When Roger invited me to deliver the keynote for today’s program, I was a bit intimidated. He told me that the idea for the “Mind the Gaps” theme was inspired by Christopher Myers’s essay “Young Dreamers,” published in The Horn Book last November. Christopher’s essay grew from the ongoing question: where are the people of color in children’s books? I was nervous. The topic is huge and complex, and there has been so much said already. What could I possibly add?
Meanwhile, my current library work was causing me headaches and heartache. We had begun preparing our collection for a new radio frequency identification circulation system that required us to do some serious weeding — the library term for removing materials that are damaged, out of date, or not circulating. To assist us with decision making, we print lists of books that haven’t circulated for a number of years. We examine those titles to help us decide what to keep and what to remove.
We always use our professional judgment but, as we engaged in this current task, we were instructed to “be ruthless.” We didn’t want to prepare books for the new system that would be withdrawn within a few months. It would be a waste of money and staff hours. Plus there are space issues. I get it. We can’t keep everything. But it was difficult. I found myself conflicted and saddened by the circulation reports. Too many of the books that I’d always seen as essentials to a good core library collection were on the low- or non-circ list. At first I was noticing only books by and about African Americans — titles like Virginia Hamilton’s M. C. Higgins, the Great and Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush, Jacqueline Woodson’s Feathers and Miracle’s Boys, Robert Lipsyte’s The Contender, and Ouida Sebestyen’s Words by Heart — but I soon began to see other classics, too, both traditional and modern, such as Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins, Patricia MacLachlan’s Arthur, for the Very First Time, Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious, Cynthia Voigt’s Dicey’s Song, Armstrong Sperry’s Call It Courage, Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books, William Sleator’s Interstellar Pig, Dick King-Smith’s Pigs Might Fly.
I’ve never been great at making decisions. My mother knew this well. As a child, when I couldn’t make up my mind about something, I’d ask, “What would you do?” She wouldn’t tell me. She said I needed to learn to make my own decisions. It drove me crazy. Even as an adult I’d sometimes phone with the same question — “What would you do?” — knowing what she’d say but asking anyway…just in case I might catch her in a weak moment. I’ve gotten better, but decision making remains a challenge for me. Ask anyone who has watched me struggle over what to order from a restaurant menu.
“Be ruthless,” I kept telling myself while weeding the children’s and teen fiction. In my mind, I called on Mommy with my usual question, “What would you do?” hoping she would be merciful and speak to me from Heaven. Maybe she did, or maybe I’m finally learning to make decisions, but I returned more of these classic books to the shelves than I withdrew. I kept thinking: if we remove every book that hasn’t circulated in two or more years, what happens when someone does walk in to the library wanting one? I found myself questioning the library universe. What is our mission? In addition to offering trendy titles, aren’t we supposed to do our best to house and preserve wonderful books that aren’t currently popular? In addition to serving those who want the latest hot new series, aren’t we supposed to serve the occasional patron seeking a gem that rarely circulates?
One night, I awoke with the realization that some of the gaps we need to mind were being revealed through this weeding process. That I was living something worth sharing.
A little more than a year ago, an African American teenage girl began visiting our library asking for books by her favorite authors. We had a sampling — Sharon Flake, Coe Booth, Angela Johnson, Sharon Draper, a few Bluford High books, and, of course, Walter Dean Myers — most of which she’d already read. I introduced her to Jacqueline Woodson and Nikki Grimes. Still, we did not have enough to satisfy. One day I asked if she would be willing to share her ideas for the collection. We had a sit-down, and I bought most of what she recommended — titles like Nikki Carter’s Get Over It and Ni-Ni Simone’s If I Was Your Girl. It crossed my mind that she could be our only patron to ever read these books. We don’t have many blacks in our New Mexico community — less than three percent of our population, and so even fewer black teenagers — and some might question spending significant funds for materials targeted toward a small minority. In my particular case, one patron.
I didn’t care. I wanted to serve this reader and learn from her. She would visit the library every couple of weeks and ask, “Did you get anything?” She expressed clear enthusiasm and appreciation when new titles became available. I believe she read everything I bought.
