The Paideia School

Picture Books: An Open Book to Talk about Race

Natalie Bernstein, Former Elementary Librarian

Several years ago, Newsweek published a story called “See Baby Discriminate” about young children’s awareness of race. The results of the research study were startling: children as young as six months notice skin color, and by age five, they have picked up the message that it is impolite to talk about skin color. White families were especially uncomfortable discussing race, preferring to talk about the subject with young children by simply saying “everybody’s equal” or “under the skin, we’re all the same.” A separate study has found that “75 percent of white families never or almost never talk about race with their children.” During this important developmental period in a child’s life, when we are teaching about sorting colors, encouraging compare/contrast activities with puzzles and games and encounters in the world, many parents avoid calling attention to any racial differences. Children are natural sorters: “green car, pink pig, brown shirt, yellow flower” but when the color is on skin, it becomes invisible. Worried about saying something that might be mangled and misquoted by their child, parents leave concepts of race and difference as mysteries for children to figure out on their own. One researcher even overheard a child under five say to another, “Parents don’t like us to talk about our skin, so don’t let them hear you.”

A disturbing consequence, the researchers found, is that very young white children showed preference for their own race. A researcher showed a group of three-year olds photographs of other children and asked which ones they would choose to be their friends. White children chose pictures of their own race 86 percent of the time. Another group of preschoolers were asked bluntly, “Do your parents like black people?” and 14 percent answered no, while 38 percent answered “I don’t know.” They are exhibiting what brain researchers such as Mahzarin Banaji of Harvard have documented: implicit bias in favor of people like ourselves. Their parents would be horrified.

So what can parents and teachers of young children do? The Newsweek article recommends explicit teaching and conversations with children, which have been shown to make a big difference. When I read the article, I realized that the library’s picture book collection is one of the simplest and most natural ways to make such conversations happen. It would be laughably uncomfortable to sit at dinner and announce, “Let’s talk about race tonight!” But parents can make a deliberate effort to select books to read aloud that feature diversity; they can point out similarities and differences (“Same hair!” “This little girl has dark skin, kind of like Jody in your class”). For young children, there are lots (but not nearly enough) stories in which race is incidental to the narrative. All it takes is for parents to be mindful of diversity as they choose books to share with their children.

Just as we counter gender stereotypes with young children (“Women can drive trucks/be doctors /be police officers” and “Daddies can make dinner/ do laundry/ sew on a button”), we can address stereotypes when they arise. Children’s questions about who does what kind of work can be addressed thoughtfully with picture books featuring people of different races in all kinds of jobs. And developmentally with harder subjects, there are a fair number of sensitive books for young children dealing with slavery (Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill) and segregation (Back of the Bus by Aaron Reynolds). We are in a virtual renaissance of picture book illustrators whose exquisite work forms a backbone of my read-aloud choices for all ages: Faith Ringgold, Christopher Myers, Floyd Cooper, Kadir Nelson, E.B. Lewis, Ashley Bryan, Jerry Pinkney, Brian Pinkney, Bryan Collier, James Ransome, Gregory Christie, Pat Cummings, Leo and Diane Dillon… These books should be coming from the library and into our children’s homes often.

I like the concept, elaborated by children’s author Mitali Perkins, of books as “mirrors and windows.” Children need to experience lots of books featuring children who look like them and vice versa. African- American, [Latino and Asian] children will undoubtedly encounter any number of white characters, whereas white children might rarely have picture books featuring children of a different race. Parents can address social roles and power, offer themselves as role models, and be inclusive: class and race should be framed as about “all of us” and not “us/them.”

The author Walter Dean Myers shared the story of an 8-year-old girl who came up to him praising his picture book about a dog that plays the blues, The Blues of Flats Brown. “I said, ‘You like the blues?’ She said no. I said, ‘You like dogs?’ She said no. I said, ‘What did you like?’ She said, ‘It looks like me.’” I have heard this in the library countless times, as I open a picture book and a thrilled child exclaims, “He looks like me!” and other children, black and white, nod in agreement.

I also remember an unintentionally funny conversation with five- and sixyear- olds when I read a picture book about Martin Luther King Jr.:

Child: But how can you tell if someone is white or black?

Child (before I can answer): It used to be against the law for a black person to marry a white person or a white person to marry a black person because then… then…then their children wouldn’t know if they were black or white, and you wouldn’t know if the kid would look like the mother, if the mother was white, or like the father, if the father was black or…

Me (stopping the child): Yes, those laws were awful. But now they are changed. We have lots of kids in this school who have parents of different races. There is a word for that: biracial. (Biracial kid with two white moms waves her hand enthusiastically.)

And just like that, we have demystified a child’s concern about the skin color of mixed race children and their parents, and the word biracial was on the lips of every child in the class.

The pundit/comedian Stephen Colbert often preposterously claims that he does not see race. His interviews with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or Congressman John Lewis, in which he says, “I’m sorry, are you black? I can’t tell. I just don’t see race,” highlight the absurdity of such an assertion. When white parents tell me their child doesn’t notice race at all, I think I know what they are really saying: that their child has cross-racial friendships and doesn’t mention racial differences. Of course we see race when we look at one another, but we aspire to reach Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that one day, children will be judged, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. No child has the kind of color-blindness that many adults wish for, but by using picture books to inspire welcoming, open and inquiring conversations, we can transcend wishful thinking and truly educate our children.

For further reading:
Newsweek, Sept. 4, 2009

Coloring Between the Lines: Reflections on Race Culture and Children’s Books.
Blog by illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien.

Mitali’s Fire Escape: A Safe Place Between Cultures to Chat About Books.
Blog by author Mitali Perkins.

Dave the Potter and Stevie the Reader.
Hornbook, July 2011. A mother’s examination of her five-year old son’s introduction to the concept of slavery.