Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Literature for Youth/Children's Literature
Children’s books for any grade level are important teaching tools. Reading books as a class not only encourages reading, but it provides opportunities for the teacher to teach valuable lessons to the children. Unfortunately, many books both published today and in the past are limited to representing acism, or are specifically about social justice. These stories can be about a particular person in history, like Martin Luther King Jr., a specific event in history such as the Civil Rights Movement or the Holocaust, a non-fiction book about race or racism, or a fictional character that runs into situations in which social justice is abused. We found many books that involve characters who are not white, but we realize that although many of these books introduce children to other cultures, they may not necessarily teach antiracism. Although introducing children to a multicultural perspective is important, we chose not to use books of this kind because we do not want to focus on specific cultures, but how every race and culture interacts in the United States, and how injustices are overcome.
We used several methods to find appropriate books. We looked online using Google Search Engine and the website for Teaching Tolerance Magazine, and we spent a considerable amount of time searching for children's books at the Mount Holyoke College library, as well as nearby public and school libraries. We also looked in the Odyssey Bookstore, located in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
While most of these books are recommended for grades Pre-K to 3rd, they are great picture books for any age. In the reviews below, we have provided short summaries of 17 books that we recommend to teachers and parents who want to educate their children about issues of race and social justice. We also have come up with questions and a few activities that teachers can use to lead the class in discussions about general themes such as diversity, similarity, equality, justice, racism, prejudice, etc. Similar questions can be asked in all of these books. For example, when a character is unfairly treated, we think the teacher should stop to lead a discussion about this treatment. He or she should ask the students questions like “Is this fair?” and “How would you feel if you were treated this way?”
It is our hope that, from these book reviews, the teacher can help relate each story to current forms of oppression, and also to the individual lives of the students. These books not only help children celebrate individual differences, but also introduce them to be aware and conscious of current and past inequalities in society. Also, these books and many more can be used to start discussion about basic vocabulary that children should become familiar with at a young age such as race, racism, prejudice, inequality, equality, multiculturalism, etc. They can be used to create a dialogue about these important topics which children are bound to face. These reviews are only a starting point from which the teacher or parent can work, and are by no means a complete list of resources. The questions and activities are meant to be flexible depending on the environment of the classroom. We encourage teachers to make each activity their own in order to work towards a more multicultural environment and a more antiracist attitude for their students to carry with them through out life.
The Sneetches written and illustrated by Dr. Seuss
Grades pre-K to 3
The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss is a picture book that demonstrates privilege and discrimination based upon appearance. Sneetches are yellow creatures that live on a beach, some Sneetches have a star on their bellies and the rest do not. In the beginning of the story the presence or absence of a star is the basis for discrimination; the Sneetches with stars on their bellies view themselves as the superior race and the Sneetches without stars are not allowed certain privileges. In the story, a "fix-it-up chappie" named Sylvester McMonkey McBean appears, driving a cart of strange machines. He offers the Sneetches without stars a chance to have them by going through his Star-On machine, for three dollars. The treatment is instantly popular, but this upsets the original star-bellied Sneetches, as they are in danger of losing their method for discriminating between classes of Sneetches. Then McBean tells them about his Star-Off machine, costing ten dollars. The Sneetches formerly with stars happily pay the money to have them removed in order to remain special. This continues until the Sneetches are penniless and McBean leaves a rich man. In the end, the Sneetches learn that neither plain-belly nor star-belly Sneetches are superior, and they are able to get along and become friends.
Students need to learn about privilege and discrimination in a setting in which they are comfortable. It is a tough subject to teach young children about discrimination because it is so complex. This book illustrates privilege, entitlement and discrimination in a fictional way that the children can then apply to themselves and how they would feel if they were in the book. While it is an abstract representation, it is a good introduction to the topic of discrimination. Some possible questions for discussion about the book are as follows: “How do the Star-Belly Sneetches look? How do the Plain-Belly Sneetches look?” “Do the Star Belly Sneetches talk differently than the Plain-Belly Sneetches?” Another good classroom activity would be a simulation of the book in which the students are assigned to be Star-Belly Sneetches and the other half to be Plain-Belly Sneetches. Half way through the day the groups would switch so everyone gets a chance to have a star on their belly. The teacher could start a discussion with the class about certain classroom privileges and inform them that only the Star-Belly Sneetches can have these privileges. This simulation would necessitate follow up questions., such as: “When you were a Plain-Belly Sneetch, how did you feel about classmates that were Star Belly Sneetches?” “What kinds of things did you do when you had a star that made you feel special?” “Can you think of any circumstance in the real world when you feel like a Plain-Belly Sneetch or a Star-Belly Sneetch?” The teacher could then ask how it made the students feel to be in either role and what they had learned from the experience. It is necessary to explain to the class that the purpose is not to get rid of difference between people but to make it so that everyone can be friends despite differences.
