Read to Your Children (About Race!)

It’s never too early to begin reading to your baby! This is why we love our board book collection. And why we offer storytimes for children as young as three months. It’s also never too early to start talking to them and reading to them about race and racism in America. Just as reading to children will help them succeed later in life, so will early exposure to stories that explore diversity, inclusion, prejudice, and our shared history. And there are urgent reasons to begin early. Racial preference and prejudice sink their teeth into us almost from birth. While researching a different topic, I stumbled upon some alarming statistics. Studies have found that infants as young as three-months have exhibited preference for faces of their own race, while children may begin to embrace and accept racism around three years in age. If this feels as dire to you as it does to me, there is good news too! We have part of the antidote to this insidious threat right here in the library. Each year, more and more books are published that talk about these issues in nuanced and accessible ways, while even more are coming out that feature people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds living their lives. I’d like to share a few of my favorites. 

Intersection-Allies-CoverIntersection Allies: We Make Room for All by Chelsea Johnson, LaToya Council, Carolyn Choi, and Ashley Seil Smith is a relatively new picture book that has quickly become a favorite to share with families and friends. From the carefully thought out ‘Letter to Grown-Ups’ at the beginning to the final pages’ rallying cry, this book is both masterfully poignant and thought-provoking. Written in rhyming text, the book celebrates young people of different races, religions, abilities, and experiences while also demonstrating how we can all cherish, value, and protect one another. In less expert hands, a book like this might feel clunky or over-stuffed, but the evident care and passion that went into its creation allow the message to shine without compromising the reading experience. 

81OxQJ1yf-LWhen I first saw Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, the title made me nervous. The phrase “not my idea” felt too close to an excuse for me, so I was relieved when I read the book and discovered that it does not promote this message. This book begins with a young person watching a news story that involves violence then explores the privilege whiteness can afford and the ways that white people can leverage this privilege to fight for a more just future. The messaging is simple and direct, and Higginbotham deftly threads the needle by encouraging readers to critically examine the world around them while also encouraging self-care and forgiveness. She explains:

Racism is still happening. It keeps changing and keeps being the same. And yet…just being here, alive in this moment, you have a chance to care about this, to connect. But connecting means opening. And opening sometimes feels…like breaking.

I love that Higginbotham goes so far to acknowledge the fear and pain that can surface when confronting racism, while also portraying this mission as both urgent and redemptive. 

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Many other books confront and counter prejudice by telling stories that feature characters who are black, indigenous or people of color. Even when these stories focus on things that might be unique to a group of people, they also highlight our shared humanity and help expand the world that is accessible to young readers. Many of these stories focus on family. Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson follows a young boy and his nana on a bus ride across town. It would be easy to pair this book with Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña’s My Papi Has a Motorcycle which also follows a young person on a ride across town. This time lovingly recounting a young girl’s late afternoon cruise on the back of her father’s motorcycle. 

Food, family, history and identity all come together in Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story by Kevin Noble Maillard and Juana Martinez Neal while A Different Pond by Bao Phi and Thi Bui finds a father and son fishing in the early morning, while also connecting this ritual to the father’s own childhood in Vietnam. Nicola I. Campbell and Julie Flett’s beautiful A Day with Yayah is a gentle story of an Interior Salish family foraging in a meadow while an elder passes down knowledge to her grandchildren that fans of Blueberries for Sal are sure to love. And Minh Lê and Dan Santat’s Drawn Together spends a day with a boy and his grandfather who do not speak the same language as they discover a different way to communicate through a shared passion. 

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Other books discuss hair care and head-wear for different people around the US and the world. Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, and My Hair is a Garden by Cozbi A. Cabrera take different approaches while celebrating the love, attention, and community connection that can go into hair care. The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad and Hatem Aly and Mommy’s Khimar by Jamiliah Thompkins-Bigelow and Ebony Glenn explore different but affirming experiences connected with the headcoverings worn by some Muslim women.

The Boy & the Bindi by Vivek Shraya and Rajni Perera beautifully tells the story of a young South Asian boy who loves his mother’s Bindi and wishes he could wear one as well. And Sharee Miller’s Don’t Touch My Hair follows a young girl who loves her hair but does not love all the people around her who touch it without even asking. This book feels like it should be required reading delivering powerful messages about personal boundaries, being othered, and finding one’s voice, while somehow still feeling playful, whimsical, and silly. 

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We can certainly all relate to the fear of a young boy on a pools high dive, like that experienced by Jabari in Gaia Cornwall’s Jabari Jumps. And the joy that art can bring to a community, like Mira discovers when she meets a muralist in F. Isabel Campoy, Theresa Howell, and Rafael López’s gorgeous story Maybe Something Beautiful

I love Jacqueline Woodson and Rafael López’s The Day You Begin. This story of new students from different cultures beginning school together is incredibly accessible. On some level we can all understand the experience of being the new person, not quite fitting in, and absorbing negative attention because of our differences. But it is also a powerful story of inclusion, reminding us that our differences make us stronger and that a healthy society welcomes all kinds of people. Mustafa by Mary-Louise Gay also focuses on uncertainty and new friendships, telling the story of a young refugee exploring his new home and making a friend.

And finally, Breanna J. McDaniel and Shane W. Evans’ Hand Up! is wonderful. In an author’s note, McDaniel explains that she worried that her own niece, a black girl, would only connect negative emotions with the phrase ‘hands up.’ So, she created a beautiful, simple book that celebrates the many things we can do with our hands in the air, from playing peek-a-boo, to dancing, to protesting injustice. 

The publishing industry has come a long way, but all of us who work adjacent to children’s literature still have a tremendous amount of work to do. As the infographic below created by Sarah Park Dahlen and David Huyck demonstrates, we still desperately need more books that center young people from diverse backgrounds. Children and caregivers in our communities need more books that reflect their own heritage, culture, race, and experiences. This is why movements like We Need Diverse Books are so important and powerful. 

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Needless to say, the books I mentioned above are not a complete survey by any stretch of the imagination and I am surely missing incredible books exploring and celebrating many different backgrounds. If you have a favorite that is not featured above or is not in our library, please leave a comment and let us know! 

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