What Children’s Literature Can Teach Us about Race, Police, and Protests

Growing up in suburban Detroit in the early 1970s, my only interactions with police were in books and at school.  Carolyn Haywood’s Betsy books, a staple of my childhood reading, included the pleasant policeman-crossing guard, Mr. Kilpatrick—a genial figure who confirmed the image of “Officer Friendly” I was taught about in school.  Indeed, Officer Friendly (whose real name is lost to me, if I ever knew it) came to my third grade class and warned us about the “real” threat to our childhood innocence: the man in the big black car offering candy.  “Stranger Danger” would be our watchwords, and it never occurred to me that the officer on the beat might be a stranger too.

My childhood image of the police in Haywood’s Betsy books

But for many children growing up then—just miles away in downtown Detroit, or rural parts of the South, or in neighborhoods in London or Birmingham, England—the police were strangers, and sometimes dangerous.  I didn’t know about these kids’ experiences and fears, because even in a household where the news was a daily part of our lives, news was never as constant as it is now.  I knew basic things: who the president was, and that he was in disgrace; that there was a war going on somewhere; that the Detroit Tigers (or Lions, or Redwings) were winning (or losing).  For many children today across racial and class lines, access to social media (but not necessarily to news sources) means that questions about police and race are a regular aspect of their conversations.  When my daughter asked “why that Ferguson police officer keeps killing people,” I knew I had to correct the spurious and inaccurate reports she had gleaned from listening to her peers.  But I also knew that no matter what I told her, Officer Friendly and Mr. Kilpatrick would never be a part of her vocabulary the way they had been part of mine.

I wondered what children’s books written more recently might offer to readers about race, protests and the police.  As a children’s literature professor, I have often shared Eve Bunting’s and David Diaz’s 1994 Smoky Night (New York: Harcourt Brace), with my students.  This picture book, which won the 1995 Caldecott Medal, was based on the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the beating of African-American Rodney King by white police officers.  My students had generally disliked it, describing it as “scary”.  My own ambivalence about the book’s lack of attention to the issues which led to the rioting only increased when I re-read the book with recent events in the forefront of my mind.  I had never noticed it before, but the book does not contain a single police officer (friendly or not): only looters who “don’t care anymore what’s right and what’s wrong” (Smoky Night, n.p.) and the residents who are frightened by them.  Smoky Night might be accurate in its depiction of riots as lawless, frightening worlds, but it does not offer any positive way to protest unjust action—or even suggest that justice might have been a goal of protests gone wrong.  The main child character in this book has no active role to play in the riots or their resolution; this is left to adults (looters, firefighters) and even the neighborhood cats instead.

Perhaps more thought-provoking and useful for today’s children is Cynthia Levinson’s 2012 We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Atlanta: Peachtree Press), which won (among other awards) the Jane Addams book award for books that promote peace and social justice.  Although the book is designed for an older audience than that of Smoky Night, it ought to be available to younger readers as well, since the plethora of photographs (everything from a young drum majorette to Ku Klux Klan members) could spark important conversations.  We’ve Got a Job, like Smoky Night, suggests that riots can be terrifying.  But it tells a much bigger story, a story that cuts across racial and class lines, and includes law-abiding citizens, peaceful protestors, and violent lawbreakers.  Some of the law-abiding and peaceful citizens are children, and some are police, some are white and some are black.  The same is true for the people condoning and participating in violence.  Levinson’s book depicts the police actions (beatings, hosing down of protestors with water cannon) that led more and more children to be willing to go to jail; but it also reminds readers that not all the actions of Birmingham’s African American citizens were just.  One of the children depicted in the book admitted to throwing bottles and rocks at white people and their property “to get even” (147) for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls.  This incident, however, is not described before Levinson pays careful attention to the economic issues involved in racial division (something often overlooked by other books about the time period).  Levinson writes that “Those who had less to lose or who were willing to risk it all tended to be more aggressive” (23) in their actions.  Levinson also describes the reluctance to get involved of middle-class blacks who “had quiet relationships with their white counterparts, which they wanted to preserve, even if that meant that progress was slow” (25).  Protest action in the Birmingham of 1963, as in Ferguson in 2014, was not unified by its participants’ race or how they chose to demonstrate their anger.

Children form the center of Levinson’s book.

However, the ultimate lesson of Levinson’s book is that everyone loses when people in power abuse that power—and this means that everyone, even children, have a right and a responsibility to speak up when they perceive that power is being abused.  Children are at the center of this book, and their willingness to go to jail to achieve justice contrasts sharply with the injustice and inaction of adults; even the usually-untouchable Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown as “not convinced” (68) that children had a role to play in the protests.  Levinson clearly disagrees, and ends the book by quoting one of the young participants in the Children’s March of 1963, James Stewart.  “Children, James said, ‘are not too young to be involved in what’s going on around them’” (156).

Today’s children are involved—more than ever—in the national (and international) discussion about race and the police.  We’ve Got a Job is one book that can help open up that conversation for them. We ought to provide more ways for kids to read about the difference they can make—no matter what their color or class, and with or without the help of Officer Friendly.

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3 thoughts on “What Children’s Literature Can Teach Us about Race, Police, and Protests

    1. sandsk2014 Post author

      There’s surprisingly little, and almost nothing for kids of a picture book age. Books on the Civil Rights movement, for example, tend to be very good guys vs. bad guys (if they take a side at all); in general, though, the “bad guys” are nameless Klan members and National Guards. There is a book about the Amadou Diallo case by Bryna Fireside, and a couple of books obviously written for students writing reports on topics like “Police Brutality” or “Rodney King and the LA Riots” or “Tiananmen Square”, but nothing nearly so balanced as We Have a Job. I do think poetry can play a role in the discussion, however, and British poets Benjamin Zephaniah and John Agard have both written poetry for young people (although again for a tween+ crowd) about racial tensions and interacting in the wider society that are worth checking out.

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