Talking About Racism with Picture Books

Like the rest of the country, I grieve for the families and community of the nine people killed in Charleston, even though I do not know them. I am horrified by the violence and repelled by the hate. But I am not shocked or surprised. And that lack of shock or surprise also makes me grieve.

I have been struggling with how to talk to my kids about the news. A friend of mine who spent years working for peace in South Sudan, has put out a call to her American friends who are parents to talk frankly with their kids about racism. In her words:

 “The reality is that we talk to our kids all the time about uncomfortable topics. We do this all the time. It’s called parenting. But for some reason, race is a very uncomfortable topic for most of my white friends and many are unwilling to talk to their children openly and honestly about race.”

As a white parent myself, I realize that most of the conversations about race I have had with my kids have fallen into the “diversity is good” category. The “everyone is different, but we all have unique talents to contribute to the world” conversation.  Or the geek version: “Race is a social construct, what we construct as racial differences are a tiny percentage of genetic variation in the human population.”

Race is a social construct. Racism and racial inequality are the social reality we all live within.

Talking about racism can be uncomfortable. But yeah, those uncomfortable conversations are called parenting. Or teaching.

As Maurice Sendak often pointed out, childhood is difficult and full of danger. Children know that terrible things exist in the world. We need to let kids know we are willing to talk.

The children know. They have always known. But we choose to think otherwise: it hurts to know the children know. If we obfuscate, they will not see. Thus we conspire to keep them from knowing and seeing. And if we insist, then the children, to please us, will make believe they do not know, they do not see. They are remarkable–patient, loving, and all-forgiving. It is a sad comedy: the children knowing and pretending they don’t know to protect us from knowing they know.        — Maurice Sendak

To get those conversations started, here is a list of amazing picture books that go beyond surface discussions of diversity to explore racism and discrimination head-on. Explore them with your kids. Use them to spark conversations.

Historical Fiction

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New Shoes by Susan Meyer (illustrated by Eric Velasquez)

Ella Mae needs new shoes but is forbidden to try them on in the store. Humiliated by the shoe shop owner, she and cousin Charlotte collect old shoes, refurbish them, and open their own shoe store where everyone is welcome to try on the shoes. The emotional impact of Eric Velasquesz’s incredible illustrations pairs with the spare, but gut-wrenching text.

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The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson (illustrated by E.B. Lewis)

Two girls whose lives are divided by a fence that separates the black side of town from the white side strike up a friendship. The award-winning author and illustrator team pair perfectly in this lyrical story of kids circumventing adult rules of segregation. Segregation is a backdrop to the unfolding friendship, presented as  “that’s the way things are.”

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Freedom Summer by Deborah Wiles (illustrated by Jerome Lagarrique)

“I didn’t want to swim in this old pool anyway.”

John Henry’s eyes fill up with angry tears.  “I did,” he says.

John Henry and  Joe are best friends, across racial lines in the Jim Crow South. When their town is forced to integrate, the boys are excited to swim together in the public pool. Unfortunately, rather than opening the pool to all, town leaders have it filled in and paved over.

Fiction

You may have noticed that the above books are all historical. There are many more picture books about racism in the past than in a contemporary setting. Here are two discussion-sparking fiction books about discrimination that can be read as occurring in the imaginary present moment:

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Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman  (illustrated by Caroline Binch)

Grace wants to be Peter Pan in the school play, but her classmates tell her she can’t play Peter because she is a girl and she is black. After her grandmother takes her to see a family friend perform as prima ballerina in Romeo and Juliet, Grace realizes she can play any role she puts her time, effort, and passion into learning. The actions of Grace’s classmates ring true for a contemporary audience, although the book is now old enough to be considered a classic.

