Friday, January 16, 2015

Some thoughts about Race and a list of picture books

Over the last few months I have been in near constant distress about the racial issues in this world. I was, I suppose, naively shocked by items in the US news with a police officer shooting the unarmed Michael Brown, and read story after story about protests and heavily armed police and struggled to look for hope as ugly events kept flowing in. Living in The Netherlands in November and December doesn't help much because of the "Zwarte Pieten" or "black Peters" the little helpers to the Dutch version of Santa Claus. I know this is a complex issue, with a lot of history and the tradition has changed a great deal for the better. But living in a progressive, tolerant, and beautiful country where it's normal to see children wearing blackface or hear them singing songs with the chorus, "dumme, dumme, dumme Zwarte Pieten!" (that's "stupid, stupid, stupid black Peter!") scares me for the future of this world. I had just convinced myself that the Dutch were more racist than the Americans when I heard more news that the grand jury had ruled that Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Michael Brown would not even face trial. And somehow these things kept surprising me. Surprising me the way my classmates in Virginia grad school surprised me when I said, "but interracial marriage isn't a big deal anymore" and everyone in my class looked at me like I had lived in some kind of ignorant bubble. And perhaps, mercifully, I had? I had a fair number of friends from mixed families in my homeschool groups, and in music lessons. My white uncle married a black woman and if it was a big deal in my family, I had, in fact missed it. I felt like the kids reacting to this Cherrios commercial: 

I love that it surprises these kids, but I don't love that it surprises me. I don't want be ignorant about these issues of prejudice, because they are clearly still issues. I also want to be honest about my own unconscious prejudices, including my reluctance to seek out books/movies/media focused on or written by people who don't have the same color skin that I do. This has never been something I've consciously thought. I have never walked around thinking, "I don't want to read any books by Toni Morrison, she's black!" but at the same time, I haven't read any books by Toni Morrison, and I read a lot. So what you could call my new year's resolution is reading a whole lot. I want to read many works of classic literature that I've missed so far, especially books by authors of color or dealing with race. I also want to read some non-fiction, such as "The New Jim Crow," which has been on my reading list for a while. So far I've read MLK's Why We Can't Wait, and Alice Walker's The Color Purple. I started Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon this morning. 

But I also wanted to make a list of books for children, because I am passionate about the impact of stories and pictures on children. Children's books have become less and less diverse in the last few decades as budget cuts to schools and libraries put buying power into the hands of the largely white middle class consumer. The people determining what goes on a best seller list are therefore not librarians and teachers looking for diversity, but parents and grandparents who (totally understandably) don't automatically think about race when choosing books. So here are some picture books and some names you might consider adding to your list when you go to the library, or even when you buy books for kids you know and love. 
Kadir Nelson, author and illustrator
Nelson's clear writing and majestic paintings have won a pile of awards, and his work respected well outside the field of children's literature. He has written a staggeringly excellent book on the history of African Americans for ages 9 or so and up, a biography of Nelson Mandela and one of Harriet Tubman, and has illustrated the words to several Spirituals. Sometimes a bit difficult to search for (as books are listed under author, not illustrator) so here are a few of his works that you might miss just by searching.  

Please, Puppy, Please by Spike Lee
Abe's Honest Words: The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Doreen Rappaport
Ellington Was Not A Street by Ntozake Shange
Henry's Freedom Box: A Story from the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine
I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King Jr. 

Jacqueline Woodson, author
Woodson writes for many different age groups, but the link above is for her picture books. It's a really nicely set up website where you can get a good idea about the books by just scrolling through. One of her most widely acclaimed books, The Other Side, is about a black girl and a white girl who become friends in an intensely segregated town. She says she wrote it because, "I wanted to write about how powerful kids can be. [...] They don’t believe in the ideas adults have about things so they do what they can to change the world. We all have this power."
Nikki Grimes, author
I'm not as familiar with her work as with some of these authors but I just read her early reader Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel and it was great. She's known for her biography of Malcolm X, and A Pocketful of Poems, and When Gorilla Goes Walking.

Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher Myers are also good to know. WD Myers mostly wrote for older children (his YA book, Fallen Angels shaped my understanding of Vietnam), but he teamed up with his son for the wonderful poem of a book, Looking Like Me. Christopher Myer's Jabberwocky is also fantastic. 

Langston Hughes, My People photography by Charles R. Smith Jr.
This sparse, glowing poem is set to stunning sepia photographs: 

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people. 

Books by Ezra Jack Keats
Keats was not black himself, but he often populated his books with black children as they were the children who lived near him in NYC. The Snowy Day was the first book with a child of color to win the prestigious Caldecott Award.

Books by Patricia Pollaco
Pollaco is from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, I believe) but she, like Ezra Jack Keats, writes and illustrates books with black and white children. My favorite is Chicken Sunday which is a great story for Easter or any time of year. It includes Pusanky eggs, a beautiful hat in the window, and a gospel choir who sing like low thunder and sweet rain. 

These are just a tiny few! February is Black History Month, so there will be more displays and such in libraries and hopefully bookstores. I've just been focusing on books with black characters and/or authors and illustrators because it seemed appropriate to the prejudice I'm seeing in the news and MLK day on Monday. But here are a couple more lists which include more races than just the black and the white.

Cooperative Children's Book Center's list 
The Gaurdian's list
Cynthia Leitich Smith's list
The Coretta Scott King Awards These are two awards given out by the American Library association to black Authors and Illustrators of books for children and young adults.

Do you have favorite books by black authors or illustrators? Books with black protagonists? I'd love to hear about them. And thanks for reading. 


  1. This was so beautiful Clara! I didn't look at all the lists you posted, but I was given this beautiful book at my baby shower:,120179140000086845&CAGPSPN=pla

    It made me weep the first time I read it and it was written by an interracial couple and is full of beautiful illustrations that show diversity!

  2. Whoops, the book is called Mama Says… I thought the picture would show up when I posted the link but I guess not!

    1. Out of curiosity, I'm wondering if this will display the link:
      Mama Says

    2. It looks like you can use some html tags, like <a href="URL">LINK TEXT</a> to post links, but image tags are not allowed.


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