In the aftermath of the horrific white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, I’ve heard and read some very pointed (and on point) feedback about the well-meaning platitudes that follow such events. Being who I am and doing what I do, I’m trying to absorb this feedback and learn from it, especially concerning how the children’s book community and others who influence kids can do better.
One hard truth we have to face is that, as much as we want to think that “this is not us,” that this is not who our country is, we aren’t going to change anything until we all accept that racism is alive and well and confront it head on. When it comes to what we teach our kids, maybe messages in books and songs and classrooms about how we’re all the same just aren’t enough. We, as a country, aren’t going to just “age out” of racism. I’ve been guilty of that assumption myself, noticing how white parents today are much less resistant to (even actively looking for) books featuring non-white characters compared to what I saw when I opened my bookstore 12 years ago. Yeah, it’s maybe getting better in my tiny little privileged corner of the universe. But out there in big wide world, not much has changed. As someone pointed out today, a lot of the neo-Nazis in that Charlottesville mob looked pretty young.
Don’t get me wrong — I think positive messages of equality in books and elsewhere are important, but I also think that glossing over the very real negative experiences of racism that people of color of all ages deal with every day isn’t really protecting kids as much as it’s harming them. Books are such a wonderful way to arm children with tools to understand and overcome the difficulties they’ll face in life. Books are a safe way to experience something in your imagination before experiencing it in life; they’re a way to see things through someone else’s point of view and enlarge your perspective and build your empathy; and maybe most importantly books are conversation starters. All these things are true at any age, but especially for children and their caregivers, books can give you an easy “in” to talk about challenging subjects.
Case in point: It’s not uncommon for parents to come into my bookstore looking for a picture book about losing a loved one because, sadly, it’s a situation their family is going through and the parents want to help the children work through it. And that’s a great impulse, turning to books for comfort and for understanding and as a springboard to get children to talk through their grief. But too often, in my opinion, we wait until that first experience of loss, be it a goldfish or a grandparent, to even broach the subject of dying. What if it were a subject that was woven into the fabric of everyday sorts of conversations, perhaps sparked by mentions in books, stories, and poems, just like a myriad of other subjects like growing up and starting school and sharing? Death is a natural part of life, after all. Maybe we’d be giving our kids better tools to deal with loss in the real world by letting them deal with it first in stories.
So, too, we need to go ahead talk about race and racism. Not to scare kids or disillusion them, but to give a name to something insidious that they almost certainly will experience in one way or another and probably much earlier than any of us would like to admit. Even for kids who are unlikely to ever be on the receiving end of racism, we can arm them with the ability to recognize it when they see it, and to call it out and actively fight against it. Let’s give them specific things to look out for, specific things to say and do, just as we do with anti-bullying themed books. Not being an active participant in bullying or in racist comments or actions is simply not enough. We need to be active fighters of bullying and racism, and we need to give kids the tools to be fighters, too.
I was happy to learn today that Buncombe Partnership for Children, a local non-profit that provides training and support to early childhood educators, also believes that it’s never too early to start this conversation and is taking some positive action. Spellbound will support this and similar efforts in any way we can. Hopefully there are organizations — maybe yours — taking steps like this in your community.
It’s time to up our game, folks. Please mark your calendars for the panel discussion we are putting together: How to Talk to Young Children About Race… Join us to hear from panel members with varying backgrounds discuss their ideas and experiences in addressing the topic of race with young children. Ideal for caregivers and teachers of children ages birth-8. Let’s pack the room so we can listen, learn, and take action towards ending racism and social injustices in our communities.
As far as books that address this topic for the youngest children, I’d love to hear from you in the comments any title recommendations or even suggestions for how you’d like to see the topic approached in future books. Authors, illustrators, and editors of children’s books are among our most loyal readers and I’m sure they’d appreciate constructive suggestions. One excellent forthcoming picture book that acknowledges the harm of racist rhetoric while also modeling positive action and hope is Come with Me, written by Holly McGhee and illustrated by Pascal Lemaitre (Putnam, (Sept. 5). Inspired by the 9/11 attacks in the States and the bombings in Brussels in early 2017, this book tackles a tough subject with honesty, gentleness, and a call to action. Let’s all try to do the same.