Last week, I sat in bed watching in disbelief as the Dallas sniper tragedy unfolded. My heart had been burdened all week by events from Baghdad to Baton Rouge. As I watched, I thought about my two girls asleep in their beds, blissfully unaware of the world’s sorrows. I thought about my parents watching the Rodney King riots years ago while I was asleep. Like all parents, I know they hoped and prayed for a better world for their children. Is the world any better today?
I taught 5th grade reading and history combined for a few years. Sometimes, I think teachers are guilty of teaching as if racism is a thing of the past. ‘Once upon a time there was segregation, but now we can all go to school together and sit anywhere on the bus so it’s all good now.’ Smile and move on.
Early on I was guilty of this. It’s uncomfortable and hard. I didn't know what to say, and was fearful of missteps. As my teaching career continued, I felt the need to be open about past and present racism in an age-appropriate way. By a certain age, kids are aware of what is happening in the world at large, so you can't avoid the topic. I worked to incorporate literature in my classroom that dealt with racial relations in our country, but I also looked for literature with strong themes such as diversity, tolerance and acceptance.
As a mother, I’ve recently been wrestling with how to begin discussing racial diversity with my preschoolers. I want my daughters to grow up aware of the differences and the struggles faced by the oppressed. I pray they are loving, tolerant, and quick to embrace those who are different from them. I pray they are salt and light in this hurting world, and they are not too young to begin learning. As a teacher and children’s book enthusiast, my first response tends to be “Let’s find a book for that!” I believe in the power of story and it’s ability to make a better world.
This week I'd like to share some books, resources and thoughts on this matter. For today, I'm sharing three book lists, broken down by age. (I've had a hard time narrowing it down, but these are my favorites!) The books for older students share more specific stories of racism and prejudices in America. The books for very young children tend to focus more on embracing differences and openly speaking about color and race. My hope is that this list can be a great resource for teachers and parents.
Through My Eyes is an important autobiography that helps children walk in Ruby’s shoes on her first days of school. One of the most poignant parts to read to students is when Ruby recounts seeing protesters holding a black doll in a coffin. It is powerful to have students empathize with Ruby and infer her emotions.
When Marian Sang is a biography of opera singer Marian Anderson. She faced many racial obstacles in her career, one of which was being banned from singing at Constitution Hall. Ultimately, she ended up singing at ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ a The Lincoln Memorial. Her encore song was ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.’ Her story is powerful, and the poetry of lyrics weaved into this book make the story even richer. This was hands-down my favorite picture book to read to my class each year.
Benno the cat is loved by Jews and Gentiles alike in his community in Berlin, Germany. His world is changed as he watches his peaceful city becomes violent and hateful during Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). This story is appropriate for students who are not quite ready for full-blown Holocaust history, but are ready to learn the horrible implications of racism around the world.
Erika was thrown from a cattle car headed for a concentration camp in 1944. A German woman rescued her and raised her while risking everything. This is another powerful Holocaust story that is appropriate for older elementary students.
Personally and professionally, this is one of my favorite books of all time. This New York Time’s best-seller tells the story of Auggie, a 5th grader with severe cranio-facial abnormalities. His journey through 5th grade is told through the perspective of Auggie as well as others in his life. It discusses prejudice, judging by appearance, and overcoming being afraid of those who are different than yourself. This is an extremely powerful novel for parents to read to their children.
The Other Side tells the tale of two girls, segregated by a fence who have been told to stay on their sides. They strike up a friendship and dodge the rule by sitting on the fence together.
This biography of Ruby Bridges is a great telling of her story that is a little less intense than her autobiography. But, of course this book would still be a great read for older students.
Pen pals from America and India share about their lives and realize that in many ways they are different, but in big ways they are the same.
Let’s Talk About Race has a great opening as it explains that we all have a story. Our race is a part of our story, but in so many ways our stories are the same. I liked this book right away because I like how forward the title is. I believe it is important for us to become more comfortable being up front about race, racism and discrimination.
Grace loves to perform, but when it’s time for the school to perform Peter Pan, she is discouraged because Peter wasn’t black. (Spoiler alert, she gets the part!) This is a sweet story about achieving your goals.
This book is not so much about racial issues/tension; rather it is about the sharing of cultures. Patricia was born into a Russian/Ukrainian Jewish family. In this story she shares friendship, culture and traditions with an African American Christian family.
This rhyming book uses many metaphors to describe skin colors. It is a fun nursery-rhyme read with preschool children, however the metaphors could make for interesting discussion with students who are a bit older.
Karen Katz is a master writer of preschooler books! This one tells the story of a young girl who learns to see the many shades of brown in the world.
The lovely illustrations in this book make for great conversation about cultures all around the world. This book is beautiful poetry with words and pictures. “Joys are the same, and love is the same. Pain is the same, and blood is the same…” Whoever you are.
This is an old Sesame Street favorite, but it’s a classic. The various characters (puppets and people) compare their various unique features.
Many teachers might be scared about how to address this in the classroom, and perhaps some conversations need to arise as how to appropriately deal with this. But, I feel we can all agree that teaching students about past and current racism has to be addressed. It's part of our history, and I pray that through honest discussion and the power of story that we can make our world better in the future. Be open, be honest, and be inspired to read transforming literature to the children in your life!