Review of the Day – Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham
The other day I was at the table with my 7-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son and the subject of police shootings came up. I think there was a time when I would have been surprised by that statement. I think that time was long ago. In any case, as with many things my husband and I found that to explain anything about the shootings we had to go into a deep dive about systematic racist, the systems in place, and whiteness. My daughter has a killer brain, but in the course of going into the inequity of bank loans for white vs. black customers I found myself wanting to bring up the old Eddie Murphy sketch on “Saturday Night Live” called “White Like Me.” That’s the closest I could get to a blueprint of how to explain all this to my kid. And I think that there are a lot of white parents out there these days that, like me, want to do the right thing. We want to teach our children about whiteness but we don’t know where to start. There aren’t a lot of parenting guides out there on the subject. We might be offered an EDI course (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) through our workplaces but those are for our own education, not specifically that of our children. We can’t look to our own upbringing since the blueprints our parents handed us are woefully out of date. Those old terms of “everyone’s the same beneath the skin” and “melting pot” are beyond outdated, veering into the offensive. I was discussing this with a fellow parent the other day and then we looked at Anastasia Higginbotham’s latest book Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness. It is, quite frankly, the first book I’ve seen to that provides an honest explanation for kids about the state of race in America today. And the parent I was speaking to clearly agreed since he had to physically restrain himself from snatching the book from me and barreling for the nearest exit. The need for this book isn’t just palpable. It’s a drop in a void that’s been left gaping for far too long.
Higginbotham’s books are most easily identified by their subject matter. Put simply, the woman makes difficult subjects accessible to young readers. Divorce. Death. Sex. Whiteness. She’s unafraid of these topics. But let us not go around assuming that the subject matter is the reason she’s a great writer. Higginbotham could write about fluffy bunnies frolicking in vast vats of marshmallow fluff and still be as scintillating and on point as she is here because as a writer she treats her readers with a level of respect that feels unique. Look, this book is not the only picture book out there to mention police shootings. Yet in almost every book that talks about racism, the discussion skims along the surface. Their focus is not about why these things happen but rather how we can make our children feel safe in a dangerous world. What puts Higginbotham apart is her willingness to explain to kids, in an abbreviated overview (that in a just world would be worth a writing award right there), the reasons behind it all. In doing so, however, she never loses sight of the fact that the kid reading this book deserves honesty. It’s what she’s always delivered. In a way, it almost feels like her previous books were working up to this one all along.
So let’s examine how precisely someone breaks down whiteness for kids. As with her other books, this book is split between a story with characters and a narration that talks directly to the reader. It’s this narration where you’ll find that respect I mentioned earlier. The very first line reads, “When grown-ups try to hide scary things from kids . . .” and you are hooked. It says right off the bat that skin color makes a difference in how you see the world and how the world sees you. So as the white child goes through some rudimentary actions in a typical day, the book is constantly highlighting those moments when whiteness is at work. It also highlights, later on, what’s gone on in the past, both the good and the bad, and what’s going on today. The kid in the story eventually confronts the mom about the fact that the adults aren’t being honest and aren’t trusting the child to learn and understand. At the end of the book you get information about what you can do, done in the style of those Activity pages you’d normally find in the back of more innocuous books. But the Activity being celebrated here is growing justice in yourself. Alongside the image of books we read, “Innocence is overrated. Knowledge is Power. Get some. Grow wise. Make history.”
