February is Black History Month! This is a terrific opportunity to celebrate, through the lens of children’s literature, the contributions African-Americans and African-Canadians have made to the progress and betterment of North American society and to the wider world.
Children are not oblivious to their surroundings. If they are asking questions about Black Lives Matter or the shifting political culture in the context of a Trump presidency, it’s important that we educate ourselves so that we can pass along accurate information.
Paula Young Shelton’s Child of the Civil Rights Movement is an autobiographical work that tells an abbreviated rendition of the struggle for racial equality in the US, from the perspective of the author as the 4-year-old daughter of civil rights activists. This book was written with a 4- to 8-year-old audience in mind, but it can also be of educational and moral value to older children, who can glean information from the story as well as from the biographical details of key figures at the back of the book.
While I’m not entirely convinced that the book’s language and themes are accessible to 4-year-olds, there is certainly value in laying a contextual foundation for the questions and conversations to come. Unfamiliar words are also great for the development of literacy skills. For instance, the story includes words like “racists”, “civil rights”, “protest”, “struggle”, “booming”, “symphony”, and “nonviolence”. Unfamiliar words are opportunities for learning! The story also includes the names of several relevant cities and states (Selma, Alabama; Atlanta, Georgia), references to Jim Crow as her 4-year-old mind understood him (“CAWWW, CAWWW, you can’t sit there!”), her Uncle Martin (Martin Luther King Jr.), and other notable activists. The author lists some examples of discrimination in terms that a 4-year-old can grasp, and other examples might register more effectively as they re-read it year after year.
Parents can help to further develop these themes of justice and compassion by asking their kids what sorts of things make them feel sad, or mad, or left out. A useful exercise to follow this is a brainstorm of what can be done to make sad people feel better. One way to do this is to consider what the opposite action would be (ex: being mean -> being nice), and how that might make them feel better. Even if they are not yet at an age where they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, you can still communicate the idea that something can be done to make bad situations better.
The primary take-away message I get from the book is that sometimes making things better can be hard, but positive change can happen when people work together. There are a lot of fun games kids can play that show the value of teamwork rather than going it alone!
A final idea to extend the message of this book is to explore biographies of specific individuals and their contributions to Black history. I found several early childhood education websites that recommend looking at snippets of MLK Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech with preschoolers, distinguishing between a “sleeping dream” and a “wishing dream”, and then asking them to draw pictures of what they want to be when they grow up. So many fun ways to make the book come to life!
I give this book 5/5 flashlights for its effort to translate a difficult and complicated subject into palatable and poetic nonfiction for kids, thus helping them to grow into caring, compassionate members of their communities.