Freedom School, Yes! written by Amy Littlesugar and illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Grades K to 5
Freedom School, Yes! by Amy Littlesugar is based on a true story about the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. In the summer of 1964, Jolie's family decides to host to Annie, a 19-year-old white woman who has volunteered to teach Freedom School, a project for the Southern Civil Rights Movement. The segregated community of Chicken Creek is reluctant about this program, because the Black community is wary about learning from White people. They are wary because the whites are suspected to have committed hate crimes (burning down the church, throwing bricks through windows) against the blacks in protest to the program. Despite the initial hesitations community people had toward the program, it was received to great success. Because the story is told in the perspective of a little girl, it will be very easy for students to relate to. Through Jolie's eyes, readers see the frightening violence of the South in the1960s. The courage exhibited by the volunteers and the families offering them shelter is demonstrated throughout the book. It is important for elementary school students to understand how schooling was sometimes scary and dangerous for children their own age.
This book is a good addition to a curriculum because it will put concepts in student’s heads that they might have not thought of on their own. The idea that there is a group of people who were not allowed to go to school because of the color of their skin and where they lived is a foreign concept to young children. At the point in the book when a brick is thrown through the window, a teacher should stop and ask her class “Why do you think someone would throw a brick through the window?” and “Who do you think threw the brick?” The character of Uncle Sha’d is interesting to discuss and the idea that once Jolie learns about places and people, she will not let being scared get in her way. An interesting topic to discuss with the students would be how learning about someone/something has made them less afraid. Another point to stop in the book would be when the church was set on fire. Again a teacher should ask the class “Why do you think the church was set one fire?” Since the church was their school a teacher could ask his/her class how they would feel if their school was burned down in an attempt to keep them from going to school. Also, the teacher should ask the students why they thought the students in the book went to school even though the church was gone and how they would feel about going to school without a building. The obvious question to ask the class after finishing the book is: Is it fair the way people were treated and why not? Another point of discussion would be to ask the students to imagine themselves both in Jolie and Amy’s position. “As Amy, would you have enough courage to do something you know is right even though society is telling you it is wrong?” Another important question to ask the students would be “What does going to school do for you?” It is important for the students to understand the importance of education and to understand how necessary it is. Also, the students need to learn about history of all people and this book makes it easier for the students to relate to because it is in the perspective of a young girl. It is also important to discuss that this book represents an isolated time period and while things may appear to be better to the students now, people are still treated differently today. As a closing discussion, the teacher should ask the class about a time when they saw someone being treated differently because of his/her appearance and to ask the student what they could do in a situation like that.
Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived World War II written and illustrated by Marisabina Russo
Grades 2 to 5
Always Remember Me is a picture book that depicts one family’s experience during the Holocaust. This story is told in the perspective of a little girl, Rachel, hearing her grandmother’s story which she hears every Sunday when she goes to her Oma’s (grandmother’s) house for dinner. Russo recounts the stories that her grandmother told her when she was a young girl. The book explains about her family’s activities before and after the war. She describes her Oma telling life stories from two photo albums; there are a few pages at the end of the first album that Oma always skips: they represent life during the war. Oma describes that she has two lives; her first life was in Germany before the war, and the second was her life after the war. While she never tells her granddaughter about life during the war, one day she decides that her granddaughter is ready. After the meal, Oma tells the girl of her marriage and her family's happy life; her husband's death after World War I; the rise of the Nazi party and denial of rights to Jews; the burning and looting of Jewish businesses; and life in a concentration camp. When the war ended, Oma and her three daughters were reunited in America.
Always Remember Me it is a touching story of survival in the face of extreme oppression. This book is an appropriate way to introduce the Holocaust and the oppression felt by Jewish people to young children. The depictions of the photo albums described in the book are beautiful and allow students to relate to the author’s story.
Always Remember Me allows a teacher to discuss social oppression of the past while keeping in a historically accurate manner. This book lends itself to multiple points in which the teacher can ask poignant questions that could spark an interesting discussion. When the teacher reads the book she can stop at any point to ask her students about their own families and their own family traditions and stories. This will help the students to relate to the story before the difficult material is introduced. When Oma shifts to talking about Nazi Germany, the teacher needs to stop to figure out how much her students know about the Nazi party to ensure that all of her student will gain an equal understanding of the book. She could also ask her students if they think it is fair that one group of people were targeted. The teacher should ask the students how they would feel if they were not allowed to do something because of a characteristic that they had no control over. The teacher should then ask the students if they could imagine a place where the laws enforced the discrimination to such an extreme. This is going to affect the students strongly because traditionally they have learned that laws are here to help us and to protect everyone. It may be the first time the students learn that laws can have a negative effect on people.
Another point to discuss with the class is the concept that the Jewish people were no longer safe to live in their homes. They were forced to move for their own safety, but it was very difficult to leave Germany. In addition, it would be interesting to discuss the family’s separation because it is a foreign concept to many children. It is also important to explain to the children that the family in the book was very lucky and many families were not so lucky. As a class it would be important to discuss what the students could do to ensure equal treatment of everyone and to understand what happened to the Jewish people during World War II. An additional activity for the students would be for them to draw a picture or write a story about how they would feel if they or one of their family members was in a Concentration camp. For a slightly older group, a good activity would be to write letters to Holocaust survivors and explain what they are going to do to ensure that everyone they know will be treated equally.
