Using Books to Engage Young Children in Talk about Race & Justice: Part 2
They’re back! Last time they were on (see Part 1), our guests Aija Simmons, Sara Rizik-Baer, and Savitha Moorthy were in the early days of piloting Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors, a community-focused effort from Tandem, Partners in Early Learning that uses children’s books as resources to expand the capacity of families with young children engage in critical conversations about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. Now that they have completed the pilot program, they're back to share what worked, what didn’t, what they’ve learned, and the important questions that remain. We think that their experience can helpfully inform the work many of us do with the young ones in our lives.
Learn about the strategies this group of teachers and parents have developed for reading race in pictures books with preschoolers.
EmbraceRace: Welcome everyone. We're here tonight for a conversation called Using Books to Engage Young Children in Talk about Race and Justice: Part 2. We're really excited about this conversation. If some of you were involved in the first part in October, I believe it was, we had these folks on from Tandem, Partners in Early Learning from the Bay Area. They were just piloting a group that they started. They described it to me later as a book group using picture books, which I think this sounds like, who doesn't want to be part of that? Everyone reads the book. Everybody can talk about it.
They started that with some of the parents, a small group of parents and teachers in their community teaching the preschool community. They told us what wanted to get out of it. They're back at the end of it to talk a bit about what happened in their quest to use picture books to really talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, it's exciting stuff to learn how they wrapped that up and what lessons they bring forward and can share with us. They're back.
EmbraceRace: We're really delighted to have, again, Aija Simmons is a passionate educator mom. She currently serves as Program Manager in the Department of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in the Oakland Unified School District. Drawing from her experience as an educator and instructional coach, Aija supports leaders in creating the optimal conditions for adult professional learning that can lead to transformational learning spaces for students. Central to Aija's work is an emphasis on equity, identity, critical literacy, and social-emotional awareness.
Also introducing Sara Rizik-Baer. Sara believes in the power of children's books to foster critical thinking and the life-long pursuit of knowledge. She currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Learning at Tandem, Partners in Early Learning, a Bay Area nonprofit dedicated to closing the opportunity gap for young children through the power of meaningful early learning experiences. Sara's holistic view of the urban educational landscape is informed by multiple roles she's assumed in the field as a trainer, literacy coach, and bilingual teacher. Sara, welcome back.
And, Savitha Moorthy. Savitha is a fierce advocate for equity, especially in early childhood education. Savitha is the executive director of Tandem, Partners in Early Learning, a job that offers her the opportunity and privilege to work with a diverse, talented team, including Sara, on the systemic challenges facing families with young children. Savitha's work is shaped by her training as a teacher, and researcher, and by her experiences as an immigrant, woman of color, the member of a multi-racial family, and the mother of a four-year-old son. Is your son still four?
Savitha Moorthy: I was going to say that since he's had a birthday since I wrote that introduction. So he's now a nosy five-year-old. Even in a pandemic, time doesn't stay still.
EmbraceRace: Welcome back everybody. Let's jump right in.
Can you say a bit about the program? Why did you start it? With whom? What were you trying to learn when you started this program?
Savitha Moorthy: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having us here both the last time around and this time around. It's a rare opportunity that we get to come and talk about a program when it's just getting started, and then we come back and talk about it when it's done, so we can talk about what we learnt, what turned out the way we expected, what was different and so on. We started this program last fall. It was a pilot. It was born out of a series of reflective conversations we were having at Tandem about how, as an organization, that works with families of young children using picture books as a vehicle to foster rich conversations in family settings and classroom settings.
We started engaging internally in conversations about how we could participate in, and contribute to the conversation about addressing systemic racism. While we could do that in a way that was well aligned with our mission, how we could use the tools and resources that we had in our organization, how we could build up, use that as a starting point, how we could build on it, and how we could really bring together a small community of the parents that we work with to create resources for other parents and for other educators.
At Tandem, one of the things that's very much at the center of the work that we do is our book collection. We have up to 1,600 books in our inventory right now. The books are in 21 different languages. Our mission is to use these books as the center around which families can have conversations about a variety of different topics. But books are tools and they only go so far. In order for the tools to be effective, people need to be using them. So, we wanted to center on the books, but really bring together a community of people who could think together using books as resources, and create strategies, brainstorm ideas for how parents of young children could use books as starting points to engage their families in critical conversations about race, racial equity, racial justice in an age appropriate way for young children. So that's how it came about.
EmbraceRace: We are clearly kindred spirits in this work. One thing we know from our five years is that a lot of people ask for the books, and indeed in registration, we got a lot of questions about book recommendations. Parents and even educators, clearly there are some, but tend to be less frequently ask about, how to read the book.
