WHERE ARE THE PEOPLE OF COLOR IN CHILDREN’S BOOKS?

By Christopher Myers via the NYTimes

I wish I didn’t have to wait to read this NYTimes article to ask myself that question. It’s just one of those things that I might have unwittingly taken for granted or not really questioned. Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin. It’s not that I didn’t notice- I did, I think we all know.

I loved loved to read books growing up. I was the happiest little thing with my comic books, (Tintin, Asterix) and my pre-teen books, Nancy Drew and Sweet Valley High etc.  I would get beyond excited, like an unpopular girl finally allowed to the dance if there was a chance that the girl that was just described in my read of the week; brown skin, curly hair, was a girl just like me. I would picture her and think it was me. I loved DC and Marvel comics and obsessed over the X-men series, maybe more than the rest because even though I didn’t have any superpowers, maybe I could, because there was a strong character like Storm- beautiful, warrior, African.

It happened with everything; with books, magazines, movies, TV.  Like when Vivica Fox guest starred on Beverly Hills 90210 (some of you might remember that) – I remember how major that was. It’s a little telling, that as a young girl, without even realizing it, I was on this search for validation or inclusion.  I had this lovely friend in college, who I don’t think was trying to be offensive, asked why there was a need for Black centric magazines like Essence or Ebony. She felt those magazines were more divisive and unnecessary. She felt we were all so above color but I had to remind her that while I could read all the mainstream magazines in the world (and still do), there’s a lot to being a black girl that Cosmopolitan magazine (as an example of many and not to pick on them specifically) did not care to address. What was the right makeup for my complexion, the best products for my hair, my culture, pictures of women who looked like me as beautiful and not mere tokenism, but that’s besides the point. I guess the problem is, we get older, start to understand more about how the world works, and for many of us, you shrug it off, find your space in this world, you keep it moving. But that shouldn’t be the case, especially not for children.
I applaud all writers who strive to be more inclusive in their storytelling and to see that the world and it’s diversity is probably the most amazing and beautiful thing we’ve got going. I realize that our stories will not come from elsewhere, not because they are not possible, but because so much about writing is personal and that most stories about people of color, will come from people of color. 
I feel a particular pressure to say support people of color, and I don’t just mean stories for black people by black people. Exposure to the world, to the experiences of others.  I think of my nieces and I want them to read it all- I love that there’s Harry Potter, but what about Unoma (if any other West Africans remember this?) or Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese. Everyone’s story is important and all children (Asian, Hispanic, Black, White) more than anyone else need to know this because it’s not just a disservice to one group but to all. 
This quote from Wesley Yang:
Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honor but that it in fact patronizes and exploits. Not just people “who are good at math” and play the violin, but a mass of stifled, repressed, abused, conformist quasi-robots who simply do not matter, socially or culturally.

Do you see how easy it would be to change a few words in there and we could be talking about a black boy or a brown boy or anyone from anywhere that we have not taken the time to think of more than at a stereotypical level. Would it help, if as children we had been exposed to more than just generalizations but actual stories of human beings? 
I had no intention when I sat down to write this much. In fact, as you might have already noticed, it’s been a little quiet this week on the blog front, just one of those weeks.
So here’s what – in the comments, please share a book about people of color and while children’s books will be preferred, you can share young adult or any books you think young people should be reading… hey we all read Shakespeare in our teens if not earlier for some of you brainiacs out there. Highlight any authors that you think deserve a nod. I would love to compile a list to share.

UPDATE:
 So happy I wrote this. Wouldn’t have know that one of my faves, God’SFaveShoes is right now writing a children’s book, I can’t wait to see the outcome and another fave, Sharee Kendall Miller, the amazing illustrator and now storyteller recently released her’s on Amazon, please show your support.

