Back to school is around the corner! It’s always exciting to shop for new backpacks and supplies. What’s even more fun for kids is choosing their outfit for the first day of school. I still remember the outfit I wore on my first day of second grade. It was a white t-shirt and a pair of bell-bottom denim pants with passport card images printed all over. What can I say, it was the 70’s :). The outfit was memorable, but what I remember most about my look was my glasses. The over-sized pink and brown hexagonal frames were my first pair of many to follow. I was young and no fashionista, but I did have an inkling that my glasses hampered whatever semblance of style I was attempting to have.
There weren’t many kids in my second grade class with glasses. They were somewhat of a novelty item. My mom, dad, older brother and sister all had glasses. I knew it was just a matter of time before I’d be called …“four eyes”. There was some solace in being in a family of glasses wearers. Most importantly, my glasses made my headaches go away as well as my need to sit in the front row all of the time.
With time and maturity I’ve come to relish wearing glasses. Geek chic has earned a permanent spot in the world of fashion. Decades later in my teen years and twenties, I was astonished to realize that people who didn’t need glasses actually wore them.
“Their cool and make me look smart,” a boyfriend once told me as he put on his lens-less frames.
Fast forward to when my daughter was a third grader. Just when she was beginning to explore her own sense of style her genes expressed themselves. With prescription in hand we headed to the optical to choose from an array of lenses in a rainbow of colors and styles.
“Times have really changed,” her third grade teacher said. “I’ve never had so many kids get glasses in a school year.” We shook our heads and discussed our theory of how electronics were ruining the hearts, minds, souls and now the eyes of our kids.
My daughter embraced wearing glasses quickly. She too is surrounded by lots of family and friends with glasses. And maybe it’s no biggie for kids these days. But just in case it is for a child you know, check out these great books to help them adjust:
This is a funny and cleverly written book by Ged Adamson. Douglas, the dog, needs glasses and his vision problems get him in to some hilarious situations. His loving owner, Nancy, finally takes him to get his eyes checked and helps him pick out his first pair of glasses.
This book written by Tammi Sauer and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton celebrates the fashion sense of little Mary as she becomes a stylist to her friends and some of the most beloved childhood characters.
Carol Higgins-Lawrence wrote her first story at the age of five. Her father paid her a quarter for it and she's been writing ever since. She's taken a variety of courses in writing for children. Multicultural perspectives are of particular interest to her. Carol is of Jamaican descent and was born and raised in Canada. She has a BA in Communications and Sociology and she has completed coursework towards a MA in TESOL. She has worked as a literacy educator for the past 15 years. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and two young children. You can visit her website at carolhl.weebly.com
Much has been said lately about “casual diversity,” or placing POC in children’s literature when the book is not about race. Books with brown characters are frequently about being brown, or more specifically, the burden of being brown. Do African American children only see themselves reflected in books about slavery and civil rights? Is the publishing industry, which is overwhelmingly white, willing to permit images of brown people in the books they create? The fact that this is even a discussion makes it painfully clear that white is the default setting in the children’s book industry. The writers and illustrators, the agents, the publishers and the reviewers are largely Caucasian. Lee and Low’s 2015 Diversity Baseline Survey (http://blog.leeandlow.com/2016/01/26/where-is-the-diversity-in-publishing-the-2015-diversity-baseline-survey-results/) revealed that 89% of book reviewers are white, 82% of editors are white, and 86% of publishing executives are white. Clearly, white people are the gatekeepers here and hold much of the power in determining how POC are depicted in children’s literature.
Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, a library of the School of Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison, stated in her July 7, 2016 article in The Horn Book titled The Enduring Footprints of Peter, Ezra Jack Keats, and The Snowy Day
“Unfortunately, the times have not kept up with Ezra Jack Keats, and, in fact, a picture book with a young contemporary African American boy as its protagonist is almost as rare today as it was in 1962. To be sure, there are many more books about African Americans today than Larrick documented back when The Snowy Day was first published. But of the 269 titles about African Americans counted by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2015, there were only eight picture books featuring contemporary African American boys. (Low though that number is, the good news is that it’s up considerably from 2012, fifty years after The Snowy Day’s publication, in which only two were documented.)”
I find these statistics to be heartbreaking. The message sent by this sort of underrepresentation is one of invisibility and lack of value. At a portfolio review with a well-respected literary agent, I was asked the question “Why do you draw brown people?” I paused for a moment, surprised by the question. The agent, sensing my hesitation, quickly commented that drawing brown people is a good thing, something that the industry needs. His default setting as a white person was to question this representation, to indicate that the contents of my portfolio were not what he was accustomed to seeing.
Rumaan Alam’s recent article on Nighlight, a pop-up blog from Slate, titled We Don’t Only Need More Diverse Books. We Need More Diverse Books Like The Snowy Day. expresses the desire as a parent of color to have books with brown characters that do not have brownness as the central conflict.
“It’s not hard to find charmingly illustrated biographies of great Americans such as Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie and Barack Obama. It’s not hard to find black and brown faces in folk tales and fables from unfamiliar cultures. It’s not hard to find frank histories that use fiction to teach about fact, whether it’s the slave trade or the struggle for civil rights. It’s not hard to find storybooks with the noble aim of teaching our children that their skin, their hair, their noses are beautiful.”
