The recent trial of police officer Derek Chauvin is only the latest and most prominent news item about police violence and Black Americans; if history is any guide, by the time this blog post appears, more such incidents may be in the headlines.
It’s a persistent, pervasive, and complex problem that isn’t going to be resolved without the involvement of legislation, policymaking, and public protest. But those tactics proceed from understanding. And literature is one of humanity’s most profound tools for arriving at an understanding of complicated issues.
Which is not to say that literature always succeeds at enabling that understanding. Sometimes issue-oriented fiction can be too didactic, or too simplistic, or too obvious, or too well-meaning. This can especially be a problem with children’s literature, the creators of which have to contend with their audience’s vocabulary, attention span, limited life experience, and intermittent demands for mac and cheese.
But below I’ve listed some books for kids that make admirable attempts at tackling subjects surrounding racially oriented police incidents. You’ll notice certain tendencies among these titles – a focus on the Black American experience, and on the experiences of Black men and boys in particular. The library has plenty of kids’ resources on other facets of Black American life, and the experiences of characters from other racial and cultural backgrounds. There are also plenty of books for older readers that grapple with issues surrounding police violence – teens (and adults) should check out Angie Thomas and Jason Reynolds if they haven’t already.
But these are reads for a younger audience – preschool through middle grades. Some of them tackle the subject head-on; some are more oblique. But hopefully all of them help create some context for productive conversations.
This is a picture book that addresses police violence with unvarnished explicitness – there isn’t a metaphor or a sliver of subtext in sight. That’s to its credit, and also its detriment: as befits a story authored by a team of credentialed psychologists, the text of the story is thorough and meticulous and entirely subtlety-free. But it does a good job of accommodating multiple perspectives about a police shooting from diverse communities, and Jennifer Zivoin’s expressive illustrations help tremendously in making the narrative medicine go down. A good tool for helping to mirror a child’s responses to the news and modeling the responses of others.
Not My Idea is equally direct – in it, a white parent turns off news coverage of a police shooting and says “You don’t need to worry about this” – and more unapologetically ideological in its messaging. “We don’t see color,” the white parent assures her child, and by the end of the book it’s clear that well-meaning sentiment is a counterproductive and insufficient tactic for contending with the complexities of the world. Higgenbotham’s storytelling is powerful and assured, and her mixed-media illustrations give the book an idiosyncratic texture.
Instead of being explicitly and entirely about the impact of police violence, the gorgeous All Because You Matter makes that issue just one of many elements in a book-length message of empowerment and self-esteem. Charles’s spare and lyrical text invites readers to perceive themselves as a culmination of eons of history, one that includes violence and oppression and injustice – the text invokes names like Trayvon, Tamir, Philando – but also empires and monuments and glory. Bryan Collier’s stunning illustrations underline Charles’s linkage of the cosmic and the mundane, using collage to build dazzling fantasias on one page, while on the next there’s an emotionally affecting portrait of a schoolboy whose entire universe has shrunken down to the bad grade he just got back from a teacher. If other books on this list are uncompromising chronicles of societal ills, All Because You Matter is more of an eloquent and necessary pep talk.
And so is I Am Every Good Thing. But whereas All Because You Matter is in the second person and soaringly fanciful, I Am Every Good Thing is in the first person. Gordon C. James’s painted illustrations are mostly close-up depictions of highly relatable tableaux (with occasional detours into imagined space walks and hip-hop concerts). It’s a similarly inspiring message of self-determination, though – the exuberance of the love this book expresses for its reader fairly bursts from every page – and its connection to America’s recent history of racial violence is even more subtextual. The author dedicates the book to victims of killings – Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown – and the first-person narrator’s boundless self-confidence takes on some nuance on the page where he admits “every now and then/ I am afraid/ I am not what they might call me/ and I will not answer to any name/ that is not my own/ I am what I say I am.”
Here we graduate from picture books to a middle-grade story whose biracial sixth-grade protagonist Stephen tries to navigate the casual racism of his white cousin and the uncompromising opinions of his Black friend. It’s a digestible tale that mostly keeps things light, and some critics have taken issue with the characterizations of Stephen’s parents. But Stephen’s discovery that he’s treated differently from his cousin for the same transgressions, and that when people look at him they see “what they imagine or what the media teaches them to think about Black men,” makes this book a pertinent conversation-starter.
By invoking the connotations of the word “resist” it wears its politics on its sleeve, but this collection of writings and art by some of the heaviest hitters in children’s literature – Sharon Draper, Jacqueline Woodson, Joseph Bruchac – makes itself invaluable. The contributors to the anthology are charged with trying to answer the question “In this divisive world, what shall we tell our children?” The poems, essays and stories that wrestle with that question don’t always engage directly with the topic of police violence, but some do: Kwame Alexander’s contribution dramatizes a tough conversation about the daily news between a father and daughter on the way to get ice cream. Along the way, Alexander muses whether “words, sentences, and books aren’t enough, anymore” – a pretty serious reservation, coming from a writer.
This juvenile novel, aimed at readers ages 8-12, is emotionally wrenching stuff: the main character is a child who’s killed by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for the real thing. The rest of the book chronicles the effects of his death on those left behind, and his afterlife conversations with Emmett Till. It’s an unflinching depiction of the impact these deadly mistakes have on a community, but in the end the story’s not devoid of hope.
In this juvenile novel, 12-year-old Shayla is moved to join in expressions of symbolic protest, after the trial of a police officer who shot a Black man ends in a not guilty verdict. Some of her peers have reservations and the racist school principal draws a line in the sand. Shayla needs to decide what kind of person she wants to be. A reliably stirring story of adolescent self-assertiveness in the face of injustice.
This middle-grade novel is jam-packed with incidents and ideas, arguably too much so – its 11-year-old biracial protagonist Isabella deals with divorced parents, schoolkids committing hate crimes, racial profiling, and police shootings. But it’s a worthwhile read – Draper’s a pro and it’s bracing to engage with a story where various forms of racial tension and injustice creep into so many arenas of the character’s experience.
Easily the oldest-skewing book on this list – it targets readers 12 and up – this collection of poems sets out to memorialize Black female victims of violence, and though that sometimes emerges in the verses as explicit cries for justice (“Stop killing us stop/ Killing us stop killing us/
Stop killing us STOP”), the tone mostly reaches for a sense of triumph and redemption.
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