Friday, April 15, 2011

Key Themes in Children's Literature: Racism

It is difficult to grow up in any urban area within any open society without being confronted by people different from yourself. Major differences occur in terms of social class, race, ethnicity and language, but at a more subtle level people can be isolated from one another based on different cultural and social practices as basic as fashion and popular culture.  I wrote post last year on the theme 'The Other' in which I suggested that literature is helpful in helping children to become aware of the 'other'. But while schools have been good at stressing and celebrating multiculturalism, I suspect that there is potential and perhaps an imperative to push the boundaries to more explicitly address racism. We need to do more than just make children aware that other races exist, there is a need to encourage them to understand people and gain some sense of what it might mean to live in their shoes. As I've suggested in various previous posts on this blog literature can do many things including serving as "a vehicle to other places", "a source of ideological challenge", "a mirror to enable readers to reflect on life problems and circumstances" and a means for the "discussion of social issues" (here).

Below I look briefly at some books that offer the potential to consider the theme of racism. At the end of the post I offer some ideas for how the books might be used. I have included a range of books from simple picture books to adolescent novels.

1. Young Readers (aged 4 to 8 years)

'The Sneetches' by Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss has written a number of stories that deal with the difficult topic of racism. 'The Sneetches' is an obvious one that tells of two types of creatures (Sneetches) one with a Star on their bellies and the other without. Needless to say one felt superior and the other inferior. One day a man arrives with the perfect solution, a machine that can add a star to the belly. But without the stars how could the 'superior' group differentiate itself? The man had the solution; his machine could take the stars off (!) the Sneetches who were the original 'Star Belly' kind.

But perhaps an example even closer to the theme is 'What was I scared of?' a funny story about a small creature who while walking at night is confronted by a pair of pale green pants that are out walking by themselves. He is terrified when on each walk he sees them. But of course it turns out that the pants were just as scared of him and finally all is resolved.

'Henry's Freedom Box', by Ellen Levine & illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Henry 'Box' Brown lived in 19th century America and was a slave who escaped to freedom by mailing himself to some northern Philadelphian Abolitionists who were against slavery. This brilliantly illustrated picture book for readers aged 5 to 8 years is a retelling of the true story. Henry Brown doesn't know how old he is because nobody keeps records of slaves' birthdays. He dreams about freedom, but that dream seems farther away than ever when he is torn from his family and put to work in a warehouse. When Henry grows up and marries, he is again devastated when his family is sold at the slave market. Then one day, as he lifts a crate at the warehouse, he knows exactly what he must do: He will mail himself to the North. After an arduous journey in the crate, Henry finally has a birthday — his first day of freedom.

The book was a 2008 Caldecott Honour Book.
'The Resurrection of Henry Brown' Wiki Commons

Let the Celebrations Begin!”, Margaret Wild and Julie Vivas (1991).

This wonderful Australian picture book was inspired by some simple toys made by Polish women held in the Nazi prison camp of Belsen. It tells of the life in Hut 18 and the planning of celebration as they anticipate their liberation from the camp towards the end of the Second World War. This is a narrative with a setting that is so specific that the narrator (Miriam) identifies her bed number (Hut 18, bed 22). This powerful story could not be told without the place, and yet, the place (or setting) is very much secondary to the story told.

'Where the Buffaloes Begin' by Olaf Baker and illustrated by Stephen Gammell

This is a mystical story that is a retelling of an old North American Blackfoot Indian legend. It was originally published in 1915 and retells a Blackfoot Indian tale. A young boy is curious about Nawa, the wise man, who tells a story about the origins of sacred buffaloes from the centre of a nearby lake. The fearless young boy, Little Wolf, sneaks away in the middle of the night to keep watch over the lake. He waits with his pony for the buffalo to appear from beneath the waters. As he does, he contemplates the fate of his tribe if the enemy Assiniboins should attack. As he watches, the myth of the buffaloes becomes a reality and he runs as the buffaloes stampede towards him. Little Wolf tries to outrun them, but notices that suddenly the buffaloes surround him; he has become part of the stampede.
Stephen Gammell's illustrations are wonderful. The use of lead pencil sketches of great detail adds greatly to this mystical tale.

2. Independent Readers (aged 9 to 12 years)

'The Burnt Stick' (1995) by Anthony Hill & Mark Sofilas (illustrator)

This novel for younger readers (8-10 years) is set in Australia prior to the 1960s.  It is the story of a young Australian aboriginal boy named John Jagamarra, who had been taken (like thousands of other Indigenous children) from his family. John was taken from his mother by the Welfare Department of the day, and sent to live with his white Father at the Pearl Bay Mission for Aboriginal Children. He grew up in this beautiful place, but he knew it was not like being home with his mother and his people.  He remembers how the 'Big Man from Welfare' had come and taken him away. His story illustrates how well intentioned government policy at the time failed to deal with the problems of Indigenous communities and failed to understand the full needs of people 'other' than themselves. While the story positions us as reader to see the tragedy of the 'Stolen Generation' through John's eyes, at the same time it offers child and adult readers the chance to consider the issues of racial difference and how we understand, live with and when necessary, reach out to people other than ourselves.

