Seven Quick Takes: Race and Picture Books

Race! And adoption! How’s that for a non-controversial start to a Friday? At least most people have no quibble with picture books.

Adopting kids of another race changes your perspective. Overt acts of racism aside, picturing myself in my kids’ shoes has made me realize how different the experience of everyday life can be for people of other races in our town. Early in our adoption process, I headed to the bookstore to pick up gifts for the babies’ half-brothers. It’s the only “new books” provider for 45 minutes around – a major national chain. At first, I reached for my favorite classic kids’ books. Maybe Mike Mulligan or Make Way for Ducklings or Ferdinand or… I flipped through the pages. In every single book, every single character was white. I paused. They’re wonderful stories, but it’d be thoughtful if the gifts showed someone of the boys’ race. I browsed through the children’s area for half an hour, growing increasingly frustrated. Almost every human character was caucasian. At best, some books portrayed a side-kick of another race. Only a handful of picture books featured an African-American or African kid as the main character, and an even tinier percentage weren’t specifically about the Civil Rights era (an important topic, but not the only one we want to read about with small kids). Of those (perhaps four or so) books, almost all were poorly written with mediocre illustrations. I walked out of the store with a new perspective and two “safe” human-free stories about construction trucks and  dinosaurs. 30-40% of our town’s population is black. What if I were an African-American five-year-old going to the bookstore? Wouldn’t I wonder why I couldn’t find a single fun story about a kid who looked like me?

On placement day we again brought gifts for the twins’ half-brothers. Remembering the bookstore experience, I headed to the toy store instead. In the aisles of superheroes and dolls and Legos and balls every human character was white. I finally, after much wandering, spotted one Playmobil set of rescue personnel with a black ambulance attendant (I bought a playdough kit). While waiting for adoption news I borrowed a few library books on caring for babies. My husband started reading through the instructions on infant care illustrated with plentiful photos. After a while he paused, paged back through a few sections, then said slowly “…all of these babies are white. None of them look like the kids we’re going to adopt.” We started over from the beginning and finally found a brown-skinned baby on page 99. She was Indian.

I don’t want to oversimplify, but for want of a better way to say it, much of our social structure assumes “whiteness” (an idea I would have scoffed at a year ago). Naturally some stories feature only white characters – Mike Mulligan is a pretty accurate reflection of a rural New England town or village. But shouldn’t that “naturally” run in two directions? We’ll be reading plenty of classics like Mike Mulligan, but I realized that I will need to search hard and carefully to build a good supplement of quality resources featuring characters who look like my kids. Knowing there are many other parents in the same boat (and plenty of families, regardless of race, who just enjoy good children’s books) the homeschooled kid and future homeschooling parent in me decided to periodically reviewing the resources we come across, both good and bad. I keep a running Pinterest page of books to try. Feel free to chime in with your recommendations or thoughts!

1)

Please, Baby, Please by Spike and Tonya Lee, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Highly recommended. A baby spends her day getting into mischief, testing her parents’ patience. The cover doesn’t do the bright, entertaining, full-page illustrations justice. The simple text is appropriate for small children. Detailed pictures draw the reader in, and we enjoy the humor as parents. Our babies can’t stop staring at the colorful pictures and trying to touch them. The Lees also wrote Please, Puppy, Please, which we’ve yet to read. Kadir Nelson illustrated a number of other books on our yet-to-try list including He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.

2)

Galimoto by Karen Lynn Williams, illustrated by Catherine Stock. Highly recommended. Kondi, a resourceful little boy in Africa, spends his day collecting wire scraps to build a galimoto (a toy vehicle). An engaging storyline with great illustrations full of details from life in a small village. Neat, also, because I saw many handcrafted toys and masterpieces from wire scraps like this when in Kenya.

3)

The Snowy Day, Peter’s Chair and the rest of the Peter series by Ezra Jack Keats. Highly recommended. Classics, and some of the very first US picture books featuring a black main character. Simple stories small kids can relate to. Creative illustrations made with Keats’ classic collage techniques.

4)

Corduroy by Don Freeman. Highly recommended. A classic most of us grew up with. A little black girl named Lisa falls in love with a bear in the store window, but can’t take him home. Corduroy spends an adventurous night in the department store before eventually finding a real home with Lisa after all. Fun, sweet and irresistible to kids.

