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Activism Through Children’s Books

Bethany Edwards

Columnist, Multicultural Education at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Bethany is an elementary teacher/reading specialist from San Diego, California and has taught internationally in Turkmenistan, Egypt, Ukraine, Latvia, and Mauritania. Read more under "Columnists."

Latest posts by Bethany Edwards (see all)

The new school year is in full swing, and I know that you are busy with many new learning adventures.  

Whether it be through books, traveling, learning new languages, or something else, I am confident you are taking the education world by storm with the children in your lives. Today, I want to share with you how to use your literacy objectives to encourage activism through children’s literature.  Using the word “activism” generates a wide spectrum of perceptions and images. My goal today is to highlight practical ways we can educate our children for the greater good.

How to Maintain Your Identity

I recently read a Global Citizen article about a woman named Marina Satti; a biracial (Cretian and Sudanese) singer who is inspiring hope for her generation. With her multiracial and multicultural family, Satti models to us a very strong, but simple message: There is hope in darkness, and that if you want to see change, you have to make it.

Satti has embraced both sides of her family culture. She has not “chosen sides”, but empowered millions to “Maintain your identity, but mix it with new information and new influences.” Satti’s goal is relevant to so many of us seeking to become global citizens. We can truly embrace, as well as celebrate every country and every culture; including our own.

Activism Through Children's Books

What do you do when you don't have an answer to a child's question? Click To Tweet

How to Listen More and Talk Less

The biggest issue I grapple with as a teacher is that there are so many topics that I either do not know about or do not know enough. 

Teachers, as well as parents all over the world, are responsible for imparting knowledge and wisdom to children… a worthy and admirable cause.

However, the dilemma comes when a child asks you about a topic and you may not have an answer. Or you just may not be the right person to give an unbiased answer. Sure, we can read books (and/or Google videos) to teach the content or information; but what happens when the subject goes deeper.

In America, teachers are disproportionally female (75 percent) and white (83 percent). According to federal data, as of 2017, children of color now make up the majority of students in American public schools.  For years as a white educator, I believed I was an advocate for global citizenship. I could give examples of this through my curriculum, discussions, and book choices.  This changed when my own child was born.

The experiences of white teachers and white parents (like myself) are not going to represent the experiences of children of color in schools today… not in meetings, not in curriculum, and not in books.

My perspective changed when I saw what my biracial (African American and Caucasian) child went through on a daily basis. I have cried many times because I can never fully understand what she goes through.  I cannot ignore or put off talking about my white privilege as I listen to her stories. The closest I can ever come to understanding is through empathy. The experiences of white teachers and white parents (like myself) are not going to represent the experiences of children of color in schools today… not in meetings, not in the curriculum, and not in books.  So, what can we do about it?

Activism Through Children's Books

 

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Activism Through Children’s Books

First: Have courageous conversations about race at home and in classrooms. If a book is not diverse, discuss it instead of ignoring it. Most children, including children of color, have absorbed the message from parents, educators, and other adults that race is a taboo topic. In one study, the experiment asked kids to play a variation on Guess Who—with the games rigged so that asking questions such as “Is the mystery person black?” or “Is the person white?” would allow the players to ask far fewer questions and win.

If a book is not diverse, discuss it instead of ignoring it Click To Tweet

Many of the older children explained to researchers that using race to identify which person was being described would be rude, or an expression of prejudice or racism. This can only mean we as educators and parents desperately need to change our conversations. By doing, the perception is turned into a celebration of different racial and cultural backgrounds.

Parents need to make race an acceptable household topic Click To Tweet

There is evidence that parents who make race an acceptable household topic help their children develop more positive attitudes about people of other races. When reading with children at home, get uncomfortable and navigate those conversations early and head on.

Second: Raise consciousness about racism in children’s literature. It is so often undetected, and the “social illness of racism is pervasive, persistent and elusive”. A great place to start is with Dr. Seuss. It’s time to acknowledge the perturbing themes in some of the most beloved books. Some examples of great topics of conversation to have when reading children’s books can be found on the Raising Race Conscious Children website.

Choose, buy, and read books that celebrate race, ethnicity, culture, language, and more.  

Third: Choose, buy, and read books that celebrate race, ethnicity, culture, language, and more.  I have a list below of award-winning books I recommend to be on every home and classroom library shelf.  I encourage you to share pictures of these books on social media using the hashtag #childrensbookactivist. Let’s spread the message far and wide that we value diverse books.

Book Recommendations

(contains affiliate links)

Behold the Dreamers (Oprah’s Book Club): A Novel by Imbolo Mbu

“It’s about race and class, the economy, culture, immigration and the danger of the Us vs. Them mentality,” author Mbu said in a video. “And underneath it all comes the heart and soul of family, love, the pursuit of happiness and what home really means.”

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester

Julius Lester says, “I write because our lives are stories. If enough of these stories are told, then perhaps we will begin to see that our lives are the same story. The differences are merely in the details.”

Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

This brave human rights shero, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end school segregation in California. Sylvia is a biracial (Mexican and Puerto Rican) American citizen who spoke and wrote perfect English. Even still, Sylvia was denied enrollment to a “Whites only” school. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to the era of segregated education in California.

Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books by Philip Nel

Racism is resilient, duplicitous, and endlessly adaptable. It is no surprise that America is again in a period of civil rights activism. A significant reason racism endures is because it is structural: it’s embedded in culture and in institutions. One of the places that racism hides-and thus perhaps the best place to oppose it-is books for young people. 





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Bethany is an elementary teacher/reading specialist from San Diego, California and has taught internationally in Turkmenistan, Egypt, Ukraine, Latvia, and Mauritania. Read more under “Columnists.”

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