I saw this blog on the absence of black boys in children’s and YA books on the School Library Journal website entitled “2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People?” (2013) by Elizabeth Bird, a youth collections specialist for the New York Public Library, and I was floored. And then outraged.
Apparently, it’s fine to fetishize black male bodies, in shorts and tank-tops on basketball courts or rapping in music videos, but we, as a society, have no interest in reading, or in having our own children read, stories that complicate our understanding of who those boys truly are.
Vampires and zombies get more page space than black boys.
A study the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center, which follows the state of children’s book publishing, confirmed the basic facts of Bird’s observation. In 2012, books that had significant African or African-American content or characters, both male and female, represented just 3.3 percent of the books published. That’s 119 of the 3,600 books published.
And it’s not any better for the representation of other racial groups. Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center study showed that, by comparison, African-American themed children’s books fared better than those for other racial groups. Of the 3,600 children’s books published in 2012, those that featured Asians and Pacific Americans were 2.1 percent, those featuring Latinos, just 1.5 percent. And for Native Americans, it was just .6 percent—less than one percent!
I’ve learned that Bird’s isn’t a new complaint. Nancy Larrick, author and one-time President of the International Reading Association who died in 2004 at the age of 93, addressed the problem in a 1965 essay in The Saturday Review entitled, “The All-White World of Children’s Books.” She reported that, of the more than 5,200 children’s trade books released by 63 publishers from 1962–64, only 349 featured one or more African-American character. She went on to note that many of these were not characters proper but only “faces in the crowd.” That books with significant black characters had received favorable critical reviews made no difference, nor did the “expanded Negro market” (a phenomena that would be echoed in the 1990s, after Terry McMillan’s successes, when publishers would be reminded that black people do indeed read).
This, from fifty years ago! We have a black president, a man who dabbled in drugs before becoming a community activist and eventually rising to the leadership of the free world, yet we can’t find characters like the complex boy that he was in the pages of our children’s books.
This also troubles me on a personal level. A friend and I co-authored a YA novel that features two boys, one white, one black, who find themselves spending their time during a trip abroad in the suburban ghettoes surrounding Paris. The story is set against the backdrop of the 2005 riots. We tried to assure that neither main character was stereotypical. The black boy is a working-class kid from San Antonio, a high school football player, and he’s smart. He’s excelled in school as well as on the field, including in his French class. After his father is killed in Iraq, he uses the trip to France to try to get himself together. Once there, he resents and mistrusts the Muslim boys in his new community. As an American and a tourist, as one who finds himself in a privileged position, he reacts to those brown boys in a way that, he will learn, mirrors how he was treated as a black boy in the South.
We pitched the idea in 2008 to New York publishing houses, and one of the biggest bought it. But once we began turning in pages, our editor, who was white, immediately disparaged the characterization of the black boy. He called the complex aspects of his personality “ugly” and “unattractive.” He referred to his voice as “slang” and found it unbelievable that a boy who spoke this way with his friends (though the...