In a previous post, I set out to select 20 diverse books from a few of our children’s favorites in various age groups: toddler, pre-school, early elementary, later elementary, middle school. It seemed like an easy task. But then when I was compiling this list, I decided to look up the author photos. I realized that I was suggesting a number of books with characters who were people of color that were written by white women and men.
Our bookshelves are far more diverse than they once were, but I still have a lot to learn.
This discovery prompted a set of questions:
- Is it important for books to be written by people who share the experience of the main characters?
- What do we do with “classic” books when they don’t accord with our contemporary standards?
- What about historical fiction?
- What about books with a white main character and diverse others?
The history of the publishing industry is one of whiteness, where even books that included people of color as characters were almost always depicted by white people. For Ezra Keats to depict Peter in The Snowy Day as an African American boy could be seen as cultural appropriation. It also could be seen as the move of an ally, a white man using his influence to open doors for the representation of African American children on the pages of picture books.
For parents or teachers to select Little House on the Prairie for younger students or To Kill a Mockingbird for older kids could, in both cases, perpetuate an historical narrative of white dominance. Or we could pair these classic texts with other books written from diverse perspectives about the same time period.
Louise Erdrich, a National Book Award winning author and Native American, has written a series of novels for kids that depict a Native American family in the midwest around the same time as the Little House books.
Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry is set in a similar time and place as To Kill a Mockingbird. Our present experience can be in conversation with these books from the past, just as these books can speak to each other and help us to see both their limitations and the possibilities for understanding that they open up to us.
One of the gifts of great literature is yes, I find a doorway into another time, place, and culture. But the deeper gift is that as I walk through that doorway, I also find myself looking into a mirror because this “other” in fact, knows me well. And so I see myself in Chloe, who regrets her failure to welcome a new student in Woodson’s Each Kindness. I recognize myself in Cassie Logan, who wants nothing more than a stack of books on Christmas morning in Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry. I see our daughter Marilee as we read about Omakays in The Birchbark House, with her passion and her grief and her determination and her irrepressible spirit.
It has taken decades for the publishing industry to begin to change (see #weneeddiversebooks), but in recent years authors like Christopher Paul Curtis, Jacquelyn Woodson, Kwame Alexander, and Angie Thomas have published novels and stories that represent the experience of people of color. And yet, the best of these books don’t only represent the experiences of people of color. They also represent the human experience of suffering and heartache and betrayal and connection and love and joy.
In response to my original post, many of you offered further suggestions, and I thought of a few more myself. So here’s an additional list of mirrors and doorways for us all:
And for older middle school and high school students:
- House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry by Mildred Taylor
- The Hate U Give and On the Come Up by Angie Thomas
- Where the Line Bleeds by Jesmyn Ward
- Song Yet Sung by James McBride
I also have book recommendations for adults in these previous posts:
Five Memoirs to Read Alongside White Picket Fences, and
Seven Non-Fiction Books I Recommend for (White) People Who Want to Understand Our Racial Divides.
(For more thoughts about representation in children’s literature, see Christopher Meyer’s article, The Apartheid of Children’s Literature, and Kwame Alexander’s short piece On Children’s Books and the Colors of their Characters.)
And keep the diverse book recommendations coming!
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