Review: 6 books to help you talk to young children about race

“Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race,” written by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli; illustrated by Isabel Roxas. Photo: HarperCollins

Earlier this year, television co-host Whoopi Goldberg was suspended for two weeks from ABC’s “The View” when, during a discussion that covered the banning of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” she contended that the Holocaust was simply about “man’s inhumanity to man. . ” Goldberg inadvertently stepped on a land mine. It went off.

Not to downplay her original and retracted argument that Hitler’s Final Solution had nothing to do with his belief in Aryan racial superiority, it seems that Goldberg was honestly reflecting her own perspective as a Black woman in America, where it’s often color that matters most.

Judging from some recent kids books on race, she is not alone in that view, and understandably so. The collective mission of these books is to counter negative stereotypes perpetrated on Black – and other non-white – kids over the centuries.

Aimed at 3- to 8-year-olds, the books are simple and focused on our still highly racialized America. They offer a necessary, even urgent, alternative: positive messaging to nurture a strong sense of self-worth. Hopefully, over time, they will be the building blocks for a broader and deeper understanding of the complexities that swirl around race, racism and identity.

Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race
Written by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli; illustrated by Isabel Roxas
(Rise x Penguin Workshop; 40 pages; $ 14.99; ages 2-5)
It’s never too young to start a conversation about race. That’s the premise of this tidy primer about skin tone, melanin, racism and activism. A mini-history lesson tells how “way before you were born, a group of white people made up an idea called race” to sort people by skin color and to say white people are better and more deserving than everybody else. Of course, the text concludes, “That is not fair or true at all!” Lively art joins with starting-point questions to optimize engagement, even for toddlers. What color is your skin? What do you love about your skin? What groups do you belong to? Everyday examples show racism at play and in school, intentional or not. All the better to recognize microaggressions! The high purpose here is to normalize a topic that remains taboo at our own peril.

“Why… A Conversation About Race,” written by Taye Diggs; illustrated by Shane W. Evans. Photo: Feiwel & Friends

Why… A Conversation About Race
Written by Taye Diggs; illustrated by Shane W. Evans
(Feiwel & Friends; 32 pages; $ 18.99; ages 5-7)
Los Angeles, Baltimore, Minneapolis. Headlines explode with reports of riots sparked by racial injustice. This provocative book goes behind the headlines. In compelling Q&A style, it gives context to race as seen through the prism of social unrest. On the first double-page spread, a conversation ensues: “Daddy.” / “Yes, my sweet boy.” / “Why are those people shouting?” / “Our people are shouting because we need to be heard.” Turn the page, and the bespectacled boy quietly responds, “Oh.” In this pattern, puzzled Black boys and girls query loving relatives about the hard to explain – why people are crying and marching, why buildings are burning. Expressive art helps lead to a haunting reveal: “The buildings burn for us.” This bold statement is not offered as an excuse for arson, but rather as an exposé of the deep pain, stalled progress and yet unrealized hopes of a frustrated people.

“A History of Me,” written by Adrea Theodore; illustrated by Erin K. Robinson. Photo: Neal Porter Books / Holiday House

A History of Me
Written by Adrea Theodore; illustrated by Erin K. Robinson
(Neal Porter Books; 32 pages; $ 18.99; ages 4-8)
“I was the only brown person in class. So, when we talked about slavery, I could feel every eye staring at me behind my back. ” A pediatrician, now turned author, recalls this childhood memory, prompted by her own daughter’s similar experience one generation later. It’s tough, a caring mother explains, to shoulder lessons about picking cotton, segregation, marches and police dogs as the designated representative of a race. Thus, this gentle talk is meant to help Black kids offset discomfort with pride derived from family and collective tales of tenacity. And all to underscore the courage, strength, intelligence and creativity of their people. From the cover on, stunning art speaks to strength. So what happens when you are proud of where you came from? An optimistic author’s note posits: “You are free to become who you are and become what you are meant to be.”

“Hey You! An Empowering Celebration of Growing Up Black, ”written by Dapo Adeola; illustrated by a variety of Black artists. Photo: Nancy Paulsen Books / Penguin Young Readers

Hey You! An Empowering Celebration of Growing Up Black
Written by Dapo Adeola; illustrated by a variety of Black artists
(Nancy Paulsen Books; 48 pages; $ 18.99; ages 4-8)
This slim book offers an enthusiastic welcome mat for Black babies, now and as they grow. Synopsis: You are loved, wonderful and curious. You have beautiful skin, choices to make and the freedom to express yourself. You stand on the shoulders of greatness. You share with other Black people joy, struggle and dreams. With remarkable cohesion, 18 Black artists expand this affirming vision to illustrate family life, school, relationships, pride and activism. Mixed in are reminders of obstacles to be faced: for example, prejudice based on skin color and racial injustice. In his foreword, the author recalls just how late he himself came to feel assured and confident in his own skin. What if the world had been a more encouraging place? He ponders that question and here creates a model of that place “in the hope that it might help future generations of Black children feel empowered and seen.”

“What I Am,” written and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan Photo: Viking

What I Am
Written and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan
(Viking; 40 pages; $ 17.99; ages 3-7)
In a public restroom, a perfect stranger once asked the author’s sister, “What are you?” How do you reply to such a nosy, objectifying and rude question? Some ideas are set down in this mini exploration of identity. Center stage is a young girl who muses on the many ways she can describe herself. “I am a girl. I am human, ”she begins, and goes from there, also declaring herself a daughter and granddaughter, pale and dark (it’s relative), selfish and generous, mean and kind, scared and brave, shy and friendly, American and Indian. With saris here and there, childlike art reveals her heritage. Much like two classics, “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester and “Skin Again” by bell hooks, this book takes a holistic approach. The conclusion: “What I am is more than I can say.” And more than we can see at a glance, as well.

“Who Are Your People ?,” written by Bakari Sellers; illustrated by Reggie Brown. Photo: Quill Tree Books

Who Are Your People?
Written by Bakari Sellers; illustrated by Reggie Brown
(Quill Tree Books; 32 pages; $ 18.99; ages 4-8)
The title question is problematic if you do not know the answer. This affirming book presents a ready answer for Black kids, focusing on a proud history. Addressed to young readers, the graceful text underscores the resilience and perseverance of “your people” – dreamers (they imagined freedom), fighters (they sat down at a segregated lunch counter), activists (they marched for equality) and trailblazers (they changed laws). A further question moves in a different direction: “Where did you come from?” One answer, set in the dramatic illustration of an antebellum cotton field, is: “You come from a land where the soil is dark and matches the richness of your skin.” Turn the page and fast-forward to an idyllic modern-day picnic for another kind of answer: “You are from the country where time moves with ease and kindness is cherished.” Maybe that’s true in the author’s home state of South Carolina, but, given today’s divisiveness, that assessment sounds more aspirational than real but something well worth going for.



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