Mister Cellophane

Posted September 11th, 2014

A Good Long WayI recently read a blog post by author René Saldaña, Jr., that got me wondering—and not for the first time—how much effort teachers and librarians, especially, go to when searching for books by authors of color. It is a question worth asking.

The other day, out of curiosity, I Googled myself. I found a whopping 1, 470,000 results listed under my name. These include bios, videos, interviews, periodical features, photos, and, of course, books and audio-books. Wow. And yet, I regularly meet teachers and librarians who are wholly unfamiliar with my work. How is that possible?

Talkin' About BessieNow, I’m not saying my work is the greatest thing since sliced bread, because there are writers out there whose wordsmithing I envy. What I’m saying is that my titles are not exactly in hiding. In fact, throughout the course of my career, I have worked diligently to make sure they’re not. From seeking out bookstore signings, in my early days; to doing school visits; to producing postcards and bookmarks; to creating a comprehensive website; to investing in teacher guides for my books; to developing an online presence via Facebook, and now Twitter—in these ways, and more, I have made a concerted effort to put my work out there. How is it, then, that many people still manage to miss it?

Pocketful of PoemsBefore I go any further, let me say that I am extremely grateful for those teachers and librarians who have sought out and found my work, over the years, and then went on to share it with the students they serve. Obviously, I wouldn’t have much of a career without these literature-loving professionals. They have kept a goodly percentage of my 46 trade, and 20-odd mass-market books in print. I’m hoping they receive to my next two titles with equal kindness. However, after 30+ years in the business, I still routinely hear people say, “I’ve looked for your work everywhere and can’t find it,” to which I respond, “Huh?”

Almost ZeroI have a website featuring all of my titles, awards, audio-clips, and select reviews, with posted links to IndieBound.org and Amazon.com. In addition, I have a Wikipedia page, as well as an Amazon.com page. How hard have you been looking, exactly? I’m confused.

Sylvia Vardell’s must-view Poetry for Children website lists many of my poetry titles. TeachingBooks.net features my Coretta Scott King Award and Honor winners (six in total). I, thankfully, have books on any number of Best Book lists. Tell me again how hard it is to find my work.

Bronx MasqueradeClearly, there’s more to the lack of diversity in children’s books than whether or not POC are creating and publishing them. Could it be that some lack the motivation to seek out the books that are already there? That’s what René Saldaña, Jr., is asking. Now, I am, too.

Mind you, I’m not saying that we don’t need more books by people of color, because we most certainly do. The numbers show that we are woefully off the mark in producing diverse books in numbers commensurate with the proportion of our ever-increasingly diverse population. But that said, I am suggesting that we, perhaps, look at the issue a little more closely, that we ask a few more uncomfortable, but necessary, questions.

René Saldaña, Jr., spoke to this issue from the point of view of an author with a little less visibility than mine. And yet I have to agree with so much of what he has to say.

The juggernaut that is #WeNeedDiverseBooks is hard at work to raise the visibility of books by, and for, people of color. This is great and important work. Still, I can’t help but wonder if there’s more going on beneath the surface that would explain why the gatekeepers in this business continue to miss the POC books—including Coretta Scott King, Pura Belpré, Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and National Book Award Winners—that are already out in the marketplace.

Where, exactly, is the disconnect? Is it the want-to that’s missing? If so, how do we begin to address it?

Let’s talk.

Everything Old is New Again

Posted July 21st, 2014

In preparation for a lecture I was giving on the use of poetic elements to enhance prose, I dug through a few old newspaper and magazine articles I’d written for sample passages in which I had done precisely that. In the midst of my search, I came across a piece of reportage from 1977 that had particular resonance. The title of the piece was “Broadway Orchestras: A Pit of Discriminatory Hiring,” and it was all about a lack of diversity in Broadway theater orchestras, discussed at a public hearing I was sent to cover.

newspaper article

“During this year, the Houston Opera Company produced two major Black shows. The first, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, featured 35 musicians in its orchestra. The second, Porgy and Bess, features a 43 man orchestra. Of these 78 musicians only seven were black. 

“Eleanor Holmes Norton, of the Commission on Human Rights, brought these facts to attention recently in a public hearing entitled “Hiring Practices for Broadway Musical Orchestras: The exclusionary Effect on Minority Musicians.”                       

“The hearings, designed to ‘determine which recruitment and hiring practices result in this (exclusionary) pattern…’ brought out some of Broadways key producers, contractors, and Black musicians. Among them were producers Norman Kean and Philip Rose, contractors Earl Shendell and Mel Rodnon, musicians Gayle Dixon and Jack Jeffers, and actor, producer, director Ossie Davis. 

“What brought on all the hooplah?” 

