Jul 11, 2016

Trauma and Racism: Picture Books Open Hard Conversations

My intended audience for this blog is adults, although nothing in it would be off-limits to younger readers. I wish I could say the same for the non-stop coverage of current events on mainstream and social media. 
Many adults I know find themselves overwhelmed by the events and by the graphic coverage and commentary. Just imagine the impact of this exposure on young people, and that includes teens and preteens, not just preschool and elementary age kids.

Images of trauma, threats, hate speech, and stereotyping surround us all. It's clear that even adults often lack the filters and analytic skills to sort and process fact from opinion, truth from exaggeration, partial truth from more complex realities. 
Young people need to pass through developmental stages to separate reality from fantasy in normal times. In the current social and political climate they are particularly in need of support and direct, guided discussions with trusted adults. The Washington Post  has this article entitled: HOW SHOULD PARENTS AND TEACHERS TALK TO KIDS ABOUT POLICE VIOLENCE. The frequent tragedies portrayed in the news float atop the political language we witnessed so far during this election year. It's frightening but likely that this may only be a prelude to what's to come in the fall, but effects are already evident. (THE TRUMP EFFECT IN SCHOOLS). 

School Library Journal recently posted this list of recommended titles for young adults and mature middle grade readers. (Here) I've read every one of these titles and I urge adults to read them, share them, discuss them. Several are particularly valuable in their use of distinctly different voices and points of view regarding a single news event.

When I saw that post I knew I'd want to share a list of picture books for younger readers. Not that I haven't featured important titles on these topics in the past, including this post on non-fiction titles from 2013. Check it out for stories of Jackie Robinson's courage in breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball and  Satchell Paige's demonstration of quiet confidence and superior skills despite his exclusion. 
Several valuable concepts can be developed and discussions launched with these and the other titles I'll suggest in this post.
Racism and unequal treatment aren't new, but progress has been made. Keeping in mind that these two anecdotal/biographic profiles document the reality of the 1930s and 1940s in this country, compare that to the reality of our  eight-year-olds who have never NOT known a black president of the United States.
We are changing, and so are the books available to kids. I'll turn to my readings of fiction picture books for the Cybils Awards for some recent releases. Each is worthy for any purpose, but are ideal for discussions surrounding current events. 

Chronicle Books, 2015

Trauma and destruction can be spawned by Mother Nature as readily as by human nature. One book that incorporates the power of individual effort (AND ATTITUDE) through good times and bad is award-winning MARVELOUS CORNELIUS: HURRICANE KARINA AND THE SPIRIT OF NEW ORLEANS, by Phil Bilder. (Check out the awards here)
Of all the books I read and considered in the past year, this one stays with me for many reasons. For an extensive review and comments, check my post from earlier in the year, here. This is just one paragraph from my Goodreads review:

"This book bounces, sings, captures a city and culture as if it is character itself, and shifts scenes throughout, from the earliest pages where the grittiness is transformed by the touch (and hard work) of Cornelius to sparkling and appealing. Eventually, the overwhelming destruction of nature's force is countered by the binding and building of a community, inspired by the spirit of Cornelius." 

If you haven't seen it yet, a short video clip made by the mother of triplets suggests that this kind of day-to-day personal interaction, appreciation of service, and celebration of daily work continues to build (and rebuild) communities. It only takes a few minutes, so please watch it here.
Kids Can Books, 2015
One question I ask kids (of any age) and now ask my friends when hard conversations are involved is this: Whatever you FEEL, or KNOW, or BELIEVE, or FEAR about what you've seen, in person or on media, try this thought experiment:
  1. Do a real or mental "rewind" of the event. 
  2. Find someone in the event you are certain you could NOT EVER imagine yourself to be, someone too "different" to understand.
  3. Now picture yourself as the sister-brother-mother-child-cousin-best-friend of that "other".  
  4. Take a moment and allow yourself to feel how well you do know them, love them, want the best for them.
  5. Then replay the event, mentally or via media, and focus on that "other", feeling and reacting as you would if you cared. Loved.
MY FAMILY TREE AND ME, written and illustrated by Dusan Petricic, is a quirky and touchingly comic approach to exploring and sharing a diverse, wide-ranging family who have the most important thing of all in common-- they love each other.
Here's some of what I said about it in my review on Goodreads: 

"This is a valuable option for anyone working on family tree projects, as well as viewing diversity within extended and immediate family members. The centering of the full family tree with father's side and mother's side extending to the left and right pages is an original and strongly conceptual design.
There are numerous visual subplots woven into each illustration, and the individuals are both realistic and caricatures in ways that make this family both "specific" and universal." 

Of the many titles I might have shared this one came to mind based on that exercise I described above. Perhaps real and full acceptance of "others" will only come when each and every one of us can see ourselves as somewhere on such a diverse and quirky family tree. We live in a time of finding "leaves" on our ancestry trees and having DNA tests reveal our world-spanning genetic natures. In truth, we are ALL members of a quirky, diverse extended family, if we can just extend our imaginations and hearts wide enough to feel it.

These suggestions barely scratch the surface, so I welcome others in the comments.


  1. Thought-provoking post! Thank you. Have you seen One Family, George Shannon/Blanca Gomez, 2015; I reviewed it here: https://patricianozell.com/2016/01/15/perfect-picture-book-friday-one-family/

  2. Patrricia, I apologize for taking this long to get back to your note, but thank you for the additional suggestion. Yes, I do know (and love) ONE FAMILY. Anyone who wants to take a look can check this link: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780374300036
    The good news is that many in our society seems to have grown to be mot just accepting but expecting of families to be more internally diverse, although there is a post on a blog, 3Boys1blogandMe that makes it clear there are plenty who DO NOT recognize the racism in their heads and hearts, as Obama said in his speech yesterday. Hope you and others will take a look/read of this post. https://3boys1blogandme.com/2016/07/09/when-suddenly-no-lives-matter/
    and Thanks for the recommendation! Still welcoming others, too.


Picture books are as versatile and diverse as the readers who enjoy them. Join me to explore the wacky, wonderful, challenging and changing world of picture books.