Looking at Race and Racial Identity in Children’s Books

This lesson, the second in a series, encourages students to think and talk openly about the concept of beauty, particularly as it overlaps with issues of race and racial identity.
Grade Level


Activities will help students:

  • acquire vocabulary for orally critiquing author and illustrator choices
  • make text-to-self and text-to-text connections using picture and chapter books
  • talk about racial identity openly and consider the harmful potential of racial stereotypes
  • become active readers capable of finding and critiquing hidden messages in texts
  • develop a sense of belonging in relation to the literature in their school and classroom library
  • build a safe and supportive classroom community where students can engage in literacy development together
Essential Questions
  • What does it mean to read critically?
  • What explicit and hidden messages about race do authors and illustrators of picture books send to readers?
  • What obvious and hidden messages about beauty do authors and illustrators of picture books send to readers?
  • What can authors, illustrators and readers do to make picture books that include more people from more different backgrounds?
  • chart paper
  • graphic organizer: “Keeping Track of What We Notice” 
  • picture books from the classroom or school library (Note: There are many possibilities, including: The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson, Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco, Tea with Milk by Allen Say, White Socks Only by Evelyn Coleman and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz. However, the lesson would work just as well with any set of picture books as long as they involve images of people rather than only animals. Race does not have to be an explicit theme in order for children to discuss racial issues as they relate to images in picture books.)


Literature plays a powerful role in helping children form value systems. Children start to understand what is—and is not—valued by authors and stories. Part of learning to read is being able to look critically at the images and messages in books, to understand what we can learn from authors, but also to think about problematic stereotypes authors and illustrators might perpetuate.

By using critical literacy skills, children will analyze not only picture books with explicit messages about race, but they also will learn to examine and begin talking about racial stereotypes present in picture books more generally. By thinking about messages surrounding race as it relates to beauty standards and norms, children will be challenged to articulate their own conception of what it means to be beautiful.


Professional Development

There are many books about the various aspects of critical literacy, including wonderful suggestions about how to use reading and writing to promote social justice. Some useful titles for the elementary grades include Getting Beyond I Like the Book” by Vivian Maria Vasquez, For a Better World: Reading and Writing for Social Action by Randy Bomer and Katherine Bomer, and Creating Critical Classrooms by Mitzi Lewison.

The professional development modules Culturally Relevant Curriculum and Engaging Curriculum can also be helpful in understanding the importance of, and some strategies for, incorporating critical literacy into your reading and writing work. 



color [kuhl-er] (noun) the natural appearance of something, including how bright it is and what shade it is

skin [skin] (noun) the outer covering of a human or animal body

skin color [skin kuhl-er] (noun) the coloring of a person’s face and skin

race [reys] (noun) one of the major groups into which human beings can be divided. As a social construction, it relates to the grouping of people based on physical characteristics, such as skin color, often for the purpose of creating the perception of a superior race. (Note: There are many different ways to define the term race. We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson and series of lessons is for students to come to individual and collective understandings of the term that make sense to them and their personal, developmental and communal needs.)

beauty [BYOO-tee] (noun) the part of a person—or thing—that makes us like how he or she looks. (Note: There are many different ways to define the term beauty. We provide a working definition, but one of the goals of this lesson and series of lessons is for students to come to their own understanding of the term and concept.)

author [AW-ther] (noun) the person who writes a book

illustrator [il-uh-strey-ter] (noun) an artist who creates pictures or images in a book

stereotype [ster-ee-oh-tahyp]
 (noun) an overly simple picture or opinion of a person, group or thing



  1. If author and illustrator are new terms to your class, clarify and chart the definitions. What is an author? What is an illustrator?
  2. Allow students ample time to look through the picture books in your classroom library with a partner. They should pay attention to anything they notice about the images in these picture books and keep track of observations using the graphic organizer. Children who cannot write or who struggle with writing can use shorthand or quick illustrations to keep track. Depending on your students’ graphomotor abilities, you may want to modify the graphic organizer with lines. Encourage them to focus on how the illustrations do or do not remind them of themselves and the people in their lives, particularly with regard to physical appearance, including those we call racial—skin color, facial features, hair texture. They should share observations with a partner.
  3. Come together as a class and provide time for students to share what they noticed. Some questions you might ask include: What did you notice about the images in the book? What skin colors do you notice? How would you describe the variations of skin colors? What other physical attributes did you notice? Did you notice anything missing? (Note: It is important at this juncture to remain aware of where your students are coming from in terms of their understanding of race as a concept. You might choose to step back from the lesson to construct an explicit definition of the term race, which you can go back to as you move forward. If talking about race is very new to your class, allow them time to process why the conversation may—or may not—feel uncomfortable. Furthermore, this is an excellent entry point to begin talking about stereotypes. Help students begin to understand that race is a social construction, and literature can contribute to or fight the various stereotypes so frequently associated with race.)
  4. Have students turn and talk to a different partner about how it makes them feel to have something in common with a picture in a book. Then have them talk about how it feels or might feel to notice that most characters in books are very different from them. (Note: This is a good chance to bring the conversation in to other literacy activities or lessons you have done around text-to-self and text-to-text connections. If these types of connections are already familiar to your class, you can challenge them to also consider text-to-world connections. Begin with the question: What real-world problems or issues do the themes we’re talking about remind you of?)
  5. What is beauty? What does it mean to be beautiful? In journals, instruct students to draw a picture of a person they think is very beautiful. They can share the pictures in groups. Talk about what the pictures have in common. Help students relate their ideas of beauty to the theme of race and skin color. What do they think authors and illustrators of picture books are trying to tell us is or is not beautiful? Is this OK? Why or why not? How does it make us feel? (Note: If your classroom has a very diverse classroom library, students may notice that people of a variety of colors are portrayed as beautiful. If so, great. This conversation does not have to lead in one particular direction; it simply has to get students thinking critically about the images in books and the messages they communicate, for better or for worse.)
  6. Come together as a class. Do a shared or interactive writing activity composing a letter to an author and illustrator pair about what we would like to see in a picture book. Challenge your class to incorporate terms like beauty, skin color and race into your letter.


Applying What You've Learned

Think about the experience of discussing race and beauty in literature. In your journal, respond to the following questions:

  • Why is it important to think critically about physical characteristics and beauty in books for children? 
  • What hidden messages about race and beauty do you think authors and illustrators might be sending to most young readers? What is your own opinion about these messages? 
  • In your opinion, what would be an ideal way for authors and illustrators of children’s books to communicate messages about race and beauty?


Extension Activity

Look through the picture books and young adult chapter books in your local library or at home. Think about the conversations you had with your class about skin color, race and beauty as they are shown in picture books. How are the messages in this collection similar to or different from the ones at your school? Write a few sentences or a paragraph describing what you found. Share your findings with your classmates the next day and discuss the meaning of what you learned.

ELL Extension

Looking at the images in a picture book without reading the words is a great way to practice your language skills. While you are working with your partner, challenge yourself to tell a story that goes along with the images you are examining. Try to use complete sentences. Later, tell your story to your teacher or a buddy who can write it down for you.

Activities and embedded assessments address the following standards from the Common Core State Standards for English Language ArtsCCSS: SL.1, SL.4, SL.6, R.1, R.2, R.3, R.6, R.7, W.1