Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Books on Skin Color & Race

In this post I'm focusing on young picture books which directly and generally address skin color and racial features which could be used to start a discussion about race with children ages 3-8. I've listed the titles from youngest to oldest reading level.

Shades of People by Shelley Rotner and Sheila M. Kelly (2009)

Age: 3-7

First lines: "Have you noticed that people come in many different shades? Not colors, exactly, but shades. There's creamy, ivory, sandy and peach, coffee, cocoa, copper and tan."

A simple concept book with minimal text, naming many shades of skin color, illustrated with dozens of photographs of a wide range of irresistible children's faces.

Central idea: "Our skin is just our covering, like wrapping paper. And, you can't tell what someone is like from the color of their skin."

My take: This is the best overall concept book on skin color I've found. The text is direct and plain-spoken, with no value judgments, no need to sell the concept. (I have a few quibbles with photo choices, text placement, and which colors come first, but these are minor.)

All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka (1994)

Age: 4-7

First lines: "Children come in all the colors of the earth / The roaring browns of bears and soaring eagles, / The whispering golds of late summer grasses, / And crackling russets of fallen leaves, / The tinkling pinks of tiny seashells by the rumbling sea."

A joyous and poetic celebration, "inspired by her own two children's multi-ethnic heritage," of the range of colors in skin and hair, depicted in oil paintings of realistic children in fanciful natural settings. Several spreads show biracial families.

Central idea: "Children come in all the colors of the earth and sky and sea."

My take: This book is an old favorite, exuberant in its appreciation of the beauty of difference, and I love Sheila Hamanaka's tender portraits of children. It may seem too flowery and sentimental for some tastes.

The Colors of Us
by Karen Katz (1999)

Age: 4-8

First lines: "My name is Lena, and I am seven. I am the color of cinnamon. My mom says she could eat me up."

When Lena says that "brown is brown," her artist mother ("the color of French toast") takes her on a walk to find all the colors of brown in their neighborhood. Bold flat color and bright patterns.

Central idea: "Look at everyone's legs, Mom - all the different shades."

My take: The nonfiction-masquerading-as-fiction format is a pet peeve of mine, and the adult neighbors have stereotypical ethnic roles (Mr. Pellegrino makes pizza, Mr. Kashmir "sells many different spices" and has a turban and a curling mustache, and the only dark-skinned black adult, Candy, is a babysitter who "looks like a princess"). The story has a fun ending, with Lena making charming portraits of everyone in "all the colors of us."

The Skin You Live In
by Michael Tyler, illustrated by David Lee Csicsko (2005)

Age: 4-8

First Lines: "Hey, look at your skin ... The wonderful skin you live in! The skin you're all day in; the skin that you play in; the skin that you snuggle up, cuddle up, lay in."

A rollicking rhyming book about skin, including its variety of colors, produced by the Chicago Children's Museum.

Central Idea: "... the skin you live in, so beautifully holds the 'You' who's within... We all make a beauty, so wonderfully true. We are special and different and just the same, too!"

My take: The text is bouncy, playful and entertaining, with amusing and surprising rhymes ("It's face the rain bold skin and snow-angel cold skin"), good for keeping the attention of a story hour. The references to colors come only in the middle of the book, in the context of what we all have in common.

The art is graphically pleasing but sometimes puzzling in content: almost all children have football-shaped heads with ear knobs on the ends (see cover). The only exceptions are a few faces, particularly the recurring Asian girl (the only Asian character), whose head is rounded with only one ear. Given the topic, it seems odd to set up such a strong pattern and then break it in this random way, bringing to mind the Sesame Street song, "Which of these things is not like the other?"
Despite my caveats, I'd use any of these books to start a conversation about skin color and race (and with older children, topics like stereotypes can be part of the discussion).

Got any other recommendations for books that directly address skin color and racial features for children ages 3-8?

(At this point I'm not including books such as Black is Brown is Tan, about a particular biracial family, though of course it could be used to spark a discussion on race; I'm saving it and similar titles for a post about books featuring biracial and multiracial families.)


stevesatriani said...

That is interesting book thanks for share

Reena said...

"The skin I'm in" by Pat Thomas talks directly about racism. I think the age is 4-8 years. I am reading it in bits to my 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 year olds.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Reena. I wasn't familiar with this book and have ordered it from the library.

Anonymous said...

Hi Anne, I loved your piece in the SCBWI Bulletin. It really got me thinking.

This blog made me think about one time when I was teaching art to kindergarteners in New York, and one of the children said "Can you pass me a skin colour crayon?" and the child passed them a brown one, and the little girl said "That's not skin colour - oh" realising she'd taken a crayon from an African-American child, whose idea of "skin colour" was brown. From then on I've encouraged children not to define "skin colour" as a colour, because skin can be any colour, and I've never ever forgotten it.

It's so interesting to think about race from a child's point of view and to hear the dialogue of this encounter... even at 5 years old they were processing their differences, and I was proud to see that they handled it with such a maturity. Just really interesting...