By Marian Wright Edelman
President of the Children’s Defense Fund
Do your children love the books on their summer reading lists? Are your children reading about diverse cultures and books that reflect their experience or history? Children of color are now a majority of all public school students and will soon be a majority of all children in America yet children’s books and the publishing industry have failed to keep up with the rainbow of our children’s faces and cultures and needs. Every summer our Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools® curriculum is focused on a superb collection of diverse books that reflect children’s own images and a wide variety of cultures and experiences. For some children it’s the first time they’ve seen books with characters who look like them. For others the storylines draw them in, teach them about moments in history they may not have studied in school, and allow them to fall in love with reading in a way they’ve never experienced.
Children of color need to be able to see themselves in the books they read. Just as importantly, all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are. At a recent panel discussion before nearly 2,000 college students preparing to fan out across the country to teach in this summer’s CDF Freedom Schools programs, a distinguished group of children’s book authors and illustrators spoke about their work and what guides them in creating books children will love to read. Often it’s because they are creating the books they would have loved to see themselves when they were younger.
Doreen Rappaport writes fiction and nonfiction that celebrate diverse histories and biographies like her Caldecott Medal winner Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. illustrated by Bryan Collier. Her curiosity about one kind of untold story left her wanting to know more and more: “I got into it because when I was a teenager there were no books about women. Maybe there was Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Adams — those were the only two books. There wasn’t much of a place for young girls with a curiosity, and maybe even an ambition, and actually we were told not to be ambitious.” Rappaport became an activist in the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi and heard stories she had never learned or read in the classroom. “There were other movements that came along, and I began to explore and think about all the distortions of the stories about Native Americans. And then there was the Latino movement and the grape boycott led by [Cesar] Chavez, where people all over the United States stopped eating grapes and we banded together. So for me, telling these stories is a way of finding myself back in history and also correcting all the distortions that I learned as a kid and filling in the pieces of the real story of the United States.”
Author and illustrator Don Brown started out on the very same hunt as Doreen Rappaport: “I had two little girls, and I wanted to read to them stories about real women who were brave and heroic. I couldn’t find books like that.” He too decided to write his own, and has since written more than two dozen books on famous and less well known historical figures and events. His latest graphic nonfiction book, Drowned City, is about Hurricane Katrina. About his technique he said: “I only say this half-jokingly: I’ve never written a kids’ book in my life . . . I write a book that I know is going to be accessible to kids, but I never sit down and write a children’s book, and I think that for me personally that makes a big difference — because I think for me, I would end up pandering, and I don’t. I write a book that I like that I think anybody would read.”
Poet and author Carole Boston Weatherford approaches history from another angle: she said she “mine[s] the past for family stories, fading traditions, and forgotten struggles” in order to help fill in the gaps of the stories being told. Many of her books are based on historical events spanning the African American experience from slavery through the Civil Rights Movement, and she said children are often amazed to learn the stories she writes about are true: “It never fails, one of the first questions is, ‘Did that really happen?’ Well, you know, that’s exactly the reaction that I want from the kids — because they can’t fathom that some of the inhumanities and injustices that were part of legalized segregation and part of America’s history of institutionalized racism really happened.”
Rita Williams-Garcia has won numerous awards for her historical fiction trilogy that begins with the Newbery Honor novel One Crazy Summer — she began telling stories that were very deliberately not historical. She was writing contemporary fiction about girls like herself whom she had never seen in novels, and the girls in her audience responded with an immediate hunger for more. “My first novel had just been published, and I went out to a library in Long Island, and it was nothing but angry girls . . . ‘Don’t write about slavery, don’t write about the water fountains and the civil rights . . . I want you to follow this girl and then write about her friend.’ They wanted to see — they were saying, ‘I need to see myself in the here and now.’”
Jason Reynolds, the author of When I Was the Greatest, The Boy in the Black Suit, and All American Boys, shared similar feelings. When he was in school no one ever showed him books that featured his voice or story, and so he didn’t like to read at all. He now very deliberately writes books for other young people: “Right now what we see in our communities, we see that the young people of color are hyper-visible, yet terribly invisible at the same time, and that puts them in a really complicated spot, and I think all I really want to do is say, ‘I see you.’” He added: “This doesn’t have to be your entire literary lineage. What this is, is your springboard into the world of letters . . . Show them them first. Then you can give them Shakespeare, you can give them Harper Lee, we can run the gamut of things we can give them — but let’s give them them, and then we can move out. That’s my personal opinion.”
Children everywhere thrive when they see excellent books that give them them and open up their worlds to all kinds of excellent stories about others. We should seek out diverse books for all children — for summer reading, in school curricula, at library storytimes, bedtime, and all the time. Are you seeking out books like these for your children and grandchildren? How well are schools and libraries in your community doing in providing them? Find out and ask for more. Let’s make sure all children have access to engaging books that help them see themselves and, to paraphrase Doreen Rappaport, fill in all pieces of the real story of our nation and world.