How Children’s History Books Teach Kids Whose Lives Really Matter

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Going to the library and picking up some history books for your kids seems like a wholesome activity, right? Be careful, it’s actually very treacherous terrain! The books you give your kids might be teaching them to be racist. You won’t know it if you’re only on the lookout for overtly offensive passages. You have to pay attention to what’s not there.

Yesterday we went to Valley Forge National Park. In advance of our trip, we picked up the Magic Tree House nonfiction book on the American Revolution. I started reading it to my kids. Whoooo boy.

The book begins by explaining what colonies were and how people got there:

People often sailed from Europe and Britain to begin new lives in the colonies. Some came for freedom to worship as they pleased. Others came for land. Still others came for work.

Red flags. Alarm bells. Why is it only describing why Europeans came? A page after describing what the trip was like, there is a brief aside:

The colonies also had slaves, who were brought over from West Africa. Most slaves lived on large farms called plantations in the southern colonies. They worked in the fields or as house servants.

There were also American Indians in the colonies. They were there long before the colonists arrived. Many lost their lands as the colonies grew larger.

This is a master class in passive voice and obfuscation. “slaves…were brought…” by who knows who. Indians “lost their lands as the colonies grew larger” because this was inexorable and there was somehow losing without taking. Worse, by putting this material in a separate section after describing why and how people came to the colonies, the authors have made the curious decision to explain what it was like for Europeans to come to America while not describing the same for Africans. They’re reinscribing the hierarchy rather than explaining it.

The next chapter is titled, “Life in the Colonies.” It describes technology, material culture, work, food, education, dress, and the gendered experience of children. It does not mention the experiences of enslaved people or Native Americans. Not. One. Time. After this chapter the groundwork is laid and the rest of the book is a narrative of the Revolution. The whole chapter on “Life in the Colonies” is actually about European life in the colonies.

It is a particular narrative masquerading as a universal one. Instead of trying to describe what colonial society was like, it affirms its exclusions. When your narrative omits vast numbers of people, you’re just reproducing the racist logic of the time: these people don’t belong in the same way; these people don’t matter as much.

These stories are extremely destructive. They teach young minds who belongs, who is important, who has a history. These narratives are racist.

I must emphasize that I’m not talking here about the difficult question of how to craft age-appropriate narratives of traumatic pasts. Good luck telling your 6-year old about the Holocaust! That is a real discussion worth having, and it’s not easy. But this is something else. It’s a deliberate decision to prevent kids from knowing, in a general and age appropriate way, what life in the colonies was like!

It would not have been even a little bit difficult for the authors to at least write a transition sentence like, “For enslaved people, life was much harder.” Then you write a few sentences about what daily life was like for them. Likewise, you mention the diverse approaches different Indian nations took to the expansion of the colonies. This is not rocket science.

I can imagine a certain kind of reader saying that my concerns smack of political correctness. This is not so. If the racism of these narratives doesn’t concern you, can I bother you with the fact that they’re false? At the time of the first census in 1790, African Americans were nearly 20% of the population. There is no good historical reason to decide not to tell kids about 20% of the people in your story. So the political correctness runs in the opposite direction. The story sacrifices historical accuracy to protect white feelings and promote a brittle kind of patriotism that can’t acknowledge the complexity of the nation’s past.

So, go ahead and get those history books from the library. But read them with your kids. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. You only need to be able to ask some basic questions: what’s not here? Is the story doing what it is claiming to do? What is the author’s goal? What or who is being left out? I went ahead and read that awful chapter on life in the colonies to my kids. But then we debriefed.

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