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Find more Classroom Connections
This Banned Books Week, use Something Happened in Our Town and these related titles to jump-start discussions about race, white privilege, and police brutality for students across all grade levels.
This year, Banned Books Week is September 26–October 6, and Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is the inaugural honorary chair. “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us” is the theme of this year’s celebration, and it is especially pertinent since 8 of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books in 2020 deal with racial issues. The book ranked number 6 on the list is Something Happened in Our Town (2018), written by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard and illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin.
In this picture book, a Black man is shot by a white cop, and Emma and Josh, classmates in Ms. Garcia’s class, learn about the incident from older students. Somewhat confused by what they are hearing, they ask their parents to explain the shooting and the protests that have erupted in the streets of their town. The story follows the discussions in two different homes: with Emma’s white family and Josh’s Black one. Older siblings offer their views, and in the process, Emma and Josh learn about the complicated history of race relations in our nation. They also learn the roles they can play in making all of their friends and classmates feel included. When Omad, a new student from another country, joins their class, Emma and Josh step up and speak out against the soccer team that wants to exclude him. As in all books published by Magination Press, there are suggestions for ways parents, teachers, and counselors can use the book with children. Now there is also a companion book: Something Happened in Our Park (2021).
Books That Extend the Conversation about Race and Police Brutality
All American Boys. By Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. 2015. 320p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy (9781481463331). Gr. 9–12. Rashad, a Black boy, is beaten by Paul Galluzzo, a white policeman who thinks the teen is guilty of shoplifting. Quinn Collins, a white classmate of Rashad’s, witnesses the incident. The story is written from the alternating perspectives of the two main characters, as they each struggle to deal with the tensions in their school and town over this violent act.
Anger Is a Gift. By Mark Oshiro. 2018. 464p. Tor Teen (9781250167026). Gr. 9–12.Set in the city of Oakland, California, Black teenager Moss Jeffries is haunted by the memory of the day when his father was gunned down by a policeman. Now he finds himself in the middle of a racially charged incident at school. The resource officer targets Moss’ friend Shawna, and the school administration installs a metal detector, causing serious injury to a handicapped student. Moss and his friends are angry and embark on a plan to eliminate violence in their school.
The Black Kids. By Christina Hammonds Reed. 2020. 368p. Simon & Schuster (9781534462724). Gr. 9–12.Ashley Bennett, a Black teenager, has lived a charmed life in an affluent area of Los Angeles. She is about to graduate from high school when four Los Angeles police officers are acquitted for beating Rodney King. Violence erupts in the streets, and Ashley’s older sister gets involved in the protests. Ashley avoids any conflict related to the issue, until her friends spread a rumor about LaShawn Johnson, a Black classmate, and she is suddenly labeled “one of the Black kids.” Now she’s left to ponder racism and racial injustice.
Blended. By Sharon M. Draper. 2018. 320p. Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy (9781442495005). Gr. 4–7.Eleven-year-old Isabella isn’t sure where she belongs. She is biracial and is troubled when strangers approach her and ask questions like “Which race are you really?” Her parents are divorced and share custody, which means Isabella spends one week with her dad and one with her mom. Isabella finds herself in a dangerous and racially charged situation when she and Darren, the son of her father’s girlfriend, are stopped by the police and shots are fired.
Dear Martin. By Nic Stone. 2017. 224p. Crown (9781101939499). Gr. 9–12.Justyce McAllister, one of the few Black students at an exclusive school, straddles two worlds. He’s an excellent student and is headed to Yale in the fall, but his classmates assume that his acceptance is due to affirmative action. The kids in his neighborhood think that he is trying to be white. Justyce is helping his biracial ex-girlfriend get home from a party when he is handcuffed and slammed to the ground by a white policeman. Then he witnesses the fatal shooting of his best friend at the hands of an off-duty cop. Struggling to deal with these incidents of racial injustice, Justyce tries to sort things out by writing letters to the late Martin Luther King Jr.
For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe in a Better World. By Michael W. Waters. Illus. by Keisha Morris. 2020. 40p. Flyaway (9781947888081). Gr. 3–5.Jeremiah, a Black boy, doesn’t understand why so many Black boys and men are being shot by the police. His parents don’t have the answers to his questions, but they do encourage him to become involved in making the world a better place. A discussion guide is included to help families broach the subject of racism and gun violence.
Ghost Boys. By Jewell Parker Rhodes. 2018. 192p. Little, Brown (9780316262286). Gr. 5–8.This novel about police brutality is the story of 12-year-old Jerome, a Black boy who is killed on a playground in Chicago by a white policeman. The incident occurs when the cop spots the toy gun that Jerome and his friend Carlos are using to scare bullies and mistakes it for a real one. In death, Jerome comes across the ghosts of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, both victims of violence.
A Good Kind of Trouble. By Lisa Moore Ramée. 2019. 368p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062836687). Gr. 5–8.Shayla is 12 years old and doesn’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement that her older sister is involved in. Everything changes when tension erupts in her town over the trial of a police officer who shot an unarmed Black man. When the officer is set free, Shayla’s family attends a silent protest, and she realizes that she must step in and stand up for what matters, even if it means losing friends.
