Understanding the African American experience is not just about learning about suffering, it's also about celebrating a vibrant culture and its roots across the millennia. Paula Young Shelton, author of Child of the Civil Rights Movement, recommends the best antiracist books for kids.
Your book, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, is a family favorite in our house, for the lyricism of the prose, its introduction to antiracism and its lessons about citizenship. You wrote the book, from your vantage point as the daughter of parents who were central to the Civil Rights Movement. Please tell me about it.
Child of the Civil Rights Movement is semi-autobiographical. It follows my experience growing up in a civil rights family. My dad, Andrew Young, worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during much of the Movement. My book focuses on their work organizing the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a march which I participated in when I was about six years old. The march was instrumental to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which made the right to vote a reality for African Americans in the South.
Do you recall which antiracist books were read to you by your parents, your Uncle Martin or other members of your Civil Rights family when you were a kid?
The books that I most recall, which fostered my identity as an African American were books of poetry. Books by Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni and Langston Hughes. Reading their poetry was essential to me having a really strong, positive identity. And that’s part of antiracism, African Americans believing in themselves and other people recognizing the strength and beauty that African Americans contribute to this world.
What criteria shaped your list?
Just choosing five books is hard, so I focused on books that were relevant for my first-grade students. So this list is targeted toward an elementary age group. Lots of books that I read in my classroom feature African American children, but many of them are not written by African Americans. While those books are important, especially now, it is essential for us to share our own stories and our own perspective. So all the books on this list are written by African Americans about African American children.
Let’s begin with In Your Hands by Carole Boston Weatherford, who has authored more than fifty books, including many prize winners.
But this book, In Your Hands, is special. It’s a touching story about a mother and a child who happened to be African American. The mother has all the same dreams that any mother has for her child, but she also is attuned and worried about how the world will perceive her child. This is something I could identify with as a mother. And this book is as much for the adult reading it as it is for the child.
“I want children to understand, from a very young age, that we all have to work together for a better tomorrow”
In many children’s books, the illustrations are brash and bright in color. These illustrations are light and warm tones. To me, it really embodies the warmth between a mother and child.
Weatherford has written numerous books in verse. It seems that a lot of America’s finest verse kidlit is written by Black people. I am thinking of Kwame Alexander, Jason Reynolds, Elizabeth Acevedo and so many more. Your prose is so lyrical it seems like poetry, even if you don’t call it verse. Is there something about verse that is uniquely suited to antiracist books for kids?
Rhythm and music is so much a part of African American culture. I suspect that some of these books just naturally came out with a poetic rhythm, which is part of what makes them wonderful to read. Children particularly enjoy hearing rhythm and rhyme in the books.
Jacqueline Woodson, winner of multiple Newbery Honors and nearly innumerable other prizes, also often works in verse. You’ve selected her The Day You Begin on your list of antiracist books for kids. Please tell me about it.
This beautifully and brightly illustrated book is about a little girl entering into a new world. It could be a classroom or it could be anything. It features this beautiful African American girl with big, beautiful hair, talking about her expectations about entering someplace new and her thoughts about how she might be received. She eventually figures out how to make herself seen and heard.
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I read The Day You Begin at the beginning of my first grade year and leave the book prominently displayed through the year, because it captures what a lot of children go through as they experience new things. We all experience so many similar things and yet we each bring a different perspective, different expectations and different fears.
The Day You Begin is intended for early elementary-aged children. You teach at Georgetown Day School, which was founded in 1945 to provide integrated antiracist education. How is antiracism incorporated into its early years curriculum?
It is part of our mission to be really inclusive and to teach history from all perspectives. So in first grade is we have a civil rights curriculum. We learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. We teach about the Civil Rights Movement. We also focus on child activists, like Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to integrate her school. We showcase stories of children standing up for themselves. It can be very inspirational to a young child.
I Am Enough by Grace Byers, is up next.
I Am Enough is a new book for me. It talks about recognizing that you are enough and that we are all enough, that we all deserve to be loved and respected and appreciated for who we are. It’s a lovely story with beautiful illustrations of its central character, an African American girl with big natural hair. It promotes self love to African Americans, but I also hope it promotes an appreciation for the beauty of African Americans by others.
Although it has a generally uplifting message, it seems like all the characters in it are girls. As an educator, do you find that there’s also a need for an anti-sexist curriculum and books for little girls?
Absolutely. You’ll notice my selections feature African American girls. When I looked for books that feature boys, they were either for older boys or were written by white authors. There’s definitely an absence of positive images for African American boys in early childhood books. So we have to be careful what messages we’re sending to our girls and our boys.
Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, by John Steptoe, is a Caldecott Honor and Reading Rainbow book.
This is one of my favorite stories. I used to read it every year, as part of a unit on Cinderella stories. It is based on an African folktale. John Steptoe is a very gifted artist, he illustrates the African village so evocatively. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters gives another perspective on beauty, outer beauty and inner beauty. In this particular Cinderella story the Prince chooses one of Mufaro’s daughters not only because of her physical beauty but because he’s seen how kind and giving she is to others. So there’s a focus on the inner beauty as well. And I just love this story because it’s a great folktale.
Do you believe that greater familiarity with books about African culture has an antiracist effect on kids?
Absolutely. I think we should be careful to teach kids not only about the pain and suffering of Black people, which there has been a lot of. Kids should also be exposed to the positive side of African ancestry. Familiarity with the great kingdoms that existed, and the great technology developed and the great science that was done in African civilizations helps people recognize the great talents in this race of people that goes back millennia.
The final recommendation on your list of antiracist books for kids is Milo’s Museum by Zetta Elliott.
This is a touching story of a child who recognizes that she’s not being represented in museums, so she creates her own museum that represents her family and her community. A lot of people can identify with this story.
At Georgetown Day School you teach first-grade students that they, like you, can become activists while they’re still little.
Children of color need to recognize that they have the power to make change. All children need to recognize that, when they observe injustice happening, they can do something to change it. It’s important for African Americans to take on their own struggles and have white allies to support them. I want children to understand, from a very young age, that we all have to work together for a better tomorrow.
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