How do you bring the outside home?
That seems like a strange question to ask in light of recent events but here we are. While we have been bubbling up at home, locking down with our loved ones, the truth is that we have been bringing the outside home. The world outside is beamed into our bedrooms through Zoom calls, the TV, our iPads, our smartphones, Alexa… In the middle of the pandemic, many of us found ways to talk about it with our children beyond the rigmarole of online schooling itself. Books were written, stories were shared, reassurances were offered. We exercised our privilege to make something terrifying seem a little less terrifying. The pandemic is not a distant memory but already it offers us lessons about how we can talk about global events in a safe space and how we can bring the outside home fruitfully.
The death of George Floyd in the United States and the global anti-racism movement that has followed has woken many of us from our slumber. Many of us are now finally learning that far from being solved, racism is actually an insidious pandemic that has been around for quite some time. While reading is certainly not activism, many of us are using this time to learn more, to read more in order to develop our understanding of how to work together as a global community so that, once and for all, we can remove the systemic oppression of Black people that taints all of our societies.
So, how do we bring this global dialogue home? How do we explain this to our children? If we are to ‘raise the future’, how are we to go about creating an environment where our children grow up celebrating both similarities AND differences?
Raising The Future
We can begin by celebrating diversity. It’s not enough to celebrate our similarities alone. We need to celebrate our differences too. Not only do we need to see color, but we also need to see in color.
Did you know that research shows that children as young as six months can recognize physical differences in terms of race? This needs to be our cue to provide our children with access to toys, music, and books that are representative of the world at large. It falls to us to celebrate the beauty of every color.
Did you know that older children, from preschool age onwards, are able to have conversations about race and racism? Books, films, TV shows, music…These are valid and important learning and talking aids when it comes to these critical discussions at home. The very materials which we turn to for leisure can help us bring the outside home and help us to do our bit to work against systemic oppression.
You can’t be what you can’t see
There’s a popular saying: you can’t be what you can’t see. Let’s push that further. You can’t understand what you don’t see. Reading stories helps children to cultivate their empathy and understand the people around them, and respect them for both their similarities and their differences. It’s important that when we talk about raising the future and creating a society that challenges ingrained systemic racism and anti-blackness, that we introduce our children to books that challenge that narrative from an early age.
Windows, Doors, Mirrors
Representation matters. It is important that children see themselves in the books that they are read and eventually go on to read. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie famously spoke about the single-story, whereby groups of people are repeatedly shown in the same way in books, music, TV, and films. In many books and films – children’s books are no exception – the danger of the single story is that it engenders stereotypes. This does not mean that we have to clear away the Julia Donaldsons and Judith Kerrs. It just means that we need to make room for diverse books too. We need to not only include books on our bookshelves which act as mirrors; research shows that we need books to work as windows and sliding glass doors so that readers of all ages can enter a book and experience the richness that diversity brings by encountering different lives, different cultures, and different customs. This helps children to learn from an early age about the rich tapestry of human experience. This also means that they are able to challenge stereotypical and dated representation for themselves.
Empowering Children’s Picture Books with Black Characters
Here is a list to help you curate your bookshelves…
1. The Little People, Big Dreams series
The Little People, Big Dreams series includes a diverse cast of historical characters. Their stories are told in simple prose and paired with beautiful, clean illustrations. Highlights include Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Ella Fitzgerald, and many, many more. You can read aloud from these books to young children while older children can read for themselves. In our family, R1 likes to read the stories of Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou to R2. It’s a situation that keeps both of them, and me, very happy. It has been a good way for R1, who is 9, to understand the rudimentary basics of the Civil Rights Movement. He asks questions that prompt answers and conversations which have been very revealing. Children have a sense of right and wrong, justice, and injustice and they are able to handle difficult conversations with more depth and meaning than they are often given credit for. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
2. Dear Earth by Isabel Otter and illustrated by Clara Anganuzzi
Accompanied by her grandfather, Tessa writes a love letter to the Earth. It is a mesmerizing book focusing on joy and celebration. Once again, this is a book that my own children love. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
3. The Little Leaders Books, by Vashti Harrison
Originally created as part of a Black History Month project featuring only Black women, this series grew to include inspirational men and women from all around the world. The first book in the series is titled ‘Bold Women in Black History’ while titles such as ‘Visionary Women Around the World’ and ‘Exceptional Men in Black History’ have followed. (Pic Credit: Hachette Book Group)
4. My Hair by Hannah Lee and illustrated by Allen Fatmaharan
