Illustration by Scott M. Fischer from Lottie Paris and the Best Place by Angela Johnson
Last month I received an unexpected and delightful invitation: to meet via Zoom with the “Black Moms of Austria,” the “Black Dads of Germany,” and a number of their allies, to share the Diverse BookFinder’s research on Cross Group books.
The contact had been made through Naa Anorkor (top right in the photo), an Austrian of Ghanaian descent who has been working to make schools more welcoming for African and biracial Austrian children, who regularly report being called racial slurs. (A 2019 survey, “Being Black in the EU”, reported that “… across the EU, people of African descent face widespread and entrenched prejudice and exclusion. Racial discrimination and harassment are commonplace… Overall, 39 % of respondents of African descent felt racially discriminated against in the five years before the survey. …The highest perceived rates of discrimination in the 12-month period are found in Luxembourg (50 %), Finland (45 %), Austria (42 %) and Denmark (41 %).”)
Naa Anorkor, who has been following the work of the Diverse BookFinder for years, wanted to engage in a conversation with her community about using Cross Group books as a possible tool to reduce prejudice in young Austrians.
What are Cross Group books and how do they work?
Cross Group Books portray relationships between main or secondary characters across racial or cultural difference, including but not limited to those depicting peer group and cross-generational friendships. The interactions depicted may be positive, negative, or resolving.Diverse BookFinder website, “Our Categories”
One of the unique features of the Diverse BookFinder is our identification and application of nine unique book categories that capture the dominant messages conveyed by current children’s picture books featuring Black and Indigenous People and People of Color (BIPOC). This categorization system — and the ideas that lead to the formation of DBF — began with a study of Cross Group books conducted by Dr. Krista Aronson, as detailed in her research paper, “Telling tales in school: Extended contact interventions in the classroom”.
Many research studies have documented the pervasiveness of prejudice and the existence of “in-group favoritism” among children. Studies in England (at the University of Sussex), Italy, and the US (Krista's research), examined whether picture books depicting positive interactions between children of different groups could be a successful intervention to reduce prejudicial attitudes.
As I shared in our Zoom session, all three book studies were applying Allport’s (1954) Contact Hypothesis, which proposed that
…sustained equal status, goal interdependent, cooperative contact between members of different groups with the support of institutional authorities would bring about favorable attitude and behavior change in both groups. … Direct contact is thought to diminish prejudice by enhancing knowledge about the outgroup, increasing empathy and perspective taking and reducing anxiety about intergroup contact.Aronson et al, “Telling tales in school”
Intergroup anxiety is the term used to describe the nervousness people feel when encountering someone they perceive to be very different from them: Will we be able to communicate? Do we have anything in common? Will I be safe with them? If unresolved, this anxiety can become the foundation for prejudice to develop. But if people have contact and their anxiety lessens, attitudes can shift and the potential for a positive relationship increases.
As Krista explained in her study, according to the extended (or indirect) contact hypothesis,
it may be enough to experience contact indirectly by knowing (of) ingroup members who have positive relationships with outgroup members.
In other words, reading books in which characters from different groups are having fun together can shift children’s attitudes.
In a 2014 article, “How Cross-racial Scenes in Picture books Build Acceptance”, published in School Library Journal, Krista and I described how contact theory is effective:
Why do books depicting positive cross-race interaction work? Because when we see someone like us doing something with someone different from us, we become more open to doing it ourselves. Psychologists call this vicarious contact. It can ease children’s anxiety about interacting across difference because they have seen that it’s really fun. It also expands their thinking about the group they belong to. After reading, children think, ‘People like me play with people who are different from me.’
And, as we observed in our article seven years ago, there (still) aren’t nearly enough picture books depicting cross-racial relationships!
