Editorial: Books Built from the Ground Up

I thought I was just doing a solid for a colleague when, over on Read Roger, I  posted a link to a provocative post on Lee & Low’s blog that asked, “Why Hasn’t the Number of Multicultural Books Increased in Eighteen Years?” Lee & Low, whose publisher Jason Low was interviewed in these pages in March (“Jack [and Jill] Be Nimble”), got a gaggle of knowledgeable children’s-book watchers to speculate on some answers; on the blog I simply added a mild shot at publishers whose efforts at multiculturalism seem to begin and end at the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

My post received more than one hundred responses, a record around those parts rivaled only by that time I wondered aloud about why so many more men than women take home Caldecott gold. Race and gender are probably the two most surefire comment-getters in children’s book blogging (except perhaps for blogging about blogging, proving that in the digital world, as elsewhere, there’s little people like more than talking about themselves).

Accusations of racial (and gender) inequity have been targeted at children’s books since the 1960s, most notably in Nancy Larrick’s “The All-White World of Children’s Books,” published in Saturday Review in 1965. And while no one could rightfully claim that nothing has changed since Larrick’s complaint, the numbers are stubborn. Larrick estimated that less than seven percent of children’s books published from 1962 to 1964 included any mention or illustration of African Americans; Lee & Low’s blog cited the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s ongoing accounting that puts the percentage of books about any nonwhite people at an average of ten percent over the last eighteen years. This is not progress.

I worry that one thing getting in the way of progress is the terms of the debate. We frame the need for more books about nonwhite people (we abjure the term “multicultural books” around here because it is both loaded and inexact) as a moral imperative, books that should be published. Unfortunately, what gets published as a significant part of our measly ten percent are books that should be read, books whose social worthiness is the first — and sometimes last — thing you notice. You get what you ask for, I guess, but just how much good-for-you reading can a child be expected to do? So many books about people of color come with instructions from the top down, seeming to say, “I am a book your History demands you should read.” That’s a lot to lay on a reader. In fact, that’s a lot to lay on a book.

That’s why I was so pleased when Christopher Myers sent us his essay “Young Dreamers,” featured on our website. In it, he commemorates one young man in a hoodie — Trayvon Martin — and remembers one little boy in a hood — Peter, from Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. Red-hooded Peter has seen the rounds of acclaim and controversy, winning the 1963 Caldecott Medal and garnering praise and welcome for its depiction of an African American child in an “everyday” situation, but subsequently being questioned by critics (Nancy Larrick among them) for Peter’s mother’s weight and dress and because Keats was white. But among children, Peter has always thrived. Children, regardless of color, recognize him as one of themselves, his pleasures their own. The Snowy Day lives because it starts with how the world looks to kids, its message not handed down from above but built from the ground up. Give us more books like it and watch that ten percent turn to twenty.

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Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

Comments

  1. I have stopped buying “multicultural” books, anything on civil rights and pretty much every biographical or historical picture book no matter the color of the subject. They don’t circulate and in a small library it’s a misuse of my budget. However, give me more EllRay Jakes, more Sugar Plum Ballerinas, more books like Confetti Girl by Diana Lopez and they will fly off our shelves regardless of the color of the child who is reading them. Kids, at least the ones in my town, don’t want to read about their cultural history, they want to read about kids who look like them going to school, interacting with their families, and having adventures. Even the Jake Maddox sports stories, which featured kids of color, albeit strange color, on the covers are more popular than the nth book about MLK, no matter how beautifully illustrated it is.

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