UPDATED Books for Talking about Race with Kids, featuring Dear Martin Discussion Questions (Now with books for parents, too)

71Lf9Mxxj4L{I first published this list in December 2014, after the grand jury decisions in the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I’m revisiting it today as there are riots across the country after a string of events including the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN. So much has happened in between and yet so much has remained the same. In the interim, many, many books about racism and police brutality have been published for children and adults. I’m updating the list to include more books, books for parents who are looking to learn also, and I am including some discussion questions I wrote regarding Dear Martin, an incredible young adult book by Nic Stone that I think works as a wonderful door into a conversation with older kids and/or adults about systemic racism in America. Scroll to the bottom for those.  Please also note: I link to Amazon throughout, but I highly recommend making use of your local library or ordering from a bookstore that is local to you.}

Issues of race in American culture have been at the forefront of the news lately. With all the complicated and strong feelings, chances are kids have both been exposed to the news and have questions about it. There are tons of books out there that can be read with kids, helping you facilitate a conversation with them about race, privilege, and history. Because of some of the graphic violence that comes with these issues in American history, not all books are appropriate for all children. I’ve grouped books based on age, but knowing your child’s level of sensitivity is also important. This list isn’t exhaustive, nor is it perfect, but hopefully these books can be useful in discussing issues about race, identity, and justice with your kid(s). Other helpful resources include Bookriot’s chart- Black History in Young Adult Fiction, this comic on white privilege, and the Civil Rights Leadership Conference’s guide on talking to children about racism and diversity. They point out:

“Children care about justice, respect, and fairness. Squabbles about sharing, concerns about cliques, and problems with playmates-the daily trials of childhood-reflect their active interest in these social issues. So do the questions children ask, when they feel safe enough to ask them.
One important gift we can give our children is to create a family in which difficult issues like racism are openly discussed. By talking openly and listening without censure, we can learn about our children’s concerns and help them find connections between larger social issues and their own life experiences.”

New books are coming out all of the time and there are some great resources for staying on top of what is out there. For example, you might check out the websites We Need Diverse Books, The Brown Bookshelf, and Latinxs in Kidlit. Or, ask your librarian!

I know there is a meme out there of Mister Rogers telling us to “look for the helpers” in times of tragedy. Guess what? To the kids in our lives, we are the helpers. Not only must we set a good example, but we also need to talk to them about the violence that they are exposed to and help them feel safe enough to ask questions, knowing we will be honest with them. As Mister Rogers said, “I’m so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you’ll do everything you can to keep them safe and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods.”

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Elementary School

These books cover a range of genres and time periods. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is a beautifully written novel that deals with issues of race and class in rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Let Them Play tells the story of fighting segregation in Little League. It’s a story that will likely appeal to kids’ sense of fairness and will be relatable to many children. Most Loved in All the World is a picture book about a woman working on the underground railroad who has to separate from her daughter in order to send her to freedom. The Name Jar is a picture book about a young Korean immigrant who struggles to choose an Americanized name, before finding acceptance with her new classmates. Reading books about Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman can help younger children learn about important African American leaders while also getting some context about the struggle against racism.

download (1)Tweens

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • A Wreath for Emmett Till by Marilyn Nelson
  • Mississippi Trail, 1955 by Chris Crowe
  • The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Finding My Place by Traci L. Jones
  • Remember: The Journey to School Integration by Toni Morrison

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic novel about racism, classism, and allyship in rural Alabama. Mississippi Trail, 1955 and A Wreath for Emmett Till deal with the murder of Emmett Till and could help children old enough to think critically about that violence to put the outrage over the death of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin into a larger historical context. Finding My Place is about a young African American woman in 1975, who moves to a new school and is the only black girl. Her struggle to stay true to herself and find a sense of belonging also gives a portrait of generational differences in the Civil Rights Movement.

Young Adults

Some of these books are more violent or racy than those for the younger groups. The Bluest Eye, for example, is a stunning depiction of the intersection between race, class, and gender, and a searing critique of white beauty standards, but it also includes a pretty graphic scene of rape. The Round House is similar in a lot of ways to To Kill A Mockingbird, but deals with rape and domestic violence against Native American women. Southern Horrors and Other Writings is an incredible collection by journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells. It’s an important piece of African American and women’s history, but also deals pretty graphically with lynching violence. These books, are just a snippet of the huge list of titles that could be read by teens and young adults interested in social justice and civil rights issues. The Hate U Give, which follows its young protagonist through the aftermath of her witnessing a friend get shot by the police is one of my favorite books I’ve read in years. It does not water down the complications of her situation and it is such a compelling read, I read it in one sitting. Internment has kind of Hunger Games vibes, but follows its protagonist as she rises up against the government after she and her family are rounded up and put in camps with other Muslims because of their religion.

Adults

These are just a snapshot of the many, many possible titles, just from nonfiction, that you could pick up. I would be interested to know what you have read about racism that moved, enlightened, enraged, and educated you. Let me know in the comments.

Discussing Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear Martin by Nic Stone follows Justyce, a 17 year-old boy who is arrested after a party, because a police officer mistakes him helping his girlfriend as him getting into trouble. The experience shakes Justyce’s sense of his place in his community, as he has one foot in a fancy prep school and one in his lower-income neighborhood. To help himself make sense of his place in his community and the evolving dynamics around race in the United States, Justice begins writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  I think that Nic Stone does an incredible job of using Justyce’s experiences as a starting point for discussions about policing, affirmative action, casual racism, code switching and many other issues. For such a quick read, it has a lot to unpack and it would make a great book for parents to read with older kids this summer, for your book club, and to pair with one of the nonfiction books listed above.

Questions:

  1. How does Nic Stone use classroom discussions to address important issues related to the plot of the story? Did you find this technique helpful?
  2. What do you think of the group Halloween costume? What were the boys trying to do? Why does it backfire?
  3. Do you think socioeconomic status or class influences the perspectives of Justyce, his classmates, and the other kids from his neighborhood?
  4. What do you think about how Justyce tries to make sense of Dr. King’s definition of integration? How does it affect his relationships with his friends? Do you see any of the struggles Justyce faces in your own community?
  5. What are the arguments made for and against Affirmative Action? What do you think?
  6. Why does Justyce meet with the gang leader? Do you understand where he was coming from? What do you think about his decision?
  7. What risk did Justyce and SJ take at their debate competition? What were they trying to accomplish? Did it pay off?
  8. How would you characterize Justyce’s relationship with his mother? What do you think about how it weighs on his friendship with SJ?
  9. How does Justyce’s father’s history affect him? Why?
  10. What do you think of Justyce’s friends at high school and college? How do they represent different perspectives? Were there any you felt strongly about, positively or negatively?
  11. How does the media affect the events of the novel? Do you think the book’s use of media reflects how cases play out in the press or on TV in real life?
  12. Was there anything else from the novel that really stood out to you or got you thinking? What was it? What are your thoughts?

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