Studies indicate children are aware of gender stereotypes by age 3 and of many racial stereotypes by 4 or 5. Yet only a portion of the population is having conversations with their kids about these topics. Research also shows that white families are less likely to engage in this dialogue.
However, a couple St. Louis-based children’s authors and a non-profit organization are working to create conversation in their communities regarding issues of race, gender and representation.
“A lot of times I see that young people don’t like to read, so I definitely wanted to come up with something that’s for people in my community that they can identify with,” said Owens, whose book is based off of an original poem about celebrating the quirks that make individuals unique.
Herz’s short story addresses themes of race and gender by making the two ambiguous. “Jess has green skin,” Herz said. “And Jess is neither a boy nor a girl, so this opens up a chance for discussion.”
Adelaide Lancaster also joined the discussion. She is the co-founder of We Stories, which aims to use children’s literature to initiate conversation about race, particularly within white families.
“Often times we pair books together with critical questions,” Lancaster explained. “We’re always very mindful of what [are] the conversations that we are likely to have [and] what are the conversations that we’re not having that we ought to be having.”
According to Lancaster, the patterns of segregation and inequality that exist in society will persist until families break down barriers that prevent discussion about race with their children.
“Research tells us again and again that children notice differences; they notice what’s different from themselves; they notice difference across communities, and more important than that is they actually notice disparity and they notice that really early on,” Lancaster said.
While these differences are what make people unique, condemning them or avoiding discussion of them altogether can have lasting prejudicial effects.
“Not all girls want to be a princess, and not all boys want to be a superhero” Herz said. “And maybe if you’re a parent and you have a child who is wearing the opposite [gender’s] clothes, it’s like, ‘look, [it’s] OK, here’s Jess.’”
For Owens, this example conjured up memories of her own childhood.
“I would have loved to have something like my book to say, ‘I’m OK – it’s OK to figure yourself out,’ because that’s what we’re all doing,” Owens said. “Even in your adult life, you’re still figuring yourself out.”
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