Moving Past Color-Blindness

June 25, 2020 § 2 Comments

I have been drafting this post in my head for two weeks, terrified to put pen to paper for the dozens of ways I will certainly mis-step. Raising children dedicated to equity and justice has always been important to me—if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll recognize it as a frequent theme here—but only lately have I pushed myself to consider the ways my own privilege, upbringing, and anxiety have stood in the way of that. It is clear that I cannot raise my children to be antiracist if I am not prepared to do the work myself.

When my daughter was three, I brought her to the pediatrician’s office for a rash. As we sat in the waiting room, watching and remarking on the colorful fish swimming in the aquarium, my daughter suddenly turned to me. “Mommy, is the nurse going to be black-skinned?”

Embarrassment rose in my cheeks. “Oh honey, I’m sure any nurse here is a good nurse. Let’s not—”

Her interrupting voice rose about ten decimals. “Because I am not taking off my clothes for anyone with black skin!”

Just typing this, my hands are shaking. I am back, seven years ago, in that waiting room, aware of all eyes upon us. Aware of the brown-skinned couple with their newborn baby sitting directly across from us. This can’t be happening, I thought. This can’t be my child. She goes to a preschool with a multicultural curriculum. We read books with racially diverse characters. She plays with children who look different than her. Shock, outrage, and humiliation flooded every inch of my being.

Caught off guard and determined to rid myself of my own shame, I fell into a trap familiar to many white parents. For starters, I came down hard on her. I took my shame and put it squarely onto her. I was going to stop this talk immediately. I was going to prove to everyone listening that this was unacceptable behavior in our family. I was going to make it…all about me.

“Stop it!” I said firmly. “We do not say things like that.” Then, I started rambling about how we shouldn’t judge people by how they look, how underneath skin color we’re all the same, how we’re all one big human family, and so on. You know: the speech. The color-blind speech. The one where white parents tell their children to look past skin tone to the person underneath. The one where we imply that because skin color is something we’re born with, something “accidental,” we shouldn’t draw attention to it. The one where we try and push on our children a version of the world we’d like to inhabit, as opposed to the one we actually do.

My three year old was observing—albeit not kindly or subtly—that not everyone looked the way she did. And she wasn’t sure if that was OK. She was scared. She was uncomfortable. Because we weren’t talking about skin tone or race with her at home, because our conversations (however well-intentioned) steered mainly towards platitudes of kindness and acceptance, she had begun to internalize the racial assumptions around her. She had used the descriptor “black-skinned,” I later realized, whereas if she had simply been observing skin tone, she would have said brown skin or dark skin. The word she chose was a reference to race. A loaded word. Something she had heard. Something she didn’t understand. Something she was beginning to associate with something less than.

We don’t want our children to use race to make judgments about people, so we’d rather them dismiss race completely. Except, in a society where race is embedded into nearly every policy and practice, it is impossible not to see race. So instead, what we are really communicating to our young children is, I know you notice these differences, but I don’t want you to admit it. (Including to yourself). Good white liberal children don’t talk about their black and brown friends as being different from them. Even more problematic, good white liberal children love their black and brown friends in spite of these differences.

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Moving the Classroom to the Woods

March 27, 2020 § 2 Comments

(Friends, these are rough times. I feel you all. And I promise to keep showing up for you with book ideas for all ages. In addition to these weekly posts, I have (almost) daily recommendations on Instagram, so follow me there. We’ll get through this pandemic with the help of fictional worlds and gripping history and funny comics. Worst comes to worst, we can always use the pages to wipe our bottoms.)

It was only the second morning of #pandemicparenting, and the kids and I were already on the verge of strangling one another. My husband needed a quiet house for conference calls, so I threw out our daily schedule (just one day old) and drove the kids to the woods…where we stayed for four hours. It was cold and drizzly when we arrived, and I found myself willing it to be over. We walked and walked, saw no one, walked some more, and eventually settled into our own rhythms. My daughter ran off trail to climb on logs and rocks. My son stopped talking about his stress level and moved through the world quietly. We got lost, had to scramble up rocky ledges to find the trail again, discovered deserted outcroppings of beaches. The sun came out. I sat and listened to the water, while the kids skipped stones. Later, my son threw his arms around a tree, and I laughed out loud.

