REVIEWER: Zapoura Newton-Calvert
BOOK TITLE & AUTHOR: The World Needs More Purple Schools by Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart
🔴 Not Recommended
Much like its prequel The World Needs More Purple People, The World Needs More Purple Schools by Kristen Bell, Benjamin Hart, and Daniel Wiseman celebrates a “purple world,” where “different people come together to mix their stories, their ideas, and their smarts to make something special.” The illustrations are colorful, with diverse children and teachers learning, playing, and asking big questions. Readers are welcomed by Penny Purple, the same white protagonist as in the first book, and are shown various school and community scenarios illustrating the tenets of purple-ness, including curiosity, hard work, silliness, speaking up, and “just being you.”
In her review of the first book in the series, Social Justice Books program specialist Paige Pagan wrote, “In Bell and Hart’s attempt at unity, they actually fall into tropes of divisiveness through colorblind racism and blindspot bias. Children are left with a contradictory sense of social identity.”The sequel continues these patterns and prescriptive formats rather than interrupting and addressing them. While color mixing to make purple is used as a central metaphor, the various intersecting social identities (including race) that impact each student and the social systems (including racism) that impact the entire school community are ignored completely. The prescriptive format initiated in the first book persists here, leaving little room for the nuanced contexts and lived experiences within our actual schools in real communities.
In the section on hard work, a veritable ode to the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myth, Penny states, “To make your school purple, you have to roll your sleeves up and work really hard.” What is depicted next is a series of scenarios where problems like doing well in school and cleaning up a local polluted park are solved by industrious kids determined to make change happen. But the truth is that working harder is rarely the solution. What if a student faces barriers to their learning and isn’t receiving the resources they need from their school district? What if trash isn’t the main environmental problem but the global climate crisis is? This book consistently places the responsibility for change and success with the individual and ignores the systems that create very real barriers.
In a later section, the book encourages children to speak up: “To make your school purple, you have to be good at speaking up and using your voice.” However, it fails to show readers what this can look like. When one student asks, “I don’t think it’s right that some kids don’t always have lunch to eat. What can we do about it?,” there is no response from the adult at the table except for a sad look indicated by downturned eyebrows. The authors underestimate the imaginations and critical thinking of children today, failing to support kids in advocacy, activism, or other dynamic responses to the very real inequities they experience. Even when the book momentarily attempts to acknowledge bigger issues that kids face, like food insecurity, it quickly veers back into territory where root causes are ignored.
In the final moments of the book, the message to “just be you” rings particularly false. At a time when legal actions are being taken to deny transgender children access to gender affirming healthcare, Black Studies classes have been banned in Florida, and books by a range of BIPOC and LGBTQIA authors are being challenged by well-funded hate groups across the country, it’s not always safe to “just be you” and it’s definitely not always affirmed at school.
At the book’s end, readers are faced with the bios and smiling images of the authors and illustrator, three white people, each wearing a “purple person” t-shirt. This image explicitly doubles down on the confusing, dangerous, color-blind approach that is the foundation of this story. Without being willing to acknowledge their own whiteness, these creatives are also unable to see the toxic white supremacy principles woven throughout the book. At a time when it is imperative that teachers and parents teach and participate in educational liberation — which necessitates a deeper understanding of power, identity, and race — a book in which white people proclaim that purple will solve our problems is a disgrace. We don’t need more purple schools and we certainly don’t need more books in this series.