Do I Have to Read My Child Antiracist Books, Even When They’re Bad?
In “Bookshop Memories,” a short, somewhat mopey reverie of an essay about selling books, George Orwell writes, “Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass.” I disagree with Orwell over one thing only: the deplorable condition of children’s books isn’t just a “modern” condition, but rather one that feels fixed in time.
Like most parents, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about the books my daughter, who just turned 5, will encounter and how they may shape the way she thinks about the world, particularly when it comes to race and inequality. I want her to be an enlightened citizen, and given that we are minorities, I want her to have a healthier understanding of self and culture than I had at her age. And although I, like most parents, want her to read the books I loved as a child, I am also happy that the books she likes to read are far more diverse and honest about race than they were back in my day.
The past decade has brought a suite of children’s books that deliver overt progressive messaging on this front, including Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Baby”; “A Is for Activist,” by Innosanto Nagara; and “A Kids Book About …,” a series by various authors with titles including “A Kids Book About Racism,” “A Kids Book About Systemic Racism” and “A Kids Book About Anti-Asian Hate.” At the same time, several school districts across the country have begun removing hundreds of children’s books from school libraries. These de facto book bans, many of which have arisen from the anti-Critical Race Theory movement, often target Black authors who have written books that deal with race and racism. They should be called out for what they are: censorious and bigoted attempts to cancel an entire people out of the education process.
I oppose these bans, but I admit I find myself a bit repelled by some of the more inelegantly antiracist books, which, at least in coastal cities, have become a main draw in the children’s sections of bookstores. What does it mean, really, to have an antiracist baby? Are these books actually written for kids, who, as far as I can tell, mostly like stories about dinosaurs and cats? Or are they a commodity for white parents who want to prove their progressive bona fides? Or should I embrace the very real possibility that I, at the age of 42, am acting like a cranky old man who just wants his kid to read what I read as a child?
Before we get into all that, here’s a little bit of history on how we got here. In 1965, more than a decade after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, an educator named Nancy Larrick wrote an influential article on the lack of Black characters in children’s books. Larrick had surveyed thousands of books published over a period of three years and found that only 6.7 percent included any Black faces.
Change came, albeit somewhat slowly, according to Joel Taxel, a former professor at the University of Georgia’s department of language and literacy education. In 1979, Larrick’s study was replicated and found that the portion of books featuring a Black character had more than doubled to 14.4 percent. This was seen as a reason for celebration, but the criterion for Larrick’s study, as well as the follow-up, was any Black presence at all — even a face in an illustrated crowd counted.
Other well-known children’s books with Black characters, like 1968’s “Corduroy,” by Don Freeman,in which a young Black girl rescues a stuffed bear from a department store, and most notably, Ezra Jack Keats’s “The Snowy Day,” published in 1962, which follows a young boy’s walk through an American city, were written and illustrated by white men. These books, particularly “The Snowy Day,” were celebrated for depicting the everyday lives of Black children, but what was still missing was a well-read children’s book by a Black author.
In 1973, the white author Paula Fox wrote a children’s novel called “The Slave Dancer.” The story followed a white boy named Jessie who gets kidnapped and forced to work on a slave ship. Fox clearly intended for the book to portray the horrors of the Middle Passage, but “The Slave Dancer,” which won the prestigious Newbery Medal, came under criticism that will sound familiar to anyone who follows modern controversies in children’s and young adult publishing.
The book is filled with racial slurs and scenes of extreme brutality, both of which can and, perhaps, should be defended on the grounds that scrubbing a slave ship of its violence does nobody any favors. But, as Taxel notes, the most salient criticism, and the one that has become de rigueur in publishing today, was that at no point in “The Slave Dancer” does the perspective ever shift from the kidnapped, white boy narrator and his racist shipmates to their Black hostages. They are subjects to be studied and pitied, but never active human beings with a stake in the story.
Much like today, the early ’70s was a time when race was a central question in children’s books. A year after “The Slave Dancer” won the Newbery, Virginia Hamilton became the first Black woman to win the prize, for her book “M.C. Higgins, the Great,” a surrealist fable set in Appalachia about a young Black boy who sits on top of a flagpole. Two years later, Mildred Taylor, a Black woman, won the Newbery for “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” about a Black family in Mississippi in the 1930s.
“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry,” became the standard for children’s books about race and has been read in classrooms for decades. My fifth grade teacher taught us both “M.C. Higgins, the Great” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” with the expectation that her students would understand the great political importance of representation and ownership of story. (If memory serves, we did to a certain extent but were mostly captivated by the flagpole-sitting scenes in “M.C. Higgins, the Great.”)
The assumption my teacher made was that the books children read would inform the people they would become. She had presumably made an assessment that we, in the fifth grade, were ready to learn about our country’s racist past. If we could be taught stories that highlighted our shared humanity, the white kids wouldn’t turn into bigoted adults and the minority kids would feel a stake in both the classroom and the country.
