Walking Toward Diversity: How Our Choices in Children's Books Impacts Understanding

November 18, 2020

None of our babies are born into the world knowing anything about disliking one another, or disliking someone because of the color of their skin. Babies don't come into the world like that. And so, if babies are not born that way, then we as adults are the ones who are passing it on to them, and we have kept racism alive.”

- Ruby Bridges

Educators have the power to shape history

Sixty years ago, on November 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges was escorted to school by stern U.S. Marshals as she prepared to become the first Black student at William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, Louisiana. 

A less told story is of the kindness and empathy of a single teacher who would be Ruby's sole support at school through her first-grade time as she sat all alone in a classroom with her. Other teachers would not include Ruby in their class and parents removed their children from the school rather than have them go to school with her. 

Barbara Henry, Ruby's teacher, sent a message of Inclusivity and acceptance by deciding to teach a Black student in a time when no other white teacher would. Embracing every child with the same respect, openness and understanding is a core component to being a begin to ECSEL educator. We know young children learn a great deal simply by watching how we interact with others. You, as an important adult in a young child’s life play a pivotal role in helping children receive positive and inclusive views and values in developmentally supportive and appropriate ways.

Children learn by watching adults

children learn by watching adults

Young children need guidance from thoughtful adults to help them construct a positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others. From a very young age, children are exceptionally aware of the differences and inequalities between races. This awareness may be caused by an implicit bias that children hold about people who are visibly different from them, which they learn from their environment and experiences they have within the context of relationships.

As Ms. Bridges eloquently noted, “none of our babies are born into the world knowing anything about disliking one another, or disliking someone because of the color of their skin." So, it is our responsibility as adults to ensure that, from the start, children are shown a diverse world and are encouraged to engage in that diverse world. Conversations and education around differences and diversity should never wait until children are older.

Lessons of empathy and inclusivity for young children come from many areas and it starts with the key adults in their lives-the choices we make, the messaging and modeling we present all impact the formation of understanding and embracing differences.

One great tool that begin to ECSEL educators often turn to share and create opportunities to discuss are books that feature diverse and emotion-rich storylines that allow children to identify themselves within the story. Exposing your children or students to diverse media can help open conversations about race relations and lead them toward a more tolerant and empathetic worldview that will inform their views and outlook in adulthood. The experience of sharing a book with children prompts conversations about what’s happening in the story, what the characters are feeling, the meanings of words, and especially how what’s happening in the book might relate to the child’s own experiences. Furthermore, books offer an opportunity for children to feel as though they are a part of the story -- or even more compelling -- a part of the greater world.

our media choices affect children

The media choices we make to present to our children, be it print, video or music, are critical in their knowledge of what the world looks like, and the understanding of the experiences and history of others. In order for children to grow to be empathetic, tolerant and caring, they need to first understand that the world is bigger and more diverse than their own backyards. They must see diverse characters, hear their stories, recognize and gain an understanding of differences, and identify with them on common ground.

When children of color are absent from children’s literature it presents what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a “single story” that limits the opportunity for understanding in children across races. Issues of racial, ethnic and cultural equity in children’s literature is critical as we help our children to grasp and understand all that has happened, and all that continues to happen with the movement toward social justice. Children must be able to see what brings people together, not what pulls them apart.

Ideally, a large percentage of picture books would be inclusive and depict children and families of diverse backgrounds, but unfortunately, according to the work of Nancy Larick and many who have followed her, that is not the case. Larick’s 1965 publication indicated that in the years 1962-1964 (right after Ruby entered elementary school), less than 7% of children’s books published depicted even one Black child. A more recent evaluation in 2019 revealed that these numbers are still consistently low, especially when considering the current American demographics, which show that nearly half of all babies born in the United States are of a racial, ethnic or culturally marginalized background.

The inclusion of characters from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds allows young readers of color to see their lives and experiences as visible and valuable. In addition to enhancing self- understanding and self-esteem, diverse books focused on inequality and empowerment support children of color’s academic motivation.

As important as it is for children of color to have role models who represent them in all forms of media, it is also critical that all children be able to see and engage with characters from all backgrounds. If a White child lives and goes to school in a predominantly White area, their day to day is not representative of the nation as a whole. Some of those children have not had the opportunity to see anyone but themselves as the main character and need these books to develop empathy and the ability to connect with someone who might not look exactly like them. In these circumstances, diverse picture books can provide overrepresented populations with a “window” into the cultures and traditions of people different from themselves. This provides children with the opportunity to combat inherent biases by normalizing stories and images that they might not encounter on a daily basis, effectively reducing their tendency to participate in “othering.”

We as the key adults in children's lives have the power to create, teach, maintain or eliminate bias through the choices we make and the actions we take. For Ruby Bridges, she could look to her courageous parents and teacher and their fight to have Ruby included, but she could have just as easily looked to all the other parents at the school who worked to block Ruby's entrance and keep their children from interacting with her. Begin to ECSEL educators are taught that emotional intelligence is at the root of understanding and relationship-building. By recognizing the significance of emotional literacy and understanding, we as educators are therefore able to support important conversations around emotional topics such as inclusivity and racism. Helping children to acknowledge, identify, and understand complex emotions around these topics help them to ultimately better understand one another and the emotions that we all share.

The lessons of one little girl going to first grade present a great opportunity to help children today learn about the lingering impact of segregation and the immense power of empathy and kindness, like that shown to Ruby by her teacher 60 years ago. Sharing books history and stories, such as Ruby Bridges’ brand new book Ruby Bridges: This is Your Time, will allow all children to gain a stronger base for developing their understanding and vision of the world they will inherit. Ruby Bridges’ story is one that every adult should share with their children as our country faces a pivotal moment in the fight for racial equality, inclusivity, and representation both in and out of the media.

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