As noted in our category definition, our collection’s Cross Group titles cover all types of relationships across racial differences, including indirect, negative, and resolving, and cross-generational. To meet the criteria of titles that can be effective in reducing inter-group anxiety, relationships shown should be:
- between characters of equal status - in age (two children, not an adult and a child); in power and resource (for this reason, we do not include titles about kindness to just-arrived immigrants, victims of bullying, or other titles in which one character is the helper and another the recipient)
- central — between protagonists, not background characters
- positive - having fun together, not engaged in conflict
- direct - characters engaging with each other in person, not writing letters or other indirect contact
For the Austrian and German group, I gathered a list of picture book titles from our collection that met these criteria. In addition, to address the social situation encountered in their schools, I included only those books with at least one Black protagonist in relationship with white friends.
Cross Group Books in Black & White: central, direct, positive relationships between Black and white child protagonists
When Bree is playing outside at school digging alone near the garden, she unearths two surprises.
A story of friendship that transcends stereotypes. Cookie and Milk shows young readers that it may not be what you have in common that sparks a true friendship but how you differ
"Once you start to notice, colors and reasons for gratitude are everywhere, and that changes everything! Celebrate the hues and comforts of a cozy winter day as a discontented girl at first notices only dull grays and browns in a snowy landscape but is coaxed by her friend to look more closely. Soon she finds orange berries, blue water, purple shadows, and more. Warm friendship and a fresh way of seeing things transform a snow-covered landscape from bleak to beautiful!" -- publisher
Whether in soft sunlight or rain-drizzled night or winter's frost-etched breath, three children share the love and joy of friendship while exploring the wonders of nature. --publisher
Jamaica's friend Kristin needs to give away her kitten. But Jamaica's brother is allergic to cats. Jamaica assumes this doesn't mean kittens too. But when her brother's allergies bother him before the football game, Jamaica must find a solution to the problem. She wants the kitten, but she also wants her brother to be healthy
"Josie is first and best at almost everything; however, losing her first tooth becomes an ordeal. Her best friend Richard provides support."--|c(Source of summary not specified)
Billy and Bee have so much fun at playgroup! Everyone will want to go too! Bright and friendly illustrations and simple, gentle text capture the the range of emotions that come with new experiences
Red boots, green boots, swishing through the hay. Bee and Billy are so excited ... They're on the farm today! Join friends Billy and Bee in the second instalment of a brand- new "First Experiences" series set in the urban city centre. Today let's go to ... the farm! Billy and Bee are so excited to meet the animals. It's boots on quick, as there are lambs to be fed, piglets to be played with and hen's eggs to be hatched! An introduction to first animals and a lively celebration of a toddler's first farmyard experience, this delightfully rhythmical read-aloud text for the very youngest of readers is paired with gorgeously fresh artwork from Anna Hibiscus illustrator, Lauren Tobia.
Lottie Paris goes to the library, her favorite place in the world, and makes a new friend for whom the library is also a special place
Melia is scientific and loves to create things in her backyard laboratory, but something is missing. Her inventions just aren't quite right. Enter Jo, her new friend with an artistic spirit. When you add the arts to sciences, something magical happens!
A picture book story about a childhood friendship in which unfamiliar cultures meet. Playful visuals combine illustrations and photographs, and book recognizes the bond between two boys as well as sampling the differences in their lives. Different cultures. Fast friends. Jamal and Joseph were born in the same hospital in the same month...Joseph's best friend Jamal is Somali and his family has different customs and traditions from Joseph, but through their shared interests they remain close friends.
Two girls named Shakeeta and Mia become friends when Shakeeta boasts that she has a pet iguana and Mia learns how to help Shakeeta "feel at home" even when she is in school.