The Hate U Give. By Angie Thomas. 2017. 464p. HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray (9780062498533). Gr. 9–12.Starr Carter, a Black girl from the Garden Heights neighborhood of Harlem, attends an exclusive school in Riverton where most of the students are white. During spring break, she attends a neighborhood party and realizes just how different this world is compared to the one at her school. She and childhood friend Khalil leave the party after shots are fired, and they are pulled over by a white cop for unknown reasons. Khalil steps out of the car, peers in the window to check on Starr, and is shot three times in the back. Starr is the only witness and must find the courage to speak out.
How It Went Down. By Kekla Magoon. 2014. 336p. Holt (9780805098693). Gr. 8–12.Tariq Johnson, a 16-year-old Black boy, is wearing a hoodie and running from a corner market when he is shot twice in the back by a white man. The shooter is set free after he claims he shot in self-defense, but Tariq didn’t have a weapon. There are 17 different narrators, and they all have an opinion about what happened—the problem is that the only person who knows the truth is dead.
I Am Alfonso Jones. By Tony Medina. Illus. by John Jennings and Stacey Robinson. 2017. 176p. Lee & Low/Tu (9781620142639). Gr. 5–8. 741.5.In this graphic novel, Alfonso Jones is shopping for his first suit when he is shot and killed by an off-duty cop who mistakes the clothes hanger that Alfonso is holding for a gun. In the afterlife, he encounters other victims of police brutality. As his story progresses, he realizes the work that lies ahead in combating racial injustice, and so do his friends and family who are mourning his loss.
Light It Up. By Kekla Magoon. 2019. 368p. Holt (9781250128898). Gr. 9–12.Thirteen-year-old Shae Tatum is walking home from a tutoring session when she is shot and killed by a policeman, all because she is wearing headphones. Her death sets her Black community into action, but they find themselves face-to-face with white-supremacist demonstrators. The story is told in short vignettes from the viewpoint of various people affected by Shae’s death, including a police officer who witnessed the tragedy.
Momma, Did You Hear the News? By Sanya Whittaker Gragg. Illus. by Kim Holt. 2021. 32p. CreateSpace (9781736535301). Gr. 1–3.Avery, a young Black boy, sees a policeman shoot an unarmed man, and he expresses his concern to his parents. This prompts them to have “The Talk” with Avery and his brother, which includes a simple chant about what to do if they are approached by a cop. The boys are also told that not all policemen are bad.
Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness. By Anastasia Higginbotham. Illus. by the author. 2018. 64p. Dottir (9781948340007). Gr. 4–6. 305.8.When an unarmed Black man is killed at the hands of a white policeman, a young girl’s mother, who claims that their family doesn’t see color, turns off the news and refuses to engage in conversation about the issue. This incident causes the girl to independently seek more information about racism, Black activism, and ways white people can become involved in efforts to dismantle racism. The text is supported by simple, childlike illustrations done in collage.
A Place inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart. By Zetta Elliott. Illus. by Noa Denmon. 2020. 32p. Farrar (9780374307417). K–Gr. 4.A young Black boy paints the picture of life in his neighborhood in a lyrical poem that he presents in class. A collage of past Black leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. appears on the opposite page as the boy unveils an incident of police brutality and a Black Lives Matter protest. He pays homage to his ancestors and declares, “I am in love with / my people / all people.”
Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together after Gun Violence. By Ann Hazzard, Marianne Celano, and Marietta Collins. Illus. by Keith Henry Brown. 2021. 40p. Magination (9781433835216). K–Gr. 4.In this companion book to Something Happened in Our Town, Miles is traumatized when his cousin is injured by gunfire in the local park. His friends and family help him cope with his fears, and he realizes that people must work together to combat violence in their community.
Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice. By Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard. Illus. by Jennifer Zivoin. 2018. Magination (9781433828546). K–Gr. 4.Two elementary students, one Black and one white, seek explanations from their parents about a racially charged incident that happened in their town. A white cop shot a Black man, and people are protesting in the streets. The family discussions help the children understand what they can do to make all classmates feel included.
Tyler Johnson Was Here. By Jay Coles. 2018. 304p. Little, Brown (9780316440776). Gr. 9–12.Twin brothers Marvin and Tyler Johnson are exiting a convenience store with a group of friends when a policeman shouts racial slurs at them and threatens to shoot. Later that night, the boys become separated at a party. Marvin goes home, but Tyler is missing for days before his family learns that he was killed in what the police say was a gang-related incident. Then a video reveals that Tyler was actually murdered by a cop. This sparks outrage within the community, but the person that suffers the most is Marvin.
Pat Scales, the author of Encourage Reading from the Start: Essays, Articles, and Interviews from the Field (2018), was recently honored with the opening of the Pat Scales Special Collections Room at the University of Montevallo’s Carmichael Library in Alabama.
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