Young children may be unaware of the recent events in Charlottesville as well as other acts of hatred towards people of color (or other groups). Some parents choose not to share these events with their children because they want to shelter their children from such hatred. Parents decide at what age their child is best able to learn about issues of racism, violence, and more. Parents know their children best and we, as early childhood educators, must respect that.
However, we also can’t ignore what is happening in our country. We will have children in our classrooms who are aware, either because their parents have made a conscious decision to talk to them about what is happening or because they are listening and picking up on things not intended for their ears. We have a responsibility to help our students understand and process all that they are hearing. And to do so in a way that is appropriate for their age.
Teachers of older students can set the stage for a frank and open discussion of the events in Charlottesville. They can spend time reading and processing together different news accounts or social media posts. This is not so appropriate for young children.
In my experience, literature is a wonderful way to get at big ideas and concerns without coming at them head on. However, too often the books we read with children, especially young children, present issues of racism as something in the past. There is power in these books and they are important, books about Jim Crow, slavery, segregation, and those who stood up to move us forward. These books matter and I am grateful they exist and I share them with my students. In this moment, I am looking for something different. I am looking for something that allows my students to consider racism as a problem in our lives right now.
Upon reflection and some serious searching, I’m not aware of too many books that do this for young children (there are fabulous ones for older students). If you know of any, please share as I will clearly be needing them as the year gets under way.
One classic is Amazing Grace, written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch. It is the story of a Black girl named Grace who wants to play Peter Pan in a play at school. Others tell her she cannot because she is Black and a girl. Grace is unwilling to give up and her grandmother supports her. Her grandmother takes her to see a ballerina who looks like her, helping her see that such dreams can come true. In many ways this is a gentle story, a way to enter into discussions with young children about race and gender as barriers.
A Sweet Smell of Roses by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Eric Velasquez should really belong in the category of historical books as it takes place during the Civil Rights Movement. However, I’m including it here for a couple of reasons. One is that it is about children being a part of a march and too often we don’t give our students images that allow them to see themselves in these positions. We share about adults but not children. This book gives them the chance to see themselves as the main characters and that is powerful. The second reason is that the book could, in many ways, take place today. Just a few years ago, when marches were less common, I think the historical nature of the book was more obvious. Now, as people are marching quite frequently, I think the book will speak to students differently. The book shows the marchers and those who scream cruelly at them, something that feels quite relevant now.
Another favorite of mine is One by Kathryn Otoshi. This book is often used in early childhood classrooms to talk about bullying but I think it’s message works here as well. It is a story of colors, blue is picked on by red and the others don’t speak up. Red gets bigger and bigger. 1 shows up and stands up for itself, showing the others that they can do the same. Of course, it is a book for young children and ends with everyone together in a way that is overly optimistic when considering white supremacists. The final line, “Sometimes it only takes one.” is worth discussion, however.
Mr. Lincoln’s Way by Patricia Polacco is not my favorite of her books, but it has a place in this conversation, I think. In this story a young boy is mean and makes racist statements. The principal, Mr. Lincoln, a Black man, works with the boy to help him see the value in all people. It is a bit overdone, but is a story that will encourage young children to discuss the ways people are treated and why and what can be done to change that.
These next two I haven’t read so I am not certain if they are all I hope they will be. However, I’ll be reading them soon and, as I say, I am hopeful.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote God’s Dream, along with Douglas Carlton Abrams and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. The idea of the book is Tutu’s vision of God dreaming of all people together, regardless of race, language, religion, etc. The pictures are all of children, a highly diverse collection of kids playing, sharing, and praying together. This book seems like one that would encourage young children to talk about whether or not this dream has been achieved.
Anything by Kadir Nelson is worth having in your classroom so I feel confident recommending Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African-Americans in spite of not having read it. It is told from the perspective of a 100 year old African-American woman. The book covers the great majority of American history through the experience of African-Americans. My only question about it is how it ends. It includes Barack Obama, so it may end on a more positive note than would seem accurate at the moment.
I’ve tried to list books here that I think allow for and encourage discussions of racism today. Some groups of students may need other discussions as well. Some students may need to hear books that help them see the value in all people. Some students will need books that show the value in themselves. Some students will need the history, a better understanding of all that has led us to where we are now (although that’s difficult when students are quite young), but all students need some sense of our current reality. The above books, I believe, are ones that will help young children understand the world as it is, explore what that means to them and others, and lead to discussion of ways to raise their voices and be a part of improving our world.
Discussing current events, especially when there is violence can be scary for young children (and not-so-young children). This is why I believe we must respect parents wishes when it comes to what they believe their children should know about what is happening in the world. As I also believe we still need to help young children understand the world in which they live, I have found books to be a way in. Hopefully these books, and others like them, will allow young children to be a part of discussions of racism and hatred without requiring their awareness of events they may not be prepared to understand. Hopefully, such discussions will help children be a part of working to ensure events they may not be prepared to understand are less likely to happen in the future.