To what degree did you recognize that it's not only about having the book, but that perhaps your folks needed some support with engaging the book? Was there actually this grassroots pressure? Were there people raising their hand and saying, "I have the books, but I'm struggling?" Can you just say a little bit more about that?
Savitha Moorthy: Yeah. One of the things that we heard a lot last summer was people ... I mean, there were a lot of booklets that were becoming available. There was a lot of conversations happening about how people could diversify their bookshelves at home, how people could decolonize their picture bookshelves at home, and how to put together a collection of books that would be both mirrors that reflect their children and their families, as well as windows that gave them opportunities to learn about other children, other families in their community.
This is a typology from Rudine Sims Bishop that's very much at the center of the work that we do. A lot of people were also telling us that, "Okay, I have the books, but now what? How do I have a conversation at home with my child or with my children? What do I do when I'm not sure about where the conversation is going? How do I handle the questions that come up?" We were hearing from a lot of people in our personal networks and in our community about just, over and over, this idea of, "I have the books, and now what?" Our program was also in response to that.
Okay, I have the books, but now what? How do I have a conversation at home with my child or with my children? What do I do when I'm not sure about where the conversation is going? How do I handle the questions that come up?"... Our program was also in response to that.
EmbraceRace: Can you tell us a bit
about how it works logistically? I'm thinking book club for picture books. How
often you met? Who was there? Did you have a group?
Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah, I can definitely talk about that. I think we would definitely change some things after, but I'll talk about how we did it. We were looking to recruit about 10 parents, we ended up getting about eight parents. This was the first cohort, so I definitely went to my community and folks that I definitely were familiar with, for the most part. So, the first cohort was a group of parents who are also educators as well. We didn't want to make the group too broad right away knowing that there might be space for that in the future. So we tried to make sure that the families that were in our group were identified as Black, Latinx or mixed heritage.
I, myself, am mixed. Savitha, who was both a participant as well as a co-designer, she is of a mixed race family as well. So, that was part of it. What ended up actually happening was, I think all of our families except for two identified as mixed race families. But all had those identities of Black, Latinx, or mixed and actually AAPI. So those were the group that we started with. We met every month for about four months for about a two-hour long Zoom session that we would meet to do this.
The sessions started off as just really strong community building. Actually, Aija helped me co-facilitate that first session. We really tried to build community with each other, so people could get to know one another so we could have brave conversations. As part of that community building, which Aija really helped me think through, was really getting people to name their anxieties around talking about this kind of subject matter. A lot of folks come in understanding that we want to talk to our kids about these complicated subjects, but there's anxieties in there. So we really wanted people to talk about what those were, what those fears were, and then understanding where people were coming from as they entered into this conversation, and why we were in this space together.
Then from there on, we built the sessions so that we started with community building, and then we talked a lot about book selection, and we tried to understand what are parents thinking about as they're going about selecting a high quality book that represents diversity. Then we talked about their book recommendations. So they actually went back and read the books that we sent to them. We sent them a big box of about 10 books each. So they were invited to either use the books we sent them or their own, and they came up with their own book recommendations. Then the last session we really got into those conversations and try to figure out from these conversations, could we pull out any commonalities among the parents and how they actually talk about these subjects with their kids? So that was logistically how it worked.
The last thing I want to talk about too was the book titles. We had about 52 book titles that we selected. From those book titles, I created packages for every parent in the group that I tried to represent. I was trying to do some books that I believe were going to be mirror books for their family, and some that were more windows and doors books. So I try to create a healthy mix based on their self-reported identities. But I think I would do that probably a little bit differently if I were to do this again. But yeah, that's logistically how it works. I hope that makes sense.
EmbraceRace: Aija, I want to come to you. I'm thinking about, you and Savitha are both parents to young children. Whereas Savitha is the ED of Tandem, Aija, you were first and foremost wearing a parent hat, and at the same time, your professional experience is super relevant to this.
I remember last time you talked about maybe a thing that might not be obvious to folks, you talked about the community that you found with other parents. Not only in seeking support for using books to talk to their young kids, but just talking about your own experience as people of color moving through the world, and how that might come to bear on how you engage books, how you engage your children around these issues.
Can you tell us a little bit about maybe what your big expectations were as a parent in this program? Did it meet those expectations or diverge? What are the highlights for you?d
Aija Simmons: So many highlights. But as you just said, I think one of the biggest highlights was the community of parents. I've been an educator for many years now, but reading books from the frame of raising a child is a whole different ball. I've read books in my classroom. I've read them for curriculum reasons or for interests. But when you're reading the books in the context of trying to raise a liberated race conscious, proud African-American child in this context, that's a whole different reason to be reading books.
