“Divisive” Books Help Children Experiencing Trauma: An interview with the authors of Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice

ALA Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books, Banned and Challenged Books, Censorship, Diversity, Social Justice

Those who seek to censor anti-racist literature embrace a fundamental irony: denying a reality that children of color are confronted with in their everyday lives while instead attacking attempts to use literature to help children process racial trauma. I am reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote: “The books the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.” 

Indeed, the children’s book Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice written by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, and illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin, appears as number 6 on the American Library Association’s top 10 challenged books of 2020 list due to “divisive language” and for promoting anti-police views (although the book points out that many cops make good choices, provides 8 pages of back matter to guide parents and educators, and is written by professional psychologists).

Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard

Recently, the Binghampton City School District in New York issued an apology to local members of law enforcement for its use of the book in its elementary schools after complaints from parents and the Binghamton Police Benevolent Association. 

The following is an interview with the book’s authors Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard.

How did your professional experiences inform the creation of the book? 

All three of us are psychologists who have worked with children, including those who experience trauma and stress related to poverty and racism. We believe that children are adversely affected by acts of racial injustice, and we also think that they can be agents of social change. Thus, when we were presented with the opportunity to write this book, we wanted to write a story that would address racism directly yet in a developmentally appropriate manner, and help children learn how to counter racial injustice in their own lives.

Would-be book censors sometimes argue that children aren’t ready for conversations about racism. What have you seen in your practice to indicate a need for this book? 

We think children are ready for conversations about racism for several reasons. First, if they hear about police shootings, they may have questions about what happened. As psychologists, we know that children try to make sense of distressing events by seeking information and support. Therefore, it is important for parents to discuss stressful events with their children to help them cope. Second, conversations about racism serve to socialize children, or prepare them for life in contemporary U.S. communities. Discussing the disproportionate police shootings of African Americans in the context of the history of race relations in the U.S. helps them understand it as a pattern that can be changed. Avoidance of the topic may communicate that police shootings are not important or that the victims deserved to be murdered. If parents don’t directly discuss racism, children will develop attitudes and biases based on observed racial inequities and on how Blacks and Whites are portrayed in the media. Finally, we believe there is a moral imperative to counter racism in our country. Even if discussions of racism with children generate anger and sadness, the long-term outcome of social justice is worth the risk of their (and our) temporary discomfort. And anger can be channeled into positive social action, as our history of civil rights activism indicates.

Describe the collaboration process of creating the artwork to accompany the story.

Our illustrator is Jennifer Zivoin, who has previously illustrated other MP books. Working with an illustrator was a new experience for us. We were excited to see Jennifer’s sketches and final pictures, especially since we loved her use of color to create moods and add depth to other Magination Press stories that she had illustrated. We learned that illustration is a collaborative process, with adjustments on both the author and illustrator sides. We’re pleased with the final product, and grateful to Jennifer for collaborating with us.

Can you give advice/guidelines to librarians who see a need for this book and conversations with their students but might face resistance?

Librarians want children to have access to comprehensive information, but it can be challenging to balance this goal with adults’ varying opinions about social justice issues. Some parents may object to books about modern-day racism, as opposed to those about slavery or the civil rights movement.  They may be distrustful of data documenting disproportionate police shootings of Black individuals. Or, they may object to characters in Something Happened in Our Town expressing anger about those police shootings.  However, most parents want their children to treat everyone fairly and to stick up for those that are bullied or excluded due to their race or ethnicity.  These are the primary messages in Something Happened in Our Town

We support the ALA stance against censorship and believe that our book should absolutely be available for interested educators and students in all libraries. Nevertheless, given the potential for a range of parent opinions about antiracism, librarians may want to: (a) obtain support from their administrations for their use of the book, and (b) communicate with parents about the rationale and goals for a book reading. Some educators have allowed parents to withdraw their children from a book reading, though this practice may undermine the book’s message of anti-racism. Educators may also want to form an Equity/Inclusion committee, including diverse parents, to support and guide schoolwide efforts to provide an inclusive and honest curriculum, as well as equitable opportunities and discipline procedures.  Additional specific guidance for using our book in educational settings is provided at the Magination Press website including an Educator’s Resource Guide. One handout provides specific read-aloud tips including discussion prompts, and another provides tips for preparatory and follow-up activities.

Why is it important for children of all races, ethnicities, genders, religions, socioeconomic status to see positive, multidimensional representations of themselves in literature (and not just, say, during Black History Month)?

All children need access to stories that reflect themselves and their own experiences as well as the experiences of others. This encourages the development of a healthy self-concept and high self-esteem. This also enables children to develop a sense that they, and people who may look like and share similarities with them, are valued and have a place and a purpose within humanity.

If children do not see others who look like themselves within the stories they read, it is more difficult for them to visualize themselves as being successful and contributing integrally to society. Representation of diversity in books also contributes to children’s development of empathy for the experiences of others. The inclusion of children of varied races, ethnicities, genders, religion, and SES should be done on an ongoing basis, thereby allowing children to see themselves in varied roles, in different situations, and triumphing despite the circumstances. Diversity should be infused within all components of literature and not relegated to specific sections and discussions presented only during Black History Month. The importance of multicultural literature is highlighted in the concept of “mirrors and windows” in children’s literature, initially introduced by Emily Style for the National SEED Project.  

