Last week when I had a conversations about race with white suburban kids 5 to 10 years old, the response surprised, challenged, and inspired me. The lesson was simple–read and discuss Matt de la Peña’s award winning picture book Last Stop on Market Street.
I opened to the first page and asked how the neighborhood in the book looked different from the neighborhood we were in. The kids were pretty quiet; they noted the city bus but no one mentioned the diverse characters in the illustrations that are missing from the area we were in.
Then, a 5-year-old raised her hand and said, “It doesn’t look like here. It looks like the place with my daddy’s tall work building.” That led to a discussion about homes in urban and suburban areas. The kids noted the two aren’t far apart geographically but are different.
That led to the reaction that surprised me most of all. I often give the kids something to find the answer to while they listen to a story. Today’s question, “Why do you think the author, Matt de la Peña said in an interview that he specifically wanted suburban kids to read this book?”
The kids’ nods didn’t surprise me; the gasp from the grown-ups did. There were half a dozen adults in the room listening to the story along with the kids. I’ve thought a lot about that gasp since. I was watching the kids’ faces and didn’t see the adults when this happened.
Questions run through my mind as I look back on the experience–Is it possible the adults gasped with a smile and a nod of agreement like, “Yes, thank you for talking about this.”
Were they surprised I talked about racial and ethnic differences white people seldom discuss? What makes race so hard to talk about? Were they curious what the kids’ responses would be?
Maybe they were concerned that these children were too young for the conversation. They weren’t too young. They were very much engaged, showing why this book demonstrates “an appreciation for African American culture and universal human values.”
It was nominated for the Coretta Scott King Award for exactly that reason. The kids talked about the races of the characters and the strong relationship between the main character and his grandmother.
I do wonder about the kids. Did they hear the adults gasp at my question? What did it communicate to them regarding conversations about race among white people? I started wondering how often kids talk about race after reading children’s books. And I did some research.
Only 13% of children’s books published in the last 25 years contain multicultural content, yet nearly 40% of students are children of color. Not only is it important for children of color to read books about people who look like them, but it’s very important for white kids to read about kids who are different from them!
In 2014, the NY Times op-ed “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” brought attention to the problem. Change is slow but some progress is being made. Last year 31% of children’s books contained multicultural content, but only 7% were written by Black, Latino, or Native authors.
Even though the setting of the story is different from their own neighborhood, the kids connected to the characters, especially their service at a soup kitchen. They told inspiring stories of relationship and service. We finished our lesson by reflecting on the grandmother’s wise words, “Sometimes when you’re surrounded by dirt, CJ, you’re a better witness for what is beautiful.”
Next time I visit, we’ll roam around and photograph things of beauty in unexpected places–cleaning supplies in the custodian’s closet, books on the shelves, big kids helping younger kids, friends playing together.