Five Books About…Racism and Systemic Injustice

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Kids see the signs everywhere — in neighborhoods and social media, in life, in chalk, on cardboard: Black Lives Matter, Hate is Taught, All Mothers Were Summoned When He Called out for His Mama. It’s clearer than ever that we all need to take action. We need to talk to kids about racism, especially when they’re young—according to a Healthy Children study, internalized racism can begin as early as age two.

The following books take on systemic injustice in age appropriate ways without pulling any punches or looking away. They validate children’s inherent love of fairness, connect with the reality of four centuries of oppression, atrocities and white supremacy while providing tools to help them (and us) make things better. We’ve got a long way to go, but reckoning with our history through the pages of the books that follow is a good place to start.

A loving approach to equality and the universality of what every person wants—to be cherished, accepted and happy. Author Michael Tyler’s rhyming cadence brings to mind Dr. Seuss’ Sneetches, but the book is more straightforward and sweet about how, under our skins, we’re all the same.

Also Great: Hair Love, I am Enough, No! My First Protest Book

Tamika loves theater and performing, until she auditions for the role of Snow White and overhears the other kids whispering about her “She can’t be Snow White! She’s too tall! She’s much too chubby and she’s too brown.” Ashley Franklin’s book crackles with hope and Ebony Glenn’s illustrations perfectly capture motion and the energy lost when kids are made to feel insecure. The power of positive parenting for shifting how we feel about ourselves comes through loud and clear, hitting all the right notes.

Also Great: A Kid’s Book About Racism, Little People Big Dreams: Maya Angelou, Counting on Katherine, Let’s Talk About Race

Kwame Alexander’s Caldecott winning ode to the resilience of the human spirit is deceptively simple, but has everything you need to start nuanced conversations about the history of black oppression. Each page corresponds to a paragraph giving more information in an appendix (it’s worth reading before you share with your children for context if your knowledge of history is, like most of us, less than perfect). Be ready to define unspeakable, because the book goes there and kids will ask.

Also Great: Momma Did You Hear the News? Sulwe, Those Shoes, Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

Author Monica Clark-Robinson personifies the historical facts of the Children’s Crusade and keeps it unsentimental: “Birmingham, Alabama 1963. I couldn’t play on the same playground as white kids. I couldn’t go to their schools and I couldn’t drink from their water fountains. There were so many things I couldn’t do.” Lines spoken by the police to children like “disperse or we’ll release the dogs” will put history in perspective, while the story of jailed kids, singing “We Shall Overcome,” will inspire kids and adults to do better. If you or your child doesn’t know the story of the Children’s Crusade, don’t miss it. Even older kids will hang on every word.

Also Great: The Story of Ruby Bridges, I am Martin Luther King, Who Was Rosa Parks, Sit In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down

This is the one for when kids are ready to understand how we continue to live out the legacy of racism in our country. The story follows a white girl on a day when a black man is shot by the police, and makes clear how her family’s well-meaning urge to over simplify racial conflict with platitudes like “we don’t see color” and the easy outs of privilege like “I can’t watch the news” perpetuates systemic racism. It’s part of a masterful series by Anastasia Higginbotham called Ordinary Terrible Things, which Higginbotham writes for kids to keep “their senses sharp and their souls intact.”

Also Great: Bud Not Buddy, Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, A Weed is A Flower, Langston’s Train Ride

Author Tiffany Jewell is an anti-racism Montessori educator and the book’s clear structure shows it. Divided into four sections: Waking Up, Making Sense of the World, Taking Action and Solidarity. Each chapter has an action plan (twenty in all) for dismantling white supremacy. The book starts with a poignant letter pulling apart the myth that racism is over and doesn’t need addressing and unpacks the powerful idea that our shared histories began to shape our lives long before we are born. If you’re looking for a clear guidebook to taking on racism, this is it. Definitely for more advanced tweens, great for reading (and taking action) together.

Also Great: Brown Girl Dreaming, The Stars Beneath Our Feet, Chains, Forge, Ashes

A relentlessly engaging, entertaining history and call to action that traces racism back to Portugal in 1415 when a white man named Gomes Eanes de Zurara, was the first person to write about and defend black human ownership as glorified missionary work. Jason Reynolds co-authored the book with Ibram X. Kendi, and reads the audiobook version, which is nothing short of binge-worthy.

Also Great: Ghost, All American Boys, Just Mercy: Adapted for Young Readers, The Boy’s War, The Hate You Give, Dear Malcolm

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