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!
Books about race and skin color:
Skin Again, by bell hooks, illustrated by Chris Raschka (Interest: Pre-K to second)
“The skin I’m in is just a covering, it can’t tell my story.” Simple, almost sparse text, about how our skin is an important part of us, but there is so much more to know! The bright illustrations (by the same artist as The Hello, Goodbye Window) show kids with different skin colors in a way that both reinforces the idea that the world is diverse, and could prompt conversations with little readers about their race. Also, I have such love and admiration for bell hooks, Black scholar and feminist and author of the inspirational Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. (When I say that, I mean that it is inspirational in general, and also that it directly inspired The Liberatory Library. So, I’m a fan.)
Happy In Our Skin, by Fran Manushkin, illustrated by Lauren Tobia (Interest: Pre-K to second)
This charming, affirming book talks about how our skin comes in many different colors and shades, it is all beautiful, and it serves all of our bodies in the same way. It’s nice for the preschool crowd because it talks openly and positively about our differences and similarities. It’s worth noting that the author and illustrator are both white, and I don’t love that it’s a white author talking about other people’s skin color. From my perspective, it’s done in a positive way that doesn’t come across as problematic, but take that with a but-I’m-a-white-person-too grain of salt.
Tan to Tamarind: Poems About the Color Brown, by Malathi Iyengar, illustrated by Jamel Akib (Interest: Pre-K and up)
This book is a collection of poems about the many beautiful shades of brown that people can be. It can be read straight through or in parts, and the poems are accompanied by rich, soft illustrations. In its celebration of brownness, it includes people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds, and it’s an Own Voices text; the author talks a little about her journey to loving her brown skin in the heartfelt note at the end.
Books about racism:
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, by Anastasia Higgenbotham (Interest: Elementary)
This book does something that I think is remarkable. It’s written with a clear purpose; it says so right in the subtitle. And it lives up to the purpose, without for a minute feeling contrived or after-school-special-y (which is a pet peeve of mine). It’s real, and it’s authentic. The book opens when a young white girl catches a glimpse of the news on TV...and her parent’s reaction to it. When she asks them questions, they try to shield her from the story of another young Black man killed by a police officer. She doesn’t give up, and over the course of the book, her eyes are opened to the presence of racism all around her. A lot of parents right now are wondering how to talk to their white kids about race; this is the book they need. It confronts the issues head on, it explains them clearly, and it shows the reader their choice to change the system and “grow justice inside yourself like a bean sprout in a milk carton.” Truly, this is a book that will help white parents and white kids alike to have much-needed conversations, as good art is uniquely equipped to do. (I want to note that in recounting the police shooting, there is an illustration of a hand holding a gun, and a page that reads “Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!” I think it’s more than appropriate in the context, but I also want adults to know that it’s in there before starting to read it with a child.)
A Kids Book About Racism, by Jelani Memory (Interest: Elementary)
This is a pictureless book, with simple, bold text on each page walking the reader through an introduction to race and racism. It’s part of the “Kids Book About” series, which is designed to help parents and kids have honest conversations (as it says on their website). The author addresses the reader directly, introduces himself, and talks about his identity as a biracial person. He talks about racism mostly in the interpersonal way, treating someone negatively because of the color of their skin, with a call to action to name racism when we see it. It doesn’t touch on the bigger picture of systemic racism, or what our job is beyond being kind and appreciating differences, but this is definitely a book that could help start a conversation, especially with younger children.
Intersection Allies: We Make Room For All, by Chelsea Johnson, LaTonya Council, and Carolyn Choi, illustrated by Ashley Seil Smith (Interest: Elementary)
Okay, so this one isn’t specifically about racism. But I came across it when researching this topic, and it’s unique and lovely and very much connected. It illustrates the concept of intersectional identities (coined by Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, and briefly described by her in this video) by presenting a wide variety of folx who introduce themselves to us and describe their intersecting identities. They discuss ability, gender expression, religion, multiple languages, immigration, and water protectors. One child says that the news is sometimes scary and sad, and the illustration shows a girl in front of police officers in the street, alluding to police brutality. The text reads, “For her, for them, for him, for me/we all deserve to breathe and be free.” The next page shows a big, colorful protest “for safety, equality, and pride.” I love the breadth of this book, and its tone that is both positive and serious. It concludes with this: “Barriers and biases are often to blame/We strive to be equal but not all the same./Life’s ups and downs can take many forms/But standing together, we’ll rewrite the norms.” Equal, but not all the same.
Writing about practicing literacy and freedom with my small humans.