Why Am I Me?
Written by Paige Britt and Illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
Published in 2017 by Scholastic Press
“Why am I me…and not you? Why are you, you…and not me?” These seemingly simple, yet profoundly philosophical questions are made to feel familiar in this glorious debut picture book by Paige Britt. In the opening pages, we meet two children walking along a city street heading for an elevated subway platform. The boy, who has light brown skin, seems to be with his father and the girl, who has lighter skin, seems to be with her mother. As they ride the train, a mosaic of racial and ethnic diversity, the boy and girl engage in a silent exchange of wondering. Their questions are punctuated by ellipses and spread across pages that position readers to slow down and ponder the enormity of their wonderings. The radiant, mixed media illustrations by husband-wife team, Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, combine collage, newsprint, and paint. Leading up to the final pages, the illustrations shift from stars in the children’s eyes, to the stars in the sky, pointing to the universality of their questions across space and time. Why Am I Me? encourages young people to ask their big questions and to share them with others.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classrooms
The Power of Curiosity: Asking Big Questions. Asking philosophical questions doesn’t have to wait until later in life. Britt shows children that they, too, have big, important questions that they naturally and rightfully may wonder. Use Why Am I Me? to spark an inquiry into the questions your students have about themselves and the world. Introduce them to the word philosophy, coming from the Greek meaning “love of wisdom”. How do the characters show a love of wisdom through the questions they ask? Build a big questions text set including books like The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, What Do You Do With An Idea?, What Do You Do With a Problem?, and the forthcoming What Do You Do With A Chance? by Kobi Yamada, Why? by Lindsay Camp and Tony Ross, and The Three Questions by Jon Muth. With each reading, invite students to ask their own big questions. Consider creating a Wonder Wall that serves as a classroom space for year-round questions that may not have simple answers or any answer at all. The Center for Philosophy for Children has suggestions and many literature-driven lesson plans that can continue to support your students to engage in asking philosophical questions throughout the year and across the curriculum.
Understanding Me and You: Intercultural Understanding Text Set. We are all people with various identities but we all share some fundamental qualities as humans. Gather other books that open up conversations about identity, community, and shared qualities of being human to support students to build intercultural understandings. We recommend books such as Same, Same, But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw; Same Sun Here by Silas House and Neela Vaswani; Most People by Michael Leannah; Lovely by Jess Hong; No One Else Like You by Siska Goeminne;The Colors of Us by Karen Katz; Whoever You Are by Mem Fox; Skin Again by bell hooks; Shades of People by Sheila M. Kelly; and Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester. Support students to make text-to-self, text-to-text, and text-to-world connections as you read across the books focused on the great diversity of people in the world. As an extension activity, have students create their own cultural x-rays (Short, 2009) with labels on the outside of their bodies that are evident to others like language, age, and ethnicity and labels inside their heart with things that are important to them that others may not know or see.
Me, Too: Connecting Literacy, Language, and Movement. Why Am I Me? celebrates diversity while also simultaneously celebrating our shared humanity by notably drawing readers’ attention to the similarities and differences between the two protagonists throughout the book. After reading aloud Why Am I Me?, support students to explore the ways they are are similar to and different from one another by reading aloud simple, nonjudgmental statements and encouraging children to say “me, too” while doing a physical movement like standing up or using a hand signal. You can begin with statements about preferences that directly connect to the characters in the book such as: I like spending time with my family. I like riding on trains. I have a skateboard. I play a musical instrument. I like books. I like playing in the park. I like looking up at the stars at night. I like meeting new friends. Consider incorporating this “me, too” engagement as a part of your Morning Meeting, or start of the day, routine. Carefully consider the statements you make to ensure individual children are not singled out because of their identities or preferences.
Everyday Trips: Duet Model Reading. Pair Why Am I Me? with Matt de la Peña’s
Last Stop on Market Street. Both books depict an ordinary trip that becomes an inquiry into who we are. Have students compare the kinds of questions the children in both books ask. What are other similarities your students notice about the books including city scenes, public transportation rides, and diverse representations of people. Highlight for students the ways that in both books the characters take everyday trips through their communities and turn them into times for wonder. Have students write and illustrate their own stories about everyday trips in their communities where they ask questions as either dialogue between characters or as internal dialogue. Support students to closely read the words and illustrations from both books as inspiration for their own writing and illustrating.
Here, There, or Anywhere: Exploring Setting. The setting of Why Am I Me? is central to the story. Have students share details about the setting that catch their attention such as store signs and the elevated train platform. Discuss with students whether or not they think this story could have taken place somewhere else and still have the same message. Why or why not? As students craft their own settings for stories, encourage students to closely read the illustrations from Why Am I Me? as a mentor for their own descriptions and illustrations of settings.
