I have been thinking a lot about folktales lately. My true dream was to be an anthropologist who studied folklore, including ethnomusicology. Folk literature did become one of my graduate areas and I had the opportunity to study international folktales with Anne Pellowski, author of “The World of Storytelling.” I also wrote and continue to write my own folktales, as well as adaptations of older ones.
Most folklore, like fairy tales, are based on the dichotomy of good and evil and/or other metaphors, i.e., hot/cold, man/woman, city/rural area. A conflict between the two attracts readers and listeners, as well as the resolution of good over evil (usually). Needless to say, we may need more folktales than ever today!
At the same time, I have become increasingly uneasy about the ease with which we welcome the divide and forget the gradations. I appreciate the Anansi African folktales, for the character of Anansi is neither good nor bad, he is simply a trickster. This got me thinking about a kind of picture book I have not yet seen. Perhaps other readers have?
I am thinking of picture books that portray white children’s understanding of racism. Let me explain, for this is an idea I am still exploring. We know that white children often hear directly or indirectly comments, and see gestures or facial expressions from adults that express both subtle and more explicit kinds of racism. What about a picture book in which a white child character grapples with understanding these forms of racism? We know all too well the well-intentioned white person who doesn’t even realize that what he/she is saying or doing is racist. And so how would a child know, unless he or she see the reactions of children or adults of color?
We have plenty of picture book biographies with descriptions of epiphany moments when people of color realized they were treated differently. But most white children do not have these experiences. Nor do they have to think about why they do not. What I am suggesting, then, are more books where a white child learns about the complicated issues of racial identities and racism.
If incipient racism begins as early as three years of age, there may well be a need for such books. What plots would these picture books have? How would conflicts be resolved? What might children and parents learn together? I do not yet know what this picture book would look like…..but an outline of one is being drawn in my imagination.