Children’s books and the publishing industry have failed to keep up with the rainbow of our children’s faces and cultures and needs.
Doreen Rappaport writes fiction and nonfiction that celebrate diverse histories and biographies such as her Caldecott Medal winner, “Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” illustrated by Bryan Collier. Her curiosity left her wanting to know more:
“I got into it because when I was a teenager there were no books about women. Maybe there was Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Adams – those were the only two books. There wasn’t much of a place for young girls with a curiosity, and maybe even an ambition, and actually we were told not to be ambitious.”
Author and illustrator Don Brown started out on the very same hunt as Doreen Rappaport: “I had two little girls, and I wanted to read to them stories about real women who were brave and heroic. I couldn’t find books like that.”
He too decided to write his own, and has since written more than two dozen books on famous and less well-known historical figures and events. His latest graphic nonfiction book, “Drowned City,” is about Hurricane Katrina.
Poet and author Carole Boston Weatherford approaches history from another angle: she said she “mine[s] the past for family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles” in order to help fill in the gaps of the stories being told. Many of her books are based on historical events spanning the African-American experience from slavery through the civil rights movement, and she said children are often amazed to learn the stories she writes about are true:
“One of the first questions is, ‘Did that really happen?’ Well, you know, that’s exactly the reaction that I want from the kids – because they can’t fathom that some of the inhumanities and injustices that were part of legalized segregation and part of America’s history of institutionalized racism really happened.”
Rita Williams-Garcia has won numerous awards for her historical fiction trilogy that begins with the Newbery Honor novel “One Crazy Summer” – she began telling stories that were very deliberately not historical. She was writing contemporary fiction about girls like herself whom she had never seen in novels, and the girls in her audience responded with an immediate hunger for more.
“My first novel had just been published, and I went out to a library in Long Island, and it was nothing but angry girls . . . ‘Don’t write about slavery, don’t write about the water fountains and the civil rights . . . I want you to follow this girl and then write about her friend.’ They wanted to see – they were saying, ‘I need to see myself in the here and now.’”
Jason Reynolds, the author of “When I Was the Greatest,” “The Boy in the Black Suit,” and “All American Boys,” shared similar feelings. When he was in school no one ever showed him books that featured his voice or story, and so he didn’t like to read at all. He now very deliberately writes books for other young people:
Visible and invisible
“Right now what we see in our communities, we see that the young people of color are hyper-visible, yet terribly invisible at the same time, and that puts them in a really complicated spot, and I think all I really want to do is say, ‘I see you.’”
He added: “This doesn’t have to be your entire literary lineage. What this is, is your springboard into the world of letters . . . Show them them first. Then you can give them Shakespeare, you can give them Harper Lee, we can run the gamut of things we can give them – but let’s give them them, and then we can move out. That’s my personal opinion.”
Children everywhere thrive when they see excellent books that give them them and open up their worlds to all kinds of excellent stories about others.
Are you seeking out books like these for your children and grandchildren? How well are schools and libraries in your community doing in providing them?
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).