Closely Reading Illustrations to Dig Deeper into Characters. The illustrations in Why Am I Me? are mesmerizing and position readers to linger on each page to gather more details about the characters and the community where they live. Project for students select images and have them share the details that grab their attention. What do your students notice about the elements that Qualls and Alko used to craft their illustrations? What do your students know about the boy’s and girl’s interests based on the illustrations? What do your students wonder about as they zoom in closely on individual pages? We recommend spending time on the illustration of the boy and girl saying “hi”. Do your students think this is the first time they’ve met? Why or why not? What do they notice about the book on the next page? Consider using the framework: I See/ I Think/ I Wonder to incorporate participation from as many students as possible. Have students deepen their thinking about the boy and girl further by working in partnerships or small groups to write and illustrate what happens next when the boy and girl see each other again.
Mixed Media Illustrations: Newsprint, Collage, and Paint Possibilities. Sean Qualls and Selina Alko use a variety of materials in their illustrations including newsprint and paint. Gather a variety of papers of different colors and textures, including newsprint, and have students construct their own illustrations, perhaps of their community, by applying the same techniques as Walls and Alko. Have students incorporate paint, marker, watercolor, or colored pencils into their work as well to add variety and depth to their images. Draw students’ attention to the intentional design of the end pages. On the front end pages, we see the boy what appears to be his dad. Then on the title page, we see the girl and what seems to be her mom. On the final end pages, we see both the boy and the girl. Have students consider the use of end pages in their own book making process. To fully enact the experience, have students collaborate with a fellow illustrator like Qualls and Alko. What decisions do they need to make in order to illustrate something that is cohesive and incorporates elements from both illustrators? Consider having a designated space in the classroom for a variety of art materials and papers available for students throughout the year as an invitation to explore with mixed media illustration as part of the writing process.
Author Study. Visit Paige Britt’s website with students to learn more about her favorite books, moodling (visit her site to find out what this is), and her tips for writing. Pair Why Am I Me? with Britt’s middle grade novel, The Lost Track of Time, about an overscheduled girl who longs to be a writer. How does the concept of moodling apply to the characters in both books? In what ways does moodling create space for imagination and creative problem-solving? Consider sending Paige Britt a letter from the class or send her a Tweet to share the big life questions your class realizes they have when they have a little time to moodle.
Illustrator Study. Sean Qualls and Selina Alko have been illustrating separately for many years and recently began creating books together. Gather other texts illustrated or written by Qualls and Alko including The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage, Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, and Can I Touch Your Hair?: Poems of Race, Mistakes, and Friendship. Have students think about the ways books by Qualls and Alko focus on themes of social justice that are important to them as artists and writers. Read interviews with Qualls and Alko such as The Believe in Books Interview Series and Q & A with Publishers Weekly to learn more about their own reading lives, the books they choose for their own children, and their process as illustrators.
Selina Alko’s Site
Sean Qualls Site
Reach Out and Read Interview with Qualls/Alko
Publishers Weekly Interview with Alko/Qualls
Center for Philosophy for Children Resources
Read the Word and the World by Kathy Short
Alko, S. (2015). The case for loving: The fight for interracial marriage. Ill. by Qualls, S. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.
Britt, P. (2016). The lost track of time. New York, NY: Scholastic.
Camp, L. & Ross, T. (2010). Why? Hinkler Books.
Fox, M. (1997). Whoever you are. Boston, MA: Harcourt Children’s Books.
Goeminne, S. (2017). No one else like you. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
hooks, b. (2004). Skin again. New York, NY: Jump At the Sun Press.
Hong, J. (2017). Lovely. Berkeley, CA: Creston Books.
Katz, K. (2002) The colors of us. New York, NY: Square Fish.
Kelly, S. (2010). Shades of people. New York, NY: Holiday House.
Latham, & Waters, (2018). Can I touch your hair?: Poems of race, mistakes, and friendship. Ill. by Qualls, S. & Alko, S. Minneapolis, MN: Carolrhoda Books.
Leannah, M. (2017). Most people. Thomaston, ME: Tilbury House Publishers.
Lester, J. (2008). Let’s talk about race. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Muth, J. (2002). The three questions. New York, NY: Scholastic Press.
Robbins, D. (2016). Two friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Ill. by Qualls, S. & Alko, S. London, UK: Orchard Books.
Yamada, K. (2014). What do you do with an idea? Seattle, WA: Compendium.
Yamada, K. (2016). What do you do with a problem? Seattle, WA: Compendium.
Yamada, K. (2018). What do you do with a chance? Seattle, WA: Compendium.
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About Katie Cunningham
Katie is a Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. There she is also the Director of the Advanced Certificate Program in Social and Emotional Learning and Whole Child Education. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.
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