Teaching Today

Children's Books: Grown-Up Lessons

Candy Lee shares some of the lessons she's learned teaching a college course on tackling tough subjects using picture books.

October 14, 2020

More people being home with children through the spring and summer during the nation’s Black Lives Matter protests has spurred purchases of children’s books, especially on diversity. And, in fact, quarantining in our homes led to a spike in reading of such books that may actually help drive the change they model.

Antiracist Baby, by Ibram X. Kendi, spent five weeks on The New York Times Children’s Picture Book best-seller list, two weeks at No. 1. The World Needs More Purple People, by Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart, was on the list 15 weeks. And All Are Welcome, by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman, remained on it for more than 23 weeks.

Eighty years ago this summer, Life magazine published some photographs of an African American boy from Georgia that inspired Ezra Jack Keats, years later, to publish a children’s story that has become a classic. It’s about Peter, who saves a snowball for tomorrow. The Snowy Day won the Caldecott Medal for Keats in 1963. The Caldecott is awarded to the illustrator of the previous year’s “most distinguished American picture book for children” by the American Library Association.

Reading books like The Snowy Day to a toddler makes a difference to that child’s capacity for learning in school and life. Thus, children’s books become a way to facilitate change in inequality in this country and open up windows on diverse groups beyond the personal base.

Keats had pinned the photos from Life to his wall and stared at them for decades. He made what was then a startling writer and illustrator decision: he wrote a graceful and lovely story for all children with no mention of lessons to be learned. The face of his young hero is African American. Keats is white. Peter, the hero, then appears in subsequent books.

The Snowy Day has sold millions of copies and been checked out more than any other book in the New York Public Library system, according to Michelle Martin, a professor at the University of Washington Information School in an article in The Atlantic.

Connecting With Others’ Experiences

What does all this have to do with colleges and universities?

I teach a course at Northwestern University called Tackling Difficult Subjects Using Picture Books. The students read 150 children’s books on tough subjects, ranging from gender, race and poverty to sexual identity, religion and immigration. They read and write research on a chosen, specific topic while learning from guest lecturers on writing, child development, bias and specific topic development. They explore the topic with second and third graders at a local elementary school, and then they try to write a children’s book on it.

Teaching the course has made me aware of a number of lessons, including:

  • If we want to change inequality in this country, we need to ensure children’s fluency through language and books in early years. I strongly urge people to give, volunteer and mentor in programs that ensure this.
  • A well-told story is just that: one that a child will want to read over and over again. If adult readers want to know more about those beloved children stories -- either because they have children or just want to become acquainted -- a great introduction is Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. One enticing chapter tells the story of Margaret Wise Brown and Goodnight Moon. Brown, who died in 1952 at age 42 after publishing 60 books, had an obituary in The New York Times that did not even mention this now-famous book that sells more 600,000 copies annually but sold very few in its first years.
  • Students want equality and justice but feel uncomfortable with working in areas that they do not experience personally. A gay student will write about gender; a student with Pell status will write about diminished circumstances; an African American student will write about race. I understand this need to explore our own worlds, but my concern is how we can better connect with other people’s experiences. And children’s books can help do that.

Earlier this summer, I taught some Ph.D. students how to think about taking their academic scholarship to a wider audience, and one student said she would not submit to a legacy news organization because her progressive article had to go to a leftist paper. This expectation that we keep to ourselves and cannot cross identity lines -- and learn enough about others, or expose others to what we are thinking -- leads to ever-tightening circles.

There is a timelessness and timeliness in children’s books. Many children’s books infuse love and a happy ending into a narrative of tension. Smoky Night, written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by David Diaz, won the Caldecott Medal in 1995 for its treatment of the Los Angeles riots. The moral of the two families coming together at the end may feel too pat for our times, yet the love shines through.

Hey, Al, written by Arthur Yorinks and illustrated by Richard Egielski, a story about a janitor that won the Caldecott in 1987, has a worthwhile lesson -- one as important as the 2016 Newbery Medal winner, Last Stop on Market Street, written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson. Both these picture books have strong tales about valuing what is beautiful in our lives, regardless of limited circumstances.

These wonderful picture books are empowering. But will they speak with enough toughness to a new generation of parents emboldened to change the world? I am looking forward to what students in my class will write this year. I suspect it will be bolder and push the boundaries. Perhaps, in fact, there won’t be any boundaries. Just home runs.


Candy Lee is a professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.


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