Henry’s Freedom Box written by Ellen Levine and illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Grades pre-K to 5
Henry’s Freedom Box, by Ellen Levine, is a that talks about the hardships of slavery. Henry is born into the life as a slave, and was able to grow up with his mother, unlike others in the same position. Yet one day, his master gets sick and he gives Henry to his son. Henry is forced to leave his mother, who he will never see her again, and goes to work for his new master. It is while he is working for his new master that he meets Nancy, his future wife, who works for a different master. The two get married, and they have children. The family is able to live together until Nancy’s master sells her and the children are sold to another slave master; Henry is forced to watch everyone he loves disappear. So, he decides that he is going to mail himself to the North where slavery does not exist. He enlists the help of a white man who does not support slavery to put Henry in a box and mail him to Philadelphia – which he does. The illustrations in this book are fabulous and heart wrenching. Not only does the author describe the emotions felt by the characters, the pictures show the emotions on the character’s faces, and aide in comprehension.
This book is really moving and could disturb students if not properly placed in a curriculum, yet if it is introduced appropriately, could shape how the students think and feel about treating other people. The first page of the book is as follows: “Henry Brown wasn’t sure how old he was. Henry was a slave. And slaves weren’t allowed to know their birthdays.” To most children, their birthday is the most important day of the year and it would be inconceivable for students not to know their birthdays. A question to ask the students after just the first page would be: “How do you think anyone could keep you from knowing your birthday?” Throughout the book, the author presents beautiful imagery. For example, Ellen Levine compares leaves being ripped off of trees to slave families being ripped apart. A teacher could discuss what happens to leaves after they blow off trees. When Henry is given to his master’s son, the students should be asked, “Are people property to give or buy or sell?” and “Why could some people be bought and sold?” and “How would you feel if you had to leave you family?” After Henry gets married and has children, an interesting question to ask the students would be, “Is it fair for someone to tell you who you can marry and where you can to live?” and “Who gives someone that right?” After finishing the book there are many question that need to be brought up to fully appreciate the book such as the following questions; “Would you be scared if you were Henry? What would be the scariest part?” and “Is it fair that some people can be treated this way?” and “Are they being treated as people or objects?” and “Is it easier to treat objects or people badly?” and “What do we have to do to make sure that no one is treated badly?” Again, the students need to understand that this book only represents a period in history and that people are still being treated differently, as a closing discussion, the teacher should ask the class about a time when they saw someone being treated differently because of her appearance and to ask the student what they could do in a situation like that.
Amazing Grace written by Mary Hoffman and illustrated by Caroline Binch
Grades PK to 2
This is a children’s short story about a young girl named Grace, who loves stories. She especially loves to use her imagination to play and act. One day at school her teacher announces that the class will perform the play “Peter Pan” and Grace is determined to get the role of Peter. However, one boy says she can’t because “Peter” is a boy’s name, and another girl in class says Grace can’t be Peter Pan because Grace is black. Even though Grace is sad, she still plans to audition for the part. Her grandmother, Nana, tells her she can be anything she wants to, and takes Grace to see a ballet, in which the star ballerina is black. After the audition, everyone chooses Grace to be Peter Pan. The play is a huge success.
This story introduces children to sexism and racism in a way that teachers can easily begin conversation and class discussion about unfair treatment, stereotypes, and the lesson of putting your mind to anything you want. Not only does the story show that sexism and racism exist, but it also resolves these issues with the hope, determination and imagination of a child. It is recommended for grades PK to 2, but it is a great book for any age.
Amazing Grace gives the teacher an opportunity to talk about differences and fair treatment. For example, in the beginning of the story, the teacher reading can make comments about the games Grace plays so that the children can see how similar they are to her. When the two classmates in the story say that Grace can’t play the part of Peter, because she is a girl and because she is black, the teacher should stop to discuss this. He or she might ask the students, “How would you feel if you were Grace?” “How does Grace feel?” “Is it fair that only white boys get to play the part of Peter?” “Did anyone ever tell you that you couldn’t play or couldn’t be part of something? Why? How did that make you feel?” “Do you think Grace can play the part of Peter Pan?” At the end the teacher might also ask questions like, “What did Grace learn from Nana?” Children might engage in conversation about whether Grace “looks” like Peter, and what it means to play a part that is traditionally different from the prescribed gender of a role. The teacher should introduce children to ideas about diversity and the use of imagination. Perhaps he or she can find pictures of many different actors playing the part of Peter Pan, or maybe he or she can plan activities in which children play roles that are not traditional with their gender or race.
Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights written by Jim Haskins and illustrated by Benny Andrews
Grades 2 to 4
This is a true story about Westley Wallace Law, who grew up in segregated Savannah, Georgia. The story is told in simple terms so that children can understand the struggle and fight for civil rights. The illustrations are large and colorful, and are sure to capture children’s attention. Delivering Justice starts by describing Westley’s family, and how his grandmother’s friend had been enslaved and separated from his mother at a young age. Right away, readers can imagine the sadness and grief of being separated from one’s own mother. The story progresses with many examples of how blacks were segregated from whites. As he grew up, encouraged by his grandmother to “be somebody,” Westley helped establish voter schools to assist blacks in registering to vote. He also led boycotts, which led Savannah to be the first city in the South to end racial discrimination.