It was something that I didn't think I could just do by myself. So when this opportunity came up, I was like, "Yeah, I need some help. There are things that are coming up that I don't always know how to deal with. I don't always know what the response should be, and I would like to be able to be in community with other people." Then, what happened as we started reading books, and all of us had our different selection of books and people were sharing, in one session, we were sharing the books that resonated with us as mirrors. What I noticed was happening was like, for me, the book that I chose to share is called Saturday by Oge Mora. I was talking about, as an insider in this community, what are the parts of this book that really resonated with me?
As each person from different backgrounds shared what in their mirror book was resonating with them, it helped me think as a mom, "Oh! This is a great thing to know." Because when I read this book as an outsider, I may not know what the really powerful parts of this books is for the members of this community, but hearing other people say, "Oh, it's this part of this book where they go through the community and you see all of these different communal landmarks," or, "Did you know the story papel picado in this book?" Why this so powerful on this page are these wishes at the end of this book. It helped me read with my daughter in a more in-depth way hearing from the perspective of insiders within that community and what was important. So that was super powerful.
Then as things came up, we had some issues around here and around our house where we had some police in our yard and other things, and I was like, "I need a book for this because we have to go deeper." I was able to immediately reach out to that community and say, "Who's read something like this?" Or, "Who has a book that you think fits this scenario? Because I need to be able to engage with my daughter without having to tell the whole story." So that was really one of those benefits that you get after the fact, along with all of the things that I learned about what it takes to read beyond just enjoyment and to read for some life lessons, and to read for some practice and things like that. I have other highlights, but I'm going to stop talking right now.
EmbraceRace: I'm just wondering, did you get a recommendation to help you and your daughter navigate that police situation?
Aija Simmons: We had a couple of recommendations. You know what? Every time somebody asks me on the spot, I'm like, "What is the name of that book?" We had Something Happened in our Town recommended to us. Then we had another book, Hands Up! Then the third one, I think the boy's name is Milo, and they go he goes on a train ride. Thank you, it's in the chat, Milo Imagines the World. So we used those three to have a couple of conversations around policing.
EmbraceRace: I love what you said. But when you said you felt like you didn't have the right answer, and that's part of why we started EmbraceRace as well, is just that exact feeling of like, "I feel like I could advise someone else, but when it comes to doing it in this different relationship, it's really hard, and I don't have the right answer."
I just wonder whether you feel, or whether in general people started to feel, that they started to get the right answer or did they start to feel more comfortable not having the right answer?
Aija Simmons: We talked a lot about our fears. Even as we were looking at these bullets and thinking about talking about race, innocence came up a lot. I'm like, when we have these conversations, what is happening with the innocence and bright eyed wonder of our children? So we kept grappling, and I think that's just the truth of it as things happen and things unfold, you don't come to the answer, but the grappling makes you more comfortable. So, one of the strategies that I took and ran all the way down the street with was instead of looking for the answer, let me work with my daughter around asking the questions.
Now, I'm very hesitant when we read a book or we're reading a book about a community that's not ours, to pretend with her like I know the answers. So we practice now, "What is the question we will ask? What is the question we would ask this character? What is the question we would ask someone in this community? How will we find out more about that?" Rather than trying to tell her, "I know all the things about this community and I can answer the million questions that we have about what's happening in this book." We practice. So, how will we ask someone in this community the question so that we can get the answer?
When we have these conversations, what is happening with the innocence and bright eyed wonder of our children? So we kept grappling, and I think that's just the truth of it as things happen and things unfold, you don't come to the answer, but the grappling makes you more comfortable... Instead of looking for the answer, let me work with my daughter around asking the questions.
EmbraceRace: I love that. Especially when so many of the stories we know and we tell about communities that we don't belong to are really pat stories, received stories. So just shaking it up by saying, "Maybe we don't know because actually I don't even know how I think I know that," is a huge lesson for all of us.
Savitha and Sara, what were the big highlights for you? Were there any surprises? You mentioned somethings you might do differently the next time around. Do you want to speak to any of that?
Savitha Moorthy: As Aija says, there were a lot of highlights. I think that idea of gathering together in community with a group of parents grappling with the same kinds of issues was a powerful experience. I think it also, what made it particularly powerful for me was that it normalized the idea of using picture books to talk to children about race and racial justice. We just took that as a given. Within that space, we were able to have a lot of nuanced conversations. It also normalized the anxiety and the nervousness that we all felt as parents and as people in this world.
I think to Aija's point, what was helpful to me and what continues to be helpful to me, is to really conceptualize the book sharing experience as a space where adults and children can learn together, and also be explicit with children about this idea that this is a space where we're learning together. "I know somethings because I've lived on this earth more years than you have, but there's a lot that I don't know. So we're learning together. We're exploring together." Just going in with the idea that the conversations, and I think I said this the last time, they're going to be imperfect, and they're going to be incomplete.
