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Black History Month, day 21

I love children’s literature. If I didn’t have a child to read to, I’d just have to sit in the children’s section of the library without one. And of course, we have a large bookshelf full of the books we loved as kids.

The characters and the authors of these books are overwhelmingly white. Most of them were written before 1975, many long before, and few publishers then sought out people of color, or encouraged them when they came along. For that matter, as of 2001, one editor writes here, there were still very few African-American writers and illustrators in the field, and a 2007 book by an education professor observes the same thing. And yet, John Steptoe, who wrote and illustrated the gorgeous Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters during his sadly short career, said plainly: “I am not an exception to the rule among my race of people. I am the rule. By that I mean there are a great many others like me where I come from.”

When children read, they need to see people who look like them. This truism, once doubtful in my mind, has become a rock-solid fact since I began spending my days with a small child. The munchkin identifies strongly with people in the books she reads, and most of all with people like herself. To illustrate: she frequently, even obsessively, points to a character on each page and says “I want to be that person.” It is almost never an animal, and it is almost never a boy: it’s a girl. If the girls are only minor characters, she identifies with one of them, putting herself on the margin of the story (thank you, J. K. Rowling, for Hermione Granger–your wizarding world is still male-dominated, but you did put one smart, brave, complex girl in the marquee). If there are no girls in the story, she chooses no one. Fortunately, things have come a long way since A. A. Milne and J. R. R. Tolkien, and female characters are no longer merely a token presence in children’s books. But whom would she see who looked like her if she were black?

I would love to hear about your favorite children’s books that are by African-American authors and illustrators, and/or feature black characters.

Here are some of mine. An * means they have prominent characters who are black, an @ means they’re by a black author or illustrator, though of course I often don’t know anything about them but their name. In some cases, like Bette Greene and Ezra Jack Keats, I know they aren’t African-American, but I might be missing some who are.

* Island Counting 1 2 3 by Frané Lessac. Our favorite counting book, with terrific illustrations of an unnamed Caribbean island, and lots of fun things to find (e.g., on the “four” page there are four vanes on the windmill, four donkeys, four leaves on each plant, etc.).

@ Everywhere Babies, a board book I love for many reasons, but one of them is that families of all types and colors are featured without any comment, just as if families just come in all gender combinations, age combinations, and colors! Imagine!

* ABC A Family Alphabet Book, written by Bobbie Combs, illustrated by Desiree Keane and Brian Kappa. All of the parents are same-sex couples, and many are black.

* The Snowy Day, A Letter to Amy (naturally a childhood favorite), and the others about Peter and friends by Ezra Jack Keats

* Bear on a Bike, written Stella Gladstone and illustrated by Debbie Harter

* @ Lift Every Voice and Sing, words by James Weldon Johnson, illustrations by Elizabeth Catlett

* @ I Want To Be, written by Thylias Moss, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney.

@ for that matter, anything illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

@ Freight Train and anything else by Donald Crews

* Chicken Sunday, Patricia Polacco (Polacco, who is white, has several books with prominent African-American characters–this is the only one of them I’ve read)

* the Max and Kate stories that are featured in each issue of Ladybug.

Moving on to books for older kids:

* Philip Hall Likes Me. I Reckon Maybe, Bette Greene

* Nobody’s Family is Going to Change, Louise Fitzhugh

And the best African-American picture book we haven’t seen:

A Little Bit of Soul Food, Amy Wilson Sanger. As far as I know, Sanger isn’t black, and if this book is like the others of hers we have, it shows no people, but they are such great portrayals of one aspect of a culture–its food. Yum Yum Dim Sum and My First Book of Sushi are perennial favorites in our house.

I bought for Munchkin, but haven’t read with/listened to with her yet, Hip Hop Speaks to Children. She seldom wants to listen to music, preferring audiobooks in the car. It looks great, though.

Your nominees?

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