This time of year (in the Seattle area, at least) I notice a greater representation of multicultural book selections all around me; featured in bookstores, libraries, my child’s scholastic order form from school. This increased diversity in book recommendations is inspired by, and in celebration of, Martin Luther King Day.
When the President of the United States spews racist comments less than a week before the national holiday celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is increasingly important to think about the stories pervasive in our culture. What stories were we told growing up? Were they accurate? What stories are we telling our children?
Today, I’m posting a bit of a mash-up. I want to talk about the book that inspired this post, and offer a selection of stories for children appropriate for every single day of the year, not just the day we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr..
The Book that Inspired the Post:
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race
My daughter attends preschool in the basement of a Lutheran church. Next to her classroom is a lovely little library for those in the church community. One side of the library is flanked by windows, typically displaying key book selections. Walking past the library a couple weeks ago, Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race caught my eye. Nearly a month prior, a friend of mine had attended an author event at the University of Washington for Dr. Tatum, and she spoke very highly of the event. Do you ever come across the same book over and over again, until it feels like it’s following you? This has happened to me numerous times, and before this book began its inevitable haunting, I checked it out from the library.
The main topic is racial identity development, and it offers many suggestions on how we (parents and educators, in particular) can positively nurture the development process. The book touches upon numerous factors which influence racial identity development, including systemic advantages and disadvantages in the United States, exposure to racial stereotypes, various socioeconomic factors, etc.. It is an extensive topic, and rather than cover every point, I will simply encourage you to read it. It is thought-provoking. It provides a broad context for discussions about race, offers insights into how children developing their racial identities can be supported, and it encourages self-reflection and activism.
Dr. Tatum begins the book with some general discussion about prejudice vs. racism. She explains it succinctly:
“… racism, like other forms of oppression, is not only a personal ideology based on racial prejudice, but a system involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices as well as the beliefs and actions of individuals.”
She makes a particularly good analogy that racism is “like smog in the air” which we are all perpetually breathing whether we realize it or not. Because racism is a system – embedded in our institutions, in what we watch, and in what we read – it is constantly influencing us in obvious and nearly imperceptible ways. Though it is all around us, and though we may not always notice it, Dr. Tatum beautifully writes, “We may not have polluted the air, but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up”.
How do we accomplish cleaning up the smog? Dr. Tatum offers a plethora of clear and concise suggestions to a complex, multi-faceted issue. Her book is not a quick-fix to a large problem; it is merely a good place to start. In fact, she includes an appendix of continued reading about: racial history, activism, books for educators, books for children and young adults, etc..
The book ends with a call to action. Dr. Tatum acknowledges that speaking up “requires courage”, and that it can be difficult to know where to begin, especially when we are fighting the smog we’ve breathed in all our lives. She writes:
“… we can learn the history we were not taught, we can watch the documentaries we never saw in school, and we can read about the lives of change agents, past and present. We can discover another way. We are surrounded by a ‘cloud of witnesses’ who will give us courage if we let them.”.
She then asks us to consider our “sphere of influence”. What do we have the power to change? As a mom of a preschooler and a kindergartner, my sphere of influence starts with my children. I want to be mindful of the stories I share with them. One way to accomplish that is to ensure that my children have access to multicultural stories. Another is to talk to them about issues as we encounter them. Dr. Tatum recounts reading The Boxcar Children series with her son, and realizing that parts of the series are sexist. Her solution was to talk to her son about it. Dr. Tatum suggests that:
“Children can learn to question whether demeaning or derogatory depictions of other people are stereotypes. When reading books or watching television, they can learn to ask who is doing what in the story line and why, who is in the role of leader and who is taking the orders, who or what is the problem and who is solving it, and who has been left out of the story altogether”.
Dr. Tatum points out that it is a misconception that children are colorblind. Rather, she states that they begin to notice physical differences by age 3. At ages 4 and 5, both of my kids are watching cartoons, reading tons of books, and learning about world history in school. These are the years they begin to breathe the smog. Which got me thinking about the books we read together.
A List of Books to Add to Your Shelf:
Today, the kids and I gathered every book in the house that features a main character who is a person of color. We noticed and talked about the imbalance on our bookshelf; how many more books we have about white characters. We went to the bookstore and bought new books so that over time we can shift the imbalance. We spent the afternoon reading, talking about books, and about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. We sang him happy birthday.
In my free time, I wrote this post. I am going to keep thinking about my sphere of influence. I will keep assessing my children’s bookshelf, as well as my own, and reflecting on the stories we tell in our family.
Here are some of my favorites:
Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison
This book is both incredibly sweet and empowering. With each turn of the page, readers will be treated to a one page biography accompanied by a full page illustration of black female leaders. In each illustration the women are depicted with their eyes closed and smiling; they look happy and fulfilled. Each page manages to depict something about what they accomplished, often through an object held in their hand. It covers a range of women, both contemporary and historical. It is fairly magnificent.
Love by Matt De La Peña, illustrated by Loren Long
This book was just released, and I watched it sell out at my local bookstore today. I nabbed their second-to-last copy. It features a person of color on nearly every page. It shows people and families experiencing love through everyday, mostly ordinary, moments. It is a little sorrowful in parts, but overall joyful. It is the sort of book that might choke you up, and make your voice shake a little as you read it aloud. It is beautiful.
Love Is by Diane Adams, illustrated by Claire Keane
This story is about as sweet as it gets. A little girl finds a duckling and raises it. The little girl’s relationship to her duckling mimics a parent’s relationship to their child, with all the joys and pains of watching someone you love grow up. It will be one of the books you don’t mind reading over, and over, and over again.
Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez
This is the story of a Mexican girl who wishes to be a superhero. When some boys try to tell her she can’t be one because she is a girl, her grandmother comes to the rescue letting her in on the secret that she descends from a line of luchadoras. Lucia is bold, strong and brave. She is a wonderful role model.
One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Nerstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
A little boy gets eaten by a snake while skipping through some eucalyptus trees. From inside the snake’s belly, the boy bravely outwits the snake, freeing himself and all the animals. It is fun to watch the little boy, unafraid despite being eaten by a snake, able to keep his wits about him and escape.
Ruby’s Chinese New Year by Vickie Lee, illustrated by Joey Chou
A little girl makes a card for her grandmother to celebrate Chinese New Year, and then ventures out to deliver it. Along her way she meets various animals (all from the Chinese zodiac) who help her in her journey. After the story, an explanation of the Chinese zodiac can be found, along with instructions on how to make paper lanterns, fans, and good luck banners to celebrate the holiday.
This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from around the World by Matt Lamothe
This book shows one child each from seven countries: Italy, Japan, Uganda, Russia, Peru, India, Iran. It gives a brief illustration and explanation of various aspects of their lives such as where they live, the clothes they wear, what their families are like, where they sleep, and so forth. It is a story of what makes us different, as well as what connects us to each other.