Combatting Prejudice through Kids’ Books

My whole life I have been fascinated with other cultures and the beautifully creative ways the human race has come to meet our similar needs in such varying ways. This interest lead me to study cultural anthropology as an undergraduate, and then when I went on to get my masters in teaching, helped inspire my thesis topic- how to get rid of prejudice in the classroom though the use of children’s story books. I loved studying this topic because it combined my passion for cultural differences with my other passion- teaching kids. Even better, my findings were something I actually used every year I taught in my classroom and now use with my own children. I spent a year doing research both in books and also in my student teaching classroom and my findings in both areas were powerful- and so easy to employ in the classroom and also at home. With the current events surrounding race in our country, I felt the need to share my research with you guys so that I can hopefully help combat the injustice in our nation in a tangible way.

Basically- prejudice is taught, and it begins young. Children as young as 3 and 4 are aware of racial differences and are already starting to develop attitudes (whether positive or negative) about people different from them…and by age 12 their beliefs on race are fairly fixed and are difficult (though not impossible) to change (Feeney & Moravcik, 2005). They pick up how to feel about others from their parents and other adult caregivers as well as their teachers, so it is our job from the get-go to be actively teaching them to embrace differences, to listen to others with empathy and to stand up to racism if they see or hear it happening (and that means we need to do the same thing in our daily lives.)

The best way to do this is to have a multicultural friend base if you can. Much of racism comes from a fear of the unknown, and if a child can interact with people from multiple races and cultural backgrounds, they will no longer be unknown or scary to them- they will be friends. If you don’t have a rich multicultural friend group, I found that reading books to children that include various races and cultures is the next best thing. We all know well developed characters in books can almost seem like real people to us (any other Harry Potter fans out there who feel like you kinda know him?). A good story makes a personal connection with the reader, causing characters to become almost as real as people the reader knows and interacts with in real life situations, making them an excellent way to bridge the gap between people just like us and people who may be different (Feeny & Moravcik, 2005).

So what do you DO? You find good quality multicultural books (read- ones that avoid stereotypes), you read them to your kids all the time (not just during certain times of the year like Black History Month, although that should be celebrated too), and you use them to spur conversations that encourage love, acceptance, and empathy towards other people. I also found that highlighting similarities first is beneficial rather than pointing out all the ways we are different. If we start with commonalities when teaching about others, our children will be less likely to see them as different and thus fear, distrust, and stereotype them (Feeny & Moravcik, 2005). We also need to purposefully and intentionally address the history and present condition of racism with our children rather than glossing it over or trying to protect them (Dong, 2005).

You can easily do this starting at infancy- simply by reading books to your little that have people who look different than the people baby is most likely to see or spend time with. There are several board books out there with multicultural characters in them, but these are a few of my favorites:

“Global Baby Bedtimes” by Maya Ajmera
They also have “Global Baby Boys” and “Global Baby Girls”- both are beautiful!!

When your child hits toddlerhood you can share more lengthy multicultural books with them either by getting them from your local library or by adding them to your home library stash (I prefer owning the good ones myself because then your child will have access to them all the time- and as I said before, embracing different races and cultures needs to be an all the time thing). When your child hits age 3, you can start discussing what they notice about characters in the books- start by pointing out how characters act and feel and live “just like us” even though it may seem very different to you- for example, if you’re reading a book about the Massai they may live in a brick hut and you may live in a house but you both have a home- so focusing on the similarity of how we both have shelter from the weather outside is where you want to begin. You can branch out to how the homes are different, but human needs are universally the same (food, shelter, family, clothing, love) and highlighting similarities will help your child connect with others who may seem very different from them at first. You can also dive into how they think the characters may be feeling when unfair things happen, how they would have responded or tried to help, and how we are called by God to love everyone the same (yes, everyone) because we are all his children. Without further ado- the best part- the books!!! Here are some world culture books I used in my classroom and have also read to my boys that you can start with:

Native American:

“Mama Do You Love Me?”
Barbara M. Joosse
A sweet story where a child asks if her mama would still love her even if she did all sorts of mischievous things- and of course her mama says yes! Very relatable to young kids!
“A Promise is a Promise”
Robert Munsch & Michael Kusugak
An Inuit legend used to teach kids to stay off the sea ice!
“Arrow to the Sun”
Gerald McDermott
A Pueblo People legend where the Sun’s child must pass many tests to prove himself worthy.
“The Wave of the Sea Wolf”
David Wisniewski
A myth based on those of the Tlingit people of the Northwest that describes why there is a canoe trapped high in a tree.
“Star Boy”
Paul Goble
A legend describing how the knowledge of the sun dance was given to the Blackfoot people. Paul Goble has written many other award winning Native American stories as well including the Caldecott Medal book “The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses”.

Latin America

“The Great Kapok Tree”
Lynne Cherry
A story about a man’s decision whether to cut down a tree in the rainforest- also a great book to teach about conservation.
“The Magic Bean Tree”
Nancy Van Laan
A legend from Argentina about how a boy brought rain to the pampas.
“Rain Player”
David Wisniewski
A Mayan tale where a boy must play the game of pok-a-tok against the rain god to keep his people from starving.
“Frida”
Jonah Winter
A true story about the life of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
“The Legend of Poinsettia”
Tomie dePaola
A Mexican legend about how poinsettias came to cover the land at Christmas time.

