Beating Bias with Books: Fostering Awareness and Compassion with Children’s Literature


Elizabeth H. Rowell, Thomas B. Goodkind, and Elizabeth U. Henshaw

It is essential that educators of young children teach their students about multiculturalism and societal diversity. However, it is not enough for today’s youngsters to merely be made aware of these differences. Most children in contemporary American society are affected by terms such as prejudice, stereotype, sexism, and racism—even if they don’t actually understand their literal meaning. Struggling against bias due to gender, race, ethnicity, disability, economic status, or English language deficiency can hinder a child’s development and sense of worth. On the other hand, having a sense of superiority under the guise of these same classifications results in distorted reality for other youngsters.1

There are several fundamental concepts that teachers can introduce in the classroom. They should teach their students to be proud of their own heritage, as well as respect cultures and life-styles different from their own.2 Additionally, educators must steer their students toward taking responsibility and compassionately defending themselves—and others—against unfair treatment. Most teachers strive to foster children’s learning about themselves and others. However, many do not take extra steps to help their students understand how it feels to be discriminated against, encourage youngsters to think critically and analytically about such feelings, or empower them with the skills needed to take action against unfair treatment.

The goal of antibias education is to teach students how to support others through positive actions and words, and commit to the proactive and assertive defense of others suffering discrimination.3 Teachers must instill in their students an inherent sense of responsibility for those who are being treated unfairly. Individual and social change is at the heart of antibias education,4 so as educators we need to help young children develop the empathy, self-confidence, knowledge, desire, and commitment needed to do their part.


Why Children’s Books Work

Sometimes teachers are hesitant about working on antibias education with their students because they are unsure how to introduce sensitive issues that have not previously surfaced in their classrooms. Others are uncertain about how to weave this crucial area into their curriculum. They regard antibias education as yet another distraction from teaching basic skills and subject matter.

An often-overlooked vehicle for promoting antibias education is children’s literature. Literacy, cultural and self-awareness, and social empowerment are interwoven in many intricate and subtle ways.5 Carefully selected children’s books can play a powerful role in shaping young children’s attitudes, response patterns, and concepts about self and others. The experience of listening to others read aloud or reading picture books with an antibias message provides an opportunity for young children to see and identify with characters often different from themselves. They can also experience a wide range of social dilemmas and points of view. These book-related ventures teach students how to look at events from a variety of perspectives, in other words, feel what it is like to “be in another person’s shoes.”6 Books that contain examples of how words and actions can hurt people are often a starting point for empathy-building activities. Discussions, story compositions, role playing with and without character dolls or puppets, and the creation of pictures are exercises that could help make young children more aware of the personal impact of biased thinking. These activities can help students realize that they can do something positive to change or prevent these negative situations.

Teachers can integrate books that stimulate reflection and discussion of antibias issues into many thematic studies. For example, during a unit on clothing, educators can address the problem of teasing due to differences in clothing, using books such as Coat of Many Colors, The Rag Coat, The Hundred Dresses, and Angel Child, Dragon Child. When studying friendship, young children can vicariously experience how it feels to have friendship problems in books such as Yo! Yes? and Crow Boy. During a families unit, students could learn about how it feels to have no family, like the widow in Mrs. Katz and Tush. When working on a unit on schools, students could discuss how the character of Ruby Bridges felt when she went to school all by herself in New Orleans in 1960 in The Story of Ruby Bridges. Students can reflect on how they would feel if they were the persons involved. Educators should encourage youngsters to think about how they could make a positive difference in each case.

Through meaningful activities that promote critical thinking and problem solving, based on carefully selected books, young children can begin to build the empathy and confidence needed for becoming caring and knowledgeable people who stand up for themselves and others in the face of discriminatory behavior. Sometimes teachers can present a powerful message by using books with animals as main characters, such as Franklin in the Dark and Swimmy. Books such as Amazing Grace and The Balancing Girl teach children how to respond to biased treatment. However, it is important both to be familiar with the books ahead of time and to know the personality traits of each student well because, often, students’ prejudicial feelings may surface when a particular selection is read and discussed.


