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Writing a Just and Joyful World

Ann Berlak ’59 believes in literature that empowers readers of all ages to think about inequality and activism. Her new children’s book, Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito (Hard Ball Press), is the bilingual tale of a fourth-grader who discovers how the low wages his favorite restaurant pays its workers is impacting his friends’ families.

Tell me a little bit about your past as a teacher and teacher educator.

Over the past 50 years, I taught young children in the Boston area as well as in California, and taught pre-service teachers in St. Louis and at San Francisco State. During that half century, I maintained a vision of schools as
 places where students learn to become active, caring participants in the creation of a just and joyful world.

As a teacher educator, I encouraged pre-service teachers to question the assumption underlying national and state education policies that the primary and overriding role of schooling and education is to get students
 “college- and career-ready.” This became synonymous with high scores on 
standardized tests and left no place for teaching students to question the political and social arrangements of society that lead to vast economic and power inequalities.


How did your teaching take a different form after retirement?

I decided to write books for children that were captivating and beautiful and could be used to spark conversations about what adults call political, social, and economic justice as well as the nature of community, solidarity, and activism. Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito is my first attempt.

The first year after retirement, I talked with children in Oakland classrooms about these
 issues. In addition to being a lot of fun, this confirmed my belief that children are yearning to discuss political and social justice 
issues. There is vast 
silence in schools about issues such as why people are poor, how the rich get rich, whether the sizable inequalities we see around us exist everywhere, or whether anyone can do anything to create more justice. Because children are not exposed to alternative “stories” about inequality, they have no choice but to internalize the ideology of larger society: “If you work hard in school and life, you will make it,” and the inverse, that those who have not “made it” have not worked hard enough, are inferior, and deserve their lot.


What have children’s reactions been to this book?

There have been many inspiring moments. In one case, fourth graders got into a rousing discussion about how
 Mr. McMann got so rich in the first place: “He won the lottery.” “He got straight A’s in school.” (No one suggested some people got rich by inheritance; certainly no one had a notion that there was a trade-off between Mr. MacMann’s wealth and Brandon’s parents’ insufficient income.) When the teacher stopped the conversation for lunch, the students wouldn’t go until she promised they would continue the conversation after lunch.

But one of the most discouraging moments occurred in that same class. In response to the question about how people get so rich, one boy asked, “If I
 grow up, join the Army, offer to give my life for my country, and don’t get killed, is that a good way to get rich?” The teacher and I made eye contact—we understood there were more important things to talk about than “college- and career-readiness.”


Why was it important for the book to be bilingual?

Spanish bilingual books help the many U.S. children whose first language is Spanish to respect and maintain their home language and ethnic culture while learning English. In addition, bilingual books challenge English speakers’ ethnocentric assumptions.


What do you hope kids—and teachers and parents—will take away from the book?

To begin connecting the dots between private troubles and public issues, as the sociologist C. Wright Mills
put it. When students read and talk about Joelito and books like it, I want them to understand how unjust conditions affect their and others’ lives, and instead of “blaming the victim,” to empathize with others and think about possibilities for social action.


+ FOR MORE INFORMATION about Joelito’s Big Decision/La gran decisión de Joelito and Hard Ball Press, click here.

Recommended Reading ...

More books that share the spirit of Joelito

There are, to my knowledge, very few books about presently existing economic inequalities and injustices that help children connect the dots between the disparities of wealth they see around them and their political underpinnings. Though we tell children complex stories about how a chrysalis becomes a butterfly, we seem to think they’re unable to understand the social and political dynamics of poverty and wealth.

Here are three books that address these issues in very different ways:

A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara

This board book for parents and young children to read together is taking the country by storm. Beautifully illustrated, it contrasts sharply with traditional ways of introducing the alphabet. There is also a Spanish version.


¡Si, Se Puede! / Yes, We Can!: Janitor Strike in L.A. by Diana Cohn

In this bilingual book, Carlitos tells a story about his mother who “scrubs the bathroom tiles (in the tall glass office buildings) so they shine like the moon” at night, and is a union organizer by day. She has to work a second job on weekends to make ends meet. Carlitos learns that as a consequence of his mother’s union activities, the family becomes able to afford medicine for his grandmother, and his mother can give up her second job.


Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Exquisitely written and illustrated by artist and quilter Faith Ringgold, this is one of my favorites. In the book, Cassie Louise Lightfoot describes her fantasy flight to freedom, with allusions to the particular roadblocks that stand in the way of African-Americans achieving economic opportunities.