But the beautiful thing about a book sharing experience and a conversation with your child is that it's not one and done. You get to have it over and over and over again. I think those are a couple of things that I probably would be more explicit about the next time we did this, would be to say that this is a space where we're learning together. I think there are some comments or some questions in the chat about, what kind of advice do we have for parents in general? What kind of advice do we have for white parents in particular?
I think positioning this very explicitly as a space where grownups and children are learning together, which means that mistakes are normal, that the conversations are going to be incomplete and imperfect. That you may say something that you may want to revise based on new things we learn. I think normalizing that is also important. I think it's important to model that to children that, "I thought this, but I've learned some new things. As a result of that, I'm thinking about this in a slightly different way." I think that's a really important thing to model for children. So, that's one thing that I think I would be more explicit about that this is not a space where one person is the expert and one person is the novice.
I think positioning this very explicitly as a space where grownups and children are learning together, which means that mistakes are normal, that the conversations are going to be incomplete and imperfect. That you may say something that you may want to revise based on new things we learn.... I think it's important to model that to children.
Sara Rizik-Baer: Yeah. I mean, I definitely agree with Savitha. I'll say that when we went into this project, and I'll talk about myself personally, I definitely thought we would come out with his list of these are the strategies of how you're going to talk to kids about these books. Savitha and I, we've been trying to think about how to frame that. What we've really come to is that the reason, I think it's so hard is because there's really no prescriptive way to do this. Even though I still want that so bad, but that's the thing, is that I think what we found was that it was just really having conversations with people and becoming aware of the opportunities to have these careful conversations with children. I felt like it was one of the biggest.
Lessons we got out of it, I know for example, one of the parents, she shared with me, she said, "Sara, to be honest, I looked at books. I never thought twice about identity and all these things that you're noticing. Now I'm noticing them everywhere." I said, "Well, even if you don't yet know how to talk about it completely. I think it's just, we built some kind of awareness of the fact that there are these opportunities." I think that was really important. The other big thing that, I think we really came to the conclusion was that, you just cannot have these conversations and when reading, or one session with your child.
Each of these books was so rich and packed with so many things that we wanted these books to, not just be an experience in which parents and children were talking to these really deep subjects, but also an experience of joy. So, we didn't want to leave that out of it. That came up a lot too, that joy. Having these books and having a joyful experience is really, really important. So, you want to read the book in a way that's joyful. Then also, there's other times in which you can have a deeper conversation because you've now read the book a few times.
The last thing too, I think I really felt came up a lot, it came up to the forefront was, these books serve as a foundation for further conversations. It's like a reference point. So now, I have a book where I can talk about the papel picado. I can talk about the issues that we're seeing in the book, like we see farm workers in a book, and now when we see them out when we're driving somewhere, and we see a farm worker, we can talk about that and talk about that and have that conversation. Now the child has something to reference to. So, I think that was a really big thing that we observed through these conversations.
We wanted these books to, not just be an experience in which parents and children were talking to these really deep subjects, but also an experience of joy... These books serve as a foundation for further conversations. It's like a reference point.
EmbraceRace: How has being involved in
this group changed your practice? Can you talk more about how you're reading
differently to your daughter?
Aija Simmons: Yeah. Again, we started focusing a lot on what are the questions. I have been helping her actually rehearse the questions. So, it turns more into a role play because I understand that she's going to be out in the world, and she may see things that she doesn't understand or things that she wants to know more about, or people are doing something that she ... So we practice. "What would that question sound like? What would you say? How might you say it?" Then sometimes I give her some language to use in particular situations.
That's something that I actually have started doing with students in classrooms when I go in because I get to do a lot of SEL [Social and Emotional Learning] lessons with students in my district. So we have now begun saying even something as simple as, "I think I'm reading someone's body language, but if I'm honest, different cultures show up in different ways. Different people show up in different ways. So before I even assume that you're feeling sad or you're feel joyful or whatever, what could I ask?"
Could I ask you, "How are you feeling?" Or could I say, "Seems like you're not feeling okay today," as opposed to walking in with the assumption that I'm reading someone's emotions. So that's been a really powerful shift for me is, we don't have all the answers, it's okay to ask someone a honest open ended questions and be positioned and ready to receive the learning that we get. The other piece, and this is from me as a Black woman with all of the experiences that we have as Black people, and all of the ways that our Black emotions are read in many different contexts. It's been beautiful to look at books that have illustrations that have a range of emotions for a Black person. Where in one book you get to see a Black person enjoy, or in sadness, or in brokenheartedness, or in anger.
