Interview

KENDRA TYSON

Children's Librarian

Erin O’Connor: I am so pleased to have a friend and colleague Kendra Tyson join us today on Instagram Live. Kendra is currently the librarian for the Constantine Georgiou Library at NYU and formerly the Museum Educator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

 

So several weeks ago here at Scientific Mommy, we had the idea of doing a series around literature and trauma and thinking about how we can use literature to support our children. Three weeks ago, that was around COVID-19. Now we think that fore-fronting race in these conversations is of utmost importance. 

I’ve had the honor of watching Kendra lead read aloud sessions with children and their caregivers using literature to engage them in conversations around feelings, experiences, race, and trauma. I’ve been awed at how she’s able to bring young children into the conversation, even really young children, and allowed them to express their feelings. Her expertise is exactly what we need at this moment. 

Talking to children about race is imperative. Research indicates that beginning at age 2, children notice race. At ages 3 to 4, they begin to develop notions of race. Of course, talking about race isn’t enough. But in these 30 minutes, we want to think about how literature can be used as a first step. 

Kendra and I wanted to acknowledge that as White mothers of White children, we are approaching this wanting to raise children who are not racist and who understand race. Unlike mothers of color, we do not have to be worried about our children’s physical safety. The conversations that we’re having with our children will be different from the conversations that a Black mother may have with her child. We just wanted to acknowledge that before we started.


Kendra Tyson: Thanks for the introduction and for inviting me, Erin. I think the most important thing right now for me as a librarian and what I always preach is that there are resources out there for parents, teachers, and librarians. Those are our children’s books which can act as doors for opening conversations where you may not always feel comfortable or informed. 

The beauty of anti-bias education is that you are constantly self-educating yourself as you’re also trying to raise a race-conscious citizen of the world.

I thought today we could talk today about the very youngest of children. I primarily work with children who are 5 and under. I use pictures, picture books, pictorial language to augment emergent literacy instruction for pre readers.

You can’t expect to have race conscious children later in life if they’re not aware that there are differences in skin color, if this concept has been silenced, or if they have been taught to be color blinded. It’s going to be harder to have these conversations as they get older.

Erin: I think that brings up such a good point. Silence is not what we want. It allows children to develop their own notions that come from the media or other areas. Unless we speak to children directly about race, then we can’t expect them to have a deep understanding of race.

Kendra: Right, and part of that comes from confronting our own implicit biases, understanding our own responsibility, and sometimes our own complicitness in the situation. Again, it’s about anti-bias education: educating ourselves, taking the necessary responsibility and ownership in all of this. I can provide you resources that I use. I know everyone is feeling overwhelmed with resources. As a librarian, I can’t help it. It’s in my training to provide resources for people to educate themselves. 
 

One of those is Lee & Low Books. They specialize in multicultural children’s literature. They have a wonderful website with a robust search engine. As a librarian, I love their search engine. You can plug in the criteria you want - the grade level, the topics, the languages.

 

There’s Just Us Books. They’re a husband and wife team, Cheryl and Wade Hudson, and they’ve been around for over thirty years. They wanted to tell stories for Black children about the Black American experience. 

 

I can also tell you authors and illustrators that are great to follow on Instagram. That’s the whole reason I joined Instagram. I was reluctant to do it, but someone told me around six years ago that I would be able to get sneak peeks into my favorite authors’ and illustrators’ work. Some of those are Christian Robinson. He’s an illustrator who won the Newbery Award for his Last Stop on Market Street which is a wonderful book about gratitude. He does great weekly art lessons for kids on IG as well. He had one just this past week where he talks with kids about using art to express anger and that it’s okay to feel anger.

 

Vashti Harrison is a really talented author and illustrator. She has a series of books about strong Black male and female leaders, and they come in board book form too.

As a parent, the first thing I would do is, if you’re on social media, look for great voices to follow. There’s this wonderful movement called We Need Diverse Books (@weneeddiversebooks). It started as a grassroots movement by illustrators, publishers, editors, and writers to give rise to diverse voices in children’s literature. There’s @theconsciouskid which focuses on raising race-conscious children. More accounts to follow are @hereweread, @girlsreadtheworld, and @black_education_matters.

 

There are publishers to support. When we think about giving rise to those diverse voices and listening to authors and illustrators tell their authentic stories, you want to go directly to publishers who give these voices, talented authors and illustrators a platform.

As parents you should do your due diligence by reading book reviews and reading the book before you share a book with a child. I say this to my NYU students all the time who will go on to become classroom teachers.

