Upstream Arts Advisory Board Member Joanne Toft

UA Advisory Board Member Joanne Toft


Upstream Arts Advisory Board Member Joanne Toft is a longtime member of our community. As a teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools, she believed in our work from the beginning and played an integral role in helping us develop our strong relationship with the district. Now retired from teaching, Joanne continues to pursue her passion for children’s literature and literacy through a range of exciting initiatives, including a blog where she publishes her reviews of children’s books. Recently, Upstream Arts discovered three children’s books that thoughtfully and artfully feature individuals with disabilities – and we thought it would be fun to have Joanne review these books for our blog! Read on to discover three books that no doubt will be a delight to children and adults of all ages and abilities.  

There has been a great deal of chatter on the web about the need for diverse books. All children need to be able to see themselves in the stories they read. It is also so important to read about children and people who are not like us. This is one way we learn how to care for others.

I was so excited when given the opportunity to read three such books. Books that show diversity in many ways.

Armond Goes to a Party: A book about Asperger’s and friendship by Nancy Carlson and Armond Isaak was the first book I read. This wonderful book was co-written by Carlson and Isaak and is a perfect read aloud for young children with Asperger’s or who might have a friend with Asperger’s.

Carlson’s large bright images bring the written text to life, helping us see just how Armond feels as he steps into the wild and sometimes overwhelming noise of a party. Felicia is the perfect friend who understands the needs of her friends. She helps Armond find a place to take a break when things get a bit too much, giving him space to relax and return to the fun when he is ready.

The story does not sugarcoat the emotions. It is clear that the party is hard for Armond, but good planning on the part of parents and friends makes the event something that everyone can enjoy.

The authors have also added some notes on the back pages to help parents understand the emotions that children with Asperger’s Syndrome might be feeling. This is a great addition to diverse books.

The People on the Corner by Leslye Orr is another wonderful look at the ways we are different and the same. This story has the neighborhood kids wondering who is moving into the empty house on the block. They notice toys: “Yeah, kids!” They notice wheel chairs; must be old people. “Oh no, will they be crabby old people?” With hot cookies in hand, they head over to find out who really moved into the house.

They are more than surprised to find a family of fourteen. There were children who use wheelchairs, someone who uses a hearing aid, a few who are blind. There were so many differences, but everyone loved to play baseball, climb into the fort, and enjoy ice cream and picnics.

This short book shows how differences don’t have to separate us but can help bring us together. The book was published in a spiral bound to make the pages easy to turn, and a portion of the proceeds helps benefit the Fraser Child & Family Center and The Autism Shop.

The last of the three is Big Little Brother by Kevin Kling and Chris Monroe. The authors explore what happens when one really wants a little brother, but the little brother is not exactly what you were expecting. Little brothers take things, are afraid of things, and need a lot of attention. We all know that, but this little brother grows and grows until he is the same size or maybe a bit bigger that our main character is at 4 years of age. We didn’t expect that.

It is hard when someone your size but much younger plays with your things and follows you everywhere; but there is an upside to this size thing as well. Little brother comes to the rescue when a bully at preschool tries to take over the Thanksgiving game, and big brother finds it is great to have a big little brother to play with.

The images are bold and colorful, helping us see the everyday struggles of life with a little brother.

Diversity comes in different sizes, colors, and abilities. Through great books, we can see how much we are alike and begin to understand how our differences can help us be friends. Take time to read a few diverse books this week.

For more book reviews, reflections, and musings by Joanne Toft, visit