There are so many children's books now that have a variety of emotions with a Black character. I think that is so powerful for other people to see is like, let's not just see what Black people look like when they're doing one particular thing, or when they're angry about something, or when they're protesting. But how do we expose our children to the range of emotions that Black people have, and normalize every emotion in a Black person! It seems really crazy to have to say this, but it's true in our experiences out in the world when we show up in spaces with different emotions, and I'm saying this from personal experience, people don't always know what to do. So it's important that people see us in a range of different emotions and understand that we have the gambit of emotional experience, and that there may be some internal work that needs to be done so people can handle us being everything that we are. So for my daughter, that's really important.
I want her to see people of color angry. I want her to see them doing yoga. I want her to see them taking breaths. I want her to see them feeling powerful, and sharing something in confidence, and standing in all of their full authority and be able to see herself in all of those different spaces as brilliant, beautiful, humble, everything that we need to validate. Including there was one book that my daughter fell in love with called Another, and it's a picture book that the little girl goes in and out of portals. My daughter is so into portals. Even having your imaginations validated by having a person of color that looks like you doing some of the same kind of imagining that you're doing when we're in the bathroom pretending like we're on our way into another world, it's so powerful and something that I didn't have.
I can't remember. I remember reading books like, Amelia Bedelia, and all of those other things. I don't ever remember reading a picture book about a Black girl who was imagining herself as a scientist or this and that in my elementary school experience. I only got to experience that as an adult. So I think that's another powerful piece for people who are doing race work, especially around Blackness, is to show our children Black people in a range of emotions.
I want her [my daughter] to see people of color angry. I want her to see them doing yoga. I want her to see them taking breaths. I want her to see them feeling powerful, and sharing something in confidence, and standing in all of their full authority and be able to see herself in all of those different spaces as brilliant, beautiful, humble, everything that we need to validate
Savitha Moorthy: Can I add one thing to what Aija's saying? Aija, what you
said about how your daughter needs to see Black people experiencing the gamut
of emotions. I think my son needs to see that too. So, that's the advice. I
think there are some questions in the chat about, how do we engage with this
topic as white parents?
I feel like really one place to start is by auditing your bookshelf and make sure that your children also have that same opportunity to see children like Aija's daughter and my son experiencing that range of emotions. I think that's where we start building compassion, and empathy, and understanding. That's the foundation for racial justice.
EmbraceRace: Well, I think it's about certainly how Black people are seen and portrayed in the range of the emotional range. It's about the conversation about race in general. So, we are launching a storytelling initiative that we'll be talking about fairly soon. But as we try to recruit people to share stories, it'll be really important that it not just be about discrimination, and bigotry, and inequality, and inequity. Those things are important, and we definitely want to talk about those things, and it's about joy, and comfort, and family, and love and the full range. We tend to deal with race in this country along a very truncated emotional range, a very truncated part of the spectrum. If we can show that it runs the full gamut, engagements with race, I think more people will be willing to talk about it.
Savitha Moorthy: Yeah, it's not asking too much.
EmbraceRace: It's definitely not asking too much. We're getting a lot of questions about the future of this group.
What will you take forward from these groups? Will there be more cohorts? How is it already changing how you interact with parents who weren't part of the program?
This was clearly a strong co-creation. To what extent do you co-create this group again, or do something different? Is that something that needs to be co-created with every new group? Or to what extent are you building on what you've built here already?
Sara Rizik-Baer: I can try to answer, and then Savitha, please, jump on in. I think the intention is always, definitely do this again. This was a pilot, and so we wanted to see how it goes, see what we learn, and then definitely do it again. I think what the important thing is whether it's Savitha and I working on it together exactly. I think one of the big things we learned is it's definitely important that you're working with the parents in your group. One of our best sessions was the one that I was able to co-facilitate and plan with Aija. It was so powerful. It was mentioned by other parents when they debriefed it with us because it was someone from the group, and it was co owning that space a little bit more. So, I think we'd be more intentional about that throughout all of the sessions would be definitely one thing.
It's interesting how we would do it because so much of this was about the process. Even though I very much wanted to have a lesson plan, scope, and sequence very carefully laid out, it really was better to not have it that way. So every session, we would go back, discuss what had happened, see what the conversations were. We recorded all of the sessions, so I was able to go back and look at transcripts to actually find what were the gems and the things that people said that we wanted to build on in the next session. So I think you have to have some of that definitely. So you can't exactly make, this is exactly the curriculum for it, although I do think there is a structure.
