When my then-4-year-old son went through a stage of voraciously devouring children’s books, our home stash was quickly exhausted. But the library was so hit or miss, especially when he picked his own books. The majority were so sexist and so gender binary I was constantly deconstructing, changing words, or getting into explanations that, for him, ruined the flow of the story. The issues with race were less in your face, but also problematic. Often, protagonists of color were just lacking, unless it was a book about the Civil Rights Movement or an explicit celebration of the culture of a particular ethnic group.
I asked a feminist friend of mine for some good suggestions on the gender front. My son was at an impressionable age where he was just starting to ask questions (and absorb societal assumptions). She said one of the hardest things for her to find were books with characters that were non-gender conforming, without that being the point of the story. If there was a boy wearing a skirt, he was discovering his homosexuality and learning to stand up to school yard bullies. But where were the stories where the boy wore a skirt, just because, and nothing bad happened?
Books focused on struggles to cope with oppression validate the daily reality of children facing discrimination. They are crucial for helping budding allies understand their own privilege and the challenges their friends are facing. In longer stories for older readers, the nuanced and multifaceted nature of each character is easier to develop and experiences of oppression can be part of the story without being the whole story. These books are important, many of them are tremendously good, and they are a big part of our library. Teaching my sons about privilege is a given. Our first difficult discussions about complex social realities were about white privilege. Understanding privilege will always be central to learning in our home because oppressive notions of white masculinity have been the drivers of our world’s biggest problems for a damn long time. As the mother of white boys, undermining that legacy is quite possibly the most important contribution I can make to social justice.
But for creating a reading world that reflected the world I wanted my young child to see as normal, it wasn’t enough. There was something problematic about always equating non-heteronormativity or non-whiteness with the hardships of being seen as different.
In terms of gender, I want to prime him for openness and viewing a full spectrum of ways-of-being as normal, not teach him that if he wears a skirt he needs to be ready for a fight. There will be time enough to learn that. Likewise, I want his stories to be full of protagonists who reflect the real world–a world that is mostly not white and male. But in many cases, if people of color are the protagonists in children’s books, it’s because it is a story about the struggle against oppression, overcoming the odds, or standing up to racism.
There’s a subtle and problematic message imparted by this paradigm in young children’s literature–that only if the story is about Identity X do you deserve to be front and center. There just aren’t enough books where non-white non-males protagonize the stories…just because. Just because white males should not be the fall back main character that everyone is supposed to identify with. And let me be clear that I do not think that any symbol or representation of “culture” make a book somehow narrow and not applicable to a mainstream audience. That would be the other side of this same coin. Books can show characters in the context of their history and culture as they carry forth a story that may not be primarily about the struggles of being “different,” etc.
A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign, wondering hopefully whether it had produced a booklist (it hasn’t). Someone else raised exactly this concern and I came home and started digging around, both to see what the booklists had to offer and what I had in my own library. Common Sense Media’s list is mostly geared toward older kids. There’s a cool wiki oriented toward the picture book crowd, which yielded some good new material. It’s a catch all collection of books about people of color.
I also discovered, while poking around, that there may be a reason there seems to be a dearth of books with protagonists of color that aren’t “about” race (other than the big one that we live in a white-centric culture where white authors, who mostly write white characters–and also many characters of color–get published the most). This really interesting article at the Lee & Low open book blog discusses the possible pressure for African American and Latin@ children’s authors and illustrators to create books meeting the “cultural content” requirements of the Pura Belpré and Coretta Scott King Awards. In particular, their books are far more likely to be about race and culture than those of Asian American authors, who don’t have a similarly high profile award to shoot for.
There’s more discussion of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center stats on publishing multicultural content here. The comments on both posts are fascinating. Overall it’s pretty abysmal. People of color are 37% of the US population and are present in only 14% of the children’s books at CCBC. And that’s at an organization that’s mindful about the problem. The number had been stagnant at 10% for the past 20 years, so this was seen as a major improvement.
But all this got me curious. What books do we have in our home collection that are protagonized by characters of color without being primarily focused on that dimension of identity? Many of our beloved books are “multicultural” in the sense that the characters are of diverse backgrounds (Magic Schoolbus books, The Hungry Thing and Hungry Thing Returns, What Makes a Baby, Fletcher Hatches an Egg, Rosie Revere Engineer, Locomotive..the list is pretty much endless). Many more are about Jewish traditions and history, the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Movement, the reconnection of children from immigrant families with their cultural roots. But there weren’t very many that both had protagonists of color and weren’t focused specifically on culture or struggles against discrimination. Here are a few that we love, mostly for younger kids:
- A is for Activist and Counting on Community by Innosanto Nagara. My 21 month old’s favorite board books. Can’t say enough awesomeness about these, especially for a red diaper baby like me. Beautiful illustrations. Perfect message about the world we and our kids are working for.
- Little Robot and the Zita the Space Girl series by Ben Hatke. These graphic novels are wonderful stories with female protagonists of color. My son did his first sight reading with Little Robot.
- The Corduroy books by Don Freeman. Corduroy and A Pocket for Corduroy. Classics.
- I dream of trains by Angela Johnson, illustrated by Loren Long. Our elder son is a steam train lover and we’ve collected a lot of train books. This book is set in Tennessee in 1900. The book engages the struggle of aspects of black life in the post-Reconstruction-era South in the context of a story about the hopes and dreams of a boy who lived along Casey Jones’ famed route. Wind Flyers, another collaboration between Johnson and Long, is also a beloved favorite.
- Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams. I love this book. It’s from 1987 and is a quintessential 80s book. The stories and pictures are fun and beautiful.
- Umbrella by Taro Yashima. Gorgeous illustrations and a story of anticipation. So good.
- On Mother’s Lap, by Ann Herbert Scott, illustrated by Glo Coalson. My mama found this for us when I was pregnant with our second. Not sure it did anything for my big kid to help him accept sharing me with his brother, but it was wonderful for me 😉
- Just us Women by Jeannette Caines, illustrated by Pat Cummings. This is a fun picture book, though for us there’s a slight mismatch between the age at which the story appeals to the expected audience (pre-adolescence) and the format (short picture book format for young kids).
Let’s grow the lists! What’s in your library?