By Cyrisse Jaffee
To the extent that Antiracist Baby helps to define and explain antiracism succinctly, it may be useful for older kids and grown-ups.
Antiracist Baby by Ibram X. Kendi. Illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky. Penguin Random House, $8.99
There are many terrific children’s books about Black lives, although the field can hardly be considered representative yet. Over half of the characters depicted in children’s books are white, according to the statistics compiled in 2018 by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When diversity is featured, or characters are people of color, the authors and/or illustrators may not necessarily be of the culture being depicted. This issue of cultural authenticity has affected many books once embraced as being multicultural. Even the ground-breaking (and still wonderful) book The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, featuring the adventures of Peter, who is Black, has been criticized because its creator was white. More appalling, issues of cultural appropriation and/or outright racism in many children’s so-called classics (for instance, Laura Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series or Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), makes them questionable fodder for today’s children, no matter how nostalgic parents may feel about books they once cherished.
For these and other reasons — notably the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent worldwide demonstrations demanding racial equity and an end to police brutality against people of color — Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky, has sold out online and in bookstores around the country. What could be better than a book for little kids, written by the author of the bestselling How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction?
Illustrator Lukashevsky states on her webpage: “I use illustration and visual art as a tool to strengthen social movements for racial justice, immigrant justice, climate justice, mental health and LGBTQIA+ liberation.” Author Kendi, who began his career as a journalist, is now the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, professor of History, and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research, as well as the 2020–2021 Frances B. Cashin Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for the Advanced Study at Harvard University. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Kendi explained his reasons for adapting his book for kids: “I have a 4-year-old daughter. She wanted to have a book read to her, I wanted to have a book I could read to her. I’m really excited about the book because I wanted to provide a tool for other parents to have conversations with little children about racism before they can even understand it. The idea is that when they’re older they will have heard so much about it, it won’t be anything mysterious or taboo.”
It’s a great goal, but it doesn’t quite succeed—and not for lack of trying. In rhyming couplets, the colorful board book sets out “nine steps to make equity a reality”:
- Open your eyes to all skin colors.
- Use your words to talk about race.
- Point at policies as the problem, not people.
- Shout, “There’s nothing wrong with the people!”
- Celebrate our differences
- Knock down the stack of cultural blocks.
- Confess when being racist.
- Grow to be an antiracist.
- Believe we shall overcome racism.
The cheery, cartoon-like illustrations and an array of children from a variety of cultures won’t keep babies and toddlers — the typical age for board books — engaged as you try to explain terms such as “policies,” “confess,” “cultural blocks,” or even the opening line: “Antiracist Baby is bred, not born./Antiracist Baby is raised to make society transform.” (My 5-year-old granddaughter, who is well aware of the Black Lives Matter movement and its meaning, found the term “bred” confusing, even when I explained it, because it’s a homonym for “bread.”) A second or third grader might struggle to understand the book’s vocabulary and concepts. And there are lots of adults who are just beginning to comprehend the roots of racism, let alone the importance of being proactively antiracist.
To the extent that the book helps to define and explain antiracism succinctly, it may be useful for older kids and grown-ups. Perhaps it could inspire conversations with younger kids — some of the text is very age-appropriate and clear — but it may also be a frustrating read-aloud, as caregivers try to rephrase the rhymes in simpler language. For instance, how would you decipher “Nothing disrupts racism more than when we confess the racist ideas that we sometimes express” for a preschooler?
And yet, the boldness of Antiracist Baby, despite its flaws, is somehow invigorating. It deliberately challenges assumptions about language and audience. Other worthy books that encourage children to recognize and respect race differences, and to be proud of their own heritage, such as Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison, are gentler and more subtle. Another type of story, often a narrative about the past, such as Uncle Jed’s Barbershop, by Margaree King Mitchell and illustrated by James Ransome, can provide a very explicit story about race, prejudice, community. It’s compelling, to be sure, but it’s also a longer story, one to be savored by children who have outgrown board books. And the many lovely picture books that celebrate unity in diversity, such as All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon and Marla Frazee, The Big Umbrella by Amy June Bates, or All Are Welcome Here by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman, convey a different message altogether. Despite its trendiness, perhaps Antiracist Baby does contribute to the national dialogue, even if it’s as likely to be a gift between 20-somethings as it is to be a child’s favorite bedtime story.
Cyrisse Jaffee is a former children’s and YA librarian, a children’s book editor and book reviewer, and a creator of educational materials for the Education Department of WGBH. She holds a Master’s in Library Science from Simmons College and lives in Newton, MA.