Leading with leprechauns — introducing kids to their cultural heritage

by On March 15, 2013 in Childrens Books, General, Reading

irish books library enokson flickr creative commons 2011As St. Patrick’s Day draws near, leprechaun art projects line the walls of my daughter’s kindergarten classroom. The little green men are the stars of story time as well.

The holiday pleases our adopted daughter Hope who, as her birth family explained to us, is a “mostly Irish lassie.” But recently Hope told us: “I want to know more about my Irish culture than just leprechauns.”

My husband and I are not particularly well versed in this topic. This was abundantly clear as we ran to the iPad and Googled “Irish things” and “Ireland.” We found some beautiful images of Irish landscapes to show her at that moment, but we knew we had work to do.

Normally at times like these, I am very focused. I do my homework. I research subjects and peruse book reviews. I make use of our wonderful local libraries and the always helpful children’s librarians who offer patient, thoughtful advice.

But this time, I dropped the ball in an unfortunate rush. I ran into our local library, grateful to see a timely display of children’s books on St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish. I grabbed a dozen books without previewing any of them.

Later that evening, I kicked off the “Irish story hour” with a leprechaun book which elicited eye rolls from my daughter and an admonishment: “I said no more leprechauns!” ?Still, a second leprechaun book struck her funny bone and a small teaching moment presented herself. I asked her “what’s up with leprechauns anyway? I don’t get these little guys.” Hope explained why they were mischievous, what this whole “pot of gold” deal was about, and other leprechaun lore facts she had learned in school.

“How do you know so much about leprechauns?” I asked.

“I’m Irish,” she said. But of course.

We moved on to?Jamie O’Rourke and the Big Potato?which offered us an amusing spin on an Irish folktale about a lazy man, villagers and, well, a giant potato. I’ve always had an interest in folktales and other narrative forms as windows to cultures, so this was a happy choice for us both, and led to an interesting discussion of folktales and culture more generally.

Finally, in my grab-and-go pile were two books that reminded me of an important basic rule: screen books for your kids first, ensuring they offer age-appropriate content for your child. Librarians can help you with this task, offering informed suggestions. (Bookboard offer parents a similar peace of mind knowing that a children’s librarian has curated every book in the collection.)

So it turns out that, in my haste, I had checked out: 1) an historical non-fiction account about the Irish potato famine (Feed the Children First: Irish Memories of the Great Hunger?by Mary Lyon)?and 2) a?beautiful picture book that used a young girl’s point-of-view to tell a story of tolerance and hope in the face of intense religious conflict (Walking to School by Eve Bunting.)

After Hope went to bed, I read and admired both books. Each would certainly offer older children valuable lessons about Irish culture and history. My five-year old was just not ready for these lessons yet.

Teaching kids about their cultural heritage is an interesting journey in its own right. When you adopt a child who asks about their cultural background, there are additional, unique feelings of responsibility to help them learn.

My husband and I will enjoy this learning process with Hope. This will include thoughtfully adding books on Ireland and Irish culture to her collection of special books. When she’s older, Hope can read books to learn about things like Ireland’s potato famine or religious conflict. ?But for now, her cultural lessons — and ours — will focus on things like music, folktales, traditions and those ubiquitous leprechauns.


Diana is a sociologist, freelance writer and mom, though rarely in that order. Her writing spans topics from parenting joys and challenges to prevention education. She writes a monthly parenting blog for Yahoo and has published feature articles on adoption, family rituals and the childcare industry for parenting publications. Diana earned her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Santa Cruz. These days find her hanging with her husband and book-loving six year old in the San Francisco Bay Area, while happily blogging and serving as a reading advocate for Bookboard.

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