Studies show that children can learn racially-biased behaviors as young as three and learn to categorize people by race (non-verbally) at as young as six months. Yet we’re often reluctant to talk about race or we pretend that being “color blind” is the least harmful choice.
It’s vital that we as parents and humane educators begin exploring issues of race in age-appropriate ways starting from an early age. One strategy for doing so is through children’s literature.
Here are 14 children’s picture books exploring race and racism.
1. “The Soccer Fence: A Story of Friendship, Hope and Apartheid in South Africa” by Phil Bildner
2014. Grades 1-4.
Hector loves soccer and dreams of playing with the (white) boys from another part of Johannesburg, but apartheid and racism are too prevalent. When, over the years, Nelson Mandela is released from prison and elected president, and then the beloved Bufana Bufana national soccer team wins the African Cup of Nations finals, Hector and one of the white boys bond over the soccer win and forge a new friendship.
2. “Chocolate Me!” by Taye Diggs
2011. Grades Preschool-2.
A young boy who is teased and questioned about being different (“chocolate me”) wishes for different skin, hair and a different nose, but his mother helps him see himself in a special way and to love what he sees when he looks in the mirror.
3. “Amazing Grace” by Mary Hoffman
1991. Grades Preschool-2.
Grace has a wonderful imagination and lots of experience acting out exciting adventures and playing roles. So when her teacher announces that the class will put on “Peter Pan” Grace wants to play the lead. Grace doubts herself when classmates tell her she can’t play that role because she’s a girl and because she’s black, but her mother’s and grandmother’s love and support remind her that she can do and be anything.
4. “Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?” by Sandy Lynne Holman
1998. Grades 1-4.
Montsho comes to his grandfather to find out: “Is everything black bad?” Montsho mentions “black cat,” “black sheep,” “black eye,” and black villains on TV as evidence. Montsho’s grandfather shows him why black is “one of the most beautiful colors in the world” by telling him about his African heritage.
5. “Skin Again” by Bell Hooks
2004. Grades K-3.
A brief call to look beyond the skin we’re in to who we are inside: “The skin I’m in/is just a covering./If you want to know who I am/you have got to come inside/and open your heart way wide.”
6. “The Colors of Us” by Karen Katz
1999. Grades Preschool-2.
Lena’s mother is teaching her about mixing colors and takes Lena on a tour of the neighborhood to see all the different shades of brown that make up the skin colors of their friends, family, and neighbors.
7. “All the Colors We Are: The Story of How We Got Our Skin Color” by Katie Kissinger
2014. Grades Preschool-3.
This bilingual (English/Spanish) book, with bright photographs, offers children a simple but accurate and effective explanation of the three ways we get our skin color (genetics, melanin, the sun) and emphasizes that our skin color is just one “of the many ways people are special and different from each other.” The end of the book includes a couple of follow-up activities.
8. “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester
2005. Grades 1-5.
Lester uses his own story to emphasize that we all have stories, and that race is only one small part of our stories.
9. “Goin’ Someplace Special” by Patricia C. McKissack
2001. Grades 1-5.
In 1950s Nashville, for the first time, Tricia Ann’s grandmother gives her permission to go to her “someplace special” on her own, reminding her to “hold yo’ head up and act like you b’long to somebody.” Along the way Tricia Ann faces bigotry, hatred and discrimination. She feels nearly ready to give up on getting to her “someplace special” until she meets a woman who gives her renewed courage and determination, telling her, “You are somebody, a human being — no better, no worse than anybody else in this world.” When Tricia Ann finally gets to her “someplace special,” she smiles at the sign that says “Public Library: All Are Welcome.”
10. “Busing Brewster” by Richard Michelson
2010. Grades 1-4.
Brewster is (mainly) looking forward to first grade. But when his mother tells him and his brother Bryan that they’re going to be bused to Central, which is mainly a white school, the boys are trepidatious. When the bus arrives on the first day, there are white adult protestors shouting and even throwing rocks. Things don’t get better inside when a white student starts an incident and Brewster, Bryan, and the boy Bryan calls “Freckle-face” end up in detention all day in the library. With the words of his mother in his head (“Maybe you’ll be president someday, Brewster.”), Brewster is befriended by the librarian, who begins to teach him how to read, and Bryan and “Freckle-face” end up bonding.
11. “Mr. Lincoln’s Way” by Patricia Polacco
2001. Grades 1-4.
Mr. Lincoln is “the coolest principal in the whole world” but he struggles to reach “Mean Gene,” a student who bullies and uses racial epithets learned from his bigoted father. When Mr. Lincoln discovers Gene’s interest in birds, the two of them end up creating a habitat in the school’s atrium that becomes a bird paradise, including for a pair of nesting Mallards. And Mr. Lincoln is able to help Gene find kindness for other people as he feels kindness for the birds.
12. “Desmond and the Very Mean Word” by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Carlton Abrams
2013. Grades 1-5.
When a group of boys shout “a very mean word” at a young Desmond, he wants to hurt them back, rather than take the advice of his mentor, Father Trevor, and forgive them. “When you forgive someone, you free yourself from what they have said or done. It’s like magic.” When Desmond gets a chance for retribution, it doesn’t help, and he eventually learns the power of forgiveness.
13. “The Skin You Live In” by Michael Tyler
2005. Grades Preschool-3.
This rhyming poem celebrates the diversity in our skin and all the things we do in our skin: “… the skin you have fun in; the skin that you run in; the skin that you hop, skip and jump in the sun in ….”
14. “The Other Side” by Jacqueline Woodson
2001. Grades K-4.
Clover and Annie live on separate sides of a fence that divides the “black side” and “white side.” Both girls have been told not to cross the fence, but no one said anything about sitting on top of it.
What titles would you add to the list?