Delivering Justice introduces children of grades 2 to 4 to the Civil Rights Movement and about racial inequality that existed in the history of the United States. It is also a great starting ground to discuss current racism, prejudice and inequality. Perhaps these vocabulary words and other similar ones can be discussed in the classroom. Two important additional lessons in the story are desegregation without violence, and becoming a peaceful leader. Because this book introduces children to laws that are unfair, the teacher should ask questions like “Is it fair to treat some people nicely and other people badly?” “Did you know that there used to be laws that gave some people special treatment, and treated other people very badly?” “How would you feel if you couldn’t do something special that other people different from you could?” “What would you do if someone told you that you couldn’t eat at a restaurant, just because of the color of your skin?” “Why is it important to be peaceful? What does it mean to ‘desegregate without violence’?” “Why is W.W. Law a good example of a leader?” It is also important that the teacher discuss while the unfair treatment of blacks was part of the Civil Rights Movement, prejudice against certain groups of people, like blacks, also exists today.
Yo! Yes? written and illustrated by Chris Raschka
Grades PK to 1
This is a picture book recommended for preschool aged children. It has few words, but describes two boys, one white, and one black. The white boy is sad because he has no friends, but then, the black boy suggests that the white boy be friends with him. When the white boy decides to be friends with the black boy, both of them are very happy and jump up and down.
This story introduces very young children to the challenge of making new friends, especially with people who are different. The white boy is challenged to go outside of his comfort zone and is nervous to be friends with someone different. This brings up issues of race, diversity, and friendships. When the black boy says “Hey!” and the white boy says “Who?” the teacher might pause to ask children, “Why does the white boy not think he is being spoken to? Why is he so surprised?” On the page when the black boy says “What’s up?” and the white boy says “Not much.” The teacher can stop here too to talk about how both boys are feeling, and why. At the end, the teacher can lead a discussion, perhaps starting with “Tell me something you noticed about this story. What did you realize about the words?” “Why do you think that some of the letters are different colors?” Other questions might be “What do you think when you meet someone?” “Who are you friends with and why?” “Think about one of your friends. What do you remember about meeting them?” “Were you ever shy when you first met a new friend? Why were you shy?” “Can people who look different be friends together?”
I Have a Dream written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and paintings by fifteen Coretta Scott King Award and Honor Book Artists
Grades K to 5
In this book, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech is printed alongside beautiful illustrations painted by fifteen Coretta Scott King Award Honor Book Artists. Although many children in America know the famous lines “I have a dream…” of this monumental speech, it is important that children read all lines, which are eloquently written by a man of peace. His message of hope, love, freedom and equality is an inspiration to millions.
This book is appropriate for grades K to 5. Perhaps if children do not understand certain concepts that Dr. King Jr.’s speech addresses, such as oppression and injustice, the teacher can begin a dialogue at any point about these issues. It may be necessary, depending on the grade level, to define vocabulary throughout the reading of the speech, or before the book is read. Teachers might ask children questions like, “Who was Martin Luther King Jr.?” “What is it that Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed for our country?” “What did he mean by having a “dream?” Is this the kind of dream we all have at night?” “Do you think Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of equality is happening now?” “What does equality mean?” “What kind of freedom do you hope for in the future?” “Why do we celebrate his birthday?” For older children, teachers can ask “What do you think Dr. King would think about life today?” Discussion could also be about unfair laws, peace and nonviolence, and different forms of prejudice. One activity could be to ask students to draw their own illustrations about the “I have a dream” speech, and or to write their own dream for America. Finally, some of the illustrations in this book are quite provocative, which allows the teacher a perfect opportunity to stop and lead discussion. For example, in one picture four people are sitting at a restaurant counter while white people angrily pour ketchup over their heads. This book may be a great introduction to several issues of social justice and racism, and the teacher can adjust questions and activities depending on the grade level.
Black is brown is tan by Arnold Adoff/ Pictures by Emily McCully
Grades 1 - 3
Winner of the 1988 National Council of Teachers of English Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children
Black is brown is tan is a very good book of poetry that directly talks about race and topics that young children notice about people of different races. The poem is told from the point of view of a child around 7 or 8 years old who has a black mother and a white father. The poem does an excellent job of relating the young boy’s questions about his own racial identity to simple concepts that young children can understand. The author draws a parallel between white and chocolate milk and how the young boy likes both and how both types of milk help the boy grow. The poem also allows young children to realize that it is great to love and befriend people whom are different from him. The young boy has two grandmothers and an aunt and uncle of different races and the boy loves them all. The poem uses engaging words, phrases, and beautiful, significant illustrations to describe how each family member provides love and support for the young boy. The message of the poem is strong and clear: a loving family is made up of a mother and/or father, children and other relatives that love each other no matter how many differences between them. Differences and similarities must be recognized and respected for everyone to love each other equally.
