Bad Advice from NPR’s Weekend Edition on Racist Children’s Books


The January 31, 2016 NPR Weekend Edition aired a segment, “How Do We Read Books Embedded With Racism?“, in response to critiques (read below) by Teaching for Change and many others of the January 24th segment. NPR posted some of the critiques, including one by former TFC staff member Jhonna Amelia Turner. This confirms that it is worth calling out media bias.

We appreciate today’s commentary by Andrew Grant-Thomas of EmbraceRace and his support of Teaching for Change. However, the segment did not get to some of the key concerns–such as the need to surround young children with affirming images that counter the stereotypes and the dramatically low percentage of children’s books published each year by or about people of color or Native Americans. We also wonder why NPR’s Weekend Edition did not interview people involved with the recall of “A Birthday Cake for George Washington.” Find many of their names and wisdom at ‪#‎SlaveryWithaSmile‬.

It was bad enough that Scholastic published a book with happy slaves baking a cake for their owner (George Washington) in 2016—now NPR’s Weekend Edition recommends that parents read racist books to their children. Granted, they meant critically. But there was no consideration of racial/ethnic identity development in young children nor recognition of the fact that there are ample examples of racism one can unpack with children every day without holding on to racist books.

The January 24, 2016 NPR Weekend Edition segment, “Children’s Books Embedded With Racism As A Teaching Opportunity,” was a response to the recent recall of the Scholastic book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington.

The social media protest of A Birthday Cake for George Washington coalesced at the #SlaveryWithASmile hashtag, launched by Leslie MacFadyen of the National #Ferguson Response Network. The hashtag brilliantly summarized the critique. It should go without saying that #SlaveryWithASmile was meant as an exposé and call to action. NPR’s Weekend Edition turned it into a recommendation.

If only the Weekend Edition team had consulted with their colleagues down the hall at All Things Considered, which ran an excellent segment on the same topic. Called “Teaching Kids About Slavery: Picture Books Struggle With The Task,” All Things Considered clearly articulated the importance of racially diverse children’s literature.

Parent reads book about soccer in a classroom.
Child enjoys book about soccer star Pelé read by a parent.

Here are a few of the problematic recommendations and assumptions in the Weekend Edition story. (These make more sense if you read or listen to the segment first.)

  • The statement that racist children’s books allows families the opportunity to dialogue about racism assumes that the audience is white. After all, what parent of color or Native American parent has the luxury of choice to wait for a children’s book to talk about race and racism with their children?
  • Left out of the segment was mention of the overarching need for young children to construct a positive sense of self and a respectful understanding of others. This developmental task cannot be overstated and is explained in “Teaching Young Children About Race” by early childhood educator Louise Derman-Sparks.
  • While critical literacy is an important skill, parents do not need to purchase a racist children’s book for a teaching opportunity. Racism exists all around us, every day. Parents can and do have conversations with children about who is featured and who is missing (or misrepresented) in TV commercials, the Oscars, children’s cartoons, toy stores, cereal boxes, the U.S. Senate, and much more. In fact, it is hard to find a place that does not provide parents and children the opportunity to examine stereotyping, invisibility, and unfairness. Our colleagues at Rethinking Schools offer examples of how to engage students in critical literacy and to “talk back” to the biases they find.
  • The person interviewed, Jeremy Adam Smith, mentions being “ambushed” when he read Little Town on the Prairie (the 7th in the Little House series) to his 7-year-old son. Not only is ambushed a poor choice of words in a book rife with stereotypes about Native Americans, it also calls into question his background on bias in children’s literature. There have been ample critiques of the Little House series on American Indians in Children’s Literature and elsewhere, along with recommendations to use the excellent Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich instead. (The host Rachel Martin said Little Town character Pa Ingalls goes to a Minstrel show. He is actually part of a Minstrel show. Read “Pa in Blackface: Confronting racism in our children’s books.”)
  • Smith describes how he addresses the Minstrel scene in Little Town. He closes the book and asks his son, “How do you think it would make you feel if you were Black and you were reading this?” It was a very good idea to open a conversation and in fact one of the most important suggestions in the segment. However, his question gives the impression that racism only offends Blacks. Shouldn’t we all feel upset by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other oppressions—regardless of our own identity? Also, the question should not be limited to feelings. It should question the impact and what can be done about it.
  • The comments about gender assume we live in a post-racial society. Smith says that sexism is even more complicated than racism because “people do not agree with what constitutes gender discrimination.” With the debates about the Confederate monuments, the popularity of Trump’s racist comments in the polls and the media, the continued attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement, and the fact that reparations are nowhere near the table for discussion–we would be hard pressed to agree that there is a national consensus on what constitutes racial discrimination or a lack of complication about racism.
  • While we respect Smith’s position on other issues, he was not the best choice for this segment. Countless educators have weighed in brilliantly on A Birthday Cake for George Washington over the past week. Why were none of them considered? For example, early childhood educator Atena Danner launched the petition against the book and wrote “Early Literacy and NOT Teaching the ‘Birthday Cake’ Book.” Assistant professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, interviewed by All Things Considered, studies race, gender, and literacy in education. There is a strong cohort of children’s literature scholars and anti-bias educators who can be called to speak on this topic.

Baltimore school principal Obi Okobi shared with us the letter she wrote to NPR today:

Did you seriously recommend that people read the book A Birthday Cake for George Washington to children during the recent segment “Children’s Books Embedded With Racism As A Teaching Opportunity.”…in 2016?

As an anti-bias educator and long-time NPR listener/supporter, I am appalled. Scholastic has already recalled the book as a result of the upset caused by its publication. I am an African American auntie who has to scour bookstores for her nieces and nephews so that they might see themselves in the books their parents are supposed to read them for the sake of neurological development. What you’ve done in recommending that anyone read this book the day AFTER the All Things Considered segment is tone-deaf at best.

In this age riddled with cultural misunderstanding and escalating ignorance, I beg that you take the time to educate yourselves. Consider having someone on your team read “Considerations for Early Childhood and Early Elementary Educators on Slavery and Resistance” and make an apology as public as the segment you chose to air.

We agree.

With children’s books by/or about people of color representing only 14% of those published in 2014, better advice to parents would be to join the #WeNeedDiverseBooks call for a radical change in the publishing industry. The problem is well documented by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in “Children’s Books by and about People of Color and First/Native Nations Published in the United States.”

We can and must ensure that young children are surrounded with books that counter the racist messages they already confront every day.

Further Reading


In addition to the articles on the link above, we recommend: Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princesses: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots (Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 2008.)