Akua Dixon

Akua Dixon (photo: James Rich)

Reading this piece gave me chills, for a range of reasons. For one, Ruby Dee, widow of the late Ossie Davis, had just passed. For another, the viola player Gayle Dixon, sister of friend and cellist Akua Dixon, was a personal acquaintance. Akua had just recently mentioned Gayle, who passed years ago. These twin facts were reason enough for my goose-bumps, but there was a third. The piece was about diversity or, more precisely, the lack thereof. In this case, it pertained to Broadway orchestras. These days, a lack of diversity most often pertains to children’s literature, a subject I have addressed on more than one occasion. Apparently I’ve been bumping up against, and speaking out about, this issue for quite some time.

I wonder about the state of Broadway orchestra pits today. It’s been a long time since I last followed up on the subject. I’ll have to get the skinny from Akua. As for diversity in children’s literature, well, in case you haven’t been keeping up, the stats remain pretty dismal. But this isn’t a piece about statistics. This isn’t even a piece about the dollars and sense of publishing and marketing a more diverse selection of books for an ever-expanding, diverse population of readers. Instead, I want to talk about the good of it all. What comes from sharing books featuring children of one race or culture, with readers of another? That’s what I want to speak to.

The Road to ParisI know a thing or two about sharing children’s books across the color line, and not because I’ve taken polls, but because I’ve written and published more than 60 books since I entered this field, in 1977. Over that time, I’ve gathered hundreds of letters and emails from readers. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I’ll wager that a significant percentage of them are something other than African American. Some are Asian, some are Latino, and many are white. How do I know that? It’s usually easy enough to judge from the name but often I don’t have to because the readers, unbidden, choose to mention their ethnicity. Yes, they write to tell me how they feel about my books, but also to introduce themselves. In the process, they share basic information about who they are: their names, ages, schools, grades, where they come from, and their ethnic backgrounds. Mind you, if we adults didn’t make such a big deal of the latter, these young people wouldn’t either!

The notes and letters I receive from children and young adults across the country, and around the world, are very telling. Here’s what I’ve learned from readers:

They like humor.

They enjoy being moved and inspired.

Some have come to my books disliking poetry, but have come to love it. Many have since tried their hand at poetry, themselves.

Some come to my books as reluctant readers, but leave as avid readers.

They relate to my contemporary storylines.

They see themselves in my characters.

As for the color of my characters? Basically, my readers could care less. When they comment on race at all, it is only to explain exactly why race doesn’t matter:

Bronx MasqueradeMariah T. says: “I’m white but to me race doesn’t matter, not one bit, and I’m reading your book Bronx Masquerade, and so far, I love it.”

Zach A. writes: “I think that if most of the characters in a book are not the same race as you, that should not stop you from reading it. That’s racist and just plain silly.”

Ary B. comments: “I stick my nose in your book, and have a hard time taking my nose out of it. I can put myself in your characters’ shoes and pretend to be them, even though I am white. I think African American authors should actually be recognized more, because it is nice to think that instead of assuming everyone is white, which white people tend to think, we are looking at the world in a whole new perspective.”

Can I get an Amen?

Unlike adults, children and young adults get it: the thing that matters most about a book is Story. And when readers are given the opportunity to dive into stories across lines of color and culture, they walk away with valuable lessons, such as:

  • ­We are more alike than we are different.
  • We all bleed.
  • We all experience joy and laughter, suffering and pain.
  • We all need love and blossom when we have it.
  • We are all capable of both good and evil.
  • What separates us is not our color, but our character.

Planet Middle SchoolWe live in a country that, in word at least, celebrates its cultural multiplicity. Isn’t it past time that the books we share with our children reflect that, as well? There is only one right answer to that question, by the way.

If we live in a culturally diverse world—and we do—it behooves us to learn something about the cultural groups we live among. One of the least intimidating ways to learn those lessons is between the pages of a book. Yes, I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating.

As we in the diverse children’s book community like to say, let’s move the needle. This issue has been stuck on pause long enough, and it’s our children—Native American, Asian, Latino, African-American, and white—who are paying the cost.

The Poetry Pool

Posted September 11th, 2013

poetry wordleI love a good laugh. I laugh every day. I even make a point of giving others cause to chuckle, even if it’s sometimes at my own expense. Laughter is cleansing, healing, and necessary. God himself has a phenomenal sense of humor. He made us, didn’t he? Yes, laughter is to be appreciated, enjoyed.

That said, I also know there’s more to life than laughter, and there’s more to children’s poetry than light verse. The two are not synonymous. One might not know that, though, judging from the narrow pool of children’s poetry books that are most often highlighted and recommended. The constant slant towards humorous verse leads me to cry out for diversity.