I think if we were to do this again too, I think we would ensure that everyone had at least some of the same titles, maybe at least four of the books and everyone's package was the same because I think would've been really cool if we had had more of, "Here's one book. Let's all look at it together and let's all discuss the opportunities we would have and how we would have a conversation about this particular book." Whereas what happened in the group was, some people had similar books, everyone had different books, so we had different conversations. So I think that would have been something I would've definitely, I think if we were to do it again, we would do. Probably also add a little bit more in around just building some more knowledge within the group around identity development in regards to child development. So, just to lay that framework and grounding just a little bit more.
But yes, the intention is absolutely to do this again. I think the intention is also to try and not just do this with parents, but also a group of educators or nonprofit leaders that work with families and children. So, I think there's a lot of avenues that this can go. But I don't know if Savitha has more to add to that.
Savitha Moorthy: I want to actually life up what someone's saying in the comments about how the absence of a structure or the absence of a predetermined scope and sequence was in and of itself a challenge to white supremacy culture. I don't know that we would have gone in with that clear articulation, Laura, like you're offering us, but it's a Tandem value. You can see our full list of values on our website. It's a Tandem value to really recognize, and acknowledge, and value the expertise of the families and the communities that we work with.
We engage in all of our projects in the spirit of partnership. So this idea of co-creation, we're right now in the middle of tinkering with our mission statement, and the word co-create is a very strong contender for what's going to be in the next iteration of the mission statement. So this idea of co-creation is very hard wired into our thinking. We have certain resources, like we have this exhaustive book collection that we can bring to the table as a resource for people to engage with. I think we also don't assume that we know the answers, and that the answers, or the process of the ideas of this is less about the products, and it's more about creating things together with a community of people. So this element of co-creation while it might evolve, I doubt is going to go away.
EmbraceRace: There's so much to be gained by co-creating. I mean, go to your library and talk about your kids. Go to your teacher, talk about your kids. What are their interests? What are their identities, but also what are their interests? Yeah, we can get more specific to the kids we're raising and the families were raising in the context we're raising in.
Do you have more to say about the process of co-creating and the advantage of not going for a curriculum on the shelf, or a book list that you see online?
Sara Rizik-Baer: I'm trying to think about how to answer. Yeah, I think there's a balance, as always. I definitely think that, yes, some kind of guiding principles or structures would be helpful so that people can go off and say, "We've done this," and great, we've learned some things and we hope that people can learn from our lesson. But with that being said, that was made in a very small community that was very relevant to the folks in our specific community. So, that's why I agree with Savitha in the sense of really going and trying to really think about who you're working with, and exactly who those people are, so that you're giving other folks the power to really form what those conversations could look like. No, it is not easy, but I very much agree with Savitha in that sense. At the same time, I do recognize some people do need some guidance.
Aija Simmons: I think for me more so than the desire for curriculum, because this work was really about me being a mommy to a five-year old who sometimes wants to listen, and sometimes doesn't, who says some of the craziest things I have ever heard. I cannot understand where that thought came from. So I don't know that there's a curriculum for that, or that anybody has time to write that curriculum. So, I think more than I wanted a curriculum, I wanted a space because I am trying to raise a conscious child who has experiences in diverse communities. I feel like I grew up really confident and strong. But when I look back on my experience, a lot of my childhood was really around Black people. I was around Black people.
I didn't go to schools that were super diverse, and my family community wasn't super diverse, but my child is not having that experience. She is the darkest person in her classroom, and so that requires a different skillset. So I think I just wanted a place and a space to say, "Here's what I'm grappling with. Here's what just came up. How do I talk to my kid about this?" So, I think that was the benefit for me. I don't want to read the curriculum lesson plan at home when I'm just trying to be a mommy and respond. But I do want to have a space where I can talk about the ideas so that when I come back to the conversation with my daughter, I've had a little bit more opportunity to think some things through. Heard from a few different parents of kids at different ages, heard what they're doing, looked at the book for myself before we read it together so that I have an idea of what I'm looking at. But for me personally, the space was way more valuable to me than I think a lesson plan would have been, or a book discussion guide would have been.
EmbraceRace: There's all this ongoing debate about controversial books. So it's some of the Tintin books, it's Babar the Elephant. We have questions specifically about Babar the Elephant. There's a mom who read the book with some reservation to her child and then explained why she had difficulties with it and is wondering if that's okay.
Are there any picture books that you would not read to your child? As you know, there are folks who say you can read any book to a child, you just need to engage properly.
Then there's some people who say, look, there are lots of good books out there, especially if you're not confident that you can deal with it well (not perfectly!) but well, why don't you put that book aside until you feel a bit more confident or the child is a bit older?
Sara Rizik-Baer: Okay, yeah. I want to answer this because actually this came up in our group. One of the strategies that we identify with one of the parents was like, "I don't let my child watch this show or read this particular book." One of the strategies we came up with was, we'll talk about the "why not." Children are going to come to you with a book that they want to read, or a show that they want to watch, and it's up to every individual parent to make a decision about whether they feel like their child should be exposed to whatever they don't like in that book or show.