We’ve had our fair share of highs and lows these first two weeks of social distancing, but I am endlessly grateful that the trees still welcome our closeness. If there are silver linings amidst this collective heartbreak, one is an opportunity to return our children to nature. I never wanted to homeschool my kids; I knew I’d be rubbish at it. (I knew my kids would be equally rubbish at it.) Thankfully, they still have their wonderful teachers, even if they can only see them on a screen right now. I figure, for as long as we’re packed in together like sardines, I can give my kids two blessings: I can read them books; and I can gently push them towards the trees.

You know what social distancing is good for? Secret gardens. If your children need convincing to let nature step in as teacher, read them the extraordinary new picture book biography, The Secret Garden of George Washington Carver (Ages 7-10). My kids were riveted. Evocatively written by Gene Barretta and accented with richly expressive oil paintings by Frank Morrison, the story demonstrates how young George Washington Carver’s intimate relationship with nature as a child grew into a passionate career as a botanist, inventor, and activist.

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Concluding Black History Month on the Train

February 27, 2020 Comments Off on Concluding Black History Month on the Train

Every year, once in the fall and once in the spring, I take each of my children on a mommy-and-me trip to New York City for a long weekend in the city where I grew up. We board the train in Alexandria, Virginia and make stops in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore, Maryland; Newark, Delaware; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and, finally, New York City, Penn Station. My kids have come to enjoy the train ride almost as much as the destination itself, glancing up from their books to watch the changing scenery speeding by—there is something innately lolling and contemplative about train travel—and anticipating the stops to come.

These same train stops come to life against an important and fascinating historical backdrop in Overground Railroad (Ages 4-9), a new picture book by superstar husband-and-wife team Lesa Cline-Ransome and James Ransome, whose Before She Was Harriet I praised around this same time last year. “Isn’t it supposed to be “Underground Railroad?” my daughter asked, when I picked up the book to read it to her. Admittedly, I was equally stumped. As the Author’s Note explains, most people are familiar with the covert network known as the Underground Railroad, which assisted runaway slaves on their journey to the North, usually on foot. Lesser known but often equally secretive, the Overground Railroad refers to the train and bus routes traveled by millions of black Americans during the Great Migration, a time when former slaves opted to free themselves from the limitations and injustices of sharecropping to seek out better employment and educational opportunities in the North. Faced with the threat of violence from the owners of these tenant farms, who relied on the exploitation of sharecroppers for their livelihood, those who escaped often had to do so under cover of night.

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Never Too Old to Learn

January 30, 2020 § 6 Comments

Last week, I flew to Boston to see my 101-year-old grandmother for what will likely be the last time. Her lucidity came and went throughout our few hours together, and at times she seemed to look at me and see a much younger version of her granddaughter. “What are your studying in school?” she asked.

“I’m not in school anymore,” I answered. “I’m all grown up! I have kids in school now.”

“That’s no excuse!” she exclaimed, in a playful but insistent tone I recognized all too well.

Perhaps she was simply covering up her mistake. But perhaps not. My paternal grandmother may have attended college for only two years, but she spent much of her adult and geriatric life chasing down knowledge wherever she could. She read biographies voraciously. She traveled the world. She referred to herself as a “news junkie” when you came upon her studying a newspaper. When she moved into her retirement home at 88, she signed up for every class they offered, from Buddhism to World War Two. “I’m taking a fascinating class about the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” she reported on the phone one day. “It has me quite disturbed, actually.”

On another call: “I’m reading E.O. Wilson’s new book. He’s an absolutely brilliant biologist. I’m not sure I’m understanding a word of it, but I suppose some of it might be sneaking in!”

Learning as something to be seized and cherished is a value I will always credit to my grandmother. Still, learning is a luxury not afforded to all, and nowhere is this more painfully evident than in the stories of American slaves. Rita Lorraine Hubbard’s new picture book biography, The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read (Ages 6-10), movingly illustrated by collage artist Oge Mora, tells the incredible true story of a former slave who achieved her lifelong dream of learning to read at the astounding age of 116.

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Taking Up Space (A Black History Month Post)

February 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

In her modern dance classes, my daughter cherishes above all the few minutes devoted to “sparkle jumps.” One by one, the dancers crisscross the studio at a run. As each one reaches the middle, she explodes into a leap, arms reaching up and out, head tall, like the points of a star. For one perfect moment, my daughter takes up as much space as her little body will allow.

