Saturday, May 27, 2006

Black males in children's books

As an illustrator, I usually buy books whose art inspires me. Many of the books that I purchase, of course, are books featuring African Americans. As an illustrator, I hadn’t actually read many of them until I took the online writing course.

Over the past four weeks, I’ve read over 100 children’s picture books, and I noticed something that I hadn’t before: Of the books that are published featuring African American characters, it seems that most of these books are written for girls. In addition to mostly female characters, they use sort of a — I don't know — brown-sugar-in-honey-sweet language, words dipped in sun-kissed apple dumplin's.

Where are the books for African American boys, those who fight off dragons; who defeat the bully; who spend their summer vacations bucking broncos? Ok, go ahead and throw rocks at me, but my wife actually agreed with my assessment. And she never agrees with me about anything.

On holidays, for the children in our family, my wife always purchases books. She tries to find books that positively portray African Americans, and that somehow relate to the child she is purchasing the book for. For example, she purchased DANCING IN THE WINGS (Debbie Allen) for our niece who practices ballet. She admitted to never having trouble finding books for the girls in the family. But finding books for the boys usually presents a challenge (African American biographies excluded).

Last week, I wrote a book that stars a young African American female, and a female mentor. I chose a girl because...well, I do want to sell the manuscript. But secondly, I started off writing a story that reflected my own experience. But I had trouble using creative license, the storyline much too close to my own. But by changing the character to a girl, and deviating from my own walk, I was able to free myself to create. But, I’ve decided to change directions in the rewrite — I’m changing the character to a male, and a male mentor(if I can sell it that way). My son (and grandson, I can’t forget, I’m a grandpa) are going to need books that speak to them.

By the way, I did discover that my son’s favorite book, is also the favorite of my 100-plus books read, over the past four weeks: SUPER DOG: THE HEART OF A HERO, Caralyn Buehner, Mark Buehner. (Interesting, the book that spoke the loudest to both me and K, features a weenie dog in a Super Man outfit)

Here are a few books in my personal library that feature African American boys:

Hewitt Anderson’s Great Big Life, Jerdine Nolen

He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, Kadir Nelson (which is universal, but features a young black male)

Cosmo and the Robot, Brian Pinkney

Max found two sticks, Brian Pinkney

Peggony-Po: A Whale of a Tale, Andrea Davis Pinkney

Summer Sun Risin’, W. Nikola-Lisa (universal, but features a young black male)

Joshua’s Masai Mask, Dakari Hru

Max, Ken Wilson-Max

Salt in his Shoes: Michael Jordan in Pursuit of his Dream, Deloris Jordan, Roslyn M. Jordan


Thanks, D. Yes, my comments were turned off. I was trying to turn on the spam thing.


Chris Barton said...

How about Ezra Jack Keats' books? Then there's the one I mentioned last week -- Kelly Bennett's Not Norman, in which the boy's African-Americanness is totally incidental to the plot.

Anastasia said...

I'm glad you're going to make the artist a boy - it's YOUR story! :-)

Kim said...

Hooray! It looks like you've done a great job with your course--you stuck with what interests you and you've found a niche to fill! Do a boy story your way. It will sell. You can't be the only one to notice this gap.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

For picture book readers, I've noticed that boy-protagonist books overall are not as plentiful as they are for older kids. This is especially true in multicultural books across the board. (Most of the Native pbs feature girls as well.) I do think that boys can/do enjoy a story about a girl. But there is clearly an underrepresentation of their gender-based literary role models. If such character speak to you as a writer-illustrator, it seems that may be a gap to address. On the parenting front, though, in case it helps, when I was a girl there were zero images of contemporary Native people in the literature and the historicals tended to be at least inaccurate and at most appalling. (It's better now). But I did seek out books that showed children from other diverse backgrounds. They didn't necessarily validate my Native heritage, but they did remind me that you didn't have to be (all) white to be a hero. (And this from a biracial kid). Of course I had much the same feeling for "The Cosby Show's" Phylicia Rashad as Claire Huxtable. I suspect she was a role model for a lot of kids.

Camille said...

You have hit an issue that is very relevant to me. In the wake of Katrina, we had a very large influx of new students into our district.

I subbed in several libraries those weeks so I got to help those kids find books they wanted. (Although subbing in another librarian's library is like staying in someone else's house, they never quite have the collection you would have built. Very frustrating sometimes.)

Many of the kids were African-Americans and they bee-lined for the biography sections to get books about Marion Anderson and Rosa Parks. Kids look for themselves in their library and books act as an anchor as they figure out their new surroundings. (In fact, all students do this regardless of how long they have been at a school.)

As much as the girls enjoyed Junie B. and Judy Moody, I was struck by the lack of fun, light hearted series with African-American protagonists for boys and girls. The boys retreated to the nonfiction section which is typical of most boys.

This is a real need! Librarians need your voice!

rindawriter said...

I have a ten-year-old Native American boy who drops by every week when school lets out early because of the WASL testing going on here with the teachers; I call him our WASL boy; he stays with us until his guardian can get off work and pick him up, by his own choice. He likes to pick out movies from our stash and watch them. He has a very distinct preference for movies that have heroes in them or positive male characters with DARKER skin color. It doesn't seem to matter what race or ethnic group, just so long as the hero is anything but white or blond. There's one B-grade sci fi film called the "Scorpion King" full of black and brown hero sorts, that he's watched over and over again. When he's done with that, he'll revert to favorite cartoon movies with strong themes of right and wrong and justice. We got "Dances with Wolves" for him to see because he likes that one too.

