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Come home ‘A.L.I.V.E.’

Local author teaches kids how to survive interactions with police

Sanya Gragg, author of “Momma, Did You Hear The News?”

“What is the job of a police officer?”

Sanya Whittaker Gragg has noticed a disturbing pattern since she started asking this question to schoolchildren across the country two years ago. “[Some] answers are: ‘To protect us,’ you know. ‘To get the bad guys.’ But when I go to other schools, I get really different answers,” she said. “It might be: ‘To take my dad to jail.’ ... ‘To throw my brother on the ground and handcuff him for no reason.’ I remember very distinctly one little boy—my goodness, he had to have been in the second grade—who said, ‘To kill us.’

Gragg is the author of the illustrated book for kids, “Mama, Did You Hear the News?” It tells the story of 10-year-old Avery, panicked after yet another killing of a young, unarmed black man at the hands of a police officer, who turns to his parents for guidance.

“I just really don’t understand,”  Avery tells his mom. “I thought cops were the good guys. But every day I watch TV, they’re taking someone’s life.”

A former counselor for Tulsa Public Schools, Gragg had been toying with the idea of writing a children’s book on the topic for years—but after the 2016 killing of Terence Crutcher, in her own backyard, it took on a new urgency. “Once that happened, I said: ‘Maybe I do need to go ahead and write this.’”

Gragg’s book centers on “the talk” had by many black families, in which children are warned about the dangers of life as a person of color in America, and given practical instruction on how to best protect themselves from violence. “Basically if you ask anyone who’s black [about “the talk”], they’re usually not referring to the birds and the bees,” Gragg said.

“We’d been having this conversation with our boys for many years, probably since they were 10 or 11. It’s a tough conversation,” she said. “Because when your kids are that young, you just want them to be kids—right? But you also know that unfortunately it’s a reality in our country … that you really have to pay attention, and you really have to make sure you do certain things [when interacting with police] so that you aren’t perceived to be reaching for a weapon, or being disrespectful.”

Gragg puts this troubling but necessary tradition in a new context for young readers, with illustrations by Kim Holt and catchy, sing-song prose that teaches children to survive interactions with law enforcement and come home ALIVE:

A — ALWAYS use your manners
L — LISTEN and comply    
I  — IN control of your emotions
V — VISIBLE hands always
E — EXPLAIN any movement

Gragg stresses that her book “isn’t anti-police, but anti-police brutality.” The goal, she says, isn’t to denigrate anyone. The goal is to save lives.

“As a mom, that’s really my main objective,” she said. “I just need my boys to walk in the door. If we need to file a report after and get badge numbers … we can do that later. But I tell them: ‘I need you to walk in the door.’”

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