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Lack of black children’s books are still a problem

As we become a more multicultural America, these stories are important for all kids

My mother and my father remember chatting with friends at a nondescript table at the 1989 American Library Association (ALA) annual conference. Sitting with them were Walter Dean Myers, Jim Haskins, Virginia Hamilton and her husband Arnold Adoff — all award-winning writers of fiction and nonfiction about the black experience.

For writers and editors, ALA was, and is, the place to be to pitch ideas, make deals and meet people in the publishing world.

As my parents and their friends shared stories and caught up, Haskins joked that if someone rolled a grenade under the table, black children’s literature would be set back several decades.

They all laughed. The world had changed since the racist stereotypes portrayed in Little Black Sambo in the early 1900s and the black cannibal Oompa-Loompas from the earliest editions of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory published in 1964.

Yet, nearly 30 years after the six authors shared a laugh over the fact that they represented the vanguard of black children’s literature, the publishing world still grapples with issuing books that children of color see themselves in. The representation of black children in animation isn’t the only place where images have evolved. The literary industry’s efforts have grown, too, but given the intricacies of race in this country, publishing books for children of color is complicated.

This year began with the release of A Cake for George Washington, by chef and food writer Ramin Ganeshram. The story of the slave Hercules and his daughter looking for ingredients for the first president’s cake elicited such harsh criticism, including softening the brutality of slavery, that Scholastic Inc. pulled it after 12 days.

It reminded me of the criticism my parents faced with their 1994 picture book Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in Quarters, which was also published by Scholastic. My parents, like Ganeshram, wanted to highlight all aspects of black life in this country. Their book won awards and critical acclaim, but some librarians and parents questioned the images and the reason behind telling the story of holiday traditions of slaves and slave owners.

As I say, publishing books for children of color, especially black children, is complicated.

In 1985, Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin began documenting the number of books it received each year that were written or illustrated by African-Americans. The first year, there were about 2,500 children’s books published in the United States — only 18 were from black authors or illustrators. By 2001, the center estimated that 99 out of approximately 5,000 books published were from black authors and illustrators.

Since then, the number of books created by black authors and illustrators has stagnated. In 2013, in a piece called I See White People, the book center’s director Kathleen Horning counted that by midyear there were 191 picture books with human characters, 28 of which featured a child of color as a protagonist.

Horning wrote that “people of color fare a little bit better in nonfiction than they do in picture books.” She received 342 books about people, 60 of which are about people of color.

I was surprised the number was still so low in nonfiction books for children of color because I grew up with parents who were hailed as pioneers who helped bring African-American history out of the shadows and into classrooms, libraries, and homes.

Telling the true stories of the role black people played in building America was missionary work, my father would say. My parents’ motivation wasn’t fame. They were driven by the notion that generations of American children would grow up not believing that black people contributed little beyond slavery, music and athletic accomplishment.

That notion matters even more today as our population becomes more multicultural. There remains a need for more books by writers of color that entertain as well as unravel twisted norms about race, gender and class.

All of this is not to say we should replace white characters with black ones, but extend the canon to allow a diversity of characters in a variety of settings and stories to exist for a child to discover.

Smart multicultural approaches to children’s literature should not be a calculus to placate concerns by people of color over lack of representation in books, nor should it be a marketing ploy. In the end, seeing full characters can have a lifelong effect on how a person considers the world around him.

My parents, Patricia C. and Fredrick L. McKissack, started writing together in 1982. A few years earlier, mom, an editor, turned to freelance writing and adjunct teaching at local colleges. Dad left career as a civil engineer with the U.S. Army to join her. Their goal was just to survive. They worried about us three boys, as times were lean. We’d never seen them so happy, walking together to their tiny office — because they wanted to save gas.

Mom wrote; dad unearthed facts, found the most obscure photographs for their nonfiction books, was the first reader of her fiction, and made sure my mother was always in the right position to succeed.

By the time of my father’s death on April 28, 2013, the McKissacks — Mom, Dad, Pat, Fred, one always with the other — published more than 100 books for children and young adults, and shared two Coretta Scott King Awards, a Newbery Honor Book, and a NAACP Image Award. In 2014, a year after my father’s death, they were recipients of the American Library Association’s Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award. Although his name isn’t on other fiction awards, my mother tells anyone and everyone that it was always a team game.

In my own life, I still hear grown folks wonder out loud about the contribution of black people to America. Less than I did as a child, but still it can be disconcerting. However, when I help mom go through correspondence from teachers and students, she smiles when she receives a warm greeting from a child, teacher, or librarian who says that reading about Randolph and the Pullman Car Porters union, or the life of Sojourner Truth, or the bravery of the Tuskegee Airmen changed their outlook about their world and the people around them.

In that way, her struggle to tell these stories was worth it. Today, five of the six authors at the table back in 1989 are gone. But they’re not forgotten. Their literary successors are building on their work to find new ways to tell and show stories.

Frederick McKissack, Jr. is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and the author of Shooting Star, and co-author of Best Shot in the West and Black Diamond: The Story of the Negro Baseball Leagues.