When I was little, my mother would tell me fairy tales as bedtime stories, and when I got older, I’d devour Babysitter Club books for fun. At the time I didn’t really think about the fact that the characters in most of the stories I read didn’t look like me, but when I graduated from college, I vowed that I would never read another book by a White author again.
Why? As a kid who attended private school her entire life, and then went on to major in English at a PWI, I’d read enough of the dead White male cannon to last me a lifetime.
After college I stuck to my “no White authors” rule, devouring books by Toni Morison, James Baldwin, E. Lynn Harris, Martha Southgate, Earl Lovelace, Pearl Cleage, Kwame Dawes, and countless others until I felt like the balance of books I was forced to read matched the numbers I read by choice.
These days, I’ve eased up on my White author boycott, but my preference is still to fall into a good book with interesting Black characters first. And as the mother of an 8-year-old boy (who also writes fiction), my penchant for Black people books extends to the ones I write and the ones I want to buy my child.
But there’s just one problem. Finding books for Black kids that have nothing to do with slavery or the civil rights era is damn near a herculean task.
And while I plan on teaching Le Kid about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, segregation, and the fight for equality, bedtime just doesn’t seem like the appropriate hour to explain why White people once considered those who looked like us only good enough for forced labor.
But according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, the book industry isn’t here for parents like me who want to give their kiddos books with Black characters.
Last year, only 93 of the 3,200 children’s books published were about Black people. That works out to less than three-percent. Moreover, of that tiny sliver of books I’m willing to bet the bulk of them dealt with Black people from a historical standpoint, instead of today. It’s a problem that author and illustrator Christopher Myers calls “the apartheid of literature.”
In his Op-Ed of the same name for the New York Times, Myers writes:
This apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth — has two effects.
One is a gap in the much-written-about sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text, from the understanding that your life and lives of people like you are worthy of being told, thought about, discussed and even celebrated. Academics and educators talk about self-esteem and self-worth when they think of books in this way, as mirrors that affirm readers’ own identities.
…We adults — parents, authors, illustrators and publishers — give them in each book a world of supposedly boundless imagination that can delineate the most ornate geographies, and yet too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.
Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost.
While Myers vows to do his part by continuing to churn out books (alongside his father, noted Young Adult author Walter Dean Myers), he wonders why publishers continue to release so few books with Black characters.
Like Myers, I’m dismayed that Black authors seem to have a harder time getting their books to market when they feature present-day characters of color, but I’m heartened by writers like Angela Johnson, Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Gimes, Sharon G. Flake, Walter Dean Myers, Christopher Myers, Kadir Nelson, and so many others who either work within the industry or sidestep the gatekeepers to create books for our kids.