Review: Something Happened In Our Town By Celano, Collins, Hazzard, & Zivoin

If there ever was a book that I wish didn’t have to exist, this is one of them. But I’m so grateful that it does. This book is written for 4-8 years old and is an excellent guide to discussing racial injustice with children. The story follows two families, one Black and one White, as they process and discuss the news of a Black man shot by police.

Important note: I have struggled for months with how to write this incredibly necessary post. As a White woman, I approach the discussion of racial justice very cautiously – fully aware that I am not an expert, I am going to make many mistakes talking about it, and I am in a perpetual state of unlearning racial bias that comes with being raised an American. I prefer to listen and learn. Even in starting this post I spent a lot of time agonizing over whether I am supposed to capitalize “White.” (I would have normally said no, but the authors of this picture book and this article gave me some help in a complicated topic. I will proceed with capitalization to follow the authors’ lead in this book.) I am going to be careful with my words, but I am also approaching this as I do any picture book: looking for excellence & beauty, and sharing wonderful books. As a White woman who loves picture books, as a mother navigating important conversations about awful events, and as a human being trying to learn and break historical patterns—this book is a must.

Come learn with me through Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano, PhD, ABPP, Marietta Collins, PhD, & Ann Hazzard, PhD, ABPP; illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin, 2018.

The book opens with something bad having happened. It’s all over the news, TV, radio, internet,… and Ms. Garcia’s class. From this very first spread, I find it important and challenging to read “The grown-ups didn’t think the kids knew about it.” That one line speaks volumes to the need for this book.

We then meet Emma who asks her mom why the police shot that man. Emma’s mom and dad begin to carefully explain to Emma that it was a mistake; but her bigger sister quickly takes issue and corrects—very bluntly—their choice of wording. The family discusses why people are called Black and not brown. They touch on slavery and what happened after slavery. They talk about who White people are and where they came from. They discuss their own family’s mistakes and how the thinking is a pattern that has remained even now.

Her mom gives an age-appropriate example about invitations and a birthday party to illustrate how unfair it is.

And then we meet Josh and a similar conversation occurring in his Black family next door. Josh questions if police go to jail. They discuss how wrong the shooting was. And Josh is confronted by truth from his father and older brother about truth and justice within the police force. They discuss good choices, unfair treatment, and Black people’s proud history with famous leaders fighting for their rights. Josh is angry and surprised by his father’s anger, but he is reminded that he is smart and has power to make good choices and stick up for others.

The book then shares the next day in Ms. Garcia’s class where Josh and Emma have a new classmate. He looks different, sounds different, and is immediately left out. Josh and Emma are both reminded of their family conversations and make a choice to show their kindness, fairness, and power together.

This book is heavy, in topic not length. It is a surprisingly well-executed sweep of information without dragging too long or glossing over too much. And it contains one of the lengthiest notes for caregivers I have ever seen in a picture book. They are both so powerful and helpful. I keep coming back to it to remind myself of the wording they used, the way the parents ask questions and answer from where the kids are, and the age-appropriate approach to the concerns and examples. I love the note in the back that gives helpful information, terms, tips, guides for both Black and White families, and even sample questions and answers for dialogue. I love that this book is actually enjoyable to read. It is not overly serious or didactic and heavy-handed. It is a serious topic but handled both verbally and visually in an approachable, but not preachy manner.

I was initially attracted by the cover illustration. It is striking and sets the tone of the book well. Kids approach this book knowing something important and not silly is coming. The overall tone of the illustrations is quite dark. I really appreciate that. I’m so thankful Zivoin did not try to cutesy up a difficult book or go too far in the scary realm. Some of the illustrations may however evoke some nerves, especially if not explained.

I initially read it with my kids when we first bought it and we talked as they felt necessary immediately after. But this is not a book that I am afraid to leave out and let my kids approach it on their own. My 8 year old flips through it often and is comfortable talking about different parts on her own each time. It induces questions and it clearly shows both sets of parents being open to conversation and meeting their kids’ concerns. An excellent example set. My 6 year old cannot read it alone yet, but will occasionally grab it and look through. Some of the pages are set in panels and guide the story quite well without words. It is encouraging to see her process it and then ask more questions any time we choose to read it. It’s a book that we read as desired, but we also have grabbed it every time a similar news event occurs, which is far-too frequently. Even yesterday, as we processed and chose how to talk about the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, I found myself pulling it out and refreshing on how to talk through difficult and scary events in children’s lives. This is an invaluable resource.

I highly encourage having this book to equip you and your kids with knowledge and a framework for racial injustice. And here are a few other resources I appreciate as we raise our kids through hard topics.

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