This book of poetry is great for 1st through 3rd grade classrooms and provides a great opportunity for the teacher to discuss racial identity issues in his/her classroom. It is very important to start a discussion about racial identity at a young age in order to build confidence in an individual’s own racial identity. There are a few key stopping points throughout the poem that are conducive for questions and discussion. On page 7 and 16, the teacher can ask the students if they have any special names for their parents. This allows the children to start relating their own similarities and differences with their peers without first involving race. It starts to build a safe and trusting environment in the classroom. To establish this environment further, the teacher can ask what special activities the children do with their parents or other relatives such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles. The teacher at this point can draw attention to the fact that all relatives, no matter how many differences between them, help the student grow with their love and support just like the chocolate and white milk analogy used in the poem. A big discussion topic for the end of the poem is asking the children to recognize the differences between the mother and the father and the other relatives. For the younger children, just pointing out the differences in race is a good start. For the slightly older children, the emphasis for this activity can be to recognize that both parents have a race and that white is a race. Be sure to define the meaning of race for all ages. Then point out that the young boy also has a race. Overall, the students should understand the meaning of race, that white is a race, that differences in race need to be recognized but also need to be treated equally, and that if everyone respects each other, everyone can be a part of a family. The teacher can have the children draw attention to their differences but also to their similarities. If they respect each other, they can all be a part of a classroom family.
Jordan’s Hair by Ed and Sonya Spruill and Illustrated by Stephen Mercer Peringer
Jordan’s Hair by Ed and Sonya Spruill is a wonderful multicultural book for kindergarten to 2nd graders as it provokes discussion about racial identity. The sentences are short and simple and often rhyme. The illustrations are large to make the book great for story time. They do a wonderful job depicting physical differences between people that children notice. It is about a young black boy named Jordan. In the beginning, Jordan does not like his hair or his skin color because it is different from his classmates. He does not like how he looks different from his classmates. He is determined that his appearance was a mistake. But through the encouragement of his parents, teacher, and fellow classmates, Jordan realizes that even though he looks different on the outside, it is the personality on the inside that really counts. He can have great friends with children that do not look like him, and he is just as special as all of the kids in his class.
This book is a wonderful tool for teachers and parents alike to help build confidence in children about their appearances. After reading the book to the class, the teacher can ask whether anyone has ever had the same feelings as Jordan did. Is there anything about how they look that they would like to change? Why? Ask the class what would happen if everyone looked exactly the same. Would life be boring? How does recognizing, respecting, and learning about differences between each other make life interesting? How also do similarities make like interesting? The teacher can then do an activity that has each student think of one way they are different and similar from their class mates. This can be an appearance or an activity special to their culture. Have each student share his/her difference and similarity with the class and why it is important to him/her. Emphasize after the activity how everyone is special and should be proud of their differences and similarities. The class can also do an art activity where they are provided with different colored yarn, string, pipe cleaners, crayons and markers. Have the children make a picture of themselves and allow them to change appearances if they want. Then have each student share their pictures with the class while explaining why they made themselves look that way (Vanderpool). Emphasize, though, the same point after this activity that everyone is made differently for a reason. There are no mistakes in appearances. Everyone should be proud of their appearance, differences and all.
A Taste of Colored Water written and illustrated by Matt Faulkner
Grades 1 - 4
A Taste of Colored Water, by Matt Faulkner, is full of vibrant pictures and a wonderful message about the injustices and inequalities that existed before and during the Civil Rights Movement. It can also be used to discuss inequalities based on white privilege that still occur in today’s racist society. This book is a good tool for 1st through 4th grade teachers but can be read to/by any age to illustrate institutionalized racism in the United States. The two main characters of the story, Jelly and LuLu, are cousins who live in the rural setting of a southern state in the 1960s. They lead a simple, care free life until one day they hear of colored water. They are mesmerized by the idea of water that it is multi-colored. They are determined to taste this new kind of water as they think it must taste better than regular water. But when they sneak into town with their uncle to find the colored water, their eyes are opened to a world of discrimination and Jim Crow Laws as they witness an anti-racist march and the violence it produces from the police. When Jelly and LuLu finally find a water fountain labeled ‘colored’, they are disappointed to find that the water is just like any other water. And when they try to drink it, they are attacked by a policeman and his dog. This event scares and confuses LuLu and Jelly. They can not understand why they are not allowed to drink the water.
This story is a great tool for teaching young children the injustice of the Jim Crow Laws that were in place before and during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The teacher should explain what Jim Crow Laws were before or after reading the book. Also, the definition of race, racism, inequality, and discrimination should be discussed. There are great points for dialogue through out the story. Ask the children what they think colored water is. Do they think it is multi-colored and flavored differently like Jelly and LuLu do? When Jelly and LuLu go to town and find colored water and see the march and violence, ask the children whether they think this situation should involve violence. Were the marchers doing anything wrong? For what are they marching? Then focus on the specific situation in which Jelly and LuLu find themselves. In reality, what is colored water and why can Jelly and LuLu not drink it? Is it fair how Jelly and LuLu are treated for drinking the water? Is it fair that people of color had to drink from a special water fountain? How would you feel if you were not allowed to drink from a certain water fountain because of the color of your skin? Is this situation fair? Another discussion that the teacher can start is about racism today. Even though there are no longer Jim Crow Laws, is there still inequality? Have the children think of any unfair situations they have been in or seen? How did those situations make them feel? Finally end the discussion with brainstorming ideas of peaceful activities the children can do to stop inequality as they have seen it. The teacher should provide ideas that the children can do in and out of the classroom.
