Using Children’s Books to Discuss Racism & Discrimination

Recent events following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have held a mirror up to the world and forced us all to confront the reality we live in. While some might like to think that we live in an equal world, these murders are the latest in a long line of unlawful killings of African American people in America at the hands of law enforcement. Sparking a worldwide conversation about race relations, change needs to happen. It may be painful and uncomfortable, but it must happen now.

Racism and discrimination are not issues that exist only in America. Although Irish people like to insist we are the land of the Céad Míle Fáilte, we all know this is far from the truth. Asylum Seekers and Refugees are left in limbo year upon year in Direct Provision, Irish Travellers who live on halting sites often do so in unsafe and unsanitary conditions and reports of racism and xenophobia often occur without prosecution from the Gardaí. As a country, we need to strive to do better also.

White people have created the problem of racism and so must be the ones to dismantle it. It is up to white parents and teachers to address these issues in the home and the classroom and to open a dialogue with children to discuss the uncomfortable realities that living in a racist world creates. Children need to learn about racism in the current world, not just in a historical context. While this may seem like a difficult topic to address openly with young children, please remember that parents of non-white children do not have the luxury of avoiding broaching this topic from a young age with their children. This conversation is not about being comfortable, it is about building an awareness of the inequality in the world around us and striving to improve it.

I have always been mindful to make this small space on the internet as inclusive as possible, but there is always room for improvement. I have worked with children from all kinds of backgrounds and walks of life and try to seek out stories with these children in mind. The problem of racism cannot be solved in children’s books, but it is a safe place we can start these conversations; it is a place where we can actively seek to make more diverse; it is a space that we can strive to ensure that all children feel welcome.

Below are a list of stories that may help to facilitate conversations about the racism and discrimination often faced by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people. I tried to feature as many stories and perspectives as I could, but this list is only a sample of what is available in terms of fiction and will not be the only entry I make on this subject. I am keenly aware that many other similar lists to this exist and also I’m aware that I am writing from a white middle-class perspective, but I have tried to be as mindful as possible of this. I am open to any questions, comments or observations on my selection, as always I am still learning and listening with the best of intentions.

 

Along Came a Different

Tom McLaughlin

Bloomsbury

The Reds are very content being Red, the Yellows are more than happy to be yellow and the Blues are joyous about being blue. The big problem is, they don’t like each other – at all. Then one day a very different Different comes along with a new perspective that changes everything. A good story to approach differences of all kinds with young children and remind them that though people are often different, we are never too different to form friendships with each other.  (2-4 or 5-8 Years)

Mixed

Aree Chung

MacMillan

The Blues, Reds and Yellows all live separate harmonious lives until one of them declares they are the best colour bringing about conflict and separation in their world. But one day, a Yellow and Blue become inseparable and together, they create a new colour. Will the other colours be able to forget their differences and create new bonds instead? A great story that explores sharing ideas and culture serving as a lovely reminder that we are all better together. (2-4 or 5-8 Years)

All Are Welcome

Alexandra Penfold Illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman

Bloomsbury

A perfect resource for every teacher, this picture book follows a group of children through their school day and is reflective of the inclusive and welcoming atmosphere schools should have. Featuring children in pataks, hijabs, yarmulkes and traditional dress, all of the students present learn from each other’s traditions and grow as a united community in school. A beautiful picture book that reminds me of my time working in primary school settings, this drives home the message that all traditions and children should be welcomed and celebrated in schools. (2-4 or 5-8 Years)

The Journey

Francesca Sanna

Flying Eye Books

When the war begins to slowly seep into their life and claims their father, two children must accompany their mother on a long and dangerous journey to freedom. Inspired by the personal stories and journeys of children the author met in a refugee center in Italy, The Journey is reflective of how far many people have to travel in order to find peace and safety. An excellent story for promoting empathy and explaining the refugee crisis to young children. (Age 5-8)

The Proudest Blue

Ibtihaj Muhammad with with SK Ali Illustrated by Hatem Aly

Little Brown Books

It’s Faizah’s first day at school and she is excited to show off her light-up shoes and new backpack. It is also a special day for her older sister, Asiya, her first day of hijab. While Faizah sees her sister’s bright blue hijab as beautiful and a proud celebration of her faith, not everyone agrees and both girls must learn to be strong and proud of their beliefs in the face of adversity. A great story from an Olympic medalist, this is perfect for girls who are transitioning to wearing hijab full-time, or simply to help others understand this demonstration of faith. (Age 5-8)

This Giant Tent

The Children of Scoil Íosa and Involve Youth Project Ballina

with Mary Branley and Cas McCarthy

Kids’ Own Publishing 

A project between Kids’ Own Publishing, The National Museum of Ireland, Involve Youth Project and Scoil Íosa in Ballina, this colourful and unique book brings together artwork and stories created in response to the Travellers’ Journey/Mincéir Misli’d exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland. Featuring responses from children of all backgrounds, including Traveller children, this is a vibrant celebration of identity and culture. The children worked on this project with writer Mary Branley and artist Cas McCarthy to create a truly profound and eye-catching publication. It should also be noted that, although currently out of stock, Kids’ Own Publishing have also created another publication, Through the Eyes of Traveller Children, sharing the life experiences of Traveller children from Dungarvan in Waterford. Both would serve as excellent resources for exploring Traveller culture and what it means to be a Traveller in Ireland today. (Age 9-11)

