Young dreamers

I had wanted to write something funny.

I thought I had something to add to recent discussions about the diversity and lack thereof in children’s literature — a unique perspective, perhaps.

I was raised in the midst of these conversations about cultural diversity in children’s media. My father, Walter Dean Myers, has been on the frontlines of this debate since he published his first book in 1969. Mealtime conversations were a steady diet of thinking about the effects and importance of images of people of color, of women, of poor people, of queer people. As a child I was allowed to watch as much television as I could stand, but I would have to keep a yellow legal pad beside me and record what I saw black people doing, or women doing, or Asian people doing. I learned how so much storytelling uses stereotypes and how media shapes our perceptions of others and ourselves. This type of activity was common in my childhood, and so there are moments in this particular debate (which regularly creeps to the front pages, every four years or so, like the Olympics or the World Cup) when there are incongruities that I find humorous.

It’s strange that we pretend shock at the stagnation, that the numbers of books explicitly dealing with the lives of children of color have not changed significantly in years, though we all purport to keep our fingers on the pulse of this dynamic industry. It’s strange that we search high and wide for causes and solutions, when the solutions are in our very hands, and the causes as well.

I thought I would write an essay that would lace some of this “real talk” with humor, because this conversation, as we have been having it, is old and dry and dour; it is full of chastening, scapegoats, and ashes. And if there’s one thing I know about children, and children’s literature, guilt and self-flagellation are not gifts I want to give to young people.

I really wanted to write something funny.

But today I cannot find a smile.

Last night, the man who shot and killed a young brother, Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty. I have since been vacillating between emotions — sadness, frustration, an acute sense of my own vulnerability as a black man (the police stops, the endless debates with security at publishers as to why I don’t need to go to the messenger entrance), and finally a sense of responsibility.

It is that sense of responsibility I want to share with you.

The recent release of figures by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center is filled with percentages. The good folks in Madison have taken the time to compile statistics, breaking down the numbers of books that feature children of color. Those numbers are dismal and symptomatic of the stagnation that has taken hold of our well-meaning industry. But as with most metrics, they only tell part of the story, and rely on some underlying and underexplored assumptions.

There is some idea that the percentage of books featuring children of color ought to reflect the percentage of children of color in the country. One hears echoes of this idea in all of the “mirroring, reflecting” rhetoric that pervades discussions of literature for young people. From the countless literacy programs that tout the “one good book” notion of creating lifelong readers to the endless anecdotes of authors, illustrators, and readers who identify this or that book in which “they saw themselves for the first time.” While these narratives are often true and heart-warming in their way, this shock of recognition, I think, misses the major point of literature. Literature is a place for imagination and intellect, for stretching the boundaries of our own narrow lives, for contextualizing the facts of our nonfictions within constellations of understanding that we would not be able to experience from the ground, for bringing our dreams and fictions into detail, clarity, and focus. Books allow us a bird’s-eye view of our own lives, and especially how our lives relate to those lives around us.

Part of me would like to make an individual book for each and every child I come across, draw careful sweet portraits of all the Trayvons, Sams, Chitras, Sheilas, and Sadias. But I am less interested in that simple mirroring than in making stories that define the kinds of communities in which those children will grow up. The dual impulse and constant stress of our industry is this tension between the way our work shapes culture, our innovation and imagination, and the way it reflects culture, our inclusion in the amorphous and ever-blameworthy scapegoat that is “the market.” As important as that shock of recognition may be to a child of color, I believe that creating an understanding of what a diverse society ought to look like for all children is more important. I want the kids who read my books to have a framework with which to understand the people they might meet, or even the people that they are becoming. I want the children who see my books to see an encounter with the other as an opportunity, not a threat.

The rhetoric of the trial hinged on precisely this question: whether or not this young black boy, with his bag of candy and his iced tea and his sweatshirt, was a threat. Here is also where I see my responsibility. Although it is unfair, and although it comes with an intricate history, I have the opportunity with every book I make to write this boy as even less a threat than he already isn’t. I get to do in a very public way, that which I do personally every day.

Years ago I stopped wearing hoodies. I found that particular article of clothing would often run me afoul of authorities and had women in elevators clutching their purses ever tighter. But I have found that even when I am not wearing this supposedly threatening piece of clothing, I still wear it metaphorically. My speech, my bearing — so much of it is calculated to direct others’ expectations of me, the associations that come from my race, my metaphorical hoodie. Every meeting with a publisher or media person in which I surprise them with my knowledge of ballet, Vietnamese history, classical mythology, international development, or semiotic theory (topics that I suppose I am not expected to know); every “surprise” of my own identity serves to take that metaphorical hoodie off.

