Using anti-racial-critical laws and measures, schools have started banning children’s books that help students understand the impact of racism and systemic discrimination and oppression.
In the battle against the misconception that critical race theory is “seeping” into our K-12 schools – and the belief that it must be stopped – the new frontier is children’s literature.
Critical Race Theory (CRT), taught primarily in higher education and law schools, is the study of how laws and policies can drive and perpetuate racial disparities and inequalities. Even though Critical Race Theory is not taught in K-12 schools, it comes under attack and subsequently banned by many state legislatures to score political points, using misinformation and fear to drive a wedge between people.
The intention of these state measures is to limit and prevent teachers from discussing sexism, racism and other forms of systemic oppression. This is inconvenient because teachers should be encouraged to teach these important concepts – through social studies, literature, and other parts of the curriculum.
Book challenges and bans
Challenging and banning children’s books is unfortunately nothing new. The American Library Association has a website focused on banning books and there is a Forbidden Book Week which celebrates the freedom to read. This current trend towards banning is all the more worrying as it is targeted and specific. Parents, schools and districts are using the state’s new bans on CRT to justify banning books that help students understand the impact of racism and systemic discrimination and oppression. And there is a ripple effect even in states without these laws.
A group of parents in Tennessee are trying to get dozens of pounds removed. The list includes a book written by and about Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend and desegregate an all-white elementary school in 1960 in New Orleans.
Tennessee state law limits how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, and these Williamson County parents have objected to teaching the picture book, Ruby Bridges goes to school. Parents complained about the book because it mentions a “big crowd of angry whites who didn’t want black kids in a white school” and the book doesn’t offer redemption at the end.
A ripple effect of the CRT debate was illustrated in Plainedge, New York – where there is no anti-CRT law. A group of parents opposed Reception being read aloud in their child’s classroom, stating that it was a “CRT recommended novel” and demanded that it not be read. Reception is an award-winning book of mid-level chapters written by New York Times bestselling author Kelly Yang. Reception talks about a young girl who runs the front desk at the motel where her parents live and work.
The book shares stories of immigration, reflecting on the harms of poverty and prejudice and the triumph of their collaboration to overcome them. After some setbacks, the book was not banned – at least temporarily – but parents were given the option to “refuse” to read it, and many chose to opt out.
In the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, an online parent petition has led to the cancellation of an appearance by award-winning author and illustrator Newbery Jerry Craft. Parents alleged that Craft’s books promote “critical race theory.” His graphic novels, New kid and Class law, tell the story of two young blacks navigating their worlds at home and in their private school where they are among the few pupils of color. The books explore questions of identity, diversity and belonging. In addition to canceling Craft’s presentation, her books have been “temporarily” removed and are currently under review.
In Southlake, Texas, a school district already so embroiled in controversies over race and racism that there is a NBC News Podcast Series about it, has its own controversy over the ban on books. The Carroll Independent School District of Southlake recently announced new district-wide rules on books that teachers can use in their classrooms.
The district provides training and instructions for removing books that do not meet the new standards. As teachers began to take inventory of their classroom libraries, one teacher said she should remove Separating is never equal from his collection. This is a picture book based on the real-life story of Sylvia Mendez and her family, who fought to end school segregation in California in the 1940s.
It is also worrying that in recent months, other work by children’s literature, especially those written by black authors, are increasingly questioned, contested and banned in the midst of the debate over critical race theory. In addition, from 2020 most contested books, six out of 10 are about race and racism and by authors of color, most of whom are black. This contrasts sharply with 2019, where the most contested books were mostly LGBTQ + themed books.
Children’s books provide “mirrors” and “windows”
We know the importance of children’s books as mirrors and showcases for young people. “Mirror books” help children to reflect in them so that their lived experiences are recognized, appreciated and valued. “Window books” help young people learn from the experiences of other people who do not share certain aspects of their identity.
From an early age and through adolescence, children’s books open the door to conversations about identity, diversity, prejudice and social justice, conversations that are integral to the education of a young. Over the past 10 years, progress has been made in publishing more diverse books and by authors representative of this diversity.
What do the books described here have in common?
All of these books were written by and share stories about people of color and other historically marginalized people. All of these books deal with prejudice, discrimination and injustice in one way or another. All of these books promote empathy and understanding of the characters in the stories. And all of these books are examples of excellent popular children’s literature with engaging storylines and gripping themes. All of these books tell important stories for young people to learn about the world around them, past and present.
Children’s books teach history and current affairs. We cannot allow these anti-CRT laws and state measures to prevent educators from teaching important topics through the lens of children’s literature. In addition to exploring different identities and perspectives, these books help teach the truth of our history, reflect on current events, show how prejudice and injustice manifest itself, and illustrate how people can take action to overcome them.
Providing windows, mirrors, and the truth of our story throughout the curriculum can help students learn, think critically, and thrive – in school and in life outside of the classroom. It’s also important that young people have the freedom to read whatever they want, follow their interests, and have a wide range of options to choose from and explore.
From picture books to graphic novels, from chapter books to young adult literature, we need more of these books on the shelves of our school and community libraries, not less. It will help us all to build a better and more equitable future.
This article was published on the ADL blog in October 2021. No author signature was given.