Sometimes Reading Black Books Feels Like Homework

Publishers need to tap into the reservoir of talented children’s book authors and illustrators of color for all children’s sake. Diversity in children’s literature doesn’t just benefit little Black and Brown kids. It’s important for all children to understand that other cultures are much more than a few historical figures or ethic traditions. Publishers must be committed to publishing books depicting non-white characters doing all sorts of things in all sorts of places. Equally important, educators must be committed to reading these books and promoting an appreciation and love of good children’s literature in all its varied forms.

via No, I don’t want your African American children’s book list!.

Alvin Irby of Reading Holiday Project wrote this in an article about how children’s book lists, when they feature diverse books, usually feature works about the big historical events. These kinds of books, while important, can seem boring to a kid. Irby says,

It is important for children to learn about their history, but representations of non-white characters should be more diverse and not sacrifice the cultivation of wonderment that characterizes great children’s books or neglect the mission of children’s literature, which I believe is to help children better understand themselves and the world around them.

This is definitely a major reason why a lot of kids don’t want to read. The books that feature characters that look like them are always going through something rough or it’s a historical figure that they’re learning about in school. These stories are important, but can make a kid feel like reading is homework.

Young black girls and boys need stories that are about their everyday lives too. And stories that are about them going on grand adventures with aliens and time travel and talking animals. The same kinds of stories that feature white children. That way, reading is more fun for them and they feel they are being represented in the world. They feel like they can go on adventures and investigate new worlds, opening up their curiosity.

We must make sure that children are engaged in the books that we’re trying to get them to read. Appeal to their personalities and do the research to make sure that they read the historical books but also those that activate the imagination.

Irby’s Reading Holiday Project aims to provide black boys books at barbershops (say that 10 times fast!) and sounds like a really cool endeavor. Check it out!

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Ellen Oh on Diversity in KidLit: Try Even Harder

Several months ago, I was at a school event where a very young black girl was standing shyly off to the side as I was chatting with some 6th grade students after my presentation. She gave me her notebook and asked me to sign it, which I was glad to do. It was a book of her own poetry and short stories. I smiled and said “I’m so glad to meet a young writer!” She beamed at me and said “I love writing and I want to be a writer but I didn’t think I could because I’m not white.” I was surprised and asked her if she’d read any books by Walter Dean Myers, Angela Johnson, or Linda Sue Park. She nodded and shrugged her shoulder and said, “But I’ve never seen them in person.” To this young teen, an author of color was a mythical creature, not to be believed, until she’d seen one in person. She couldn’t believe in her dream to become a writer until she saw for herself that a real life POC had done it. This is why we must continue to fight for diversity in children’s literature. For all of our children, so that they can see that we exist and that they can believe that their dreams of becoming whatever they want, can come true.

–Ellen Oh

via We Are Still Not Doing Enough for Diversity in Kid lit.

Ellen Oh talks about how enough isn’t being done to promote diversity in children’s literature. Yes, there are great publishers whose missions are diversity and yes some major publishers have diversity imprints, and yes it’s been in the new recently (the Myers’ Times articles and a recent CNN article) and yes there are PoC authors being published, but it’s still not enough.

We can’t settle. Less than 10% of children’s literature is by People of Color. We shouldn’t aim for 10% and consider it done when we reach it. Recently, admissions statistics for my alma mater were told to me and the percentages for admission for African-American students was 6%, but the school was proud of their 6%. For it to be better than last year is great, but an air of “let’s continue to do even better” was missing. Maybe it’s the idea of celebrating too early. I’m glad representation is increasing, but let’s do more work before popping the champagne at every turn.

The passage above is so real to me, because I fell off of writing for a long time because I wasn’t feeling it, and I think that reason was because I was writing characters who were white, while I was surrounded by people of color. My characters had been white washed and it took me until recently to consciously acknowledge this fact and it’s still taking me effort to stop defaulting my characters to white. But because most of the characters I read are white, my brain has taken to imagining all characters as white. I need to force my own imagination to populate itself with people of color and I’ve been reading instances where others had to do the same. A terrible thing for self-esteem and representation. More authors of color, especially in the children’s book industry would be so beneficial to children seeing themselves positively both in the world and their own imagination.

