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Five Classic Children’s Books About Race

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Modern books for juveniles run the gamut. Vampires, aliens and mean girls commonly make appearances. Meanwhile, when one refers to juvenile books from the past, it’s not unusual to hear a crack about Dick and Jane or Spot running. But such jokes provide a limited view of youth literature from earlier time periods. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, authors penned a variety of books for young people that tackled sensitive issues. These works have given adults the chance to use literature to help children grasp injustice. Among such works are classic children’s books about race.

1. Pocho (1959)

Random House

Jose Antonio Villarreal’s Pocho was one of the first novels about Mexican-American identity to be released by a major publisher. A coming of age story, Pocho chronicles Richard Rubio, the teenage son of Mexican immigrants. The book explores class, race and sexuality as Richard walks the line between his parents’ Mexican sensibilities and those of the United States. The novel also introduces us to zootsuiters, dubbed the “lost race,” for they have rejected both Mexican and American culture to form their own. Will Richard ignore his roots to carve out a niche in American society, or is it possible to embrace two cultures and keep one’s identity intact. Set during the Depression, Pocho is considered the grandfather of Chicano literature.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

HarperCollins

To Kill a Mockingbird may be celebrating its 50th anniversary, but its advanced age hasn’t stopped it from winning fans across generations. To date, 30 million copies have been sold of this book about an Alabama girl who’s transformed as her lawyer-father Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. The novel, which spawned a movie of the same name, became an instant classic upon its publication. It is oft credited with opening the American public’s eyes to the sickness that is racism via its heartfelt portrayal of bigotry’s causes and effects. Because it’s told from a child’s point of view and a fixture in school classrooms, it’s frequently the first book juveniles read about racial injustice.

3. Iggie’s House (1970)

Yearling

Judy Blume is known for penning books in which girls and boys struggle with the onset of puberty and their romantic feelings for one another. In Iggie’s House, however, Blume dreamt up a young girl named Winnie who observes what unfolds when a black family moves into her all-white neighborhood. Although Winnie is excited about her new neighbors, other residents of Grove Street aren’t at all welcoming. Blume wrote the book during the turbulent 1960s after Martin Luther King’s assassination. “The ongoing fight for racial equality affected all of us, one way or another,” Blume says on her website. “At the time, I was almost as naive as Winnie is in this book, wanting to make the world a better place, but not knowing how.”

4. Farewell to Manzanar (1973)

Houghton Mifflin

Teaching children about racial oppression is far from easy, but it’s not an option to leave them in the dark about issues such as slavery, the Holocaust, or the decimation of America’s native peoples. In the memoir Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston manages to convey what it was like for her Japanese-American family to be sent to an internment camp during World War II in a way that children can grasp. Perhaps this is because Houston was just seven years old herself when forced into Manzanar internment camp. Told through a child’s eyes, Farwell to Manzanar has emerged over the decades as the go-to book that educators use when teaching students about this regrettable period in American history.

5. Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (1976)

Puffin Modern Classics

Newberry Medal-winning novel Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry chronicles Cassie Logan and her family. The Logans are anomalies in Depression Era Mississippi because, unlike the bulk of blacks, they own land. This makes the whites in town resent them. Beyond the land issue, the novel paints a moving portrait of what life was like in the Jim Crow South from a child’s perspective. Cassie Logan learns that blacks must step aside for whites on sidewalks, that blacks receive substandard service in businesses and that her books in school are all secondhand—first owned by white students and then passed down to blacks. Like Farewell to Manzanar, Roll of Thunder has become a literary tool educators use to teach students about oppression.

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