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Culture & Conversation Race

It’s Never Too Soon to Teach Kids About Race and Racism. These Books Can Help.

Brittany Smith

Learning starts from birth, so whether you're a parent, guardian, educator, or caretaker, let’s work to expose our children to diversity and have conversations about race.

For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.

While we often try to preserve children’s innocence for as long as possible, that doesn’t mean we can’t have conversations about race and injustice with kids.

Whether it’s through television, family, toys, or books, we’re either promoting diversity or we’re not—so we have to be mindful of that.

Growing up, I wondered why I didn’t see more faces like mine. The teachers, coaches, and even the books that surrounded me didn’t quite resemble me or my family. By age 12, I knew I wanted to be an educator. Even then, part of me loved the idea of helping others learn, as I would practice playing school with my friends and cousins and was always delighted when it was my turn to be the teacher. Today, I am a teacher of pre-kindergarten students in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

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In the wake of the tragic killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, we have to look at ourselves as a society and examine what children are being taught about race. That’s why I shared this Twitter thread last week as a response to those who believe it’s “too early” to discuss race with kids. I hoped my suggestions would help those looking for ways to teach their children about race and racism in the United States. Children are observant. We need to give them more credit for what they perceive every day.

If we don’t have these conversations now, when do we have them? When children grow into teens and are more likely to have absorbed biases? No. Let’s have those conversations now.

Representation matters. Children need to see literature and other forms of media that represent themselves in a positive manner. It’s beneficial for their own psychological health. Children benefit from exposure to new identities and cultures. We want to raise children who are empathetic, teenagers who are accepting, and adults who are moral.

Learning starts from birth, so whether you’re a parent, guardian, educator, or caretaker, let’s work to expose our children to diversity and have conversations about race. With that in mind, here is my list of children’s books that can help prompt these conversations and teach important lessons about race and racial biases.

I Am Enough (Harper Collins)

Actress and activist Grace Byers presents a story that centers imagery of Black children that emphasizes self-acceptance and that no matter what obstacles we face, no matter our differences, we all have a right to be here. We are “enough.”

A Is for Activist (Penguin Random House) 

“A is for Activist. Advocate. Abolitionist. Ally. Actively Answering A call to Action.” Activist designer and illustrator Innosanto Nagara takes kids on a journey from A-Z promoting justice and equality featuring kids of all backgrounds. For parents and adults, it offers an accessible introduction to discuss their values. 

When I Was Eight (Annick Press

Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret-Olemaun Pokiak-Fenton describe the true story of a little girl who wants to see the outside world. Despite her father’s warnings, she ventures off and ends up in a residential school, government-sponsored boarding schools that removed Indigenous Canadian children from their homes in order to force assimilation into dominant (white) Canadian culture. This book is a children’s adaptation of the memoir Fatty Legs.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation  (Scholastic

This book by Mexican American author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh teaches kids about Sylvia Mendez, an American civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, and her family’s fight to end school segregation in California. After Mendez was denied enrollment to a whites-only school, her parents organized the Hispanic community and filed a lawsuit, all before about a decade before Brown v. Board of Education.

Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story (Lee & Low Books

Author and screenwriter Paula Yoo wrote the biography of Anna May Wong, one of the first Chinese American movie stars in Hollywood, during a time when what few roles were available for Asian Americans were stereotypical and degrading. This book celebrates Wong, who paved the way for other Asian actors. 

Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story (Tilbury House Publishers

Muslim author and photographer Reem Faruqi created a great introduction to Ramadan for kids. The story follows a young girl’s first experience of fasting during Ramadan and her worries that the other kids in her new school in a country far from her old home won’t understand why she doesn’t join them in the lunchroom.

I Am Not a Number (Second Story Press

This is the true story of an eight-year-old girl (the author’s grandmother) who went from living with her family on Indigenous Canadian land to being forced to attend a residential school. Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer describe a child’s attempt to hold onto culture while acclimating with another.

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family (Little, Brown and Company Books for Young Readers) 

Ibtihaj Muhammad, the fencer who became the first Muslim American to wear a hijab for the United States in the Olympics, and S.K. Ali tell a tale of acceptance and the journey it takes to get there. The story follows two sisters on the first day of school, one of whom is making her debut with her hijab. 

My Hair Is a Garden (Albert Whitman & Co.) 

Illustrator and designer Cozbi A. Cabrera tells the story of a Black girl who questions her worth after she gets teased about her hair. Her wise neighbor uses a metaphor to help the girl recognize that her hair is like a beautiful garden to tend to. 

IntersectionAllies: We Make Room for All (Dottir Press)

Carolyn Choi, Chelsea Johnson, and LaToya Council discuss what it means to be an ally in a world filled with diversity through the stories of nine kids from different backgrounds. Through rhyme and alliteration, this book, with a foreword by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the term “intersectionality,” fosters empathy and is a true celebration of inclusivity.

We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga (Charlesbridge Publishing

Poet Traci Sorell takes children on a journey through the seasons, following a modern-day Cherokee family as they practice family rituals, traditions, and ceremonies all throughout the year. The book infuses Cherokee words that kids can learn while teaching the importance of otsaliheliga, the phrase used to express gratitude.

Maddi’s Fridge (Independent Publishers Group

Lois Brandt’s book discusses the children facing poverty and childhood hunger. It’s an important lesson that teaches empathy and acknowledges that poverty affects families of all backgrounds.

Chocolate Milk, Por Favor (Independent Publishers Group

When a new student moves from Brazil, how can others interact with him when they don’t speak his language? Maria Dismondy and Nancy Raines Day help readers examine language barriers and how children break them while learning acceptance.

Hair Love (Penguin Random House

This book, written by filmmaker Matthew A. Cherry, takes a look at a loving father-daughter relationship through a Black girl’s hair. It’s a beautifully told story that was turned into an Academy Award-winning animated short film.

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