Beyond The Friends

guy friends 203x300 Beyond The FriendsIn 1973 Rosa Guy’s YA novel The Friends [read the original Horn Book review here] electrified the world 
of African American children’s books. The Friends was one of the 
first novels for teens to tell a distinctly African American story, 
highlighting issues of race, class, and identity that black children deal with on a daily basis. The protagonist, Phyllisia, navigates an urban landscape and its dangers, from violence to racism and beyond. In her New York Times review, Alice Walker called The Friends an “important book,” and to support this designation, she drew readers’ attention to the state of the world of literature, in which it was possible for a black girl to go the first twenty years of her life without reading a story with a “person like herself” as the protagonist.

Fast-forward forty years, and novels for black teens now claim their share of the market. Comedy. Drama. Romance. Poetry. Historical. Literary. Popular. From Monster by Walter Dean Myers to Coe Booth’s Kendra to the Drama High books by L. Divine to the lyrical novels of Jacqueline Woodson and Angela Johnson, there is a wide spectrum of books written for, or about, black teens. And yet as a teenager growing up in this era of increased visibility, I had the same experience as the young black girl Walker described — the one who never saw herself in books.

When I was a teenager in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was into Sailor Moon, the Spice Girls, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but most of all I loved to read. I didn’t normally read African American children’s or young adult novels. I found those too gloomy. Instead I primarily read romance novels from Harlequin’s black romance imprint, Kimani Arabesque.

The reason I chose to read these books was not for the plots, which, let’s face it, were in most cases convoluted and predictable. Nor did I choose to read them for the sex, although that was a bonus. I read these books because they were the only ones I could find with regular middle-class black people leading lives to which I could relate and aspire.

I had a relatively typical middle-class upbringing. I lived in urban Minneapolis in a Tudor home that needed a lot of work but had potential. Sometimes I rode my bike to visit my best friend two blocks up, but I spent the majority of my days with my nose in a book. I went to a college preparatory school for middle and upper school, which I appreciated because all of the other kids there were as energized about learning as I was. In other words, I was a geek.

kendra Beyond The FriendsI spent a lot of time in the library, where I found plenty of novels about black teen girls — black teen girls getting abused, black teen girls getting pregnant, black teen girls getting exploited. (The best-known example of the books I was finding is probably Sapphire’s 1996 novel Push, made into the film Precious.) Like The Friends, each of these books tells an authentically African American story. But though I was supposed to be able to relate to these books because the characters looked like me, they did not tell my story.

With a few exceptions, the existing body of African American young adult literature focuses on the urban poor and the issues they face. In All the Right Stuff by Walter Dean Myers, a drug lord attempts to recruit the protagonist into a life of crime. I can’t relate to that. The title character in Coe Booth’s Kendra is a fourteen-year-old girl who fears teenage pregnancy so instead has oral sex around school with her best friend’s love interest — a guy she does not particularly like or care about. I can’t relate to that. In Broken China by Lori Aurelia Williams, the title character is a thirteen-year-old single mother who loses her baby to a fluke infection and is pressured by a predatory funeral home owner into beginning a career as a 
stripper. I can’t relate to that, either.

My aim is not to suggest that these types of books should not exist. Many of these books are beautiful and sensitively written, and they tell stories that need to be told. I also don’t want to suggest there are not books that break this pattern. One of my favorite books of all time, The Road to Memphis by Mildred Taylor, concerns a landowning black family in the 1950s. More recently 37 Things I Love (in no particular order) by Kekla Magoon tells the story of middle-class Ellis, whose major conflict is coming to terms with the idea that her father is in a coma and may never wake up, but also deals with more universal issues such as friendship and identity.

magoon 37 things i love 210x300 Beyond The FriendsStill, it seems as if books written for black teenagers disproportionately feature poor families and their struggles to achieve fundamental needs. So even forty years after Walker’s review of The Friends, there are still black girls and boys who have spent the first twenty years of their lives without reading novels featuring characters like themselves.

The conflation of blackness with urban poverty is not something that occurs only in literature. In Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, John L. Jackson Jr. discusses the “performative” nature of blackness. Jackson argues that though black Americans are from a variety of different backgrounds, they perform the culture of “Harlemworld,” which ascribes blackness overall to the culture of impoverished urban blacks. This conception of homogenous blackness has worked itself into depictions of African Americans to the point that it’s hard to find images that don’t conform to this idea. As a teenager I searched for books that dealt with the isolation I felt as one of the only black students at my school. What I found instead were stories about teenage mothers who could barely read. My inability to relate to the black protagonists in the books made me feel like I wasn’t black enough, and in the deepest parts of me I even wondered if this image was all I was expected to be. Now I know there is not just one way to be black.