On the other hand, I never as a child or a teenager, indulged in feeling sorry for myself because there were no books relating to my own tricultural, triracial experience--and there were none for me, I can tell you! None! Zero. Nada. But life as a young person was too exciting, and time too short to experience everything I wanted to find out about and know! And books were precious and scarce. So, I can't relate to feeling left out of books; I just loved books and to read. Voraciously. I did not, again, then or now, have time to feel sorry for myself, life was too intriguing. Too many things to learn about! No time for whining about poor me.

Also, I learned very well from my own teen years in American high school and college that lots of peers felt like me, inside. Lots of other teens and YA's felt like me in being different, outside of ordinary things, not "having things in life," and I was stuck with me like they were stuck with themselves. And I wanted to be happy in life as a young person, not moaning and groaning about what I didn't have that was like other folks but rejoicing in the riches I did have that other folks didn't have. And that philosophy worked out well for me in my young years and later on, too.

The closest to my own childhood experiences emotoinally and in phsyical details were the Mowgli books which I liked because there were jungles and monkeys and tigers and cobras in them, all of which familiar to me in my world in southeast asia. However, again, what I remember was loving books, loving to read them, loving the endless new worlds they portrayed. I loved new, exotic, strange worlds, not realizing until many years later of course that I lived in one and that my own growing up years were very unusual, very exotic!

I'll add as an addendum that I have very powerful, very strong women role models in books and in real life when growing up, women with great ability to assert themselves with unique identifies, nonconformists, particularly women heroes in biographical books I read. So it was the woman thing I could heroize, not what color or race or culture they were from. I think many girls growing up in the U.S. lack such powerful feminine role models. Looks didn't matter; it was what you did and what you were that mattered as a woman when I was growing up. A very powerful thing.

All that being said, there is still tremendous room for more black, brown, yellow, pink and whatever other color than white skinned heroes, boys and girls, in picture books.

San Nakji said...

I think it is really important that your children have role models who reflect who they are. My own son is in a european dominated culture and we struggle to help his Korean identity. It's tough when you are a minority. I am making my own books for him...

Kelly said...

Great post, Don! I think you've found a spark here.

I would like to recommend a book I recently reviewed that stars an African American boy (who becomes a man in the book): "George Crum and the Saratoga Chip," by Gaylia Taylor.

Don Tate II said...

Thanks all for the feedback. I really hesitated on posting this.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

I tried to click Camille's profile to no avail, but in hopes that she'll check follow-up comments here (or perhaps you could add a note to a post, Don, if it's not too much trouble)... I wanted to mention a chapter book series:

MINNIE SAVES THE DAY: THE ADVENTURES OF MINNIE by Melodye Benson Rosales (Little Brown, 2001). Dolls come to life in this new hardcover chapter book series with lovely color interior illustrations. The story has cross-cultural appeal but is also the rare fantasy in an African American family and community. It also works as a window to Chicago's Bronzeville community in the 1930s, where the story is set. Ages 5-9.

See also: Minnie's Risky Rescue and Minnie's Haunted Halloween.

Camille said...

Thank you, Cynthia and Don! I am checking on this series ASAP!
Doll stories have always been a favorite of mine.

Susan said...

"Not Norman" is a good one. We've read that one many times at my son's request.

Colleen Cook said...

Check out "No Boys Allowed" by Christine Taylor-Butler, an early reader in Scholastic's Just for Me series. It's about a boy who's told by his sister that he can't jump double dutch, and how he proves them wrong.

web said...

_The Stories Julian Tells_ and its sequels are my favorite books with a black male protagonist. They're easy-ish chapter books.

_Just Like Martin_ is good historical fiction.

Becky said...

My newly independent reader (7yo son) enjoys the library's shelf full of "Little Bill" easy readers by Bill Cosby.

"Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain" by Verna Aardema, with Ki-pat, which my 8.5yod still likes to hear at bedtime.

And not picture books...
"Sounder" by William Armstrong and "Bud, Not Buddy" and "The Watsons Go to Birmingham" by Christopher Paul Curtis.

If I had to come up with a longer list I'd probably cheat and find a list of the Coretta Scott King award winners :)

So nice to have found yet another great book blogger -- thanks for the thought-provoking read...

Melinda said...

Hey Don --

I really am glad you posted this, because just today I posted my own take on the scarcity of black and brown characters in children's lit (including my own ... *gulp*). I'm going to include a link to your blog entry, if you don't mind.

Hey, Julius Lester has written "What a Totally Cool World" and "Why Heaven is Far Away," though of course the MC is God, who's the right color this time.

cloudscome said...

I just found your blog today and I love it. I am going to try to keep up with you! How about these books that we have on our shelves:

Just the Two of Us by Will Smith
Sam by Ann Herbert Scott (might be out of print)
Wings by Christopher Myers
The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton
African American Children's Stories pub. by Publications International, Ltd.

Thulani said...

There needs to be more Black Fantasy and empowering fiction. There will be more.
There's an black fairy fiction 3 in 1 book called Maji by Dazjae Zoem that came out in 2006. Its coming out as a special edition this year.
In 2007 Troy Cle came out with Marvelous World which is an adventure story with Black characters.
You can google them.

There's stuff out there we just have to spread the word and promote fiction for children of color.

Great topic.