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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.