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Comments


  1. A Simple Thing

    April 20, 2014 at 6:48 pm Reply

    This is something that I've been pondering over for a long time too – I even wrote a post about it (kinda) on my blog last week – it's actually a review of an author called Atinuke and her books for young readers. As a child of Nigerian parents, I really loved her Anna Hibiscus books. They warmed my heart a little. I think they're beautifully and skilfully written.
    I've noticed that, here in the UK, there are books for beginner readers that are quite diverse, but that quickly fades, so that by the time children are aged around 11, there are very few.
    But on that note, Malorie Blackman is a fantastic writer, and I was reading the Noughts and Crosses series well into my late teens.

  2. Anonymous

    April 14, 2014 at 7:19 am Reply

    I love your post Cynthia! So true and accurate!
    I'm from Burkina Faso, a French speaking country in West Africa. Being a books' lover, I can so much relate to everything you said. I did read books written by African and African American authors while growing up (Camara Laye, Henri Lopes, Chinua Achebe, Mariama Ba, Wole Soyinka, Maya Angelou, Abdoulaye Sadji, etc.) I can't say that African authors were absent from the book shelves that I had around me while growing up, but they certainly were under represented, compared to the multitude of Western child literature ( Comtesse de Ségur, Georges Chaulet, Enyd Blyton, and all the authors grouped in the French collections "Bibliothèque Rose" and "Bibliothèque Verte").
    Another thing that I find really sad, as an African, is that there is not enough communication between French speaking, English speaking, Arabic speaking, Spanish speaking, and Portuguese speaking African countries. For instance, I discovered some amazing Kenyan and Egyptian authors only a couple of years ago. I also realised that some of the West African authors that I considered as literature legends, were completely unknown to some of my East Africans friends. Well, our generation definitely has to do something about that! Write more books (for children and teenagers), make sure they are translated in as many languages as possible, AND equally distributed all over the globe!
    Here are is book that I enjoyed as a child:

    La belle histoire de Leuk le lièvre, by Leopold Senghor and Abdoulaye Sadji

    http://www.amazon.fr/belle-histoire-Leuk—Li%C3%A8vre-%C3%A9l%C3%A9mentaire/dp/2850690538/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397459673&sr=8-1&keywords=la+belle+histoire+de+leuk+le+li%C3%A8vre

  3. Anonymous

    April 7, 2014 at 4:30 pm Reply

    That article made me think too. Here's a cute book with a clever black girl.

    http://www.amazon.com/Clever-Ashley-Saves-Alice-Endamne/dp/0578071312/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1396888168&sr=8-1&keywords=clever+ashley

  4. Dom

    April 7, 2014 at 3:30 pm Reply

    Mommy, tell me about Haiti–this book was sent to my son for his 1st Christmas from a dear friend. It is not his level yet but we have fun with the illustrations. I also bought You Can Do It Too! By Karen Baicker. He can see his face in this one. There are not that many out there so we buy mostly books with animals characters. Nicely done Cyn!

  5. Naomi C Robinson

    March 29, 2014 at 6:14 pm Reply

    Great post, I mentioned you in my response to this article.

  6. Miss J

    March 29, 2014 at 3:58 pm Reply

    "Chike and the River" by the giant himself – Chinua Achebe. I can't think of too many other home-grown books I read as a child in Nigeria, but I remember this one was on our curriculum in primary school, (advanced reading for when we were probably 7-8 years old) and was a great read.

  7. This Hungry Hippo

    March 28, 2014 at 8:48 pm Reply

    Great post. You are so right when you say that as we get older, we tend to shrug things off and keep it moving. Having children (two boys and a girl) I have a new-found fire for showing them all they are worth and all they can be. They are not to be limited by the perceptions of others, but to be all they can be, naturally.

  8. Natasha Bernard

    March 28, 2014 at 7:18 pm Reply

    I'm love this post Cyn. I have many in my son's collection. But The Colors of Us by Karen Katz is a favorite of mine.

