Think for a moment about the stories you were exposed to in childhood. Some were by professional storytellers like Dr. Seuss; some were classic fairy tales by the brothers Grimm and folk tales like those American adventures of Brer Rabbit, West African tales of Anansi the spider, and native American stories about Coyote, perhaps, delivered in the distinctively textured voice of your parents or grandparents at bedtime; and still, others perhaps were teaching stories you learned in Sunday school or at your temple or mosque. And for you, at such a tender young age, these stories were pure. Even primal in the impact they had on your developing consciousness. They filled you with a sense of the world’s wonder and mystery and limitless possibilities. They were your first exposure to what a good story is or should be. (Little wonder, then, that so many adults these days are reported to be reading young adult novels.) And perhaps most important of all, you carried them with you for the rest of your life, on those subterranean levels of memory, as tales that brought clarity, sense, and logic to some aspect of the human experience.
For these reasons (and more), when my daughter Elisheba asked me in 2012 to co-write a children’s story with her, I leaped at the opportunity because I’ve always tried to infuse my adult fiction with what Ralph Ellison called in his 1953 National Book Award acceptance speech, “all the bright magic of a fairy tale.” But little did I know, when we entered the field of children’s literature with the series The Adventures of Emery Jones, Boy Science Wonder (2013), how racially problematic—even tragic—this genre of our literature can be for children of color. We discovered that, according to a study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, and in 2012, only 3% of children’s books published in America had “significant African or African-American content.” Shamefully, few of these books were produced by black authors and illustrators.
Less than five months after my daughter and I published the first book in our series, Bending Time (2013), the late, great children’s book writer Walter Dean Myers, and his son Christopher Meyers, published on March 15, 2014 scathing back-to-back critiques of the field of children’s literature in The New York Times Book Review. In “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books,” Myers père addresses the painfully constricted content of stories for black children when he writes, “Black history is usually depicted as folklore about slavery, and then a fast-forward to the civil rights movement.” With bitter irony, he concludes his essay saying, “Then I’m told that black children, and boys in particular, don’t read. Small wonder.”
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A small wonder, indeed, for young people want stories like those of magic carpets that lift their imaginations and transport them, not into relentlessly repeated tales of racial struggle, victimization, and oppression, but to the stars and beyond. In “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” (2014), author and illustrator Christopher Myers is even harsher in his criticism of this field of book publishing:
Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination…Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color...