“Or the time when your Pop Pop turns on the news, and you see people everywhere take a breath, take a stand, take a knee. And you hear Pop Pop’s whispered prayers, as another name is called: Trayvon, Tamir, Philando, and you wonder if they, or you, will ever matter.” Thus begins Tami Charles’s 2020 children’s picture book, All Because You Matter. With heightened racial tensions, more parents have taken the initiative to educate themselves and their children on topics regarding race (Knoth, 2021). As Nguyen (2021, p. 15) notes, anti-bias picture books can serve as “valuable pedagogical resources.” Representation of diverse races and ethnicities in books not only allows children to relate to characters like them, but also exposes children to identities different from their own, helping them develop understanding, respect, and empathy. This article highlights a recent study that examined messaging from bestselling children’s picture books from Amazon’s racism-focused/anti-racist category to provide and understanding of the variety of picture book content and the race-focused messages young children are exposed to.
Racism can be a way we’ve done things for a long time, like how there aren’t as many books written about people of color.Megan Madison & Jessica Ralli
Race is a heavy, complex, and personal topic that many believe toddlers and young elementary aged-children are too young to engage with. However, research suggests picture books are beneficial for engaging in racial conversations as young children, even toddlers, can identify racial differences and develop attitudes about race (Edmonds, 1986). Similarly, anti-bias scholars found that children as young as two are not only conscious of themselves but also able to participate in social discourses that contribute to the continuation of bias, discrimination, and prejudice (Nguyen, 2021; Fontanella-Nothom, 2019). Edmonds (1986) postulated that because whiteness is the dominant and more accepted racial preference in the U.S., children are bound to absorb these influences at some point. Edmonds goes on to describe how it is common for white children to be “already quite racially ‘prejudiced’” at five years old and for young Black children to be “already aware of the prejudices of whites”, causing them to feel ambivalent or even disconnected from their race (Goodman, 1970, p. 38, as cited in Edmonds, 1986, p. 31).
Further, research suggests that social justice education should start in the preschool years when children’s social and cultural understandings are still forming and when societal expectations are first assigned (Nguyen, 2021). If we want to make progress towards a more just and equitable reality, we must make sure we are raising children to develop critical thinking skills as they interpret and reconcile their experiences with those of others around them. While examining picture books, we must continually ask ourselves who is telling these stories, what messages are presented, and how are historically marginalized people presented?
The top 10 books were selected from Amazon’s 2021 Best Sellers in Children’s Prejudice & Racism Books, an accessible and widely used online site, more so amid the pandemic. The book list was recorded on June 3, 2021. All books were picture books aimed at target audiences from baby to 3rd grade.
Character Race/Ethnicity Depictions
Of the eight books that featured human characters, six included characters that represented a wide range of races and ethnicities, though none were explicitly identified. One book focused on Black identities. Two books mentioned white people specifically, one describing the origin of racism and the other a Martin Luther King Jr. biography which mentioned Black and white people and one Indian figure. The Day You Begin only explicitly names a Venezuelan character. Other identities that are alluded to but not stated include Black, Korean, and white characters. Four books include Muslim characters. Four out of the 10 books depict a wide range of cultural backgrounds. One book included multilingual phrases including “mahal kita”, (Tagalog) and “barrio” (Spanish) and multicultural names including Hossam, Uzoamaka, and Yordenis (All Because You Matter).
A long time ago, way before you were born, a group of white people made up an idea called race. They sorted people by skin color and said that white people were better, smarter, prettier, and that they deserve more than everybody else. That isn’t true or fair at all! But it’s a story that has been told for a long time. When people believe this untrue story about race, that’s called racism.Megan Madison and Jessica ralli
Strengths and Beneficial Book Aspects
Two books that are quite different in their approaches and tone from the rest of the books in the racism-focused list are Antiracist Baby Picture Book and Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race. These books are the most nuanced and contemporary as they tackle race with an informed anti-racist approach. They emphasize that racism is pervasive, awareness is needed to combat racism, and systems are to be blamed, not people.
Three books from the racism-focused list highlighted specific identities and could be greatly beneficial for both children who identify similarly and those who do not.
Long before you took your place in this world, you were dreamed of, like a knapsack full of wishes, carried on the backs of your ancestors as they created empires, pyramids, legacies. Building, inventing, working beneath red-hot suns and cold-blue moons, thinking of you, years ahead. Because to them, you always mattered.tami charles
And all at once, in the room where no one else is quite like you, the world opens itself up a little wider to make some space for you.jacqueline woodson
Criticism and Possible Book Issues
The book, We’re Different, We’re the Same, takes the color-blind or melting pot approach. Each page starts out by introducing a difference people have, “Our skin is different”, and following that statement is a sentence that suggests everyone is the same, “Our skin is the same. It tells us something is cold or hot or wet or dry.” Another example includes “Our feelings are different,” “Our feelings are the same, lonely, worried, scared, excited, happy, loving, glad, delighted.” This text could be interpreted as dismissing individual experiences. For example, the biological function of skin cannot be compared directly to the mistreatment of folks that stems from the difference in their skin tone. Feelings can be universally categorized, but the causes of negative feelings cannot be understood by everyone (as not everyone knows what it feels to be excluded or marginalized for an identity or trait out of their control).
