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New book and TV
shows for kids celebrate diversity

New book and TV
shows for kids celebrate diversity

Young children live in their own worlds. They see the same people every day, do the same things, and eat the same foods. Maybe they put ketchup or ranch dressing on pasta or pancakes, and that's considered normal--in their little worlds. Generally, all this routine is considered good because it makes children feel safe and comfortable with themselves and their loved ones. A sheltered life, though, can have consequences later, both socially and academically.

A new book and a new TV show both tackle diversity, couched in characters and words that kids can already relate to. Carson Kressley, the author of the picture book You're Different and That's Super (Simon & Schuster), grew up in a fairly rural, blue-collar community in Pennsylvania, which he says was "not a place where difference is tolerated or celebrated." Kressley is best known as the fashion guru on Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

He says he wrote the book largely based on his own feelings of being the odd boy out, being gay, and being an equestrian rather than a team athlete. He can now joke that he was always the last one picked for the dodgeball team, but, at the time, it was hurtful. He also knows he wasn't the first or last to go through it. "This is for anyone who is skinny, fat, black, white, gay, or straight--anything that wreaks havoc with self-esteem," Kressley says. "Sometimes kids have parents they can talk to, sometimes not. I want kids to know they're not alone."

In You're Different, a young colt goes from being the most popular one on the farm to the most ostracized when he grows a single horn from the top of his head. Turns out the horse is a unicorn. Even the unicorn thinks it's a terrible thing to be different--even though he has the whitest coat and most golden mane--until his horn saves the day and everyone else celebrates his uniqueness.

Kressley used a horse barn as his analogy to the cafeteria table because, first of all, he knows horses well, down to their mannerisms, and, second, because they have a herd mentality. The book is the result of an idea he's had in his head for a long time, he adds. "Little kids don't know about prejudice or social pressure. They get to be themselves...but somewhere along the line, between 5 and 8, they start to feel peer pressure. For a kid, the perspective is so small and so limited, they don't know about all the other people out there just like them." He acknowledges he's an unlikely kiddie book author since he's not a parent, and he probably doesn't have much of a fan base in the under-10 crowd, but, he says, "I was a kid once. The challenges are the same even if the circumstances are different."

The creator of the new PBS series It's a Big Big World, Mitchell Kriegman, wants to encourage children's curiosity of things that are unknown and imprint a positive image of all the creatures, places, and things on earth. Home base for the show is the World Tree, located in the rain forest and home to a diverse group of animals and the show's metaphor for the world as a whole. "I think that kids always are interested in animals; that lasts from an early age to 7 or 8 at least, if not longer. Kids are interested in the way they [animals] behave and why they do things. All kids are interested in creatures and how they get along. They might ask, 'Why do all dogs get along even though they might look so different?' " Kriegman says.

In one upcoming episode (It's a Big Big World premieres January 2), Bob the Anteater wonders what would it be like if the world played one big game of tag. "It's a positive sentiment about working together and being a community despite differences," says Kriegman, who also created Bear in the Big Blue House. As a parent, Kriegman says he's concerned that neither parents nor children have a way to view the world--in its entirety--positively. Instead, when people think globally, they're worrying about the effects of huge storms and other disasters.

He recites a few lyrics from the 1990 song "From a Distance" by Bette Midler: "From a distance, the world looks blue and green and the snow-capped mountains white." Yes, it's a bit cheesy, Kriegman says, but it's the way he wants kids to think about the world, as "a grander, more wonderful picture" than what they see in their own community or in narrowly focused pictures of other places. He also hopes acceptance of the broader world will fuel an interest in science, something he doesn't see happening in elementary school classrooms. To be interested in science, children must have a working knowledge of what's already out there. (Samantha Critchell, via AP)

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