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Children's author writes to bridge the gap between races


As a partner in an interracial marriage, Janet Ruck has been acutely aware of the racial pressures that sometimes confront her children.

"She can't be your mother, she's white," a pre-school boy blurted to her son when she accompanied him to a class several years ago.

"My 10-year-old has spent most of his life explaining, and when he was 4 years old he had to define the word biracial to a 12-year-old," said Ms. Ruck, whose husband, Carlos Pastor, is an African-American.

When white supremacist newspapers were tossed onto lawns in Columbia earlier this year, it was a turning point. Ms. Ruck knew she could make a contribution toward helping children of different races bridge their differences.

The result is a 22-page workbook, "Friends -- Alike and Different," that focuses on the subject of prejudice and is written for children aged 5-8.

Blank pages encourage children to draw self-portraits and pictures of friends, which helps the child think about the similarities and differences in people. The book is designed to lead children page by page through a guided discussion with an adult about what makes a friend "fun to be with" and how "prejudice hurts people."

"For the most part, that particular age group of kids has not experienced it [prejudice]," Ms. Ruck said. "Maybe kids can think first before they have a particular experience. Once the hurt is there, it's hard to deal with."

Her idea for the book came after searching unsuccessfully for books about interracial children for her two sons, Stefan Pastor, now 10 years old, and Darryl Pastor, 7.

"There's not much around for interracial kids," Ms. Ruck said. "I wanted to write a book [for children] in a non-threatening way about how to handle life's problems, without the doom and gloom.

"The time was now. I felt so strongly about the need to educate children and to empower them, because it's the kids who will make the difference," she said.

Since April, half of the 500 workbooks that were published have been sold. Ms. Ruck published the books herself and sells them for $4.95 by mail-order.

Glenelg Country Day School ordered two copies of the book, one for the library and another for primary-level children.

"We have been looking for materials that would be suitable for addressing issues of diversity in a positive way," said Lynda Ellestad, head of Glenelg's lower-school division, grades kindergarten through fifth. "Sometimes in a community like ours, prejudice is subtle and you don't realize what is happening until you stand back and look."

Ms. Ruck's book, she said, is "a nice, appropriate early childhood tool to open up lines of communication."

The book is the first in what she and her husband hope will be a series under a company called Mirror Images Books for Children, which they formed in 1989.

Ms. Ruck is a psychologist with the federal government's department of Health and Human Services. Her husband is a sales manager for the Oakview Treatment Center in Ellicott City.

They hope to publish books that will enable children with special needs to "see themselves."

"Children of divorced parents, those who are adopted, everyone has a special issue and it's hard to get a book that would enable children to identify with the characters in the story," Ms. Ruck said.

The author says that time and money have kept the business on hold until recently, but she and her husband have managed to keep current with the latest books available for children. Their membership in the American Booksellers Association has enabled them to attend book conventions where publishers display their latest books.

"It's my way of getting my tentacles out," Ms. Ruck said.

She hopes to eventually stock her mail-order business with the ++ special-needs books for children, and she has a dream of ultimately owning a bookstore.

Until then, the author will continue doing what has become second nature to her.

"We are always educating people," Ms. Ruck said. "We always feel a responsibility. . . . I want people to know we are a normal family, and this book was a way to extend that. It's good to be different; it makes the world go round."

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