The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and Illustrations by E.B. Lewis
Grades 1 - 4
Jacqueline Woodson and E.B. Lewis create a wonderful and provocative antiracist story in the book called The Other Side. It is about a young black girl named Clover who lives in a house with a long fence dividing her from the other houses in the neighborhood. Her mother tells her not to cross the fence and does not explain why, but this only sparks a curiosity in Clover. She wonders what is on the other side of the fence. One day, as her and her black friends are playing near the fence, a young white girl named Annie appears on the other side of the fence. When Annie asks if she could play, Clover’s friend answer “no” before Clover can say anything. Clover thinks about the situation after the fact and cannot decide whether she would say yes or no to Annie. Clover asks her mother why everything on the other side of the fence seems so far away. Her mother simply answers “Because that’s the way things have always been”. After a period of rainy days, Clover emerges from her house into the sunshine and meets Annie at the fence. They introduce themselves, and Annie hops up and sits on the fence explaining, “A fence like this was made for sitting on.” Annie helps Clover up onto the fence. The two young girls become friends while sitting on the fence. Finally, Annie joins Clover’s friends on the other side of the fence for a game of jump rope. In the end, Annie comments on how the fence will be taken down someday. Clover replies, “Yeah, someday.”
This story is a great tool for teachers of 1st through 4th grade for creating a discussion about segregation before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Since the setting of this story is not specified, the teacher can use the story line to create a dialogue of segregation or inequality that occurs at present. In the beginning, the teacher can ask the students why they think that Clover’s mother did not allow Clover to cross the fence. Do they think it is for Clover’s safety? Further in the story, the teacher can ask why Clover’s friends were so quick to say no to Annie when she asked to play. Why did Clover’s friends say no if they did not even know Annie? How would you feel if someone said no if you wanted to play and they did not even try to get to know you? The teacher, after finishing the book, can start a discussion of how you should not assume you know someone by just looking at his/her physical appearances like the color of his/her skin. It is better to get to know the person, because just like Clover, you might meet a new best friend. Differences make life interesting if one recognizes them and takes the time to understand and appreciate them. Also, for the later grades, the teacher can ask the significance of the fence. What does it mean when Clover says that someday the fence will be taken down? Is it sad if the fence is taken down? Are there any “fences” that the students can think of in the United States today?
Black, White, Just Right! by Marguerite W. Davol and Illustrated by Irene Trivas
Grades Pre K-2nd
This is a much-needed book told from the perspective of a young multiracial girl who has a Black Mom and a White Dad. The girl describes each parent and herself physically and in regards to their interests and personalities. She talks about how she is both like and different from each of her parents, and how she is a mix of both of them: “just right.” The book does a lot to go against stereotypes as well. Contrary to popular racial stereotypes, the mom loves to dance ballet and the dad loves hip hop. This book affirms the positive aspects of being multiracial, and how being different can be “just right.” The colorful illustrations are lovely; they catch the eye, but don’t distract from the message of the book. This book is not only great for multiracial children to see themselves represented, but also for all children to learn about different types of families.
Black, White, Just Right! can be used for many purposes in the classroom. For younger children, this book can be used to talk about differences in people and families. Teachers can ask questions such as “Do you look exactly the same as your parents? In what ways do you look different from your parents? How do you look the same as your parents?” Asking these questions can make children realize that no one looks exactly the same as their parents. Some kids look very different from their parents or from the people who care for them, but they are all loved. If students are reluctant to share about their own families, make clear that they can also imagine an example, or talk about people they have seen before. They can also talk about ways that they are similar to and different from their families in terms of interests and personality. Children can also learn that there are many different types of families, and the teacher can talk about other family configurations that differ from the traditional husband, wife, and kids of the same race. For older children, these topics can be discussed, but this book also provides opportunity to talk about race and multiracial people. Teachers can ask the kids to talk about the strength and love of a family, no matter the differences between them. Sometimes being different from each other even makes you stronger. This book is essential for a classroom dedicated to anti-racism because it addresses the often forgotten issue of multiracial people.
All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka
Grades Pre K-3rd
This beautifully illustrated book talks about children’s skin color and hair in simple poetic language that compares skin color and hair texture to things in nature. Skin colors range from the “…tinkling pinks of tiny seashells” to the “…roaring browns of bears.” It really covers a large range of skin colors, a variety of races, and shows children of different skin colors together, as well as multiracial families. Kids will be intrigued by the rhyming language and metaphors. The language flows well and is easy for kids to understand, and the illustrations give life to the words that praise and celebrate race and diversity.
