Discussing Racism With Children (by Age Group)

In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times about racism, the author Ibram X. Kendi discussed the need to talk about racism with children: “When children ask a racial question and we don’t want to talk about it, the message is that race and racism should not be talked about. White parents especially don’t talk about it, because they believe that kids should be colorblind. But studies show that as early as the age of 2 children begin to define people based on race.”

If we want to eradicate racism in the SMU community and beyond it, we need to discuss racism with our children, at home and in the classroom. We have found a few books at Fondren Library that might get those discussions started. See our page on curbside pickup for how to request materials and pick them up.

Elementary level (grades K-3)

The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson

The book points out that there will be times when you walk into a room and no one there is quite like you. The author recognizes the challenge of reaching out to others who are unfamiliar, and it can be a starting point for discussions on how to welcome new students to class and to celebrate our differences.

Painting for Peace in Ferguson, by Carol Swartout Klein

With illustrations of the actual artwork painted on hundreds of boarded up windows in Ferguson and its surrounding areas after the protests following the death of Michael Brown there in 2014, the book discusses how the community in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, healed after the protests. The book has a related website with teaching suggestions for students K-2 and 3-5 on the symbolism in the paintings and how art is used to communicate and make people feel better. It can also be used to start conversations about how the community can work together to make it a better place for everyone.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, by Duncan Tonatiuh.

Years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez, an eight-year-old girl of Mexican and Puerto Rican heritage, played an instrumental role in Mendez v. Westminster, the landmark desegregation case of 1946 in California. This award-winning book can lead discussions on how separate is NOT equal, and that all Americans deserve a good education. It can also generate discussions of empathy for others, particularly for the pain and fear caused by racism.

Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman

Although a classmate says that she cannot play Peter Pan in the school play because she is black, Grace discovers that she can do anything she sets her mind to do. This book can lead to discussions on both race and gender. The text emphasizes the importance of imagination and encourages the main character to look to role models for inspiration.

New Shoes, by Susan Lynn Meyer

In this historical fiction picture book, Ella Mae and her cousin Charlotte, both African American, start their own shoe store when they learn that they cannot try on shoes at the shoe store. For older elementary students, this book can help give insight into the Jim Crow laws of the South, and it shows that, even 100 years after the Civil War, there were still ways where African Americans were not equal, in society or under the law.

Other possible titles:

Intermediate level (grades 4-6)

This Promise of Change: One Girl’s Story in the Fight for School Equality, by Jo Ann Allen Boyce and Debbie Levy

In 1956, one year before federal troops escorted the Little Rock 9 into Central High School, fourteen-year-old Jo Ann Allen was one of twelve African-American students who integrated Clinton High School in Tennessee. This book discusses how these events pitted the townspeople against one another, turning uneasiness into anger. It shows readers how to be courageous and to speak up for what is right.

Revolution, by Deborah Wiles

It’s 1964 in Greenwood, Mississippi, and Sunny’s town is being invaded by people from up north who are coming to help people register to vote. Balancing the normal life of being a teenager with the historical events of the 1960s, this book gives readers insight into what life was like for African Americans in the South sixty years ago.

Middle school (grades 7-9)

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Twelve-year-old Jerome is shot by a police officer who mistakes his toy gun for a real threat. As a ghost, he observes the devastation that’s been unleashed on his family, his friend Carlos, and his community in the wake of what they see as an unjust and brutal killing. Through the inclusion of Emmett Till as another ghost character, the book explores historical racism and its path to current events. The author weaves historical, social, and political layers into a gripping and poignant story about how children and families face the complexities of today’s world.

A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riots of 1919, by Claire Hartfield

On a hot day in July 1919, five black youths went swimming in Lake Michigan, unintentionally floating close to the “white” beach. Racial conflict on the beach erupted into days of urban violence that shook the city of Chicago to its foundations. This mesmerizing narrative traces the roots of the explosion that had been building for decades in race relations, politics, business, and clashes of culture. This book can be the beginning of a conversation on how things have and have not improved in the last 100 years.

Other possible titles:

High school (grades 10-12)

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Made into a movie in 2018, this book looks at the inequality in our society today, as well as the confusion and blame that follow these tragic events. It can open the door to discussions of code switching, police brutality, systemic racism, and the courage needed to do what is right.


A special thanks to Brittany Smith, whose tweets about this subject have inspired a variety of posts and collections on reading about and discussing racism with children, including ours.

We have been working on a project throughout the spring term to increase diversity and inclusion in our juvenile collection at SMU Libraries. For educators and parents who want to learn more about the importance of diversity in children’s literature collections, as well as a large collection of diverse children’s books on a wide variety of topics, we recommend the toolkit and resources at www.diversebookfinder.org.

Compiled by Joanna Russell Bliss, Research & User Experience Intern, SMU Libraries