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Why 'The Talk' about race isn't limited to Black families

Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson on their latest anthology, "The Talk," which documents real families' discussions about race and identity.
Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson
Wade and Cheryl Willis Hudson.Stephan Hudson

Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson are legends in the world of children’s literature. They began writing and publishing books over 30 years ago featuring images of Black children because the youth literary market had traditionally ignored Black and brown young readers.

This month the Hudsons, published with Crown Books for Young Readers and in partnership with Just Us Books, released a new offering for readers age 10 and over, “The Talk: Conversations About Race, Love & Truth,” an anthology documenting real conversations parents are having with their children.

“We often think only Black people need to have ‘The Talk,’” Wade Hudson said. “We wanted to spotlight the variety of conversations and talks that parents and caregivers have to have with their children. We’re hoping parents will read this book to their children and that it might help them give their own talks.”

Since the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, there has been a public conversation about “the talk” Black parents give to their children, warning them to be particularly careful when they are away from home because they may be stopped by a police officer with hostile views toward Black people.

“We’ve all had the talk with our parents, and we had the talk with our children,” Cheryl Hudson said.

But a conversation the Hudsons had with authors they worked with on their previous anthology, “We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices,” encouraged them to also consider the important must-have talks parents of all races and ethnicities have with their children.

The foreword of the book says, “There are myriad versions of ‘The Talk’ because there are myriad ways to be human.”

Among the stories in “The Talk,” is one by Adam Gidwitz, a white father who tells his daughter that her beloved grandfather, who owned a store, built the family’s wealth by taking the homes of Black sharecroppers who owed him money. In “Not a China Doll,” by Grace Lin, a Taiwanese writer and illustrator tells her daughter: “So when people admire you because you are a cute China doll, they are saying that they like you because you remind them of a toy… You are not a toy.”

In “Handle Your Business,” by Derrick Barnes, a Black father listens to his son recount how a teacher has asked him to play a monkey in a play and a classmate tells him that finally there is a book about “some characters that look like you.” The father replies that he is “a prince” and that the first humans were “Black Africans.”

“It burns my soul, singes the edges of my heart when I think of having to find a way to tell him that there will be places he will go, and people he will be confronted with that when they see his bright brown eyes, his beaming smile and perfect Brown skin, they will see absolutely nothing,” Barnes writes.

The stories are told in narrative form and through letters, poems and even lists. The illustration techniques are diverse too, including watercolors, collages, comics and other styles—each perfectly matched with the writer.

The Hudsons started as writers, founding Just Us Books publishing company in 1988, frustrated because they couldn’t find books with Black images for their own two children.

“There were the suffering Blacks books, books about struggles and about Black people being marginalized. But there were so many stories not being told,” said Cheryl Hudson. “We wanted to publish everyday stories.”

Their books with “everyday stories” such as a boy fishing with his grandfather, a girl with a group of multiracial friends, and a boy who loves the time of day when his dad comes home, all became staples in classrooms, libraries and home collections within the Black community and beyond.Toney Jackson, a fourthgrade teacher in Hackensack, New Jersey, grew up reading books by the Hudsons and now he teaches children who are reading some of the same books, as well as some of the newer ones published by Just Us Books.

“My parents were both teachers and books were hugely important in our house,” Jackson said. “Now I’m old enough to appreciate how they brought equity to education. They had a series called Afro-Bets. It seems almost revolutionary now. The characters had Black bodies that formed into letters. Funny, but that book gave me a lot of inspiration.”

“They created a whole world with their books. And I saw myself in that world,” Jackson said.

His parents knew the Hudsons as friends, so he grew up thinking only a small number of people knew about their books. Then as a teacher he began to see their books show up in compilations for teachers to use and he discovered some of his students read their books at home. Now his 3-year-old daughter reads the copy of “Afro-Bets ABC” that he had as a child.

The Afro-Bets ABC Book, published in 1987, is also the first book by the Hudsons that Nancy Tolson found for her children when she was a young mother.

“I still have some of the originals of their early books, very delicately taped. My kids loved them,” said Tolson, assistant director of African American Studies at the University of South Carolina, and a Black children’s literature specialist.

“I’ve told the Hudsons they saved my life,” Tolson said. “They saved my children.”