A letter from Kaeli

An art teacher helps first-grade students think about skin color and bias in children's picture books.

By Patty Bode

A few weeks ago, I found this letter in my message box from one of my first grade students:

Dear !!!!!! mis Boudie

Ples! halp. my moom was spcing to me abut wite piple leving bran and blak piple out of books.

Love Kaeli

[Please help! My mom was speaking to me about white people leaving Brown and Black people out of books.]

I gave my written response to her classroom teacher and asked her to read it to Kaeli and to encourage her to take it home to share with her mother:

Dear Kaeli,

Today I found your note in my message box. I was very interested to hear that you were speaking to your mom about white people leaving Brown and Black people out of books. I am glad you asked for help.

This is a problem that we need to help each other with. We need to ask our friends and teachers and families for help so we can work together.

I think we should work on this problem in art class. Maybe our class could design our own books which include all kinds of people of all colors, races, and all families. Maybe we could write some letters to book publishers and send them our artwork to give them some good ideas for improving their books.

See you in art class!


Ms. Bode

As the art teacher, I was touched and moved that Kaeli came to me for help. It was March, and I reflected back over the art lessons that the first grade had engaged in up to this point. It was powerfully revealing to me to witness my students addressing concerns in their personal and public lives that we had discussed, studied, and expressed through art since September.

Their 6-year-old minds had developed knowledge through a wide spectrum of art lessons: examining artists’ work throughout history, interpreting various artists’ messages, viewing our role in service to our community by creating images for our annual Dr. Martin Luther King Community Breakfast and other events, and painting self-portraits in a color theory lesson that directly explored dialogue about race and skin color. Kaeli’s letter charged me with hope, but more importantly, with a sense of responsibility to teach my students to respond with direct action.

When Kaeli’s class came to the art room, she read her letter aloud, and she showed her classmates the book that she had been reading at home which had attracted her attention to the inequities of racial representation. It was a fairly new book, published in 1993 by a prominent publishing house, about the human body. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of pictures in the book, Kaeli counted only 22 pictures of Brown and Black people.

The students discussed why this was a problem. In their first-grade voices and 6-year-old vocabulary, they discussed “fair” and “unfair,” “discrimination,” “stereotypes,” and more. Through their dialogue, they decided – without my prompting – that it was OK for some books to exclusively depict Black people or Brown people or White people or others if it was a story about a specific family or event. But books that claimed to be about the “HUMAN BODY” or about “PEOPLE OF THE WORLD” needed to be much more balanced to pass the scrupulous eye of this first-grade class.

I provided some examples of various books for analysis by the group. We decided which books were fair and which were unfair. The class decided that the publishers needed to receive some letters of information from them as well as some artwork to display good examples of fair pictures. Then we launched into the art activity.

First, we learned a bit of color theory with our tempera paints. We learned that the color brown is created by mixing red, yellow, and blue, which are the primary colors that create all the other colors in the painted spectrum. With this knowledge, we realized that every cup of brown paint is really a scoop of red, yellow, and blue mixed together (or every color in the rainbow mixed together). This gave importance to the color brown, and emphasized its key role in our color theory.

We also discussed terminology and use of language. We discussed the words “Black” and “White” and learned a brief history of the use of those terms. We discovered that none of our skin colors was really black or white. We decided that using words like Black or African American, White or European American, Latino or Hispanic, and Asian or Chinese American were important decisions that required lots of thinking.

We also looked in mirrors at our own faces and saw that there were many colors, tones, and shades among the children in the class. At the same time, we studied and discussed many books. I filled the walls of the art room with photographs of children’s faces. I spent a great deal of time choosing images of children to reflect the enormous variety of ethnicity and race that our society holds.

One European American boy looked at the photo display and said, “Ms. Bode, you left out the white people.” I took him by the hand and we studied the display together. I asked him to count the number of photos that he thought were African American, Latino, Asian, and American Indian. One thing that he articulated was that “we can’t always know someone’s heritage by just looking at them,” and his counting activity revealed that the photo display was actually a very balanced collection of many different groups of people. Together, we wondered why, at first glance, he had thought that European Americans were missing from the display. “Maybe it’s ‘cuz I’m used to seeing more of them,” he said.

We spent our next art class drawing the facial features on the dry paint over the “face shapes” we had made the day before. As this unit of study unfolded, we added details to our artwork and clarified the big mission ahead of us. We enlisted the assistance of the classroom teacher to help us write letters. The librarian helped us find more examples of good books as well as decide which publishers needed to hear our message.

Here are two of the first drafts of students’ letters:

Dear publisher,

Make your books faire! And if you don’t me and my famyuliy will never by or read your unfaire books. we want fairenes.

From, Erika

[Make your books fair! And if you don’t, me and my family will never buy or read your unfair books. We want fairness.]

Dear Publisher,

Pleas equalis african american aigin chinis japanis urapin americen pordaricin

sincerely, Caroline

[Please equalize African American, Asian, Chinese, Japanese, European American, Puerto Rican.]

We will be sending our artwork and revised letters to any publishers who we believe need to hear our message, as well as to publishers who deserve our congratulations on a job well done.

This unit proved to be a good reminder to me that it is the responsibility of the entire community to work for social justice. One individual or one group should not be burdened to fight for their rights in solitude or exempt from the responsibility of democracy. It requires careful observation, attentive listening, and critical thought to facilitate sociopolitical consciousness effectively within a first grade classroom.

Patty Bode (patty.bode@tufts.edu) teaches are at the middle school in Amherst, MA. This article was excerpted from Sonia Nieto’s book, The Light in Their Eyes (Teachers College Press, 1999).