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Something Else by Kathryn Cave  (illustrated by Chris Riddell)

Something Else is excluded by his classmates for being different, told he can not play with them or sit with them at lunch. When another creature shows up at his door, Something Else in turn excludes her. He then realizes that he has hurt someone the way he was hurt, and sets out to repair the relationship. The creatures in this book are imaginary beings, which allows the reader to fill in any possible reason for Something Else’s exclusion.

Nonfiction

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As Good as Anybody by Richard Michelson (illustrated by Raul Colon)

This book is a double biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr, which concludes with images of their march from Selma to Montgomery. The book paints parallel stories of  the anti-Semitism that Herschel experienced growing up in Nazi Germany, and the racism King encounters in his American childhood.

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When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan (illustrated by Brian Selznick)

The biography of Marian Anderson, whose life spanned a near-century of social change. Marian never gives up her commitment to her art, despite discrimination that dives her to leave America for Europe. The book concludes with a wordless spread of famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. I cry every time I read it. Every. Time.

Of course, there are many more picture books out there that deal with racism and/or discrimination. If you have a suggestion, tweet it to me:  

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Integrating Picture Books in the Mid-20th Century

A recent story on NPR discussed four picture books that were banned when they were published that Americans would now see as innocuous. All four contained images of racial integration. Strangely, even though the illustrations of black and white children playing together were what so enraged Jim Crow–era community leaders, the article failed to mention the illustrators of these four books.

I decided to do a little research. I had to remind myself that miscegenation laws were not overturned by the Supreme Court until 1967, and some city swimming pools were not forced to integrate until the 1970s.   These illustrators were all leaders of cultural change.

While we can’t go back in time to ask them about their thoughts while illustrating these controversial books, I believe they were all making conscious decisions to visually integrate their books. They were probably highly sensitive to the fact that they risked being censored, and they chose to make these books because they believed in the power of illustration to change the hearts and minds of their readers (both children and adults).

Here is a little bit about the illustrators of the four books profiled by NPR, and a bonus new picture book about Loving v. Virginia.

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Black and White, 1944

Charles G. Shaw was a renowned American abstract painter, and author/illustrator of the classic It Looked Like Spilt Milk. He collaborated with Margaret Wise Brown on The Nosy Book series.  The text of the book specifies that the characters are a black man and a black woman. The man loves only black things until he sees snow, then it snows and leaves a white snow lady in his yard. They fall in love and get married.

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Swimming Hole, 1950

Louis Darling, Jr. was an American illustrator, writer, and environmentalist, best known for illustrating the Henry Huggins series and other children’s books written by Beverly Cleary. He and his wife Lois provided illustrations for the first edition of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. The plot of this book involves a white boy moving into a new neighborhood where some of the neighbors are black. The boy realizes that “his sunburn is more of a problem” than integrated swimming.

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First Book of Fishing, 1952

Edwin Herron was an illustrator of science books for kids and a political cartoonist under a pen name for a socialist journal that published from the 60s-late 80s. Since this was a nonfiction book, Edwin Herron’s choice to visually integrate the children pictured in the book was most likely his own.

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The Rabbits’ Wedding, 1958

Garth Williams was the illustrator of Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web, and the Little House series.  The text of The Rabbits’ Wedding refers to the main characters as “the little white rabbit” and “the little black rabbit;” they are illustrated as fairly realistic wild rabbits who decide to put flowers behind their ears and get married so they can be together always.

Williams said about this book that he “was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque,” and that his story was not written for adults, who “will not understand it, because it is only about a soft furry love and has no hidden message of hate.”

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The Case for Loving, 2015

The Case for Loving is a narrative nonfiction picture book that tells the story of the real family who won the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia. I’m not sure if it is the first picture book since Williams wrote about bunny love in 1958 to address interracial marriage, but it is definitely a landmark picture book.

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko (Author, Illustrator),and  Sean Qualls  (Illustrator) (The two are a husband/wife team, which is a warm and fuzzy as bunny love.)

Books that Celebrate All Kinds of Families

 Ten years ago, when I was searching for books about different family structures, there were only a couple. Happily, there are more and more being published each year.  Here are some of my favorites to read and to share.

