What is the criteria for supporting your child's development as an anti-racist through children's literature? Especially now that you as parents have such an active role in the remote/crisis learning process, here are some things you can consider:
Discussion is very important. Ask questions. What do you think the author was trying to share by creating this book for us? How did the book make you feel? What would you have done in that situation? Was that fair? From whose point of view is the story told? Why do you think the author made that choice? What questions do you have about what we read in this book? Asking questions that have more than one possible right answer often inspires more critical thinking. It's also okay to stop and connect what you're reading with your real life experiences and invite children to do the same. It's okay not to have all the answers and wonder along with your child.
Older kids can read and enjoy picture books. Visual cues are powerful and positive images matter. It's okay if there is less text sometimes. At our school, we don't have baby books. We have illustrated books. We learn from art.
Don't be afraid to read aloud to your child, even if your child is older. There are lots of good academic reasons to do this, but emotionally, it is also a very comforting act right now. Plus, it sets the stage for those important discussions.
Look for books that emphasize action and demonstration. Developmentally and appropriately, children instinctively want to take action against injustice. Action is possible and constructive. Select books that model this.
Be wary of didactic writing and propaganda. While our times are sure to inspire powerful art, publishing is still a business, and there will be a rush and a glut of thematic books of varying quality on the theme of anti-racism, selling books on recognizable situations that may be satisfying in how affirming they are, but not necessarily high quality or well developed in terms of writing and illustration. Children deserve the best, most thoughtful literature. Be mindful of books for children full of short sentences that read like commands or statements but lack story lines, character development or, in the case of non-fiction, cited research or primary sources.
History is still relevant. The saying goes, "those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it." We repeat and repeat. Black history is American history. The responsibility for deep learning and appreciation of this history belongs to all of us as American citizens, and will afford us new avenues for recognition, communication, compassion, amends, growth and change. Seek out this history and witness through children's literature.
Read books featuring characters outside your own race or ethnicity to build empathy and a moral imagination...and also so you don't miss out on great stories. Normalize seeing and reading about people outside of your own racial or ethnic group because it is and should be normal.
We are fortunate to be one of the most diverse schools in the city. While our school represents many groups and individuals who have received the brunt of systematic racism, hate and ignorance, we are taking this time necessarily to focus on African-American interests in memory of George Floyd and all that his untimely death represents.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis. This wonderful story of a family ultimately caught in the crosshairs of history is full of humor, humanity and characters you will never forget. This is the first year in over a decade that I have not read it out loud to middle schoolers, I hope they will still find their way to this marvelous novel! All of Christopher Paul Curtis' books are recommended, I suggest an author binge!
Parts of the book were inspired by the poem The Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall, which you can hear put to music here. You will cry, but the poem's dramatic irony and important message are so important for discussion. Can conflict be avoided where racism and injustice exist?
A great non-fiction compliment to this book is We've Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children's March by Cynthia Levinson, a remembrance of 4,000 school children who marched, and many were jailed, to desegregate schools in one of the most violently racist cities in America. Every bit as compelling and heart-rending as fiction, but every bit true.
All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman. I love this book because it looks like Stone Academy! Follow primary children through their day at an ethnically and racially diverse school. The word "welcome" is a meaningful one. How do we make everyone really feel welcome?
Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman, illustrated by Caroline Binch. Grace wants the part of Peter Pan in her school play. She doesn't look like the traditional Peter Pan. Can she land the part? This beautifully illustrated book also has a healthy dose of girl power!
Can I Touch Your Hair? Poems of Race, Mistakes and Friendship by Irene Latham and Charles Waters, illustrated by Sean Qualls and Selina Aiko, offers free verse and fodder for discussion.
Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes. This is a very popular and page-turning book in our school library collection. Told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old killed by a police offer who mistakes his toy gun for a real one, he meets the ghost of another young man, Emmett Till, and the daughter of the police officer who shot him. Complex and compelling, this is a thoughtful exploration of historical racism and how it impacts us today.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. Many students are surprised to learn that before 1967, couples from different races could not legally marry. This nonfiction picture book gives the history of the romance...and the fight...that made this civil right possible for interracial couples.
Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges. In her own words and with lots of photographs, the six-year-old girl who in 1960 desegregated her school in New Orleans through screaming, angry mobs, under National Guard protection and with one committed teacher, tells her story. What an amazing book and a must-read about a true American hero and her family's spiritual strength and resiliency. After you read it, you may want to watch the movie. This is such an important story. When we sit together at our school, all of us, when we look around and see we are all here, we owe a debt of gratitude to Ruby Bridges.
Yankee Girl by Mary Ann Rodman. This is one of our most popular and well-received historical fiction books in the library, based on the author's own childhood experience in the 1960's as a daughter of an FBI agent relocated from Chicago to Jackson, Mississippi, to help African American voters. When a mandatory integration law brings Valerie to an all-white classroom, will anyone stand up to the torments of the "cheerleader" clique before tragedy ensues? An important book about crowd-thinking, bravery and the power of one.
One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia has won pretty much every award under the hot summer sun! The story of daughters who go to meet their mother who has moved to Oakland and is active in the Black Panther Movement. Another excellent summer reading choice is The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon, about a big, braggadocious kid who comes to town and provides an interesting influence on the boys, testing their loyalties. Fans of Kenny and Byron in The Watsons Go to Birmingham, 1963 will enjoy this book.
In A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée, Shayla is a rule-follower extraordinaire. But after being stirred to action by a Black Lives Matter demonstration, she becomes more involved in the movement and finds herself taking more risks. Why not, it's middle school, time to be a little more daring and reinvent herself! But when pushed to take sides, will Shayla be able to choose right from wrong, even if the rules suggest wrong is right? What causes are worth breaking the rules? Taking a stand and learning where you stand when the stakes are high is the kind of trouble that builds character and makes for some great realistic fiction and great discussion. This is the author's first novel and we hope to see more!
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez by Katherine Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales, is about a Mexican-American figure in history, but if you know Martin Luther King's name, you should know his, too...Chavez inspired MLK! Chavez led a 300-mile march to Sacramento, California to fight for the rights of farm workers who were being badly abused, and won many changes through his demonstration. An inspiring true story, well written and with beautiful illustrations. The marches and demonstrations we see today were grandfathered by people like Chavez.
Another important name to know and a contemporary of Martin Luther King with a different approach to correcting injustice is Malcolm X, whose beginnings and the influence of his family can be introduced to children in Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Be Malcolm X by his daughter Ilyasah Shabazz, illustrated by AJ Ford. This is a historical figure whose name and influence will no doubt be invoked in the coming weeks and it is important that children become acquainted.
Teammates by Peter Golenbock, illustrated by Paul Bacon. A true story of Jackie Robinson, the first black player on a Major League baseball team, and how his friend Pee-Wee Reese had his back. A beautiful testament to Robinson's grace and the power of the upstanding in times of trouble. Fans of this book (and of sports) may also enjoy Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dem Lee, about the little league baseball team formed in the Japanese internment camps after World War II. This book shows that while racism rears its ugly head against many groups, endurance and dignity can prevail in greater measure.
Middle grade sports fans and book lovers will be charged up over the work of Kwame Alexander, especially the basketball and family themed novel in verse, The Crossover, the story of two brothers drifting apart. Spotlighting characters that are not stereotypical yet facing the challenges of life black young men in America, this is the first book in a series and has also been made into a graphic novel.
Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. That big gold Newbery medal doesn't lie; if I may share an opinion, this is one of the best children's novels and read-alouds ever written. Exciting, heartbreaking, original, this is the story of a legendary, runaway, homeless white kid who finds a home with a black family in a racially divided town. Ooooh, the discussions you will have.
Leon's Story by Leon Walter Tillage. First person memoir of a school custodian who also happens to be a witness to history in a sharecropping family with run-ins with the white supremacists. One of the most resonating and contextual books about Civil Rights I have ever read, and offering an avenue of deserved reverence for courageous people across socioeconomic strata. Along those lines, another interesting book is the novel How I Found the Strong by Margaret McMullan, which explores the motivations of a white family of soldiers during the Civil War and gives us the chance to consider the ways class can connect or disconnect us as much as race.
