Using Stories to Teach Our Children about Racism

A story is different than a list of commands in that it invites the reader in.  Most of us when we read a story identify with a character and are very dramatically changed.  There are all sorts of studies in brain scans and neurological things and imaging where they see that people actually feel emotion in connection with what the characters are feeling.  Stories change us. And they changes us deeply....and according to research they change people more deeply and for longer rather than trying to force yourself to follow a list of commandments.

Learning from Stories

It’s funny because I don’t usually resonate with talks full of stories; but I love using stories to teach my children, especially about “difficult” topics!  On the surface, using stories takes the pressure off whatever I’m trying to teach them.  However, on a deeper level, stories have greater value in teaching our children true principles.  When we read great literature, conversations open up and it’s no longer, “Mom is telling me what to do (as shown in the quote above).”  Likewise, stories are amazing for showing us the consequences of various choices — good and bad. When children can see the results of a character’s choices, they learn to make healthy decisions.  

Stories also give Mom a reference point.  For example, years ago I was reading the Little House on the Prairie series.  We had read the part where Laura didn’t listen to Ma when told to stay away from the stream.  What happened?  Of course, Laura went to the stream and was swept away by the current. Fortunately, all ended well and we have the continued story today!  I can’t remember what David was doing, but I remember distinctly warning him, “Remember what happened to Laura?” Again, the story took away the pressure and the possibility of a potential control battle between parent and child.  

Ultimately, stories are powerful tools for creating the change we desire! 

And so we get to the current war going on inside the borders of our country.  I am as torn up as most people about the pain overwhelming our nation.  The pain is real and super heavy!  As I have read posts on Facebook, watched videos on YouTube and read articles on various sites I see this is a multifaceted struggle that has been building up for too many years.  I may not experience the things that others have in the darkest ways possible, but I still have a strong desire to teach my children, the rising generation, how to be voices of change. 

These thoughts left me wondering:  How can we help our children understand the gravity of the situation? How can we teach our children to stop perpetuating racist thoughts in our culture? The answer came:  We can do so through stories.  I began looking through our reading history and realized I have taught my children about racism, more than I thought.  The stories we've read through the years have given our family a small glimpse into the black race, it’s culture and racism. I believe more can be done, but this is a great place to start!     

For Younger Children

Years ago we opened up the subject by celebrating Black History Month (February) in our home. Throughout the month we would highlight the lives of black heroes such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Washington Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Barak Obama.  We also read the poetry of Langston Hughes and listened to the music of Nat King Cole and others. As our children get a little older we can add in stories of Lorraine Hansberry, Elizabeth Eckford and James Baldwin. Just telling their stories can teach our children more about racial struggle.  

A few books for young children:

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena

John Henry by Julius Lester 

Enemies of Slavery by David A. Adler

For You and Your Older Children

One of my long-held beliefs is that learning starts with mothers first!  A well-educated mother can pass the knowledge of racism and cultural differences down to her children.   Here is a great list of books to begin educating yourself on the subject of racism. As you gain greater understanding you’ll be prepared to involve your children in the process.  I promise you will find some amazing lessons and have some great discussion from these stories: 

Roots by Alex Haley
This book changed my life.  This book changed what I read and how I read.  This book is necessary in our world! 

The Seeds of America Trilogy by Laurie Halse Anderson
This is about slavery during the Revolutionary War, an aspect of our first ward that I never even thought of until I read it.  

To Kill a Mockingbird  by Harper Lee
Classic!  Poignant!  Important! If you don’t know this one yet, you need to read it now! 

Nation by Terry Pritchett
Though not about black lives, per se, this book is beautiful literature on challenging false traditions of our fathers and repairing broken cultural norms.  I love this book!  

Passing by Nella Larson
Thank you book group!  I never would have read this if not for book groups.  All I can say about this book is that it’s a must! Completely opened my eyes to something I never even knew existed! 

Jefferson’s Sons by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Oh wow.  Though I did not particularly love this book it opened my eyes to a world I could not even fathom.  These words come through the eyes of Thomas Jefferson’s children born to his slave Sally.  This book is a great one to introduce the subject of “passing” to your children. Such struggle and heartache was found in this book.  

More Myself  by Alicia Keys
This was my most recent book on the list.  This is a book of power, strength, and the courage to make a difference!  Reading this book instilled in me a desire to be more myself and to do more for the community around me.  

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
For me this book was a broken story — a harsh perspective on a harsh time period!  But well worth taking the time to read. 

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Another classic must!  If you haven’t read this yet, read it today!  

Day of Tears by Julius Lester
My son actually read this in school and told me to read it.  I’m so glad!  This is centered around the largest slave auction in history! Can I say anything more than that?  

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Prose. Deeply written. All heart. 

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
I can’t say this was my favorite book, but I think I’m going to read this one aloud to my children soon.  

Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
Another one that was worth reading, but not my favorite. Still, this book is yet another story we can introduce to our children as we open up the conversation on racism. 

I will make sure all of my children read this book.  First of all, I love Gary Schmidt and everything he writes!  The crux of this story is the struggle between religion and culture, all centered around an island designated for the black people. I mean, such a gorgeous story.  This is a perfect example of how story can truly touch your heart and change it! 

Cry, the Beloved Country  by Alan Paton
I read this first as a sophomore in high school and remember loving it.  I read it again as an adult and I’m sure I appreciated it even more.  Set in South Africa during a time of great racial injustice, this book teaches so poignantly the lessons of redemption and love.  Our country could definitely use the lessons from this story!  

A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park
My kids and I just read this one right before George Floyd’s tragic death.  We had a beautiful discussion on poverty in general and how we have such a privilege to bless the lives of others in our current situation.  After reading this I encouraged each child choose a different way to contribute to a cause of their choice.  

Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
After reading this book I remember thinking, “I want to own this book and I want my sons to read it!”  A beautiful story teaching us rather than falling victim to our past we have the power to create a better future.  

This is the fluffiest suggestion on the list. But sometimes that is where people need to start — and that’s okay (actually, it’s necessary to start somewhere!). This is a series set during the Civil War.  Different love stories, one including that of a black woman.  I just like this series.  

This might be one of my daughter’s favorite books.  It’s the only one I really remember her reading in sixth grade.  A young black girl in Africa is being forced to marry and she runs away.  This is a book that can show any young woman to believe in her strength, to fight and to have courage! 

Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
“This is a story of racism and segregation in the South during the Depression, but it is also the story of how a family, and kind, wise people can give security and guidance in frightening circumstances (taken from my friend Jillaire’s post on GoodReads).”  Another super important book to introduce to our children right now. 

End Note
A couple of nights ago I stumbled upon this amazing article that speaks to the power of literature in bridging the gaps of the racial divide in our country.  Ironically, the question I searched that led me to this article was, “Are the characters in The Crossover black?” (You’ll get the irony when you read the article.) 

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And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people;  but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike, so long as the Lord sees fit that we may live and inherit the land...”
Mosiah 29:32


  1. Those are excellent books to read! I just added all of them to my to-read list! Several were on there already and a few I have read (including the fluffiest one). There's always more we can do to expand our horizons and our view of the world which is why books are so great!

  2. NaDell - we read the “fluffiest” ones for our book group years ago! I think you were a part of that then, weren’t you!? Anyway, it is a great list of books. Some of my all-time favorites are on this list. Love and miss you!


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