5)

Hush Little Baby, Pegony-Po, Max Found Two Sticks, and numerous others by Brian and Andrea Pinkney. Pretty good. I have mixed feelings about these books. The Pinkneys are prolific authors and illustrators of children’s’ books featuring African American main characters. However, the quality is highly variable and despite colorful and vivid lines, the illustrations sometimes feel rather wooden. This is, perhaps, because the characters’ facial expressions rarely change no matter the mood or action in each illustration. Still, there are many more to try, the stories are clean, family-oriented, and gentle, and the pictures do capture our kids’ attention. Hush Little Baby tells, through the illustrations, a sweet story of a father and brother trying to comfort the baby of the family while Mama is off to town. We will try each potential option from the library before deciding to invest in a copy for home.

6)

Happy Christmas Gemma by Sarah Hayes, illustrated by Jan Ormerod. Recommended. Borrowed from the library at Christmas. A boy narrates preparations for Christmas and the antics of his baby sister. We both loved the illustrations. This story is nothing out of this world, just a warm, gently funny tale. A nice unique flavor, too, since the characters are a black family living in Britain with relatives in Jamaica.

7)

More More More Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams. I don’t like to give negative reviews, but this book just did not appeal to us. On the plus side (and this is actually a big, rare plus) it features families of multiple races and transracial families with a white Grandma and a black grandson. Also, it won the Caldecott Honor medal for its illustrations which have gotten rave reviews from other readers. However, my husband and I both found the illustrations rather garish/clashy and not very enjoyable to look at. We also weren’t particularly interested in the text. I found it a bit hard to pick up the right rhythm for read aloud. It’s possible our kids would like it when they’re bigger, but as parents who would have to read it over and over, we’re exercising veto power and not buying it. I suppose this is another one to get from the library and choose for yourself – tastes differ.

Images from Amazon, Goodreads, and other linked sources. Most books available on Amazon. For other Seven Quick Takes entries please visit Conversion Diary.

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29 thoughts on “Seven Quick Takes: Race and Picture Books

  1. One book that really brings a good adoption message, though done with animals, is “A Mother for Choco” by Keiko Kasza…

  2. I am a middle school librarian in a majority African American yet affluent community. It is difficult to find books for African American middle schoolers that don’t involve gangs, pregnancy, abuse or civil rights. My students don’t find themselves reflected on the pages of most books. But, a few more have started to pop up. (When the Black Girl Sings by Bil Wright is about an African American girl adopted by white parents who are now divorcing. Not for little kids, but a good middle/high book. I don’t recommend the other books by this author, though.)

    • Interesting. I’ve been so focused on finding picture books that I hadn’t even thought ahead to the (much bigger) challenges of finding African American-specific reading material for older kids. I’ll tuck that title away for future years.

  3. Thanks for sharing these; one of my best friends has two adopted bi-racial children and she would love this list! So glad I found you through quick takes.

  4. I never realized how “white” our children’s books were until I had children of different races either. I love #1, little girls I used to nanny for had that one and we read it over and over again. I also really like “Wherever you are” (just a good multicultural book in general). And “Colors of Us”, my 2 year old loves it!

  5. It’s been awhile since I was over here and wow! what a surprise, you have not only one baby but two!!!!! I really can’t believe I have missed this news, congratulations!!!{{{{}}}} Very exciting.

    and now book reflections, I never realised before, lists:) and a challenge, I’ll see what I can do.
    Recently I was reading this blog post from Sth Africa
    http://www.se7en.org.za/2013/03/18/dear-readers-of-se7en-1-you-have-built-this-library-book-by-book
    and they linked to this bookstore, now obviously some of these books are in African languages but there might be translations, though some books will be more specific to an African lifestyle
    http://www.jacana.co.za/book-categories/children-young-adults-a-libraries
    anyhow off to see what I can find for you:)

    on another note I know books for children of Native American heritage is a challenge too, I have bookmarked some NA book sites.

    Congrats once again!!!!{{{{}}}

    • Thanks Erin! That’s a great recommendation (and a very interesting blog in and of itself). We recently found a great series about a little girl in South Africa, the Jamela books. I’ve yet to review them, but they are so much fun – colorful with great illustrations and lots of color, humor, and action. I’d love to find more from there, so that link is a great place to start.

  6. An enlightening post. “The Family Nobody Wanted” is a story that sticks in my mind about adoption that I recall from childhood, but it might be pretty dated these days.

    http://pages.uoregon.edu/adoption/topics/familynobodywanted.htm

    10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes by Mem Fox; about how every child born, no matter where in the world has “10 little fingers and 10 little toes”* ok, slight disclaimer that this may not be 100% accurate.

    Here is a bit of the story behind it from Mem Fox’s website
    http://www.memfox.com/ten-little-fingers.html
    and you can read the text of the story there.

