Picture Books Can Help Conversations With Children Amidst an Atmosphere of Hate
News headlines of hate and people run down in the streets. How do we talk to our children about this? I live in Midwest Iowa in a predominantly white, rural community. I know white privilege, but my goal is to learn, understand, listen and respect everyone equally. In my blog this week, I am reviewing three picture books detailing different aspects of history in America: The Civil War, Segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan. I struggle to make sure my words don’t offend, that I measure each comment with respect to every listener, and that I relay the importance of understanding our culture. I’m always learning. Let’s help our children see good in each other, know why equality is important, and learn how our history defines our present.
PINK AND SAY by Patricia Polacco is a story about friendship found in the depths of the Civil War. She begins her heartfelt picture book:
“When Sheldon Russell Curtis told this story to he daughter, Rosa, she kept every word in her heart and was to retell it many times over in her long lifetime.”
Sheldon, called Say by family, was shot on the Civil War battlefield and was injured and dying with fever. A voice pulled him from his stupor when another soldier splashed water on his face.
“I had never seen a man like him so close before. His skin was the color of polished mahogany. He was flying’ Union colors like me. My age, maybe. His voice was soothing’ and his help was good.”
His name was Pink. He carried Say across rough terrain, through streams and mud, and tried to keep them from being discovered by the Confederates. Pink risked his life to carry Say back to his own home. Pink’s mother, Moe Moe Bay nursed Say’s wounds.
Pink fought for the same Union in the 48th Colored Division, and his father fought in the same war. Slaves fighting for their freedom. Say wrestled with fear and wanted to go home, while Pink could only think of returning to the war. “‘Cause it’s my fight, Say. Ain’t it yours, too? If we don’t fight, then who will?“
Say shared his tale of how he shook President Lincoln’s hand near Washington. “Touch my hand, Pink. Now you can say you touched the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!”
Confederate marauders attacked Moe Moe Bay’s home and killed her for the color of her skin. They caught Pink and Say and took them as prisoners of the Confederate Army. They were forced apart, but just as they were to be separated Pink reached for Say. “Let me touch the hand that touched Mr. Lincoln, Say, Just one last time.
“I watched tears fill his eyes and cleaved my hand to his until they wrenched us apart. They smote him and dragged him away from me. He looked back at me and tried to say something’ more but they crossed his back with knotted hemp and pushed him along.”
Sheldon Russell Curtis was released from Andersonville prison many months later, starved and dehydrated, but he later married to become a great-grandfather.
Pinkus Aylee never returned home. He hanged in prison and was thrown into a lime pit.
The author ends the story Pink’s tale down through the generations. She tells the story as her father told the story to her: “This is the hand, that has touched the hand, that has touched the hand, that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.” The book serves as a written memory to Pinkus Aylee since he has no living descendants.
BOYCOTT BLUES: HOW ROSA PARKS INSPIRED A NATION by Andrea Davis Pinkney recounts the story of Rosa Parks and the march on Washington against segregation.
Pinkney uses the sounds of the blues, with rhythm and style, to demonstrate the battle for equality. Rosa Parks was a seamstress in a department store riding the bus home from work. She was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man, and this triggered protests and marches against segregation.
Martin Luther King spoke to the people of Montgomery. “fight until justice runs down like . . . a mighty stream.”
I feel the most important lines in this book: “AND FIGHT WE DID. WE FOUGHT A QUIET FIGHT. NO SLINGSHOTS. NO WEAPONS. NOT EVEN SPITBALLS. WE FOUGHT WITH OUR FEET.”
Blacks refused to ride the bus and walked. Their feet were tired, but they never gave up. Rain or shine, day or night, they walked. For hundreds of days, they walked. White folks joined the boycott. They persisted for over 300 days. On November 13, 1956, the Supreme Court segregation laws were struck down and blacks could ride the city bus the same as everyone else.
And they did.
Rosa Parks and thousands marched without violence and changed the world.
MISSISSIPPI MORNING by Ruth VanderZee introduces us to a young boy, James, in 1933 during a time of segregation and the Great Depression. James had few worries as he helped on the farm and at his father’s hardware store. His father was well respected in town.
His friend, Red, told him he overheard James’ pa talking about why the preacher’s house was burned down.
“Not according to what I heard,” Red replied. “Your pa said that man had to be stopped from stirring up colored folk. Said he was telling’ them to register to vote. Then my pa said men like him were nothing but trouble and it was high time they learned their lesson.”
James refused to believe his father could be involved because he had black customers at the hardware store and was always polite.
James fished by the Mississippi with LeRoy, the best fisherman around. One afternoon when fishing was slow, James asked LeRoy to fish underneath a shade tree.
LeRoy didn’t look at me. He didn’t say anything for a long time. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard me. Finally he spoke so as I almost missed it. “I don’t want to fish there.”
“‘Cause that’s the hanging tree.”
LeRoy explained to James about the Ku Klux Klan and how they left a black man hanging on that tree a whole day and poured black tar on another black man for speaking to a white woman. LeRoy explained that he couldn’t tell his daddy that he was fishing with James. His daddy wouldn’t like it and they may get hurt.
When James asked his father about the men in pointed hoods with white robes. “Seems to me Red should be minding his own business. Now you get back to sweeping the floor,” Pa said in a tone that meant the discussion was over.
One morning, James woke up before dawn on the farm. He saw a white-robed person running down the road.
I hid behind the maple that had shaded our house for years and watched the hooded creature run. All of LeRoy’s stories flashed through my mind. My heart drummed in my chest. As I was trying to figure out how to get to the kitchen to protect my ma and the babies, I saw the white-robed person turn in towards my house.
As the hood lifted up, the masked man’s face was uncovered.
My pa’s face.
My pa was hiding under that hood.
As he reached up to pull the hood back down over his face, my father saw me.
After that moment, everything in James’ life changed. “I still loved my pa. But I never really looked into his eyes again. And he never really looked into mine.”
The Ku Klux Klan is heavy subject matter for children, but it is also on the nightly news. We can’t be naive to think children can’t handle these discussions. Another great author, Susan Bartoletti, wrote They Called Themselves the KKK. Here is a link to some essays she wrote about her experience and research in writing this book: http://www.scbartoletti.com/?page_id=5
She spent time at Klan meetings and tried to understand the psyche of the people.
Numerous picture books exist to aid in discussions with children. Your librarian can likely find a book on any subject you need! As parents, teachers, grandparents, and role models, I hope we continue to discuss issues with our children no matter how difficult.
Thanks for visiting Pat’s Chat