Since 2010, Skokie Public Library has partnered with a number of local organizations and libraries on an initiative called Coming Together in Skokie and Niles Township , an annual project that focuses on a different culture or major ethnic group in our community each year. The project serves as a catalyst for celebration, conversation and education about identity. Last year's program was titled Voices of Race , and this year's program, ¡Viva! , focuses on Hispanic and Latino cultures. (The Voices of Race program won ALA's 2015 Excellence in Library Programming Award .)
While brainstorming about programs for young children to tie into Coming Together, I remembered recently going through a stack of my own boys’ artwork from several decades ago; I had come across a paper plate decorated to look like a face, and the label on the back read “peach-cinnamon.” I remembered the wonderful Cherry Preschool program where my now 6-foot-2-inch, 27-year-old son came home telling me proudly that he was “peach-cinnamon” and his friend was “caramel-chocolate.”
I wanted to create a fun program that would help kids explore identities for the Coming Together initiative. Identity for children is all about discovering who they are and how they fit in with their family and friends.
Starting with a Story
We tailored the program to 3- to 5-year-olds and their grown-ups. I read the wonderful book "The Skin You Live In
" by Michael Tyler, which uses rhyming verses and vibrant pictures to illustrate both our uniqueness and our connectedness while promoting self-esteem. After sharing the book, the children and I had a conversation about how we are all the same because we are human (we each have a nose, eyes, feelings inside), yet we all look different. I had them compare their arms to their grown-ups’ arms, my arm and other people’s arms.
Exploring Identity through Art
Then everyone received a smock, paintbrush, paper plate, small cup and craft sticks for mixing paints. We set out eight multicultural paint colors (available from a variety of sources, including Discount School Supply ) on each table, and then we helped kids mix colors that matched their skin tones.
This custom paint mixing was the beginning of their “self-portraits.” Some kids were very focused on choosing and mixing the paint colors to match their skin, while others were happy with “close enough.” They added googly eyes and different colored yarn for their hair to the paper plate portraits.
Kids left happy and a little messy but hopefully with a bit more understanding about their unique existence in the world. As Michael Tyler tells us in “The Skin You Live In,” “It’s not tall skin / or short skin / or best in the sport skin,” but rather it’s the “You who’s within” that is most important.
This program was developed and led by Shelley Sutherland. Sutherland is the youth services manager at Skokie Public Library, where she also selects picture books for youth.