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How to Talk to Kids about Race: Using Children’s Books to Start the Conversation

High Museum of Art
Aug 25 · 4 min read

Dozens of picture books featured in the High’s new Picture the Dream exhibition can help you pass on the passion for activism.

By Nalani Dowling, Education Research Assistant, High Museum of Art

2020 has been a year filled with unexpected turbulence, unanswered questions, and undue tragedy, both on an international scale and here in the city of Atlanta. A global pandemic has set the stage for the world to witness the racial inequality that still surges through this country in the form of discrimination and police brutality.

The tireless efforts of individual activists and movements such as Black Lives Matter have demonstrated that what W. E. B. Du Bois christened “the problem of the color line” has not been dissolved. We live in a time that many misleadingly believe to be post-racial, but the need for consistent discussion and the call to action around eradicating racism is as important today as it ever has been.

Andrea Davis Pinkney.
Andrea Davis Pinkney.
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A young black girl looks up as a large black bird swoops down over her.
A young black girl looks up as a large black bird swoops down over her.
Award-winning author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney; Bryan Collier (American, born 1967), Untitled, All Because You Matter, 2020, written by Tami Charles; Raúl Colón (American, born 1952), “At first I thought that Jim Crow was a big black crow that squawked whenever a black person tried to get a good seat.”, Child of the Civil Rights Movement, 2010, written by Paula Young Shelton

On August 15, the High Museum will open Picture the Dream: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement through Children’s Books. The exhibition is the High’s fifth collaboration with The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and is guest curated by beloved author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney.

Within the galleries, viewers young and old will see artwork that serves to honor the voices of the past and inspire the voices of tomorrow as the fight for justice continues nationwide. Picture the Dream is the only exhibition of its kind to focus on the civil rights movement specifically through picture book illustrations.

Little black girls in dresses peer through a chainlink fence at a playground.
Little black girls in dresses peer through a chainlink fence at a playground.
Black children look at each other next to a pool marked “Swimming for whites only.”
Black children look at each other next to a pool marked “Swimming for whites only.”
Gordon Parks (American, 1912–2006), Outside Looking in, Mobile, Alabama, 1956, printed 2012; Faith Ringgold (American, born 1930), “. . . there was no sadder sight on a hot summer day than black children outside a public swimming pool displaying a ‘For Whites Only’ sign.”, If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks, 1999, written by Faith Ringgold

The recent passing of Congressman John Lewis and Reverend C. T. Vivian — two giants in the sphere of civil rights and the fight for racial justice — is a poignant reminder of the importance of educating each generation about the civil rights movement and its ongoing impact.

George Ford (American, born 1926), “Ruby said the prayer she repeated twice a day — ”, The Story of Ruby Bridges, 1995, written by Robert Coles

Sixty years ago, six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated her New Orleans elementary school, and four Black students catalyzed the sit-in movement at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. This year also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the formation of the Atlanta Student Movement by impassioned young people who wanted to see real change in “the city too busy to hate.”

A crowd of black students sit together as photographers record the moment at the end of the march to Montgomery.
A crowd of black students sit together as photographers record the moment at the end of the march to Montgomery.
A black teenaged boy stands enwrapped in the American flag, wearing a very emotional expression on his face.
A black teenaged boy stands enwrapped in the American flag, wearing a very emotional expression on his face.
At fifteen years old, Lewis “Big June” Marshall (right) was one of the many passionate, determined students who marched in the Selma To Montgomery March for Voting Rights of 1965. James Karales (1930–2002), American, Lewis Marshall on the Selma to Montgomery March, Alabama, 1965; Morton Broffman (American, 1928–1992), Students from Tuskegee Institute, Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March, Alabama, 1965

These are only a few of the historic events and figures explored through the exhibition, which places an emphasis on the efforts of young people and children, whose vital contributions to the movement are often overlooked.

Children are more aware of the problems evident in society than adults realize, and they often feel very passionate about making the world a better place. Dialogue surrounding activism and social justice can be difficult to navigate, but picture books are effective tools to introduce these topics and initiate necessary conversations about race.

A display of children’s books about the civil rights movement and equality.
A display of children’s books about the civil rights movement and equality.
Award-winning books featured in the exhibition are available for purchase in the High Museum Shop (in person and online).

The High Museum has partnered with EmbraceRace to develop some key considerations for parents and adults who are hoping to start active discourse about the Picture the Dream artwork and race relations in general.

Before visiting the exhibition, take a look at our Picture the Dream Family Discussion Guide, and remember that while these conversations are rarely easy to have, they are important and will have a lasting impact on generations to come.

Tips for Engaging Young Visitors

  • Encourage your child to think about the story the artist is trying to tell.
  • Engage with your child’s questions or comments.
  • Be honest, in age-appropriate ways, about bigotry and oppression.
  • Acknowledge when you don’t have a good answer, but don’t leave it there!
  • Be sure your child knows that the struggle continues and that they can participate in it.

If you’d like to start these conversations with a book in hand, visit the High’s Shop and choose from dozens of titles from the exhibition.

Cover image of a pdf Family Discussion Guide.
Cover image of a pdf Family Discussion Guide.
View our Picture the Dream Family Discussion Guide PDF

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