This book is a great way to introduce the abstract idea of race to young children by looking at people’s physical differences in skin color and hair while still having a story to tell, rather than a didactic explanation of race. This book is by no means an explanation of what race is, but rather a starting point to describe different skin colors in a way that makes children want to celebrate all children and people, no matter how they look. While reading the book, kids will most likely have comments about the illustrations or about the comparisons used, so teachers should allow flexibility during the reading to hear these comments and respond to them. Teachers can take the opportunity to talk to very young kids about the topic by introducing the idea that people have many different skin colors and hair textures without yet talking about race as an abstract concept. Teachers can ask kids to describe the color of their own skin in terms of something in their environment, and remind them that no two people have exactly the same skin color, that they are all unique. A possible activity to do with this book is having older children mix paint to get their own skin color and paint a self-portrait. Teachers can also have kids compare their own skin color to objects in their environment and in nature, or even have kids invent their own names for their skin color, such as caramel.
All the colors we are/Todos los colores de Nuestra Piel: The Story of how we get our skin color by Katie Kissinger, Photographs by Wernher Krutein
Grades Pre K-3
This is an informative book that discusses skin color and provides a basic scientific background for why people have different skin colors. The photographs that depict children of many different skin colors and races give the book a realistic feeling. Although the language isn’t particularly exciting, the book does a very good job of explaining skin color and breaking down the scientific explanations into kid-friendly terms. It is very good about providing clear definitions for scientific terms such as “melanin.” The book also talks about families and the genetics of skin color (not race). Another plus is that it is a bilingual English/Spanish book. The translations are very accurate and although they aren’t word for word, they convey the same message well. Overall, this book does a very good job of breaking down the basics of skin color, as well as emphasizing that it is only one of many differences people have.
The book is great for talking about race from a scientific perspective. Teachers can use this along with some of the more story-like books on this list to get a full perspective of how to talk to kids about race and racism. This book offers some good suggestions for activities, such as mixing paint to match each person’s skin color. Some questions for the teacher to ask both before and after reading the book include: “Why do you think people can have many different skin colors? How do people get their skin color? Is one skin color better than another? Why or why not?” They should make a point to also ask these questions after, because it is likely that if the children understood the book, their answers may change. Teachers should also make sure that students fully understand the definitions given while reading the book. Teachers should also make sure to maintain a distinction between race and skin color, since this book is really about the scientific basis for skin color, and there really is no scientific basis for race.
Let’s Talk about Race by Julius Lester, Illustrated by Karen Barbour
Grades Kindergarten - 4th
Let’s Talk about Race begins with the author stating that everyone is a story, and he shares a little bit about his own life, while engaging the reader in thinking about and responding with his or her own life story. He goes on to directly address race as part of everyone’s story, and then talks about the problem with making judgments based on race, skin color and physical appearance. The introduction of race as a part of everyone’s story is a great way to make all children, not just children of color, conscious of race. Julius Lester does a great job of explaining that “Those who say ‘my race is better than your race’ are telling a story that is not true.” The author also play’s on children’s sense of humor by showing them that everyone is the same underneath their skin, and asking them to take off their skin. He emphasizes that race is an important part of each of us, but it is not all of who we are, and that we should all look at every aspect of a person, not just race. The vibrant, colorful illustrations are a great accompaniment to the engaging text.
The author’s use of sharing his own story while asking the reader to share their story makes this book a great way to start dialogue within the classroom or home about race, prejudice, and the value of everyone’s life stories, no matter how different they are. The book is a rarity in children’s books because it blatantly discusses the too-often taboo topic of race. Teachers and parents can take advantage of this to encourage children to discuss race and share and celebrate their own life stories. More importantly, teachers can use this book to talk about prejudice and racism. Throughout the reading of the book, teachers should definitely follow the author’s lead and ask children to share information about their lives, but children shouldn’t be pressured into this. At the point in the story that asks “What race are you?” teachers should pause and allow children to answer this question and explore this idea. Some kids may never have thought about this, and may need time to explore the topic. The teacher can suggest that children can speak with their parents to clarify the subject, perhaps as part of a take-home activity that involves the children making books of their own life story by answering the questions that Lester poses. Doing this activity at home will allow children to learn about their own race at home, rather than having a teacher label students, which could be dangerous. One great message of the book is that no race is better than any other race, and at that point in the book, the teacher can ask whether any student has heard something similar to the phrases in the book. Most likely, many students will have heard something related to racial, gender, or economic superiority, and teachers can have the students explain how it made them feel about themselves. After reinforcing the idea that these “stories” of superiority are not true, teachers should have children do as Lester suggests in the book: press fingers against the skin until they feel the bone, then do the same to the person next to them (after asking to check that it is ok with their neighbor). They will feel that they are the same underneath the skin. At this point, the teacher may have the children share ways that they are similar: especially in terms of emotions (i.e. they all get feelings hurt when they are made fun of). Teachers can ask “What would it be like if we all took off our skin?” They could discuss that we would have to look beyond physical characteristics, and see people’s personalities and life stories. Teachers could even involve the class in a daily activity of “taking off our skin” to remind children to focus on the whole person, not just race. This is not to downplay race and make it seem unimportant, but rather a reminder that we are so many things and we shouldn’t judge solely on physical appearance.
