Writers On Writers: Children's Books That Tell The Story Of Race In America

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Boston-based writer Jabari Asim's new production seeks to tell the story of Nat Turner through opera and musical. (Courtesy Shef Reynolds II)
Boston-based writer Jabari Asim. (Courtesy Shef Reynolds II)

Author Jabari Asim has written several books and poems about the Black experience in America. He is also a professor of writing and publishing at Emerson College, where he is the Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow at the Social Justice Center.

His most recent work, which came out in June, is "Stop and Frisk: American Poems."

Jabari Asim joined Radio Boston for the first installment of "Writers On Writers," a series where we talk with writers about other writers whose work they admire.

Asim, who has written nine children's books, spoke with us about some of his favorite children's books that tell the story of race in America to kids.

Books like these can help move conversations around race forward, he said.

"There's this cliche that if we don't know our history, we are doomed to repeat it," Asim said. "We can look at these other narratives ... to help us develop some kind of critical understanding of what's happening now, and perhaps shape our optimism or our viewpoint in terms of what can happen next."

Some of these books deal with serious themes around race, history, and violence, but Asim thinks it's important for kids to engage directly with these issues.

"You want to inform young readers, but you don't want to traumatize them to the extent that they're actually turned off by the idea of reading stories and reading history. These authors ... walk that fine line with considerable skill," he said.

Asim said that every child's parent should decide what they are ready to read books that deal with sensitive topics like racism in America, but sometimes it's imperative.

"There are many of us who are parents and writers and readers who actually want to begin to introduce this kind of material into our children's knowledge base fairly early in their development," Asim said. "These are kind of these are the kinds of books that will ideally help us do that."

All Us Come Across The Water

Written by Lucille Clifton with illustrations by John Steptoe

Why Asim chose this book: "We have a combination of really powerful talents. Lucille Clifton today is best known as a brilliant poet, and it's perhaps not known even to some of her admirers that she wrote a number of children's books in the 1970s.

" 'All Us Come Across The Water' came out in 1973. It's about a little Black boy who is struggling with how best to describe his heritage when the teacher asks each student in class to share a story about where their ancestors come from. And so, he talked with people in his community, including relatives and elders, in an attempt to sort of pin down exactly where in Africa his people came from. Ultimately, he decides that some information is more critical than the details, such as the reality of his people's togetherness, and their ability to thrive against very unfavorable odds."

Pink And Say

Written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

Why Asim chose this book: "As a writer, I find this book particularly instructive because she really shows how you can tell this kind of story without soft-pedaling it, and, at the same time, not making it so horrible that the child's going to throw the book across the room and run screaming away from it.

"It tells a moving story of the friendship of two very young Union soldiers ... one Black and one white during the Civil War. Their alliance begins on a Georgia battlefield when one saves the life of the other.

"Polacco upends a number of stereotypes as the story progresses, and she doesn't force a happy ending on us. In fact, the tale of 'Pink and Say' winds up at Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prison ... [Polacco] successfully advances an argument that shielding young readers from the facts of history does them no favors."

My Name Is James Madison Hemings

Written and illustrated by Patricia Polacco

Why Asim chose this book: "The title character is the son of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who most of us know was enslaved by Jefferson. She had six of his children. She was Black and a teenager. He was white, wealthy, and middle-aged. She was, of course, in no position to consent to a relationship.

"Now, can all of this somehow be dealt with in a picture book for children? Yes, and I think the author Jonah Winter proves it. His young protagonists ask the same questions that we might: 'How could a father enslave his own flesh and blood?' That's a really powerful, painful, serious question.

"As young Madison ponders these difficulties, Winter's illustrations give us only portions of Jefferson. Like [Jefferson's] children ... readers never get access to the complete man. It's a very somber, bittersweet at best, picture book.

This segment aired on June 22, 2020.

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Zoë Mitchell Producer and Studio Director
Zoë Mitchell was a Radio Boston producer and studio director.


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Chris Citorik Senior Producer
Chris Citorik was a senior producer for Radio Boston.



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