Big buzz-word, that! To be clear, I’m not talking about racial or cultural diversity in children’s poetry. That’s another discussion, entirely. No, I’m alluding to diversity as to type, topic, form. There’s a depth and breadth to children’s poetry that rarely gets its due, poetry specifically written for children that scales the heights of heaven, plumbs the depth of death, and graces all the notes in between. There are children’s poems that challenge, inspire, disturb. There are poems that create space in a child’s heart for the release of tears, as well as laughter—and both are healing. There are limericks, yes, but also odes, sonnets, tanka, and more. There are poetry collections that explore history and the men and women who’ve shaped it. There are collections that take readers for adventures on the high seas. There are poems that probe the minutia of Nature, and the vastness of outer space. This genre is deep, and wide!

As for cultural diversity, today’s offerings include children’s poetry by Native Americans, Palestinian Americans, Chinese Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Latin Americans and, yes, African Americans. The field of children’s poetry is incredibly rich! Let’s make sure young readers have access to the full range available because it matters. Children benefit from seeing themselves in all guises, in all moods. Sometimes, when a child is having a difficult day, rather than a moment of laughter, he most needs a work that reflects his angst, a poem that shows him he is not alone, a poem that acknowledges both darkness and light in the world—even the world of a child.

Meet Danitra BrownPoetry, all forms and facets of poetry, can be powerful. Dr. Joyce Briscoe discovered as much, many years ago, when she shared the—then—newly published Meet Danitra Brown with students at Clara Barton Elementary in California. Her so-called low-achieving students responded to the work to such an extent that, over time, she developed a sub-curriculum around Danitra Brown and found the material useful in motivating both reading and writing among students the system had written off. Soon, teachers throughout the district were following her lead. By the time I visited Clara Barton, I found poetry blossoming everywhere, and it was a thing of beauty.

At Barton Elementary, each grade level was given a poem to memorize, and then a number of lesson plans revolved around that poem. One class was assigned the poem “Purple,” one of the humorous, bouncy poems of the collection, and certainly a favorite. However, one girl in this class told her teacher she preferred to memorize the poem “Sweet Blackberry”: 

Danitra says my skin’s like
double chocolate fudge
cause I’m so dark.
The kids at school say it another way.
“You so black, girl,” they say,
“at night, people might think
you ain’t nothin’ but a piece o’ sky.”

I never cry, but inside
there’s a hurting place.
I make sure no one sees it on my face.
Then mama tells me,
“Next time, honey, you just say
The blacker the berry,
the sweeter the juice.”
Now that’s just what I do.
I sure wish I had told them that before.
Those kids don’t bother teasin’ me no more. 

The teacher asked her why she preferred this poem, and she said, “Because whenever I read it, it makes me feel beautiful.” How’s that for power?

Children haven’t changed that much in the intervening years. They still have a range of emotions to play to. Poetry that tickles the funny bone should only be part of the equation. I encourage you to explore the poetry market, to journey up and down each aisle. Fill your cart with poetry that tickles the imagination, inspires awe, pauses on the subject of death, lingers over loss, reveals the cost of war. Add jaw-dropping poetry about the beauty of Nature, the wonders of science, the mysteries of history. Choose poetry that makes you cry and, yes, poetry that makes you laugh. Include them all in the poetry diet you feed your students. Trust each reader to discover his or her favorite dish. Make room for that to happen. Please.

When I first entered the children’s literary market, I felt like an endangered species. There didn’t seem to be many poets around. Today, however, the market is positively bursting with wonderful new poetic voices, and they all deserve to be heard, shared, read. My hope is that they will be, not only for the sake of the poets, but also for the sake of the students who need precisely the gift each poet brings.

Who are some of my favorite contemporary poets? The list is incredibly long, but here are a few—a precious few! —in the realm of children’s literature:

[ezcol_1half id=”” class=”” style=””]Marilyn Nelson
Jane Yolen
Gary Soto
Joyce Sidman
Helen Frost
Naomi Shihab Nye
Carole Boston Weatherford
Laura Purdie Salas
Paul Janeczko
Janet Wong
Margarita Engles
Allan Wolf
Jack Prelutsky
Alice Schertle[/ezcol_1half] [ezcol_1half_end id=”” class=”” style=””]J. Patrick Lewis
Pat Mora
Kristine O’Connell George
Joseph Bruchac
Georgia Heard
Sara Holbrook
Ralph Fletcher
George Ella Lyon
Jamie Adoff
Eloise Greenfield
April Halprin Wayland
Arnold Adoff
Rebecca Kai Dotlich
Lee Bennett Hopkins (the world’s most prolific anthologist of children’s poetry)[/ezcol_1half_end]

You can also enjoy the work of our US Children’s Poet Laureates:

Jack Prelutsky
Mary Ann Hoberman
J. Patrick Lewis
Kenn Nesbitt

Want a more comprehensive list? Hit me up on Facebook.