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 '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).
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
'Peaceful Protest: The Life of Nelson Mandela' by Yona Zeldis McDonough & illustrated by Malcah Zeldis
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
3. Older Readers (Aged 12 to 14+ years)
'Requiem for a Beast' by Matt Ottley
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”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.
“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”
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
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
'Sounder', by William H. Armstrong
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
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
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.