Using books to jump-start family conversations on race

by guest blogger Andrew Maraniss

When my kindergartner learned our family would be marching in Nashville’s Martin Luther King Day parade, she knew just what she wanted to carry: the MLK poster she had created in her art class. We didn’t really have anything handy to attach it to, so we taped the poster to a yardstick. My son made his own poster and attached it to a miniature baseball bat. Our little social activists were ready to go.

As we drove to the march, I turned to the backseat and asked my daughter, 6, and son, 3, “So, who tell me about Martin Luther King and why we celebrate his life.”

“He said all people are equal, whether you are Black or White,” my daughter replied.

“That’s right, he was a good man,” I replied. “And very courageous.”

“He was a bucket filler,” my son said with a smile, using a term his pre-school teachers use to describe people who help others.

“Then why did they kill him?” my daughter added.

My daughter’s question startled me. I wasn’t sure how much she knew about that part of the story from the children’s biographies we had read.

“There was a mean man who did a terrible thing,” I offered.

“He was a bucket dipper,” said my son. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a bucket filler, and James Earl Ray, a bucket dipper. That’s my boy, master of the understatement.

At that moment, I wasn’t sure our conversation was unfolding in the way the experts would endorse, but I was glad we were having it. Just as I’m glad that both of my kids enjoy reading biographies of figures like King, Rosa Parks, Misty Copeland, and Jackie Robinson, and can recognize their pictures, even if they sometimes get a few details wrong (my son occasionally calls Robinson ‘Babe Ruth’).

My wife and I regularly use books to start conversations about race and racism. We want our children to learn that the contributions of these courageous men and women aren’t just relevant during Black History Month or only important to Black people. We want them to understand that these stories of courage, equality, and humanity are critical to understanding what we value most in our family and what it means to be an American.

As the author of Strong Inside, a Young Readers biography on a little-known sports and civil rights figure named Perry Wallace, I’ve had the chance to visit elementary and middle schools around the country, using basketball as a hook to share what is really a story of hatred, bravery, perseverance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. When speaking with students at predominantly White schools, it never takes long to discover which young people have had early conversations about race, and which haven’t.

In my opinion, the fact that racism endures and even thrives represents a fundamental failure in parenting. And that’s not just an easy indictment of parents who eagerly pass along their own hatred. More important is the much larger pool of parents who just never broach the subject. Combating racism doesn’t just mean changing the hearts and minds of bigots; it requires that passive bystanders become proactively engaged.

For parents, that can begin with reading books to our children about race and racism, and introducing our kids to a broad range of characters from diverse backgrounds. When those family story-time experiences evolve into actually engaging with and advocating for people different from us in meaningful ways, we can begin to change our communities.

Hearing stories about such transformations within families has been the most rewarding part of my experience as an author. Several parents have told me Strong Inside, with its “accessible” sports element, has given them an opportunity to have dinner table conversations about race with their children, conversations they didn’t quite know how to broach before.

Next time you’re at the library, make a conscious choice to select books written by a range of diverse authors about diverse characters, and be sure your children’s teachers and librarians are doing the same. In today’s political environment, the conversations about equality and the evils of racism that these books will inspire, are more important than ever.

Because if we don’t get busy filling our children’s buckets with stories of empathy, love, and our shared humanity, we’ve seen what the bucket dippers can do.


Andrew Maraniss is the author of Strong Inside, a New York Times bestselling biography of Perry Wallace, the first African American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Strong Inside received the Lillian Smith Book Award for civil rights and the RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition Prize for social justice. Andrew’s “Young Readers” adaptation of the book (for ages 10 and up) has been named one of the Top 10 Biographies for Youth in 2017 by the American Library Association. He is also a contributor to ESPN’s sports & race website, The Undefeated. Visit for more information, and follow Andrew on Twitter and Facebook. Andrew lives in Brentwood, Tennessee with his wife and two young children.

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