Black Box: Race in Children’s Literature

Posted February 17th, 2011

Black Box“Why must you always bring up race?” That’s not a question a black person asks. In fact, most of us would be quite happy if the issue of race were never raised in our day-to-day lives. But the fact is, in our society, the specter of race is raised again, and again, even in the realm of children’s literature. Besides, this is Black History Month, so let’s take it on.

The other night, on the new Oprah Winfrey Network, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said, “I don’t believe we are now, nor do I think we’re ever likely to be—certainly not in my lifetime—race blind….This country has a terrible birth defect of slavery.” I couldn’t have said it better. No matter how much we want to wish it away, the issue of race is a constant in American Society, and the children’s book arena is not exempt.

But don’t take my word for it. Ask any African American illustrator, fighting for an opportunity to illustrate books by non-black authors, as well as those by black authors. Ask any African American author whose books are marginalized at the point of marketing simply by virtue of the fact that his/her book features an African American child on the cover.  Then ask if he/she has any choice in the matter. On more than one occasion, I’ve implored a publisher to use abstract art on the cover, so as to broaden the book’s marketability, and been told no.

It is maddening.

I recently told an editor, concerning the packaging of one of my new titles, “This is not a black book. Please don’t turn it into one.”  I thought a little straight talk might get me somewhere. It didn’t.

Maybe now you understand why I titled this piece “Black Box.”

There’s a new twist to this issue in my life these days. On more than one occasion, I’ve had young white fans of my books ask me, with all sincerity, why I never write books featuring children who look like them, and if I ever will. I never saw that one coming, but talk about a turnaround! I’ve never written a book starring a white character, but that’s not to say I never will. I wonder, though, how hard of a time I’d have trying to sell it. After all, publishers have me pegged: to them, I’m not an author. I’m a black author, one who writes about black people, with art featuring black illustrators. It’s a package deal, or so I’m made to understand.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love writing about my people. I’m proud of the culture from which I come, the strength of my ancestors, the beauty of my skin. And there are a host of phenomenal black illustrators working in the field today whose art is absolutely breathtaking. I count myself blessed, indeed, when one of them signs on for one of my books. But here’s my issue: I don’t like being put in a box, however lovely it may be. Why? Because, though my skin is black, the color of my skin is not all that I am.

I’m a textile artist, a handmade book designer, a multilingual world traveler, a Christian. I’ve studied Spanish and French, but spoken Swahili and Swedish. I was born in Harlem, but have lived in Africa, and Europe. In other words, I don’t fit neatly into any single category, so please don’t shove me into one. That’s all I’m saying. That’s all we’re saying. Our lights are many, and varied. Just give us room to shine.

I know, I know. What about quotas? Every publisher is trying to fill a certain quota of black authors on their list in order to claim some degree of diversification. We’ve been pushing for diversity and multiculturalism in children’s literature for years, and I’m all for diversification. There needs to be a greater African American presence in the field of children’s and young adult literature. No question. But does that mean that once a publisher has added a black author to his stable he must limit that author’s output to a specific category, or that he must limit the marketing plan for that author’s books to a black audience, even when the book is clearly universal in appeal?

Here’s what I’m hoping for. I’d like to see more African American authors and illustrators in the field, but writing and painting whatever they choose, for the broadest possible audience. I’d like to see publishers targeting their books, our books, to whatever audience an individual book most appeals to, without limiting the scope of that marketing from the book’s very inception. I’d like to see all books made available to all children, so that they get to choose what they like, or don’t like. After all, shouldn’t readers be the arbiters of books? Shouldn’t they get a say in the matter?

What’s the worst that could happen? They might, I don’t know—learn something about another culture, perhaps? Learn that they have more in common with a story’s black/brown/red/yellow protagonist than they thought? Yeah. I think we should risk it.

What do you say?

17 Responses to “Black Box: Race in Children’s Literature”

  1. Amy Malskeit says:

    You are addressing the core of what good stories–and all good art–should do: break down walls, instead of reinforcing them. May publishers be humble enough to see the barriers they have erected in the name of marketing, and brave enough to be willing to change. We would all be better for it.

  2. I say that you are 100% correct in everything about this! And now I will try to convince everyone I know in publishing to read this post.


    Laurie Halse Anderson

  3. Kudos to you for putting into words what authors AND librarians, besides others, deal with on a daily basis. Can we EVER get beyond race to HUMAN race as the box we check off on all the forms of life???!!!

  4. Sheila May-Stein says:

    I abhor classifying children’s books along color lines. Art transcends our stupid self-imposed boundaries. I work in an all-white school and my students love stories created by and starring all kinds of people. Our library is a gorgeous laboratory where we try on the traditions, art and cultures of many, and rejoice in our common humanity. I wish all children the same kinds of beauty!!

  5. Amy Kathleen Ryan says:

    What a great blog post. I remember when I was in my MFA program my African American teacher, the brilliant Jeffery Reynard Allen, had his writing compared to Baldwin and Wright on his novel jacket. This confused me, because Jeff’s writing is so much more like William Faulkner, who is quite different. Any writer ought to be flattered to be compared to Baldwin or Wright, but it always struck me as rather dunderheaded that his publisher didn’t reach outside of Jeff’s ethnicity for the comparison. I told Jeff that his writing reminded me of Faulkner, and I could see he was very touched. (Who wouldn’t be?) It must be terribly frustrating for the serious artist to be put inside a box like that. In a smaller way, I sometimes feel boxed in, being a woman writing YA fiction that is inevitably characterized as “chick lit.” Such a dismissive term. In a perfect world all us writers would get together and refuse to publish our pictures, use only initials in our writing monikers, let the work stand on its own apart from race or gender. But then again, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to, would we?

