While diverse representation is finally becoming less rare in children’s books, it’s not always easy to find joyful ordinary representations: happy, inclusive stories where kids don’t go through something traumatic or are relegated to a Culture 101 story about a generic topic.
Nicole Stamp would know: She’s read over 1,000 kids’ books, thanks to her years spent as a familiar face on Canadian children’s TV. “In books about gender identity, often the character is bullied for how they dress. In books featuring Black children, the character often dislikes their own skin or hair,” Stamp told HuffPost Canada. “For a child who’s just learning about the world, those are very negative first exposures!”
That shortage frustrated Stamp, as well as her now-business partner, podcaster Ashley Baylen, who struggled to find joyful representation of LGBTQ+ families for her toddler. After Stamp and Baylen discovered they both cared deeply about filling representation gaps, the pair were inspired to create the ByUs Box, a curated box of age-appropriate books, fun activities and toys that show people from different communities in a positive way.
At the moment there are ByUs boxes themed around Blackness and race, LGBTQ+ families, and trans, non-binary and gender-expansive identities, and there are plans to offer an Indigenous-centred box in spring 2021. Gingerbread cookie kits that celebrate gender diversity, a Black doll by Mattel, and a Lego set for making a Pride float or flag are among the playful offerings contained in previous boxes.
As the company’s name suggests, each ByUs Box is created around the belief that anything being taught about a community needs to come from an authentic place of understanding. Their contents are created and curated by people from the communities highlighted. Having lived experience goes a long way in terms of challenging stereotypes and unconscious bias.
“When outsiders tell others’ stories, if you think about it, it’s a form of colonization — they can’t help but impose an outsider’s lens on the story, and often, they get things wrong,” Stamp said, listing realistic wheelchairs, Black hair, and Asian eye shapes as examples of things she’s seen rendered poorly by artists who didn’t identify as the people they were drawing. “Children are very visual, and details matter!”
This commitment has extended towards ByUs box learning materials too. Illustrators from the communities spotlighted designed the learning guide and laminated activity sets — ByUs’ emotional flash cards, for example, showcase natural hair textures and skin tones, thanks to illustrator Sahle Robinson.
The co-founders also made sure their boxes helped parents initiate important talks about diversity, in a natural, play-based way.
“I think parents really want to get these conversations right, so they put them off and get nervous and then broach the topic in heavy, serious ways that make kids uncomfortable. Learning about “diversity” becomes a one time serious unpleasant lecture, almost like getting a needle,” explained Stamp.
“And if the child publicly blurts out some innocent observation about race or disability, we panic that we’re raising a bad person and shush them!” she continued. “Kids aren’t born feeling stress when diversity topics are discussed. Somewhere along the way, they learn that stress, and it’s actually really counter-productive!”
Teaching a child to be inclusive neither has to be a one-time thing nor a stressful thing. “We read a book about a kid playing soccer, and calmly discuss the skin colours. We play with a doll that uses a wheelchair and talk about how it helps her get where she’s going, and today she’s going to the moon! We cuddle while we read a story about a kid with two moms learning how to train her puppy,” said Stamp.
Check out: a kids’ holiday gift guide to celebrate diversity. Story continues after the slideshow.
The guided activities in the boxes help the process along. For example, in the Gender-Expansive Box for preschoolers, there is a puppet that uses they/them pronouns, so the family can practice while they play. And when it’s time to talk about racism? “We scaffold the conversation onto topics children inherently care about, like fairness.”
So far, reviews of the first ByUs boxes have been enthusiastic. While her family was quarantining, Toronto-based child development professor and parent Dr. Laura Adams received test versions of the boxes. She had high praise for the Blackness-themed box, which came with discussion support that helped her feel confident answering her son’s questions and art that made her toddler feel like he had a playmate.
“My three year old randomly announced ‘Amari is my friend!’ about the gorgeous illustration of a Black girl on his new play-dough mat,” she wrote.
One Canadian mom who received the Black Box said she noticed its contents had a thought-provoking impact on her daughters.
“She played with these dolls for literally an hour,” her review reads. “She also asked why their skin was brown when most dolls have white skin. Telling, yes? Great conversation was able to happen about why that is and why we’re making those changes!”
Bite-sized teaching moments like these aren’t always the easiest to have organically. But curated toolkits like ByUs boxes can help kickstart important conversations ― and most importantly, make them ongoing.
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