Preschool educator Ron Grady has written a new children’s book that affirms and celebrates brown skin. Available January 3, 2023, What Does Brown Mean to You? chronicles the joy of everyday childhood moments while simultaneously inviting children to make positive associations with the color brown.
The main character, Benny, is a self-confident, cheerful, and active boy. Throughout the story, which is illustrated with characters colored with various shades of brown, he plays and interacts with his loving family.
“What Does Brown Mean to You? is the fruit of two main aspirations,” Grady says. “To create a book that gathers many of the most special moments, in my view, of childhood: giving and receiving love and affection, playing outside, creating art and getting messy, eating yummy treats, snuggling for a story, having a dance party, and more! Within this frame, I also wanted to add to the growing and evolving body of stories about children of color living their lives in communities of love, happiness, and support. Above all, I wanted to create something for children that centered joy.”
While children’s books often are written in attempts to “teach” a concept, Grady allows children to draw the meaning for themselves by making positive associations with the color brown on their own. This, he says, is an important and beneficial way for children to learn.
"The knowledge that we come to on our own is the knowledge that sticks with us most powerfully. Oftentimes, we don’t even realize we’ve picked it up. That’s not to say that helping children understand concepts through teaching has no place ever, but helping children arrive at knowledge on their own has significant benefits. When a child comes to something on their own, it becomes foundational to the set of ideas that guides their ways of thinking about life and about the world. By surrounding children with positive implicit messages about brown skin, we help children arrive at a powerful place that sticks with them on a deep level," the author explains.
As an early childhood educator, Ron Grady is well aware of the importance of young children learning about race and building positive associations around their skin tone. Because the messages we receive as children stick with us for a lifetime, it is easier for kids to learn positive messages about themselves early on than it is for them to completely reorient and reframe their self-concept later in life.
“When we start having conversations about skin tone and race early, we acknowledge what research suggests that children already know—skin color differs between people (even, often, within their own families). Something valuable that we can do is give them the tools that they need to associate positive things with their own! This is especially true for children of color, for whom media often lack positive representation—although there has been and is currently a significant shift taking place.”
In addition to books like his, Grady suggests caregivers teach children about race in other age-appropriate and easily digestible ways. One thing he enjoys doing is inviting children to take close looks at their skin tone by using paints—mixing browns, reds, yellows, pinks, blacks, etc. to make beautiful hues that reflect the uniqueness and diversity of their skin tones.
“By weaving together these conversations about skin tone and race in ways that are immediately applicable to children and coupled with something creative, expressive, and multisensory, you give them multiple levels of exposure to an experience with an idea.”
He also reminds parents that the conversations they have with their little ones regarding race, ethnicity, and identity do not have to be confined to a particular time and space, but rather, they can be part of everyday conversation. For those seeking ways to encourage children to love the skin they're in and support them in developing a positive self-image, he offers the following tips:
Speak well of your child
Use positive, affirming, supportive language, as your children listen and learn about who they are through you.
“Speak to them with kindness, support, gentleness, and understanding, showing them that you see them. Also, and this is key, speak about yourself affirmingly. Your child will never believe you really think those wonderful things about them if you don’t also speak well of one of the people they love most in the world—you!”
Listen to and be interested in your child
Do something each day that shows your child that you not only take care of and protect them, but you are interested in them.
“Children can tell when you are interested in them and when you are listening to them—they know when you care about what they have to say. Don’t hesitate to take a moment, to pause, and check in with them, whether it’s asking about something they’re playing, something they’ve created, or if it’s listening to a story they’re telling.”
Let your child be human
“Being a human being is easy, fun, funny, exciting, and joyful,” says Ron Grady. “It’s also hard, boring, sad, and sometimes painful. Each of these (and the responses they evoke) are valid ways of being and of showing up to a situation. While it’s important to make sure that we aren’t hurting others when we’re down or disregarding others when we’re excited about something happening in our lives, it’s important to acknowledge the validity of what children are feeling and work with them to identify their feelings with words, regulate them with actions (like a deep breath or a little walk), and find ways to express them that keep them and others safe and happy. You can’t stop the feeling, so don’t try—your child will be better off for it and learn that it’s okay to be mad, happy, and angry—and that they can talk to you about any of it!”