For me, Read Across America Week is a week to celebrate diverse books. One of the books that I chose to read this week is When Charley Met Emma by Amy Webb. This story is about Charley. He sometimes feels different because he can be shy and want to keep to himself. One day, he is at the playground and he sees Emma. Emma is playing at the playground with his sister. She also has limb differences and is in a wheelchair. Charley learns the appropriate way to ask questions about Emma and her differences. He also learns that while Emma might do some things differently, they also have a lot in common.
I love this book because of its important message about human nature. As humans, we are naturally curious about other people. When there is an obvious physical difference, our mind naturally asks questions. Children learn from an early age to be quiet and that it is inappropriate to bring up differences. However, this ends up giving the unspoken message that differences are bad and not something to be spoken about. Instead, Charley learns in this book the difference between asking questions and being rude. Emma doesn’t like when people point, laugh, or whisper about her. She is happy to answer polite questions. Charley quickly learns why Emma is different, his curiosity is satisfied, and he is ready to play and enjoy Emma’s company.
After we read the book, students wrote down what they thought the author wanted them to learn from reading the text. (It tied in nicely to our unit on the author’s message.) My students had the following ideas:
“The author wanted you to know it is fine if you are different.”
“The author of this book wants you to know don’t make fun of people that are different.”
“I think the author wanted us to know that being different is ok and that you should not make fun of someone that’s different.”
It is vital that we as educators help children understand differences and that they are not “bad, sad, or weird, they’re just differences.” Whenever students have a physical difference, I always talk with parents and encourage them to allow their child to talk about it with the class. This initial conversation will help students ask questions and get to know the individual as a person. For example, when I have done this in the past, students ask questions that even surprised me. Questions like “how do you sleep?” or “what do you do if you want to play?” When the child is able to answer these questions, their peers have a deeper understanding and no longer feel like they are unable to ask questions or be curious. I found that the way the students treat each other after these conversations shows their importance. When students before would be overly cautious or scared to play with a student who is differently abled, they realized they were going to hurt the student and were happy to play all kinds of inventive games together.
I highly recommend this book. It will open up an authentic and important conversation about differences. It also will open the door to students understanding how to treat someone with differences.