How to use books to talk about race

Story time is a great time to teach your kids to be noticers. And noticing is half the battle.

Western literature has a long history of racism. This has taken two forms. The soft racism of erasure and the hard racism damaging depictions of people of color.

Teach your kids to notice erasure

One of my daughter’s favorite books is Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas exists in a strange world where there are talking trains and all white people. It goes without saying that this is not the way the world actually is or should be. Books, especially books for young children, exist as a means of showing our children how the world is and should be. When our books show worlds without people of color it sends a message to kids that this is the normal state of things. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our world is a rich tapestry of all sorts of people and beliefs.

Be sure to point out to your children the ridiculousness of worlds depicted in literature that erase or leave out people of color. Ask them “Is this the way the world actually looks, is everyone really white?”

This question will help children to be more aware of and comfortable asking questions about their surroundings in their daily lives.

Teach your kids to notice depictions

It is not enough that there are people of color in children’s books, you also have to think critically about what those people are doing.

Watch out for depictions of black and brown people as happy servants of white people as in the books A Fine Dessert and George Washington’s Cake. Both stories depict people of color happily making food for their white oppressors. These stories perpetuate harmful ideas about the role of black people.

If you do stumble along a story like this in your reading, ask questions and have a conversation with your kids about the depictions in the book.

“Do you think those black people are happy having to cook for someone else without being paid for their work?

“This is called slavery and it was a wrong and cruel thing to do to people; Mommy doesn’t like that this book makes slavery look like it was okay, because it wasn’t.”

Seize opportunities when they arise

Reading books to your children is an intimate and special time. Talking about race in books can seem unnatural or difficult, but know that you will get better with practice.

Reading books with negative depictions can be just as valuable as reading books that present people of color as full complex human beings. It is a matter of noticing where a book falls short, and confidently and simply pointing it out during story time.

You can do it!

Happy Reading.

About the Author

Jasen Frelot is a father, husband, community organizer, early childhood educator and social justice advocate based in Seattle. He is the founder and Executive Director of Kids and Race, a new non-profit organization focused on educating parents on how they impact their children’s racial identity development. Jasen is also the founding director of Columbia City Preschool of Arts and Culture, a preschool founded on the principles of racial equity.

Jasen’s work has been featured on KUOW, King 5, The Seattle Times, Real Change, and Parentmap Magazine. Jasen lives in Seattle with his wife and young children. And check out his first podcast, Talking Race!

  One thought on “How to use books to talk about race

  1. Shawna Gamache
    March 9, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    Thank you, Jasen! You’ve made this topic so accessible. This is something we white parents can’t ignore. The books we read our children do so much to shape their worldview and we need them to notice how underrepresented people of color are in even the most “innocent” of mainstream children’s books so they can turn those same eyes on the world outside of books and feel a responsibility to fix it.

    We also need to invest in books that do center people of color. I feel that if the children’s publishing industry saw more marketability in this area (and not just in February) they would respond quickly. I remember how few books there were with girls as the main characters when I was a kid, and I’ve seen how quickly that changed. We really could see movement if we stopped buying books that don’t represent the diverse and supportive communities we want to see (or whitewash or rewrite history in dangerous and harmful ways)— in books and in our daily lives. Books like Ladybug Girl should not be best-sellers. It should bother us when all of the main characters are white. I admit I love that book for many reasons, but my girls and I have talked a lot about the world it represents and how much of the world is missing and why that makes mommy mad.

    I am especially disappointed in the 8-12 books category. I would love to see more middle reader book options that aren’t all about white kids and the adventures they have. Especially in the fantasy category— fairies and other supernatural beings do NOT have to be light-skinned.

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