A couple of weeks ago, my brother and parent to the world’s two cutest munchkins asked me for recommendations of books specifically about race. He already understands that his (white) kids should have bookshelves that reflect the world’s diversity and tell stories about all kinds of kids living all kinds of lives, so I knew this question was about helping start some conversations with his little folks, who are three and not-yet-one.
This list is in two parts. First, books that are about race and skin color, with an overall theme of celebration and acceptance. These are what I suggested for my brother’s preschooler. Second, books that discuss racism that are geared towards slightly older readers. To be clear, I don’t think three year olds are too young to learn about racism and other kinds of prejudice. However, the specific books I’ve found so far aren’t written for them, in terms of their length, the word choice, and the tone. Of course, children’s books don’t ever have firm age boundaries, and all kids are different! So while these didn’t seem to match the three year old in my life, they might feel just right for yours!
At all ages, it’s key that we talk to kids about race. White families may not think of it, because the power of white supremacy is that we’re made to feel like whiteness is the norm. Part of white privilege is the privilege of going through our day without thinking about our skin color and how it impacts our lives or the lives of others. (I say “our” here because I am a white person). And part of the work of dismantling white supremacy is facing what’s long been invisible to many of us: in our society that is rooted in racism, whiteness comes with systemic privileges, and blackness and brownness come with systemic oppression. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
And facing it starts with our littlest faces. So when I think about my niece and nephew, I want them to begin to understand that they are white, that not everybody else is, and that every person is valuable and lovable. I want them to develop a sense of equity, justice, and standing up for what is right. As they grow, I want them to understand their privilege, and learn how to spend it to break down our racist systems. (By the way, there is great stuff in Tiffany M. Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist about spending privilege, and the term comes from Black feminist and racial justice activist Brittany Packnett https://rantsandrandomness.simplecast.com/episodes/brittany-packnett-cunningham-PRgbJxWE/transcript ) By planting those seeds now, the roots of racism will be much less likely to take hold, and the kids will grow strong in justice, equality, love, and liberation.
Now the books!
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” Kimberlé Crenshaw
Nicole Young shared this quote on a recent episode of the podcast Kidlit These Days on the topic of anti-racism, and when I heard it, I knew the next thing I wanted to write: a list some of the middle grade and young adult fiction I love that addresses racism and tells stories of black lives. The fiction that is speaking to my heart right now.
“Social justice is the work of narrative reconstruction.” With this swell of discussion and interest in the work of anti-racism, there are tons of lists being shared with books to read, especially to help us white folks catch up and educate ourselves. The New York Times best-seller list this week for non-fiction is flooded with titles by Ijeoma Iluo, Michelle Alexander, Ibram X. Kendi, and more. I am a voracious reader of fiction and a slow, cranky reader of nonfiction, so my work right now is to push myself to pick up these titles to deepen my understanding of the issues around racism and white supremacy.
At the same time, stories are my favorite way in to understanding. Last week, I read Nic Stone’s beautiful YA novel Dear Martin. I picked it up months ago at a used book sale, but it sat waiting towards the bottom of my TBR pile. It waited, in part, because I knew that it was about police brutality toward Black teens, I knew it would be hard to read, and I thought I knew how it would make me feel.
But here’s the thing. Until I enter into the story, and get invested in the lives of the characters, and let myself feel all the feelings through the narrative, I don’t really know. Not in my heart. There are studies that show that reading fiction cultivates compassion and empathy (like this one), and this has happened to me countless times. I opened Dear Martin knowing that it was about a Black teen who is a victim of police brutality. And knowing that, I still wasn’t prepared for how I would feel when I turned that page. And then beyond the gut-punch of that moment, reading Justyce’s inner monologues and the conversations he had with his best friend, his mom, his Black teacher, and his white girlfriend all gave me an even deeper understanding, in my heart, about what we’re talking about here. What white supremacy, systemic racism, and police brutality mean in people’s lives. In individuals’ lives, in their lived experiences. I’m not saying that we can’t develop understanding and empathy outside of stories, and from the real-life stories shared in the news, in talks and forums, or in conversations with loved ones. But reading is another way that my white self can find some of this understanding, without a Black person having to repeat their traumas and experiences for my education. Nic Stone did the work once as the author so that all of us can read it, as many people and as many times as we need to.
So. This list is for people, like me, for whom stories are a way in, and for those who might want to put these in the hands of their kids. Some are stories of racism and struggle, and some are stories that are, for a white reader, windows into Black lives. These are also all written by Black authors. (Thank you to Rudine Sims Bishop for the concept that reading provides windows into experiences that differ from our own, mirrors to see our own experiences reflected back, and sliding glass doors that we can look into and then step through as we learn and grow. Read more about it here or watch this video to see Dr. Bishop explain it herself.) I hope you find something that speaks to your heart, too.
One of my munchkins is all about dates and calendars and birthdates (I mean, as am I, but he can memorize them waaaaaay better). The class calendar is always the first thing he looks at in the morning, and I’m pretty sure he’s the only one who updates it daily. When I fixed the calendar for February, he was of course inspecting it immediately upon arrival, and called across the room to tell me that I forgot to put Rosa Parks’ birthday.
“Oh, I did! When is it?”
“February 4th. Sunday.”
“Cool! You can add it to the calendar,” I said.
“I did,” he answered, matter-of-fact. Of course he did!
So then when we went over the calendar all together later, it was already there. And the kids kind of just assumed it was a holiday.
Our teaching should encourage students to ask critical questions of our world. It should prize activism and struggle, and also kindness, joy, and cooperation — a curriculum of empathy that builds essential academic skills and powerful understandings. It’s a time for audacity in our work, not timidity.
I thought it would be best to have this in a separate post from this one with some of my reflections on white supremacy. Below, you can find a number of resources that I found challenging, comforting, inspiring, and helpful, in various and powerful combinations, in the weeks since the events in Charlottesville. Some quotes and annotations will give you an idea what you'll find in each link. It got so long, I just couldn't help it. Even if you don't read all of the articles, there are some really spectacular quotes to check out; the one at the top is a teaser, so you'll keep reading!
In all honesty, I don't know what to write following Charlottesville and walking in this place where a curtain over white supremacy has been lifted, and there's a lot of ugliness staring us in the face. So instead of trying to actually write, the first thing I did was to start compiling resources that amazing folks were posting all over, thinking that I could contribute by sharing them. That's fine, and you can find a bunch of links in this post, and I hope you find them as helpful and as inspiring as I do. But even though it's hard to know what to say, it feels it's more dangerous, and more cowardly, not to even try. So here I go.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.