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September 9, 2019

Can Children’s Books Fight Racism?

Yes, but they must be books that reflect the diversity of all communities and affirm the identities of all children.

Can buying a book combat racism?

It can, when the characters look like the current population.

Pediatrician Jacqueline Dongé agrees.

She’s among the authors of a recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)lis report that explicitly names racism as a health determinant that has a “profound impact on the health status of children.”

Racism is linked to lower birth weight in newborns and to double the maternal mortality rates among black mothers — often caused in part by maternal stress.

Consistent exposure to racism creates a stress response in the body. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones lead to inflammation and increases the risks of developing chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

A disproportionate number of black children receive more than one out-of-school suspension in preschool, and in kindergarten through grade 12 are suspended three times more than white students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And the list goes on.

How can the simple act of buying a book address the issue?

“Children are watching and listening to us. When we offer the gift of literature to promote reading in children, we also send messages about what and whose stories are important,” said Dr. Maria Trent, professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and first author of the AAP report.

And like any threat that puts the health of millions at risk, pediatricians are turning to numerous strategies to help inoculate children from the lifelong harms of racism, including books.

“When you see someone who looks different from yourself, it opens up conversations. Parents can answer questions about ‘why does she look different?’ and start to address bias at an early age,” Dongé said.

When children read stories with diverse characters, there’s more than literacy at work. According to research, it creates empathy, facilitates relationships, helps develop critical thinking skills, and promotes positive identity formation.

Stories can also mitigate the effects of stress.

That’s why the AAP report encourages pediatric partnerships with literacy initiatives that bring diverse characters into children’s first libraries.

Programs like Book Harvest.

Ginger Young isn’t a pediatrician, but as a mom of three and someone who grew up in a book-rich environment, she understood the value they held for developing children.

>> LISTEN: Fight for Grade-Level Reading Podcast interview with Ginger Young of Book Harvest

It’s what led her to become founder and executive director of the North Carolina nonprofit Book Harvest, an organization that meets families where they are, from laundromats to health clinics, to get books in the hands of children and parents excited to read to them from day one.

A doctor’s visit is a unique opportunity for pediatricians to give books to families and use them as a trust-builder as well as support early brain growth spurred by stories.

“But by themselves, they’re not transformative,” Young said. They must be books that reflect the diversity of all communities and affirm the identities of all children.

“My white kids never had to look for books to affirm them. It’s time to leverage the publishing industry by buying books by diverse authors with diverse characters in them so that all children can have that experience,” she said.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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