Corduroy by Don Freeman (1968) and The Snowy Day are used as examples of what Mr. Alam would like to see more of:
“Must every book featuring black faces force our children to confront the tortures of our past and the troubles of our present? These are important things that our black and brown children must learn—but they must also learn the pleasure of reading a story in the relaxed, quiet moments before bed, reading not to learn but to feel safe, feel loved, laugh, wonder. That’s a fundamental privilege of childhood and should not be reserved for only one set of children.”
The idea of white privilege including seeing oneself reflected in books that create a safe space and contribute to a carefree childhood is something that all people in the children’s literature industry need to be aware of. Books are mirrors and windows, so not only are books that tell brown children that their race is a problem impacting brown children, these books are impacting white children who only see brown people depicted as victims and brown skin as a problem to be overcome.
Some recent picture books that feature brown characters in a manner that does not address race as a burden include Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty and illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016). Excellent Ed is a book about a dog named Ed who doubts his own excellence in a family of high achievers. Every single member of the Ellis family has skills and talent, and Ed is a bit less skilled and less talented. The Ellis family is a brown family. The text does not mention this fact, but they are African American and they are adorable. Excellent Ed has the charm and appeal of The Snowy Day; it also shares a very natural and non-problematic placement of an African American family in a story that is not about being African American.
More-igami by Dori Kleber and illustrated by G. Brian Karas (Candlewick, 2016) is another book that features multiple races, but is not about race. The text is specifically written with race in mind, with characters named Sarah Takimoto and Mr. Lopez. The book makes references to Japanese culture with the topic of origami and to Latino culture with a Mexican restaurant, so it has a much more deliberate feel as far as the racial inclusivity is concerned. Dori Kleber made choices to include several races in More-igami. I prefer the seamlessness of Excellent Ed, where the race of the Ellis family doesn’t feel forced in any way. By naming the characters and naming the restaurant, Ms. Kleber is making us aware of her deliberate choices. She checked off four boxes by including four different races in a book that’s not about race.
What picture books have you seen lately that haven’t defaulted to white? Which books pull it off without self-consciousness? What race are the authors and illustrators, and does this matter?
For next month's post and moving forward, please send me questions and topics that you would like to discuss that involve libraries, books, diversity, and the children's literature community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifi Abu spends her days surrounded by books that have already been created and the rest of her time writing and illustrating books yet to be born. She looks forward to a day when all children can see themselves reflected in the books they read. Ms. Abu holds a master's degree in children's literature and a master's degree in library science, is an active member of SCBWI and a Children's Book Academy graduate.
When I was very young, I was a very creative student, not the sort of student that did well on exams and memorizing facts. What I was good at was coming up with innovative ideas and inventing new ways of doing things. Sadly, this did not impress the nuns at Sacred Heart Elementary School in hometown of Massena, New York. They did not like my innovations and inventions.
I remember creating a pop-up biography of the Portuguese explorer Magellan when in fifth or sixth grade. It had pop-up ships and fold-out maps. It was heavily illustrated in full color and it even had ornamental cap letters at the beginning of each chapter.
When I got my super-duper 3D biography back from the teacher, it was marked all over with red pencil. On the title page was a very big red “D” in a very big red circle. It even had a note from the teacher to see her after class. At the end of my little masterpiece was a note that said something like this: “JUST DO THE ASSIGNMENT”
You can imagine my disappointment. The reprimand that followed scolded me for not sticking to the rules, not doing what I was asked and to "never turn my homework into an art project ever again".
Strangely, this was the same teacher that frequently asked me to come in after school to write her next day notes on the chalkboard in my beautiful handwriting.
I was bewildered and perplexed.
I could have had an artistic crisis and shut down forever.
Miraculously, I did not shut down forever. I just had to wait a while. I knew that she wanted me to be like all of the other students but I had been bitten by the artistic bug years before and there was no cure. I was myself and could not forget that.
A few years later, I happened to be a student in a public junior high school that had art classes. I stumbled into the art room and was given an art assignment. I was encouraged to not stick to the rules and not be like anyone but myself.
For me, it was art that gave me the chance to become myself, to be happy and to eventually become an artist.
I tell this story as an introduction to my latest picture book titled FREDDIE & GINGERSNAP FIND A CLOUD TO KEEP. My first book about these characters was all about dance and how to take flight with someone else. This second book is about finding a song. Finding a voice. Finding something that you have been told can not be.
My little dinosaur and dragon characters find themselves in the clouds and Freddie, the dinosaur, wants to keep a cloud. The kind of cloud that he wants to keep is a song that he hears. The song that he hears is not a song like any other. It is something new that he has known all along was worth singing.
This book was an adventure and experiment to create. My editor Kevin Lewis and I took some chances. We tried something new. We created a book about learning to sing. It is about having a voice and finally finding a way to use it. To learn a song is terribly important, in my opinion. If all else fails, you have something that no one can take away.
In fact, on the back endpages is “A Cloud’s Song” that I composed and wrote the lyrics to. Anyone can sing it. Anyone can play it!
My hope is that I might create a song that others could sing and realize that they too have a song that is all their own.
In 1998, I wrote a poem as prologue for my book titled THE BETWIXTS.
This is what I wrote:
Each person changes the world.
Some for the better.
Some for the worse.
Someone might build a wall to keep others out.
Someone else might build a house for others come home to.
Someone may step upon a flower.
Someone may plant a garden.
A cruel word might be spoken.
A poem might be written.
Someone might start a war.
Someone else might start to sing a song that passes from person to person to person.
Here is a book.
Here is a song.
Here is an experiment about sharing a song with the world.
Here, at last, is a reminder to share your own special song too!
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