Sunday, March 15, 2015

Race and Children's Literature

This past week I hosted a Symposium on Race and Children's Literature at DePauw, funded by the generosity of the Prindle Institute for Ethics. I organized the event last fall before I realized that our campus would be devoting significant time and resources to engaging in a dialogue about racial issues in our own community, and before a racist joke at the National Book Awards ceremony had the unintended result of raising awareness of the need for more diverse books. (MC Daniel Handler, after presenting African-American author Jacqueline Woodson with the award for Young People's Literature for her beautiful memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, made a joke about Woodson's allergy to watermelon, which prompted a huge social media outcry and led to Handler's making a a compensatory contribution to the We Need Diverse Books campaign.).

My symposium was a day crammed full of wonderful events highlighting my guest speakers, Prof. Philip Nel of Kansas State University (author of Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature and Dr. Seuss: American Icon) and Prof. Michelle H. Martin of the University of South Carolina (author of Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children’s Picture Books, 1845-2002). 

In the morning, they taught my 90-minute class on children's literature, generating a lively discussion on the question: "What is African-American children's literature?" (Possible answers: literature by African-American authors, literature about African-American characters, literature for an African-American audience of readers). Some students worried about the whole project of labeling any category of literature in this way: is this exclusionary? But if we don't pay attention to such categories, we end up with what we have now, a publishing industry in which at best 10 percent of children's books published each year are written by diverse authors or feature diverse characters, when 40 percent of American children identify as African American, Native American, Asian American, or Latino. 

Each speaker gave a well-attended talk. At 4:15 Phil presented "Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: Structures of Racism in Children’s Literature,”which looked at the complexity of Seuss's portrayal of the famous cat and its racist antecedents in black-face minstrel shows. His point was not to get us to repudiate this beloved text, but to see what problematic cultural sources continue to haunt the books we give our children.
At 7:30 Michelle presented "From the Kitchen to the Edges: Hair Representations in African American Children's Picture Books," a look at the political power of children's books to empower young readers to celebrate themselves, their racial and cultural identity - and their hair.
The day also included a luncheon panel where Mollie Beaumont, our Putnam County Public Library children's librarian, joined us to reflect in a more informal setting on the need for diversity in children's books.
In my five-minute panel presentation, I reflected on my hesitation as a white author to write outside of my own ethnicity/culture/race. After all, my first fifteen books were all about girls; it was only when I became the mother of my two sons that I felt confident enough to write about boys. But even as I haven't focused on race in creating the characters in my children's books, leaving physical appearance largely undescribed, I've more than once had occasion to realize that I've created a non-white character - when I saw the illustrations for the book.

Unlike authors, illustrators are unable to leave race, or at least racial appearance, unspecified. The children in my picture book A Visit to Amy-Claire, illustrated by Sheila Hamanaka, appear as Asian-American. Perfect neighbor boy Ryan Mason in the Gus and Grandpa series is black, thanks to illustrator Catherine Stock. And in my current Franklin School Friends series, Izzy, title character of Izzy Barr, Running Star (out next month) is also black, thanks to illustrator Rob Shepperson.

So in 2015, one of the all-too-few children's books featuring African-American characters will be by me.

I do have a twinge of worry that it's my running star who is African-American rather than my reading queen (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen) or math whiz (Annika Riz, Math Whiz). Have I perpetuated stereotypes of African-Americans succeeding in sports rather than in academics? Well, but Ryan Mason in Gus and Grandpa succeeds in everything, and Amy-Claire's story isn't built around any desire for success in any dimension. Right now, my tentative conclusion is that preoccupation with avoiding any conceivable stereotype leads to paralysis, and to a reluctance on the part of white authors and illustrators to engage with diversity at all. What's important is that non-white children get to see themselves mirrored in the books they read, and that white children don't get a steady diet of images that allow them to think the world belongs to them alone. Right now, what we need is diverse books written and illustrated as well and beautifully as we can make them. We need to see all kinds of kids, all colors of kids, succeeding and failing and laughing and crying and growing and changing in all kinds of ways.

Thanks to the Prindle Institute, and to Phil Nel, Michelle H. Martin, and Mollie Beaumont, and to my terrific students and the larger Depauw community, for making this Symposium on Race and Children's Literature such a success.

1 comment:

  1. It becomes more interesting when it comes to children.