And my work, our work, can serve to do the same for boys like me, like Trayvon Martin. I started as an illustrator, someone who is concerned with images and originality. I habitually catalog images, collecting the clichés so as to avoid them or invert them or play with them. I work to change the popular images of those who have suffered violence to their image, of young women, of working-class people, and especially of young black men, of myself. Images matter. They linger in our hearts, vast “image libraries” that color our actions and ideas, even if we don’t recognize them on a conscious level. The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness, instead of potential threats or icons of societal ills, perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.

Immediately after this latest boy was shot, as the pundits and commentators circled like vultures, one said that Trayvon’s hoodie had killed him. I thought this statement to be an odd bit of rhetorical misdirection, a cynical sidestepping of the hollow-point bullet that pierced the boy’s chest. But the illustrator in me couldn’t help but mentally catalog images of black boys in hoods. I wondered: if the man who killed Trayvon Martin had read The  Snowy Day as a kid, would it have been as easy for him to see a seventeen-year-old in a hoodie, pockets full of rainbow candies and sweet tea, as a threat? What might have been different if images of round-headed Peter and his red hood and his snow angels were already dancing in his head?

keats snowyday Young dreamers

So here, then, is my responsibility. To make images, to tell stories, to trouble the narratives that pervade so many people’s secret hearts and minds. To make books in which black people are not flat emblems of our divided nation, flag bearers for guilt or fractious history, but instead humans full of laughter and love and care for one another and their diverse communities. To augment and enrich the image libraries people carry in their hearts; to give them more than slain civil rights leaders and escaped slaves, people whose lives are steeped in violence both literal and figurative, akin to a McGuffey Reader of tolerance and just as desiccate. Instead, I want to give my readers spaceships, clowns, and unicorns, to depict whole human beings, to allow the children in my books to have the childhoods they ought to have, where surely there are lessons and context and history, but there is also fantasy and giggling and play. To encourage them to open their hearts when they see someone who looks like me, even if that person is in the mirror.

It is a responsibility I hope we share, all of us who love literature and children. It is the responsibility that lies behind the percentages, behind the numbers, beyond the market. When we make books, or write about books, or purchase books, we are affirming a vision of the communities in which we want to live. Through books, we outline a vision for our future. We can no longer stand for our futures to be isolated, segregated, lonely, and angry. We can no longer turn a blind eye to stories that create worlds in which difference is viewed as a burden, a dry educational tool, a threat — or, worse, is simply rendered silent and invisible. Those fictional worlds have very real effects. There are children with fear in their hearts, there are children in caskets, and it is up to us to help the next generations avoid those fates.

Now I will go and write something for those kids, all of them, and it will be funny, I hope, because there are enough sad things in the world, because we are most human when we laugh with one another, feel with one another. This is the point of literature, to widen our view beyond ourselves, to take part in that implied and idyllic community of readers. As a lucky member of that community, who also can make such books, I have a responsibility, one I share with all of you, to create that world in which we want to live, a world with fewer children in caskets. The stories we tell and support, the ones that are funny, or sweet, or heartfelt, are the best way to turn that responsibility into a reality.

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Christopher Myers About Christopher Myers

Christopher Myers is the author and illustrator of H.O.R.S.E, A Game of Basketball and Imagination, and a number of award winning picture books, including Wings, Lies and Other Tall Tales with Zora Neale Hurston, Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll, and several collaborations with his father, Walter Dean Myers. He is currently working on a novel about Joan of Arc, and a picture book about the power of the pen. He lives in Brooklyn.

Comments

  1. amazing and thoughtful post. thank you.

  2. Thank you for this brilliant and eloquent piece. I’ve attempted to articulate some of this in my own work, but you say it so effectively and passionately. I hope everybody, everywhere, gets to read these words.

  3. Beautifully written, Christopher, thank you!

  4. Your essay is so needed. I hope that young and old, publishers and readers, librarians, writers/illustrators and teachers alike pass the word. We will shake that stagnation and prove those statistic numbers wrong, one book and person at the time. I believe no effort is too small, even if it only translates in re-posting, sharing what you wrote on other social platforms. You and many others have created a buzz this summer by giving a kick in the anthill, and even from abroad it’s a calling that is heard. A big thank you to all the book reviewers, publishers and people coming together to make cultural diversity in children’s book a reality (CBC Diversity, The Birthday Party Pledge, and more…).