“I love watching you take up space,” I tell her. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Places We Carry With Us

May 17, 2018 § 9 Comments

 Our family spent this past Spring Break in Belize, where the sights, sounds, and smells surpassed even our wildest imaginations. I will not pretend that we immersed ourselves in the local culture, since the time we spent outside resorts was carefully orchestrated by Belizean tour guides; but we did glean much by talking with these guides and drivers, asking questions about their backgrounds and their lives. Nearly all of these native Belizeans had at one point spent time working and studying in the United States—somewhere in the range of seven to ten years—and spoke of their experience with fondness. Many had expected to remain longer. “What made you decide to come back to Belize?” my children and I would ask.

The answer was always the same. Predictably accompanied by a triumphant smile.

“I was homesick!” « Read the rest of this entry »

Our Kids Need to Know Harriet Tubman

February 28, 2018 § 2 Comments

Hands down, the most thought-provoking thing I read this month was an interview in the Pacific Standard with Bryan Stevenson, a Harvard-trained public defense lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a Southern non-profit dedicated to achieving racial and economic justice. In the interview, he discusses ways in which our country’s history—specifically that of African-Americans—lives on in our present, complicating our quest for racial justice. Of particular fascination to me was the distinction he draws between a legal or political win and what he terms a “narrative win.” The latter, he believes, holds the greatest power, the real key to comprehensive change. « Read the rest of this entry »

Two Irresistible New Plays on The Nutcracker

December 20, 2017 § 1 Comment

For the first time in five years, our family has no plans to see Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” danced on stage. All of us are sadder than we anticipated being, back when we were planning our holiday season and thought we’d take an opportunity to create a new tradition or two. (We shall not make that mistake again.)

Fortunately, there are two stunning new picture-book interpretations of “The Nutcracker,” both of which quickly found their way into our holiday stash—and will tide us over until next year’s tickets go on sale. Neither is a traditional telling of the story (I covered that last year). Instead, each offers a fresh spin; a new way to reflect on the magic of this classic Christmas Eve story about transformation. « Read the rest of this entry »

Introducing Activism to Children

November 17, 2016 § 11 Comments

Ordinary People Change the World by Brad Meltzer & Christopher EliopoulosIn light of last week’s election results, I am struggling, like so many millions of Americans, with the question of what I can and should do to combat the rhetoric of hate and intolerance that has prevailed in this unfathomable reality, where someone running on a platform of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia would be awarded the highest position of power in our country.

What do we do now? Specifically, how do we advocate—and inspire our children to advocate—on behalf of those who are afraid, of those who are on the receiving end of vitriolic slurs and physical threats, of those whose place in our communities is suddenly threatened? « Read the rest of this entry »

The Right to Vote

February 11, 2016 § 6 Comments

"Lillian's Right to Vote" by Jonah WinterWith such a heated presidential election upon us, voting has been a popular topic of conversation in our house. My eight year old is trying to make sense of the candidate names he has heard; and he repeatedly asks my husband and I who we “want to win” this November, convinced with that blind, beautiful eight-year-old innocence that his parents’ choice must be the right one. (I’m tempted to blow his mind by telling him that his dad and I might each want someone different.)

The right to vote may be one that many of us Americans take for granted today (much like trying on shoes at a store—see last year’s post for Black History Month); and yet, it also seems to inspire a certain awe in our children. Or at least it did in me when I was young. My mother would take me along when she voted in major elections. We’d wait in line, hand in hand, and then part of me would cringe in betrayal when at last it was her turn and she would pull the curtain closed around the voting booth, leaving her on one side and me on the other. I would strain to see her shadow beneath the curtain, trying to make heads or tails of what she was doing in there. “Can’t I come in with you?” I’d lament. “Isn’t it unsafe to leave me out here all alone?” I’d try. But her answer was always the same: “Voting is private. What I do in here is nobody’s business but my own.” That night, I’d try harassing my father: “But you did vote for who you said you were going to, right?” “That’s for me to know,” my dad would reply, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly. « Read the rest of this entry »

Creative Activism (In Honor of Black History Month)

February 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

"Seeds of Freedom" by Hester Bass & E.B. LewisLast spring, I took my then three year old daughter shopping for shoes. It was a rainy Saturday, we had just come from her first early morning soccer practice (to which she had worn rain boots), and with plenty of time to kill before lunch, I figured we’d hunt down some sensible, sports-worthy sneakers. As we stepped, hand in hand, through the automatic doors and into the giant monstrosity that is Rack Room, it occurred to me that I had never taken her shopping before. I was feeling a little giddy.

