Friday, August 14, 2015

Race, Racism & Equality: Children's Books for all Ages

It is difficult to grow up in any urban area within any open society without being confronted by people different from yourself. Whether it's social class, race, ethnicity and language, we can all feel isolated and different. In fact, even different cultural and social practices as basic as fashion and popular culture, can make us feel unequal.  I've written previously on racism, civil rights and also 'The Other' because these are critical themes for children to tussle with. I suspect that while schools have been good at stressing and celebrating multiculturalism, there is potential and perhaps an imperative to push the boundaries to more explicitly address racism and equality. 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 these issues. Many of them have appeared on this blog at some earlier stage and some are new. I hope that as a collection they will be a good resource. 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)

'My Two Blankets' written by Irena Kobald and illustrated by Freya Blackwood (Little Hare Books)

This is the story of a young girl called Cartwheel. She leaves her war-ravaged country and heads for somewhere seen as safe. But the new country is so strange and foreign that she is confused and wonders who she is. She finds comfort in a metaphorical blanket. This is a blanket of words and sounds. A young girl offers her friendship and teaches her some words. Cartwheel takes these words and begins to create a new blanket. This is a blue-grey blanket of angular sounds. And from these words and sounds she learns new things. At first it is all too hard, but over time her angular world develops a smoother and more comfortable form and is as warm and familiar as her old blanket.

Freya Blackwood is a brilliant illustrator and she takes this complex text and weaves her magic to create a very special book. In the illustrator's words:

"The metaphorical blanket was a difficult concept to illustrate and took me a long time to solve. But I was really attracted to the idea of a visual interpretation of feelings, sounds and words."

'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.

The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles

When Ruby Bridges was 6-years-old, she was the only African American student to attend a newly desegregated school in Louisiana.  Her extraordinary ability to withstand a hostile environment while viewing her tormentors (adult and child) with forgiveness makes her an inspiration to us all. I devoted an entire post to this story as well as books about this remarkable life that demonstrates how racism can be conquered. My post on Ruby Bridges and civil rights can be read HERE.

'The Beatitudes: From Slavery to Civil Rights' by Carole Boston and illustrated by Tim Ladwig

Since the earliest days of slavery, African Americans have called on their religious faith in the struggle against oppression.  In this book the Beatitudes -- from Jesus' famous Sermon on the Mount -- form the backdrop for Carole Boston Weatherford's powerful free-verse poem that traces the African American journey from slavery to civil rights.

Tim Ladwig's stirring illustrations showcase a panorama of heroes in this struggle, from the slaves shackled in the hold of a ship to the first African American president taking his oath of office on the steps of the United States Capitol. 

This is a remarkable picture book that can be read at many levels. Tim Ladwig's stunning images of the oppressed African Americans in the 18th century as they clung to all that they had, life and a faith based on love and hope are set against the famous text of the Beatitudes. Carole Boston takes the beatitudes and addresses them to African Americans of these dark times:

I was with Harriet Tubman when she fled slavery.
As she led others out of bondage,
I was the star guiding them north.....

Suitable for readers aged 6 to 12 years

2. Independent Readers (aged 9 to 12 years)

'Courage Has No Color: The True Story of the Triple Nickles. America’s First Black Paratroopers' Tanya Lee Stone (Candlewick Press, 2013)

This is a true story that has been a long time coming. It tells in a fair but powerful way of the racism that has often existed in armed forces around the world. Americans may well have heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, but few would know of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion - the Triple Nickle. These were the first US black paratroopers. They showed that black soldiers could do anything their white counterparts could do. The text and over 100 carefully labelled photographs in this 150 page book offer us an insight into how some brave and persistent African American men paved the way for others to be a full part of the US armed forces.

Tanya Lee Stone (author of 'Almost Astronauts') has done extensive research to tell her true story for readers of all ages. Boys in particular will love reading and looking at the historic photos. The work took Stone almost 10 years and the meticulous care and passion shows in this wonderful book. This amazing story will challenge all readers irrespective of age, race or ethnicity. The book recently won the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction. It is a very worthy winner.

'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)

'Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice' by Phillip Hoose.

This multi-award winning book - including being named as a Newbery Honour book in 2010 - is about Claudette Colvin. On March 2, 1955, this inspirational teenager, fed up with the daily injustices of Jim Crow segregation, refused to give her seat to a white woman on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Instead of being celebrated, as Rosa Parks would be just nine months later, fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin found herself shunned by her classmates and dismissed by community leaders. Undaunted, a year later she dared to challenge segregation again as a key plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, the landmark case that struck down the segregation laws of Montgomery and swept away the legal underpinnings of the Jim Crow South.

The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis

This is a wonderful work of historical fiction written by Christopher Paul Curtis in 1995. It was republished in 1997. It tells the story of an African-American family living in the town of Flint, Michigan that goes to their grandmother’s home in Birmingham, Alabama. This middle-class black family move to Grandma's because she's strict and they hope she will sort him out over summer. But they happen to be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown up, the 16th Street Baptist Church.

The book was Curtis’ first novel, and was named as a Newbery Honour book and won the Coretta Scott King Award. Curtis is also the author of the Newbery Award winner Bud, Not Buddy. 

It was released as a film in 2013 HERE

'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.

'The Slave Dancer' by Paula Fox

This book tells the story of a boy called Jessie Bollier who witnessed first-hand the savagery of the African slave trade. The book not only includes an historical account, but it also touches upon the emotional conflicts felt by those involved in transporting the slaves from Africa to other parts of the world. The book received the Newbery Medal in 1974.

'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 books as good stories.

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.

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