Picture Book Police Officers

Not all kids see the police as community stewards, but picture books do.

Most libraries serving children have a section of “community helper” books, nonfiction titles that introduce young children to people who work in service jobs. They include teachers, nurses, mail carriers, firefighters, and police officers.

For many young children, the words and pictures in these titles ring true to their experience with police officers. The police they encounter are friendly, helpful, and work to protect them and their families. This experience, though, is not shared by all children. Arrest or incarceration of a family member can result in lasting trauma. Some children witness family or friends being treated harshly by police or experience harsh treatment themselves. Any child might see news reports about people—primarily people of color—being killed by police.

Imagine how a child with a negative experience might view law enforcement. Many children’s librarians, including those of us at the Oakland (CA) Public Library (OPL), don’t have to imagine it—we hear it from the children we serve.

One of my OPL colleagues hosted a party for National Night Out, which promotes police-community partnerships. A four-year-old boy asked her in a worried voice why the police were there. When told that the officer was there for the party, he replied, terrified, that the police had come to his house one night and broken down the door. Another children’s librarian told me about a group of kids who decided to play a trick on their cousin, took his phone, and told him they’d called police, who were on their way. The child collapsed in tears.

As my colleagues and I discussed the experiences of kids we worked with, we talked about the titles on our shelves about police officers. We reviewed community helper books, picture books with stories that included police officers, and middle grade novels. We realized that we only had titles in which police officers are the “good guys,” and the people they pursue are “bad guys.” Those titles that did address fear of the police posited that the fear is rooted in misunderstanding, and suggested that meeting a police officer and learning about their duties and equipment could assuage negative feelings.

Library workers are always looking to serve their community. With this in mind, OPL children’s librarians created the toolkit “Evaluating Children’s Books about Police.” This shared resource includes two lists of questions for children’s book professionals to consider as they evaluate any children’s book including this topic.

The first questions address positive aspects that might appear in a police book. The second set urges close examination for signs of unconscious bias.

It’s hard to find a children’s book about police that does not call the people they are pursuing “bad guys,” “criminals,” or “crooks.” Yet many people who are arrested have not committed a crime. Should they be detained, our legal system promises a presumption of innocence. The books we share with children ought to do the same.

The toolkit has sparked many comments—almost entirely positive—from librarians. We decided against including a bibliography, but one self-published title that provides a strong example of how the subject might be addressed in a picture book is Momma, Did You Hear the News? by Sanya Whittaker Gragg.

An email we received exemplifies the need for sensitivity and understanding around this topic. Sarah Stippich wrote from the Free Library of Philadelphia about a storytime that went wrong: “I remember when I read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and got to the last page, where the wolf is thrown in jail, there was silence. Then one child said, ‘My dad’s in jail.’” Stippich has not read the book in storytime since.

Amy Martin is the children’s collection management librarian at the Oakland (CA) Public Library.

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So the Oakland Public Library has put together a "toolkit" for giving police-related books "close examination for signs of unconscious bias"? Well, if someone is looking for "signs of unconscious bias," they will almost invariably find them - but it likely exposes more about the scrutinizer than the book itself.

Posted : May 15, 2018 12:54

L. Conger

I completely agree with L. James!

Posted : May 14, 2018 10:49

L. James

I feel as though I have an opinion that isn't well received with social issues such as this. Most police officers aren't looking to start trouble. Most police officers take your safety and well being to heart. They aren't looking to pick out individuals to "pick" on. Most people who are arrested have been arrested for a reason, and are arrested with the evidence that is currently at hand. Instead of teaching kids to fear the police, we SHOULD be teaching them that they're there to help. How about instead of looking for books where law enforcement is the enemy, we start a dialogue. Have these kids talk to law enforcement and build a relationship. Being taught to fear at a young age only compounds as they get older. Again, I understand that there are a few bad apples, and officers on power trips, but the majority of the profession puts their life on the line every day, and only wants to serve and protect.

Posted : May 12, 2018 02:38



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