[Image description: The words World Pizza are made up of pizzas and people.]
We recently came into possession of a book titled World Pizza. It came as a part of a book subscription service we use. My daughter was excited to read it and we sat down one evening to do that. The book is about a misheard wish for world peace that becomes world pizza. It’s silly and sweet and on a level that young children can grasp the meaning of world peace.
And yet as we were reading I came across this illustration:
As you may notice the text that accompanies this spot illustration doesn’t specifically call for this depiction. I immediately stopped reading and told my daughter, “I don’t like this picture.”
She asked why and I explained that it was showing a stereotyped image of people in Africa that was neither culturally accurate, flattering, nor historically accurate. My daughter said she thought some people in Africa might look like that. I was kind of horrified by the response, but figured she was extrapolating from images of various indigenous people in Africa she’s seen in books and on TV shows.
I told her that it was true some people still dress in their traditional clothing and live in ways that reflect their traditional cultures. I then explained that the picture was not showing any of those people, or if it was it was not identifying them. Either way the illustration was wrong. It would have been better if it had showed someone in a specified African country living in a modern city or if it had specified which culture they were from and depicted their dress accurately.
Frustratingly she has asked to read the book again several times. Or at least I was frustrated at first. But during each reading I have taken the opportunity to stop there and have a shortened version of the same conversation again. Certainly her thought that it could be accurate was a call to me to ensure that she sees more images of people across the African continent living much as we do. And to draw attention to that to counteract the stereotyped images she has clearly absorbed.
The bigger issue here is that these kinds of subtly incorrect depictions turn up everywhere in children’s books. Sometimes it’s the fact that an older book has been republished or reprinted again and again so those images are still with us. Sometimes it’s just plain ignorance on the part of the author or illustrator. Whatever the case maybe for the appearance of problematic content, it’s how children quietly internalize these ideas and that’s why it’s so important to call them out when we see them. To name them and make it explicit that they are not okay.