'Something Happened' Authors Talk to We Stories About Their New Book
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story about Racial Injustice was published by Magination Press in May 2018. This picture book was designed to help parents talk about race and racial injustice with children ages 4-8. As the story begins, some schoolchildren overhear news of a police shooting of an unarmed Black man. The story follows two families as they address their children's questions about this incident. WeStories had an opportunity for a virtual conversation with the authors of this unique and timely book, and we wanted to share their responses with our community. The book is available from online retailers and in local bookstores.
1) What compelled you to tell this story at this time? How did your team come together?
We are three child and family psychologists who had worked together for over two decades at an Atlanta hospital serving primarily economically disadvantaged African-American families. Thus, we all shared a commitment to underserved families and knew each other well enough to be able to talk openly about race.
In 2016, we were all feeling upset by the more open expression of racist sentiments in the U.S. and continued police shootings which disproportionately targeted Black individuals. We wanted to do something proactive to address racial injustice and thought that as psychologists, we could write a book that would be relatable for children and parents. We also felt that it was critical to have a multi-racial team to write a book that was relevant for diverse families (Marianne & Ann are White and Marietta is African-American). We began writing and 18 months later, the book was in print!
2) Your book has the intention of helping families talk about incidents of police brutality. What made you decide to tell this story through a Black family's perspective and a White family's perspective? Did you always plan to tell a story from two points of view defined by race, and if so, why that rather one or the other, or a range of perspectives? What went into that thinking?
Because of our own racial backgrounds, we felt best prepared to focus on the perspectives of a fictional White family and a Black family. We also felt that featuring both perspectives was helpful in introducing the topic of racism to children in the U.S. Negative attitudes towards African-Americans have been used by White people to excuse slavery in our past and remain entrenched in many institutional practices today. Of course we recognize that racism negatively affects other people of color in the U.S. and the storyline addresses prejudice towards of children of other ethnicities. Finally, although it was challenging to include both White and Black perspectives (within a 1000 word limit), we also wanted to demonstrate the ways in which their viewpoints were both similar and different.
3) What conversations has your book fostered so far and what are your hopes for how it's taken up in homes, classrooms and communities?
The children with whom we've read the book readily understand that it is unfair to treat others differently based on race, which is the language we use to discuss racial injustice. They are actively engaged in the book, with lots of questions and comments.
Most parents of African-American children have enthusiastically embraced the book as an honest and bold examination of modern-day racism and a tool to assist in the race-related conversations they have often already begun. Many White families have also been receptive, but a few have expressed anxiety about their children's "loss of innocence". For those parents, we try to help them consider that White "innocence" unfortunately translates to White complacency with inequity and that there is greater value in helping children recognize and advocate against racial injustice.
Our hope is that diverse families will use the book to spark multiple conversations about racism and to become more involved in advocating for fairness in their daily lives. The book could also be an important addition to classroom curricula in social studies (e.g. civil rights or social justice units) or social-emotional learning (e.g. anti-bias or anti-bullying programs).
4) What has been the reaction to your work from law enforcement families?
We have shared the book with several African-American police officers who thought the book was "fair" and chose to read it to their children. One officer said that he anticipated some police officers might be defensive, however. A few parents have also been worried that the story might lead young children to view police officers as "bad guys."
We tried to balance our presentation of the police in the book. We felt it was essential to honor the very justified feelings of anger in most Black families about racial profiling and excessive use of force by the police, which we view as a manifestation of historical and modern-day institutional racism. On the other hand, we recognize that police officers have a difficult job and many treat citizens equitably and respectfully. Further, there is value in children seeing police officers as helpers in most situations. The African-American father in the story states that, "There are many cops, Black and White, who make good choices. . . but we can't always count on them to do what's right." Children's comments after listening to the story suggest that most continue to see police officers in a primarily positive light, but now recognize that police officers can make serious mistakes.
5) Explain the story's resolution. What lessons did the characters draw from the news event and their conversations with their families? Why did you find it important to introduce the two final characters - Omad and Daniel - and the subplot of othering/bullying?
As a result of the news event and her family's discussion, Emma (the White child) is more aware of race as a social construct and learns about historical and current examples of racism. We tried to portray Emma as starting out where we see many White children. She takes her race for granted and is initially fairly oblivious to racial injustice because she hasn't been directly negatively impacted by it in her life. Josh (the Black child) hears his family acknowledge the reality of racial injustice in the U.S., but also receives positive messages about his cultural identity and the possibility of change through collective action.
The final section of the book shifts back to the classroom; an immigrant child (Omad) is introduced and subsequently excluded by classmates. This provides an opportunity for Emma and Josh to apply the lessons of fairness that they have been discussing with their families. We wanted to leave children with a sense of empowerment to counter racial injustice in their daily lives.
by Marianne Celano, Ph.D., Marietta Collins, Ph.D., & Ann Hazzard, Ph.D.