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Book Fest Week: Where are the books for black kids?

Editor's Note: The New Orleans Book Festival takes place Nov. 11 and 12, with dozens of critically acclaimed local, regional, and national authors, readings, food, music, and an entire section devoted to children's literature. This week, NolaVie partners with the Book Fest to present a week of education-oriented stories focusing on literature. Today we look at the world of children's books as they relate to African Americans.

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Educator Henrietta Harris (Photo: Dillard University)

The realization hit in 1980, shortly after Henrietta Harris and her family moved to Tempe, Arizona, and her oldest daughter started school there.

“She came home with her first-grade reading list, and I thought, no,” says Harris, a lifelong educator and former Director of First Year Programs at Dillard University. “I said, 'Where are the black books?' I knew a lot of books for and about black children, and there were none on there.”

Harris had earned her first of two master’s degrees at Michigan State University, at a time when pioneering African-American author and educator Harriett Pipes McAdoo taught there. She had studied McAdoo’s seminal book Black Children: Social, Educational and Parental Environments, and knew how important and empowering the educational environment could be for black children.

At the time, African-Americans comprised just 4 percent of the population in Tempe. A query to her daughter’s teacher about the reading list revealed a willing attitude but a gap in knowledge: “She said she simply didn’t know any black books for children.”

So Harris set out to get them – contacting publishers, pouring over reading lists, joining literary groups and, along the way, putting together a presentation on self-esteem for African-American children through literature that she has delivered to national audiences multiple times.

“I went about buying every book I could about black children,” says Harris. “And it turns out there were books.”

Favorite authors soon included Newbery Medal winner Virginia Hamilton, who wrote about historical aspects of black life in such works as The Planet of Junior Brown, about a 300-pound musical prodigy who plays a piano with no sound, and the future-set dystopian trilogy that began with Justice and Her Brothers. Brenda Wilkinson chronicled the life of Ludell, an African-American girl growing up in a small Georgia town in the 1950s. Harriet Gillem Robinet wrote about disabled children in her first two of many books, Jan and the Marigold and Ride the Red Cycle. Eloise Greenfield recounted wonderful black folk tales in The People Could Fly.

“For my children growing up, I put books, records and magazines into their hands," Harris says. "And I think it helped with their self-esteem, their self-concept. They could see themselves in these books."

But more was needed, in terms of both quantity and quality of African American children's books. In 1985, when the Cooperative Children’s Book Center began documenting the annual number of children’s books by African-American authors or illustrators, its leaders were appalled to discover that of some 2,500 children’s books that year, only 18 had been created by African-Americans and were thus eligible for the Coretta Scott King Award.

And the message was not always on point. The Children's Defense Fund, among others, noted that too often children’s literature reverted to societal stereotyping. “It found that the racial narrative was not being changed for our children,” Harris explains.

“Beyond Stereotypes,” a Children's Defense Fund guide to resources for black girls, pointed out: “The images presented to children are very important in shaping their attitudes, behaviors, and values. Unfortunately, the images presented in children’s books and materials tend to be congruent with the media images presented in the larger society: Black people are portrayed very seldom, and, when they are shown, is it often in negative, stereotypic characterizations.”

Maureen Iverson, former children’s book buyer for Maple Street Bookstore and librarian at ReNEW Charter Management Organization, agrees that even positive black narratives can fall short. “So much of what we see is characters that are black because the story dictates it – Katrina stories or Civil Rights stories. But where are the everyday black characters?”

“My daughters used to love the books about cornrows,” Harris says. “They used to get their hair braided and they could see this little girl getting her hair cornrowed.”

African American children's literature began to make more inroads into the industry from about 1970 to 1990, says Harris, during an era of intense black awareness and black pride.

“Children’s books were not only written by black people but illustrated by them. They tried to cover the issues familiar to black families of that time, such as step-parenting, or multigenerational families. They started talking about non-traditional roles black women could have, with books like My Mother is a Mail Carrier. And they tried to infuse these stories with some African-American heritage, so children knew their heritage. My children loved Jambo Means Hello, a Swahili alphabet book.”

Many such books were published by smaller, Afro-centric companies, which too often were short-lived.

“Most major American publishers did not have someone going out and looking for them,” says Harris. “There may have been a Black History Month feature or two, but it was a narrow focus.”

“Publishers are just now starting to realize there’s a market for African-American children’s literature,” agrees Iverson. “It’s barely trickling from the top, while there’s this huge demand from the bottom – by schools and families and libraries.”

The national African-American family organization Jack and Jill of America has made a concerted effort to get African-American books into the hands of children. Harris delivered her first presentation about the self-esteem of African-American Children through literature at a national Jack and Jill conference. Another of her go-to resources is Children’s Defense Fund president Marion Wright Edelman’s Child Watch column.

“Read her wonderful piece called ‘It’s Hard to be What You Can’t See,’” advises Harris. “She talks about what it means to be connected. It’s not that you need to see yourself reflected in every book, but that you need to see yourself in a global context.”

Harris’s own daughters – and now her grandchildren, grand-nieces and grand-nephews – read widely. Every birthday or holiday gift from Harris is a book, and they run the gamut, across race, theme, time period and point of view.

“I buy hardback books,” she says. “I want children to get used to holding books in their hands.”

But the more important point, she adds, is to empower children not just with any books, but the best ones.

“Just because it’s a black author doesn’t mean that it’s helpful for a child,” she says. “I think black authors try not to be demeaning when they write, but some criteria is needed to judge any book. You need to be very careful how people talk about women, men, people of color.”

The bottom line?

“Are we thinking about what our children are reading? We live in a rapidly globalizing, multicultural world. We fail when we pick up books and don’t think of that rainbow.”

New Orleans Book Festival

  • What: The New Orleans Book Festival presented by First Lady Cheryl Landrieu
  • Where and when: The festival begins on Friday, Nov. 11 with performances by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra quintet and Young Audiences from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Latter Branch Library, 5120 St. Charles Ave. Bring blankets or lawn chairs. Local food trucks will be onsite, and attendees may bring their own picnics.
  • The festival continues on Saturday, Nov. 12 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Big Lake in New Orleans City Park, near the New Orleans Museum of Art, 1 Collin Diboll Circle. The day will feature readings, author signings, panels and other activities for readers of all ages. Children will get free books.
  • Transportation: Free shuttles are available from area libraries, Click here for the schedule.
  • Admission: Free

The "Book Fest Week" series is underwritten by New Orleans Book Festival. 

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at renee@nolavie.com.