Now my kid is an anxious child. Fortunately, she fights back against that anxiousness. Her natural born curiosity will actually override her anxieties when she wants to make sense of something. And what I found with this book is that Higginbotham does a very good job of making it clear to the young reader that they have a personal stake in all of this. She alternates between cheering them on (“Grow justice inside yourself like a bean sprout in a milk carton”), offering a form of comfort and clarification (“You can be WHITE without signing on to whiteness”), and informing them. And when it comes to the term “whiteness”, what this book does particularly well is define the word in such a way that a small child could understand it. The author also pays homage to heroes of the past that have disrupted white supremacy. I was very taken with the mention at the end of Juliette Hampton Morgan. She was a librarian in Montgomery, Alabama who would raise holy hell if a bus driver mistreated a black passenger. This example in the book was a pitch perfect example to my kid of the kind of common decency we aspire to. And what I found as I read the book to my kid was that Higginbotham was able to match my daughter beat for beat. At the exact moment that my daughter said, “Mom, I’m worried,” the text reads, “But connecting means opening. And opening sometimes feels . . . like breaking.” So that when we got to the end where the book declared, “Your history’s not all written yet. What do you want it to say?” she considered the question seriously. No anxiety.
Did I have any moments of doubt about reading this book to my kid? I wish I could tell you that I walk through life without succumbing to whiteness at any time, but let’s be honest. The minute I got this book I didn’t immediately show it to my daughter. It’s crazy to think that as an adult I had to read and digest and process the book first, but I did. To some extent I wanted to be able to talk with my kid about every single aspect of this story as it comes up. When you get to the page where it shows how whites have “exploited the love and labor of Black women” you should be able to say what that means. And if you don’t know what that means then you need to educate yourself first and then educate your child. That’s a lot of work, but long gone are the days when being a parent meant phoning in your opinions. But that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t read the book to my daughter immediately. I didn’t hand this book to my kid right away because there’s a page in this book where the text reads, “bang! bang! bang! bang! bang!”, though it doesn’t show any gunplay, and there’s a kid watching a television holding their hands to their head. I honestly wondered for a minute there if it was appropriate to read that to my kid. I realized pretty quickly that she’s seen stuff like this, or heard about it, and keeping this book from her would be the equivalent of the adults on the following page who tell their own child “You don’t need to worry about this. You’re safe. Understand?” Our kids don’t exist in vacuums. And, if they do, then it’s our job to introduce them to the real world before the real world gets first dibs on their education.
To bring these images to life, Higginbotham utilizes a collage technique that’s she’s perfected over her previous three books. The images here appear in front of what looks like brown paper bags. Faces and hands are drawn while hair and clothing is collage. Photographs make a regular appearance, many of them seemingly taken from the streets of Brooklyn today. And lest you pooh-pooh her style, I have to say that as an artist, Higginbotham is very good at letting images speak louder than words when the time is right. In one two-page spread a security guard in a store stands between two children. The child on the left is white and looking at bowls. The child on the right is black and doing the same. Guess where the guard’s eyes travel. Later at a stoplight the white kid’s mom surreptitiously locks the car doors when a black boy crosses in front of them at an intersection. Once the child starts reading up on whiteness, the art changes. Look at that image of the black nanny dressed in the stars and stripes as she exits the frame with a baby, swaddled in a dollar bill. I was particularly amused later when Andrew Jackson’s face on the $20 appears with evident purpose.
At the beginning of this book, Higginbotham quotes a 1993 Toni Morrison interview where she says, “White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it . . . Take me out of it.” Now go to your local library. Ask for the books on equity and racism for kids. What you will be given is a pile of books that are metaphors, a bunch that discuss historical inequities, and maybe a couple that want to talk about race today. That last pile is small, and notable for what it does not say. It will not talk about whiteness. Higginbotham is a white author who took Morrison seriously. It’s rare that I read a book for a kid that does something I’ve never seen done before, but I’ve never seen a white author confront white supremacy in a picture book format. And even if this book sells well, I don’t see it inspiring a flood of imitators, because what Higginbotham is doing here is exceedingly difficult. It would have been much easier for her to just write another everything-is-all-right work of comfort, like all the others I’ve seen before. At one point in this book the main character says, “You can’t hide what’s right in front of me.” Put this book in front of a child. Don’t hide it. Talk about it. You’ll come for the subject matter. You’ll stay for the compassion.
On shelves September 4th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Two for you. Both to give you a peek behind the scenes:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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