It’s very important to read a book before you share it with a classroom of children. I think that’s equally important as a parent that you don’t just pick up a book and start reading it blindly to your child. You should’ve already read that book and have ideas in mind about things you want to point out and discuss to guide a conversation. Also, just because a book was published doesn’t mean that you would feel comfortable sharing it with your child. A good way to vet a book is by searching for it on trusted book review websites. I trust School Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and Publisher’s Weekly. As a parent, you don’t have to be a teacher or librarian to have access to these reviews. Know that you have full power and agency to visit these sites. Use these tools. They’re there for you.

 

Erin: Kendra can you talk a little about how you read a book with young children? How do you engage them with the pictures? How do allow them to be part of the conversation around what’s going on in the book?

 

Kendra: There’s more than one methodology in terms of reading books with children. A lot of them are intuitive and you’re probably already doing it. Two methodologies that I really like are Dialogic Reading and the Whole Book Approach.

 

Dialogic Reading is exactly as it sounds. You’re having a discussion or dialogue with your child as you read that book. If you Google dialogic read-aloud, you’ll find loads of information. It’s not top-secret for teachers and librarians. It’s out there for parents to find. There’s a really great sequence that gives you prompts. These prompts equip you to engage in discussion with your child to deepen their engagement with the book’s content. A lot of us when we read books, we want to discuss it with someone. This is like a little mini book club for you and your child.

 

Another approach is the Whole Book Approach developed by Megan Dowd Lambert. This approach is, again, exactly as it sounds. You use the entire picture book - title page, in covers, every single picture, not just the words to explore the content more deeply with the child. It was intended to build visual thinking strategies which I think is incredibly important when we’re talking about raising race conscious children. The goal is to look at the characters in these books and think carefully about why the author placed this character here, why the character looks this way, or why they’re gesturing a certain way.

 

When I engage with the very youngest of kids, I usually read with a big group so I focus on behavior management and guiding the conversation. As a parent, when you’re one on one with  your child, open up a dialogue. Ask your child open-ended questions. What do you see here? What do you think is going on here? You might be surprised by how intuitive and perceptive your children are. They will not come to the book with the same connotations and baggage that you have. 

Erin: I think that’s a really good point that you make, Kendra. How often do you check in with a child about their understanding of what’s going on in a book?

 

Kendra: It depends on how old your child is and the amount of background knowledge they have. We know that background knowledge is crucial in terms of literacy instruction in the classroom. At home, you may need to have a crash course before reading a book. That’s based on parents’ knowledge of where they think their child is at and how ready their child is to have a conversation. It’s your home, it’s your child, and you know them better than anyone else. Trust in parent instinct because usually you’re going to be right. Also, trust your children to move with their instincts through the conversation. 

 

Pivot if you hear your child say something that makes you uncomfortable. Talk about that. 

 

If something about the book doesn’t sit right with you, Google it. I guarantee you other people are debating it online. You can go from there and decide how to respond as a parent. If the content is controversial but your child is older and they’re able to contextualize, then go for it. If you think they’re a little too young to contextualize the controversy, then avoid it.

Erin: Thinking about books that deal with race, do you think that books that put a historical lens on events are helpful for young children in understanding what’s going on now? Or do you think that’s too much for a young child?

Kendra: I don’t think it’s too much, especially if you’ve started young. As parents, we know we should be singing, talking, reading, and playing as part of children’s literacy growth. In raising anti-racist children, it is our obligation to introduce the concepts of differing skin colors and differing perspectives in our society based on skin colors.

For two-year-olds, there’s a great book called Whose Toes Are Those? written by Jabari Asim and illustrated by LeUyen Pham. It follows a baby having a playful time with their parents counting toes and fingers of people with different skin colors. There are opportunities there to say things like, “These toes look like your toes” or “These toes look like your friend, Emily’s toes.” Those are easy, direct ways to start conversations about skin color. Through those conversations, you and your child recognize differences in skin color. The problem is when we’re in denial about our differences. It’s harder to deal with denial than to prevent it from developing in the first place.

 

Another great book called More, More, More said the Baby by Vera B. Williams is appropriate for kids two and under. 

 

All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger is wonderful because it uses photographs and not illustrations. As a person who studied art history and worked in an art museum, I obviously love artwork and illustration. I also value photography in children’s books and the realism it allows children to explore. This book includes kid-friendly scientific information about why people have different skin colors. Then it also provides activities that extend the conversation. I know teachers and librarians are constantly looking for resources that provide project-based experiential learning for our kids. 

Going back to your question about books that provide historical context for systemic racism, there are some wonderful picture book biographies you can use as conversation starters. 

