How to Build an Anti-racist Child’s Bookshelf

How to Build an Anti-racist Child’s Bookshelf

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I’ve been reading a lot about anti-racism and being a white ally over the past few days. There is excellent advice to be found here. One powerful thing I know my husband and I can do is make sure I am raising my son to be anti-racist. Of course, we were always sure that we didn’t want him to be a bigot or absorb harmful stereotypes, but developing an anti-racist white person takes more than a vague internal decision. It takes commitment and real action.

The step I have taken today is to audit his bookshelves. The art and media we consume has a massive impact on our world view. As my son is only two, we still have control over a large proportion of what he sees. Whenever we have bought new books for him, I have made an effort to choose stories which feature a diverse range of characters. However, his collection as a whole is not that carefully curated, formed as it has been by presents, hand-me-downs, charity shop finds and library books we haven’t managed to return yet.  

As someone who was already conscious of the importance of diversity, I had an idea we were probably not doing too badly, but you can never be sure unless you examine things closely. So I pulled all the books from the shelves and began to sort. I recommend you do the same, to get an accurate picture of what you currently have on offer and what you lack.

If you are a teacher, I hope you will also find this useful. It is possibly even more vital that you audit and reflect on your classroom bookshelves, as this will have an impact on hundreds of children.

The stats

One of many acknowledgements of privilege needs to be: my son has so many books. 155 in fact, along with parents able and willing to read to him. I wish this were true for all children.

Before I began I knew one thing was going to skew the stats. Thomas. My son is a train guy. We are a train house. While the Thomas the Tank Engine brand has been increasing their roster of engines in recent years to include female and international characters, I find some of their choices problematic. In any case, we have a collection of mostly vintage Thomas titles. The Reverend Awdry’s Island of Sodor is a land of white men. I was tempted to exempt Thomas from the analysis for this reason, but then I realised this was a bad instinct. There are no excuses or books that ‘don’t count’. The representation is either there or it isn’t. The trains are in.

First, I eliminated books that had no human characters. Lot of picture books for children feature only animals or images of different numbers of toys. I was left with 89 that had at least pictures of people in. Of these, 64% (57) had no black or brown faces. Two managed to avoid categorisation by having blue and green characters.

This means that 34% (30) of the books had non-white characters. 17 of these had no real main character but lots of crowd scenes, in which there was a mix of skin tones. Four just had a token brown face somewhere in their pages.

The remaining 9 books had a BIPOC main, named and/or speaking character. That is 10% of the books featuring humans. According to the 2011 census, the population of London is 59.8% white, so my son’s books don’t really reflect the place where he lives. There is also an argument to be made that his shelf should actually over-represent minority groups, to counter the effect of the media he consumes in the wider world.

What next?

Confronted with these figures and having gone through the experiences of looking through the books, I feel there are improvements to be made. The next question is: what am I going to do about it? If you have audited your own shelves you might be asking the same question.

First: what not to do

When I was a primary school teacher, the literacy leader came to give me some new books for my book corner. Great! There’s not a lot of money for resources in schools, so it’s always exciting to get new things. He had been tasked with diversifying our reading material. He handed me four copies of Handa’s Surprise.

I cringed.

While I like this book, I was disappointed and embarrassed on so many levels. First of all, it was frustrating that class teachers hadn’t been consulted and asked what we felt we needed. My year group actually taught Handa’s Surprise every year and I already had several copies in my classroom.

It’s great for the children to see the ways in which life for a child in a Kenyan village is similar and different to theirs. But what does it say to the Black children – who were a majority of my pupils – that the only faces similar to their own in the book corner exist in Africa? Where were the books featuring children like them in London?

Although it is less obvious to the children, I was also concerned that the book was written by a white person. Another message to the children that only certain voices get heard.

I’m ashamed to say I didn’t follow this up properly at the time. The money had been spent and I had ten thousand things to do, as usual. That isn’t good enough. I should have brought up these concerns with the head, I should have drafted my own wish list of books. I should have gone further and questioned why a tiny minority of the teaching staff were Black. Speaking up is vital to being an ally and I failed. I can only hope that if any teachers read this and make changes to their book corners, I have had an impact, if a little too late for my former pupils.