Suggested Antibias Activities

Following is a list of exercises that can enhance the experience of reading or listening to others read aloud from antibias books:

> Teachers can lead focused discussions prior to, during, and after reading the books. The educator should ask questions that stimulate empathy, problem-solving skills, and a commitment to stand up against discrimination.

> Children could examine book characters’ facial and body expressions in illustrations and discuss what their emotions might be.

> Role-playing in which the children pretend to be book characters who are being discriminated against can be helpful. Puppets made of tongue depressors and pictures or persona dolls might help students relate to the characters. They could also assume the roles of book characters that interact with the persons who are being treated with bias and demonstrate how their characters should have acted.

> Story reenactments or on-the-spot impromptu plays done by the children after several readings of the story give them opportunities to expand on the story and feel empathy for a character. An adult can be the narrator. The children can be prompted or they can make up their own words and actions. Repeating the story reenactments allows children to take different parts or to further explore their roles. They could also revise the story line and change characters’ biased behaviors to reflect more positive actions. Although some young children might be hesitant the first time they are involved in a story reenactment, they will usually feel more confident with repeat performances.7

> A variety of dictating or writing activities could be used to expand children’s thinking. For example, they could revise the story to show more appropriate behaviors; write letters to characters who are victims of bias, telling them how they would have helped or giving them advice; or dictate letters to people who acted inappropriately.

> Drawing or painting pictures of how characters should have been treated or how the students in the class would work to get a situation changed can help young children think constructively about helping others.


Teaching Positive Response

Educators can use characters in books including Franklin in the Dark, Mirette on the Highwire, Jamaica Tag-along, Yo! Yes?, Mrs. Katz and Tush, and Dancing with the Indians as models of people and animals who sensed the needs of others and tried to help them. After discussing what these characters did, children could identify ways to help others in need. Using fictional and nonfictional characters such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Young Martin Luther King, Jr., William in William’s Doll, and Molly in Molly’s Pilgrim as models, children can discuss how they would feel if they were treated in these ways and how they could respond. Teachers can elicit suggestions on how to verbalize feelings and stand up for one’s self by suggesting to students such phrases as, “I don’t want you to say that, I don’t like it” or “That hurts my feelings.”

Other books such as The Hundred Dresses or Uncle Jed’s Barbershop could help children think about how to support others when a discriminatory action occurs. They could practice using phrases such as, ‘’It’s unfair when …” and “It hurts others when. . . .”

After reading books with school settings like Amazing Grace, Angel Child, Dragon Child, The Hundred Dresses, Coat of Many Colors, Crow Boy, The Balancing Girl, and The Rag Coat, teachers can have children set rules for the classroom and p1ayground on how to treat each other. For example:

“It is never good to say you won’t play with anyone because of what they look like, wear, or how they speak.” Or “Everyone should have someone to play with.”

Book situations such as those found in Swimmy or Angel Child, Dragon Child, and in the biographies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Harriet Tubman examine how people can call on others when they are faced with a difficult situation. Learning how to collectively help people deal in positive ways with unfair situations prepares children for group projects where they work together to improve situations.8


Dealing with Negativity

Often children are uncomfortable about what to do or say when people have made insulting remarks that are hurtful to them or others. There are no suggestions for verbal responses or actions that can be applied in every situation. However, teachers can guide children to think carefully about what was said and then respond thoughtfully and appropriately as soon as possible. After reading about how characters were hurt by others, students could discuss possible responses. In many situations the following suggestions to children can be helpful:

> Think about what was said, and say that you heard something that was insulting or incorrect. Identify what was insulting or incorrect about the remark and supply the correct information.

> Tell the person that these remarks are unacceptable and make you or others feel uncomfortable or bad.

> Support the person who was insulted.

> Try to find others who believe as you do. However, if you don’t, continue to defend what you feel is right. Don’t give up trying to stick up against cultural, racial, or sexist insults or mistreatment.

