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How To Use Books to Teach About Identity and Beyond with Raising a Legacy

Child, ice cream, Indigenous, swimming, and Muslim. What do these things have in common? They all are part of identity! Identity consists of our gender, race, religion, the language we speak, ethnicity, class, ability, likes and dislikes, and more.

Teaching about it is one of the easiest ways to build self-esteem and develop empathy for others. It is also the cornerstone of social justice-related discussions and proper development in general because it gives children confidence in themselves and it teaches them to care about others. The good thing for us is it is easy to implement and children tend to gravitate towards it on their own.

Conversations about identity begin with talking about ourselves. In young children, these are topics like our name, our family, and our likes and dislikes. It’s important to know that you don’t have to go over every aspect of identity each time. Start with what the child knows and add a few here and there as appropriate. Eventually, you can add more nuance and abstract concepts, like race and class, to the discussion.

At the same time the child is learning about themselves and what makes them unique, start exploring others’ identities and bring social justice topics into your conversations. It’s important that you emphasize the beauty of diversity. When children are not explicitly taught children of underrepresented groups often only hear about pieces of their identity in negative ways and have a hard time being proud of it. Children with privilege can't dissociate parts of their identity because they are considered the “norm” on which everything is based and in turn have a difficult time self-analyzing the privileges they have. Our goal as teachers and caregivers is to provide guidance and the vocabulary for our children to have these conversations and be confident in themselves. Below are some ways that you can teach about identity using books.

These prompts can be used for any book, but I have added some of my favorites below.

  1. Your Identity: With young children who are learning about themselves and the way the world works, starting with their individual identity is a great foundation. Create charts with words and pictures that define who they are. Talk about the different things that make up identity. If you are doing this with a group, find similarities and differences. Have them share their favorite parts and what they love about themselves.

  2. Discuss Diversity in Identity: Define diversity. What types of diversity are seen in the books you are reading? Pick a category or two of identities, like gender or race, and make a chart of how it was expressed. What types of diversity are seen in your classroom, the places you go, or your family?

  3. Identity of Characters: Pick a book and complete an identity chart for one of the characters. Discuss: What things do you have in common with them? What things are different?

  4. Visible and Invisible: Use the conversation above to talk about what parts of the character’s identity are visible, something that can be seen, and what parts are invisible, something that can’t be seen. What impact does this have? Analyze your identity and find what parts are visible and what parts are invisible. Discuss: What are some things that you want others to know about you? How does knowing these parts help others understand you better? Are there any parts you like to keep hidden?

  5. Identity of the Author and/or Illustrator: Research the identity of the author and illustrator of the books you read. How do you think their identity impacted how the book was written? Would the book be written the same if it was written by a different author, or illustrated by a different illustrator? In a group, have each child write or narrate a continuation of the story. Notice how each one created a different variation. Discuss the significance of this and why it happened.

  6. How Did the Identity of the Characters Impact What Happened: Once the child has a firm understanding of identity you can progress the conversation to exploring the ways our identity impacts us. What parts give us advantages and what parts give us disadvantages in life? What about the combination of different identities? While they’re exploring the identity of characters in a book, talk about how they impact them in different ways. Are they treated differently because of a certain part of their identity? Do they treat others differently based on their identity? Now is a great time to discuss stereotypes and biases. Did anyone in the book they read have stereotypes or biases? Describe what happened. How did this impact the characters?

  7. Change in Identity: Did the character’s identity change throughout the story? How and why? Note: This may only be applicable in longer books. You can also pick a movie that everyone is familiar with to discuss.

  8. Fairness: Define fairness. Find examples of fairness and unfairness in the books you read. Discuss: What happened? Were they acting on stereotypes or biases? How did that make the characters feel?

  9. Developing Empathy: If a character was treated unfairly, what emotions did they express? Have you been in a similar situation? What happened? If you were part of the story, in what ways could you have advocated for the characters?

  10. Connect to Real Life: Identify some common stereotypes that they can see in books or in real life. Develop rules or processes in class or in your family to increase awareness and/or prevent them. Discuss the concepts learned in relation to historical events or current news.

Book Recommendations:

You can find all these recommendations on our Bookshop page.

Identity Affirming
The Hair Book

Each page describes a different way that hair can be or how it can be covered: long hair, cornrow hair, kippah hair, wavy hair, and more!