‘How Do They Talk About It?’

Something Happened cover

'How Do They Talk About It?'

A children’s book about a police shooting has come under scrutiny in Knox County schools. We talked to the authors about their intentions.

by jesse fox mayshark • May 12, 2021

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The cover and some illustrations from "Something happened in our town."

Late last month, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Anthony Thompson Jr. at Austin-East Magnet High School and the community unrest that followed, an art teacher at Sterchi Elementary School reportedly played her 4th-grade class an audio version of a children’s book called Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice.

The book has generated more interest — and some controversy — since the murder of George Floyd.

The story recounts the reactions of two families, one Black and one white, to news of a Black man being shot and killed by a police officer. As children in both families ask questions about race and discrimination, their parents talk about the legacies of racism and the importance of making sure people are treated fairly.

At least one parent who heard about the book from one of her children was offended by the content and created a small social media firestorm with a public post on Facebook, which generated some local media coverage. The teacher has not made any public comment about the book or why she chose to present it.

In a statement responding to the parental objections, Superintendent Bob Thomas said, “We are aware of the situation. This book is not approved for use in our curriculum and I have asked our Human Resources Department to investigate the matter.”

Objections to the book appear to center on a few statements about police, including one from a Black boy who tells his younger brother, “Cops stick up for each other. And they don’t like Black men.” The boy then asks, “Why not? Some police are Black.” And their mother reminds both of them that one of their uncles is a police officer, as is a Black female friend of hers.

The boys’ father adds, “There are many police officers, Black and white, who make good choices. But we can’t always count on them to do what’s right.”

At the end of the book, the white girl and Black boy who have been having these conversations with their parents are confronted with an instance of discrimination at their own school: A new Middle Eastern student has arrived, and he is still learning English. At recess, other kids don’t want to pick him for their soccer team, but the white girl and Black boy stick up for him and draft him onto their team.

“And just like that, Emma and Josh gained a new friend and started a better pattern in their school,” the book concludes.

The book was written by three psychologists — Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard — who were friends and colleagues at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Since its publication in 2018, it has been well reviewed and frequently mentioned in national media round-ups of anti-racist resources for parents and teachers. The authors have followed it with another book, Something Happened in Our Park, about a community dealing with gun violence (after a non-police-related shooting). It was just released last month.

Compass reached out to the three authors for a group Zoom interview about their intentions in writing Something Happened in Our Town and the conversations they hoped to encourage. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Compass: Could you talk to me a little about your goals with the book, and what led you to write it in the first place?

Marianne Celano: We wrote this back in the fall of 2016, winter of  2017, in response to what had been a string of widely publicized police murders of African-American men, women and children — most notably the shooting of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, remember, the one with the toy gun. We're all psychologists and friends with one another and have worked with children and families, including low-income African-American families, for many years, and we wondered how kids understand these things. Do parents talk to kids about it? And if so, how do they talk about it? And if they're quiet about it, what is the price of that silence?

Marietta Collins: There are two families, a Black and a white family, in this book, and we really wanted both families to be able to acknowledge their history in terms of understanding the development of racism here in our country.

Compass: Can you talk about the treatment of the issue of police in the book specifically. It seems to me that it's very nuanced.

Ann Hazzard: Well, we worked hard, obviously, to balance — to make the things that the Black family talked about, in particular, represent authentically how we feel most Black families feel about the issue of disproportionate police shootings. And how teenagers actually talk, I mean, the teenagers are kind of blunt. And those feelings, not only are they authentic feelings, they're very understandable and justified feelings, because there's clearly data to support that police shoot Black and brown people at a disproportionate rate.

The Black father gives probably the most balanced statement in (the book), which is there are some police or many policemen — we actually debated about whether it should be “some,” “many” or “most,” we decided on “many” —  there are many police officers, Black and white, who make good choices. But we can’t always depend on them to do what's right.

Compass: Broadly, what kind of reception has the book received?

Celano: I would say, mostly positive. Keep in mind, the book came out in 2018. It got a lot more attention after George Floyd was murdered by police (in 2020). And so the book became I think a little more controversial starting in 2020. Most kids and adults have reacted favorably to the book. However, some school districts have considered it controversial, or say it addresses a sensitive topic, and have either tried to ban the book or some parents have challenged it. Some schools have voted to have a special policy before teachers read the book, or something like that. And it did make the American Library Association’s 10 “Most Challenged Books” for 2020.

So in response to all of that, we have developed an educator resource guide that sort of talks about how to prepare. It talks about, what are the benefits of discussing racism in the classroom? What are the benefits of reading this book in the classroom, how teachers can prepare, how to get parents involved, and so forth.

Collins: You know, it was never our intent that this book would be the kind of book that a parent would give to a child who was able to read and just kind of go off in a corner and read the book.  We really wanted the book to encourage dialogue, between parents and children, families, in a classroom. 

We also feel that parents want to be the ones who are in charge of developing the morals and the values for their children and not the school system. So that's why we were hopeful that parents would use our book to stimulate ongoing conversations about racism and anti-racism in our country. And in child-friendly words — sometimes parents may want to give a child a message that they're not a racist family, they don't support racism, and that they are anti-racist, but they don't know how to say that to a child who was 4, 5 or 6 years old.

So we took a lot of time to try to choose words we thought would not be divisive. We're hopeful that this would be an opportunity to talk about differences, to embrace differences.

Hazzard: It's not surprising given the climate today that our book’s become somewhat controversial, especially in school settings. But I think it’s been frustrating sometimes how school systems have handled it. Some school systems have supported their educators. But others have responded very quickly to one squeaky wheel, often a white police officer, who’s objected and have not attempted to listen to other parents — who may be those parents of color that traditionally don't have as much power in the school system.

Compass: Since the book itself has now become part of that conversation, what would be your hope for how it could be used productively?

Hazzard: One hope I have is that the conversation moves beyond whether our book should or shouldn't be taught in X grade classroom or X district. I'd rather there be conversations about, should our school have some sort of pro-diversity and explicitly anti-racist curriculum? And what should that look like? Or how should our curriculum reflect actual history and not a whitewashed version of history? As long as that larger goal is met, I don’t care if our book is part of that process. Parents can decide to use our book at home to supplement that.

Collins: We wanted to continue the conversation. We don't want the parts of the book which people find to be offensive to shut the conversation down. The conversation is much larger than our book. There’s a lot more at stake in our country than Something Happened in Our Town.