“Was Nano really born in Africa? This Africa?” my little boys asked me about my mother (they call her Nano), pointing at the African continent on the world map which hangs above their bed. Yes, I replied, she did. “But she doesn’t look like she comes from Africa!” one of the boys said. “She doesn’t look like Aunty does!”
My mother was born in Uganda, but is of south Asian heritage (my grandparents were Pakistani, although back then, before war and partition, I suppose they were Indian). My sister-in-law on my husband’s side, the Aunty my boys were referring to, is black; of Nigerian background. And so there they were, my tiny boys, looking at a map, making a connection. Realising that people look different. That people can come from the same place, and still look different. That Nano is brown, but Aunty is black and that they are neither. And as I went about my way, tidying up toys and helping them get into bed, I had this feeling, like a faint fizz of electricity, that something important had just happened in my little boys’ minds.
I have been told for most of my life that I look as though I could be from anywhere. My boys, being mixed race (my husband is white, my background is Pakistani) have that not-quite-but-slightly-foreign look. When my eldest plays out in the sun, he turns gold-kissed, warm like a biscuit out the oven. Then, he matches his arm against mine and says, “Look Mama! We really do look the same!” But I know that as they grow older, their sense of self must and will go beyond the colour of their skin. And I also know that it is up to both my husband and me to give them, as mixed race and mixed heritage kids, the strongest self worth that they could possibly ever have.
My husband can tell my children where he is from. He grew up in the house his father grew up in, climbed trees on the land that has stayed in his family for generations, passed along from eldest son to eldest son. My roots are planted and growing but they are also rambling, overgrown from one country to the other in a tangled wild nest. I hang a map above my children’s bed. This way, they know the world is big but there is room in it for everyone.
There have been plenty of conversations on social media in the last month about people being colour blind and not wanting to see or address colour for fear of getting it wrong, for fear of being rude. Well-meaning folks might think it’s better not to draw attention to racial difference, that it’s respectful, but the truth is, the silence is dangerous.
This isn’t just my perspective. It has been academically researched and proven that when grown-ups act colourblind and ignore race in front of their children, then they unwittingly reinforce racial prejudice in children. When we tell them it’s not nice to point out the colour of somebody’s skin, we’re teaching them it’s not okay to talk about it, implying it is rude or even racist to point out “things like that.” By doing this, we subconsciously teach our kids to absorb mainstream assumptions about difference. Because when no one tells you otherwise, you simply assume. And that’s how and why stereotypes last a lifetime. Talking about skin colour doesn’t mean you’re being racist, but judging someone or treating them differently because of it, does. Talking about colour in a positive, celebratory way goes a long way to curtailing the judgement of it.
Children see the world as it is; it is the joy and innocence of being a child. So when they observe a racial difference, we owe them the respect, openness and honesty to talk about it. We need to be their grown-ups, because we are their grown-ups. But it can be confusing. I don’t have the answers yet and I know there will be more questions to come.
Whenever I felt lost as a child or a teen, I turned to books (I still do). But I turned to them for escape, not for answers, because none of the books I grew up with ever referenced people like me. There is work to be done, but the publishing world is recognising it needs to change. Unlike when I was a child, my boys have bookshelves full of stories that show different faces - faces like theirs, like their cousins, like their friends.
My choice of multicultural books for preschoolers and children’s books celebrating diversity do not specifically explain race (apart from the book on Rosa Parks); it is a lot for a three-year-old to try and take in! But showing children’s books with diverse characters to young kids of any background teaches them colour exists. These books also show mixed or ethnic race children that they’re included, seen and heard. That the world reflects them and will not shut them out. That their feelings are valid and can also be universal. That they can be whoever they want to be. This, I feel, is one of the most important lessons we can teach our children. And that comes from a lot of places, but books and the role models they show, play a huge part.
Even for a three-year-old, these simple messages are empowering. Imagine if everyone in the world had grown up with such strong self-belief, such recognition; their own good selves reflected back at them in the books that shaped their childhood. Then perhaps the world would already be a kinder place.
Here’s my simple selection of seven diverse books for pre-schoolers and early readers, for half-term, Black History Month and beyond:
Seven multicultural children’s books celebrating diversity for pre-schoolers and young children
1 Rosa Parks (Little People, Big Dreams) by Lisbeth Kaiser: I love the Little People, Big Dreams series and while I often see this appearing in little girls’ bedrooms, I believe it is just as important for little boys to read about empowering women too (the series isn’t just about women either, there is one on Mohammed Ali and one on Stephen Hawking coming soon). This book on Rosa Parks is a wonderful way of opening conversations on the mistakes history has made and the courage of this one woman and why we don’t separate people because of the colour of their skin and the way they look. The language is a little complex for pre-schoolers but can be easily simplified for them.
2 Happy in Our Skin by Fran Mushkin: a really gorgeous picture book suitable for younger ones that joyously teaches us all to embrace how amazing and different everybody’s skin is and even explains why skin is important in the first place!
3 Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea by Elizabeth Suneby: this book doesn’t just put a little brown Asian boy on the cover but also talks about sustainability and looking after the planet as well as opening children’s eyes to a different country (Bangladesh) and different customs (Ramadan). There are so many other positive messages here too - Iqbal is helpful, thoughtful and clever too. He cares about his family, and looking after the planet. Better suited to a four/five-year-old as it’s a little long.
4 We Are Family by Patricia Hegarty: a beautiful book celebrating diverse families, showing that all families are different but also much the same too. When my boys first asked about their Aunty being black, we began to read this. A really lovely and strong message about love and celebrating difference.
5 Ada Twist Scientist by Andrea Beaty: I love Andrea Beaty’s books (including Iggy Peck Architect and Rosie Revere Engineer) and this one is no exception. Ada is a very clever little black girl who is incredibly determined to find the answers to why things are the way they are. It’s a giggle while also showing simple equality and positivity for colour but also gender - for why shouldn’t a girl like Ava be into science and able to find the answers?
6 The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats This little board book was written in 1963. It is a simple and sweet story of a little boy exploring the snow, perfect for toddlers, but it’s also hugely important for history too. The Snowy Day was the very first full-colour picture book ever printed in America to feature a small black hero.
7 Ramadan (Celebrate The World) by Hannah Eliot A pretty and simple short illustrated board book to explain who Muslims are, what Ramadan is and why people follow it. This helped me explain Ramadan to my own children (I also happened to read this to my son’s Montessori class when I did a little talk about Eid for them). An uplifting looks at how we can all find ways to be thankful for what we have and generous to those who go without. I wish these sort of books had been around when I was a child, too.
How Silence can breed prejudice: A child development professor explains how and why to talk to kids about race
The Guardian on the lack of diversity in children’s books
The Guardian’s 50 best diverse children’s books
The Letterbox Library - a children’s booksellers celebrating equality and diversity
We Need Diverse Books - a grassroots non-profit organisation that aims to put more books featuring diverse characters into the hands of all children
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