Asia

“The Greatest Treasure”
Demi
A story from China that teaches peace and happiness are a greater treasure than money.
“Grandfather Tang’s Story”
Ann Tompert
A story from China that’s told by a grandfather to his granddaughter using tangrams- an excellent math extension for geometry and spatial intelligence!
“The Story About Ping”
Marjorie Flack and Kurt Wiese
This was one of my favorites as a kid- it tells a sweet story about a young duck who gets lost then finds his way home due to the kindness of a young boy who saves his life.
“The Inch High Samurai”
Shiro Kasamatsu and Ralph F. McCarthy
A Japanese story similar to Thumbelina where a young boy 1 inch tall goes on many a great adventure! There are many other books along with this one in the “Kodansha Children’s Classics”.

Middle East

“The Librarian of Basra”
Jeanette Winter
I absolutely love this story! It is a true story about a librarian who saved thousands of books during the war in Iraq. Is the perfect way to bring up the idea that even though we may be at war with a country it does not mean that all of the people there are bad. I have not read this to my three-year-old yet because it is a bit scary, however I probably will when he turns four.
“The Day of Ahmed’s Secret”
Florence Parry Heide & Judith Heide Gilliand
This story takes place in Cairo, Egypt and depicts a day in the life of a young boy. It is highly relatable to young children because his secret is that he has learned to write his name all by himself!
“The Golden Sandal”
Rebecca Hickox
A great way to introduce a culture in a familiar way is by reading a fairy tale from that culture that mirrors one of ours. The children can connect to the familiarity of the story, while engaging with the different characters and settings the author uses. You can find Cinderella type stories from cultures all around the world!

Africa

“Jambo Means Hello”
Muriel Feelings
This alphabet book goes through Swahili words and includes beautiful illustrations that take you throughout the Swahili speaking part of south east Africa.
“Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain”
Verna Aardema
This Nandi tale was one of my favorites as a kid too! It describes how Ki-Pat brings rain to the dry Kapiti plain with playful rhyming and beautiful illustrations.
“Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters”
John Steptoe
A Caldecott honor book inspired by Kaffir folktales from Zimbabwe, this story teaches how being kind and putting others first is the right thing to do.

World Culture

“Hello World”
Manja Stojic
An amazing book that teaches you how to say hello in 43 languages!
“A Cool Drink of Water”
Barbara Kerley
This book beautifully depicts how people from all over the world enjoy a nice refreshing drink of cold water!
“Children from Australia to Zimbabwe”
Maya Ajmera & Anna Rhesa Versola
A nonfiction book that includes beautiful photographs and information about kids in countries from A-to-Z! My 3 year old loves looking at all the pictures and asking questions about the children in them!
“Whoever You Are”
Men Fox
This book highlights how, although people may look and live differently, we are all just the same on the inside!

Finally, dive into race and the fight for civil rights by reading and discussing good quality kids’ books that address this topic. Read modern day books too about Americans who come from different backgrounds. The beauty of our country is that nobody comes from the same place- similar ones maybe, but we Americans are so diverse and that is what makes our country so beautifully unique! Read stories about African Americans, Chinese Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, European Americans- everyone! This book list by Pre-K teacher Brittany Smith has some fantastic ones that I recently ordered for my kids, and here are a few of the ones I’ve loved for awhile too!

Slavery

“Henry’s Freedom Box”
Ellen Levine
This is an amazing story about how an African-American slave literally mailed himself to freedom!
“Minty”
Alan Schroeder
The amazing story of young Harriet Tubman!
“Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt”
Deborah Hopkinson
A story about how a little girl escaped slavery using a quilt as a map!
“D is for Drinking Gourd”
Nancy I. Sanders
This alphabet book takes you through important points in African-American history.

Civil Rights

“Martin’s Big Words”
Doreen Rappaport
A beautiful biography on Martin Luther King Junior spanning from his childhood to when he was shot and killed. It includes many actual quotes by Dr. King that are great to live by today.
“Sister Anne’s Hands”
Marybeth Lorbiecki
The story of an African-American nun and how she positively impacts the life of a young girl through her teaching.
“Freedom Summer”
Deborah Wiles
A story about how a swimming pool was filled with cement rather than being allowed to be opened up to African-Americans. A great conversation starter on empathy for any age!
“White Water”
Michael S. Bandy & Eric Stein
Based on the true story of a little boy who is not supposed to drink from the “whites only” fountain but his curiosity just gets the better of him… another great one to teach empathy.

Modern Day American Cultural Diversity

“One Candle”
Eve Bunting
A beautifully told story about a Jewish American family who relives their memories of the holocaust each year at Hanukkah. I have not read this one yet to my three year old because it is very heavy, however when he turns 4 we will because it is such an important topic to discuss.
“Dumpling Soup”
Jama Kim Rattigan
A story about an Asian-American girl who gets to help her family make dumplings for New Year’s Eve for the very first time!
“Too Many Tamales”
Gary Soto
A sweet story about a Mexican-American girl who “loses” her mother’s engagement ring in a batch of tamale dough… definitely relatable to younger children!
“Masai and I”
Virginia Kroll
A beautifully illustrated story that parallels the life of an African-American girl with her kinsmen in the Masai tribe! This is definitely one of my favorite multicultural books!
“Sitti’s Secrets”
Naomi Shihab Nye
A story about a Palestinian-American girl and her visit to her grandmother in her home country.
“Apple Pie 4th of July”
Janet S. Wong
A Chinese-American girl’s 4th of July celebration where she learns that America isn’t just about apple pie!

5 thoughts on “Combatting Prejudice through Kids’ Books

    1. Thank you so much! Having majored in cultural anthropology and then going on to get my Masters in Teaching, this is like a combination of my two passions! LoL Next week we’re doing “little world traveler” lessons that kind of go along with this theme! It should be fun! I’ll post the plans next Friday!

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