Evaluating children’s books about police: a toolkit for librarians

Oakland is an activist city, and one topic that comes up often is relations between community members and police officers. Our community has, tragically, endured notorious incidents of police brutality; some, such as the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, have captured national attention. When I worked as a children’s librarian in East Oakland, my patrons were primarily Black and Latinx children, along with their parents and teachers.

I am a White ciswoman, and I came to realize that I was deeply uncomfortable giving teachers in my library’s community the books in our collection about police officers–all of them seemed to state that police officers are always friendly and safe, negating the experience of many in my own community. I knew teachers wanted to share with their students the ideal picture of policing in America; however, many of these students experienced fear and stress over police officers. I reached out to other children’s librarians in East Oakland, and found almost all had stories of children and teenagers in their libraries who burst out crying or had panic attacks over rumors police were nearby.

I began coordinating some research, using input from OPL staff, on the books we had in our children’s collections about police officers; I was curious whether we had any books that acknowledged that some children had negative experiences with police. I collected data about these books on a spreadsheet, noted common occurrences, and counted people of color depicted in these books. To our surprise, we did not find a single book in our collections that honored the experience of children who’ve had frightening encounters with police officers, or even just have heard stories of police brutality in the media. Of course, it’s a tough topic, but in a profession known for helping kids find books to deal with tough topics, we were coming up empty.

Working together, we set a goal: to create a toolkit for libraries on evaluating children’s books about police, or containing depictions of police officers, for accuracy and relevance to the experience of diverse populations.
I met with staff from various local organizations, including the Burns Institute, Ella Baker Center, Essie Justice Group, and Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Project. All were very helpful in defining priorities for our eventual toolkit.
As of Summer 2017, a draft of the toolkit is being circulated for feedback, including reactions from law enforcement agencies. When finished, this will be a document that can be shared with other libraries, and librarians will be encouraged to use the toolkit to evaluate the books in their own collections.
Part of the challenge of this project has been maintaining an open mindset, and not allowing my personal feelings to enter what should be subjective analysis. I have worked hard to craft diplomatic language, iterate based on feedback, and have it approved by layers of library management. Before release, we will also prepare talking points that can be used to respond to potential challenges.
A draft is not yet ready for public sharing, but interested parties may contact me and ask for details about this project.
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