"This sweet author-illustrator debut celebrates imagination, the magic of friendship, and all the different ways we make a new place feel like home. For Ren, home is his grandmother’s little house, and the lush forest that surrounds it. Home is a place of magic and wonder, filled with all the fantastical friends that Ren dreams up. Home is where his imagination can run wild. For Ava, home is a brick and cement city, where there’s always something to do or see or hear. Home is a place bursting with life, where people bustle in and out like a big parade. Home is where Ava is never lonely because there’s always someone to share in her adventures. When Ren moves to Ava’s city, he feels lost without his wild. How will he ever feel at home in a place with no green and no magic, where everything is exactly what it seems? Of course, not everything in the city is what meets the eye, and as Ren discovers, nothing makes you feel at home quite like a friend. Inspired by the stories her father told her about moving from Puerto Rico to New York as a child, Zara González Hoang’s author-illustrator debut is an imaginative exploration of the true meaning of “home.”" -- publisher
"The gnarled tree on the hill sometimes turns into a pirate ship. A rope serves as an anchor, a sheet as a sail, and Sam is its fearless captain. But one day another sailor approaches, and he's not from Sam's street. Can they find something more precious than diamonds and gold? Can they find . . . friendship?"--publisher
"Hiking in the spring could mean the first hike of the season. With the arrival of spring, the ground is thawing, flowers are blooming and nature is jumping back to life. This is the best time of year to let little hikers have fun running and playing outdoors. This story helps children understand the change of seasons, the excitement of hiking and the importance of what it means to “leave no trace.” Hiking with kids can be an extremely rewarding activity for the entire family." -- publisher
Two lonely characters, one black and one white, meet on the street and become friends.
Although the Cross Group category is dominated by relationships between Black and white characters, there are a handful of titles featuring characters of other races:
Cross Group Books: central, direct, positive relationships featuring other children of color
Henry would like to find a friend at school, but for a boy on the autism spectrum, making friends can be difficult, as his efforts are sometimes misinterpreted, or things just go wrong--but Henry keeps trying, and in the end he finds a friend he can play with.
"El and Jo are the shortest kids in their class, and they're inseparable. But what happens when Jo starts to grow?" --
Daniel and Ismail, one Jewish and the other Palestinian, don't know each other yet, but they have more in common than they know. They meet by chance on a soccer field, and they soon begin to play together and show off the tricks they can do. That night, Daniel and Ismail have nightmares about what they have seen on the news and heard from adults about the other group. But the next day, they find each other in the park and get back to what really matters : having fun and playing the game they both love
"The Hike is a plucky and sweet adventure story about three intrepid young female explorers set out to conquer the outdoors in their local forest. Here is the best and worst of any hike: from picnics to puffing and panting, deer-sighting to detours. This spirited picture book is filled with lyrical language that captures the majesty of the natural world, coupled with a fun narrative throughout." -- publisher
While visiting the beach, Ellie meets a new friend and enjoys some amazing adventures in an old blue boat that has been abandoned in the sand.
In this illustrated picture book, a young child can hear color and is enamored with his grandmother's beaded necklace, in spite of the reservations of those around him.--Provided by publisher
Told in two voices and languages, Vietnamese American Annie and Hispanic American Maya attend different schools but spend nearly every weekend together, until something special happens to bring them closer together.
When his dad builds him a tree fort, Russell thinks it is perfect--right up until he notices another tree fort going up three houses over.--from Publisher
"A wordless picture book in which two friends follow a young fox deep into the woods and discover a wondrous and magical world"--
Ruby and her friend Mai are camping out in Mai's garden where giants, dragons, and pirates head toward their tent, but fortunately Ruby has some magical objects to keep the girls safe.
"It's time to clean Adi's room! If only a computer could do it for her! That gives Adi and her best friend Gabi an idea-think like a coder! These scientific thinkers put on their computer coding caps and make cleaning up a snap by sorting with variables!"--
Leslie and her friend, Oolipika learn about the northern lights.
UPDATE: Naa Anorkor and the Black Moms of Austria were so excited with what they learned about the potential impact of Cross Group books that they have decided to join forces with the Black Dads of Germany to publish their own original titles, basing the content on what research has shown to be effective, with situations common to European communities. We’re excited to hear that our findings informed their thinking.
Thanks to Margy Burns Knight for her part in making this connection possible.