Let’s Talk About Elephants, Children’s books and Race

photo of Martin Luther King Jr. memorial

As you might be able to tell from our book and characters – Maya and Leela, we love elephants.  Even those bigger, tricky figurative elephants in the room like say- race.

Headlines abound ranging from horrendous racially charged run-ins with the law often involving youngsters of color, to the recent uncomfortable, fascinating perplexity that is Rachel Dolezal. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be large scale efforts to really sit down, think and express around race in America. However poorly manifested, I applaud Howard Schultz’s courage to attempt a dialogue of some form (his forums within Starbucks were apparently much more effective). After all, if we shy away from what’s hard and uncomfortable, how can we preach and teach otherwise, especially to our kids?

So in that spirit, I’m going to talk about it here in the context of children’s books and I welcome your input via comments below!

My son is now four, and as you may already know from our work, it’s really important to me to expose him to as much diversity in visual and written content as possible. For that reason, we started looking for all sorts of picture books. Two of them in particular that we had found,were related to African American history. One was about Martin Luther King, Jr., and the other – Harriet Tubman (fantastic book by the way called, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom) The book about Martin Luther King talked about his childhood and how he was treated differently because of the color of his skin. The book on Tubman talked about her suppression and how through her faith (I’m not Christian but I am spiritual and I generally appreciated the inclusion) she was able to overcome many obstacles to free herself and others.

Though I found both books enriching, I noticed an interesting challenge or perhaps opportunity. Until these books telling fuller stories of our history, I’m pretty sure my son with South Asian American parents, does not quite get any distinctions, and associated societal judgements) based on skin color yet. Though a little more homogeneous than ideal, he has a fairly diverse set of friends at school, and I don’t think he gives too much attention to the difference that may exist. In reading these books, I loved the exposure but wondered about introducing historical perceptions and stereotypes to him at this age. In an adult book called Whistling Vivaldi, the author, Claude Steele talks about how we may not develop an identification with our particular race/ethnicity until we are a bit older and not just seen as children, but perhaps have an experience where we are treated differently and most often, poorly, because of a particular attribute we possess (skin color, etc).

That said, as a parent, I asked myself, at this age, will this somehow plant a seed? Could this adversely affect his own sense of identity at this young age and whatever may be tagged in being a little brown boy? In addition to a parent, what is my role as an author and a publisher who believes in the importance in navigating this? How should we navigate this?

I don’t have any answers and I’m not really into combing through studies and research to solely base my decisions on children’s circumstances that are very rarely the same. But for myself and my son, I decided that we should keep on reading, but we also keep on talking things through openly and honestly however difficult. Equally important and perhaps key. At its essence, the books on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman were about people that had been treated unfairly and their stories of strength, resilience and their contribution towards lifting up our world. We always have a chance to do better. As someone who is creating content, thoughtfulness to the choice of words in such contexts becomes even more important.

I guess it goes back to the idea that what is right may not be easy. But it’s right. Welcome all of your thoughts, ideas and experiences on this (post comments below or engage elsewhere). And look forward to learning and navigating with all of you for the sake of ourselves and the kiddos that are very often, following our lead.

Posted on: July 16, 2015, by : littleloka