The Devil in Vienna by Doris Orgel. Just as not the only books about African Americans shared with children should be about slavery, not all books about Jewish people should be about the Holocaust. However, this book is timely and relevant, exploring the friendship...and the end of a friendship... between a Jewish girl and her best friend whose father is a Nazi. How do political attitudes affect our personal relationships? This is an important anti-racist conversation.
Midnight Without Moon by Linda Williams Jackson, about a girl in 1955 eager to move North, but changes her tune after the trial for Emmett Till, a black young man killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Maybe the South needs her and the changes she can help to bring. But what will those changes be? This is a great choice for a book club with friends, this powerful page-turner has so much to discuss. The author has been called a modern Mildred Taylor, who penned Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, a Newbery-winning classic that I also recommend if/when you enjoy this book, along with Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper and picture book Bessie Smith and the Night Riders by Sue Stauffacher.
The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom by Emily Arnold McCully. Wow, wow, wow. This picture book nonfiction, albeit hard to find, is one of the best books I have read to exemplify how history gets whitewashed. Martha Washington, our first First Lady, does approximately everything humanly possible to to keep, track down and torment the woman who was enslaved by her family. This is a rare book and can be hard to find, but an important one for discussion about entitlement and the capacity for evil when accepted by the culture at large. Good read in combination with the harrowing true story picture book Henry's Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, illustrated by the great Kadir Nelson.
They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. This author is one of the bravest nonfiction authors out there, taking on the hardest topics with the most meticulous research and primary source material. This book is no exception. Definitely an upper grade read, this book explores and uses photos to show the history of this hate group. It is important to know where it comes from so we might be armed with more knowledge to stop it.
Also for older students, The Hate U Give by former teen rapper Angie Thomas has been one of our most popular YA books in the school library this past year, about a police shooting of her unarmed best friend and the girl who comes forward about it and lives in the aftermath. Contemporary and relevant. Eerily relevant. So many middle grade students have already read it; the follow-up novel, On the Come Up, is also out. Both are excellent for discussions about labels and speaking truth to power.
Anything written by Jason Reynolds is worthy of your time, but Stamped, a young adult "remix" of National Book Award winner Stamped from the Beginning: Racism, Antiracism and You, is the book of the hour. From the description:
"This is NOT a history book.This is a book about the here and now.A book to help us better understand why we are where we are.A book about race.
The construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, to create dynamics that separate and silence. This remarkable reimagining of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi's National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning reveals the history of racist ideas in America, and inspires hope for an antiracist future. It takes you on a race journey from then to now, shows you why we feel how we feel, and why the poison of racism lingers. It also proves that while racist ideas have always been easy to fabricate and distribute, they can also be discredited."
I still have a special place in my heart for For Every One by Jason Reynolds, written as a poem- performance for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and later read as a tribute to the late and very great African American author and way-maker, Walter Dean Myers. Reynolds also encourages young writers to tell their own stories in Brave the Page. Even in these difficult times, with the help of great books, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, we are inspired to know better, do better, be better.
This list, of course, is limited, and you will discover many more important titles, authors and ideas here:
31 Children's Books to Support Conversations on Race, Racism and Resistance here
37 Children's Books to Help Talk About Racism and Discrimination here
Your Kids Aren't Too Young to Talk About Race here
Anti Racism 101: Starting to Talk to Kids About Race here
New York Times list of Books that Tackle Race and Ethnicity here
Talking About Race Portal from the National Museum of African American History and Culture here
The Coretta Scott King Award lists here
CPS ebooks about race relations here
You Don't Have to Be Jewish here
Coretta Scott King Award, given by a roundtable of the American Library Association to African American authors that "demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal values." In other words, it's a distinguished book about African Americans either written or illustrated by an African American.
Thank you for your partnership in and commitment to your child's education, hard-working parents! Please feel free to share your own recommendations, experiences and relevant links in the comments section.
Stay safe, brave and compassionate, Stone Bookworms!
Photo posted by Katie Goins