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Ibram X. Kendi Recommends 6 Books To Help Your Kids Understand Race

Ibram X. Kendi
Stephen Voss
Ibram X. Kendi

The writer Ibram X. Kendi has been reading a lot of books to his five-year-old daughter, Imani. And when he chooses those books, he makes sure they include many kinds of people.

"I'm also really excited now because her favorite color right now is the rainbow," he says. "And so I feel like we're doing something right because I constantly emphasize this sort of human rainbow and appreciating it."

Kendi is the author of Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. He also produced a youth version of that work, a chapter book called Stamped for Kids. So as we discuss summer reading on current events, we asked him to recommend some other books for younger readers on race.

But because we'll be talking about books on race for young people, I also wanted to ask Kendi about the unfolding debate over the teaching of race in schools. "It's been tragic for me to watch," Kendi says. "Because we unfortunately live in a society where there's racial inequity, and our kids are trying to figure out why. They see, you know, let's say darker people who are more likely to be homeless or incarcerated or impoverished, and they're trying to figure out why is that the case? And if we're not actively teaching them it's because of racism, then what are they going to conclude? The way we can protect them is by actively teaching them about racism. And so I think it's dangerous to not teach kids about why inequality exists in our society."

On whether anti-racist education means being told white equals terrible

I'm so excited about the books that are being produced today that can allow us as parents and caretakers and teachers to facilitate these conversations.

Any good teacher who's going to teach about racism, and also its history, are going to teach about people of different races who were involved in abolitionist struggles, who were involved in the civil rights movement, who are trying to create an equitable and just society today. So what a white student will learn is, they'll learn about a white slaveholder and a white abolitionist, and they'll learn about why both said what they said and did what they did, and they'll learn which one had the morally right and just position.

On whether these lessons are better taught at home

I think these lessons are better taught everywhere. And I think when our teachers are teaching it and the parents are teaching it and, you know, aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins and friends, and we're just we're so focused on ensuring that this next generation of Americans can view different-looking groups as equals and can ultimately eliminate this scourge of racism that this nation has faced. We're collectively focused on that. I mean, to me that's what sort of gets me excited. And that's why I'm so excited about the books that are being produced today that can allow us as parents and caretakers and teachers to facilitate these conversations.

Kendi's reading recommendations

Dear Martin and Dear Justyce, by Nic Stone

/ Ember

Dear Martin is about a young African American teen who is going to a private school, and is really grappling with his his own identity. And so he ends up, in the book, writing a series of journal entries exploring the life of Martin Luther King to really understand his own identity. And, you know, I think teens everywhere — but especially black teens — are constantly trying to understand who they are. The second book, Dear Justyce, which is one of Justyce's friends who's incarcerated, writing to Justyce ... about what really happened, why he's innocent, but even more importantly about the juvenile justice system. You know, I love when books encourage young people to write and to express themselves, and certainly these two books do.

/ Puffin

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

This book is really a memoir in verse about her life and her upbringing in South Carolina and in New York. And it's really a book that allows a young person to really explore what it means to to be a child, particularly a child in this world. But I think what I really found fascinating about this book and why I can't wait til [my daughter] reads it one day, you know, is because you can just tell through this text just how much Jacqueline came to love stories and storytelling despite the fact that she struggled to read as a child.

/ Quill Tree Books
Quill Tree Books

The Poet X, by Elizabeth Acevedo

Elizabeth Acevedo is obviously one of the more gifted writers of our generation, and she writes about a character ... Xiomara, who has all these frustrations as she's growing into herself, and she learns to pour these frustrations and these passions into poems. And she recites them to herself and wants to perform them, and knows her overbearing caretakers would not approve, but this is her outlet, this is the way she wants to speak and share herself, and ultimately she refuses to be silent.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L. Sánchez

/ Ember

Well, I think one of the things I'm trying to teach my daughter is the beauty about humanity is our imperfections. And, you know, I think Juan Felipe Herrera spoke about this book as a perfect book about imperfection. And I don't know whether I mean, I feel like quoting his statement. I don't know if there's a better way to describe, you know, I am not your perfect Mexican daughter.

/ Candlewick Press
Candlewick Press

It's really a book in many ways about two sisters, and one sister is perceived, you know, by her mother as this perfect child. And the other child is perceived as this far less than perfect child — to be diplomatic. And then the 'perfect child' tragically passes away. And then the 'not perfect' child begins to learn more about her and begins to find that in many ways she was imperfect, just like she was.

The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person, by Frederick Joseph

I think Frederick is pretty open in this book about this being a text specifically for young white people who want to be better, who want to be anti-racist, who want to be people who are striving to recognize and even take down the structures of racism. And so just like many white adults have begun to realize that this is something that is important, so too have many white teens.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 21, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story transposed the name of author Frederick Joseph to incorrectly say Joseph Frederick.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.