At a time when racial tensions are erupting across the country, on talk radio, and on the campaign trail, my guess is that conversations are also taking place around family dinner tables. It’s not an easy conversation to have with young children who may not see racism in their daily lives, but they definitely see skin color. A friend of mine, Katy, who is white, has two young black daughters. She says that well-intentioned friends will often encourage their own children to be “color blind,” and not acknowledge that Katy’s daughters are black. But as she says, “my children know they are black.” Not answering their question sends the wrong message and “discounts their interest in a conversation.”
As Katy said, “kids don’t see race. They see skin color.” In fact, her two young daughters first described their skin as brown – which, of course, is the true color. “Being black” is a social construct. When young children ask about someone’s skin color, it’s adults who add the overlay of racism, the history of slavery, and racial tensions. Kids are genuinely asking why some people’s skin is darker than others. The answer to a child’s genuine curiosity, Katy said, is that “dark-skinned people have more melanin in their skin than light-skinned people.”
Like many subjects that can cause discomfort for parents, sometimes a book is a good way to spark a conversation. Here are ten recommendations for books to introduce children to our ethnically diverse world in a way that encourages healthy and honest conversations about race and identity.
Families by Shelley Rotner (a picture book celebrating all kinds of families – for the youngest children)
One Family by George Shannon (another good book to introduce young children to all kinds of family units)
Who’s In My Family: All About Our Families by Robie Harris (a colorful book about families. I often recommend this title to parents looking for a book to start a conversation about adoption, divorce, same-sex couples and other family structures.)
Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America by Carole Boston Weatherford (a picture book biography for older children about Gordon Parks, a photographer who chronicled the racial inequality in the mid-20th century.)
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko (the story of Richard and Mildred Loving who met in Virginia in 1958. They were not permitted to marry in Virginia, though, because Mildred was African American and Richard was white. They did get married – in Washington, D.C. But when they returned to Virginia, they were arrested.)
Firebird by Misty Copeland (Copeland tells her story of being an African American soloist with the American Ballet Theater. A beautiful book about a young ballet star.)
Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh (Before Brown v. Board of Education, Mexican-American children in California fought to end school discrimination. Before reading this book, I had never heard of Sylvia Mendez, a young girl who wanted to attend the local public school, but was instead directed to the “Mexican school.”)
Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter (An inspiring picture book biography about Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice.)
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki (Published in 1993, this book remains one of my favorites. I remember reading it to my son many times when he was young and I still recall his questions about the WWII-era Japanese internment camps. Baseball was a way to pass time for the young boy in this story, but of course the symbols – like his game-winning home run are appropriately obvious to young readers.)
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (An absolutely essential – and beautiful – read for everyone between the ages of 10 and 90. Written in verse, Woodson tells her story of growing up in South Carolina and in Brooklyn.)
Relatedly, I was in the Harvard Book Store this week and saw this display at the check out….
and in the children’s book section….