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Using K-3 Picture Books to Talk About Race & Racism With Children

This piece was co-authored by our project coordinator, Dr. Andrea Breau.

Last month, we once again joined the excellent offering of Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorative activities at Bates College, hosting the only event on the day-long program for families with young children. To our surprise, in addition to the dozen or so children who attended with their parents and caregivers, some forty or so other adults — students, staff, faculty, community members — came through the doors, eager to watch, listen, and learn!

Knowing that adults don’t often get the chance to observe in-the-moment conversations about race and racism with children, we viewed this unexpected attendance as an opportunity to allow the adults to do just that. However, wanting to also ensure the children had their own space to discuss these issues with their peers, we later moved them to a separate area for a hands-on activity. This also gave the adults a chance for a Q&A with Diverse BookFinder Director, Dr. Krista Aronson.

We began our program with a big-group read of Happy In Our Skin. Instead of simply reading the book to the children, we used the illustrations as an opportunity to elicit responses from the young audience: “What do you see? What makes you say that?” etc. This is known as Visual Thinking Strategies, a technique used to create inclusive discussions centered around dialogue and conversation. VTS is a particularly useful strategy for discussions like this because the purpose is not to teach children what to think about race, but to give them an opportunity to express what they’ve already absorbed about how race operates in the world around them and help them make sense of it.

We used this book to establish the baseline for our discussion:

People have different colors of skin, colors and textures of hair, colors and shapes of eyes, etc.

Children pointed out that there were people of different skin colors playing together, and since the group included mostly school-age children, we quickly got to content about inequity, even though the book didn’t explicitly discuss that topic. We modeled for the adults that addressing content that isn’t in the book is not only OK, but encouraged!

Here are some other titles for building such a foundation:

You can use any title that portrays various racial features; what’s essential is to build a discussion about race on a strong foundation of curiosity, information, and respect for differences. Without this base, going directly to talking about racism might create the association in young minds that racial difference itself is problematic and causes conflict, instead of a natural and beautiful aspect of being human.

Next, we built on the above discussion with images from The Barefoot Book of Children. We guided the children in brainstorming side-by-side lists:

  1. What’s the same about people? We all have/need: Bodies (skin, eyes, hair, etc.); Water, Food, Clothing, Housing, Families, Nurture/Love, Language, Culture, etc.
  2. And what’s different about people? Variety in each of these things; i.e. ways of living (we all eat but we eat different foods, we live in different countries, etc.). Besides varying hair textures, some people lose/don’t grow hair. Can include a discussion of melanin, etc.

Our goal for the discussion was to use books to build on the following points, moving gradually from one to the next, incorporating children’s observations and experiences, allowing them to explore each idea:

  • Race is about human differences that are natural, normal, and important.
  • But race is also about the stories we are told about those differences and what those stories teach us to believe about difference.
  • We hear stories about race all the time -- from our schools, families, neighborhoods, the media, religious institutions, etc. Some of those stories are true and some of them are not. And we are often told the same stories about race over and over, even though there are so many to tell!
  • This means that even though racial differences are normal and natural, they can make people feel nervous or fearful, especially if:
  1. The stories we hear about difference are always the same or are untrue or both.
  2. We aren’t often around people who are not like us

Together, these can lead to IGNORANCE and PREJUDICE (pre-judging).

Here we paused to read one poem, entitled “The Athlete,” from the book Can I Touch Your Hair? The poem explores, from the point of view of a black boy named Charles, the common “story” we hear about Black boys being exceptionally athletic, and the consequence this has on Charles, who loves to read and write, and in fact, isn’t very good at basketball.

This allowed us to define STEREOTYPE as "the repeated stories we hear about racial differences," and discuss how even when they don’t seem bad (like, “Black people are good athletes.”), they can still cause harm (in the poem, Charles wants to be seen/acknowledged for being a good student and is tired of being picked first in basketball despite having no particular desire or aptitude for it).

At this point, we were able to move from race to racism in our discussion. For this, we split off from the adults to explore the following idea.

There are different types of racism.