When I checked the circulation stats of her titles during weeding, I found, as I feared, that most showed only one checkout. A few had two, and I hoped the other represented a different reader, not my teenage advisor’s second time around.
It’s been said many times that multicultural literature is not just for people of those particular cultures, but for all people. I agree. Nonwhites read books about whites and vice versa. Literature becomes a window to people and places everywhere, a way of learning and understanding ourselves and others, how we are the same and different. Black teens read many books with white protagonists. I’ve observed this firsthand and have heard them say so. Avid readers of color must read outside their cultures or face limited choices. But I wonder: how many white teens are reading Bluford High, Coe Booth, Nikki Carter, or Ni-Ni Simone? And does it matter?
There’s no doubt in my mind that a child can be changed by what he reads or by the stories she hears. This is why it is important to provide reading materials with the potential to speak to individuals of all backgrounds. Books that entertain, yes, but also provide things deeper. I realize I’m moving into the realm of bibliotherapy here, but this is something in which I strongly believe. I’m not talking about the adult who comes to the library looking for a book to help a particular child deal with a specific problem—death or divorce, perhaps. I’m talking about the magic that can happen all by itself—between a reader and a book—something that can’t be measured. This kind of magic can only happen to children who believe in story. Children believe in story only if they’ve experienced the magic of living in one. This may never happen to young readers with few opportunities to see themselves in the books they read.
Thankfully, it happened to me.
As a young child, my favorite books were the Uncle Wiggily story collections. No question of race there. As I grew older, I became a regular visitor to the bimonthly bookmobile (our only library source). I happily devoured Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Cherry Ames, and Trixie Belden. Although some of these contained embarrassing stereotypes about African Americans (which I simply skimmed over), I nevertheless loved these series. But one book, one character, captured me in a way that these did not.
I didn’t even realize there was a deeper connection to be made until I found Bright April by Marguerite de Angeli. De Angeli gave me a character with whom I could truly identify. April was me. She looked like me, she was in Girl Scouts like me, she had the same feelings as me, her father was a mailman, like my grandfather, she even had the same mother as me — kind and wise. After another adult in the book suggests April’s career choices may be limited, April’s mother tells her, “You are going to learn how to do what you want to do so well that you will find a place for yourself wherever you want to go.” My mother said it to me it this way — “You have to work harder, but if you do, you can shine.”
And later, when April is feeling unhappy about another girl’s unkindness, her mother says, “When you feel edgewise toward someone, it’s a good plan to do something nice for that person.” When I’d ask my mother what to do when other kids said mean things to me, she would say, “Just be as nice as you can be.” De Angeli’s gentle tale entered my heart and never left.
Growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about race. I was a cheerful child. Most times I skipped rather than walked. But Bright April allowed me to look inside myself and admit to the quiet pain I’d felt, but repressed, whenever I was treated differently because of my skin color. April helped me deal with some of the embarrassment of Little Black Sambo and Buckwheat from The Little Rascals. She helped me find a place for these feelings, a good place.
April didn’t ruin Nancy Drew or Trixie Belden for me; she simply helped me to see and feel things differently. She gave me a feeling of pride and hope.
In his Horn Book essay “Young Dreamers,” Christopher Myers wrote:
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.
Christopher says, “Those fictional worlds have very real effects.” This is what I’m affirming in my roundabout way.
Writing Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal was life-changing for me. When I discovered Bass’s story, I felt joy and a bit of sorrow at learning of such an amazing black hero — realizing the difference his story would have made for me and my siblings in our growing-up years of idolizing and pretending to be real and fictional characters of the West — Wyatt Earp, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the Rifleman, the Cartwrights, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Hopalong Cassidy. How proud we would have felt to brag about Bass’s phenomenal memory, his amazing marksmanship, his clever disguises, his sense of duty and honor. We were denied this and many other opportunities to celebrate black achievement. There were few heroic blacks in film and on television. And there were few books and very little, if any, black history taught at school.
