Social Studies

How Is Policing Depicted in Children’s Books? Oakland Librarians Took a Look

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 12, 2018 4 min read
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National news about institutionalized racism, including in the law enforcement sector, have led to searing debates about the different ways in which communities of color experience policing.

Now, a group of Oakland, Calif., librarians have created an online toolkit aimed at helping other librarians, teachers, and other educators scrutinize children’s books that depict the police—and think about where they may be coming up short.

Amy Martin, the children’s collection management librarian for the Oakland Public Library, said she started working on the toolkit in 2016 in the days following the killing of Philando Castile by a police officer in Minnesota, which was recorded by his girlfriend and then went viral online. She started by going through her own library’s collection of books about community helpers—firefighters, teachers, and so forth—and found patterns in how they discussed law enforcement.

“When they talk about police officers, they are consistently very positive about how police officers keep people safe. And that’s the ideal, but not the reality that we always see,” she said.

The books Martin examined notably did not discuss that some children’s early experiences with the police are frightening—if they have a relative who was arrested, for example, or if they were warned not to speak to police by their parents for fear of deportation.

What’s more, many of the books talked about pursuing “bad guys” or “criminals,” when the U.S. justice system contains a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven in a court of law.

So the toolkit poses a series of questions to help librarians and others identify whether children’s books include inclusive perspectives on policing, and on whether the books contain bias. Here is just a short selection. (Make sure you peruse the entire kit.)

  • Does this book acknowledge the feelings of fear and anxiety children may have on seeing police? For example: “Sometimes, if you see a police officer, you may feel scared.”
  • Does this book acknowledge that some people have negative experiences with police officers? If so, is there any discussion of how these experiences might impact a person, family, or community?
  • Many children do not understand why police come to their neighborhoods, and what police are supposed to do when they come. Does this book address that question?
  • Is there a lack of diversity in race, sex, age, gender expression, and religious identity in the characters depicted, both police and civilians? For example, are most of the police officers white, and are people of color being pursued or arrested?
  • Do text or images in this book imply that any person or group is likely to commit a crime based on a behavior that is protected by law? For example, if a peaceful demonstration is depicted, is there language saying police must be present to maintain the peace?

Martin and other librarians crafted the toolkit with feedback from local social justice organizations, such as the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice, Fairness, and Equity, as well as a sergeant from the Oakland Police Department.

See also: Is the Cat In the Hat Racist?

In a separate post for the Reading While White blog, Martin showed how a librarian or teacher might analyze a children’s book using the toolkit. She chose I’m Afraid Your Teddy Is in Trouble Today, in which two police officers show up on the doorstep after the eponymous teddy bear has had other stuffed animals over for a wild party.

Though the story is told in a tongue-in-cheek tone, Martin notes in her analysis that Teddy, depicted in a childlike way, is not being told that (s)he has the right to have a parent present when being questioned, among other things. Ultimately Teddy gets away with a warning, but only because the police officers fondly recall the stuffed bears they once owned as children.

Teddy is meant to be funny and charming, but this book is only funny and charming if you do not believe there is any inherent danger in police being in your home,” Martin writes in her analysis.

To be very clear, the Oakland librarians don’t think libraries should automatically chuck out the books they’ve already acquired that depict law enforcement. But they do hope that the kit will start a conversation about how the police are portrayed and encourage publishers to consider books that represent other children’s experiences.

Young adult literature is starting to present a more diverse range, Martin said, pointing to the 2017 novel The Hate U Give, which centers on the aftermath of a police shooting of the protagonist’s friend. But it is still largely absent from children’s literature.

I imagine that some people’s reaction to this effort will be similar to the reaction that greeted the story I wrote about racist images and subtexts in Dr. Seuss books: Can’t we just enjoy what is supposed to be a cute story and leave it at that?

But Martin noted that creating books so that children can see themselves and their experiences is a major push in children’s publishing. While that can be difficult on such a serious issue, it can be deeply wounding for children to see only books that undermine their lived experiences, she said.

“Yeah, it’s a serious topic,” she said. “Children experience serious things, too.”

Here’s a link to the toolkit, which is free and available for anyone to use.

Image: A police officer encounters a lost child in the 2004 book A Day at the Police Station, by Richard Scarry. Photo credit: Charlie Borst/Education Week

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.