Like all of you, I am troubled, saddened, and horrified by what has transpired in the US (world) over the past week (year, century). Racism exists there, here, everywhere. It exists now and it existed then. But I believe if there is one positive thing to come out of this tragic event is the possibility that a slightly brighter light is being shined on the treatment of minorities – possibly an historical tipping point. Many of us will never truly understand the feeling of injustice so many face on a daily basis. But by helping to bring greater awareness of these issues to our students, we can all do our part to promote inclusion and equality.
Children notice injustice. They see it and hear it in the playground, in the community, on TV, but perhaps don’t have the schema, the memory or fact pockets, to make sense of it all. And so, as in so many learning opportunities that arise in our daily lives, I turn to children’s books to help me help them. Between the covers of these books are the stories we can use to start the conversations we MUST be having with our children now; conversations about racism, about injustice, about segregation, about intolerance, about peaceful protests, about rioting, about civil rights, about activism, about marching for freedom. It is never too early to start these conversations!
Below are my recommended anchor books, many based on true events, that can spark important conversations about racism, activism, segregation and social justice. While I recognize that all people of color have experienced racism, the majority of these books are focusing more on issues stemming from racism against black people in the US because those are likely the conversations you will likely be having, given the situation there at the moment. This is by no means diminishing the issue of racism against any other minority.
While this is not one of my official OLLI posts, click HERE for a response template your students could use with any of these books.
Let’s Talk About Race – Julius Lester
Likely my favorite book to read aloud to a class to spark conversations about race. Julius Lester’s voice in this book is so real, so honest, so personal, so intimate, so authentic – it feels as if he stepped into the classroom and is speaking directly to us. Lester uses “story” as a metaphor for race – we all have a different story to tell. The book is filled with questions which makes it great for interactive reading.
The Undefeated – Kwane Alexander
A beautiful celebration of black Americans throughout history: both the “dreamers” and the “doers,” who have made a difference, despite the many injustices endured and challenges they faced. Alexander Kwane wrote this poem “The Undefeated” when Barack Obama was elected to office. It is a powerful poem accompanied by gorgeous oil painted illustrations by Kadir Nelson.
Race Cars – A Children’s Book About White Privilege – Jenny Devenny
This book uses metaphor to explain the issue of race and privilege. In it, 2 best friends, a white car and a black car, that have different experiences and face different rules while entering the same race. I like the way the book offers a simplistic, yet powerful way to introduce these complicated themes to kids.
Something Happened in Our Town – A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice – Marianne Celano
This is a timely book aimed at younger children. The story starts with a police shooting where an unarmed black man is killed. Two children ask their families why it happened: the girl is white, the boy is black. So readers get two different points of view and distinct emotions. But they both share the feeling of injustice. I was impressed with how the story addresses social/racism issues in a way that younger children can easily understand and I really like the two perspectives. Excellent back notes for parents and teachers.
Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railway – Ellen Levine
This is the true story of escaped slave Henry Box Brown. The book follows his life from his childhood as a slave on a plantation and as an adult working as a slave in a tobacco factory. After the devastating event of having his wife and three children sold to different masters, Henry decides to mail himself to a place where there are no slaves. With the help of a white doctor, Henry is mailed in a crate to Philadelphia and most amazingly is successful. This story is both heart-breaking and hopeful and Kadir Nelson’s stunning illustrations once again bring the story alive.
The Story of Ruby Bridges – Robert Coles
On November 1960, in New Orleans, 6 yr. old Ruby Bridges was selected as one of the first African American student to attend an all white elementary school (William Frantz Elementary) Many parents kept their kids home that day and gathered outside the school to protest. Accompanied by US Marshalls, little Ruby said a quiet prayer to herself and marched through the mobs of angry white people, shouting and jeering at her up the steps and into the school. This is SUCH an inspiring story! Ruby demonstrates courage, determination, faith, and kindness. We can all learn a few things from Ruby.
The real Ruby Bridges.
Smoky Night – Eve Bunting
Eve Bunting wrote this book after the riots and looting in Los Angeles in 1992 because she wanted to help children understand such events, especially those who actually live through them. The story is told from Daniel’s perspective during one night when he, his mother and their cat witness rioting and looting outside their apartment. They eventually have to flee to a shelter as the riots get closer and sadly, their cat gets left behind. When this book was released in 1994, Eve Bunting received considerable criticism for the subject matter being too mature for children. She later received the Caldecott Award in 1995 for the book.
