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! 

Talking to Strangers (About Books) Part 2

Greetings, intrepid readers! In my last post I talked about all the amazing things happening for bookworms on social media. I highlighted three different platforms (Goodreads, Instagram, and Litsy) and detailed the top 5 types of conversations you’re likely to have among fellow readers on those apps. Today I’m going to review some of the stellar books I’ve read as a result of these conversations with strangers. All of these books were outside of my typical fluffy/frivolous reading repertoire and I never would have picked them up had I not seen in-depth reviews and quotes from readers on bookish social media. I should add these are listed in the order I read them. And some of these were partially reviewed in my post last month about the 24 in 48 Readathon.

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Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur
It seemed like everyone who hadn’t read this book when it came out late last year was picking it up for the first time in April for National Poetry Month. I typically don’t read much poetry but I made an exception for this title. In her first book of poetry, Rupi Kaur takes us deep into her life with extremely personal poems about her childhood, past boyfriends, and learning to heal after trauma and breakups. It’s a quick read, but one that is extremely frank and open about what she’s gone through in her life. Even with all of the personal details, most women will find themselves somewhere in this book. I do love how it ends on an uplifting note, as if to say this too shall pass and I am stronger now for having gone through all of this. I also like the “everywoman” appeal of the poems as they invite each woman to look back on her relationships, her period, how she got through extremely trying times and came through stronger, though hurting.

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Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West
I am apparently the only person who had not heard of Lindy West before this book, and even so I got to it too late to see her at a reading in Seattle as she was traveling around the country on her book tour this spring. I regret not having her on my radar until now, but I have been forever changed by reading her book Shrill. Not only does Lindy tackle major topics like feminism, abortion, and rape culture, she is the number one poster child for squashing fat-shaming and having positive body acceptance. During her book I found myself questioning my own attitude towards my body, and asking myself why I let others’ opinions of what they think I should wear and what they think is appropriate or not for my body type affect what I purchase and what I wear. The day after finishing Shrill I wore a dressy pair of shorts to work. People saw my knees and I didn’t die!

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Reading Roxane Gay is a lot like talking with your most level-headed friend. Even if the subject matter is one that evokes strong feelings, she keeps her cool and tries to discuss these important things with you in a calm, clear manner. In Bad Feminist Roxane Gay manages to cover everything from pop culture to rape to feminism to a career in academia. She doesn’t talk down to us, but rather goes out of her way to lay out the inequalities, the injustices, the annoyances, and the facts in a matter-of-fact and yet empathetic way. There is a definite juxtaposition of mixing very serious topics with lighter ones. I was extremely fascinated reading about her time as a competitive Scrabble player. First of all, I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. But I realize that to do anything competitively there is a suggestion that your skills stand above the average person. To play Scrabble competitively implies an intellect and strength of character that few posses. Such is the case with Roxane Gay. She is smart. She is funny. She is working on a book called Hunger that I can’t wait to get my hands on, and I get the feeling I will always react with grabby hands when someone mentions a new release by her.

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Citizen: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Every time something horrible, unjust, and tragic happens in this world, the bookish social media clusters swarm together in shared empathy, seeking understanding  to try and make sense of the senseless. Such was the case with Citizen. I want to live in a world where this book isn’t necessary–but the sad and disgusting truth is this book is very much-needed. There are many put-yourself-in-this-situation passages that are written in the second person. The use of the second person is clever and intentional in a book that tries to expose life in a racist country. Because as much as we would like to think we have evolved past racism, bigotry, and inequality, we have not. As a country, we still have so far to go it’s heartbreaking. But that’s why books like this are here for you, and why I recommend everyone read it. Everyone. Bookish social media declared this required reading for every American citizen and I wholeheartedly agree.

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Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Once again my bookish social media connections raved about a book, calling it necessary reading, and once again I picked up the gauntlet. And while this book isn’t just about mansplaining–a term the author has mixed feelings about–it definitely is about the disenfranchised and the cultural missteps that need to be corrected if we are ever going to improve our communities.The passages that really stood out to me involved having a voice and being heard. Historically it has been disgustingly easy for the group in power to silence anyone else whose opinions, thoughts, feelings, or civil liberties would infringe upon the leading group’s power. But the more that people band together to share one voice–civil rights, women’s suffrage, feminism, exposing racism in one’s community–the harder it is to ignore the message.

These relatively short books packed a mighty literary punch. While I wouldn’t have sought them out on my own, I am so glad my bookish comrades urged me on. Not only was I reading out of my fluffy comfort zone, I was seeing the world through some very different perspectives. You’ll notice these books were strong on themes of racism and sexism, feminist to the core. I’m currently falling down a rabbit hole of such, with book recommendations based on these books spiraling out from my TBR pile.

More books that bookish social media has recommended to me that deal with race and racism include Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis.

More books that bookish social media has recommended to me that deal with sexism and feminism include Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, and He’s a Stud, She’s a Slug and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know also by Jessica Valenti.

Hopefully you’ve not only gained some new titles to add to your TBR pile but also seen what good can come from social media. I’ve rarely encountered a troll on Goodreads, Litsy, or the #bookstagram portion of Instagram. It’s kind of like a book nerd’s utopia. We’re definitely living in the golden age of reading. Seize the day and your smartphone and join the reading revolution!