I sat in bed watching in disbelief as the Dallas sniper tragedy unfolded. My heart had been burdened all week by events from Baghdad to Baton Rouge. As I watched, I thought about my two girls asleep in their beds, blissfully unaware of the world’s sorrows. I thought about my parents watching the Rodney King riots as I slept. Like all parents, I know they hoped and prayed for a better world for their children. Is the world any better today?
I taught fifth-grade reading and history for a few years. Sometimes, racism is taught as if it’s a thing of the past: “Once upon a time there was segregation, but now we can all go to school together and sit anywhere on the bus so it’s all good now.” Smile and move on. Early on, I was guilty of this. It’s uncomfortable and hard.
As my teaching career continued, I felt the need to be a bit more open about past and present racism in an age-appropriate way. By a certain age, kids are aware of what is happening in the world at large, so it’s important not to avoid the topic. I worked to incorporate a great deal of literature in my classroom that dealt with racial relations in our country, but I also looked for literature with strong themes such as diversity, tolerance, and acceptance.
As a mother, I’ve recently been wrestling with how to begin discussing racial diversity with my preschoolers. I want my daughters to grow up aware of the differences and the struggles of the oppressed. I pray they are loving, tolerant, and quick to embrace those who are different from them. I pray they are salt and light in this hurting world, and they are not too young to begin learning.
As a teacher and children’s book enthusiast, my first response tends to be “Let’s find a book for that!” I believe in the power of story and its ability to make a better world. So, I’d like to share several books with you, broken down by age. The books for older students share more specific stories of racism or prejudice in America. The books for very young children tend to focus more on embracing differences. Hopefully this list can be a great resource for teachers and parents.
Ages 9 and Older
“Through My Eyes” is an important autobiography that helps children walk in Ruby Bridges’s shoes on her first days of school. One of the most poignant parts to read to students is when Ruby recounts seeing protesters holding a black doll in a coffin. It is powerful to have students empathize with Ruby and infer her emotions.
“When Marian Sang” is a biography of opera singer Marian Anderson. She faced many racial obstacles in her career, including being banned from singing at Constitution Hall. Ultimately, she ended up singing “My Country Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial. Her encore song was “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Her story is powerful, and the poetry of lyrics woven into this book make the story even richer. This was hands-down my favorite picture book to read to my class each year.
Benno the cat is loved by Jews and Gentiles alike in his community in Berlin, Germany. His world is changed as he watches his peaceful city become violent and hateful during Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass). This story is appropriate for students who are not quite ready for full-blown Holocaust history, but are ready to learn the horrible implications of racism around the world.
Erika was thrown from a cattle car headed for a concentration camp in 1944. A German woman rescued her and raised her while risking everything. This is another powerful Holocaust story that is appropriate for older elementary students.
Personally and professionally, this is one of my favorite books of all time. This New York Times best-seller tells the story of Auggie, a fifth grader with severe cranio-facial abnormalities. His journey through fifth grade is told through both his perspective and that of others in his life. It discusses prejudice, judging by appearance, and overcoming being afraid of those who are different than yourself. This is an extremely powerful novel for parents to read to their children.
Ages 5 Through 8
“The Other Side” tells the tale of two girls segregated by a fence, who have been told to stay on their sides. They strike up a friendship and dodge the rule by sitting on the fence together.
This biography of Ruby Bridges is a great telling of her story that is a little less intense than her autobiography. This book would also still be a great read for older students.
Pen pals from America and India share about their lives and realize that in many ways they are different, but in big ways they are the same.
“Let’s Talk About Race” has a great opening as it explains that we all have a story. Our race is a part of our story, but in so many ways our stories are the same. I liked this book right away because the title is forward. I believe it is important for us to become more comfortable being upfront about race, racism, and discrimination.
Grace loves to perform, but when it’s time for the school to perform “Peter Pan,” she is discouraged because Peter wasn’t black. (Spoiler alert, she gets the part!) This is a sweet story about achieving your goals.
This book is not so much about racial issues or tension but the sharing of cultures. Patricia was born into a Russian-Ukrainian Jewish family. In this story she shares friendship, culture, and traditions with an African-American Christian family.
Ages 2 to 4
This rhyming book uses many metaphors to describe skin colors. It is a fun nursery-rhyme read with preschool children. However, the metaphors could make for interesting discussion with students who are a bit older.
Karen Katz is a master writer of preschooler books! This one tells the story of a young girl who learns to see the many shades of brown in the world.
The lovely illustrations in this book make for great conversation about cultures all around the world. This book is beautiful poetry with words and pictures. “Joys are the same, and love is the same. Pain is the same, and blood is the same…” Whoever you are.
This is an old Sesame Street favorite, but it’s a classic. The various characters (puppets and people) compare their various unique features.
I’ve narrowed down a few of my favorites, but there are many other great books out there. Be inspired, be open, and share transforming literature with the children in your life!