So…

Can we please see more black geeks in African American young adult literature? More protagonists who are so worried they’ll never date that pregnancy isn’t even an issue? More black teens living mundane middle-class lives? Just because urban ghetto life is one black story, it doesn’t mean that it’s the only story. As groundbreaking a novel as it was, can we move beyond The Friends?

From the January/February 2013 Horn Book Magazine.

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Comments

  1. Lynne Keith says:

    I read Ms. Hare’s article, Beyond the Friends, and could not agree more. I am the YA selector for Twinsburg Public Library in Twinsburg, Ohio. We are a very diverse community with a large population of middle-class African-American families. I try to order as much as I can for this group of readers, and do also feel most of the fiction for this group features a more urban setting (although the teens do like these books quite a bit). I would be interested to see if any one could come up with some more suggestions.

  2. I don’t think we can ever be satisfied in the realm of African American literature until we come to an acceptance of the plurality of African American-ness itself. Just 10 years ago people were saying the opposite: that there were no stories being told in YA literature that the low-income Black teen reader could relate to. Authors like Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Flake, and the Bluford Series got the ball rolling with wonderful works, and were even awarded for some of their titles. But it wasn’t enough; something was *missing* – the gritty reality of daily living in the ‘hood wasn’t being told loud enough to capture the interest of teens who live in those spaces. So KaShamba Williams published the Platinum Teen series, then L.Divine came out with the Drama High series, and now we have a nice representation of inner-city stories from a wide variety of good authors, seemingly now to the dismay of middle class YA readers who have had authors to grab on to for years: Sharon Draper, Christopher Paul Curtis, Mildred Taylor, Jacqueline Woodson, Nikki Grimes, Julius Lester, Rita Williams-Garcia, Angela Johnson, and Walter Mosley (who would jump in there with a title every once in a while), to name a few.

    So no; It’s not that black middle class YA literature is missing. It’s not that YA street lit/urban fiction has usurped “good quality” literature. It’s what educators – librarians and teachers – are focusing on as to what they perceive are the “trends” in YA literature for African American teen readers. It’s the same old myopic lens that we tend to shove Black teens (and the entire African American reading public, actually) into – either they are this kind of reader or that kind of reader – never an eclectic, curious reader of a wide range of genres, topics, and themes… We don’t view Black teens as readers who are interested in a wide spectrum of literature: there are a lot of isms that can explain that phenomenon…

    And you know how else I can tell that middle class YA black literature is not missing? The Coretta Scott King Awards informs us of what the best of those titles are every – single – year, for the past 40+ years. So if librarians aren’t able to find good titles for the middle class Black YA reading public, they are not looking easy enough – they are not doing their jobs.

    This article annoys me. Deeply. As a Black librarian who has worked in inner-city libraries with inner-city Black and Latino teens who read street lit and every other genre in between – I’m trying to figure out if this whole “can we please get more black geeks in YA literature” is a matter of what teens can or cannot relate to as readers – OR – if it’s a matter of who librarians can or cannot relate to as readers. I actually think the latter is the crux of this issue – and this article.

    Thanks for listening.

    Vanessa Irvin Morris, M.S.L.S., Ed.D.
    Author, The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Street Literature, ALA Editions, 2011.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    The virtues of the CSK Awards are many but I don’t think they speak to the kind of book Hare is looking for, YA novels with “more black geeks . . .? More protagonists who are so worried they’ll never date that pregnancy isn’t even an issue? More black teens living mundane middle-class lives?” The CSK writer award most often goes to nonfiction about black history, or historical fiction, and of course it isn’t limited to YA. Where are the books about contemporary middle-class African American life? Neither Hare nor I would argue that there are none, but are there enough?

  4. Desiree M says:

    I write YA and MG novels with African American protagonists that aren’t poor or pregnant or on drugs. They live in fantastical worlds and face challenges that won’t require an R rating. But it seems like what I write isn’t what gets bought. No sex. No drugs. No heavy profanity. Will I keep writing? Yes, because I know there are African American and other kids who would love a great adventure.