Alternatively, it is also important to immediately address a negative response from a student to a book character’s physical, racial, linguistic, or cultural difference. Try to help the child figure out why he or she is feeling negative or uncomfortable. Explain why some responses can be hurtful and offer alternative ways to act.9


Suggested Questions for Students

> What’s being done to [book character] that isn’t nice, makes him/her feel bad, or that you wouldn’t want to happen to you? Is this right or wrong? Why? Why not?


> How does [book character] feel about it? How do you know this? How would you feel about this? Why?

> What would make [book character] feel better? Why? If this happened to you, what would make you feel better? Why?

> What should the people in the story have done to make [book character] feel better?

> If you were in the story, what would you have done so that [book character] wouldn’t feel bad?

> If you ever saw something like this happening to other people, what would you do? How would you cooperate with other people to try to solve this problem?

The above discussion will hopefully stimulate creative and reflective thinking about how to initiate a caring, compassionate, antibias commitment in young children. If educators teach their students to approach others in an open-minded and supportive fashion, a more tolerant classroom—and perhaps a better world—will result.



1. Louise Derman-Sparks, Anti-Bias Education (New York: The National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1993).

2. Stacey York, Roots & Wings: Affirming Culture in Early Childhood Programs (St. Paul, Minn.: Redleaf Press, 1991).

3. Derman-Sparks, Anti-Bias Education.

4. Ibid.

5. E. Pytowska and G. Willett, Journeys to Self-Esteem: Children’s Books with Themes of Cultural and Social Empowerment (Boston: Savanna Books, 1992).

6. Janice J. Beaty, Building Bridges with Multicultural Picture Books: For Children 3-5 (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill, 1997).

7. Ibid.

8. Derman-Sparks, Anti-Bias Education.

9. Ibid.

About the Authors

Elizabeth H. Rowell is a professor at Rhode Island College. Thomas B. Goodkind is a professor at the University of Connecticut. Elizabeth U. Henshaw is an assistant professor at Rhode Island College.

Children’s Books


Benjamin, Anne. Illustrated by Ellen Beier. Young Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter. New York: Troll, 1992.

Bourgeois, Paulette. Illustrated by Brenda Clark. Franklin in the Dark. New York: Scholastic, 1991.

Cohen, Barbara. Illustrated by Daniel M. Duffy. Molly’s Pilgrim. New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1983.

Coles, Robert. Illustrated by George Ford. The Story of Ruby Bridges. New York: Scholastic, 1995.

Estes, Eleanor. Illustrated by Louis Slobodkin. The Hundred Dresses. New York: Scholastic, 1973.

Havill, Juanita. Jamaica Tag-Along. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Hoffman, Mary. Illustrated by Caroline Binch. Amazing Grace. New York: Dial, 1991.

Lionni, Leo. Swimmy. New York: Scholastic, 1973.

Marzollo, Jean. Illustrated by J. Brian Pinkney. Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King. New York: Scholastic, 1993.

Mattern, Joanne. Illustrated by Allan Eitzen. Young Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Troll, 1992.

McCully, Emily Arnold. Mirette on the High Wire. New York: Scholastic, 1992.

Medearis, Angela Shelf. Illustrated by Samuel Byrd. Dancing with the Indians. New York: Scholastic, 1991.

Mills, Lauren A. The Rag Coat. New York: Trumpet, 1995.

Mitchell, Margaree King. Illustrated by James Ransome. Uncle Jed’s Barbershop. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

Parton, Dolly. Illustrated by Judith Sutton. Coat of Many Colors. New York: Scholastic, 1996.

Polacco, Patricia. Mrs. Katz and Tush. New York: Dell, 1992.

Rabe, Berniece. Illustrated by Lillian Hoban. The Balancing Girl. New York: Puffin, 1991.

Raschka, Chris. Yo! Yes? New York: Scholastic, 1993.

Surat Surat, Michele. Angel Child, Dragon Child. New York: Scholastic, 1983.

Yashima, Taro. Crow Boy. New York: Scholastic, 1965.

Zolotow, Charlotte. Illustrated by William Pene Dubois. William’s Doll. New York: Harper, 1972.


©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.