New Children’s Books Tackle Race and History with Candor and Grace

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~post by Children’s Book Buyer Meghan G.

Talking about our country’s fraught relationship with race is never easy. Many of us struggle as parents and educators to know how exactly to talk about America’s experiences with race and racial prejudice (past and present) with young kids. As “Black Lives Matter” is at the forefront of dialogue in this country, and as the call for culturally diverse voices in children’s books grows louder and louder, many parents and educators are coming into the store looking to books to help facilitate thoughtful conversations in the classroom and at home. And those conversations could not be more important.

As we talk with these parents, educators and each other about the books that help us introduce our country’s history and current struggles to young readers, two new releases from Austin children’s book creators have really stood out: Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate, and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Horton Moses written and illustrated by Don Tate.

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Set in the Reconstruction Era, The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch does not shy away from the ugliness of the racism and oppression John Roy Lynch faced during his life. Barton and Tate draw an honest, powerful portrait of the life and times of this inspirational figure. As the story follows his journey from slavery to emancipation to his pursuit of education and then election to the United States Congress, Lynch’s perseverance and hard­won successes make him an important role model kids will certainly respond to and learn from. Told with refreshing candor by Austin author Chris Barton and illustrated with engaging expressiveness by Austin artist Don Tate, this excellent book was recently announced as a featured title on the 2016-­2017 Texas Bluebonnet Reading List and will surely be launching many conversations in homes and classrooms around the state over the next school year.

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Set a little bit before The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, Austin children’s book creator Don Tate wrote and illustrated Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton. Offering the story of another memorable African American trailblazer from history, this biography focuses on the first African American writer to be published in the South. Enslaved from the day he was born, George Moses Horton’s life was filled with great pain and sadness, none of which is glossed over in Tate’s moving book. Never freed until the Emancipation Proclamation when he was 66 years old, Horton found an outlet and a purpose through the world of words, even as he couldn’t escape the terrible bonds of slavery. And Tate does a wonderful job of letting Horton’s artistic soul shine through this moving and very poignant biography.

Both Poet and The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch are books intended to be explored with readers ages 7 or 8 and up. I’ve also gone back several times to a list of great books for younger children compiled by librarian Betsy Bird last year. In addition to offering some terrific recommendations, Bird also provides an excellent discussion of some of the challenges we face as parents trying to navigate what can sometimes feel like uncomfortable territory. This list also serves as a useful resource for anyone looking to use books as a jumping off point for discussions about race and identity with younger readers.

Some of my personal favorites from her list include:

Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

The Soccer Fence by Phil Bildner

Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh

And of course Sneetches by Dr. Seuss, a classic, too often forgotten intro to concepts of prejudice, as Betsy so rightly pointed out.

It is sometimes argued that discussions about race and history are best saved for the classroom, where teachers can draw students out to think about ideas in ways that parents perhaps cannot. And kids can certainly be more open to certain discussions at school than with their parents. Books like The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch and Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton might shine brightest in a classroom setting where their historical context can most thoroughly be explored.

However, I personally think that it’s also our job as parents to make thoughtful choices about the books we bring home and the discussions we start there, even if they make us uncomfortable. After all, young children absorb so much about how they think about the world from how their parents engage with them and what their parents find important enough to talk about. As a parent of young children myself, I know I don’t always have the exactly right thing to say, but that cannot stop me from trying.

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