To further illustrate, one can compare the approach that the more effective book, All Are Welcome Here, took. This book also includes a multitude of people with varying appearances. The difference lies within the narration. It addresses differences, yet does not suggest everyone’s experiences and traits are the same, rather it continually states, “All are welcome here.” The author goes on to represent different cultural items and practices and mentions that we can learn from each other. One distinguishing statement this book makes is, “We’re part of a community. Our strength is our diversity, a shelter from adversity,” which illustrates the direct address to mistreatment that can be found outside of safe spaces. The book ends by ensuring that “You have a place here” and “You have a space here”, which adds to the message of celebrating diversity, as the first book does, but goes further by depicting inclusion while maintaining individuality.
That Monster on the Block could be arguably problematic in a few ways. The creatures featured in this book are all nonhuman, so their experiences cannot be translated directly to humans and especially marginalized people. Additionally, Monster is relentlessly hostile towards Clown, the new neighbor who is depicted as friendly and generous. Meanwhile, Clown gives gifts and his time as he introduces himself and attempts to befriend the unwelcoming neighbors. Clown is doing favors for neighbors, which could be interpreted as having to earn the right to live in the neighborhood and be accepted. Even if Clown was not overly nice and just existing, he should not be subjected to such hostility. In other words, he should not have to overcompensate to gain the acknowledgment of others. If applied to people who are often met with hostility or assigned foreigner statuses (e.g., people who identify as Muslim, Latine, Asian, immigrants, etc.), messages from this book could be at the least misleading and more so, intolerant and bigoted.
Similarly in Mixed: A Colorful Story, messages are too abstract to be applied to segregation and racism in the U.S. One misconception that buyers may make when seeing this book is that the colors could represent people of different “colors.” Yet, these circle-shaped characters are not human and the colors represented in this book are not true skin tones. Already, this could be degrading to someone who identified as a person of color. The premise of the book is also problematic if used to describe how racism in the U.S. started. In the book, the differently colored characters (red, yellow, green and blue) used to live in harmony but then they started to argue who is better and decided to segregate the city. In U.S. history, Black people and other groups of color did not have the choice to segregate; they were forced to by laws, physical force, and frequent abuse..
Along similar lines, the book, Martin Luther King, Jr. (My Itty-Bitty Bio), may be seen to over-simplify history. It does not go into much depth on segregation and all the harm it caused. More significantly, it does not explicitly mention Dr. King’s legacy, his impact, and the continued racial mistreatment of people of color since his death. Emphasizing that racism is still a pervasive problem in today’s society and the impacts the Civil Rights Movement had on today’s policies and systems is crucial but left out in this picture book.
Caution if Not Carefully Used:
When choosing books for initiating conversations of race and racism with young children, we should be placing an emphasis on content quality. Parents, caretakers, and educators should explicitly identify what messages they intend to expose young children to when choosing picture books. Messages may include prejudice awareness, identity affirmation, inclusion encouragement, or segregation education. Additionally, we should be striving to expose children to books, especially those about characters who are people of color, from diverse authors. One way to do this is to flip to the inside of the book to make sure the identity of the author is diverse. We all must put careful thought into the picture books we select for young children– considering the messages and representations they encourage — if we wish to create a just, inclusive, and affirming world for generations to come.
Antiracist Baby is bred, not born. Antiracist Baby is raised to make society transform.Ibram X. Kendi
Note: This project used Amazon for its accessibility. However there are many other sources for picture book recommendations. We recommend that you buy from local booksellers, especially BIPOC-owned, or check books out from your local library.
Aronson, K. M., Callahan, B. D., & O’Brien, A. S. (2018). Messages matter: Investigating the thematic content of picture books portraying underrepresented racial and cultural groups. Sociological Forum, 33(1), 165–185.
Edmonds, L. (1986). The Treatment of Race in Picture Books for Young Children. Book Research Quarterly, 2(3), 30–41. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02684576
Fontanella-Nothom, O. (2019). “Why Do We Have Different Skins Anyway?”: Exploring Race in Literature with Preschool Children. Multicultural Perspectives, 21(1), 11–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/15210960.2019.1572485
Goodman, M. E. (1970). The culture of childhood: Child’s-eye views of society and culture. Teachers College Press, Teachers College, Columbia University.
Knoth, M. V. (2021). “But Are They Level O?”: Leveled Reading and Antiracism. Horn Book Magazine, 97(2), 24–27.
Nguyen, A. (2021). “Children Have the Fairest Things to Say”: Young Children’s Engagement with Anti-Bias Picture Books. Early Childhood Education Journal, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-021-01186-1
Robinson, J. A. (2013). Critical Approaches to Multicultural Children’s Literature in the Elementary Classroom: Challenging Pedagogies of Silence. New England Reading Association Journal, 48(2), 43-51,88.