  9. cbcd8ff4-8fb8-11e3-90c8-000bcdcb5194

    March 28, 2014 at 7:15 am Reply

    Whistle For Willie and A Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Both of these books, among others, were read to our children when they were little. A Snowy Day won the esteemed Caldecott Medal in 1962 or 1963. Although the author/illustrator is white, Peter, the central character of these books is black. And the stories are beautiful! Perhaps these were mentioned in the NYT article. I haven't read it yet. Other great children's books featuring people of color, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in Peoples Ears, Aunt Harriet's Underground Railroad in the Sky, and Mama, Do You Love Me, a warm, heartfelt story of love between mother and child featuring Alaska Natives. A companion book, Papa, Do You Love Me has Africa as the setting.

  10. Thriftanista in the City

    March 28, 2014 at 3:55 am Reply

    I recently purchased I Love Ugali & Sukuma Wiki and A Tasty Maandazi by Kwame Nyongo to read to my 3yo. We love the books and it gives my husband and daughter a chance to discuss all things Kenya and allows me to practice a few Swahili words. The stories are entertaining and a good read for all ages.

  11. houseoffstyle

    March 28, 2014 at 12:09 am Reply

    wauw this trully caught our hearts amazing post doll

  12. melissa ward

    March 27, 2014 at 11:49 pm Reply

    Great post …..

  13. Sharee Miller

    March 27, 2014 at 5:54 pm Reply

    This is such a great topic to address! I can't wait to read the article in NY Times. It is all about ones experiences because they always tell you write what you know. Thats why I self published this book about a natural girls experience getting ready for bed. I am also currently working on a send maybe Jackie will go to the beach! Here is the link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Night-Routine-Sharee-Kendall-Miller/dp/1495424170/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1395942646&sr=8-1&keywords=night+time+routine

    Thanks
    Coily and Cute
    Sharee Miller

  14. GFS

    March 27, 2014 at 12:23 pm Reply

    This is confirmation for me! I'm literally in the middle of writing my first children's book! I am sooooooooo glad you wrote about this! God is telling me that there is space for me and my kiddie books!

    1. addicted2Etsy

      March 28, 2014 at 6:13 am Reply

      GFS, I can't wait – please please keep on with it. This is so amazing, the world needs you and I'm so excited for you. Keep us in the loop.

  15. Anonymous

    March 27, 2014 at 12:19 pm Reply

    Such a beautiful post and so much truth!

    Am in South Africa, looking online i just could not find a children’s book written for black children by a black author. I always loved reading since Primary School, from papers I found on the streets or books from the school library but for the life of me I just cannot recall a book written by a black author for children even back then. All the author’s pics at the back covers were of white not black authors.

    I suppose we subconsciously accepted our exclusion as children and the superiority of white people in SA specifically made us black children not to questions much about anything that our grandparents and parents were denied (apartheid aftermath).

    In my case i was so thrilled when we had a black Spiderwoman cartoon character playing on our screens right after school and better yet the cartoons were in my home language which is one of 11 official languages in SA – though the cartoons disappeared after a month or so and it was not a book, the fact that it was one of the iconic Superheroes and even better a woman, i found my super powers from her 🙂 hence I still remember Spiderwoman called *Hahani Jessica (*Aunt) with her long black hair – I assumed her hair was relaxed!! LOL!

    Thanks for the post
    Ntsako

  16. Maggie Adofo

    March 27, 2014 at 4:46 am Reply

    How ironic. A friend of mine just showed me a few videos from his childhood. I think it was called grammar time. It was so cute and it was actually VERY informative!!The point is, it was all African Americans even the narrator and it felt warm and comforting that the children (HAD) something that they can really relate to.

    xo
    Maggie A
    LOVEMAVIN/BLOG

  17. Lauren

    March 27, 2014 at 4:14 am Reply

    Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is one of my very favorite YA books, though it was released when I was older. At the time, nothing beat the series that included Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (Mildred D. Taylor).

  18. Feyi A

    March 27, 2014 at 4:09 am Reply

    wow great post, you bring up very important points x

    http://marveling-mind.blogspot.com

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