Librarians on the Line: Evaluating Children's Books About Police

Children’s librarian Mahasin Abuwi Aleem reads to children at story time at Oakland's main library. (Andrew Stelzer)

It’s Monday morning story time at the Oakland Public Library’s downtown branch. Children’s librarian Mahasin Abuwi Aleem reads to a couple dozen kids. Today, she's starting with a book called "Abiyoyo," based on a South African folk song.

“Once upon a time there was a little boy who played the ukulele,” she starts, and the children sit rapt attention.

Kids' books can be pretty fun and they can help children learn about difficult subjects, like potty training, fighting with siblings and, for many kids, what the role of a police officer is.

But children's literature hasn't necessarily kept up with the times on that last topic.

Next time you’re reading a story to a child take a look at how the book talks about good guys and bad guys. Is there any mention that in the United States people are innocent until proven guilty? If there are cops in the story, are they wearing body cameras?

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'The Talk'

Aleem uses books to help introduce law enforcement to her own three kids, now aged 3, 8 and 11.

“In books, they were mostly depicted as community helpers," says Aleem. "And as [my kids] have gotten older and been more aware of current events, we’ve talked more and more about how, just like in every field, there are people who are thoughtful and conscious and want to do the right thing. And there are people on the police force who may not.”

Due in part to the Black Lives Matter movement, those are conversations that lots of parents are having these days — and have long been a part of child rearing for African-American families like Aleem’s.

To help guide those difficult discussions, Oakland librarians have created a toolkit for evaluating children’s books that feature police. It's a publicly available document to help librarians and other educators examine whether a book accurately reflects how the law really works or reflects the full range of children’s realities.

“The problem we have with police books right now is there really isn’t much that represents that fearful side,” explains Amy Martin, the Oakland Public Library's children’s collection management librarian. Martin spearheaded the creation of the toolkit. She takes out a picture book called "I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is In Trouble Today."

The book opens with two police officers confronting the reader at their front door, telling them their teddy bear had a wild party and trashed the house, and now is in big trouble.

Recognizing Fears, Explaining Rights

“For a child who’s come home to a parent being arrested, that could be a really, really frightening image,” Martin says. So it may not be the best thing to read to that kid. Martin fully breaks down some problems with the book on a blog called Reading While White.

The toolkit doesn’t review specific books. Instead, it provides questions, like: Does this book explain children’s rights to have a parent or other adult present during questioning? Does it imply that children will always be safe if they follow officers' instructions? Does the book make a distinction between prison and jail?

Oakland Public Library's children’s collection management librarian Amy Martin

“Everyone’s innocent until proven guilty, and in almost every children’s book I’ve looked at that involves police, there’s language right from the start about guilt," says Martin. "Like they will call them 'bad guys'; some books will call them 'criminals.'"

Martin got supportive feedback from an Oakland police lieutenant and other groups before publishing the guide, which is being used throughout Oakland’s library system.

Ellie Grimmer, who came to story time at the library, says she’s grateful for guidance about how to talk with her two kids.

“There have been times where we’ve read stories and afterwards, when the kids are away, my husband and I are like 'Well, that’s kind of true, about police, but sometimes it’s not,'" says Grimmer. "It depends on what you look like and where you’re from. ... It’s complicated.”

Authors and publishers have gradually been including black- and brown-skinned characters in children’s books. Nuanced portrayals of law enforcement could be a next step, to make sure that every child can see their own world reflected in a story.

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