Something Happened in Our Park by Marietta Collins, Ph.D., Marianne Celano, Ph.D., and Ann Hazzard, Ph.D., illustrated by Keith Henry Brown and Something Happened in Our Town by Marietta Collins, Ph.D., Marianne Celano, Ph.D., and Ann Hazzard, Ph.D., illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin, are available now.
By Marietta Collins, Ph.D. and Ann Hazzard, Ph.D.
As child psychologists, we often talk about tough topics with kids. Those experiences made it easier for us to write one picture book about racism (Something Happened in Our Town, Magination 2018) and another about gun violence (Something Happened in Our Park, Magination 2021). Along with our third co-author, Dr. Marianne Celano, we believe that stories are a great way for parents to start meaningful conversations with their children. However, tackling controversial topics in children’s books comes with a unique set of challenges and rewards.
Something Happened in Our Town begins with two children, one Black and one White, hearing that a police officer shot an unarmed Black man. In discussions with their families, Josh and Emma learn about slavery and other types of “unfair treatment” of Black people. They are encouraged to treat everyone fairly in their daily lives. Many children particularly resonate with the characters’ subsequent efforts to make their classroom more inclusive.
We received a lot of positive feedback from parents and educators who found the book helpful in discussing racial injustice with children. However, as efforts to address racism increased after George Floyd’s murder, the backlash to antiracism also became louder. There have been some efforts, often led by White police officers, to prevent educators from reading our first book in classrooms or to remove the book from library shelves. In fact, Something Happened in Our Town was #6 on the American Library Association’s Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2020 list. We actually were quite honored because books by Jason Reynolds and Angie Thomas were also on the list!
As we wrote Something Happened in Our Town, we felt it was critical to present the pain of Black families authentically and to validate the reality of disproportionate police shootings of unarmed Black individuals. We also tried to acknowledge the complexities of policing and present other examples of systemic racism in our country. Overall, we feel comfortable with the balance we worked hard to achieve, but we were not surprised by the negative reaction in some quarters. Progress towards racial equality in the US has always been accompanied by significant push-back by those invested in or defensive about the status quo.
We admire brave educators who are determined to present accurate history and to encourage antiracism as an essential component of children’s positive social-emotional development. We also recognize that whether teachers read one of our books in the classroom is not the critical issue. We are concerned that some school systems seem so intimidated when a few parents (generally privileged White parents) express a negative opinion that they have quickly acceded to demands to limit antiracist content. In some locations, this has occurred without a thoughtful and unbiased review of the materials in question or consideration of more diverse parent perspectives. Sometimes administrators have not solicited educators’ perspectives on the material or the classroom response. Obviously, this approach totally undermines teacher expertise and autonomy. We understand that educators need to be responsive to parent communities, but not held hostage. Avoiding all challenging real-world content is not feasible and would be a disservice to students. Outlawing antiracist books is essentially accepting and supporting a racist status quo. As Dr. Ferial Pearson, an education professor in Omaha, Nebraska, wrote, “It is time for educational leaders to stop worrying about the comfort of the already powerful and start worrying about the safety of the most vulnerable among us.”
We’ve prepared several free resources to support educators who want to use our first book in a classroom setting, available online at Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice. A resource guide that provides tips for planning and a read-aloud guide provides specific discussion prompts. For our second book, Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence, discussion prompts and background information for educators are included in the book’s detailed Reader’s Note and online at Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence. This story can be used to explore a range of issues including stress management, nonviolent conflict resolution, root causes of community gun violence (including systemic racism), and community empowerment.
We recommend several strategies for teachers to consider as they plan lessons addressing racism, gun violence, or other potentially sensitive content:
- Form an Equity/Inclusion Committee, including diverse parents, to guide schoolwide efforts to provide an inclusive and honest curriculum, as well as equitable academic opportunities and discipline procedures.
- Start with books that celebrate diversity across multiple dimensions and promote kindness, empathy, and anti-bullying.
- Consider seeking support from your administration if utilizing material that some parents may perceive as controversial. Ensure material addressing sensitive topics is accurate and provides hope for positive change.
- Communicate with parents about the goals of lessons addressing racism or other social problems. Consider allowing parents to opt-out or opt-in for a book reading. You may have to weigh the risks/benefits of reaching a more limited audience vs. reaching all students but with potentially destructive backlash.
What are the rewards of writing (or reading) books about tough topics to kids? We suspect we’re preaching to the choir, but we believe that:
- Most children are already aware of police shootings and marches for racial justice. They are eager to ask questions and discuss these issues.
- Many children are impacted directly or indirectly by gun violence and could benefit from learning coping strategies to manage anxiety and resolve conflict constructively.
- Discussion of real-life issues builds trust, engagement, and open communication.
- These types of lessons meet social-emotional and history/social studies learning goals.
- Ignoring the existence of racism communicates indifference.
- Acknowledging racism prepares children to challenge unfairness appropriately.
- Recognizing societal challenges empowers children to be part of the solution.
Maybe the best reward is experiencing children’s cut-to-the-chase clarity after listening to one of our stories. After a reading of Something Happened in Our Town, one child asked, “Who thought of slavery anyway? What a weird idea!” Another child commented, “I don’t know why White people thought they were better than Black people. It’s like a bully trying to make himself feel better by picking on someone.” In response to Something Happened in Our Park, one child said, “I wish people would use their words when they disagree, instead of trying to shoot each other!” Ah, the wisdom of youth! From our adult perspectives, we know the solutions to societal problems are complex. Nevertheless, we have hope that the younger generation will make progress, especially if they can grow up reading and talking about real-world issues.
Dr. Marietta Collins is an Associate Professor and the Director of Behavioral Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, where she works with families and provides cultural competence training. She is active in her church and enjoys mentoring African American children, adolescents, and early career professionals.
Dr. Hazzard is an Associate Professor Emeriti at Emory University School of Medicine. She has been a board member of several community nonprofits focusing on child abuse prevention, bereavement support for children, promotion of children’s literacy, and reduction of racial healthcare disparities.
Dr. Collins and Dr. Hazzard (and their third co-author Dr. Celano) were colleagues and friends for over two decades, working at Emory-affiliated clinics serving low-income, primarily African American families in Atlanta. All of the authors are committed to advocating for social justice and improving children’s access to behavioral health services.