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Children's Books Embedded With Racism As A Teaching Opportunity


It is rare for a publisher to halt distribution of a book. But last week, Scholastic Publishing announced it would pull a children's book called "A Birthday Cake For George Washington." The book caused an outcry because of how it portrayed Washington's enslaved household cook and his daughter, showing them as happy, smiling workers.

The controversy continues. This past Friday, the National Coalition Against Censorship released an objection to Scholastic's decision, saying the book can be used as a teaching tool to discuss a tragic chapter in our country's history.

So we wondered what the answer is. Put simply, how do you read a book to your kid that has problematic, maybe even racist, material in it? Should you just skip it altogether?

Jeremy Adam Smith says no. He spoke with me from Berkeley, Calif., where he edits Greater Good science magazine for the university there. And I asked him why he thinks we should tackle these books with our children head-on.

JEREMY ADAM SMITH: Mainly because history of slavery and racial inequality in this country exists. But more than that, I think encountering this kind of imagery in children's book is an opportunity for parents to talk specifically about how, if we're not aware of secret messages in books that they're reading or aware of our unconscious impulses, then we become slaves to those messages and those impulses. And that's fundamental with parenting. You know, it's a form of teaching impulse control.

MARTIN: So let's walk through a couple of different examples, or situations, rather. There is a kind of book that a parent might, you know, want to pick up because they want to share it with their child.

SMITH: Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: One of our editors here had this happen with a book that she was reading to her child, "The Little House" series.

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: And this is something she has, you know, a strong emotional attachment to. She wanted to share it with her kids, and you know, you start reading those pages and all of a sudden, Pa Ingalls is going to a minstrel show.

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. You know, I read those books aloud to my son. And I also felt ambushed by some of the racist imagery in the books, which nobody had done anything to prepare me for (laughter). You know, what I did was I closed the book, and I said - how do you think it would make you feel if you were black and you were reading this? And we talked about that. And this was a lesson - I think I - we had this conversation when my son was about 7 years old. A lot of it went over his head. However, it was the beginning of a discussion that continues to this day, as he approaches 12 years old.

MARTIN: So we've been talking about race and how it can be embedded in children's literature. But gender issues - gender discrimination is also something that can pop up when you...

SMITH: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Pluck a children's book shelf.

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: Is this something you've noticed?

SMITH: (Laughter) The short answer is yes. I have noticed. You know, I think, in some ways, gender is even more complicated because people don't agree about what constitutes discrimination. Many people are very wedded to the idea that there are just fundamental differences between boys and girls, men and women. You know, and that can be actually really hard to talk about because girls who depart from that script about what a girl should be or boys who depart from that script about what a boy should be, are often teased mercilessly in school.

I think for us as parents, that causes a lot of anxiety. You know, I think that the key is to be brave about it (laughter). I think that if you believe that gender equality is something worth pursuing, then it's very well worth it to take a moment and to talk about these things and to talk in a conscious way about what happens to boys who don't act like, quote, unquote, "boys" or girls who don't act like, quote, unquote, "girls." This is an opportunity to talk about being brave in that context and standing up to bullies who tease people for things that are just inherent in their identity.

MARTIN: What about books that try to use it as a teachable kind of experience like you're talking about? I mean, for example, I sat down with my 3-year-old with a book that is part of this series. They're called "Value Books" that I grew up with, and I love these books. And we - he picked out a story about Ralph Bunche. And all of a sudden, we're reading about how this young kid had to face segregation...

SMITH: Right.

MARTIN: ...And all kinds of racial discrimination.

SMITH: Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: And I found myself skimming through these pages really quickly and, like, summarizing the story and feeling like oh, man, you're 3, and I don't think we should be talking about this stuff. But maybe we should.

SMITH: Well, you know, I think one of the terrible secrets of adulthood is that we often just forget to be brave. A moment comes and it's a moment when we're called upon to be brave, and sometimes we're just not paying attention. Or that impulse to protect our children - I mean, I would argue that what you were experiencing springs from something that's just fundamental to human psychology, which is to protect your child from the harshest things in life. So think about this as a parenting issue the same way you think about potty training or sleep training. This is part of life. It's part of American life. And I think that it's incumbent upon parents to think beforehand how they're going to deal with these issues when they come up because they will come up.

MARTIN: Jeremy Adam Smith is an editor at Greater Good magazine. He's also the author and editor of the anthology "Are We Born Racist?".

Jeremy, thanks so much for talking with us.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.