White Socks Only – Evelyn Colman
In the segregated south, a young girl thinks that she can drink from a fountain marked “Whites Only” because she is wearing her white socks. This is a heartbreaking, touching story and while the story is fictional, the events like separate entrances, water fountains, etc. for black and white people make it a good choice for introducing segregation to intermediate students.
Freedom on the Menu – The Greensboro Sit-Ins – Carole Boston Weatherford
In 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, 4 black college students sat down at a counter at Woolworths during a time of segregation, marking a major event in the Civil Rights Movement. This historical event, known as the Greensboro Sit-In, is told through the eyes of a young black girl, who shares her experiences living a segregated life. The book below is based on the same event.
Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up By Sitting Down – Andrea Davis Pinkney
We March – Shane W. Evans
In simple prose and images, Evans tells the story of one child whose family participated in the 1963 March on Washington. The march began at the Washington Monument and ended with a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. I love how this story uses simple text but manages to capture the thrill of this young child’s experience. You feel as if you are joining in the March, too. A great book for teaching about civil rights and includes information in the back.
Voice of Freedom – Fannie Lou Hamer – Carole Boston Weatherford
I didn’t know anything about Fannie Lou Hamer until I read this book. She played an integral role in the civil rights movement and despite fierce prejudice and abuse fought for the equal right to vote. I like the way this story is told in first person free verse poems and spirituals. A story of determination, courage, and hope. Weatherford includes additional information about Hamer as well as a timeline at the end of the book, which I found helpful as I did not know her story.
Rosa – Nikki Giovanni
Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of the bus sparked a huge wave in the civil rights movement and, eventually, to the desegregation of public buses. This book gives readers a little more background before and after the incident, which I always enjoy. I have such a vivid memory of reading this book to a Grade 2 class many years ago and being absolutely amazed at the depth of conversations they had about injustice, race, and segregation.
Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged – Jody Nyasha
Every Canadian child should know the story of Viola Desmond who, in 1946, was arrested and dragged out of a movie theater in Nova Scotia because she refused to move to the “black” section of the theater. After being fined $20 she was released but did not give up. With help from black community groups, she appealed the case and although unsuccessful, her fight began the Canadian Civil Rights movement, eventually outlawing segregation in the late 1950’s. I love the narrator in this story – speaking directly to the reader and the illustrations are bright and bold.
Stamped – Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Lots of buzz about this new book by Jason Reynolds that came out in March which is a remix of Ibram X. Kendi’s adult book “Stamped From the Beginning”. In it, Reynolds explores the history of racism from the past (“this is NOT a history book”) to right here and now. While written for a younger audience (high school), it’s apparently an excellent read for everyone, especially for those not living in the US and don’t know a lot about the different shapes of racism. I have not read it yet, but am very excited about the audiobook with Jason Reynolds narrating!
Antiracist Baby – Ibram X. Kendi
Wonderful rhyming board book that introduces nine steps to being antiracist. While not really geared for babies, I love that the book introduces younger children to important language connected to racism. This book will be released on June 16th.
The Other Side – Jaqueline Woodson
Such a powerful story about two young girls – one black and one white – who observe each other from different sides of a fence. This poignant story explores racial segregation and the tentative steps toward interracial friendship that are taken, despite the barriers (both physical and social) the girls face. This is such an important book for so many reasons and when I get to the last page of the book, I always get teary. “Someday, somebody’s gonna come along and knock this fence down.”
The Color of Us – Karen Katz
This story is about a girl named Lena who wants to paint a self-portrait. She realized that in order to get her skin color, she would have to mix some colors in order to get the perfect shade. Her mother takes her on an adventure through her community where they notice different shades of brown, connecting the colors to food such as butterscotch, ginger and coffee. Uplifting, colorful and positive.
Skin Again – bell hooks
“The skin I’m in is just a covering. It cannot tell my story.” This story tells young readers that the skin they have is just that – skin. If you want to truly know someone, you have to dig deeper to get to know them on the inside. Love the poetic text that address readers directly and Chris Raschka’s signature illustrations.
I hope you are able to find a few books from this list that will help spark some important discussions with your students in the coming days. Be well, everyone.