By Paige Pagan and the Social Justice Books Team
Enter the children’s section in any bookstore or library and you are bound to see a display of titles from the Little People, BIG DREAMS picture book series. Written for very young readers, they include titles on a range of activists, religious leaders, artists, and entertainers.
Their stated purpose is to “introduce children to historical and contemporary dreamers who made an impact in the world.” With heroes we all recognize and a catchy series title, they are also a popular gift for young children. Sadly, the titles my colleagues and I at Teaching for Change examined present a one-dimensional, pop-cultural conception of key figures, reinforcing stereotypes and disregarding their strides as part of a collective effort.
Each book in the series follows the same story arc, starting from the figure’s childhood up until the One Contribution they’ve made in society. As a result, children receive a fragmented overview of the person’s life, racked with generalizations and tokenism. For example, in the book on Martin Luther King Jr., the story’s climax is King’s speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The book ends with an excerpt from King’s speech that the Right frequently uses when they attack contemporary social justice activists: “. . . dream of a world where we are judged by our character, not by the color of our skin.” The book regurgitates the common trope of King as a peaceful and dreamy activist with its emphasis on Mahatma Gandhi being King’s inspiration and his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, without also acknowledging that King believed in radical transformation. In his April 1967 “Beyond Vietnam” speech, King said, “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
Similarly, in the book on Rosa Parks, the climax of the story is when Parks refuses to give up her seat to a white man on the bus, inspiring the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Although this event is what made Parks a public figure, it was not her first act of resistance on a bus, nor her activist beginning. The book mentions that prior to this event, Parks started working “to get more rights for Black people and help for those who were treated badly,” which is only an abstraction of the extensive civil rights work Parks was dedicated to for decades before and after her stance on the bus. Parks lived more than half her life in Detroit, where she continued her social justice activism, but children would not know this from the Little People, BIG DREAMS book. Continue reading at Rethinking Schools.
Doing Justice to Martin Luther King Jr. Day with Young Children by Amy Rothschild, Teaching for Change.
Guide for Selecting Anti-Bias Children’s Books by Louise Derman-Sparks, Social Justice Books.
The Politics of Children’s Literature: What’s Wrong with the Rosa Parks Myth by Herbert Kohl, Civil Rights Teaching.
The Struggle Continues: How the Endings of Children’s Literature Create False Narratives of Social Movements by Makai Kellogg, Social Justice Books.
Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, Second Edition, by Louise Derman-Sparks, Julie Olsen Edwards, and Catherine M. Goins.