But the really important thing is explaining to your child, well, "Why don't we read this book?" Or, "Why don't we watch this show? What's missing? Who's missing? Or how is this character being represented? Why?" I think that was really, really important because so many times kids are told, I know I was told when I was a child, you can't play with Barbies, you can't watch a certain show. I didn't know why, and of course, that made me want to do it more. So I think it's really important that when we have a feeling like that, we explain and have that important conversation because that in itself is a meaningful way to build critical literacy. But I'm really interested to hear Aija and Savitha have to say too about that.
Aija Simmons: I think this is a complicated question just because my daughter is five, but she's been super emotional all of her life. So, some things, I don't want to read to her in particular moments. I'm like, this look is going to send us into limbo for 15 pages. She's not going to know what happened to the character. That's going to be a hard emotional journey for us to take, tonight might not be the night for that. So, I have to think about things like that for her because she goes all in with a character. If somebody's sick, if someone disappears from the story for a while, or goes away, and we don't know that they're coming back, she is all in emotionally on the edge of her seat. So for that reason, sometimes I'm particular about maybe not this book right now just because of who she is.
Then some books, I'm waiting to bring in when things come up. There are topics that we haven't fully breached yet. We haven't gotten into gender identity yet just because I'm like, I don't know if that's where we talk. We're talking about race, she hasn't said anything about gender. I don't know if gender has come up at her school in terms of gender identity. We do talk about gender roles. So like, if we read a book that is about the penguins or whatever, she probably misses a lot of the stuff that I know is happening in the book. She may be hearing the language, but she's not really thinking, "The gender identity of this child is blank." So it hasn't come up yet. So I'm waiting for moments where she says something, or I hear her notice something, to already be ready with a book that we can unpack together for that particular moment when that's where her mind is.
For me, I don't think it's about like, are there things I won't read to her? It's more about when will I read them to her, and when does she need me to read them to her? That's just where I'm at today because she's just five. In six years, I might be like "You know, that was the wrong approach. I don't know."
EmbraceRace: We have several questions that are about anti-Blackness, particularly, when is it too early to begin talking to kids about anti-Blackness or preparing them for encounters with police officers? This parent says, "I want to preserve their imagination and innocence yet as a Black father, I do not want to risk their lives and not preparing them for pitfalls they may encounter." There are other questions about good children's books on Black hair, to promote Black children feeling good about their hair? Aija, you said that this is something that you're, specifically with your daughter who is the darkest girl in the room, that you're thinking about it, and I guess using books to talk about.
Anti-Blackness is such a strong current that we need to address. Do you have recommendations or stories about how anti-Blackness has come up in your group?
Aija Simmons: I want to also have Sara speak to this a little bit because Sara was clear when she brought me on to this project that she was not shying away from anti-Blackness. That was something that Tandem was specifically doing work around, and she wanted to make sure that the families who engage in these conversations were willing to go there. They put that out there, I believe as early as our first session. So, it felt really safe for me to dip into and share and talk about some of my experiences as a Black mom of a dark skin, Black child. So, I hope Sarah and Savitha will share why Tandem took that stance.
But we talked a lot about the insider parts of particular books and things that I'm looking for when I look at particular books. One for me was the range of emotions because I don't want her to only see Black people in particular emotional phases where we either have to be all the way in our joy, or all the way in our anger. I needed her to see everything, and particularly in between particularly because she's often feeling people's pain. So, we have to do a lot of breathing and processing, and she's super empathetic. So I needed books where we saw all of those kinds of things. So, we look for things that match what we experience and what we have. If the book has a character and her hair is so long, and I'm like, "Okay, yeah, look at that. Look at that puff style, look at these braids." It helps her to be able to see herself in particular ways, with particular styles that we can or are ways that we show up in different spaces and things that are really meaningful to us.
I think that was a powerful part of looking at the mirror parts of books, but then also being able to see commonalities and other cultures because I wear a lot of head wraps. So we read this other book, and the name of the book is escaping me right now, we read this other book where there was a woman with the hijab in the story. So my daughter noticed her wrap, and we were able to talk about the differences and why we wear our wraps. Even though both of us are covering our head, we talked about why mommy's is for a certain reason, and the person in this book is wearing theirs for an entirely different reason. We talked about and unpack that.