  5. May this become the preface to an acceptance speech for a prestigious award for a very funny book. Thank you Walter first, for all the years of fatherhood as well as writing, and now Christopher, for knowing exactly what you’re doing.

  6. Thanks Chris Myers.

  7. Miriam Lang Budin says:

    Thank you, Mr. Myers, for this well-reasoned, passionate, eloquent piece. I look forward to your next book as much as I’ve enjoyed and admired your previous work. (That’s saying a lot!)

  8. Satia Marshall Orange says:

    Whatever the the naysayers’ motivation, thank you for “making it plain” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. used to say. If publishers, and publicists, and editors and others want to shirk their share of the responsibilities to the future of this country, those of us dedicated to that future of ALL young people will continue the work. We can thank those with the talents and expertise and dedication who bring the world alive in print with broader skills than ours. We will stay in our libraries, our schools, our communities, our streets and our homes to share the realities of the histories that have brought us “thus far on the way.”

  9. Thank you so much Christopher for your beautiful writing and also asking us all to take responsibility for the ongoing tragedies we see all around us.

  10. Regina Griffin says:

    What I found most lovely about your essay, is that it is not only passionate, it is compassionate toward all parties. Thank you for answering this every single day.

  11. Very much needed, Chris. I too have been saying, “I want to write a story. Just a story.” But something always distracts me from that. Whether it’s a girl trading away her girlhood or a boy whose sister-in-law gathered up his hoodies and threw them in the trash after the police described their “suspect”–these ongoing stories have made it difficult to ignore too commonplace occurrences that can only lead to cyclical despair and certain tragedy. We must still write these stories, and write the others, the funny stories, the adventurous stories, the love stories simply because we’re here in all of our color and all of our experiences. Write truthfully, but don’t let injustice steal your joy.

    • Margaret Yatsevitch says:

      You are one to do this, Ms. Williams-Garcia. I just read One Crazy Summer and came away with a glowing sense of the SPIRIT and GUMPTION of the girls. I thought, “Wow! What energy, what a spirit of adventure!” You know HOW to write these stories. I look forward …. (^v^)

  12. Recently, I heard Shane Evans give a talk at Simmons College, and in addition to speaking about his life and work, he sang a couple of songs. In the refrain of one, he encouraged everyone to sing, an audience of over a hundred, and so we did. We sang the word “love” over and over and over again. We must have said it fifty times until it reverberated in our minds even after we were done.

    I heard that refrain again after finishing your piece. And I hope to hear it for years to come.

    • Elissa Gershowitz Elissa Gershowitz says:

      I heard Shane speak at Simmons, too. I could listen to his inspiring words all day.

  13. Chistopher! You are a wonderful human being. I can’t even imagine how proud Walter and Connie are of you. Your essay should be obligatory reading for everyone in the children’s book field: authors, editors, publishers, librarians, teachers. No. Not the children’s book field. Everyone. Period.

  14. Powerful, heartfelt essay, Chris,

    Love your point that the causes and solutions are in our hands. This line got me: “I have the opportunity with every book I make to write this boy as even less a threat than he already isn’t.” So true. With our gift comes responsibility. The kids are counting on us to help people see them – really see them. Not the stereotypes. Not the caricatures. But their beautiful, intelligent, vulnerable, imperfect, funny, sweet selves. And I do think the mirroring part is important too. Kids need to see themselves.

    Your commentary about Peter in the red hoodie in A Snowy Day was so poignant. Wow, what if that was the sweet image that came to people’s minds? What a transformative thought.

    I believe that our kids need all of it – laugh-out-loud stories, fantastic tales that send them flying through space and time, historical books that show how children held on to love and faith in the face of trials. We can give them that.

    Thank you, Chris, for your rallying call. Appreciate you opening your heart and asking us to open ours.

