Betsy Bird has a fascinating post up, “We Need Diverse Books…But Are We Willing To Discuss Them With Our Kids.” Having recently read Po Branson and Ashley Merryman’s Nurture Shock, Betsy considers in particular their chapter “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race: Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better of or worse?” and what books are available to help with this conversation for very young children.
First of all, my general feeling about introducing difficult topics with very young children is uneasiness. I’ve been on record as not being a fan of Holocaust stories for the very young as I think the topic requires an ability to grapple with history and information in a way they are not ready for developmentally. More recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about it in terms of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I wrote my book, Africa is My Home, for many reasons, but one was to provide a way for children the age of my students, 9 and 10, to begin to consider this horrific time. In addition to thinking about this for the book I’ve thought about it for years as I plan and teach a unit about this to my 4th graders. How much information do they need, I wonder? How do I navigate one child’s readiness to know more and another child’s lack of readiness for the same? I use a lot of picture books for the unit, poetry, and my own material. I ask children and parents to let me know if anyone is upset. So far, the children seem to know just how far they are ready to go. It seems a bit like sex — they know there is more to know, but they are not ready. Of course, each class responses differently as does each child. And Betsy is talking about parents taking these topics on, not classroom teachers. Yet we classroom teachers do take them on so her post spoke to me and made me wonder.
And a particular teacher came to mind as I thought about this, former kindergarten teacher, Vivian Paley, who often addresses race in her books. One in particular seems relevant to this topic, The Girl with the Brown Crayon, in which the books of Leo Lionni become a springboard for the consideration of many important topics including race. While I can’t say how much conversation my white students have with their parents about race, I can say they do come to my classroom having discussed it in school in previous years. Of course they live (as does Betsy’s daughter) in a city where they see people of different races all the time and go to a school where they see it too. I wonder about this with very young white children in communities that are less diverse — if they aren’t seeing it in real life how do they consider it when they are seeing it just in the books Betsy suggests?
As a teacher, my interest is providing historical context for particularly difficult topics. I think it is very difficult for all of us to understand the horrors of human behavior, but by learning the history that leads to it, we are helped I think. For one thing, it takes away the tendency to demonize and brings us to a place to think about how we can avoid more horror to happen. No doubt because of my personal history with the Holocaust and Sierra Leone, I feel it is very important to consider not just the facts of racism and other such horrors of human behavior, but to try to see what causes it and how we move past it. When children are ready to begin to do this, I’m not completely sure. I’m working my way through it and appreciate every opportunity to learn more on how to do it better.