June 20, 2016

How do you write a woke kid’s book?


Painting-for-peace-book_zpssyhkdr2d (1)It’s deceptively difficult to write a good children’s book. For every jamoke who thinks that the smaller the page count, the less talent is required, there’s an uninspired and boring book that your kid will see through in no time.

And it’s particularly difficult to write a children’s book that touches on dark, troubling, or complex themes, otherwise known as “grown-up stuff.” Walking the line between explaining and condescending is hard enough when you’re talking to just one kid — let alone a potentially massive readership.

Kids form their conceptions of the world through the things they see and the culture they take in, so it’s vital for authors to thread that tonal needle and create books that, for instance, talk about how gay people exist and are okay, how trans people exist and are okay, and how gender roles are kinda arbitrary. And it’s equally important to either refuse to give your kid (or at least present in the proper context) books that traffic in… less savory themes—say, how slaves were happy, vaccines are a lie, guns are super helpful, or Robbie Robertson is unequivocally awesome.

(And yes, parents, you decide what books your kid reads — at first. I personally think that the ideal approach is as a sort of literary deist; instill in your kid a healthy love of reading, then point them at the library and walk away, while encouraging them to talk to you about anything strange or disturbing they encounter. Otherwise, you may risk micromanaging your tyke into being a bibliographically dysfunctional ideologue. Just saying.)

All of this is to say that crafting a sensitive and nuanced kid’s book about what happened in Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 is a nearly insurmountable task. Patrick Hogan wrote for Fusion this week about just such a book, Painting For Peace In Ferguson, and how easily intent and execution diverge.

In the small town of Ferguson
in 2014
some people did things that
Were meaner than mean

Some people were mad
some people were sad
But everyone, everywhere
felt pretty bad 🙁

That’s the first page of the children’s book Painting for Peace in Ferguson by Carol Swartout Klein and John Hendrix. After a short introduction, the book presents more than 100 paintings and murals from around Ferguson made by people in the town.

According to a review of the book by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the authors were seeking to spread a message of “hope, healing and unity” through art created in the aftermath of the Ferguson protests. The Post-Dispatch also says that most of the proceeds for the book will go to art programs and businesses in the Ferguson area. Those are laudable goals, but clearly, something went very wrong in the book’s introduction.

The review points out that, though details about the art and artists are absent from the book, they can be found on the book’s website, alongside resources for how to talk to kids about the events the book glosses over. Plus, most of the proceeds from the book’s sale will go to “youth and art programs in the North County area and to small businesses affected by damage.”

This is admirable. But representing the killing of Michael Brown and the subsequent clashes between protestors and law enforcement nebulously as “some things that were meaner than mean” and then rendering them as the grim prelude to an uplifting tale of community rebuilding doesn’t appear to have sat well with all parents. One local writer quoted in the Fusion piece took to Twitter to voice her displeasure with the book:

Today, mass integrated media elevates national tragedies into a greater spectator (and commentator) occasion than ever before, providing ever-fewer opportunities for parents to shield their kids from the horrors of the world being played out across readily accessible digital display screens. Parenting has on some level always been an exercise in how many lies it’s ethical to tell your children, but reducing racial strife to a nursery rhyme is no more effective in teaching critical thinking than tossing your toddler a copy of The Ferguson Report and hoping for the best.

So how can kids’ books explain the inherently scary aspects of life (mortality, human greed, structurally-endorsed mass harm) in ways that will edify, rather than overwhelm? That’s impossible to say, because books only perform part of what might be called “the ongoing calibration of your child’s bullshit meter.”

Parents have a moral obligation to tell the truth as well. Within whatever limits they or their culture set, parents duplicate their own beliefs and suspicions within their children. And while Klein’s book is a handy scapegoat for the failures of mass media and privileged white communities to acknowledge and address the true depths of racist power operating in Ferguson (and, to a greater extent, the county at large), the responsibility to explain structural inequality to children falls on everybody. It requires introducing children to necessary discomfort and cognitive dissonance, and that’s hard work. In our culture of conflict avoidance, most parents’ protective instinct to shield their child from conflict is strong; all the woke kids’ books in the world won’t change that.

But you can’t teach kids to be critical of culture and media without giving them something to criticize, and bland children’s books are perfect object lessons. Imparting the importance of sustained, rigorous, critical engagement with innocuous messages like Klein’s builds a foundation for a child to resist easy avoidance of conflict, and to not be cowed by louder and scarier ideas and not stagnate in a childlike moral universe inhabited by only Good and Bad people as they grow older.

As The Onion, which usually says it best, once said: it’s a start.



Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.