Megan Madison & Jessica Ralli: Our Skin, a First Conversation About Race

Illustrated by Isabel Roxas

Published by Rise x Penguin Workshop, 2021

“Young children notice a lot – including skin color, race, and even injustice and racism. It can be hard to find the right words to answer their questions or start a conversation about race. But when we talk about it, children often come to their own conclusions, which can include bias and stereotypes because of the world we live in. Simple conversations can help them make sense of their world and even recognise and speak up about injustice. This book is a good place to start or continue the conversation. It’s okay to take a break, leave something out for now, or weave in stories of your own.”

By Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli

The above quote is from the first page of this wonderful book which explores the idea of racism and how we can begin to talk about it with young people.

Despite the complexity of the topic, the text is simple, clear, and concise and begins with the most basic of questions: what colour is your skin?

It encourages the reader to look about themselves and recognise differences in skin colour amongst family, friends, and neighbours. It reinforces the beauty of our skin and its importance for our bodies. It explains why some people have darker or lighter skin because of varying levels of melanin. It provides a vocabulary to use when talking about people of colour, and lists words used in the wider world to describe groups of people who are not white.

But best of all, it explains what the colour of someone’s skin can’t tell you about a person. It can’t tell you how a person feels, what they are thinking, what they know and like. From here, it’s a small step to reflecting upon how people of colour have been unfairly treated in history, how racism has been pervasive in societies and how it has gone on, unnoticed and unchecked.

In our personal lives, racism can be expressed in the ways we exclude people based on the way they look or talk, it can be in the ways we address people or label them, and whether we do this on purpose or by mistake.

So, what can we do? We can be more aware in our relationships, we can march in protest, we can speak up, we can teach, help, learn, and listen. We can start the conversation with young people, educate them and ourselves, and actively participate in anti-racist efforts.

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years and adults too, and below are more suggestions for picture books which look at the issue of racism and being different in creative ways:

The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali
Illustrated by Hatem Aly

The Skin I’m In by Pat Thomas Illustrated by Lesley Harker

The Stone Thrower
by Jael Ealey Richardson
Illustrated by Matt James

Someone New
by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Elmer by David McKee

One of These is Not Like the Others by Barney Saltzberg

Chocolate Me! Taye Diggs Illustrated by Shane Evans

Amazing Grace
by Mary Hoffman
Illustrated by Caroline Binch

Skin Again by Bell Hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

Just Ask! by Sonia Sotomayor Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

Mixed: A Colorful Story
by Arree Chung

Strictly No Elephants
by Lisa Mantchev
Illustrated by Taeeun Yoo

The Same but Different Too
by Karl Newson
Illustrated by Kate Hindley

Imagine a Wolf: What Do You See? by Lucky Platt

Philip Bunting: Who Am I?

Illustrated by the author

Published by Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia, 2020

I wish someone had given me this book to read when my children were young and wondering about concepts that were difficult to explain. Asking simple questions and giving thoughtful responses, Philip Bunting tackles some of the most profound questions we can ask ourselves at any age, starting with: Who am I?

This picture book begins and ends with rainbow end papers, and in the middle we discover that human beings are more than just their names or the stuff they own or their gender. We are even more than the colour of our skin or the way we think and feel. All of us are just people, one of many “pootling around” on a vast earth orbiting a sun in an infinite universe.

That could be scary for some, but ultimately our uniqueness, individuality and humanity can be the stuff that helps us to connect with one another, across all the things that outwardly make us feel different.

Each question is posed on a different coloured background on the left page with a corresponding answer underneath. On the page opposite there is an illustration to help explain the idea. As always with Philip Bunting, there is gentle humour in the text, with a “humourless jellyfish” appearing on the skeleton page and a note in the small print about guts and stuff suggesting that the bladder is not the organ of consciousness!

I can highly recommend this picture book for children 4-8 years, it’s a thoughtful introduction for discussions which promote philosophical ideas about identity, self-love, self-perception and inclusivity. Below are more suggested picture book reads that cover similar themes, both humorously and seriously:

Avocado Asks by Momoko Abe

Be More Bernard by Simon Philip Illustrated by Kate Hindley

I am NOT an Elephant
by Karl Newson
Illustrated by Ross Collins

I Am Enough by Grace Byers Illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo

We’re All Wonders by R.J.Palacio

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont Illustrated by David Catrow

It’s Okay to be Different
by Todd Parr

The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson
Illustrated by Rafael Lopez

The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi

Under My Hijab by Hena Khan Illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel

Thelma the Unicorn
by Aaron Blabey

Whoever You Are by Mem Fox Illustrated by Leslie Staub

Perfectly Norman by Tom Percival

10,000 Dresses by Marcus Ewert Illustrated by Rex Ray

Why Am I Me? by Paige Britt Illustrated by Selina Alko
and Sean Qualls

Mary Wears What She Wants
by Keith Negley

Neither by Airlie Anderson

The Boy Who Tried to
Shrink His Name
by Sandhya Parappukkaran Illustrated by Michelle Pereira

Armin Greder: Diamonds

Illustrated by the author

Published by Allen & Unwin, 2020

I have always approached Armin Greder’s work with fear, trepidation and respect.

I have also struggled with the categorisation of his illustrated works as picture books. But, there they are, for all to borrow in the children’s section of the library.

For me, the art is confronting and powerful as Greder tackles complex issues like separatism, repression, exploitation, war, conflict, slavery and the plight of refugees. 

Apart from a few paragraphs of dialogue at the beginning and end of Diamonds, the main story is told without words. It is the compelling, razor sharp dialogue between mother and daughter, however, that raises the hairs on my arms.

I have diamonds in my engagement ring. Have I ever wondered where they came from? No. Have I ever asked about which country in the world they were mined or whether the labourers were treated well and fairly paid? No. Would I buy diamonds again or have them bought for me? Not without asking a few questions about provenance and whether the process of the diamonds’ manufacture was without conflict. Could I ever really be sure of the answers?

In this picture book, Gerder has revealed the complex chain of exchange from impoverished mine worker to armed militia to anonymous men in black suits and dark limousines with briefcases full of money, to jewellery makers…ending up eventually in elegant boutiques where a thoughtful purchase of diamond earrings for a beloved partner is transacted in quiet, plush, genteel surroundings.

The story makes me think, and I am left feeling uncomfortable and prodded. There is an afterword by journalist Francesco Boille at the end of the book and a statement by Riccardo Noury, representing Amnesty International Italy. As well, there are two magnificent quotes by past statesmen, Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

I encourage you to read this picture book and share it with young readers who are over 8 years old. Below I have recommended other picture books that deal with confronting issues such as racism, war and repression as well as books about brave people (fictional and real) who have deviated from the well-travelled path:

Malala’s Magic Pencil
by Malala Yousafzai
Illustrated by Kerascoet

We Are All Equal by P.Crumble Illustrated by Jonathan Bentley

Yoko by Rosemary Wells

Skin Again by Bell Hooks
Illustrated by Chris Raschka

The Rabbits by John Marsden Illustrated by Shaun Tan

I Dissent by Debbie Levy
Illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley

It’s Okay to be Different
by Todd Parr

A is for Activist
by Innosanto Nagara

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman Illustrated by Caroline Binch

The Island by Armin Greder

The Mediterranean
by Armin Greder

Room on our Rock
by Kate and Jol Temple
Illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton

My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald Illustrated by Freya Blackwood

A Different Pond by Bao Phi Illustrated by Thi Bui