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Adults Can Enjoy Picture Books as Much as Children Do | WritersDigest.com

Adults Can Enjoy Picture Books as Much as Children Do | WritersDigest.com

There are reasons adults can enjoy children’s literature: compelling stories, great narrative and action, exercises in dialogue–all the reasons an adult can enjoy an adult novel. I don’t, however, read too many picture books. I may take a look at one in a bookstore, but for the most part, I don’t read them. This article shows us to, as my blog theme suggests, put away the fear of reading picture books; there are ways an adult can enjoy them too.

The most compelling argument made in the article is the artwork. I’ve posted about my experience at the Gotham Writers Workshop children’s book writing class and part of what we discussed was picture books and the way they are made. The publishers hire writers but their bigger focus is on the illustrators–much like Hollywood hires and pays writers, but the bigger credit goes to actors and/or directors for bringing it to life. The illustrator works really hard in presenting the idea for a children’s book and it has to look different from the other books it might sit near on the shelf. It’s really fascinating and, I imagine, hard work.

Some picture books have museum worthy (or at least classic art inspired) pages. Swirling action and cute characters and realistic animal characters, you name it, it’s in a picture book, and it’s really under appreciated.

So let’s look at some picture books and ignore the toddler giving you side eye about it in Barnes and Noble (or keep it a secret and download them to your tablet…)

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Children’s Book Writing One Day Intensive

I took a one day intensive on Children’s Book Writing taught by Michael Leviton and it was a great! I learned about children’s books and got some delicious hot chocolate.

20140124_114409It was fun seeing how some aspects of writing children’s books remind me of screenwriting. Obviously storytelling in general follows similar patterns of introductions, inciting incidents, rising and falling actions, a climax, and a conclusion, but children’s books–specifically picture books–have some similarities with dramatic writing.

Read more at our Gotham Writers Intern blog: Children’s Book Writing One Day Intensive.

Taking the class, and seeing others interested in writing children’s books, kind of led up to me deciding to write this blog. Taking the class, loving my favorite books as a kid, and trying to decide what kinds of writing I want to do are all reasons why this blog exists and why I hope to continue keeping it up, despite having a million and one other things to do. If you have an opportunity to take Gotham Writers Workshop classes, do it. They have online classes too!

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8 Racist Children’s Books via Atlantic BlackStar | The Place Children’s Lit Can Take in Shaping Young Opinions

8 Disturbingly Racist Children’s Books Designed to Devalue Black People – Atlanta Black Star.

Hmm, fitting that on the last day of Black History Month, I come across this post of old, racist children’s books that perpetuate hate and stereotypes. My jaw dropped as I looked at these books, but it’s really eye-opening in terms of really looking at our children’s books as media messages. I’m sure (I hope? Unfortunately I can’t say with any accuracy, with the way things have been going in recent media) that these books are, if not burned, tucked away in some vaults where no children can find them. Interestingly enough, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is on this list, a book fraught with controversy in terms of its language regarding black people during slavery–it’s been argued back and forth.

The existence of these books proves our need for the very opposite. These books were meant to teach and inform white children of the “traits” of black people. Now we need books that promote and edify the culture of black people and other cultures. Children reading more and more positive portrayals shows them new worlds, opinions, and points of view. But often in school, as I’ve written in another post, there’s only one book per year that focuses on black literature and culture. We’re lucky if we get other perspectives than that.

Children’s literature does even more of a job of shaping and forming opinions than adult literature does, so we need to be careful what’s being explicitly and implicitly brought forth in their books. If children’s lit showcased more cultures, they will experience more world’s different from their own and be able to connect to people who are different from them both as children and as they grow into adults.

Related:

Children’s Books That Nurture Healthy Self-Esteem in Black Toddlers

Black Children’s Books: Our Favorite Stories For African American Youngsters

Words Have Power {Book Display}

Positive Images of Black Children and Families in Children’s Lit