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Color Theory

If online reading tutorials are teaching me a lot about the cultural expectations that feed into standardized tests and potentially trip up low-income and/or urban dwelling children, then pre-K books are teaching me a lot about how our color language can reinforce negative stereotypes about darker hues and put difficult (notice I did not write “dark”) thoughts into young minds.

I’ve spent the last two weeks working through a unit on colors at the preschool. Today, in a lesson I was scheduled to repeat with two more classes on Friday, I read My Many Colors to the two-year-old class. It’s a lesser known Dr. Seuss poem that illustrates each mood with an animal and a color.

You can soar like a blue bird, kick up your heels like a red horse, buzz around like a busy yellow bee, or be a cheerful orange circus clown. Cute, right? I mean, you can’t actually see the book, but you can probably imagine it. What I did not notice until reading the story Monday is that two of the story’s three negative colors potentially relate to people: purple was a sad cloud, brown was a low and depressed bear, and black was an angry and howling wolf.

I was halfway through the “low, low, low” brown page when I looked up at some of the brown faces in the room and felt an ocean of regret wash over me. Then I got to “angry, growling, howling” black and felt even worse. In fact, by black I was wondering if I could rewrite the story to have a beautiful, fast, and strong panther represent the color without the kids noticing that the words didn’t match the picture.

Kids are pretty smart, so I turned my attention to how I could fix the book for my next class. I wasn’t at a loss for black animal ideas, but finding art to match the book’s style was going to be tricky. By Thursday night, I decided that I either needed to let it go and read the book as is or find a new book. It didn’t take long to decide: How could I look at the sweet brown faces in my classes—faces that range from cafe au lait to ebony—and read a story where brown and black colors are bad?

Thankfully, Eric Carl’s Brown Bear Brown Bear was sitting on my shelf, and in that book all colors are equal. Problem mostly solved, but I’m still inwardly cringing over Monday. I’m also still surprised by it. Why make a happy horse red, a color that horses don’t come in, in when you could make the horse brown or black, which are two colors they do come in? Why not save angry red for fire ants? This problem could have been—and with the right editor should have been—a very easy one to avoid.

One Response to “Color Theory”

  1. goldsteinrita says:

    And this is just one more reason why I think you should try your hand at writing a children’s book.

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