Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture Books Struggle With The Task Experts say picture books that whitewash the history of slavery are just a symptom of an adult society. How can we explain it to kids, they argue, if we can't talk about it ourselves?
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Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture Books Struggle With The Task

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Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture Books Struggle With The Task

Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture Books Struggle With The Task

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This week, the publisher Scholastic announced it would stop distributing a children's picture book titled a "A Birthday Cake For George Washington." The book was under heavy criticism for white-washing the history of slavery even though it was created by a multicultural team. A few months ago, another children's book called "A Fine Dessert" drew similar criticism. NPR's Eyder Peralta looks at challenges that writers, parents and teachers face in trying to present such sensitive topics to young children.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Allyson Criner Brown is showing me around the offices of Teaching for Change in Washington, D.C.

ALLYSON CRINER BROWN: The (unintelligible) office and my office are just right through here.

PERALTA: The place is full of picture books laid out on desks and shelves. Downstairs they have a little public library. For years, the nonprofit, which advocates for a more inclusive curriculum in public schools, has been keeping track of what it considers to be some of the best and worst multicultural kids books out there.

PERALTA: Why do you keep the bad ones?

BROWN: Oh, because there's so much to learn from them.

PERALTA: "A Birthday Cake For George Washington" was just put on the bad shelf. It tells the story of Hercules, a slave George Washington used as a chef. It's a book full of smiles as Hercules and his daughter, Delia, take pride in baking for the president. But the story glosses over the fact that Hercules and Delia are in bondage. And it's only in the note following the story that the author writes that Hercules escaped, leaving his daughter behind.

BROWN: It is - it's almost as if the book presents that because he had moments of happiness and because he took pride and joy in his work - that outweighs the fact that he was enslaved. And that cannot ever be a part of telling any story about someone who was held in bondage

PERALTA: Brown says that kind of simplistic idealized narrative in a picture book is just a reflection of the adult world. This is a country, she says, that wants to believe the United States started as of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

BROWN: The nation didn't start like that for everyone. So as much as we struggle with it, how to then have these difficult conversations with our children with things that we're wrestling with ourselves I think is very tough for a lot of people.

PERALTA: But children aren't waiting around for adults, says Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania. She studies how schools approach touchy subjects like slavery, and she spent time with students at a Philadelphia middle school.

EBONY ELIZABETH THOMAS: I found out that kids are not only ready to discuss these topics, they are already discussing these topics with their friends.

PERALTA: The students were reading a book about a runaway slave in Canada, and Thomas says they were making sophisticated connections between the historical fiction and the realities of the Black Lives Matter movement today. So while kids are already grappling with some of the world's ugliness, she says adults are still clinging to a Victorian ideal of an innocent child.

THOMAS: So the innocence of the ideal child must be protected at all costs. We must keep the dirty secrets of our society away from those kids, and I think that kids are seeing those contradictions.

PERALTA: That instinct is familiar to writer Matt de la Pena.

MATT DE LA PENA: You know, I'm a new dad. I have a 20-month-old daughter, and you really just want to protect your daughter so much from the sadness. And you feel like, you know, she's going to see it eventually on her own, but then you have to take a step back and say, you know what? My need to protect isn't as important as for her to see the truth.

PERALTA: The truth is something de la Pena thinks about a lot. His books for young adults often deal with the harsh realities of crime and violence, and he thinks that's valuable to kids.

DE LA PENA: Young readers have a chance to experience very scary and sad and dark things in books. It's kind of the safest way to experience these things for the first time.

PERALTA: De la Pena just won a Newbery Medal for his book "The Last Stop On Market Street." It's about CJ, a black kid taking a bus ride to the soup kitchen with his grandma. At one point, CJ asks why the poor neighborhood is always so dirty. Sometimes when you're surrounded by dirt, the wise grandma says, you're a better witness for what's beautiful. Eyder Peralta, NPR News.

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