  15. I cried. And i listened to my heart stories of all the children i know. Thank you ! I’m up for the challenge to write these stories of our community of children, bc it’s needed and bc they need it too. It’s not easy but we must do it. Gracias de corazon porque nuestros hijos y hijas son un regalo de Dios no prestados pero nuestros. What we we do with their stories is for us and them to tell, and for the world to listen. Thank you again for reminding us…

  16. Christopher – such a poignant, masterful, necessary, heartbreaking post. I am sharing it with everyone I know, whether in the industry or not. I feel like every season when I see the new catalogs from the publishers (just about all of them, and especially the majors) that nothing will ever change. That my big question – where are the books, plural, LARGE PLURAL, with multicultural characters, where no one’s a slave or coming over in a boat from Cuba or in a foster home – will never be answered. That the child of color will always be the best friend, or the poor student.

    I know that there is a huge place for the stories of the past, so that we don’t forget, so that we *see* people, but what about the books where the children see themselves, and their friends, and their classmates? Where are the Corduroys? That book should have been the first in a long, long line of classics where the main character just happens to be a child of color – not the main example I pull out of such.

    The fact that I can often rattle off all the upcoming books from a particular publisher that feature children of color just living their lives is the most depressing thing about this industry. Penguin is the one I went through and counted, and there are exactly 2 new pieces of fiction in their fall list that feature children of color on the cover.

    We have to do better. I guess all we can do is keep shouting that until it actually happens.

  17. Laura W. says:

    I had recently purchased a copy of The Snowy Day for my daughter and put it aside for winter reading. Instead, I think I’ll introduce her to the adorable child and his red-hooded snowsuit at bedtime tonight.

  18. martha rago says:

    So thoughtful, Chris, and thank you! I plan to share this far and wide!

  19. Debbie Vilardi says:

    Amen.

  20. Thanks Chris for articulating not just the frustration but the challenge embedded in the publishing statistics and news headlines. What amazing teachers your parents have been! If more kids were given tools to be discerning about the imagery they saw in the media there’d be less of a head-in-the-sand policy when what’s needed is engagement and action. I’m proud of you. We all are. This says eloquently what so many of us feel so deeply and hope to articulate in our books.

  21. Phoebe Yeh says:

    A must-read for all of us truly, but especially, those of us who care about children. Thank you, Chris for reminding us about our collective responsibility to each other and to our young people.

  22. Karen Backstein says:

    This is absolutely stunning–a work of genius and truth. Thank you so much, Chris Myers, for going beyond the statistics, for going beyond “mirroring,” and for speaking about the power of literature open hearts and minds. And of course it is so beautifully written. This is an article I shall share, because everyone should read it.

  23. Nina Crews says:

    Thank you, Chris. Beautifully said and very astute. You made so many important points – about the value of literature and the role we writers and illustrators can play. I am saving this one. You said so much of what I think and feel, and much more articulately!

  24. Maria Modugno says:

    So much to think about–and so intelligently expressed.I will be passing this article along to so many others. Thank you

  25. Thank for your thoughtful words, but even more so, thank you for the work that you do. This is going to be required reading – and discussing – for the pre-service teachers in my children’s literature courses.

    • Chris, your piece is so eloquent, and so needed. But Melissa’s mention of CORDUROY, with its apparently middle class heroine also hit home. We live in a multi-cultural society, yet there is a sort of bland beige of characters in too many books. I came up against this in a picture book I wrote, illustrated by someone else. When my story, BIG GEORGE, a simple picture book biography for young children of our founding father, was waiting for an illustrator. I pointed out to the publisher that I hoped the illustrations would reflect the reality that the army of rebels included one out of four African Americans in its ranks, I was told they didn’t want the book to look like a “Black History” offering. I was shocked, and still am, although I admit that the book’s final finished art did include a few tan soldiers.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I am a children’s book illustrator, and this resonated with me because of decisions I made to depict a manuscript with a black heroine. I chose to make her that way because when I read the story, I simply “saw” her that way, using my tried and true imagination muscles I’ve used for all past books and assignments I’ve worked on.

    There was questioning as soon as the publisher saw my character designs. It was shocking to me. I set out with my usual mindset to illustrate as I always do for ALL children, and not just one. Exploring all possibilities is something we learn as illustrators in art school too: try all versions until one feels right. Explore. Push. So I did. And there the character was. She was of mixed race. I had done my end of the deal, I was hired to illustrate and when I’m hired to illustrate I like to think I am not just a hired hand, but a co-creator, bringing something creative to the table too, and adding to the story. As an illustrator, possibility is a tool I use right along the colored pencils and paint.