What books do I need?

There are five things children need from their diverse bookshelves:

  • Children need to see themselves
  • Children need to see everyone
  • Children need to see different cultures
  • Children need to hear different voices
  • Children need to learn anti-racism

Children need to see themselves

This is often effortless for white children. The majority of children’s books star white children and families. This is particularly true for classics. Books like Bear Hunt, Where the Wild Things Are and The Tiger Who Came to Tea are excellent and deserve a place in your child’s heart and collection. However, the danger of a canon is that it can be seen as more important, essential or neutral. Seek out new writing and voices.

Intersectionality comes into play here. Even if your child is white, if they are female they are likely to see themselves outnumbered and speaking less. Your disabled child has an even smaller chance of feeling reflected in popular titles.

Consider other aspects of identity, too. Do all characters live in houses with gardens in the books you read in your flat? Can your shy child feel less alone?

If you are a teacher, cast a wide net and ensure all your pupils can see themselves in stories in your class.

Children need to see everyone

Books can be an excellent mirror, but they can also be windows, to borrow a metaphor from Rudine Sims Bishop. Stories are a way for children to see that theirs is not the only experience and equally that they can share experiences with people with whom they do not share characteristics.

While it’s patently untrue to say that children are colour blind, they do have an ability to identify with a character based on much less than an adult might need. When my mum read The Snowman to me as a young child, I was adamant that the protagonist was me, even though he is a ginger-haired boy named James. I’ve read to children who were excited to see a character with the same colour T-shirt or who also rode a scooter.

Whether they identify with a character or come to love them as a companion on their fictional adventures, make sure your child develops these relationships with many different protagonists.

Children need to see different cultures

When a book is a window, that window can slide open to become a door. Books offer a chance to learn about and immerse yourself in a world different to their own. Through stories, your child can learn about other cultures.

Beware: this should not turn into ‘look at those funny people and their strange ways’. Nor should the books tell us ‘these people are different but it’s OK to tolerate them’. This is patronising and unnecessary. I personally don’t tend to enjoy books where a message is clunkily delivered, anyway.

Instead, I look for books that feature cultural details incidental to the plot. A story doesn’t have to be ‘about’ a culture for it to be grounded in that culture. If it is about that culture, seek works by an author who has lived experience of it. Which brings me to my next point:

Children need to hear different voices

Although they won’t notice, children should read books written by a range of people. Make it normal in your house or classroom that white, male authors are not the default. Think about the types of books you have by different authors, too. If the only books you have by Black authors are about being Black or discrimination, it pigeon-holes these writers. You want a range of voices describing the ordinary and extraordinary, the happy, sad and fantastic.

As they get older and start to look into the people who have created their books, your children will see that anyone can tell their story. They will know that they are able to tell their own stories, too.

Children need to learn about anti-racism

It’s not enough to simply be exposed to images of different faces. Please don’t teach your children that ‘we don’t see colour’ or ‘all people are equal’. This isn’t true. People are not treated equally in our society. Systemic racism, built on a history of oppression, ensures that Black people are disproportionately poor, sick, stopped by police and imprisoned.

Don’t try and protect them from this truth because they are too young. Your white children are privileged to have to learn about this, instead of living it every day. There are ways of explaining issues of oppression in age-appropriate ways and books to help you do so.

Where can I get diverse books for my children?

There are lots of recommended reading lists available, but can I suggest avoiding Amazon? Support your local independent bookshop – even better if it prioritises diversity. I am lucky to live in South London and have two such shops within cycling distance. If you don’t, seek out black-owned book businesses online. Part of being an ally is supporting Black enterprises and redistributing wealth.

The work begins

Monitoring and adding to my son’s bookshelf is a micro-step in the journey of doing the crucial work needed to be a true white ally and raise an anti-racist child. It is still a powerful step. The stories we tell and images we see truly have an impact.

An example: my son and I were playing and pretending we could see things out of the window. He said he had spotted a mermaid and I asked what it was called. He said “Julian”. The first thing he thought of when he imagined a mermaid was a little boy with brown skin.

Stories matter.