Mark Sofilas' wonderful charcoal images add a haunting and powerful additional dimension to the story. The Children's Book Council of Australia named it Book of the Year for Younger Readers in 1995.

'The Jacket' by Andrew Clements & illustrated by McDavid Henderson

A white boy (Phil) wrongly accuses an African-American boy of stealing his brother's jacket. He realises that he is racist and asks his mother the question: "How come you never told me I was prejudiced?" This incident forces Phil to confront his inner prejudices and ultimately leads to a great opportunity to learn for the sixth grade boy. He recognises that there is prejudice in his neighbourhood, his family and even himself. In the process he finds a new friend in the process and is changed. The book is suitable for children aged 8 to 12 years.

'Peaceful Protest: The Life of Nelson Mandela' by Yona Zeldis McDonough & illustrated by Malcah Zeldis

This is a biography written for upper primary children (aged 8-11) that tells the story of Nelson Mandela. It commences with his childhood and ends with his retirement in 1999. It covers the major events you would expect, including his imprisonment for opposing apartheid, his election as the first black president of the Republic of South Africa, and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against racism and apartheid.

Mother and daughter Malcah Zeldis and Yona Zeldis McDonough have worked together to create a wonderful and challenging tribute to Nelson Mandela's “long road to freedom” that helped to free an entire nation. The illustrations by McDonough are striking and unusual, using gouache on watercolour paper. 

'When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit', by Judith Kerr

Anna was only 9 years old in 1933 when Adolf Hitler emerged in the Germany of her youth. But as a Jewish girl she was soon to find that her world had changed when her father went missing. With a leader filled with hatred for an entire race of people, and determined to see them eliminated Germany is transformed.  Anna's father is a well-known Jewish writer, and someone warns him, just in time that he might soon lose his passport. Her father leaves by night for Switzerland and Anna, her brother and mother are left behind in Berlin. He sends for his family to meet him in Switzerland and they escape just a day before the German elections. Hitler sweeps to power all Jewish property is seized in Berlin and they are now refugees in Switzerland, with no way back. This wonderful story tells the story of the horror of Germany in the reign of Hitler through the eyes of a little girl.

3. Older Readers (Aged 12 to 14+ years)

'Requiem for a Beast' by Matt Ottley

Another more recent exploration of this theme is Matt Ottley's epic picture book 'Requiem for a Beast' (which I have reviewed in full here). Essentially, Ottley wrote, drew, and composed a work that uses the Australian Stockman’s life as the centrepiece of a work that offers a different story of this much romanticised figure in the Australian psyche. In his own words, shared just after the award announcement when responding to some of the controversy surrounding the choice of the book, he suggested that:
"We have a romanticised view of what a stockman's life is like, a Man From Snowy River-view, and I wanted to present life in a stock camp as it really is, in all its grittiness."
And ‘gritty’ it is. As he explores the parallel lives of a young man working on an outback station coming face to face with a rogue bull, the story of his childhood, and the stories of dispossessed Aboriginal people. Within this narrative he explores other significant themes - the stolen generation (international readers might need this link), conquering one’s demons, loss, separation, guilt and forgiveness, separation and loneliness, family and community.

The book is in four parts, each with a title in Latin. Part one is Dies Irae (Day of wrath), presumably tied intertextually with the 13th Century hymn about the day of God's judgement. The opening pages, with its five magnificent oil paintings of the Australian landscape and three haunting statements, offer some clear clues to the reader:
It’s our memories that make us
This country, these hills you see; this is my mother’s country, and her mother’s too.”
I’m supposed to be a fully initiated woman, but that knowledge, that memory, is gone. Aboriginal Elder”
Ottley's ambitious work is set against the backdrop of Indigenous suffering and alienation. Ottley weaves multiple narratives of the boy’s life and Indigenous memories. This work is a riot of rich visual and verbal imagery.

The book won the 2008 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards for a Picture Book. 

'Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry' (1976) by Mildred Taylor

This book won the 1977 Newbery Medal Award, tells the story of a poor African American family living in Mississippi during the Great Depression. This novel is set in the Depression-era in Mississippi and centres on the lives of the Logans, an African-American family Logan family. The Logans are fortunate compared to many African-Americans and own their own land when many black and white Americans are working as sharecroppers on plantations owned by others. It is a time when racially-motivated crimes are common. The 'Berry Burnings' mentioned the first chapter and the act of tarring and feathering Mr Tatum were incidents that were sadly not uncommon as 'nightmen' took the law into their own hands at the expense of African-Americans. It is a novel that traces the life of young Cassie Logan as she learns the hard realities of life for African-Americans.  This is a moving and confronting novel.