Picture book biographies have seen a boon in the children’s book publishing world in the last few years. I attribute it to the rise of Common Core and the emphasis on trying to get quality, non-fiction materials in the hands of younger and younger children. A really great way to do that is through someone’s story.

Because of movements like We Need Diverse Books, there’s an emphasis on giving rise to untold stories so that we move beyond the people that we’ve always learned about as kids. There are a lot of other stories that deserve to be told. 

 

NYTimes Book Review and School Library Journal have wonderful lists of picture book biographies. I think they’re incredibly valuable for children preschool and older, and they often include activities that are almost like lesson plans to extend the conversation. 

 

Erin: I’ve witnessed you doing such a wonderful job using pictures as a jumping off point for gauging children’s understanding of what’s going on and then helping them if there’s a misconception or furthering their understanding. Could you talk a little more about how you use pictures to really get kids to start talking?

Kendra: So, I admit it’s one of the easier things to do because it comes naturally to children to look at pictures, talk about it, and get excited about what they’re seeing. Think about it - if you take out the text and are unencumbered by decoding the words on the page, then you’re focusing in on those pictures. We don’t have to worry about what the text says. Again, I work with pre-readers. They’re not trying to read the words on that page.

They’re listening and studying the pictures on that page while I’m reading. They’re finding more than I ever will. So use that. Augment your instruction with their strengths.

That’s a strength for a lot of kids - kids who maybe have language-based learning disabilities, kids who are non-verbal but can respond to a yes or no prompt. I lean on my audience, and parents can do the same. They’re incredibly observant and perceptive. They’ll probably have memorized the entire image on the page and will have noticed details that you didn’t because you were caught up in the words. You can point to something specific or use prompts: What do you see here? What do you think is going on here? Those prompts lead to all kinds of paths for conversations and discussions. Research Dialogic Read Aloud to find the prompts that work for you and your child. Some will work better than others. 

 

Erin: As you know I’m a mother to a tween as well as a younger child. For my older daughter, she’s going through such a time of transition that would be challenging in any context. Now given the pandemic and what’s going on with race, what words of advice would you have for parents of older children? Even just to get their kids to talk to them. I know that sometimes I know something is really bothering Ashley and she won’t want to talk to me, but she’ll talk to me about something related to a book.

 

Kendra: That’s a tough age. They’re reticent about opening up. Maybe they feel too old to have their mom, dad, or grandparent read to them, but it may be a time to force it and say, “You know what? We’re going back to bedtime stories and we’re going to read this book together.” That book becomes that safe space for you and the child to discuss and open up conversations. Rely on them - thank goodness for books. I’ve felt that way throughout my entire life, and even more so in this current moment. There are really talented, thoughtful people who have done the thinking for you. You don’t have to be the writer, illustrator, or expert. But these authors, illustrators, editors and publishers have done the work for you. So lean on them. 

 

Start a book club. You can have your child start a book club with their friends. I would do it with my child, and I think now’s the moment to do it. It’s a great way to bond with them. Who doesn’t like being read to? It’s a really lovely thing to have someone read to you.

 

I recently read some words from a friend of mine who said she learned so much from her teenage son this week. Teenagers are probably ahead of the game, even maybe farther ahead than we are. You can learn a lot from them by opening that conversation and listening. When you’re ready, you can have a conversation with them around a book. Do your research through trusted review sites and lean on Instagram accounts of activists and educators. You can also visit the Teaching Tolerance website. They help educators and schools educate children on how to be really active participants in a diverse democracy, and there are resources there that parents should be using too. Don’t shy away from something that is meant for a teacher or librarian. Parents absolutely can use them in their homes too. 

 

Brightly is another source where you can sign up for newsletters. They are focused entirely on children’s literature and helping parents find high-quality books to read at home. They have great lists. I stumbled on one called Black Girl Magic. It’s a list of 33 picture books that feature strong, Black female protagonists. We know that pictures speak a thousand or more words, so we want these joyful, affirmative images to be out there for our children. 

 

I’ll recommend one more resource called Reading While White. It’s a blog that was started by some White children’s librarians. They have conversations about confronting racism in the children’s book world and striving to examine our own implicit biases. 

 

Erin: Thank you so much, Kendra. I can’t begin to say how informative and helpful this was. 

 

Kendra: Thank you, Erin. And there’s one more! Our colleagues at NYU, Heather Woodley and Ayanna Taylor, created Families for Radical Empowerment which has great resources for guiding conversations about race. 

 

New York, NY, USA

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