    • I’m a Latina author who writes similar books to yours, except mine are about Latino characters who don’t do drugs, have sex or only worry about being immigration issues. They’re kids facing the hardest years of their lives as every kid in the world except that they also struggle in search of an identity, growing in a cultural limbo. There aren’t many books featuring kids like these out there.

  5. After nearly 10 years in a large urban library system I think what is truly missing is the middle of the road fun books with African American characters. Yes, we have readers who need Myers, and L. Divine. We have readers that need Woodson and Johnson. The same readers may want both at different times. How about something that neither tackles life in poverty, or huge literary issues? Where are the African American equivalents of Sarah Dessen, Rick Riordan, or Meg Cabot? There is a reason Kimani Tru titles are so popular.

  6. Check out thebrownbookshelf.com for great examples of YA novels written by African American authors. There is definitely a need for more.

  7. Deborah Taylor says:

    One of the best books I read in 2012 was Pinned by Sharon Flake which was as multifaceted a YA book about African American Teens as I’ve ever seen. We have a real need for representation from all genres: mystery, science fiction, fantasy, etc.

  8. One truth – and but let me be blunt because I’m older, tired and don’t give a flying fig about publishing politics anymore.

    We can’t get those books through editorial. I remember working for years on a series that two agents couldn’t place. Didn’t matter that I’d been mentored by Patti Gauch, and James Cross Giblin and Jane Yolen and Jerry Spinelli to name a few and had personal referrals. Authors of color routinely comment that they hear “do black people really talk that way?” “Where are the single families?” “Are these middle class families realistic?” In my own case, an editor who, having read about the geeks in a book rejected it with a note “I’m not smart enough to edit this.” Another house “loved it” until they discovered the author (me) was African American. Then the book became unsaleable. The blame? That Barnes and Noble would shelve it in the AA section of the store where it would go to die. So apparently only white authors can write about us in a way that is not common and get those books through acquisitions. And even when treading the same tired civil rights ground, the authors acclaimed for their “authenticity” are those who are not of that race (look at the National Book Awards to see the trend). Or revisit the issue of “whitewashing” covers to conceal the racial identity of both the character.

    There are many AA authors who quietly confess that even when acquired the book that is published bears no resemblance to the original “voice” in the book when acquired. One author’s novel that I critiqued in its early stages – one that was originally absent of single parents and crime, was released with all of those elements shoved in by the publisher and agent, Still, the editor and agent wonder why the sales aren’t high. And how does an author comment after publication that the “authentic” voice is actually that of a white editor who changed the landscape to make the book more “saleable.”

    Do you see the problem?

    So yes – there are many many commercially established but lesser known authors of color producing those manuscripts – but we are finding no takers. Perhaps its time content creators developed a conduit to market directly to schools, libraries and readers Because God bless my soul not every book about African Americans needs to be about civil rights, slavery, oppression, pregnancy, abuse and disease. Maybe, just maybe, someone will recognize that authors like me write for the kids in my “urban neighborhood”. The ones who despite the literature are being accepted into top colleges in the nation having avoided all of the above. The ones who win national debates, speak more than one language, love science and study abroad. The kids who are hiding in plain site and love to read but crave something closer to their own skin.

    Perhaps it’s time to point out the gatekeepers who suggest there is no market for them. As a writer, and as a mother, and as a Regional Educational Councilor for MIT, let me make it clear – if we DO NOT buy the stereotypical AA books it’s because we don’t want them.

    There is a simple solution – if librarians and booksellers and schools would stop buying every blessed slavery and civil rights book produced, and demand something more substantial that speaks to the students trying to move beyond that limited scope of their history we’d see a change and you’d make my job as a college recruiter easier. If you would demand that publishers allow authors of color to write with the same post-high school vocabulary as Philip Pullman rather than being told by agents and editors to “dumb our language down” (in so many words) we’d see more readers able to get through and ACT or SAT. And we’d see more poorer students not in those situations finding ideas for how to escape their existence.

    One year – at a conference in Houston, an audience member asked about the state of AA literature. Richard Peck was brave enough to stand up and say that publishing ruined the genre because they kept painting African Americans as “victims.” I was the only African American author in the audience and still love him for that to this day. I stood up and applauded.