The book has a sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, which was released in 1981. It also has a prequel written in 1975, Song of the Trees and a related prior book The Land that tells the story of the Logan grandfather who purchased the land that is central to this novel. It is suitable for readers aged 11-14 years.

'Somehow Tenderness Survives: Stories of Southern Africa', by Hazel Rochman

This South African book is about the reality of Apartheid and the impact on real people. It shows the ugliness of racism played out in the stories of people who suffered and experienced violence. It includes ten stories and autobiographical accounts by a range of writers from southern Africa writers of various races (five black and five white). It includes well-known writers like Nadine Gordimer, Mark Mathabane and Doris Lessing as well as writers who mostly won't be known outside South Africa. The stories together and individually are a moving and challenging set of narratives that do not hide the ugly side of racism. At times they offer a shocking and powerful portrait of life under the oppression of racism that is sustained by the law.

'Sounder', by William H. Armstrong

This is the story of an African-American boy who lives with his family. The boy's father is a sharecropper and the family is struggling through hard times. He has a dog, named 'Sounder', mixed a coon/bulldog. Sounder goes out hunting with the boy's father each and every night they come back empty handed. But one morning, to his amazement the boy wakes to the unfamiliar smell of his mother cooking a hambone. Everyone is overjoyed, but a few days later the joy is shattered as three white men arrive and take his father for stealing a ham. The sheriff cruelly shoots Sounder who chases the cart that takes his father away and life suddenly becomes even harder. But he hungers for an education and his resilience and perseverance is remarkable.

'Sounder' won the Newbery Award in 1970, and was made in to a motion picture in 1972.

'Number the Stars', by Lois Lowry

This fictitious story recounts the real life salvation of 8,000 Danish Jews who escaped to Sweden by sea. It is 1943, during the German occupation of Denmark, and ten-year-old Annemarie learns how to be brave and courageous when she helps shelter her Jewish friend from the Nazis. Annemarie and Ellen are best friends. Their life is ordinary. Annemarie is Christian and Ellen is Jewish and they are good friends. But there is a great threat from the Nazi soldiers who have invaded and are on their streets. The girls believe that the Danish King Christian will protect them. One night their families learn that all Jews of Denmark are about to be sent to concentration camps. With the help of Danish Resistance Annemarie’s family hides Ellen and attempt to get her to safety in Sweden. This is a gripping tale that will be enjoyed by 10-14 years old children.

Using the books in the classroom

The major purpose of the post is to show that there are many good books for children of all ages that focus on the theme of racism. My aim in presenting such books is straightforward.

a) I want children to experience books that offer narratives that deal authentically with the issue of racism.  The initial aim is simply for children to enjoy the book as a good story.

b) I also want children to engage with the story at a deeper level and be able to see the characters as authentic and at times to even to identify with them. This might be as a victim, or as someone who struggles to understand and deal with people other than themselves.

c) My aim is not to indoctrinate, but I do want to raise the issues, provide historical and factual details as appropriate as supplementary material.

d) I want children to have an opportunity to respond and discuss the literature as narrative and in relation to the themes and issues raised.  This might involve a variety of formats for response:
  • Structured and guided response in discussion groups
  • Free written response
  • Aesthetic response through drama, music, drawing (see for example 'Sketch to Stretch' here)
  • Opportunities for further research on time periods, events and people
One final comment. All literature needs to be experienced as narrative not as enabling material for lessons on topics that may or may not be related to the author's story and intent. I always want to trust the story to teach and try to avoid turning a wonderful narrative, with an authentic treatment of an important issue, into a series of decontextualised lessons. Such lessons can easily destroy the enjoyment of the story and fail to engage children at the deep level necessary to grasp and deal with complex life themes.

Other related resources

All previous posts on 'Key Themes in Children's Literature' HERE

Ann M. Neely (2011). Literature of Social Transformation: Helping Teachers and Students Make Global Connections. Language Arts, Vol. 88, No. 4, pp 278-287.


Denise said...

Thank you so much for posting about this topic and providing a list of great resources. Our son came to us by birth, our daughter by adoption. We are white, she is black - and we are always looking to educate ourselves more on this sad topic -throught history and in present day (although how I wish it wasn't so!)

Trevor Cairney said...

Hi Denise, thank you for your comment. The history of racism is a sad one in all nations and it is still with us. That's why we do need to raise the issues with children when they are young. So wonderful to know that you are adopting children into your family. Best wishes, Trevor

Anonymous said...

Absolute shame that racism is still so apparent in our newest generation. As a teacher working in 'all white' schools I feel it is so important to educate our children about such matters and to draw out their prejudices for them to analyse and hopefully dissolve!