  • There’s the kind of racism that sounds like this: “I’m afraid of/I don’t like/I am better than you because you are different from me.” This can look like one person being mean, excluding, or even being violent toward another person. Have you heard about, seen, or experienced this kind of racism? Here the children brought up examples like bullying, etc.
  • Then there’s the kind of racism that looks like entire groups of people being treated unfairly or badly -- we call this OPPRESSION -- or treated very well or better -- we call this PRIVILEGE -- due to their race. Have you heard about any ways that a group of people have been treated or are treated unfairly or better than others, because of their racial features (or the country they came from, or the language they speak, etc.)? The examples can be from a long time ago or now.

We had children as young as 2nd grade who readily gave us examples of the latter, AKA SYSTEMIC RACISM (and as noted earlier, these examples even came up during our initial discussion about human difference!). Check out the Oppression & Resilience books in our collection, any of which could be used with children bringing this level of awareness. However, because the group was mixed age and included pre-K children, for our final book activity, we stuck to a book that would allow us to:

  1. Discuss interpersonal racism/individual prejudice and 
  2. Ensure that the children left with ideas about how they might intervene on/interrupt this type of racism (particularly because the group was majority white-presenting).

Here we used the book I Walk With Vanessa, about a brown-skinned girl who is bullied by a white classmate. In the book, Vanessa is eventually supported by her other classmates. Because this is a wordless story told entirely in images, we relied quite heavily on VTS and were able to model, for the few caregivers/parents who joined this activity, open-ended questions that made race and racism explicit even when the text does not do so. In this particular book, there are also some great guided questions in the back matter.

We started with questions about the cover and book title:

  • Who appears on the cover? Whose story is this? Who is telling the story? The title and cover image gives us a clue...someone is telling a story about Vanessa.

Then we moved to questions about the content:

  • What's happening in this picture? What is this person doing to Vanessa? How does it make her feel? How do you think it makes that person feel? Have any of you ever felt like Vanessa, or the person being mean to her? Why might that person be treating her that way? Is it fair? How did the friend who witnessed it feel? What did she do? How did she show that she cared? What effect did it have on others (she modeled standing up for what's right, etc.)?
Image Credit: Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

We established:

  • Sometimes people might treat others badly because of the color of their skin, or any other perceived difference. Why might they do that? (Maybe they haven't been around someone with a different skin color and they are afraid. Maybe they have heard stories that aren't true about people with a different skin color than theirs. Maybe they have been taught that one skin color is better than another.)
  • That can be really hurtful and make people feel like they don’t belong. How did Vanessa feel in the story?
  • If we see people mistreating others (AKA a BYSTANDER), we can do something about it by standing up for what's right (AKA an ALLY).

Then we did the following activity:

  1. Brainstorm ways you have experienced or witnessed people feeling like they don't belong because of one of the differences we talked about during the big group read (sitting alone during lunch, being excluded from a game on the playground, being laughed at, etc.).
  2. What can we do to make sure everyone feels like they belong in our classroom, in our schools, in our group of friends, on the playground, in the cafeteria, in our neighborhood or community?
  3. Draw a picture of one of those things that you can or will do or have done (sitting with someone at lunch, reading a book with someone at circle time, inviting someone to play, standing up for someone, asking a trusted adult for help, etc).
Drawings from the children's small-group activity.

We encourage you to use any of these activities with the children in your life! You may find that you share many of the same concerns or have similar questions as the adults who attended this event. In particular, many were struck by just how astute the children’s commentary was during the big group read. As Dr. Aronson reiterated during the separate Q&A with the adults, this is simply a reflection of the fact that children are always already observing and experiencing race and racism in the worlds they inhabit. By explicitly engaging children in these conversations through the use of picture books, you are actively meeting them where they are rather than leaving them to sort through these experiences on their own. Though fears that you may be “making them see things” that they don’t already see (or that "aren’t there") are normal, you’ll find that the more you practice these conversations, the more you’ll discover just how much knowledge about race and racism children already hold.

More Resources

Handouts from the event

Storytime Resources:  

Further Learning:

Many of the cover images on this site are from Google Books.
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