How Children's Books Start Conversations about Social Justice
Conversations about racism, injustice, and discrimination can start with a picture book.
Aimee Hong is the Special Executive Director of Education and Engagement here at the General Board of Church and Society, where, among other important roles, she facilitates and custom designs seminars for diverse groups on issues of justice and peace.
Aimee is also mom to two elementary school students, Oliver, age 7, and Thea, age 5. As a part of a continuing focus on the Sacred Worth Books initiative here at GBCS, I (Emily Newman) got the opportunity to sit down with Aimee, virtually, to talk about how she addresses social justice issues with her kids and how children’s books can help in these conversations.
Emily Newman: Do you think children’s books can help parents start hard conversations about social justice issues? What are some of your favorite children’s books to read with your kids?
Aimee Hong: Definitely. Racism and discrimination thrive in silence. Not talking about it is silent acknowledgement that it’s okay when it’s not. Children’s books are helpful in having those conversations and exposing kids at a young age to different things.
One that I used to read to the kids when they were little as our goodnight book was God’s Dream by Desmond Tutu. I read this to the kids to open their eyes to the racial diversity that’s in the world, as well as religious diversity.
Another book I really like is also by Desmond Tutu: Children of God Storybook Bible. I like this one because of the diverse images and drawings. Growing up in a Korean immigrant church, for some reason, we still had the blue-eyed Jesus. A bit problematic! Having the exposure to different images of Christ I think is important from a young age.
Other books that I got for the kids are The Colors of Us, and Shades of People.
We used to read them before they started school and even more so when they were in school, (as they started noticing differences in the way friends looked, to emphasize that everyone was beautiful). These books are really great for that.
There are also stories of immigrant families, like this one, Dreamers. And refugee stories (holding up the book Stepping Stones).
Another is All Are Welcome. It’s about kids going back to school and knowing that everyone is welcome in the school. I had the opportunity to read to Oliver’s kindergarten class and that was the book I chose.
And then there are these cool books, the Ordinary People Change the World Series, which is also a PBS show series. Another one we started is Little People, Big Dreams.
There’s also What is Your Language? I think this book is important because I read recently that ¼ of homes in America speak a different language at home other than English. I think it’s important to know that speaking a different language doesn’t mean someone is “foreign.”
Another is the “A Kids Book About…” series. I have Systemic Racism and Empathy, and there are a bunch of others.
And I picked up this book at the UN bookstore called Children in our World. It’s a series, with topics like Poverty and Hunger, Refugees and Migrants, and Global Conflict.
Another thing, for myself raising Asian-American kids, who don’t see a lot of themselves reflected in mainstream media, I notice it too in books. I don’t see a lot of stories on Asian characters. I only have one or two books in the house like this one (holding the book* My Name is Yoon*) that I picked up for them. I think this is something the children’s book world can grow in, and I’m sure it will. I have noticed the number of diverse books, from when the kids were babies to now, grow, and have been impressed.
Raising kids of color to be proud of their culture and to be self-advocates is important and so is reading these stories to families that are raising white kids to recognize the diversity that’s in the world and to be able to stand up against injustices. The books that are out these days do a really great job with that.
EN: How and why do you seek out good books for kids? What resources do you use?
When I started my job at GBCS, I was pregnant with Oliver, and a former colleague, Susan Burton, started the Sacred Worth Books list. She had presentations where she’d bring children’s books to talk about different issues. So it was through her that I realized I needed children’s books in my house! I’m thankful to her for opening my eyes to the power of children’s books. The Sacred Worth book list is one I will go back to.
There are other (lists) like socialjusticebooks.org from Teaching for Change, and Books for Littles.
And pre-COVID, I went to Barnes and Noble, and they had a whole section dedicated to diverse children’s books. I thought “this is a new thing!” that wasn’t around so prominently 6-7 years ago. So, I think it is a lot easier to find them now.
EN: When something big and difficult happens in our country, for example, the insurrection on January 6, how and why do you explain what’s going on to your kids?
AH: With events like January 6 and the police shootings of Black and brown people this summer, I was very visibly upset so it was not something that I could hide.
On January 6th, I was very much connected to watching what was happening on my computer. I had my headphones in, so (the kids) couldn’t hear what was going on, but they knew I was very upset because I was crying, just not behaving normally. During dinner, I was still very visibly upset, so my spouse said, “Mommy’s really upset right now because… ” (and explained what was going on).
This isn’t the first time we’ve had this kind of conversation at home, so it wasn’t completely new to them, but one of the things that (my spouse) and I are always cautious about is their age. I think it is important to talk about these issues starting from a young age, (while) being aware that some of the nuances can be hard to understand for kids that are that young. There needs to be a maturity in talking about differences in opinion and action. It can’t just be a blanketed (statement). And we hear that from both sides, from adults too.
So the January 6th thing was a conversation which carried on for a few days. I’m lucky to have friends that are parents to younger kids too. I was having conversations with them about how they were talking to their kids. For that event specifically there wasn’t a book that we turned to, but the conversations we were having on that day were sitting on top of the books that we had read and gotten into, so it was easier to talk about it- it wasn’t completely new.
EN: Why do you think it’s important that GBCS has the Sacred Worth Books database?
AH: With the work we do, we want to get at the root cause of the issue. A lot of the issues regarding racism, injustice, and discrimination that we deal with as a country, have to do with what we learn from our exposure from when we’re young; what we learn in school and at home. Starting from a young age, the power of children’s books opens up that world, to start that (social justice) journey. It may be that you’re not getting this in your school.
I think church nurseries and Sunday schools should also be aware of the books they’re putting into their collections. When I have conversations with church members, they sometimes say there is a separation between faith and justice… but there isn’t. Having a diversity of books in the nursery setting, and a diversity of voices being represented in the curriculum we’re using in our Sunday schools is important. Unfortunately, the majority of churches are still very segregated, and who knows when that will change, but it would probably be a lot sooner and quicker if they used children’s books representing these diverse ideas and voices.
Books Aimee Recommends:
- God’s Dream by Desmond Tutu
- Children of God Storybook Bible by Desmond Tutu
- The Colors of Us by Karen Katz
- Shades of People by Sheila M. Kelly and Shelley Rotner
- My Name is Yoon by Helen Recorvits
- Dreamers by Yuyi Morales
- All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold
- Ordinary People Change the World Series by Brad Meltzer
- Little People, Big Dreams Series by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara
- Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs
- What is Your Language? By Debra Leventhal
- A Kids Book About… Series by Various Authors
- Elephant and Piggie Series by Mo Willems
- A is for Activist by Innosanto Nagara
- Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi
- Children In Our World Series by Various Authors