Written in the first person and told in rhyme, this book is a celebration of the first-person narrator’s – a little girl on her way to get her hair styled – hair. It is a love letter to the versatility of Black hair and is genuinely wonderful for introducing a wealth of specific vocabulary: dreadlocks, Bantu knots, high top fade, braids, cornrows…I found this very handy in terms of education and developing knowledge. There’s also a little space at the end for the reader to draw their own hair which is a lovely touch. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
5. Ellie’s Magic Wellies by Amy Sparkes and illustrated by Nick East
This is a joyous rollercoaster of a book. Ellie is having a low-energy day until her aunt surprises her with brand new, magic wellie-boots. She splashes into a puddle and out pops the Flibberty-Gibbet. Ellie and her new magical friend romp through the house causing havoc until of course, it is time for her mother to come home. It’s a very sweet tale of imagination and friendship and a story that utterly captivates young children. (Pic Credit; Book Depository)
6. Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Betty and illustrated by David Roberts
Ada Twist is a curious young scientist who has many questions about the world around her. Blessed with a patient family, she goes on a journey of discovery, with her loving family and classmates following in her wake. Inspired by the stories of real-life scientists such as Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, this book is perfect for everyone interested in introducing STEM into their family reading routine. It’s also very funny, which always helps! (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
7. Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love
Written and illustrated by Jessica Love, this book is utterly mesmerizing. One day, while traveling with his Abuela, Julian is captivated by a group of beautifully dressed women. He returns home and tries to approximate their dress. The undercurrent of tension is driven by Julian’s niggling worry (told through the illustrations) about what his Abuela will think when she sees how Julian sees himself. It is a very moving book about love, acceptance, community, and individuality. Quite simply, it is a book for everyone. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
8. I walk with Vanessa, by Kerascoet
Written by a husband-wife author-illustrator team who go by the joint name of Kerascoet, this is a wordless picturebook about kindness in a community. There is no explicit mention of why the bully has been mean which makes for an open-ended reading experience. The adult reading the book will find themselves initially guiding the conversation but don’t be surprised if the children take the reading in a different direction altogether. Due to its wordless nature, this book really prompts conversation and dialogue while the representative illustration evokes a strong sense of atmosphere and how everyone needs to show up for each other in order to make a difference.
9. The Magnificent Makers, Books 1,2 and 3 by Theanne Griffith and illustrated by Reggie Brown
Written by neuroscientist and author, Theanne Griffiths, ‘The Magnificent Makers’ series is both adventure and science-themed. They also serve to encourage representation and inclusiveness in STEM books. The main characters, Violet and Pablo are really engaging as is Deepak, the new kid in the school. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
10. Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls Volumes 1 and 2 by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo
These enormously popular volumes bring together the inspiring stories of hundred of diverse women throughout the world. Written in language that children will understand but which adults will also enjoy reading, these collections also feature beautifully artistic illustrations. These are books which you will enjoy dipping into from time to time. It will never age. Older children can read these books as well as the next recommendation for themselves. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
11. Stories of Boys Who Dare To Be Different and Stories of Kids Who Dare To Be Different by Ben Brooks and illustrated by Quinton Wintor
On the same lines as the ‘Rebel Girls’ books, these volumes are about redefining what it means to be a boy, and later, to be a kid. It is a move away from machismo and filled with stories of how difference and diversity create the rich tapestry of human experience These are very reassuring reads. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
12. Ayobami and the Names of Animals by Pilar Lopez Avila and Maz Azabal
This exquisitely illustrated story tells the story of Ayobami and the lengths that she will go to in order to receive an education. Her dedication is the subject of the story as well as her ingenuity as she convinces the animal kingdom to let her pass. Ultimately though, it is a celebration of language and letters. (Pic Credit: Book Depository)
And finally, for older readers: Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
For an older, YA audience, these books come highly recommended and are a good springboard for discovering other representative literature which includes, highlights, and celebrates Black voices. ‘Hidden Figures’ focuses on the achievements of the Black, female mathematicians without whose work NASA’s space explorations would not have been possible while at the same time dwelling on the systemic oppression that they faced. ‘The Hate U Give’ is inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and tells the story of Starr whose best friend Khalil was shot by police officers sparking protests in his name. Starr is projected into the limelight because she is the only one who truly knows what happened that night. (Pic Credits: Book Depository)
Many Black educators and activists have been diligently curating and creating resources and lists for awhile now. In order to keep on learning, please do pay them a visit. You might want to begin by checking out blogs such as ‘Here Wee Read’ and ‘ The Conscious Kid’ which are veritable treasure troves when its comes to representation and inclusiveness.
The suggestions above are by no means exhaustive. They are intended as a starting point.
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