What (and How) We’re Reading for Black History Month

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Black History Month is a time to commemorate the vast historical achievements and contributions of black Americans through time. For parents, it is also an opportunity to discuss and celebrate diversity with your children. One such way to do this is through books! Below, some book recommendations, and tips on how to read them with your child through a race-conscious lens. 

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Through My Eyes, by Ruby Bridges
In November 1960, all of America watched as a tiny six-year-old black girl, surrounded by federal marshals, walked through a mob of screaming segregationists and into her school. An icon of the civil rights movement, Ruby Bridges chronicles each dramatic step of this pivotal event in history through her own words.

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Skin Again, by Bell Hooks and Chris Raschka
Skin Again puts skin color into a larger perspective by suggesting its refrain the limits of skin: “The skin I’m in is just a covering.” The text spends time discussing what skin color is as well as discussing what it is not. Skin color is not the definitive element of a person; while it can be an indicator of familial history and heritage, color cannot tell one’s story in its entirety.

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Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, by Laban Carrick Hill
A Caldecott Honor and Corretta Scott King Award Winner, Dave the Potter tells the story of an extraordinary artist, poet, and potter living in South Carolina in the 1800s. He combined his superb artistry with deeply observant poetry, carved onto his pots, transcending the limitations he faced as a slave. In this inspiring and lyrical portrayal, National Book Award nominee Laban Carrick Hill’s elegantly simple text and award-winning artist Bryan Collier’s resplendent, earth-toned illustrations tell Dave’s story, a story rich in history, hope, and long-lasting beauty.

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Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman
Grace loves stories, and with a boundless imagination she acts them all out. One day, her teacher asks who would like to play the lead in the play Peter Pan. Grace eagerly raises her hand, but Raj tells her she isn’t a boy, and Natalie tells her she can’t because she is black. Nana sets Grace straight: she can do anything she sets her mind to! Grace’s talent bursts forth, and she wins the audition hands down. Binch’s radiant illustrations add to this inspiring story. (Amazon)

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Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by Doreen Rappaport
This picture-book biography is an excellent and accessible introduction for young readers to learn about one of the world’s most influential leaders, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Rappaport weaves the immortal words of Dr. King into a captivating narrative to tell the story of his life. With stunning art by acclaimed illustrator Bryan Collier, Martin’s Big Words is an unforgettable portrait of a man whose dream changed America-and the world-forever. (Amazon)

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All the Colors We Are, by Katie Kissinger
Written by social activist, educator, and founder of Threads of Justice, this bilingual (English/Spanish) book offers children a simple, scientifically accurate explanation of how our skin color is determined by our ancestors, the sun, and melanin. It’s also filled with colorful photographs that capture the beautiful variety of skin tones. This book helps children build positive identities as they accept, understand, and value our rich and diverse world. Unique activity ideas are included to help you extend the conversation with children.

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Black is Brown is Tan, by Arnold Adoff
Black is brown is tan is a story/poem about being, a beautiful true song about a family delighting in each other and in the good things of the earth. This poetic story of an interracial family, narrated by the entire family.

Recommended for Upper Elementary
Our Upper Elementary students have chosen multicultural voices for their February Book Club. Below, their selections.

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The Watsons go to Birmingham, by Christopher Paul Curtis
The Newbery and Coretta Scott King Honoree about the hilarious world of ten-year-old Kenny and his family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. There’s Momma, Dad, little sister Joetta, and brother Byron. When Byron gets to be too much trouble, they head South to Birmingham to visit Grandma, the one person who can shape him up. They are in Birmingham when tragic events take place. The events are a catalyst for increased activity in the Civil Rights Movement and work on voter registration in Mississippi, during Freedom Summer of 1964.

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Amina’s Voice, ​by Hena Khan
A Pakistani-American Muslim girl struggles to stay true to her family’s vibrant culture while simultaneously blending in at school after tragedy strikes her community in this sweet and moving middle grade novel from the award-winning author of It’s Ramadan, Curious George. A disturbing hate crime targets the Islamic Center and mosque, but the surrounding community rises to help and support their Muslim neighbors.

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Sugar, ​by Jewell Parker Rhodes
Ten-year-old Sugar lives on the River Road sugar plantation along the banks of the Mississippi. Slavery is over, but laboring in the fields all day doesn’t make her feel very free. Thankfully, Sugar has a knack for finding her own fun, especially when she joins forces with forbidden friend Billy, the white plantation owner’s son. Sugar has always yearned to learn more about the world, and she sees her chance when Chinese workers are brought in to help harvest the cane. Here is a story of unlikely friendships and how they can change our lives forever.

See a much more extensive list of recommended books for children relating to Black History Month here. And be sure to check out Scott Woods’ updated list of 28 More Black Picture Books That Aren’t About Boycotts, Buses or Basketball (2018)

Tips on Engaging Children in the Story

  1. Shift from a “performance” mindset to a “discussion” mindset
    When reading with a child, avoid creating a space in which your child feels that he must sit and passively listen to the story from start to finish. Instead, create a space for discussion. Ask questions throughout the book that will draw a child into a critical thinking mindset, such as asking open-ended questions: “What do you see happening in this picture?” “What do you see that makes you say that?” and “What else can we find?”
  2. Embrace race during story time
    It’s okay to point out racial differences depicted in story books! Embrace differences and point out and reinforce “fair/unfair” scenarios when discussing racial stereotypes or exclusion. Though many white parents may have been socialized to believe that talking about race is impolite, avoiding talking about race with white children can lead white children to take away a negative message, and to feel uncomfortable with topics of race.
  3. Ask questions to get kids talking about how words and pictures can reflect, reinforce, or challenge systems of power
    Ask: “Whose story is this?” “Who is named? Who isn’t?” “Who acts? Who is acted upon?” Any of these questions can lead to discussions about power dynamics and how race is represented in each story/book.
  4. Keep in mind that children’s books are a form of socialization; they are at once reflecting culture and building it (from EmbraceRace.org)
    With this in mind, take a look at your child’s home library. Does it include positive, good books that also happen to diverse? This is important! Work to diversify your child’s book collection, as it is extremely important for your child to grow up reading books that feature a racially diverse set of characters, not just during Black History Month, but all the time.

Parents can also stop by any library: the St. Louis County Library system or the Kirkwood Public Library to check out We Stories curricular books as well as fun, educational discussion kits. There, you can find guides that help parents feel comfortable discussing race with their children.

“Do we believe and constantly insist that cooperation among the peoples of the world is necessary in order to bring about peace? If so, what is needed first of all is collaboration with children…. All our efforts will come to nothing until we remedy the great injustice done the child, and remedy it by cooperating with him. If we are among the men of good will who yearn for peace, we must lay the foundation for peace ourselves, by working for the social world of the child.” (International Montessori Congress, 1937)