My great-uncle Lewis Michaux, owner of the National Memorial African Bookstore in Harlem, worked most of his life trying to change this deficit for as many blacks as one man could. He was a pioneer in bringing diverse books to the forefront. The stories in my book No Crystal Stair of lives affected by Lewis and his bookstore, by his simply saying, “Here are some books about you,” are surely the tip of the iceberg, just those I could uncover. You have to believe in the power of the reading experience to know that magic happens.
So — getting back to my weeding — now that I’ve put books with low-circ figures back on the shelves, I feel a responsibility to help them live on, to somehow encourage young people to read them. I was tempted to check them all out for a week, to get one circ in their summaries for this year. But I didn’t. I don’t want it to look like kids are reading them, I want kids to read them. I want adults working with children to share them.
I can put them on display, which I’ve done. Target them when patrons ask for recommendations, which I’ve done. Booktalk them at schools, if we have the staff to accomplish this and if we can arrange to get into the schools, which can be challenging. I can try to make good use of resources like Integrating African American Literature in the Library and Classroom by Dorothy Littlejohn Guthrie. I can provide library programs focused on African American literature, which I have also done, but generally to small audiences. “If you build it, they will come” is not always true. Don’t get me wrong. These activities can help, but obviously they are not enough.
In the past, as young readers grew, in addition to new releases they enjoyed the books deservedly deemed classic, and each generation did so accordingly. It was part of a reader’s rite of passage. Many of these books were introduced to us by our parents, who read and loved them as children. If today’s young parents aren’t reading them, how can they be passed on? Who can pass them on but librarians and teachers? And the publishers who keep them in print.
We do need more books featuring diverse characters. This is a gap we certainly want to fill with quality books. But it isn’t just about creating and publishing more. The fact that the numbers of books published annually featuring African American characters appears to have reached a ceiling of one hundred or fewer is worthy of note, but I wonder if the numbers are as important as what happens to these books after they are published. Is the issue more about getting young readers — and the adults who influence and work with them — to include in their own reading choices and experiences the wonderful books that are already available, and have been for years, in addition to what’s new and wonderful?
Am I naive in believing these books can still have lives? Am I refusing to remove them from the collection only because I love them — clinging to them like a hoarder who can’t bear to throw away items that were once meaningful but have outlived their usefulness? I’ve always appreciated the fact that, even though books go out of print, I still had access to them through libraries. Just as low sales result in remaindered titles, are low library-circulation statistics the kiss of death? Do the bean counters get to win every time, in every venue?
So what can we do? Much of this has been said before, but here’s my take.
Writers, of course, need to provide good culturally diverse stories, to submit their very best work. Encouraging and nurturing new writers from various cultures is a start. I’m proud to say that Lerner, my publisher, recently created a scholarship to be awarded annually to an MFA student of color enrolled in the children’s writing program at Hamline University. Vermont College of Fine Arts has the Angela Johnson diversity scholarship. And every year, Lee & Low faithfully offers its New Voices Award for children’s authors of color. I say bravo.
Also, I believe we need to get over the notion that only members of a particular culture can write about it. I know this can be a sensitive issue. Certainly an author writing about his or her own culture can bring personal experiences and sensibilities that offer insightful authenticity to the work. But as long as a writer of any color does the research, the homework, and has the talent and sensitivity necessary to create believable/credible characters and worlds, why not? Andrea Davis Pinkney noted in School Library Journal’s May 2014 Diversity Issue: “Authenticity comes from the author’s pen.”
Restricting creativity in this way undermines the sense that there is universality among human beings. Isn’t that one of the reasons we read — to find that connection? If we constantly draw lines, will we ever come together; will we ever find unity?
One way authors and publishers might begin to overcome this artificially constructed racial barrier is to put more characters of color in picture books not necessarily written by authors of color. They might consider more often how the story could work if the characters were not white. Artist Derek Anderson is known for his Little Quack books, but I’m proud to say his first published book was my beginning reader, Ready? Set. Raymond! Although Derek is not African American, his interpretation of Raymond was spot on. And he went beyond my text, delightfully adding more humor and warmth than I had put on the page.
Conversely, black illustrators should be free to create characters from cultures different from their own. Again, I know many do this now, but things could be made easier by removing the cloud of political correctness altogether. Indeed, part of our goal is to identify, nurture, encourage, and mentor new artists and authors of color, but there are other roads to increasing the numbers of culturally diverse books of quality.
