The purpose of this letter is to highly recommend the Neon Tiki Tribe book series. As I have read about the mission of your award, the Tiki’s are an exemplary candidate. The Tiki’s bring vision, ingenuity, transformation, achievement, and leadership to the reading table of elementary school aged children. With the support of your foundation, the Tiki’s can produce more books in the series and reach out to children all over the country and world with their message of being thoughtful, intelligent, kind, and inspirational.
The creator of the Neon Tiki Tribe, Greg Devlin, has himself faced adversity in the face of a dangerous position and mission with the United States Air Force. After his harrowing experience, he brought the Tiki tribe to life as a way to educate and talk with children about how a positive attitude, hard work, and kindness are critical when navigating any difficult situation, whether a child is sick in the hospital, bullied, or is struggling to learn to read.
Greg and his partner, Dave Thompson, with their team of writers, editors, and artists have now created and published over fourteen books with two more underway that deal with educational and social justice topics. They have most recently partnered with LAB or the Literacy for Adults in Brevard County to jointly publish a book that helps bring families together to read. They have recently partnered with Riley Hospital for Children and will soon publish a book titled Always Hope about children working to live with and beat cancer.
If funded, they want to partner with even more agencies on bringing books about topics such as autism, poverty, and different families to the forefront. Their characters, colorful Tiki’s, in each story, engage children in an adventure where wrongs are conquered and together, the Tikis and the children, negotiate to find a peaceful resolve for everyone in the story, even the Evil Ku Tiki Tribe. Characters face everything from Internet danger, bullies, being laughed at for having dwarfism, cheating, and bad sportsmanship.
I have been using children’s picture books in my own teaching for 24 years, teaching a course in children’s literature at the university level for eight years, and now edit a literary magazine titled Rethinking Children’s Literature. My magazine’s mission is to ask the gatekeepers—publishers, librarians, teachers—to rethink the books we write, we shelve, and that we read.
I wrote the following for a book chapter that will be published this fall in a university ebook publication about diversity and this excerpt fits well in this space of this letter to express why we need more books like The Neon Tiki Tribe:
We are wired, some might even argue, hard wired by the stories we are told and that we read. The messages in children’s picture books are delivered simply and illustrated beautifully. Those early stories shape us and become our maxims in life.
Caterpillars become beautiful butterflies; It’s good to rebel and have “fun that is funny” and to try something different like green eggs and ham; to say goodnight to the moon and everything else in your room before you go to sleep; to go outside and play on a snowy day; to know that your mother loves you more than you will ever know; that being sent to your room isn’t the worse thing because imagined wild things come to life beyond your bedroom door; that your beloved teddy bear lives a secret life when you sleep; that your teacher is always right; and that if you have a terrible, horrible no good day that you can always try again tomorrow to make it better.
Why are these classic stories treasured? Are they really timeless? Or, are they considered timeless because they are the children’s books that are accepted by editors at publishing houses, and then purchased and shelved by bookstores and libraries, and finally read to us by librarians, parents, and teachers? Do these stories speak to all students? Can every student identify with a character or an event in these classic tales? Are the cultural messages we are delivering positive, or do they reinforce the hegemony of the white, middle class?
The answer is simple: Diversity in children’s literature is critical in constructing culture and community identity.
The Tiki’s want to represent and include all children: their stories and their voices. They want children to see and read about themselves in a book. They want children to learn about each other, about what it’s like, for example, to have cancer, have autism, or be bullied. They want teachers and librarians to have new books to shelve that tackle contemporary social and educational issues.
Each of the Tiki books brings experience, research, and more importantly, not just an interest, but a passion for teaching about topics that are so relevant in creating educational and social justice.
I was introduced to the Tiki’s because of my work with my magazine. My students at the university loved the books, as did I. We know our young male readers sometimes struggle with picture books because the characters are more often female and boys want to read more nonfiction and action. And while fiction, the Tikis tackle a nonfiction or real life topic, which makes the books appealing to both our female and male readers. And, research clearly supports that children love series books. When they love a book, they don’t want it to end. With the Tiki’s, it doesn’t have to. The number of topics and story lines that can be created are endless. The Tiki’s can grow with their audience. And finally, comic books and graphic books are growing in popularity and the Tiki illustrator creates comic book style art for many scenes in the books.
Dr. Darolyn “Lyn” Jones
Assistant Professor, English Education Advisor, and Editor of Rethinking Children’s Literature, Department of English, Ball State University
Education Outreach Director of the Memoir Project and Editor for INwords Publications, The Indiana Writers Center, Indianapolis, Indiana
Robert Bell, #297, Ball State University Muncie, Indiana 47306