We soon found ourselves standing before towering steel shelves, endless rows filled with mix-matched boxes of child-sized sneakers. “Let’s see,” I said, pulling down a Nike box with a pair of bright turquoise Velcro sneakers. “How about these?”

There was a squeal. “Mommy, look! These ones over here have PRINCESSES on them!” “Oh, wait! Look at that girl over there: she’s got on shoes that LIGHT UP! Those are the ones! Those are the ones I want!”

I started to panic. Oh right, this is why I have never taken her shopping. Why did I forsake my precious Zappos for this place?! As the steel walls and high-pitched whining began to close in on me, I made a quick decision. « Read the rest of this entry »

Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”

February 17, 2014 § 1 Comment

Thomas Jefferson by Maira KalmanMy wish has come true: the exquisite Maira Kalman has graced us with another presidential picture book! Last year, she gave us Looking at Lincoln, which I’ve gifted to more people than I can count (read why here). This year, she introduces our children to Monticello, the Declaration of Independence, and the brilliant, curious, and at times hypocritical Thomas Jefferson, in her just-published Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Everything (Ages 6-12).

Instead of beginning, as we might expect, with chronological details of Jefferson’s life, Kalman’s biography takes us straight to the heart of her subject—or, rather, to his mind. The book opens with Jefferson’s love of books (“I cannot live without books,” he said—a man after my own heart); manners (he could say “please” in seven languages); vegetables (his gardens sported nine varieties of peas, his favorite); and “light and air” (he constantly changed Monticello’s architecture to let in both). « Read the rest of this entry »

Changing the World Through Song: A Post for MLK Jr. Day

January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment

We Shall Overcome: The Story of a SongLast year’s post, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday, continues to be one of my most read and shared posts. I don’t think there’s any way to top Kadir Nelson’s moving picture book biography of King, so I thought I’d talk this year, not about the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, but about his followers—the ones who marched, the ones who stood up for what they believed, the ones who sang. I was giddy with excitement to discover Debbie Levy’s new picture book, We Shall Overcome: The Story of a Song (Ages 5-10)—one, because I have always loved that song (it crops up at surprising times, like when I’m hiding in the bathroom in an attempt to keep from screaming at my children); and two, because music has recently taken our house by a storm. « Read the rest of this entry »

Eyes on Abraham Lincoln

February 12, 2013 Comments Off on Eyes on Abraham Lincoln

Looking at LincolnYou might expect that my children, living so close to Washington DC, have many opportunities to learn about our nation’s history. But mere proximity does not a future scholar make. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, is consistently celebrated by my five year old as “the place where we picnic in the summer!” If you ask him the name of the president that sits in stone behind him during said picnics, he is likely to throw you a disinterested look and recommence staring out the car window, pointing out other landmarks whose names he boasts correctly but whose significance he understands not. Which begs the question: How do we get our kids to care about the past presidents that have shaped our country?

The biographies we read as kids were filled with dry facts and black-and-white photographs that made their content feel all too disconnected from our daily lives; too often we were encouraged to memorize names and dates for tests, only to forget them a week later. Thankfully, our own kids have access to a whole new generation of fresh reading material, including picture books that breathe colorful new life into historic periods and events.

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“Use Your Words” (MLK Jr. Style)

January 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.In a few days, our country will celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and a presidential inauguration. Whatever our political views, whatever our race or gender or religion or socioeconomic background, we can do our children a great service by talking to them about Dr. King’s vision of justice and peace, his commitment to respecting the dignity of every human being.

I’ve found that parents, especially us white Americans, are reluctant to broach the subject of race relations with preschoolers or even young elementary students. Ashamed of our country’s past afflictions, it’s as if we can pretend they never existed if we don’t talk about them. But child development specialists and sociologists (like Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of NurtureShock) have pointed out that children naturally notice differences in appearances, and that if we don’t have these conversations with them from an early age, they will begin to draw their own conclusions—and, even worse, begin to view the subject as taboo—which does nothing to advance our nation’s long and still arduous progression toward equality. And, let’s be honest, have you ever met a five or seven or ten year old that isn’t obsessed with the notion of fairness? For that matter, how many times a day do we as parents plead with our children, “Use your words!” (say, when said children yank something out of their sibling’s hands or push a peer on the school playground)?

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