book list, race, social studies, social-emotional

Book List: Race in America

I have been increasingly ashamed of the various state legislatures around America who have chosen to devote their energy to eliminating meaningful classroom instruction for people of color. Framed as “Critical Race Theory,” which is a legal theory, not an elementary school concept, these racists intend to hide the truth and promote white supremacy. While activism in some corners has been successful, sadly, in other spots, the majority seem to be clamoring for censorship. Not talking about race as an educator is to do a disservice to your students. Part of me is pleased I walked away from teaching in Tennessee when I did, but I can’t help but feel deeply saddened by the students who will have their history hidden from them. If you are a teacher who refuses to hide the truth, these books provide a fantastic jumping-off point.

We Came To America (Knopf Books for Young Readers)
Written & Illustrated by Faith Ringgold

For ages: 4-8
A perfect place to start a conversation about race with children is in the history of immigration to the United States. Faith Ringgold, the author of many fantastic children’s books, including Tar Beach, uses her folk art style to talk about the excellent diversity immigration has brought to the U.S. She points out that Indigenous people were already here when Europeans arrived. She also doesn’t hide that many Black people’s ancestors came to America as enslaved people. Every shade of humanity is presented here, with many facets of their cultures on display. It’s never too early to help students understand the melting pot that America is and should continue to be.

Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race (Rise x Penguin Workshop)
Written by Megan Madison & Jessica Ball
Illustrated by Isabel Roxas

For ages: 2-5
This board book is a beautiful introduction to the concept of race. What I love most is that from the start, the text points out that race is an idea constructed by people and doesn’t have a foothold in the natural world. The presence of melanin in our skin is explained beautifully too. For such a simple book, on the surface, it tackles every primary idea and gives clear definitions. It doesn’t even shy away from letting students know what white supremacy is and why that ideology is harmful and unsound. The book concludes by empowering children to be a change in the world, embrace diversity, and work to include everyone in the conversation.

Hands Up! (Puffin Books)
Written by Breanna J. McDaniel
Illustrated by Shane W. Evans

For ages: 4-8
Author Breanna McDaniel tackles how the term “hands up” has come to have highly negative connotations among black children due to the rampant instances of police violence and murder in their communities. Here she reframes putting your hands up as part of play; we see children playing peekaboo, raising their arms to get dressed, choosing books from high on the library shelves, and even doing ballet. McDaniel acknowledges the scary part of being told to put your hands up but reminds the reader that many hands were raised in response to those violent events, holding signs of protest against a broken system and supporting the victims. Raising our hands is ultimately seen as a statement of hope and justice.

Don’t Touch My Hair! (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written and Illustrated by Sharee Miller

For ages: 4-8
At the intersection of race & consent is a common problem for Black women. Some white people feel they can touch Black women’s hair without permission. Aria is the charming protagonist, a little girl who loves her big curly hair but doesn’t want people pawing at her without her consent. Throughout the story, she talks about how much she had to do to avoid those hands, doing somersaults, karate kicks, and even curling up in the fetal position. Author Sharee Miller can find silliness and fun within this subject and seriously tell people to keep their hands to themselves. This is a fantastic book both for young girls who deal with this and to remind handsy friends always to ask and respect the person.

Skin Again (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
Written by bell hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

For ages: 4-8
This is probably the most conceptually challenging book on this list. Still, it is one that I think should be accessible to children. If you are unfamiliar with who bell hooks was, she was an author and social activist who looked at the intersection of race, feminism, and class in America. Some of her words are presented here with illustrations that help explore abstract topics. For example, the concept of skin is presented not just as the shades humans present but also as snakeskin and onion skin, coverings that can change. The ultimate message here from the late hooks is that skin is merely one characteristic used to define people and should not be the final word on who a person is. Skin should be celebrated.

Something Happened in Our Town (Magination Press)
Written by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard
Illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin

For ages: 4-8
The previous books on this list have dealt more with abstract concepts or microaggressions. However, this book tackles children’s relationships with racial violence in their communities from white and Black perspectives. A little white girl overhears her family discussing the recent murder of an unarmed Black man by local police. She is perplexed, and they do a fantastic job explaining that police are not perfect, that frequently Black people are unfairly targeted, and that it is up to them as allies to be involved. On the other side, we see a Black boy going through similar conversations with his family but shaped by their up-close experiences with systemic racism. All of it is handled so beautifully by the three authors who hold PhDs in children’s behavioral health and social justice.

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness (Dottir Press)
Written and Illustrated by Anastasia Higginbotham

For ages: 5-12
While previous books on this list have aimed at mixed audiences or Black children specifically, this one is intended to speak directly to white children. This is the type of book the cowards in leadership positions throughout the U.S. are terrified of because it calmly and logically lays out the history of white supremacy as an underlying piece of American history. The little girl in the center of the story gets snippets of what is happening through television broadcasts. Still, she has a parent that wants to avoid any meaningful conversation. The little girl understands that her parent’s dodge of “not seeing color” is silly. You can’t help but see the differences between people; we should see that as a positive, not negative. Everything is handled perfectly; Higginbotham isn’t interested in cute euphemisms but knows she’s speaking to a young audience. This is an excellent book for white families who want to address racial violence in America but are unsure how to start.

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