    • Thanks! I’ll take a look. You’re the second person to mention Mem Fox to me – we need to check out her books. I’d never heard of her until posiepatchwork (do you read her?) mentioned her work but it looks like she writes a lot of picture books with a multicultural focus – perfect for us!

  7. Wow! What great lists. Thanks so much! Definitely something we’ve realized since starting to hunt and compile “books to try” lists – the good books are out there, just not necesarily being sold in the stores. Internet shopping can be a real gift that way.

  8. We LOVE Please Baby Please!!! Sailor will point at the hair on every page (and I say, “oh, pretty hair!”). We also have The Snowy Day, but they haven’t been too interested in that one yet.

    • I, personally, am also not that interested in The Snowy Day. I’m just not into the collage-y art, but I figure it’s still a good book even if not 100% my cup of tea.

  9. oh i’m so glad you mentioned Ezra Keats – i LOVE Snowy Day. We also own Courdory and actually, Ezra Keats has a lovely Little Drummer Boy book for Christmas time 🙂

    http://www.amazon.com/Little-Drummer-Ezra-Jack-Keats/dp/0140567437

    it comes in board book 🙂

    i’m going to have to check into these other books, they look great! i love especially the Christmas one, just b/c I’ve always loved “Christmas around the world” type stuff, so it will be nice to add.

    • Ooh – I saw Little Drummer Boy at the store this Christmas and loved it – actually a lot more than I like Snowy Day. I didn’t buy it then but we’ll have to put that on the list for Grandma requests for next Christmas :-).

    • Thanks so much for the extra suggestions, Erin! Funnily enough, I just started following Sprouts Bookshelf on Pinterest a few weeks ago and just saw that they pinned one of your posts on Native American reading resources this morning. How’s that for full circle?

      • I know, talk about shocked, and honoured.

        I keep finding more for you actually but wasn’t sure if you are sick of me. You’ve really had my brain going in this whole area, and now I’ve been considering other ethnic groups. And I really should research more of our own Australian Aboriginals, mind you so much of their history, etc is oral, not a deluge of books.

  10. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes: African-American Picture Books, Part 2 | Yellow Pencil Stub

  11. A few books you might be interested in are these:
    1) A Child’s Calendar, written by John Updike and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. It features a multicultural family’s adventures through the months and seasons of the year.
    2) Bearskin, a classic tale written by Howard Pyle and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This story features a beautiful princess, who happens to be black with lovely hair that is full of natural curl, and the miller’s son (whose ethnicity is slightly ambiguous – he looks maybe Native American?) whom she eventually falls in love with and
    marries. Again, a multicultural cast of characters.
    3) Phoebe the Spy, written by Judith Berry Griffin. An exciting, true story of the American Revolution about a family of free blacks who owned a tavern that Patriots frequented, including General George Washington. Phoebe was the tavern owner’s daughter, called on to spy for the American cause. A great story for early readers.
    4) Speaking of Saint stories, look for picture books about Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Josephine Bakhita.
    Hope this helps!

    • A few books you might be interested in are these:
      1) A Child’s Calendar, written by John Updike and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. It features a multicultural family’s adventures through the months and seasons of the year.
      2) Bearskin, a classic tale written by Howard Pyle and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. This story features a beautiful princess, who happens to be black with lovely hair that is full of natural curl, and the miller’s son (whose ethnicity is slightly ambiguous – he looks maybe Native American?) whom she eventually falls in love with and
      marries. Again, a multicultural cast of characters.
      3) Phoebe the Spy, written by Judith Berry Griffin. An exciting, true story of the American Revolution about a family of free blacks who owned a tavern that Patriots frequented, including General George Washington. Phoebe was the tavern owner’s daughter, called on to spy for the American cause. A great story for early readers.
      4) Speaking of Saint stories, look for picture books about Saint Martin de Porres and Saint Josephine Bakhita.
      Hope this helps!
      P.S. – A board book you might like for your children is “Baby Angels” by Jane Cowen-Fletcher (1996, The Candlewick Press), which features baby angels of every race and color, whose job it is to watch over little children here on earth.
      A good picture book about St. Martin de Porres is titled “A Rose in the Desert.”
      I know this is late but hope you find it helpful all the same. Good luck!

    • Thanks so much for the suggestions! I hadn’t heard of several of these, but am off to add them to the library list. We love Trina Schartt Hyman’s illustrations in St. George and the Dragon, and I grew up on Howard Pyle’s historical adventure books so the combination sounds perfect!

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