  6. There seems to be a lot of valuable discussion on this topic out there in the blogosphere this week! I don’t know how long it will take to trickle up to publishers/bookstores, but hopefully many more readers will make an effort to look beyond categories as a result of so much thoughtful discourse.

  7. Anne B says:

    Why do we have to label everything and fill quotas anyway? As late as this morning the Swedish news again brought up multicultural issues that “are not addressed often enough” in schools or society in general. It disturbs me as I try (and certainly want) to work with my students as individuals and not members of different ethnic groups.
    All these reminders slow down the process for an equal society and permanent gaps. Let us all work for overcoming this for once and all. We need peace in order to work efficiently.
    And yes, Nikki, take on the challenge from the white kid!

  8. Sarah Park says:

    I say “Let’s do it!” Thank you for a challenging post – and for all your other great writings.

  9. This certainly needs to be said Nikki, and you’ve said it eloquently.

  10. Stephanie Rosalia says:

    A few years ago I went into a bookstore looking for Toni Morrison’s book, *Sula*. I searched all through the the literature section, then tried the best sellers even though it was an old book by then. I finally asked the sales clerk for help, and he directed me to the “Black Authors” section.

    I stared at this clerk and asked him outright if all classic literature written by African-American authors was to be found in this section. He did not have the good grace to be embarrassed when he replied that yes, all Black authors’ work was “grouped” (his word) in the Black Authors section.

    I am Italian_American and white. I was mortified and annoyed. And demoralized on behalf of authors like you, Nikki, whose talent and art should not be marginalized or pigeonholed.

    I have since become a school librarian, and it would be over my dead body that any book in my library would ever be shelved by categorizing it by the author’s race.

    I complained that day to the book store’s manager ( who saw me–no doubt–as some crank), but in light of that chain’s bankruptcy filing just today, it seems maybe they and others should listen to their customers. Speak up! I’m so glad you did on your blog.

  11. Great post and you have said it all. Thanks.

  12. Greg says:

    We clearly have a long way to go. For Americans race is an everyday issue. Like Condi said, how can it not be? Marketing definitely reinforces this. The best books don’t have to point this out, but create teachable moments because of their superior art and story telling.

  13. MotherReader says:

    Good points. I looked through 250 picture books published this year for the Cybils, and very few featured children of color without it being the Point of the book. I was very happy to have A Beach Tail as a Cybils finalist because it’s the kind of book I want to see from more publishers. Heritage and history is important, but I want to see more diversity in illustrations so we see all kids just being kids.

  14. Steve Coyle says:

    I work in a school that is half Hispanic and half a mix of every other race and what I always take a quick note of at when reading through children’s books (or any writing for that matter) is the presumption on the part of the author as to who the reader is and who the presumed “other” is on the part of the author.
    This is something I became aware of big time back in English Lit 101 where I noticed that the Norton Anthology used in the course had numerous foot notes in stories written by non-white authors explaining what the editors presumed the reader would be unfamiliar with being a college student and presumably white about the details of life for African Americans and other authors in their “diverse” collection of stories.
    On the other hand the editors would feel no need to footnote to the reader details a in a John Cheever story like: “Martini-a drink popular in wealthy white enclaves.”
    In children’s Lit what always galls me are the books that seem to be about how the reader would be surprised to know that the cute little character of color in the poor village or the ghetto actually is “just like us” with the same dreams for success in life and we should admire “them” for that.

  15. Alison G says:

    The points you bring up are all well made, and in line with the thoughts sitting in my head this evening as I work on picking books for a girls summer book club I organize (entering its third year). Our library had selected Make way for Dyamonde Daniel last year for its reading group, and I’m planning on adding Rich to the summer book club list even though we’ve read it twice in this (white) house. What I appreciate most about this series is the conversations it has started. We’ve talked at length about friendship, transition, money, love, hard work and tough choices – and no assumption was made that those might just be “black” issues – in this case they jsut happen to involve a black charachter. The setting is hard but not harsh and the charachters flow easily and believably amid events and places that are comprehendable even if it is not what we see out our own suburban windows. It is a shame that these or any book might not get more readership because of a bias that extends as far as cover art. At least I know that for the moment I can influence a group of girls to read the book and lead a discussion about money, poverty, homelessness, love and friendship – not “us” and “them” but the risks and rewards “we” all face in a complicated world.

  16. Eileen says:

    You have an amazing way with words! This reminds me of something that Maya Angelou said when I heard her speak years ago. She challenged the audience to read all types of literature because you never knew in what book you would find yourself. I hope I get this next part right..she said that when she was a teenager going through tough times in her life, she read Shakespeare and she could have sworn the main character was an black, teenage girl, growing up in the South. I have learned so much about life by reading fiction! Let the reader be the judge…not the book covers or illustrations. All books should be marketed for everyone!

  17. Roosevelt Mathews says:

    Another great post, thanks for the write up! Have a great day and cant wait to see future posts

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