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Exploring Cross-Group Relationships in Older Children’s Books

Illustrations by Briana Dengoue from April & Mae and the Book Club Cake by Megan Dowd Lambert

The Diverse BookFinder expands

In the fall of 2021, the Diverse BookFinder was awarded a three-year National Leadership Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to fund a project titled: Middle Grade and Young Adult Books with Black, Indigenous People, and People of Color: Where are They?

The purpose of the project is to add older titles — early readers through young adult novels — to our current collection of picture books. We’ll be applying our coding system and categories to explore not just who is represented but how.

This exciting expansion presents a whole new set of challenges as we engage with the complexity of literature for older readers. Let’s examine that with examples of early reader titles that fit in our Cross Group category.

Cross Group books reduce prejudice

Cross Group is one of nine categories we developed to capture the content of picture books with BIPOC characters. These titles about friendships across race were the subject of the 2010 research project, “Telling tales in school: extended contact interventions in the classroom,” which caused us to ask the questions that launched the Diverse BookFinder.

Cross Group books portray relationships between main or secondary characters across racial or cultural difference. The interactions depicted may be positive, negative, or resolving.

What have we learned about these titles? Our studies and others showed that when children read books showing positive interactions across race,

  • their intergroup anxiety about racial difference lowers;
  • they develop a new understanding of their own identity: “kids in my group play with kids from another group”; and
  • they show an increased willingness to expand their friendships across racial differences.

Read more about this research in this School Library Journal article, ”How Cross-Racial Scenes in Picture Books Build Acceptance.”

What to Look for in Cross Group Titles

We'll be starting the process of collecting and applying our coding to early readers, chapter books, and novels, later this year. The Every Day with April & Mae series by Megan Dowd Lambert, illustrated by Briana Dengoue, will be released in October 2022. What can we learn about the qualities of Cross Group titles by examining this series?

Four of the seven titles in the Every Day with April & Mae series by Megan Dowd Lambert, illustrated by Briana Dengoue, (Charlesbridge, October 2022) 

More Diverse Representation

Currently, the majority of Cross Group picture books portray relationships between characters of color and White characters. (For example, as of this writing, the 746 Cross Group titles in our picture book collection include more White characters [478] than characters from any BIPOC group!)

It's particularly important for Cross Group books to include a wide range of characters. In order for these interventions to be successful, children need to see characters that they can identify as representing their groups, both racial and gender. No single title has to do it all, but the ideal collection of Cross Group books would include female, male, and gender-nonspecific characters of all races, in many different relationship combinations.

In this series, April is Black and Mae is Asian, meeting the need for depictions of more diverse cross-group friendships, especially still-rarely-seen relationships between two BIPOC characters.

Types of Cross Group Relationships

Many different types of relationships across racial/cultural difference can be portrayed in books:

  • Central — between primary or secondary characters of equal status
  • Direct — central to the story
  • Indirect — relationship not central to the story
  • Positive — characters having fun, not in conflict
  • Negative — characters in conflict or engaged in/targeted by oppressive behaviors
  • Resolving — improvements in the relationship including solving conflicts

Central, Direct, Positive

Illustration by Briana Dengoue from April & Mae and the Book Club Cake by Megan Dowd Lambert

Narratives presenting central, direct, and positive relationships can be effective in lowering intergroup anxiety and reducing prejudice. Studies suggest that this type of intervention is more effective with younger children, in kindergarten through third grade.

In the series, April and Mae are the main protagonists and the only named characters (central, direct). Though they have very different personalities, they are portrayed as best friends. The focus of most of the stories is on their connection, the activities they share, the fun they have, and the problems they solve together (positive).

Negative, Resolving

In the first title in the series, April & Mae and the Tea Party, the two girls get into a fight when April accidentally breaks one of Mae’s favorite teacups (negative). Their estrangement is painful for both characters, until they figure out how to mend the tear in their relationship (resolving).

Illustration by Briana Dengoue from April & Mae and the Tea Party by Megan Dowd Lambert

Though such depictions of negative and resolving interactions are not effective for interventions to reduce intergroup anxiety, as described in the research, they are useful as reflections of children's common experiences. Young readers can witness that others also have ups and downs in friendships, and these stories can be springboards to discuss feelings and how to resolve disagreements.

Illustration by Briana Dengoue from April & Mae and the Tea Party by Megan Dowd Lambert

Common Group vs. Dual Identity

The April and Mae titles don't contain any particular cultural elements (beyond mainstream American, middle-class childhood culture), and certainly none that drive the narrative. Thus, they are also strong examples of another category, Any Child: "Books featuring BIPOC in which race, ethnicity, tribal affiliation, culture, im/migration, and/or religious, sacred, or origin stories are not central to the story." (Titles in our collection can have up to three category codes.)

They are also examples of one type of message, "common group," used in our research on Cross Group books. The study explored three different story approaches with three different groups of students: The first approach was a Control Group with stories in which all characters were White. The second, Common Group, focused on togetherness, on the characters being members of a team and having fun together, with no explicit reference to the visible differences between the characters. The third, Dual Identity focused on togetherness as well, and included specific references to the racial and cultural differences of the characters (for instance, referencing the henna designs on the hands of a Somali character). Both common group and dual identity stories were shown to be effective in lowering intergroup anxiety and levels of prejudice.

Using Cross Group Books Effectively

In our study and others, participant educators were instructed to engage in a short discussion after the reading of each book, engaging students in focusing on how much fun the characters in the book were having together. This conversation was instrumental in directing students' attention to the positive aspects of the characters' relationships.

Though of course it's fine for children to just read and enjoy these or any books (and as early readers, these are more likely to be read independently), a conversation about the stories can help illuminate the power of its Cross Group friendship. Librarians, educators, and parents might ask questions such as:

  • How are April and Mae different? How are they the same?
  • What do they like to do together?
  • How do they complement and support each other?
  • What's one of the most fun things they do together?
  • If April and Mae were your friends, what would you like to do with them?

As we begin the adventure of expanding our collection, we’ll be fascinated to see how our categories and coding fit — and where they need tweaking — when applied to increasingly complex stories for older readers. Stay tuned!

For more information on Cross Group titles, see these posts:

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