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Ben & the Amazing Animal Adventure

Book blog by Denise Furlong, Ed.D

Ben’s story is one that has brought together three teachers who taught together many years ago in Freehold, New Jersey. Leslie was an absolutely incredible art teacher for many years with an amazing legacy of her talent displayed throughout town. Sarah was a passionate and knowledgeable ESL/bilingual/Spanish teacher who advocated for our multilingual learners in ways that made lasting change for years to come. I taught in Freehold schools for almost twenty years and am so grateful for all I have learned from both the amazing students there and my wonderful and generous colleagues (among them, Leslie and Sarah). So, in essence, Freehold is where Ben’s story begins.

As a lifelong educator who has made the leap to working with teachers at the university level (Go GCU Lions!), I have the incredible honor of helping them really reflect on the language and literacy experiences that they provide for their own current or future students. We talk about explicit instruction of skills, building vocabulary, appreciating literature that highlights diverse voices, and fostering a love of literacy. I take my role very seriously, and I often do the same type of reflection as I encourage our candidates to do.

One evening, I was teaching my class about representation in literature and I referenced Rudine Sims Bishop’s 1990 work in mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. We made a list of different ways that children may “see” themselves in literature that included language, culture, race, educational background, family dynamics, and so many more. It was then that I realized that I didn’t know any books that told the story of a child with allergies.

This brought me back to Sarah.

Sarah’s sons both have severe allergies, and she had started documenting some of her adventures in experimenting with recipes that are safe for them. (IG: fakeit.tillya.bakeit) I asked her how many books her boys had that highlighted characters who have allergies like they do. I’m sure it is not a surprise that there are not many out there. This started a conversation about different ways that children may not have representation in literature.

Ben and his brother Sammy organically provide “mirrors” for so many of our readers. Ben’s allergies are the starting point, but they are also Chinese-American characters who live in a multigenerational household. They share a room and they sing and read together. Both go to school and are navigating new experiences both together and independently.

As these are ways that some children may see themselves in Ben and Sammy, this book is meant to also be a “sliding glass door” for others. It is crucial that all classrooms and families have compassionate conversations about their friends who have allergies. So many people present allergies as an inconvenience or a way that people impose on others. Ben’s story reminds us that he did not choose to have allergies and it is very important that the needs of these people are considered in both school and social activities.

As Sarah and I were crafting the story, we both thought of Leslie. We never imagined that Leslie would be willing to share her beautiful talent with our Ben, but she quickly grew just as excited as we were to share his story. Her paintings brought Ben, Sammy, and their friends to life. One of the things that Sarah and I said to Leslie was that we hoped that the illustrations would tell the story with the words almost being supporting “characters,” and that is exactly what has happened.

As we are all educators, we wanted to take this opportunity to include questions for reflection as well as guidelines and reference materials for parents and teachers in this book. There are QR codes that provide readers with free resources that can support rich conversations about the topics presented.

One last note was the decision to transform this story into a bilingual (English-Spanish) book. This was about accessibility and celebrating the value of languages. As Sarah and I have taught multilingual learners for many years, we hoped this would be a point of access for these students (teachers, families, communities) to embrace this type of story.

So, this brings us back to where we started: Freehold, NJ and three friends who met there long ago. As we say in our book, We three together dedicate this book to friendship, learning, teaching, and acceptance!

We hope you enjoy Ben’s story!

About the Author

Denise Furlong, Ed.D

Instagram: @denisefurlong

Denise is a teacher educator at Georgian Court University in New Jersey with many years of experience teaching multilingual learners in NJ public schools. She is also author of Voices of Newcomers: Experiences of Multilingual Learners, published through EduMatch in 2022. She is so honored to work with co-author, Sarah Szamreta Tang, and illustrator, Leslie Daley, to bring Ben’s story to life.

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