Many years ago, when we still lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, my older daughters had the privilege of attending Jackson Magnet — at the time, a K‑6 school with a large population of students from Southeast Asia. I never ceased to be awed by the cultural richness of Jackson Magnet, so unlike the homogeneity of School 18, the neighborhood grammar school I attended as a child growing up in Troy, New York. My daughters had several Hmong friends there. Like the great-grandparents they never knew, these friends were immigrants who fled their homelands. Through them, my daughters caught a feel of their own history.
What’s more, Jackson Magnet inspired me to write an early chapter book series called The Jackson Friends. It centered on the friendship of three girls: Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope. Pa Lia, as you might guess, is Hmong. Howie is African American. Calliope James, with freckles and a gap between her two front teeth, is a Northern European mix. Pa Lia, Howie, and Calliope sprang forth as characters directly from the world I observed at Jackson Magnet.
Here’s an interesting anecdote, and the reason I bring The Jackson Friends into this post. One summer, while I was working on the series, my youngest daughter Leila, who did not go to Jackson Magnet, attended a day camp held at St. Thomas University near our home back then.
“Mom, there’s a girl in my group who looks just like Howie,” she kept telling me. “You have to meet her.” One day, I did. Howie’s twin was Caucasian. What Leila saw was a kid like Howie, kind with a warm smile. This surprised and delighted me on many levels. Lelia was already so well-versed in religious intermarriage that when she met a Jewish kid at camp, she always asked “half or whole?” [I promise you she did not learn that from her parents.] Still, when she thought of Howie, she did not think about the color of her skin — half, whole, or any other percentage.
When I wrote A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, I thought a lot about Mrs. Goldman and Sophia. I wanted to explore their relationship and the love they had for each other. The details of their backgrounds were, at first, incidental to the larger story of their friendship just the way they were to Pa Lia’s, Howie’s and Calliope’s friendship in The Jackson Friends.
There are obvious signs of ethnicity throughout The Jackson Friends. Mrs. Goldman’s wool is scented with the smell of her chicken soup. Her speech is peppered with mitzvahs and keppies. Then there’s the scratchy hat that Sophia finds when she looks through the hall closet. It’s one that her abuela wore in Mexico. Aside from those mentions, the reader can visualize other differences through the tender images offered by Brian Karas, the book’s illustrator.
What does intersectionality like this mean for the Jewish community?
Well, I am merely a mother, and a children’s book writer, not a sociologist, a historian, or even a political commentator. So what I can tell you from my dusty corner of the universe is that for me, intersectionality means hope. For all of us. That’s why I find myself revisiting it in my stories. There is great hope when we see beyond race, gender, and age. There is great hope when we open up to each other’s worries and march for our collective justice.
In my heart, and in my book, A Hat for Mrs. Goldman, another great hope comes from the kindness of wool and two sticks. Sophia Hernandez struggles through knitting a hat because someone has a very cold keppie. Someone she loves. She and Mrs. Goldman are more than neighbors, their lives are intersected. It is that intersection which makes their story about knitting and love.
Michelle Edwards is an award-winning author and illustrator of many books for children, one book for adults, and nearly one hundred essays for knitters. Her stories are about family, friendship, and community. They chronicle the large and small victories and defeats of everyday life. Michelle frequently shares her paintings and thoughts on Instagram, Facebook, and her website.