What we don’t want is the kind of contrived diversity that is little better than propaganda. ’Tis a fine line we are walking.
There has been discussion that African American literature is top-heavy with historical perspective (slavery, civil rights) and books focused on the urban experience — that we need more books with black characters experiencing what children of any culture might. More books that are funny, as Christopher Myers suggests. We need both. There is still black history to uncover and share, such as Steve Sheinkin’s compelling The Port Chicago 50. Stories that need to be told and retold lest we forget the struggle. But I would also like to see more books that offer the next generation equivalents to Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day, Ann Cameron’s The Stories Julian Tells, and Angela Johnson’s Do like Kyla.
Novels that suggest no particular ethnicity either in the text or cover art are another way to go, allowing readers to connect in their own ways — novels like Virginia Euwer Wolff’s Make Lemonade.
I know publishing is a business and in many ways struggling, so publishers have to make smart decisions. As Lewis Michaux said, “If you’re in the book business, you’ve got to sell books.” But it often seems that heavy promotions go to books that don’t really need them, books that would sell well anyway. I know those blockbuster books are the publishing houses’ meat and potatoes, but wouldn’t it be nice if some of that promo effort could be devoted to helping “smaller” books, those exquisitely delicious side dishes, reach larger audiences?
Andrea Davis Pinkney advises, “We have to really redefine what a ‘successful’ book is.” True. It might help if major publishers could find a way to give those “smaller” books a better chance of finding an audience by extending the time they are kept in print. Small presses seem, more often, to be able to do this. Again, I recognize that publishing companies are not charitable institutions. But my optimistic self believes that people who have chosen to work for and with children are made of different stuff than those who make decisions based purely on profit margins.
The bottom line is buying books — and encouraging others to do so. Every chance we get. It’s up to us, the literary community, to help create a demand for topics we find important. The Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee works hard to promote its award winners and African American literature for children in general. Similar efforts are made by those involved with Pura Belpré, Schneider, Stonewall, the Asian/Pacific American awards, the Sydney Taylor awards, and others. They make a difference, as do each of us in our efforts, large or small, to draw attention to the wonderful diverse books that have been published over the years.
But we’ve been through all of this time and again. I am rehashing much of the conversation that keeps resurfacing and has gone around and around with causes and effects for decades. I wish I were blessed with some divine insight that would allow me to reveal, accompanied by a chorus of angels, THE ANSWER. On the contrary, I am overwhelmed by this discussion. In the words of naturalist John Muir, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
The more I have thought about this big question, the larger it has grown. But we are trying to solve this problem in an age when a big news story is the release of a new iPhone, while ALA struggles to get a one-minute spot on one network to announce the nation’s most prestigious children’s book awards. Is this our world now? To quote one of my favorite library patrons, “Have we dumbed down society so much that what is truly significant is not considered important?”
This conversation is significant. So how do we make it important? The excitement akin to the release of the latest iPhone happens for a handful of books like the Harry Potters and Hunger Games, but we need to stir it up on a broader and more regular basis. Maybe we need to sell out. Or buy in. Perhaps a regular presence on a major network hosted by celebrities who draw viewers. Maybe a weekly or even nightly book segment on a program like Entertainment Tonight. It could be a video version of the ALA “Read” poster with a celebrity (hopefully a sincere and literate one) giving a brief booktalk on a title (old or new), but not the Twilights or Divergents that don’t need promotion. Publishers could take their turns selecting books for the spot with the stipulation that diverse books must be among them. The segments could be posted on the celebrities’ websites, Facebook pages, and blogs, as well. We need the kind of attention that leads to participation. Something equivalent to the ALS ice-bucket challenge, which quickly raised over one hundred million dollars. Am I dreaming? Scheming?
Our task may seem insurmountable, but if we succeed, even individually, wonderful things can happen. This is what I live for, and I am proud to be part of this great work.
From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. This article is adapted from Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s keynote address at the Horn Book at Simmons Colloquium, “Mind the Gaps,” on October 11, 2014.
Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth16 for more articles in this series.