In recent years, the scope of those lessons has changed as children’s notions of race and racism have been studied by a variety of social scientists. The anthropologist Lawrence Hirschfeld has argued that very young children develop an awareness of human groupings on their own by observing the society that surrounds them. According to this thinking, social scientists like Kendi conclude that it’s not enough simply not to teach your kids racist behavior. They must be deprogrammed from the prejudice they will pick up from living in a racist society. As a remedy, they recommend early, explicit interventions to teach preschoolers about how to identify and combat systemic racism.
This is how we get from a narrative-driven, young adult novel like “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” to direct antiracist messaging for toddlers in the form of books like “Antiracist Baby.” As Kendi writes in the opening pages of the book, “Antiracist baby is bred, not born. Antiracist baby is raised to make society transform.”
All children’s books are propaganda. “Antiracist Baby” may be a bit less veiled in its intentions than, say, Deborah Diesen’s “The Pout-Pout Fish,” which demands children go through life with a smile on their face, or Doreen Cronin’s “Click, Clack, Moo,” which shows the power of union organizing among farm animals, but that doesn’t mean that it should be rejected.
On its face, “Antiracist Baby” is like many other children’s books: The illustrations are colorful and inviting, and the words are arranged into somewhat clumsy couplets, which is understandable given the awkwardness of the name of its main character: the Antiracist Baby.
Here’s a sampling: “Babies are taught to be racist or antiracist — there’s no neutrality. Take these nine steps to make equity a reality.”
And another: “Point at policies as the problem, not people. Some people get more, while others get less … because policies don’t always grant equal access.”
Regardless of how you might feel about these messages, I think we can all agree that it’s highly unlikely that a child would internalize or even know the meaning of words like “equity” and “access,” much less the way they have been deployed in modern discourse.
I’m all for deprogramming racist impulses, but is it really useful for parents to sit with their young children and scold themselves in awkward prose? The kids are obviously not the point here: “Babies” are referred to in the third person, and the implied actor who will “take these nine steps” is presumably the parent reading the book out loud.
The progress made in children’s book publishing has been encouraging and certainly necessary. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the numbers of children’s books written by Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latino authors have all significantly increased in the past 20 years. (The one exception seems to be that while the number of children’s books by an Indigenous author has increased to 37 in 2020 from six in 2002, the number of books about an Indigenous character has actually gone down, from 64 in 2002 to 52 in 2020.) Not surprisingly, the number of books that feature a minority character have also increased.
This is, of course, good. We live in an increasingly multiethnic society, and books by women, L.G.B.T.Q. and minority authors featuring nonwhite characters should be promoted and celebrated. White authors have also begun to write books that better reflect society. My daughter is currently immersed in the “Hilo” series, which features a robot boy from another planet who crashes into a suburb and befriends a young boy named D.J. Lim. The diversity of the characters in Hilo seems carefully planned: D.J. is Asian and his best friend is a Black girl named Gina. Hilo is white, but he identifies as a robot.
Since Hilo’s author, Judd Winick, is white, it might cause some critics to ask why he decided to write through an Asian character and his Black friend. Does Winick, who, it should be said, starred in the third season of “The Real World,” have the right to portray an Asian family? There’s no real examination of race in Hilo — we are to believe that in this suburb, everyone just happens to be white, Asian, Black or Latino, and that everyone has settled into some post-racial utopianism. Is Hilo, then, promoting a fantasy of race without all its attendant baggage?
How do well-intentioned parents disentangle themselves from such guilt-ridden questions? I’ve come to believe that we, parents, should just default to a more aesthetic sensibility rather than try to extricate some doctrinaire politics out of what our children read. “Antiracist Baby” might be a bad children’s book, but that doesn’t mean that a writer shouldn’t take on the antiracist credo and produce something good that tries to impart the same lessons to kids. And while I agree with much of the criticism of “The Slave Dancer” — the ways in which the white author erased the Black characters in the book — I don’t think that sort of criticism should be broadened to implicate all books like “A Snowy Day.” We can still just say, “This is a good book” or “This is a bad book.”
I want to end on two suggestions for parents who, like me, might want their kids to be exposed to a diverse world but cringe at the clumsier books. The first is “Last Stop on Market Street,” written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson, about a young brown boy who takes a bus with his nana and witnesses people living in poverty. De la Peña employs a light touch that reflects how a grandmother might talk to her child about inequality, and Robinson’s illustrations are beautiful and captivating.
Then there’s “Where’s Halmoni,” by Julie Kim, which features two young Korean American siblings who take a trip through a magical portal into a land filled with characters from old Korean fables. The genius of Kim’s book is that the two kids have started to lose their ability to speak Korean and cannot really understand what the rabbits, goblins and tigers are saying to them. Kim, then, is making a statement about the loss of culture among children of immigrants while also writing a book that returns some of that to them.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”