Encounter by Jane Yolen, Illustrated by David Shannon
This is the story of Christopher Columbus arriving in the “New World,” but told from the imagined perspective of a native Taino boy. This book offers an important alternative view of history that is often ignored. The book begins with the boy describing the bad dream he had about giant, scary-looking birds in the bay. The next morning the boy wakes to see that there really are the giant birds sitting in the bay; they’re Columbus’ ships, and tries to warn his tribe. The boy describes the stranger’s odd skin color, clothing, hair, language, and behaviors, wondering if these beings that are so different from what he knows are even human. This puts a funny twist on history, mirroring the way the Europeans viewed so-called “Indians” as less than human. The boy soon forgets the bad feeling he had about these people because they trade for shiny beads and bells, but the boy soon remembers his fear when he notices how focused the strangers are on the gold that the Tainos wear. He tries to warn his people again, but no one listens. The boy and several men of his tribe are eventually captured. The boy escapes by jumping off the boat and swimming to land, then walking and swimming for many days, trying to find his tribe. He warns people along the way, but they don’t seem to listen because he’s just a child. The story ends with him as an old man, describing the problems that the Europeans caused his people, and makes it a warning to “all the children and all the people in every land.” This book is a powerful way to talk about the destruction that colonialism caused in the Americas. Despite the lack of records of the first encounter with Columbus from the Taino perspective, the author does a very good job of describing what a boy in that situation might have experienced. It is also a great resource because it is from the perspective of a Taino boy, who isn’t from what is now known as the U.S., but rather from another part of the Americas. This reminds the reader that colonization happened throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, not just in the U.S. There are so many books about the encounter from Columbus’ perspective that this book is necessary to balance out the one-sided version of history. Telling the story from a child’s point of view makes it easier for children to relate, and the story flows very nicely. The illustrations are very powerful and seem to express the boy’s reality, his imagination, and his perspective. This book is also available in a Spanish edition.
This book is a must-have for any teacher who is going to talk about Columbus or colonization. This topic is likely to come up during the Columbus Day holiday, and Encounter is a great alternative to traditional books that celebrate Columbus’ so-called ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ with little regard to the destruction of the native people and cultures. Teachers can either introduce this at the beginning of a unit about colonization or the New World, as part of discussing alternative histories and who gets to tell a story (the people in power do), as part of learning about Native Americans, or at any time, but it shouldn’t stand alone because it needs historical background for children to understand the full impact of the story. Before reading the book, especially if it is being used as an introduction to the injustices that Natives of the Americas suffered, teachers should ask: “Tell me about Christopher Columbus. What did he do? Did he always do good things, or did he ever do anything bad? What do you know about the explorers who came to the Americas?” Asking these questions can help the teacher gauge what kind of misconceptions the kids have. There are also several good stopping points during the story for teachers to ask questions. When the narrator talks about how weird the strangers look, and wonders whether they are human, the teacher can ask: “Just because someone looks very different from you, does that mean that you should be afraid of them? Why or why not? Were there other reasons that the boy was afraid of the white men? How would you feel if you were kidnapped and taken away from your family?” At the end, another question could be “Do you think this story could have happened in real life?” And the teacher should explain that similar situations did actually happen, and give a more extensive explanation of the history behind this story.
Our hope is that this list will be a starting point for teachers and parents to find children's picture books that promote antiracism and social justice. Using this list, parents and teachers should also be able to examine other children's books to see if they truly promote the goals of multicultural education. These reviews are by no means comprehensive of all the resources that are out there, and the teaching suggestions given in the reviews are just that: suggestions. The teachers should feel free to use them as a starting point, but these ideas are not anywhere near complete lesson plans.
- Adoff, Arnold. Black is brown is tan. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1973.
- Davol, Marguerite. Black, White, Just Right! Concept Books, 1993.
- Faulkner, Matt. A Taste if Colored Water. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 2008.
- Hamanaka, Sheila. All the Colors of the Earth. Morrow Junior Books. 1994
- Haskins, Jim. Delivering Justice: W.W. Law and the Fight for Civil Rights. Massachusetts: Candlewick Press, 2005.
- Hoffman, Mary. Amazing Grace. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991.
- King, Jr., Dr. Martin Luther. I Have a Dream. New York: Scholastic Incorporated, 2007.
- Kissinger, Katie. All the Colors We Are. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press, 1994
- Lester, Julius. Let's Talk About Race. Harper Collins Amistad, 2005.
- Levine, Ellen. Henry’s Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad. New York: Scholastic Press, 2007.
- Littlesugar, Amy. Freedom School, Yes! New York: Philomel Books, 2001.
- Raschka, Chris. Yo! Yes!. New York: Orchard Books, 1993.
- Russo, Marisabina. Always Remember Me: How One Family Survived World War II. New York: Antheneum Books for Young Readers, 2005.
- Seuss, Dr. The Sneetches. New York: Random House, 1961.
- Spruill, Ed and Sonya. Jordan's Hair. Malaysia: Judson Press, 2005.
- Vanderpool, Kate. "What Kind of Hair do you Have?". ISRA Conference, 2008.
- Woodson, Jaqueline. The Other Side. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2001.
- Yolen, Jane. Encounter. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1992.