By Shanna Bernier
I have lofty goals of nurturing kind children who will make the world a better place. In my personal and professional life I seek to create spaces where kids and teens feel loved and free to express their true selves without fear of condemnation. This past week I attended a conference on community care and youth mental health. It was a weekend-long gathering with workshops, discussions, playful exploration, and resource sharing. I feel really bolstered by this experience and all the wonderful humans working to make beautiful spaces for young people to figure out the world. The weekend was essentially a “user’s guide” to being a better adult in a world characterized by a lot of systems where people cannot fully access what they need to healthy.
The public library is an example of a place where people are working hard to make spaces for people on the margins. Access to free books, and computers, community learning and a warm spot to rest is a massively important thing. Moreover, it is a huge gift to be a part of a library community that helps people to move through the world just a bit more easily.
We live in a highly individualistic society; we put a lot of value on a person’s ability to succeed on their own and get all the “things” we use to define success. We also want everyone to fit into the mainstream, and deviations or differences are often shut down. These differences could be in physical ability, mental health, racial or cultural identity, gender expression and others. We want everyone to grow up and be successful on their own, yet we want them to be all the same. This is a really hard ask. And it is no easy task try to dismantle the way of life we have which centres on these values. However, we can resist is members of a community. We can teach kids that their story is allowed to be different and that this difference is a beautiful thing.
From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is written by Kai Cheng Thom and illustrated by Kai Yun Ching and Wai-Yant Li. It tells the story of a child who can change into any shape they can imagine. The only problem is that they can’t decide what to be: a boy or a girl? A bird or a fish? A flower or a shooting star? They begin school in the book, where they must endure inquisitive looks and difficult questions from the other children, and have trouble finding friends who will accept them for who they are. But they find comfort in the loving arms of their mother, who offers them a constant refrain: “Whatever you dream of / I believe you can be / from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea.” This book offers as a snapshot of how hard it is for a child to find a safe community when they deviate from the norm. It could be about gender presentation, it could be about neurodiversity (how our brains work differently) or any other kind of difference. This book shows us a great role model in the mother who never dismisses her child’s concerns, but is a constant source of comfort and love. Loving someone unconditionally is hard. Parents, caregivers, teachers, youth leaders and all the other adults in a child’s life have a choice to be sources of love or sources of harm. Boundaries are important, but we can always send love towards a kid in our circle, even if that love is different from parental or familial love. A child who feels left out or marginalized might see themselves in this story and be hopeful. This book has beautiful art and a delightful poetic message.
The other book I wish to highlight on this theme is an older one, first published in 1997, “I love you Stinky-Face” by Lisa McCourt and Cyd Moore. This book is a beautifully woven and reassuring tale of the love and affection of a parent, even in the face of relentless questioning and “what ifs”. Can we love our children even if there are a meat-eating dinosaur or a really stinky skunk? Can we still love our kids if they are interested in something really outside our comfort zone, or if they come out to us, or if they have autism or if they challenge our belief system? The answer is yes. That doesn’t mean we won’t have to adapt or change or feel challenged, but we must love the children in our lives no matter what. The world depends on it.
So share a moment of love and joy with the small person in your life with a cozy beautiful book. Remind them that you love them no matter what, and that they can dream big dreams and be who they are with you by their side.