    So I stood by my vision, because 1) I’m stubborn and 2) I thought: I’ve done my job and why not! It was a simple story NOT ABOUT RACE at all, but a simple story, in a creative world, with lots of children and the main character just happened to be black/mixed race. I wondered if marketing had anything to do with it. No matter where the resistance in the publishing house was coming from, I had a chance here, to make a tiny ripple, put a black child at the center and it was causing a stir. I wondered/hoped it was a good thing.

    I was grateful to be given the go-ahead and worked on the book, unsure of myself, worried after that point that I had disappointed the author or publisher, but as I made the work, I began to focus on the characters instead, my initial vision. Sure enough, when the book published, it sold well, and continues to do so today…

    I still receive letters and notes from mothers of color, mixed race, even clerks at stores where it stocked. Little girls have written via their mothers “thank you, she looks like me, it’s a rare thing”… and “so glad it’s not a book just ABOUT black history and she is the main character!”… What Christopher says is true, all children need to see the SCOPE. The humanity. We are all human and we have silly little every day stories to tell, and as creators, we should feel honored to be able to stretch and play with perception, illustrate possibility for all. It’s the LITTLE STORIES that build new worlds.

    Keep going, image makers, keep going. Thank you, thank you Christopher.

  27. I’d like to say that authors can make ourselves heard with regard to the illustrations that accompany our texts. Wherein there was no related plot/thematic point, I’ve mentioned in passing to editors that, say, Santa could work with elves of color and that black and brown folks do live in small southwestern towns. My suggestions have been welcomed with enthusiasm. We may not have control, but we have voices. We can use them to great (and small) effect.

  28. Sorry for the typo in my earlier post. One out of 8 , not 4, Revolutionary War soldiers were African American. I’m happy Cynthia that you’ve had no problems including people of color in your books and that your voice has been heard. I haven’t had such luck with 2 books (BIG GEORGE, Harcourt, and THEY CALLED HER MOLLY PITCHER, Random House) But that may be that authors of picture books have so little control once the story is ready for illustrations. I hope it’s only oversight and not policy

  29. Thank you for writing this, Chris. The whole thing is gorgeous, but I especially love this line: “When we make books, or write about books, or purchase books, we are affirming a vision of the communities in which we want to live.” That is the crux of it, I think, and why here at Lee & Low deep down we’ve always felt like what we do is a political act. In some sense, each book is a vote, a step in one direction or another.

    You’re right that we have to go beyond the statistics, beyond the mirror/window rhetoric (important as it is). If each book is helping to shape the future, all of us – creators and readers alike – need to consider what we want the world to look like and seek out the books that will help get us there.

  30. As a children’s picture book author, I am doing my part to show kids of all colors and creeds in my publication. It has been a difficult road trying to get, what I feel, is an empowering message out there. Some of the responses/suggestions form various editors have been bordering on moronic. It has been eye-opening to say the least.

  31. I spend all my professional life talking about how important children’s books are, but sometimes I start to secretly doubt it, that maybe there is no point to telling a story after all. Thanks for this reminder of the effect of childhood stories, how internalizing The Snowy Day might have saved or at least definitely changed lives. I needed that.

  32. Thanks so much for this thought-provoking essay. As a primary teacher I am reminded of the power, and corresponding responsibility, we have to “enrich the image libraries people carry in their hearts” by the books we read with our students and choose for our classroom libraries.

  33. Thank you, Chris, for articulating so well the world in which we live. I too will share your article with many including my teacher daughters.

  34. This is a pitch perfect essay, Bach or Monk could not have done better. Each point eloquently leading to the next and perhaps most importantly, making clear that there is still a positive direction to take in response to the destructive ignorance and prejudice still surrounding us all. Beyond this, as Executive Director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, I was deeply touched that The Snowy Day, and the character of Peter, crunching through the snow in his red snowsuit, were presented as examples of how images from children’s literature can change the mental “profiles” we carry through life. Thank you Chris.

  35. Thank you Christopher!
    Industry friends, are you listening? Are you really listening?

  36. Christopher, your parents sure raised a good son, in many ways. I first saw your dad’s and your work when I was with Scholastic in my 20s. In fact, your collaboration, Harlem, was the first picture book I ever bought, and it was years before my daughter was born. That artwork is amazing, and it has been on display in my office with my other favorite books. I came across this post while I was looking at Nicole Tadgell’s site, which had a link here. Thank you for your perseverance in your work. You are a positive force, and have affects on people that you will never know.

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