Yesterday I spoke on a panel with Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambatti, Kekla Magoon, Bil Wright, Paula Young, and Wade Hudson on the state of African-American Children’s Books. Each voice was unique in its experience within the industry. Wade Hudson, co-founder of Just Us Books brought to the table over 20 years of experience in making, promoting, and marketing books for children of color, Kekla Magoon, author of The Rock and the River, brought perspective as a biracial author raised in the Midwest, Paula Young, first grade teacher and daughter of politician Andrew Young, talked about her experience with today’s generation and the need for historical books that explore Civil Rights voices other than our most commonly explored figures like Dr. King and Rosa Parks. Bil Wright, professor of English, and author of Putting Makeup on the Fat Boy, works first hand with young people who fight daily to survive. And me, the single illustrator with experience behind the scenes as a designer in major publishing houses and a professor of illustration at a largely white institution.
One of the first questions posed was about slavery. Vanesse jokingly commented on most illustrators having to make books about slavery in order to push their career along. She thought that I had done one as well. Fortunately, no, I have not had to do a book on slavery, nor do I currently have any interest in doing so. Not to say that books about the Civil War era are books are bad. Henry Cole has recently made a gorgeous and sensitive wordless picturebook called Unspoken that tells the story of a young girl who offers silent kindness to a young escaped slave (who we never see). Tom Feelings, one of my favorite illustrators of all time, gifted us with a gorgeous wordless book called The Middle Passage. It is one of my most prized books.
Personally, I am more interested in new stories. I am interested in showing new faces to our experiences …all of our experiences. If the content that I look to lend my artistic voice to doesn’t cross my desk, then I will try and be bold enough to create it myself. Based on yesterday’s conversation with my fellow storytellers though, the content is certainly being made.
Another issue raised yesterday was the idea that books about by and about people of color are singled out as being ONLY for people of color. I shared a personal anecdote about seeing Renée Watson, author of our collaboration on Hurricane Katrina, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, at the Decatur Book Fest in Decatur, GA. A young girl wanted to purchase her book, What Momma Left Me. When she asked her mother for permission, the mom said she shouldn’t get it because she couldn’t relate to the content. The daughter responded to her by saying, “yeah, but I can’t relate to witches and wizards, but you let me read Harry Potter.” Brilliance.
So, there’s hope for us. My solution to the issues are to buy books, share books as gifts, read to our children. Paula Young shared a personal story of how one of her teenage boys was never a reader. He hated it. Instead of “punishing” him by making him read, she read books to him, which opened a new way of understanding stories and literary ideas.
Bil Wright shared personal stories of working at a community college where students were focused more on survival than they were of finding themselves in books. Many of his twenty-year-olds were almost illiterate. Most of them not even considering reading books outside of class. He also shared a story of one his gay male students who masqueraded as straight to protect himself on campus. Not only did the student lie in real life, he even posed as straight in his writing. I loved Bil for confronting the young man and telling him to use his class writing, which would remain private, as a vehicle to tell his truth.
Many parents of color struggle to find content related to them on the shelves. When they go into bookstores, rarely do they see books with people who look like them being promoted. Even in “chocolate cities” like Philadelphia, black content is hard to find. My solution to this was to look to subscription services like Zoobean.com where you can have pcturebooks sent a child’s home monthly based on that child’s age, gender, nationality, and interests. The books are curated by librarians and parents who are also interested in diversifying children’s reading experiences.
No, we shouldn’t have to compromise. Our books should certainly be represented and promoted on the shelves like everyone else’s. Industry responds to dollars. In order to make sellers carry your content, you must go to the stores and ask for it and continue to ask for it and buy the books. If your school has book fairs, find out who stocks them and call in and write in to request the content you want. Attend book fairs and buy books! Write to publishers. Tell them what books you want to read.
Librarians and teachers, STOP inviting authors of color to your school ONLY in the month of February. We are authors and artists first. We can talk about books during any time of the year. Parents STOP censoring books based on the cover. At the least, read the flap, skim a few pages, then decide if your child can or cannot relate.
So, that’s my two cents. Buy a book. Share a book. Happy reading.
Many thanks to The Renaissance Group, LLC for organizing and publicizing the events.