People of Color in Children’s Books

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The cover of this past Sunday’s New York Times ‘Sunday Review’ section asks “Where are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” Under this heading, a beautiful pair of opinion pieces — one by author Walter Dean Myers and one by his author/illustrator son, Christopher Myers — take up the question of why it is important to challenge what the younger Myers calls “The Apartheid of literature — in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with the legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination or personal growth…”.

Walter Dean Myers calls himself “something of a landscape artist.”  Throughout his career he has strived to create landscapes and worlds that offer inner-city youth an opportunity for “… recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowlegement of their value by someone who understands who they are… the shock of recognition at its highest level.” He did not experience this sort of recognition as a young child. Reading James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues”, as a teen was a pivotal moment.”I didn’ t love the story, but I was lifted by it” he says “for it took place in Harlem, and it was a story concerned with black people like those I knew.”

Christopher builds on his father’s ideas with the notion that children relate to books “less as mirrors and more as maps.” Children “…create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations….. Children of color remain outside the boundaires of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.”

The younger Myers also addresses ‘The Market’ and is critical of how its “demands” are used as an excuse and rationalization for the dearth of children’s books about black people.

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The Myers’ editorials brought to mind exhibits that ran in Philadelphia over this past summer (2013) on Ezra Jack Keats and Jerry Pinkney. Both author/illustrators have devoted their lives and work to tipping the scales back in the other direction, portraying African American children and lives. The exhibits have moved on but, fortunately, good portions of each can be found on line.

Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney ran at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Organized by the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, it is currently at the African American Museum of Dallas, March 7-May 31, 2014.) Pinkney, a Philadelphia native who grew up in the city’s historic Germantown section, is the patriarch, now, of a family full of great contributors to the world of children’s literature. The PMA exhibit, being at an art museum, focussed on his illustrations — with a cozy library installed near the entrance loaded with Pinkney books for the set that didn’t abide by the ‘please don’t touch’ mandate of a major art museum.

A smaller, companion exhibit at the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Drawing on the Reverse Side: The Art and Life of Jerry Pinkney, traced Pinkney’s life from early childhood through college here in Philadelphia: a story of firsts and of pushing through obstacles thrown up by racism. Being the work of the wonderful but chronically-underfunded Free Library of Philadelphia, I couldn’t find much on line about this show, save for a couple of reviews. One in Publishers Weekly, “Move over Rocky: Philadelphia Celebrates Hometown Hero Jerry Pinkney”, gives a nice overview of the interplay of the two exhibits. The book accompanying the PMA exhibit — Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney — provides good biographical background too.

At the same time, The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats ran at the National Museum of American Jewish History. (Organized by the Jewish Museum on New York City, it is opening at the Skirball Cultural Center in LA on April 10, 2014.) The bulk of the exhibit’s content is on its website. To contextualize The Snowy Day‘s publication and the arrival of Keats’ Peter — an African American boy — in the world of children’s literature, one section of the exhibit examined how African Americans had been represented in American picture books prior. This bit of history also provided good context for Pinkney’s life and work.

Keats and Pinkney have each created numerous books that mirrored the landscapes of African American children and offered new maps, working to create “cartographies that have no blind spots” in the world of children’s literature. The lives and work of both stand out, with hope, against the statistics and stories cited in the Myers’ editorials; their lived stories — and the life stories of Walter Dean and Christopher Myers — are good maps for the next generations of children’s book writers and illustrators to take up this struggle.

5 comments

  1. Great post Anna. I had seen the article, but didn’t have a chance to read it yet. I like r notion that books serve as maps and not mirrors.

    1. I think that the “mirroring” function is still really important though. When Walter Dean Myers entered the field, there was a complete paucity of mirrors. Maybe creating them was sort of a fist step — with the idea of creating richer “cartographies” a natural, additional focus for his son and the next generation of writers attentive to these issues. Though there’s no need for it to be an either/or.
      I didn’t write much about Christopher Myers’ comments on The Market which — having just read the article in the New Yorker on Amazon & Bezos’s impact on publishing — I found depressing.

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