I was a child bookworm. When I was a young girl, my parents read to me religiously, and after learning to read myself, if I wasn’t playing sports, I almost always had my face in a book. Even after several readings, I remember feeling Lisa’s disappointment when she didn’t get Corduroy on that first visit to the store with her mother. I can only imagine how my parents felt when I repeatedly asked them if we could live in a cool treehouse like Sister Bearfrom “The Berenstain Bears.” I tore through series such as “The Baby-Sitters Club,” “Ramona Quimby” and “Nancy Drew.” These books influenced me in ways that I likely don’t even realize.
Too often, children’s books featuring Black characters fall short of our wholeness.
But one thing I did come to realize is that, with very few exceptions, I grew up immersed in books with characters who didn’t look like me.
When I was pregnant with my first child eight years ago, books were high on the list of things my husband and I needed to get, right alongside the car seat, crib and changing table. I didn’t realize how challenging and time-consuming it would be to find a collection of books that portrayed a child that would look like mine. All of the books didn’t need to reflect my little one’s image, but I wanted to introduce books that would mirror my children and their everyday joy, adventures and relationships.
Instead, I kept running into books that mostly showed Black characters. Although it’s important for Black — and really all — children to grow up and be exposed to history so they are able to have context about how the world is today, it’s equally crucial for children to see Black characters in ordinary, relatable storylines.
As a future mother, I wanted my Black children to see themselves in a variety of books. I imagined my little ones nestled in my arms, turning the pages to reveal words and illustrations that would stay with them, fostering a sense of wonder and belonging.
It wasn’t until I read Denene Millner’s 2018 New York Times essay “Black Kids Don’t Want to Read About Harriet Tubman All the Time” that I found a voice to what troubled me in my earlier attempt to curate an at-home library for my children.
As Millner (who is publishing my forthcoming book) stated, too often, children’s books featuring Black characters fall short of our wholeness.”You can fill nearly half the bookshelves in the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture] with children’s books about the civil rights movement, slavery, basketball players and musicians, and various ‘firsts,'” she wrote. “These stories consistently paint African-Americans as the aggrieved and the conquerors, the agitators and the superheroes who fought for their right to be recognized as full human beings.”
While it is important to preserve the accounts of our struggle for that recognition, it is but a part of who we’ve been and who we are. Millner’s words felt like a call to action.
When the scope is customarily limited for our children, how does it impact their identity? What are we telling Black children when they are too often absent from stories about joy? What does it say to non-Black children who are unaware of our absence in the stories and narratives they are given and learn to love? What are we showing all of our children when the space that Black people are most likely to fill, if they are present at all, is that of the aggrieved or the sidekick in someone else’s story?
Opening a picture book is often the first time that children are introduced to characters who bring life to their imagination, both the fanciful and the possible. They get a glimpse of lives outside of their own and a front-row seat to the adventures of their friends and peers and of an everyday existence that normalizes their humanity. These beloved books with rich illustrations are in some ways validation of the world these children will come to know and the values they will take to heart.
It is why, I believe, my 7-year-old daughter was so excited when we picked up Amanda Gorman’s “Change Sings.” The first thing she said was, “She has a puff just like mine.” I also believe this is why my 5-year-old son likes to read “Crown” by Derrick Barnes. He thinks of his barber, Mr. Nelson, and the fresh haircut he gives him on his visits to the shop with his dad.
Growing up, I pictured myself in any number of professions, but being a children’s book author was never one of them. Then again, becoming a mother set me up to do many things I had never considered. When you’re a Black mother to Black children, in today’s America, what you need to become takes on an added significance.
Research has shown that while progress has been made to diversify children’s books racially, it has been slow and not where it needs to be to match how diverse the U.S. has become. I hope to see even more books featuring Black characters, where race is an afterthought as it is for their non-Black peers. I am not the first person seeking to improve the literary landscape. I stand on shoulders of decades past and more recent. I also know I will not be the last author to hear Millner’s call to action. The effort to ensure a full portrait of our children is never-ending.
Being Black should not define who we are, the pages we appear on or where we belong in this world — nor should it determine our absence in the hearts, minds and lives of other children.