The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Teaching a tough subject with poetry and love

Children’s book by Caroline Brewer spotlights a fictional girl protesting violence by police and others

Amari Russell, 6, examines a copy of Caroline Brewer's “Say Their Names” at a signing in Washington. (Courtland Milloy/TWP)

At the Potter’s House community center in Adams Morgan, an audience gathered recently to hear children’s book author Caroline Brewer read from her latest work, “Say Their Names.” The book is a poem about a fictional 7-year-old girl named Aliya who leads a demonstration against violence, including police shootings, in her neighborhood.

Brewer asked the audience to repeat after her as she read from the book. The children responded enthusiastically.

I hear demands for love,

for a cease

to so many of our people

being made deceased.

I see a new day

for justice, for peace.

And it makes me want to say their names.

Most of the names they recited were familiar to the adults: Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, for instance. All of the people mentioned had been killed by police in cases involving unjustified use of force. But Brewer’s book does not get into the details of their deaths or even mention the police.

“That’s for the parents to explain when the children are ready,” Brewer told me. Brewer is a D.C. resident who also works as a literacy consultant. She got the idea for “Say Their Names” after visiting Black Lives Matter Plaza in 2020. That memorial space, near the White House, was created after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minnesota the same year.

The picture book is richly illustrated by artist Adrian Brandon. Among the drawings is a sidewalk memorial showing the image of a Black boy on a poster marked R.I.P. attached to an iron fence and surrounded by flowers. For a young reader, the death could have been caused by anything — a traffic accident, a police shooting or a gunfight between rival neighborhood crews.

The point, for even the youngest reader, is that they were people, with names — and their lives mattered.

During the reading, Brewer advised the children to “look out for moments when you see hope, courage and love.” The poem reading continued:

I look around at

the broken, the battered.

I hear the cries of

the scorned, the tattered.

I feel the angels weep

Because these lives mattered.

And it makes me

Want to say their names.

Brewer was asked if she was concerned that her book might be banned from libraries or classrooms because of the subject matter. In some parts of the country, calls for more frank talk about race and gender have resulted in a backlash that includes banning books that broach such subjects.

“So far, nobody has come to me and said, ‘Oh, I think this is too heavy for children,’ ” said Brewer, who so far has done readings at Potter’s House, Mahogany Books and Simon Elementary School, all in D.C. “To the contrary, people have been grabbing the books out of my arms saying, ‘I want this.’ ”

She added, “If we are going to live full and rich lives, we have to know how to cope with these terrible things that are happening in the world today. And I believe we must equip our kids with the language competence, and the mental and emotional stamina, to handle the hard stuff. We are doing them a great disservice if we don’t.”

Donovan Anderson, a seminarian who lives in D.C., attended the reading at Potter’s House with his wife and four children — a son, 4, a daughter, 7, and 9-year-old twin daughters. He appreciated the subtle way Brewer handled the subject — in the book and during the reading.

“At their age, it’s about planting seeds,” Anderson said. “When I’m ready to have a conversation with my daughters about the kinds of violence we are having in this country, I can refer back to this book. That’s why I read the Bible to them. The hope is that when a tough conversation is necessary, the subject has already been presented in some introductory way. Some parents are big on not waiting to tell the unvarnished truth. Personally, I’m trying to keep my daughters’ innocence as long as I can.”

Chanceé Lundy Russell brought her 6-year-old son, Amari, to the book reading. She, too, thought Brewer’s book had just the right tone given the solemn subject matter.

“Living in this area, it seems like every day you hear about a young person who was murdered,” Russell said. “It almost makes you feel like putting your child in a bubble. But how do we give him the best life possible while also being truthful about the kind of society we live in? His dad and I want him to believe that he can be anything he wants to be, but we also want him to know the truth — the Black history that the people behind these book bans are trying to keep from him. So, I make sure we have books like ‘Say Their Names’ so we can talk about such things at home.”

During the book reading, Brewer and the audience said more names: Charleena Lyles, Eleanor Bumpurs, Sandra Bland, India Kager, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Travyon Martin, Korryn Gaines, Michelle Cusseaux.

And she led them back into the poem:

Ball your fist.

Push up your hand.

We, the people,

Must take a stand.

Change gon’ come

With our demands.

C’mon and

Say their names!

When they finished, some of the children continued holding their fists high.

Brewer’s reading had made another point: It’s possible for children to begin understanding the toughest subjects — with the right teacher, parent, student and book.