In that same story, there's a scene where the character's praying. So we talked about the different ways that people pray because we pray as well. So that was another thing that came up, is how can we be strong in our culture and in our Blackness and see our Blackness as beautiful, and then look at the variety of different ways other cultures show up? So we have one book conversation where we talked about all of the different foods scenes in books because children's books have a lot of tables scenes, where people are eating and they show food in different cultures. We talked about how we could find the common scenes in different books from different cultures, and have conversations with our children about, "Okay, what does this scene look like? What does that scene look like? What are some commonalities and differences from our culture to another culture?"
Sara Rizik-Baer: Well, I think number one is that children are developing identity. We call it pre-prejudice as early as two years old, if not earlier. So, we have to have these conversations because whether or not we're comfortable with it, they are noticing things in their environment. To what extreme, and how that goes is very different for every child, of course. But the fact is that kids are noticing differences. I've had teachers and school directors call me and say, "We're having some major issues on our playground. We're having these two and three-year-old's saying really terrible things about their Black classmates. What do I do?" So, I know for a fact that we got to start talking about it early.
Savitha and I, I think in our organization at Tandem, we can't have any conversations around social justice without talking about race and without talking about anti-Blackness, especially in this society. I think it's important that we make a stand about that. That was really important to us. I think in terms of the way the conversations went with the families, I still think we never landed on exactly, how exactly do you go about specifically talking about that other than not shying away from these conversations and really having those mirrors and windows conversations that Aija is talking about.
What we mean by that, and she gave a really good example, but to build on that is, how do you get children to see themselves reflected where they don't see themselves reflected? How are you able to say, "Hey, here is this identity, here is what's happening. Let's talk about it, let's discuss it. Then how do we connect that back to your own life, so you don't see that as weird or different? It's just something distinct, but it's not anything that we need to make a big deal out of." So, that's what we really want to encourage. But I do think that we have to start talking about it early and often.
EmbraceRace: Sara, I think it was you who's mentioned that you hope next or soon to engage educators, certainly not only parents. Aija, you mentioned early that, of course, you're an educator, you support people around SEL, you're also a parent. It's a different role and because you can support educators on the one hand doesn't mean that you didn't feel the need for support from your parent perspective dealing with your own child.
We have a number of questions from parents wondering about engaging early childhood educators on one hand, and we have a number of educators, some of them are early childhood educators, wondering, what's the takeaway essentially for me? I wonder if you could offer something about that.
Savitha Moorthy: I think in the same way that we engage parents, we would engage educators. We would start by forming a community of like-minded people who are interested. It's so important to have these conversations early and often, and model. This is a space for learning together. Normalizing these conversations, I think is important. So, we would engage educators in the same way. Like bring a community of like-minded people together, and start with the book and discuss the kinds of conversations that are possible around the books. If there are educators in the audience that are interested in exploring this topic further, I would welcome them to get in touch with us.
There's a question in the Q&A that I particularly wanted to respond to what I think. I think this is similar to some of the questions that have come up about, what is the best stage to engage with books? How conversations about race and racism are maybe a tough starting place for a young child, for a two or three-year-old child. I think the way we have been talking about it in our community is to not to have the first book or the first book sharing experience, be about racism or be about some of the challenges of racism. It is exactly what Aija was talking about. It's making sure that you're reading or sharing books with your young child. It's a diverse collection of books that shows a lot of different characters, that shows Black characters, and Indian characters, and people from a variety of different backgrounds.
I think then also making it part of your normal practice to do things, like talk about skin color and compare your skin tones with the skin tones of the characters you see in the book. I feel like there are a lot of important and gentle introductions to heavier topics. But in these early years, so much is about developing children's vocabulary and their foundation for engaging in conversations about difficult topics at a later point when they're ready to. When we think about having an anti-racist bookshelf, we tend to think only about books that address heavy topics, like topics of racism. I think those books are important, and they have a place on our bookshelf, and a place in the conversations that we have as a family, but they might not be the most developmentally appropriate starting point, either as books or as conversation topics for young children.
The one other thing that I've started doing as a parent, we always talk about taking our real life experiences and bringing them into booksharing conversations. I think it's just as important to take the conversations you have about books and bring them into real life. My son and I rode a bus last week, and it was an opportunity for us to talk about Last Stop on Market Street. So I think that kind of two way transfer between books and real life is really important.
EmbraceRace: Right, because when you're reading books, you're reading the world, and can do it the other way too, yeah. Thank you so much. We could go talk on and on. You're really honest, authentic. So, we really appreciate that. That's why you're going to be on again, you guys. You can't get rid of us. But we want to say thank you to our wonderful guests, and thank you to everyone for participating. We will send you the recording tomorrow, and we'll have a transcript and resources up within the week. Thank you so much.
Tandem's Book Resources - Find here an overview of Tandem's book collection, and book resources aplenty, including a storytime video playlist categorized by language, theme, or by skill-building focus. Also check out the first of their booklists (more to come):