Who’s In My Family?: All About Our Families (Let’s Talk about You and Me)

Written by Robie H. Harris, Illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott (2012)

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This simple yet charming book presents a wide variety of families, in a matter of fact way that is accessible and appealing to preschoolers. For example: “Children are born into their families or adopted into their families.” The book starts at the zoo with children pointing out different animal families, and then transitions to talking about human families. Families are illustrated with different family structures, race, and ethnicities. The text explains simply and directly that families may eat different foods for breakfast, but who all like to do fun things together.

All the World

Everywhere Babies

The Family Book

A Garden of Picture Books

Spring is coming, at least theoretically. Here in the Northeast we are still shivering in our winter coats and looking longingly at the small patches of dead grass that have begun to appear. There is still about a foot of snow on top of my garden, but I am dreaming of green growing things.

Some of my favorite books about gardening, gardens, the cycle of seasons, and the cycle of life are (in no particular order):

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The Curious Garden

by Peter Brown

The Curious Garden is magical and gorgeous and features acts of guerrilla urban gardening. Kids relate to Liam’s mistakes as he learns to tend his accidental garden and his joy as it spreads. Knowing that the book was inspired by the true story of the High Line, an elevated garden built on reclaimed freight tracks in New York, just makes it more magical.

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Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!

by Candace Fleming, illustrated by G. Brian Karas 

Reading Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! aloud is a treat. Adult gardeners will relate to Mr. McGreely’s escalating attempts to keep the bunnies out of his vegetables. Kids will root for the adorable (and persistent) bunnies. This book is just fun.

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Sophie’s Squash

by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf

Sophie’s Squash is not a gardening book, though it does celebrate a love for vegetables. It is a warm and wonderful introduction for young children to the cycle of loss and rebirth with the seasons.

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Linnea in Monet’s Garden

by Christina Björk, illustrated by Lena Anderson

Linnea falls in love with Monet’s waterlilies, and the reader falls in love with Monet’s garden through her enthusiasm. Lyrical text and whimsical illustrations blend with reproductions of Monet’s paintings. I love the movie made from the book even more than the book itself, which is a rarity. It is a quiet story, but it inspires and engages kids.

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The Gardener

by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small
Set during the Depression, a young girl brings seeds with her to the city, where she creates a secret rooftop garden in hopes of bringing joy to her uncle. Lydia, like Liam, is determined to transform her environment bit by bit.
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Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt

The same duo that created Over and Under the Snow, one of my favorite nature picture books, now brings us a book timed perfectly for the spring thaw.
And of course, there is The Upside Down Garden!

12×12 Picture Book Challenge

I have been working on writing picture books for the last couple of years. They are a deceptively simple form that is actually very difficult to write.  Every word counts, you have to take into account the page turns and the sound of the words when read aloud, in addition to having a compelling story arc and lovable characters.

I’ve written several that don’t quite work, and while I’m revising, and revising, and revising – and completely disassembling and reassembling – I am beginning to see the truth of the advice given to new writers to just keep writing new stuff. If you do it enough times, you’ll eventually hit on something that works. I hope at least!

“Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”― Ray Bradbury

I don’t think I’m capable of writing an entirely new picture book every week, let alone illustrating a dummy even to preliminary sketches. But I do think I’m capable of one per month. I signed up for 12×12 because those little electronic badges and end-of-month raffles are great fake-deadline motivators for actually getting that draft and revision done each month.

Here’s to a productive new year!

Red Thread Knits Tags

My friend Jenny Gruslin has created this lovely line of knitwear that she is selling as an adoption fundraiser called Red Thread Knits. I created this tag for her products, each of which has a red thread running through it, in reference to the Chinese proverb that people who are destined to meet are connected by an invisible red thread through time and space.  Adorable baby hats and beautiful scarves for sale!

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