    So again – those manuscripts are being written, but publishers honest enough to speak to me quietly tell me their colleagues won’t acquire them on the guise that “blacks don’t buy books.” I give as a rebuttal, all the multiple copies of Harry Potter on our shelves. Or the fact that Stephanie Meyer only wrote five books but my daughters have 11 autographed copies on their shelves. And autographed copies of Lemony Snicket’s series…etc. They read what they enjoy, not what makes them feel sad, guilty and depressed.

    They want books featuring children that look like them. That doesn’t mean they have to be slaves, or living in poverty or filling the publisher’s erroneous vision of our lives.

    To publishers:

    The first rule of marketing in publishing should be to stop doing what you’ve already done and failed at and come talk to the target audience.

    To librarians and teachers: The first rule of getting what you need is to look at what you reward? Any “mainstream” Caldecott and Prints and Newbery books from POC out there? Any not from the same limited stable of “go to” authors? Any “fresh faces and voices?” Or are they all shoved into the Coretta Scott King category – a category the ALA Notable’s committee in Jan 2010 called “a minor award” as I sat mystified in the audience?

    And when you go to ALA do you just walk by a book featuring an author of color while rushing to get in the hour long line for the latest bestseller? The one that got marketing dollars when the others did not?

    I know commercially published authors producing the manuscripts you are asking about. Many featured on Book Bookshelf and other lists for their other publications. They would love to be able to stop writing spec, or civil rights or books the publishers hope will catch the eye of the CSK committee. They have contemporary and sci-fi and everything in between still waiting for a home. They want to get out of the AA/Latino/Asian box publishers and agents have trapped them in.

    Want real research – you know my number……Christine Taylor-Butler, founding member Association of Childrens Authors and Illustrators of Color (ACAIC)

    • Pam Zollman says:

      Christine, I’ve always loved your middle-grade sci fi series and I sure hope that it finds a home so that I can buy copies for my grandchildren. You are such a fantastic writer and you’ve made excellent points here. I remember sitting at a table (and being the only white woman sitting there), listening to you and about 7 or 8 other AA publishing professionals (authors, editors, agents) discussing this same issue — and I find it very sad that nearly a decade later there’s been little progress. With your intellegence, your passion, your spirit, I know that you’ll find a way, even if it means starting up your own publishing house or creating a new award, and I can’t wait to watch you do it.

    • Christine, that’s so much more than a comment. That’s an article and I hope you find a venue that will publish it. Huffington Post or TedTalk maybe? I don’t follow either regularly so I could be off base. I don’t know but I thank you for your wisdom and candor. I learned so much that quite frankly never crossed my mind before.

    • Christine,
      Thank you for speaking so honestly on this topic. I am not a person of color (although one could argue that white is a color!) but am writing a YA novel from the dual point of view of a white teen and light skinned AA teen who discover they are second cousins. (Year is 1950). So, i will reread your response again and again –when it comes to seek publication. I agree with Joyce, your post should be “out there” as an article itself.

    • Well said! I’ve been told my Latino characters aren’t believable because they’re not working in a field/factory or worrying about immigration. Someone who read my manuscript without knowing I was Latina, suggested I do research on the Latino community because I was deeply misinformed. That comment still haunts me.

  9. Let’s face it. Children of color primerially don’t read. Music, movies and tv are their entertainment of choice. Why!? Most people read to escape ther current situation. Reading books from the Walter Dean Myers of the world only puts a magnifiying glass on the negaitve aspects of our culture. If we want kids to read, we have to create books that are as much fun as their preferred forms of entertainment. Go to http://www.bigheadbooks.com for a choice of books that feature children of color but aren’t for children of color. THEY’RE FOR CHILDREN.

  10. I agree with much of what is said. I’ve illustrated books for the big boys, but have never sold one that I wrote. Like Ty (whose books I have bought for my kids) I try to write books that are fun. Books that I’d like my own kids to read. In fact, they helped me write my newest middle grade novel. As a dad, I would like to see more books that allow kids to escape as opposed to reminding them of how miserable life can be. As a result, also like Ty, I publish my own books (starting in 1997). You can see samples here: http://jerrycraft.net/products.html
    But as an indy publisher, we’ll never have the reach of the big guys.

  11. I’m late to this conversation but just posted an essay on HuffPo that might interest those looking for Black geeks in YA lit: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zetta-elliott/plunging-into-the-deep-bl_b_4338842.html

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