The Boy at the Back of the Class

Onjali Q. Rauf

Orion Children’s Books

When a new boy takes a seat at the back of the class, he seems strange at first. But Alexa, Josie, Tom and Michael soon learn that Ahmet is a refugee who has escaped from war but had to leave his parents behind. Luckily, they have a great idea about how to help him. Considering the fact that many children share their classrooms with children who may be refugees, this heartwarming story succeeds in encouraging empathy and understanding while promoting the idea of reaching out to children who may be in a similar position to Ahmet. (Age 9-11)

Ghost Boys

Jewell Parker Rhodes

Orion Children’s Books

Nobody ever notices Jerome, he goes to school, comes home and keeps his head down – until now. When a police officer mistakes his toy gun for a real one, Jerome is shot and killed. Now as a ghost, he watches over his family and community as they try to come to terms with his murder. Soon he starts to notice the other ghost boys, each one with a story of their own, many with a story that has something in common with his. Inspired by the death of twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, this story explores the tough reality that African American boys are treated with suspicion and violence by law enforcement in America, even from a young age. An emotional, but necessary read, the author links past and present in this story that drives home the urgent need for change in race relations in America. (Teen 12-14 Years)

The Pavee and The Buffer Girl

Siobhan Dowd Illustrated by Emma Shoard

Barrington Stoke

When Jim and his family halt at Dundray, the people of the town and the children in his school are not happy to make his community part of theirs. Faced with name-calling and bullying, Jim is isolated and alone, until he forms a friendship with local girl, Kit. But as tensions rise, will their friendship be enough to keep Jim safe? A graphic novel that is also suitable for dyslexic readers, this is a short but powerful story. A poignant exploration of the discrimination faced by Travellers, Gypsies and Roma people, this is a powerful and moving story that highlights the importance of kindness. (Teen 12-14 Years)

Love, Hate and Other Filters

Samira Ahmed

Hot Key Books

Maya Aziz dreams of being a filmmaker in New York City, but her parents have other ideas. They would like Maya to be a traditional, dutiful daughter and to date a nice boy from the right kind of family. Stuck between what she wants for herself and what her parents envision for her future, everything changes suddenly with a terrorist who shares her last name strikes a city a hundred miles away. An exploration of Islamophobia in a post 9-11 America, this is a multifaceted coming of age story. Family ties and relationships are emotionally explored, as well as prejudice, racism and the power of the media. (Young Adult)

Who Do You Think You Are?

Pauline Burgess

Poolbeg Press

Magda is struggling to adapt to life in Belfast since moving from Poland. Made to feel unwelcome by her classmates and her local community, she wishes she could hide out with her beloved Grandfather, who also spends his time daydreaming about returning to Poland. But when she is befriended by Sophie, a far more popular girl, could her fortunes be changing? Will Magda be able to settle into life in Belview College, or are Sophie’s intentions as pure as they seem? The difficulties of teenage friendship are explored here through the lens of someone adapting to a new culture, country and language. This novel is a great exploration of xenophobia and loneliness that can be experienced by children moving to a new country and opens a dialogue on how Irish people may treat people who are new to their community. (Young Adult)

The Poet X

Elizabeth Acevedo

Electric Monkey

Xiomara is only comfortable expressing herself through her fierce attitude, keeping her true feelings protected from those around her. But when a poetry slam class provides X with the spotlight she needs to express herself, she realises she cannot stay silent anymore. Winner of the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2019 and the Waterstones Children’s Book prize, as well as many more awards, this perfectly crafted verse novel is an unforgettable pageturner. Beautiful, lyrical and powerful, this is a story of finding your voice that is a fantastic read for anyone interested in identity and intersectional feminism. (Young Adult)

Dear Martin

Nic Stone

Simon & Schuster

Justyce is a 17-year-old prep school student on a fast track to an Ivy League University and a law degree thanks to his immaculate academic record, extracurricular activities and high test scores. However, none of this matters to the police officer who arrests him without question as he attempts to help his drunk ex-girlfriend. Angry and confused, Justyce begins a journal of letters to Dr Martin Luther King Jr in order to use his teachings to try to make sense of the world he lives in. An extremely relevant examination of what it means to be a young black man in America. Nic Stone interrogates race relations in an honest and eye-opening text that links the Civil Rights movement with the current Black Lives Matter movement. (Young Adult)

Piecing Me Together

Renée Watson

Bloomsbury

Jade has always been told to take every opportunity that comes her way, this means she has to take the long journey from her neighbourhood to her private school everyday, even if it does make her feel like an outsider. Forced to take part in a mentoring programme for ‘at risk girls’ in order to further her chances for a college scholarship, Jade refuses to believe that even if her mentor is also black, there is any way that she can relate to her. Just like the collages Jade creates throughout this story, this is an exploration of identity and belonging that has many layers. The interactions between race, class and the social dynamics caused by these are explored in this insightful story featuring a deeply compelling protagonist. (Young Adult)

 

 

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