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Using Picture Books to Address Race and Racism

By Tarilyn Little, Program Director of Early Literacy

As our world continues to reckon with the past and present of racism, educational institutions, schools, communities, and families have grappled with how to address these and other topics of injustice with our early childhood and elementary-aged children. Helping them make sense of these issues can feel overwhelming as we try to find the right approach and the right words, especially while we are navigating these issues and experiences ourselves.

Whether addressing something a child has experienced personally or witnessed on the news, discussing identity and identity-based violence, whether it be verbal, social, emotional, or physical, can be difficult. Our impulse as grownups may be to avoid these topics out of discomfort or to protect children or to assume that they are unaware or unaffected. However, they are often more aware and capable than we may think. In addition, by avoiding these topics we miss opportunities to provide safe spaces to process what they may be noticing or experiencing, to affirm their identities and to support healthy development. Fortunately, we do not have to figure it all out alone! One powerful tool that we have to support these conversations is picture books, which have already been written with the development of young children in mind.

Combined with an open, supportive space and shared dialogue, picture books can be powerful and developmentally-appropriate tools for supporting self-awareness, social awareness, healing, and agency, all critical when seeking to address and redress racism and other forms of identity-based violence. So what kinds of books should we use? There are four kinds of books that I recommend using together to promote understanding of the issues, while also allowing for positive affirmation and protecting wellbeing.

Big Idea Books

Big idea books provide child-friendly scenarios to explore universal themes or complex concepts. These books are a great foundation for discussing concepts like identity, difference, acceptance, empathy, inclusion, fairness, courage, freedom, solidarity, and standing up for what you believe in.

Issue and Event-Specific Books

Issue and event-specific books highlight a particular social issue, current event, or historical event. These books, whether fiction or nonfiction, can help children navigate current social issues, make historical connections, and connect to personal experiences.

True Stories of Activism and Resistance

These books provide important counter-narratives to stories of oppression. They can also help children tap into their own agency, by showing examples of people with shared identities and lived experiences taking action. Stories of solidarity across identities can also be powerful here.

Identity-Affirming Books

Affirming books feature authentic representation through images and narratives that center and uplift children’s identities and lived experiences. These books are great for supporting healthy identity development and counteracting the impact of representational racism, which can manifest as erasure, single stories and/or blatant misrepresentation and stereotypes. We can look at some sub-categories of identity-affirming books to help with choosing. This includes books that:

  • show characters of all backgrounds with or developing a positive sense of self, especially characters that hold identities that are most impacted by racism
  • celebrate different cultures and traditions

  • uplift real-life stories of folx with shared identities

  • center and normalize day-to-day lived experiences (e.g., playing, going to school, eating with family, etc.)

  • center joy!

Many fiction and nonfiction books show characters or real people developing a positive sense of self and agency by confronting stereotypes, bias, and racism. These books are important, can support children in navigating similar situations, and can be empowering. However, it is important that narratives of harm, trauma, and oppression are not the bulk of what children are reading about any given identity. This is why books that show characters of different identities just existing in their own skin without harm, experiencing joy, and getting to just be kids with everyday kid issues are critical. A pre-pandemic visit to one of ExpandED’s Ready Readers afterschool sites illustrates perfectly why these kinds of books are critical.

While doing a site visit at an elementary school in the Bronx, one of the second grade groups was reading Hair Love by Matthew Cherry and Vashti Harrison. The story is about a young Black girl who is very proud of her hair and all the different ways that she can wear it (and some of the challenges with making it do what you want it to. Something I can definitely relate to!).

As the girl in the story shared the different ways that she wears her hair and how it makes her feel, the children began to notice and excitedly shout out styles that they had in common. The expressions of joyful connection and affirmation were abundant as shouts of “I have cornrows!” or “Miss.T look at my braids!” and many more filled the room. This moment may seem small or insignificant when talking about racism. However, in a world where Black children often only see representations of their racial identity tied to some form of trauma, the experience of seeing someone who looks like them experience pride and joy without harm is critical in developing a positive sense of sense and in normalizing this for children of all racial identities.

Wellness Books

Wellness books focus on physical, mental, and emotional health. Experiencing, witnessing, or discussing racism or other forms of identity-based violence can affect us all mentally, emotionally, and physically. It is important that a focus on wellness be integrated into any anti-racist and/or identity-affirming work being done with young children. These books can help children connect to their hearts, minds, and bodies as well as learn tools for expression and care.

When approached with care, preparation, and kid-friendly resources, we can support even our tiniest humans with navigating hard topics and experiences while also supporting the development of a confident, caring, empathetic, and justice-oriented generation of young people. For more tips, resources, and book examples, check out this guide.

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