Fattal: You talk about the need for a parent or teacher to facilitate discussions on the racist elements of children's books with students who may be too young to do this kind of critical reading on their own. What might that conversation look like?
Nel: It will obviously depend on the individual child, the age of the child, et cetera, but the best way is to ask questions. When you notice something in a book, ask questions about it. Would you be happy working in a factory and being imprisoned there? What do you make of presenting the Oompa Loompas as happy? What are some of the assumptions of this work? Why is it presenting this character in this way? Why are all the characters in this book white? What do you make of that? You want children to think about power in the text, whose interests are represented in the text, who is not being heard in the text. And you can focus those on the specific work.
I think with children you have to have a conversation—you have to ask them critical questions, and you have to invite them to ask critical questions about the book that they are reading. It's a conversation that's going to be uncomfortable, a conversation in which you may have to admit you don't know all the answers. It's not an easy conversation to have, by any means. One of the things that I do when I teach [college students] in class is I acknowledge my own uncomfortableness. Because sometimes students don't want to talk about this. And so I acknowledge why they’re uncomfortable and that I’m uncomfortable, too, and that it’s okay to be uncomfortable. I think that’s the kind of tone to set when you have these conversations: that this is going to be uncomfortable.
Fattal: Is learning to engage with discomfort harder for children than it is in a classroom of college students? How might educators navigate that difficulty?
Nel: Children notice race from when they’re very young. Children of color have to face it head-on. But I just got a note from a friend of mine who was talking about her 5-year-old who was worried when she was getting tan that she might turn black. And that worried her, because [the 5-year-old] knows what black means. She knows that puts you at a disadvantage based on this country’s laws and values. And her mother explained, and had the uncomfortable conversation of indicating, “Well that’s not how race works, but also … black is beautiful, and we have black friends who are beautiful.” Kids get it. I think the failure to have that conversation is an abdication of responsibility on the part of parents and educators.
Fattal: You talk in the book about showing children that anger can be channeled toward productive action. Are kids really capable of this move from anger or discomfort to action, and how might educators facilitate that?
Nel: The emotional experience of dealing with racism is tough, especially if you’re the target. I think what’s worse, though, is not dealing with it and not being given any tools for dealing with it—to experience the injury and then not know how to deal with it. I think if a teacher is able to talk to a child and say, “it’s okay not to like a book or to be angry at the author or to be angry at a text; this is infuriating in the way that it’s presenting this Native American character or this character of Asian descent, and I see why you’d be angry at it.” I think that’s actually really healthy, because it lets the child direct the anger at the appropriate target rather than internally, or rather than just kind of stewing over it.