Controversy: A Teachable Moment?



Controversy with a Picture Book

There is a picture book that was intended for this President's Day that will not be read. Starting in January, a controversy unfolded in the world of children's literature. In this post I propose that while this controversy could be a teachable moment for the children we lead, it is complex.  To understand more, follow along as I balance my desire to develop critical thinking for the children I lead with what I continued to learn about this controversy. 

When you click on the tweet, you will find a blog post from Scholastic Press.  In the post, Andrea Davis Pinkney, VP and Executive Editor, supported the publication of a picture book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganershram, with illustrations by Vanessa Brantley-Newton. 

After reading the Scholastic post, I tried to find the book. I was planning to come up with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) conversations and use it for the Book Drops for Kids project.  

On more investigation, I learned that in the review, written by the  School Library Journal, concern was expressed:

Young readers without sufficient background knowledge about the larger context of American slavery may come away with a dangerously rosy impression of the relationship between slaves and slave owners, and those with a deeper understanding are likely to find this depiction offensive.

In addition Kirkus Reviews wrote:

Children whose grown-ups do not address the material in the notes with them will be left with a sorely incomplete understanding of both the protagonists' lives and slavery itself.

I wasn't able to find the book. Twitter helped me to discover why with this tweet... 

Conversation: A Path to Critical Thinking

The desire to present accurate views of our complex history as humans is valid. This post is about considering the idea of bringing kids into the conversation so they can develop informed opinions on controversy that relates to them. 

I strongly believe that we generally over protect kids from our difficult and complex world. I question if this over protection prevents them from forming opinions on issues that impact them. In terms of teaching children the skills to lead, this controversy over a picture book might be a teachable moment. 

I am not advocating for the book to be in the hands of children. Instead I am advocating for leaders of children to discern if a conversation about publishing books for kids and presenting complex ideas is worth having. 

Here are some additional resources to explore before you decide to take on the conversation. 

A Framework for a Conversation

The following is a framework for a conversation that could lead to deeper thinking. I leave it up to you the leader of the children in  your life to know if they are ready for such a conversation.  

Objective: Learn about the publishing process and the concept of controversy. Allow children to form opinions and express them to others..

Explain: When a book gets published there are people who read the book and form an opinion. They often write their opinions for others to read. 

Ask:  What is an opinion?  (A statement that people make that usually begin with the word, "I think that _____")

Show the learners the picture of the book and point out the fact that the book is not available for purchase. 

Explain: This book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington, was published in January 2016. Adults read the book and wrote opinions about whether or not children aged 3-8 should read the book. 

Direct:  Look at the cover of the book.

Ask: What do you think the book is about? (I think the book is about ______.)

Allow time for opinions. (I think the book is about a grown up and a child. I think the book is about making a cake.)

Explain: A controversy is when people strongly disagree about something. When there are many opinions about a situation some people get emotional about their opinion being the right opinion. 

Discuss: A Birthday Cake for George Washington, had many people who disagreed strongly that the book was worth buying and sharing with kids. Let's consider what we know about the book. 

1. The story is based on a true story. (What is a true story?)

2. When writers tell true stories, they make decisions about how to tell the story. 

3. Some adult readers felt the writer, illustrator, and publisher made decisions that negatively impacted the way the story was told. 

4. The story is about a father and daughter who make a cake for George Washington.  (Who is George Washington?)

4. The daughter and father are owned by the president. They were slaves. (What does it mean to be owned by another person?)

5. The laws in the United States since, December 6, 1865, say that it is not legal to own another person.  (What years did George Washington live? - 1732-1799)

6. George Washington was one of the people that owned slaves.  

Explain: Controversies are an opportunity to try to understand why people disagree. It is also an opportunity to understand what you as a person think and feel. 

  • Some people who read the book feel that the smiles on father and the child make it seem that it was acceptable to be owned by another person?
  • The publisher originally stated that they felt that the father and daughter found joy and pride in the work of baking a cake. 
  • The publisher listened to the people who were concerned about the book and decided not to sell it.
  • The story of the slave in the book is more complicated than what was depicted in the story. 

Explain:  You may have an opinion. Based on what you know now about the controversy what do you think about the choices made by the publisher? 

Invite each person who expresses an opinion to explain their thinking.  (Note: not all kids will have an opinion or be prepared to express it.)

Explain: When people feel strongly about a subject they gather more information and sometimes change their opinion like the publisher did in this example. 

Summarize:  We learned about controversy, we tried to understand the controversy surrounding the publication of a book called A Birthday Cake for George Washington, and some students formed and expressed their opinion.  If you would like to explore this topic more, I can help you find additional resources. 

Cup of Leadership is a blog for people who lead children.

Deanne Bryce is a writer for young children and an advocate for personal leadership at all ages. This post is part of  a series of posts where we think about conversations that lead kids in new ways. Suggest similar story or leadership topic by connecting on Twitter.