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Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture Books Struggle With The Task

<em>A Birthday Cake for Washington</em> has been the subject of much criticism because it portrays slaves as being happy.
A Birthday Cake for Washington has been the subject of much criticism because it portrays slaves as being happy.

The shelves and desks at Teaching for Change in Washington, D.C., are full of picture books. 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 children's books out there.

Allyson Criner Brown, Teaching for Change's associate director, says they keep the bad ones because "there's so much to learn from them."

A Birthday Cake for George Washington was just put on the bad shelf.

Over the weekend, the publisher Scholastic announced it would stop distributing the children's picture book after public outcry.

Even though it was created by a multicultural team, the book came under heavy criticism for whitewashing the history of slavery. Just a few months ago, another children's book, A Fine Dessert, drew similar criticism.

It also raised questions about the diversity of the publishing industry and especially about the struggle parents, teachers and authors face when presenting such sensitive topics to young children.

A Birthday Cake for George Washington tells the story of Hercules, a slave 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 a note following the story that the author writes that Hercules escaped, leaving his daughter behind.

"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," Brown said. "And that cannot ever be a part of telling any story about somebody who was held in bondage."

Brown said that kind of simplistic, idealized narrative in a picture book is just a reflection of the adult world.

This is a country, she said, that wants to believe that the United States started as the land of the free and the home of the brave.

"The nation didn't start like that for everyone," she said. "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."

But Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, said children are not waiting around for adults.

Thomas studies how schools approach touchy subjects like slavery, and she spent time with students at a Philadelphia middle school.

"I found out that kids are not only ready to discuss these topics, but they are already discussing these topics with their friends," Thomas said.

At the time of her research, the students were reading Elijah of Buxton, a book about a runaway slave in Canada. Thomas said the kids were making sophisticated connections between the historical fiction and the realities of the Black Lives Matter movement today.

So the reality is that while kids are already grappling with some of the world's ugliness, she said, adults are still clinging to a Victorian ideal of an innocent child.

Adults are thinking "the innocence of the ideal child must be protected at all costs," she said. "We must keep the dirty secrets of our society away from those kids. And I think that kids are seeing those contradictions."

That protection instinct is familiar to writer Matt de la Peña — especially because he's a new father.

"I have a 20-month-old daughter," he said. "And you really just want to protect your daughter so much from the sadness. And you feel like, she's gonna see it eventually on her own. But then you have to take a step back and say my need to protect isn't as important as for her to see the truth."

The truth is something de la Peña thinks about a lot. His books for young adults often deal with the harsh realities of crime and violence. That honesty, he said, is valuable to kids.

"Young readers have a chance to experience very scary and sad and dark things in books," he said. "It's kind of the safest way to experience these things for the first time."

De la Peña just won a Newbery Medal for his book 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 responds, "you're a better witness for what's beautiful."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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