It’s Zahra’s first day of school. And she remembers her mother’s words about how her brown skin “glows and glows” as she steps into the classroom. But that self-confidence is shaken when her classmate, Zoey, says, “You’re so dark. I don’t like brown.”
Zahra and Zoey are characters in a children’s book, “The Proudest Color,” written by Irvine-based authors and spouses Sheila Modir and Jeff Kashou. Modir drew from discrimination she faced as a child in elementary school to portray the racial incident Zahra experienced in the book.
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Modir and Kashou were inspired to contribute to the movement for social justice and wrote a children’s book using their clinical background — Kashou is a licensed family and marriage therapist, and Modir is a psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County — to give parents and children tools to navigate conversations about race and racism.
“It was really difficult to find some children’s books that openly and explicitly talk about an experience of discrimination and how a family can handle that using evidence-based approaches,” Modir said.
The concept used in the book is called “racial socialization,” Modir said, meaning parents or caregivers can discuss race by positively promoting racial pride.
In the book, when Zahra shares with her parents the racial discrimination she faced, they remind her of people who share her skin color: from her abuela to her doctor to Martin Luther King Jr. to Frida Kahlo, a Mexican artist.
“It’s people you look up to in everyday life, they share your skin tone, and we wanted children to see themselves in these people,” Modir said. “They can utilize these figures as a way that they can be inspired by or aspire to be.”
Positively speaking about race, she said, can impact for the better a child’s identity development, coping skills, self-esteem, performance in school and mental health.
Whereas conversations about race in a negative light — like telling kids to stay away from various racial or ethnic groups — can have a harmful impact on a child, such as causing them to feel unsafe and experience psychological distress when they encounter that group in public, Modir said.
In May, the couple won the Anna Dewdney Read Together Award, named for the children’s author who wrote the “Llama, Llama” series, and donated the winnings along with author proceeds from book sales to the Southern California chapter of the ACLU and other social justice non-profits.
Children of color, Kashou said, have found the characters in the book relatable while families who identify as White have said the book “opened up conversations with their children around why someone would be treated differently for their skin tone.” And White families, Kashou said, have also found ways to discuss with their children how to intervene if someone is being discriminated against because of the book.
“Many adults have said to us, ‘I wish I had a book like this when I was a kid,’” Kashou said.
With book bans on the rise nationally, particularly targeted at books with LGBTQ+ or racial themes, Kashou said he and his wife are “concerned.” And Modir said she recently read an article that called the spate of book banning “unprecedented,” a word she said was used to describe the pandemic in recent years.
“To use it to describe book banning really shows that we are living in these extraordinary times, and we need to really consider what being neutral really means in these moments and how we can make sure that we’re advocating for protecting the next generation,” she said.
Modir, who is of Iranian descent, and Kashou, who is half Palestinian, want to write books with Middle Eastern representation.
“There (are) more animals and dog characters and Caucasian White characters and other racial groups than there are Middle Easterners,” Modir said.
Books on the market now, she said, are primarily focused on Islamic traditions like Eid and Ramadan, and while important, she says it is not an accurate representation of various cultures and traditions of the Middle East.
“The Proudest Color” is available at major booksellers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target and Walmart.
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