Since the 2020 killing of George Floyd, the United States has seen a renewed cultural and political focus on anti-racism generally and on the project of raising anti-racist children specifically. Legislators and commentators continue to debate an emerging educational tendency they associate with the idea of critical race theory—and the question of how, if at all, the history of American racism should be taught in schools. In this context, progressive parents and educators have helped make Ibram X. Kendi’s Antiracist Baby, a new board book for very young children, a number-one New York Times bestseller. Other board books with anti-racist or progressive concepts—Woke Baby, Feminist Baby—have pride of place in U.S. bookstores and children’s shops throughout the country’s liberal enclaves. It’s clear why parents would want to teach their children to oppose bigotry. But what purpose do they see in doing it at the board-book stage of their children’s development?

Philip Nel is a University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University, the director of its English Department’s Program in Children’s Literature, and the author of Was the Cat in the Hat Black? Nel sees this new set of baby books as a way of countering the biases in cultural messages even very young children absorb—but also as a response to bigotry coded into many classic children’s books. While explicitly anti-racist board books for pre-literate infants and toddlers are new, he says, activist-themed children’s books became “a widespread mainstream phenomenon” in the U.S. during the 1970s, and more niche examples go back as far as 19th-century antislavery literature. Nel acknowledges that part of the current trend may have a superficial quality, driven by some parents’ interest in projecting anti-racist credentials, but, he says, the messaging of these books is sound and can even help parents better appreciate the world they live in.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: Ibram X. Kendi’s baby board book, Antiracist Baby, is a bestseller in the U.S. There’s a lot of interest now in books like this—and some controversy around them. What precedents are there for these books and their popularity?

Philip Nel: There are many precedents. These books are around because people are not born racist. They learn to be racist. And if you want to create a better society, if you want to try to raise children who are conscious of the prejudices they may be absorbing and teach them to resist those, you want to start young. Antislavery children’s literature in the 19th-century U.S. comes to mind as one precedent.

Throughout the 20th century, lots of social movements from the left and the right embraced children’s literature as a means to reach the next generation. In the 1930s, there was some communist children’s literature, for example. It wasn’t mainstream, like Antiracist Baby. There’s a Marxist ABC book that begins, I think, “A is for armaments, warmongers, pride. B is for Bolshies a thorn in their side. C is for capitalists fighting for gold.” You would have had to be in a radical household to encounter a book like that. The same is true for the antislavery literature.

Omar Flores

Widely distributed activist children’s books, at least in the U.S., are a postwar phenomenon. You get books like Pictorial History of the American Negro, by Langston Hughes and Milton Meltzer. As a mainstream phenomenon, I would date it to the 1940s. But as a widespread mainstream phenomenon, it started in the 1970s, with anti-sexist books like Free to Be You and Me or X: A Fabulous Child’s Story.

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