Child Watch: It’s hard to be what you can’t see

— As a new school year starts, many parents are making sure their children have the right supplies from their back-to-school lists and double-checking their courses and schedules. But are we thinking about what books our children are reading? Children of color are now a majority of all public school students and will soon be a majority of all children in America yet children’s books and the publishing industry have failed to keep up with the rainbow of our children’s faces and cultures and needs and the wide variety of their daily experiences.

As award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Christopher Myers says, this matters in order to give all children a deeper sense of connection to the books they’re reading and to each other and to prepare them to live in a rapidly globalizing, multicultural, multiracial, and multi-faith nation and world.

I was grateful that Chris Myers joined other leading children’s book authors at a roundtable before 2,000 college-age students, public school teachers, and juvenile detention personnel preparing to teach in summer Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® programs. Our reading curriculum has long been centered on excellent books reflecting a wide variety of cultures, races, and experiences.

For some children it is the first time they have seen books with characters who look like them and share some of the struggles in their lives. Our goal is to help children fall in love with reading, and they respond. “I enjoyed learning about my history.” “That [book] really inspired me because he came from a rough neighborhood.” “Freedom Schools taught me when I learn, I can have fun with it. It made me a better reader because I can understand things.” “I see myself and the books give me hope.”

The “all-White world of children’s books” is nothing new. Rudine Sims Bishop, the moderator of the children’s book roundtable, noted that was the title of a landmark study 50 years ago “calling out the children’s book world not only for failing to include African Americans in children’s books, but also for feeding White children ‘gentle doses of racism through their books.’” The old books were guilty of sins of commission and omission, and of course Black children were not the only ones left out.

Bishop said since 1994 the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin has been counting the number of new children’s books featuring African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans each year. But even as the number of Americans of color has continued to grow rapidly, the percentage of books reflecting them has not: the annual total has hovered around 10 percent.

It’s hard to be what you can’t see. Children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read. Just as importantly, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are.

Tonya Bolden, who has written many powerful nonfiction books for young readers, said engaging history books – especially on her history – were largely absent when she was a child. “When it came to Black history, I remember there was Crispus Attucks and Phyllis Wheatley. And I think there was a part of me that said, okay, one was free, and he got shot; the other one was brilliant, but she was enslaved . . . What kind of options are those?”

It wasn’t until she got older that she realized how much was being left out. “I came to see there was power in the past, that history makes us whole.” Now she strives to make history come alive in ways that allow children to recognize their ties to people who came before them.

Writer Janet Wong talked about another kind of connection when she read her poem “Noise” from the book Good Luck Gold. The poem’s protagonist is being teased by a group of children—“Ching chong Chinaman” – for her hair, nose, skin, the shape of her eyes:

It’s only noise

Ching chong

I won’t let it in.

I won’t let it in.

I promise myself

I won’t let them

Win.

Wong said she was asked to read that poem during a visit to a school in Singapore by a teacher troubled by the racial hostility that existed there. Even when the context was completely different, a poem like this describes a common feeling of racism and discrimination that lets children finally see themselves, too. It also lets other children make their own connections with how this person is feeling, including those who have never been teased about their race or eyes and those who have done the teasing.

All children need these kinds of experiences. Is your school providing books that celebrate and include every child?

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org

“Thank God for Peanut Butter and Jelly”

— Kaylyn Sigman is a high school senior with big plans. A star soccer player from a poor rural Appalachian Ohio community who loves calculus and creative writing, she’s college bound this fall and dreams of becoming a middle school special education teacher.

Kaylyn’s overcome a lot to arrive where she is today. Her parents’ relationship was rocky throughout her childhood and they finally divorced when she was 10, leaving Kaylyn’s mother alone to raise her, her younger sister, and two younger brothers who were adopted. Her mother, who suffers from seizures, worked as a labor and delivery nurse but is now on disability. Both brothers have special mental health needs and Kaylyn, a bright student who skipped second grade and was reading at the ninth grade level in third grade, has ADHD, all leading to an ongoing pile of medical appointments and bills.

After her father left, Kaylyn’s family struggled in poverty, moving seven times in four years trying to find an affordable place to stay. Kaylyn’s mother says when they lost their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) benefits last year, their family never would have survived the toughest times without PB and J Day, held once a week during the summer months at the children’s school through the local county Children’s Services Agency. They’d come home with enough bread, peanut butter and jelly so each family member could have one sandwich for three meals a day until the next pickup.

Kaylyn is one of five inspiring high school seniors the Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio is honoring this month with a Beat the Odds® award and college scholarship. But millions of other children continue to go hungry every day in our wealthy nation. Some aren’t even lucky enough to be able to count on peanut butter sandwiches to get them through. What do those hungry families do?

SNAP helps feed 21 million children—more than one in 4 children in our nation. SNAP prevents children and families from going hungry, improves overall health, and reduces poverty among families that benefit from it. The extra resources it provides lifted 2.1 million children out of poverty in 2013. It’s the second most effective program for rescuing families from poverty and the most effective program for rescuing families from deep poverty. SNAP doesn’t just keep a child from going to school or bed hungry, but has long-lasting effects. Research shows children with access to food stamps are less likely to experience stunted growth, heart disease, and obesity by age 19, and are nearly 20 percent more likely to complete high school.

And SNAP’s positive effects extend beyond individual children and families to entire communities. During a recession, the impact of SNAP’s economic growth is estimated to be from $1.73 to $1.79 for every dollar of benefits provided. In short, SNAP works. It’s critical that SNAP be improved and expanded, not cut as proposed under the House and Senate Republican proposed budgets.

Although we know cuts to SNAP would mean millions of children might lose benefits and be more likely to go hungry and suffer the long-term negative impacts of hunger, and despite the fact that every major bipartisan budget commission has said that SNAP should not be cut, that’s just what current Republican budget blueprints in the House and Senate are proposing.

Worse, the House budget plan would block grant SNAP and cut its funding by $125 billion—more than a third—from 2021-2025. The Senate budget doesn’t provide enough detail to tell exactly how SNAP would fare, but it cuts non-health entitlement programs serving low- and moderate-income people—which includes SNAP—24 percent.

SNAP benefits now average less than $1.40 a person a meal, and as critical as they are, they’re not enough for many low-income families like Kaylyn’s. In 2013, 54 percent of families receiving SNAP were still food insecure, and overall 1 in 9 children in our nation didn’t have enough to eat. During the recession Congress recognized that SNAP benefits were too low for many and increased the value of the maximum benefit 13.6 percent. The impact was powerful: 831,000 children were kept out of poverty in 2010 as a result of the change. But Congress ended that increase in November 2013. Further slashing SNAP benefits now will cause even more children to go hungry, push families deeper into poverty, and have negative repercussions for the entire nation.

Families like Kaylyn’s need more help, not less—and it’s not too late for our leaders on all sides of the political aisle to do the right thing. In a nation where millions of working families still can’t earn enough to pay rent, pay the bills, and put food on the table at the same time—and where in fiscal year 2013 there were 4.9 million households with no income but SNAP including 1.3 million households with children—relying on the charity of PB and J Day is not a substitute for justice.

Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.