I'm sure many of you know I have a growing list of AAPI children's books on this blog. But how many of you know that I also have a broader working list of Anti-Bias Children's Books on Pinterest? "Long ago" before I ever had a child of my own, I was a preschool teacher. And I tried very hard to be a certain kind of preschool teacher. One that embodied open-ended, progressive and anti-biased early learning. It sounded so idyllic and beautiful - plus it looks pretty good on paper, right? I laugh at myself a little now. I was so romantic and idealistic about it at the time.The truth is (and what I discovered pretty quickly) that kind of teaching/learning is much easier said than done. There were so many depressing barriers that came from so many unexpected places. I could write a whole other blog post on it (and probably will some day). Ultimately I decided preschool teaching wasn't how I wanted to fight the "good fight." And frankly I was way too tired from having a baby at home to give a damn after a while anyway. Yes of course I left a little (or a lot) more jaded and maybe a little more cynical. But there were a handful of powerful ideas I got to add to my tool belt too. One of the most important, and one I have come to stand by and champion powerfully, is the power of children's literature to address messages of bias.
In my classrooms, despite whatever (in)visible forces conspired to push back against my attempted messages of change, story time always seemed to set itself apart as fairly impenetrable. Why? I'm still not sure entirely. Something about the power of the pen, of words, of pictures being worth a thousand words. Something about the way children's minds and imaginations are turned for a moment almost completely away from the social forces that control our world to engage with and be completely engulfed by a different script. We, as a people, love stories. It's our nature. It's a chance to escape and sometimes an opportunity to think outside our box. And there's the real gold when it comes to undoing racism. Reading books with our children can challenge our thinking in a way we don't mind and actually often enjoy. Teachable moments! Teachable moments! Teachable moments!
That said. We can't just pick up any book and learn new things. Remember my August post on the shocking racism in children's lit publishing
(if you didn't read it yet, make sure you do now). There still aren't
enough children's books representing oppressed, targeted groups. Also, a lot of kids books out there unfortunately just reinforce the messages we're trying to undo. Check out this image from a 1933 Little Golden Book version of Walt Disney's Three Little Pigs:
Notice how "good," "vulnerable," and "innocent" are embodied by a light pink, flesh-colored pig while "bad," "menacing" and "dangerous" are embodied by a deep brown shaded fox. This concept of dark, brown and/or black being evil is still something we see today not only in kids books, but toys, TV, film, etc. Do you see striking parallels with the way we tend to view different raced peoples in general in our society? I remember being at a training a few years back. I mentioned to another educator the importance of doing projects with kids using/celebrating dark colors because they're colors we tend to avoid. The teacher nodded her head thoughtfully and said, "You know that's true. In my preschool if you go to the paint cabinet, black is the only color that's always full."
And it isn't always so black and white or obvious as this. Take for instance the much more recent Global Babies, a Global Fund for Children book that's been making it's way popularly around Seattle and is often touted as a celebration of diversity:
The book represents 17 babies from 17 different cultures. I read it to my son a bunch when he was little and at first found it pretty fabulous. But after a while I got to feeling funny. Why? I sat with it a while and realized, there are two U.S. babies pictured. One is white, the other is Native. Are there Asian babies in the book too? Yes, but they're not from here. Okay seriously. In a culture where we continue to battle the idea that Asians are un-American and where discriminatory practices against Asians have centrally involved exclusion based on foreignness, I don't find this kind of book very helpful, culturally sensitive or affirming.
So what DO we do? What I took away from my preschool teaching was a belief and a practice that I continue to use today. We don't have to be activists or lobbyists to rewrite the script (though if you are, my hat is definitely off to you). We can effect every day powerful change in our individual lives just by choosing carefully what we read with our children. Learn how to identify anti-bias books. It isn't that hard! I promise. See my November 2012 post Evaluating Children's Books for Bias. Once you get the hang of it it'll become like second nature to the point you won't even have to think about it. You can also always visit my Anti-Bias Children's Pinterest List. Then once you find the books, support them -- not only through reading/buying but also by asking teachers, libraries, bookstores, families and friends, etc. to do the same.
Isn't it cool to think we could change the world one children's book at a time?