Reading To Children in The Age of Trump

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Alvin Irby

For all the parents who celebrate Donald Trump’s presidential victory there are millions of other parents who sit silently at their breakfast tables unable to find words to describe what just happened or what lies ahead.

How does a parent explain to a young child that America just elected a man who does the opposite of everything children are taught since preschool?

1) Don’t say mean things.
2) Keep your hands to yourself.
3) Treat others the way you want to be treated.
4) Share with others
5) Being different is ok.

Great children’s literature doesn’t shy away from contradictions, ironies, or conflict like those represented by a Trump Presidency. The best picture books address challenging topics head-on.

As a former kindergarten and first grade teacher, I have read hundreds of children’s books. One of the best stories I’ve encountered for discussing issues of racism, discrimination, and bullying with young children is Mr. Lincoln’s Way by award-winning author and illustrator Patricia Polacco.

This powerful picture book transports children to an elementary school terrorized by a white boy named “Mean Gene” who bullied children he considered different. Discussing Mean Gene’s hurtful comments as a class enabled my students to consider the thoughts, words, and actions of a main character that they strongly disagreed with.

At one point in the story, Mean Gene (Eugene) called two of his Mexican classmates “brown toads” because of their brown skin. I used this “teachable moment” in the story to make a personal connection. I told my students that Eugene’s words made me feel sad because I have brown skin like the two Mexican boys in the story.

Patricia Polacco doesn’t leave readers to stew in hatred for the the story’s bully. She offers insightful background information about Eugene’s father’s beliefs about people who don’t look like him- white.

Mr. Lincoln’s Way provides parents looking to discuss Trump’s victory a conversation starter or talking piece. This engaging story about redemption and hope invites children to think deeply about difference and bullying, while simultaneously cultivating empathy and understanding for others. Together, readers discover that Eugene possesses a unique skill that transforms the school’s atrium and his relation with his teachers and the other students in his class.

Alvin Irby is the Founder and Chief Reading Inspirer at Barbershop Books, a community based literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops. He is also the author of a hilarious new children’s book series called Gross Greg.

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