The Other Side of Truth

by Beverly Naidoo
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What factors should I consider in the essay prompt 'To what extent do modern children's books empower the reader?'

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One of the biggest considerations for this essay is the extent to which modern children’s fiction addresses topical social justice issues. They often deal with issues that children are likely to face. There is a litany of children’s fiction, for instance, addressing the ways in which women and girls have previously subverted and continue to subvert partriarchal norms. Many such books seek to educate readers about inspiring female figues in history. An excellent example is the beautifully-illustrated Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History by Vashti Harrison. Others incorporate fantasy elements into a type of female empowerment allegory; one example is The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch.

Another example of children’s fiction providing an age-appropriate social justice crash course is the sub-genre of children’s activist fiction. Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca’s That’s Not Fair, for instance, tells the story of Emma Tenayuca. This person led 12,000 Mexican-American workers to take action against the injustices they suffered in San Antonio pecan-shelling factories. Some authors choose to display activism on a fictional stage. Anna Branford’s Violet Mackerel’s Pocket Protest is an installment of a chapter-book series following the life of the fictional Violet whose activities show activism.

Themes of empowerment in children’s fiction go beyond oppression narratives. There has been a recent influx of children’s books centering kids of color on more quotidian adventures that have nothing to do with their experiences of racial prejudice. Rumaan Alam writes that these stories of black and brown children being themselves are just as important as the ones dealing with issues of slavery, sexism, and social justice. Speaking from her perspective as an author, parenthood blogger, and mother of black children, she writes that there is power in

books [using] children who look like mine to capture the magic in the mundane, as the best books for children do. Because what I’ve learned—and what I hear often from other parents of children of color—is that all too often the books that do contain kids who look like mine are, alas, not that fun to read.

It is therefore imperative (and increasingly common) to see children’s books that center a larger variety of faces, bodies, languages, and themes. Being able to access a diverse children’s library is a way that children can see themselves in fiction. Seeing themselves mirrored in fiction is the basis of their being empowered by fiction.

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