The AAP’s publication “The Impact of Racism on Child and Adolescent Health” explains how racism is a social determinant of health. One recommendation given of an intervention to potentially ameliorate inequities is to “infuse cultural diversity into AAP-recommended early literacy-promotion programs.” What other resources can you recommend to educators of younger children?

We think it is important for schools and libraries to include books about racial discrimination or civil rights that include an anti-racist message. However, we also think these programs should include books about African American children (and children from other ethnic minority groups) doing ordinary and joyful activities, like going on an adventure or learning to fly a kite. Books about slavery should not minimize the impact of enslavement; they should offer realistic but humanizing views of enslaved persons in history. Finally, books about Africa should not just be those that feature the history of slavery in the U.S. There are many resources for educators to assist them in selecting and discussing children’s books. These include the Learning for Justice program, the Anti-Defamation League, Caminos Lab, and the Children’s Book Council. Teachers and parents can find a free list of resources by clicking the “Additional Resources” tab for our book on the Magination Press website.

The recent article “Anti-Black Racism in Schools: A Racial Trauma-Informed Framework for School Librarians” by Janice Newsum and Brianna Delker published in the Young Adult Library Services journal discusses how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) do not include the potential impact of racism “and other forms of social oppression.” Based on your experiences, how can children display evidence of trauma caused by racism? How could literature help?

Racism traumatizes African-American children (and other ethnic minority children) in many ways. Chronic stress associated with racism impacts cortisol levels and predisposes individuals to multiple health problems. These health problems are then exacerbated by race-based inequities in healthcare. Secondly, systemic racism contributes to major educational disparities for children of color. Limited educational opportunities and teacher bias negatively impact their trajectory of academic achievement. Finally, constantly being on the receiving end of racism can have negative psychological effects.  Children of color may internalize negative racial stereotypes which lower their self-esteem and sense of efficacy. Reading children books featuring diverse characters and stories is one strategy which can mitigate the negative effects of racism. These stories help children see themselves as valued and empowered. Books presenting Black characters overcoming obstacles build resilience and a healthy racial identity.  White children reading diverse books may develop greater respect and empathy for marginalized children.  Recognizing their privilege and developing an anti-racist commitment can lead to a healthier identity for White children, one not based on a false sense of superiority over others.

In your webinar Q&A, you mentioned future books in this series. Can you give readers a preview? 

Many social issues (racism, gun violence, immigration policy) have powerful consequences and evoke intense feelings. We believe that children are impacted by these issues in their daily lives and have questions and concerns. The “Something Happened” series is a vehicle to spark family conversations that help children understand current events and develop prosocial values. Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence (April 2021) is the story of Miles, an African American child whose older cousin is injured in a shooting in a neighborhood park. Miles is initially scared and wants to avoid the park, but later he realizes that there are things that he, his family, and his community can do to make his neighborhood safer for everyone. The book provides an opportunity for families to discuss how children can cope with anxiety and how communities can reduce gun violence. 

Something Happened to My Dad: A Child’s Story about Immigration will be released in May 2022. In this story, Carmen is devastated when her father, an undocumented Mexican American, is detained and at risk for deportation. Initially her mother encourages Carmen to keep his situation “secret.”  Eventually they reach out and find support within their church and school communities. Carmen’s bravery can inspire all children facing family separations. In addition, families will learn more about the process of immigration, in the past and in the present. 

In your webinar Q&A, you discussed how the book suggests that students should be more inclusive not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because diversity adds value. Can you share more ideas of how to present arguments for inclusivity without relying on outdated/simplistic ideas? 

If you want evidence that diversity adds value, consider our history of music. Jazz, which began as “race music,” developed from a melding of European and West African musical traditions. It is considered by many to be the greatest, most original American export to the world. There are numerous other examples of how diversity adds value in the fields of dance, culinary arts, science and technology, and literature. Research shows that racial diversity in work groups results in better decision making and more innovation, in part because people with different backgrounds bring new information or perspectives. Also, members of heterogeneous groups prepare better, anticipate alternative viewpoints, and put more effort into reaching consensus (see citation below). For kids, excluding others from friendship on the basis of race is foolish and wasteful; as we wrote in the book, “you never know who’s going to be your best friend.” (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/)

Share some positive feedback you have received from adults using this book with children.

Both parents and educators have talked positively about the story and children’s ability to be engaged and connect with this challenging subject. Even young children have reportedly understood and resonated with the concept of treating everyone fairly and not liking to see others being mistreated. Older groups of children have been able to openly share personal experiences similar to those depicted in the story, and they have described how these experiences have affected them. Parents have discussed wanting to have conversations with their children about race or racial incidents either observed directly by their children or seen in the media. They have reported that they struggle to come up with the “right words” or circumstances to have such discussions, and they state that our book has helped them initiate these conversations. Educators have shared that they have developed classroom activities with the themes of inclusion and activism reflected in the book.  Parents and educators have also been enthusiastic and appreciative of the “Note to Parents and Caregivers” in providing child-friendly definitions and scenarios that they can use when having conversations with their child about race and racism in our country.

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