When I was in third grade, my father had a terrible accident on his job. He was a railroad foreman, and one of the first Black hires on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (B&O). A severe injury forced him into early disability retirement, and while I didn’t know all the details about what happened, I realized our family’s income had become compromised.
Around that same time, my teacher gifted me with a copy of Ramona and Her Father, a book in the Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary. Initially, I judged the book by its cover, and I wondered why my teacher didn’t offer any books with little Black or brown girls on the cover. I didn’t want to connect with Ramona, but I realized that I had so much in common with the witty and imaginative protagonist as I read through the torn pages. In this particular book of the series, Ramona’s father – just like my own father – had come home to share job loss news.
Reading about Ramona’s father encouraged me to ask my parent’s tough questions. As far as they were concerned, children weren’t supposed to be minding grown folks’ business. Asking my father to bare his soul about career uncertainty was definitely out of the question.
Reading with our children creates teachable moments and opens portals to meaningful conversations.
Now that I’m a mom, I want to take a different approach. As my 5-year-old daughter inches more towards independent reading, our literary adventures have been bridges to such thought-provoking chats even at such a young age. Children’s titles like We March, Woke Baby, and Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood up by Sitting Down led to a deep heart-to-heart about racial discrimination, social justice, and how even our youngest children can learn to stand up for what’s right.
My interview with Renée Watson for BlackLove.com confirmed that I am, in fact, bonding with my young reader through books. The New York Times bestselling author emphasized the idea that children’s books aren’t only for young readers. We can go on adventures together and escape to magical worlds and identify with characters across the globe. We can find comfort and support for all that is happening globally because reading with our children creates teachable moments and opens portals to meaningful conversations.
BlackLove.com: Without spoiling the plot for those who have yet to read it, how are you centering Black joy in your latest book, Ways to Make Sunshine?
Renée Watson: There’s one specific scene in the book where Ryan and her brother are having fun in their home. In this kitchen scene, they are full of life – dancing, singing, and making up songs. I included quite a few of these scenes throughout the manuscript because I wanted to give readers pure, unadulterated Black joy. Sometimes writing about social issues can be heavy. Characters are figuring out who they are in the world and speaking about injustice, but I was also intentional about celebrating Black culture in all its glory. Our children deserve to see happiness, celebration, and love within families and neighborhoods, too.
BL.com: A lot is going on right now in our country and the world. How can parents approach complex topics like grief, racism, job loss, gentrification, sexuality, or body image with younger readers?
RW: Sometimes, adults underestimate what young people can handle. It’s our own fear that gets in the way of having conversations and treating them like humans. Yes, children are little humans, but they are still human – and they have real feelings. Often adults dismiss children’s feelings. For instance, in my book, Ryan is sad when she learns that she’s moving out of the only house she’s ever lived in. Home is her favorite, safe place. She has a lot of fear and anxiety around moving and leaving. It’s easy for parents to dismiss these feelings and say things like, “Child, just be grateful we have another place to move to!” Instead, this is an opportunity to have an open dialogue with your children about what’s going on.
BL.com: When addressing such topics, how can parents honor kids’ emotions without feeling like they are sharing too much information?
RW:I think it’s also important for adults to say: I understand you’re hurting. Change is hard. This isn’t easy, but we are going to do this together as a family. Honest conversations are vital. As a parent, ask yourself, how can I listen? How can I make myself available to young people? How can I foster an environment for my children to come to me and feel like they can tell me if they’re sad or have questions about what’s happening?
I’m hoping that adults are taking just a moment – if it’s at the dinner table before you eat or before bedtime to check in with your children and say to them, do you have any questions? Do you know that you can talk to me? Even if it’s not a parent, perhaps a teacher, mentor, family friend, or relative. I think these conversations are critical.
There’s something about intergenerational reading followed up with a healthy discussion that’s revolutionary.
BL.com: Ryan and her brother Ray have such a bittersweet relationship in the book. How does this speak to the universality of sibling relationships, especially in the Black community?
RW: Love is complicated. Family is complicated. Home is complicated. Their brother-sister relationship is symbolic of the push-pull that many of us have in relationships. One minute you can love a family member, but the next minute that same person is getting on your last nerve. No matter where you come from, your relationships with siblings, parents, or friends in the neighborhood, it’s always a mixture of really great moments and some terrifying or not-so-great moments. That’s exactly the relationship that Ryan has with her brother Ray. They learn how to apologize to each other and to figure things out together. The reader learns that although sibling relationships may not be perfect, there still can be love there.
BL.com: Why do you recommend that parents read books for young readers, too?
RW: Adults might say, “Oh, I’m not reading those childish books!” But it’s so important to be open-minded. Think about how powerful it is, as a Black woman, to go back and reconnect with your younger self through the written word. The kid inside of you is screaming out for that connection, feeling of nostalgia, and innocence of childhood. I encourage families to read books together because there’s something about intergenerational reading followed up with a healthy discussion that’s revolutionary. Now, more than ever, we must read with Black children. We are their first line of defense when trying to understand the harsh realities of this world. Loved ones who have younger readers in their lives should read books together, and talk about how themes and characters are relatable to your own experiences.
Renée Watson is an award-winning author, speaker, activist, and educator. Her latest release, Ways to Make Sunshine, is now available online.