smile and say hello. If your kids are with you, people will often focus on the kids, as above. My husband, son, and I had the most amazing conversation with a husband and wife on a city bus in Florence, Italy. Our son was the "way in." Even though our Italian was severely limited and their English was nearly as limited as our Italian, we connected in a very meaningful way through words, gestures, smiles, and laughs.
Sometimes my interactions with others lead to longer-term relationships. Other times, we exchange a conversation and never see each other again. I recently had a brief exchange with my bagger at the grocery store in Bethesda, MD. The man told my friend and I about his "younger days" growing up in rural Alabama.  We laughed and joked with each other and then my friend and I were on our way with our groceries. I'll never see that man again, but boy was my grocery shopping experience fun!

I know not all people are as outgoing as me, which is why I'm suggesting that parents who venture out with their kids have an opportunity to meet each other. I had a nice exchange with a mom and her kids from Northern England on the train home from Washington, DC. She simply turned to me and asked, "Would your kids like to have a go with the cards?" She broke the ice and then we chatted a bit more. She's another person I'll never see again, but our conversation was a nice addition to our 7 hour train ride.

Have you had any fun interactions with strangers lately? Where did you meet? What was your "way in." Did it lead to a lasting friendship?

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Beach Tail

In honor of summertime here in the northern hemisphere, I thought I'd mention a book I recently discovered- A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams.

Taken from the author's, website

"Gregory and his father are spending a day at the beach. When Greg finds a stick and draws a lion in the sand, they name him Sandy Lion. "Don't go in the water, and don't leave Sandy," Dad says. Greg follows his father's advice. But he still manages to travel down the beach quite a way before he realizes he can no longer see the blue umbrella where Dad has settled on the dolphin towel.

Swish Swoosh! Greg's journey takes him past such landmarks as a jellyfish, a sandcastle, a ghost crab hole and more. How will he find his way back to Dad? Fortunately, he has his stick and Sandy's tail with him the whole way.

This rhythmic text is paired with Floyd Cooper's brilliant illustrations, revealing the trip down the beach entirely from a child's point of view. The art and text show a gentle father-son bond and reassures young readers even as they share Greg's moment of worry."

One detail that I especially love is that this book portrays an African-American father and son spending time together. Their race is not mentioned in the text, rather Floyd Cooper's lovely illustrations reveal this detail. Race is not the focus of the story as is the case in so many books about children of color in which the plot focuses on slavery, racism, the civil rights movement, etc. Those books are important, of course, but they need to be balanced with books like this one that portray a "slice of life" for people of color in which their race does not define the plot of the book.

For more on this topic, please check out  the Publisher's Weekly blogpost by Elizabeth Bluemle titled "The Elephant in the Room." You can also follow The Open Book, (children's book publisher Lee and Low's blog), and Coloring Between the Lines (Author/illustrator Anne Sibley OBrien's Blog).

As I think back on my years as a Grade 4 Teacher, I'm sure the books I read with my class were too heavily focused on social issues and not enough on "slice of life stories." I am much more aware of this issue now that I have kids of my own and I write for children, too. Plus, there are more good examples being published every day. I hope you'll support these books by purchasing them or checking them out of the library. As demand grows, publishers will seek more titles. (Two great publishers to check out are Lee and Low and Shen's Books).

Are you a teacher, parent, or homeschooler? Have you considered this point of view regarding books about children of color? Analyze the books you read with your kids. Are people of different races, ethnicities and religions represented? In those books you've read, is the character's race, ethnicity, or religion the defining characteristic? Can you recommend any good books to us?