In case you didn’t know it, February is Black History Month. Seeing many of the books and articles marketed toward this time of year has caused me to think a bit about the use of ethnicity in children’s books. I really am a big fan of ethnic books for children….and I’m not. Let me explain.
While I think books that explain our differences (The Colors of Us and the like) are great resources, I worry that teachers sometimes rely too heavily on books like these as their basis for “diversity education”; books that point out ethnicity in that isolated context, emphasizing color as the most salient characteristic. Their diversity education peaks there, at the “diverse” or “difference” aspect. Children of different colors shown primarily only in comparison to other colors.
I get just a little irked this time of year when I see a selection of “Black Books” for children and find only books cataloging the different shades of skin, explaining Kwanzaa, or telling the story of Martin Luther King. Don’t mistake what I’m saying, books on these topics are all worthy reads, but they should not be the only opportunities a child has to see a Black character in a book.
All children need the opportunity to see diverse characters in quality children’s literature. They need to see lots of characters that look like themselves, and plenty of opportunities to see characters who don’t. To truly appreciate diversity they also need to be able to relate to characters that are alike and different based on other factors like the characters’ experiences or aspirations, not just to see that they are alike or different based solely on their race.
Additionally, children’s books that overtly try to define ethnicity and race for a child can end up simply propagating stereotypes and can make children feel uncomfortable if they belong to that race but don’t “fit the mold”. One of my closest friends is Black and grew up in a predominantly white community. She has mentioned that some of her most uncomfortable moments in school were when a teacher would point her out in particular situations, almost as a poster-child for “Blackness”, or would ask her to give her opinion to the class on a racial topic, insinuating that she spoke for all Black people. She was a young child, but was sometimes treated as a representative to the United Nations. I worry that this is what happens when we choose books that focus too much or too directly on ethnicity. Or when a teacher essentially picks up a book and says, “Here’s a story with a girl that’s just like Jenny!” Though the book is about Kwanzaa and Jenny’s never celebrated that holiday in her life. But hey, their skin looks the same.
Children should get to see a rainbow of skin tones in children’s literature, without that always being the topic of the book. Real, diverse literature has a variety of characters with a variety of skin tones. But the themes of the books should not always be primarily about which color we’re each wrapped up in.
Diverse characters should present a variety of themes that are relatable and transcend stereotypical, external categories. I love Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day (and many others by him as well). The character happens to be Black, but the theme is simply the magic of exploring a snowy day. Most children can relate to that! That teaches the theme “We are all alike” more convincingly than a book that simply uses that line as a refrain throughout pages and pages of apparent differences.
As another example, Spike Lee and his wife, Tonya Lewis Lee have a fabulous book called, Please, Puppy, Please that features two children who are trying to get an unruly puppy to obey. Oh, and they are also Black, but that isn’t the theme of the story. I’ve read that story countless times with children, and I don’t think I’ve even once had a child point out the characters’ skin. It’s a fantastic example of literature for anti-bias or equality education. To show diverse characters under the unifying theme of “childhood” not presenting stereotypes with racial labels.
When Black History month rolls around, or the theme “We’re all alike, we’re all different” takes hold of the curriculum, I worry that teachers grab safe, albeit somewhat stereotypical “ethnic” reads, and then put them away for the rest of the year. This doesn’t give our children true diversity in literature. We need to find quality literature for the everyday that reflects the melting pot that is America. This isn’t always easy, but it seems that authors and illustrators are making strides on this front.
So I guess in all of this rambling, I’m saying that I love diverse, ethnic books but particularly those that celebrate the unifying theme of childhood rather than the dividing theme of separating children into classifications. I believe that my friend’s son should have more opportunities to see characters with his same gorgeous mocha brown skin than his mother did, and that he should see them engaged in the magic of childhood, not as color codes for filing people into their respective groups.
I want that for my own boys- that they see characters in books that remind them of themselves, with big blue eyes and even bigger personalities. But I also want them to read books where they can look into the green, black, and brown eyes that remind them of their friends. All children deserve to be able to see themselves in a good book, and to see the rest of the world there as well.
Top photo by bies.