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Skin Color Awareness

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our four-year-old is starting to talk about skin color differences. We have varying shades in our family, from tawny to sienna, but it’s the extremes that catch her attention. Since we’re spending a lot of time at home during this pandemic, can you recommend some good picture books we can pick up from the library on the topic?

Tan in the Winter, Taupe in the Summer

Dear TWTS,

The preschool years, ages two to five, are ideal for noticing and discussing skin color differences. Children are sorting many things in their lives into categories, including people. They are also learning color names so it’s a good time to talk about the many, many hues and shades in the world beyond primary and secondary colors and black and white. In living things—plants and animals, including people, coloring is a matter of genetics. That’s a good topic, too.

The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler uses names of foods to describe the beautiful variations in skin colors. The book is written in verse with an underlying attitude that everyone’s skin serves the same function as the exterior of our bodies, in which we play, sleep, celebrate birthdays, etc. no matter what the color may be.

Sheila Hamanaka’s All the Colors of the Earth uses connections to nature to describe skin colors such as “the roaring browns of bears and soaring eagles” and the “whispering golds of late summer grasses” with rich illustrations and rhyming text. Readers can experience an adventure as you explore matching different skin tones with wildlife.

Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin similarly gives delicious names to skin colors with a focus on sweet babies who display a “bouquet” of variety in what they come packaged in – namely their birthday suits. The illustrations show mostly matching pairs of mothers and babies, with a few exceptions that could spark a conversation about how babies are made from genetic codes passed down from ancestors. Each of us is a mix of two sets of codes, which in turn, are each a mix of two sets, and so on. Even two siblings can have different skin tones with all those possible variations going back for generations. 

Lio Lionni wrote Little Blue and Little Yellow in 1959 with a timeless message about friendship. The illustrations resemble ripped tissue paper to represent the two playmates, their parents, and other children in the neighborhood. Indeed, the author was inspired to create this story while entertaining two young grandchildren on a train by ripping magazine pages to form the characters as the plot line came to him. The crux of the tale is that children don’t see differences in each other—or at least don’t see differences as a reason to judge or exclude someone. A friendship is based on what we have when we’re together.

Chesapeake Children’s Museum is conducting our fourth NEA Big Read with many community partners in Anne Arundel County. Books, discussions, and other activities for older children, teens and adults focus on themes of discrimination, social justice, and civil rights. However there are several Story Times and other activities for younger children that celebrate diversity in skin color as well as culture. Most events are online with limits on attendance at in-person events that are being held outside the museum. Free books for adults and children will be given out thanks to the grant while supplies last.

Dr. Debbie

By Deborah Wood, Ph.D.

Chesapeake Children’s Museum is coordinating (mostly online) discussions and activities inspired by Citizen, an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine October 11 through November 17, 2020. Events for all ages are listed on the CCM webpage, theccm.org and the Facebook page for NEA Big Read Anne Arundel. Most events require advance registration: info@theccm.org or 410-990-1993.

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