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When I think about the things I’ve read as a kid, all of the books and stories point back to the dominance of the white male in children’s literature:
- If You Give a Mouse a Cookie
- Harry Potter
- Diary of a Wimpy Kid
All incredibly successful series based off of the trials and triumphs told from the male white perspective.
This makes me wonder—do books about people of color stand a chance on the shelves of elementary school libraries?
The only book I could remember seeing in the library at school was Please, Baby, Please by Spike Lee. On the cover, a smiling black child in a bathtub. Even though the child didn’t look exactly like me, it was still comforting to see a black child on the cover of a book.
Years later, I was watching an episode of Ellen and Taye Diggs was promoting his debut children’s book, Chocolate Me. I remember Ellen telling Taye Diggs about the importance of having representation in children’s book, especially for black kids. While I haven’t read all of Chocolate Me, the first page has already proved itself to be a book that’s necessary for all elementary school libraries. The first words of Chocolate Me are “Sitting on my stoop when I was five, not like Timmy or Johnny, or even Mark. Though I wanted a name like theirs.” Under the text is a drawn scene of three white boys. Even though the Google Preview has stopped there, I wish I had read this book when I was younger.
Growing up in the suburbs to Maryland, so close to the city line of Baltimore, we could almost taste it. But we were far enough away, so we never experienced the grit of Baltimore, I was exposed to all different types of people. By middle school, there probably wasn’t a continent that I couldn’t point out and say, “my friend lives there.” However, not every kid in Maryland had this exposure. It wasn’t until middle school that I got my first taste of white privilege and found myself wanting to be white.
I immersed myself into the world of white culture, obsessing over Justin Bieber. Since Disney Channel had canceled pro-black shows like That’s So Raven and Corey in the House, there wasn’t much black representation on kid’s television anymore. Luckily, Obama had just been elected president. Yet, the readings assigned to us in school were books like Hatchet and Nothing But the Truth—novels about white prepubescent boys who hated their parents. When we did read black stories, they were, of course, about slavery and racism.
I’d see white girls reading books like Death by Latte and Fangirl, and to fit in, I read them too. The girls in white young adult fiction always seemed to find love, have supportive parents, and stable friendships. They didn’t experience any sort of colorism, or classism, or prejudices. Everything seemed perfect in their lives, except for the fact they maybe they were in love with an undercover pop star.
But where are the stories for black girls, or even black youth?
The first and only YA book that I’ve read that’s focused on black culture is The Hate U Give. Frankly, I didn’t like this book. I thought it fed into the stereotypes associated with black people and their communities. While I appreciate it being “woke” and an accurate reflection of the time period (at around this time, I was directly affected by the Baltimore riots of 2015 and was angered at the continuous news reports of young black men being shot by white cops), I just didn’t feel as if the book was a turning point in bringing black stories to whitewashed children’s literature.
Maybe there is a story out there for the young black kid that doesn’t involve violence or the depict the struggle of living in a low-income neighborhood. Maybe I just haven’t seen it yet. Although I can’t seem to find any books telling positive black stories, both Black-ish and Grown-ish are successful in portraying what life is like for successful, non-violent, pro-black families and college students navigating the world today. I’m a huge fan of the show because it’s relatable and has characters that look like me. And I think if we had more representation in the media, people wouldn’t feel so alone because they’d have somewhere to turn to find clarity in their lives.
But until then, we need to do more... and it needs to start with children’s books.