Black Children Are Not Historical Figures: The Importance of Representation in Children’s Books.

I am a public school teacher in Washington, DC. A few years ago I wanted to teach a lesson about brain science for my young students.  To my surprise, I couldn’t find a single children’s storybook that told the story I wanted to tell, and there were certainly no books on the topic that reflected the diversity of the children in my classroom.

So I wrote, illustrated and published the book I needed myself.   When it came to creating the characters in the story all I had to do was look out at my students.  My students are a diverse mix representing cultures from all over the world from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan to Ethiopia to Denmark from Guatemala to Iceland, as well as many kids both black and white born right here in DC. 

I decided to choose students that I don’t normally see in children’s books.  Students like Yoab whose family is from Ethiopia, or Tyaja whose family is from DC, or Sergio whose family is from El Salvador and Guatemala.  In DC our schools are filled with young black and brown children – in fact 78% of children in DC are children of color. But our school bookshelves don’t reflect that reality.

In the quality children’s books I do know of that feature black or brown children,  the main characters are almost always historical figures. Important stories about the Civil Rights movement and slavery are told and retold.  But, looking at our school bookshelves, you might think that black and brown children only existed in the past.

There are a few children’s book authors who are making an important and beautiful contribution.  Writers such as Jacqueline Woodson, Peggy Moss, and Mary Hoffman have written books with vibrant, interesting multi-dimensional protagonists who are modern black girls.  But still, the majority of books found in a school library are about white children.

Kids in my classes want to see themselves represented in the stories they read – doing the things that they like to do and dealing with the problems they are dealing with.  Just like grownups do.     

When I sought a publisher for my second children’s book, I was lucky to find Tilbury House Publishers.  Tilbury House believes as strongly as I do in the importance of representation in children’s literature.  They connected me with a fantastic illustrator, Shearry Malone, who was willing to honor my requests that the children in my book really looked like the children in my class.  

Fourteen-year-old activist Marley Dias led a movement in this field when she started the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign to collect children’s books featuring black girl protagonists.  I am proud that my forthcoming book, Tyaja Uses the THiNK Test,  will be added to her list.  As writers we are often told to “write what we know” and this is great advice.  But make sure that what you know is really what you know to be true. What I know is that children want and deserve to see themselves represented in books.  And they deserve to be represented in a way that presents them not just as symbols but as fully-fledged, multi-faceted human beings.

Linda Ryden is the creator and author of The Peace of Mind Curriculum, a mindfulness based social and emotional learning program for elementary school, and the author of several children’s books including Rosie’s Brain, published by Peace of Mind Inc, as well as Henry is Kind, Sergio Sees the Good, and Tyaja Uses the THiNK Test to be published by Tilbury House Publishing.

 

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