Black Children Need to See Themselves in Stories

By: Kristina Dapaah

Around the time that I first found out I was pregnant, I decided to start reading to my baby while she was in my womb. I got the suggestion from an article on babycentre.com that outlined the benefits of reading to babies before and after they are born. The piece went on to talk about the literacy advances children who are read to from infancy may experience. All of this information was enough to help me commit to having a daily story time with my daughter. But, I knew that my daughter would struggle to see herself reflected in the world around her. This is not something that I’d really thought about before, but there’s something about becoming a mother that unearths these kinds of concerns for your child-to-be.

So, I decided to be intentional about the stories we would read together. Since then, I have filled her bookcase with stories that include characters that look like her. It’s been going well. Each evening, we read a book that my now 3-year old gets to choose, and it makes me so glad to see her reaching for stories with Black characters amidst a library of books. I want her to be able to celebrate her Blackness and to see that it is beautiful. As she matures into adolescence and adulthood, I would love to see her recount the books with positive memories.

Growing up, I did not read many stories with Black people. Many of my teachers and friends were White and at a certain point in my childhood I remember wondering where my family fit into the world. As a Ghanaian-Canadian child living in Ottawa, I spoke a different language at home compared to my peers and ate foods that none of my friends from school were eating. And the media I consumed was no different; I didn’t see my family represented in the shows and movies I watched. The Black celebrities I loved and listened to were different in my head. They were celebrities, not normal people. I look back and imagine what reading stories like “Lola at the Library” by Anna McQuinn could have done for how I saw the world. Lola at the Library is one of my daughter’s favourites to pull off her shelf. The main character, Lola, is a little brown skinned girl who enjoys visiting the library each week with her mom. They even have a ritual that involves walking to the library together. This story makes my daughter light up and she loves to point out that the mommy looks like me. She also likes to show me that Lola has ponytails like she does and that Lola’s mommy drinks cappuccinos like I do. One evening, she was able to make the connection that Lola’s skin colour is brown and that she is also brown. At only three years old, we’ve been able to have some brief conversations about the beauty that we see in Lola’s skin. These conversations have been so fun and encouraging to me as a parent doing my best.

My hope for my child, as we continue to explore worlds that feature Black protagonists, is that she will see herself depicted in a variety of stories. I would like her to identify with stories that showcase the excellence, bravery, kindness and strength of people who look like she does. I want her to reach for and love the dolls, books, and friends who look like her. She may not see it too often in our neighborhood or in her school, but I have made it a point that she will see herself in the literature we consume at home.

The introspection required as a mom has changed me entirely and I am working overtime to help facilitate self-love in my girls. I am using the books as a tool to help them see and love themselves. The rest of the work will have to be done from within.

Kristina Dapaah

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