All the Children Need All the Books
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All the Children Need All the Books

I am one of the “children of the dream.” I was a youngster in the 1960s, a decade of great shake-up and change on many fronts. I do not recall hearing the term “the Beloved Community” back then, but I believed in it, longed for it. Still do. One of the ways I try to advance the dream is by writing books about epic lives and epic eras for children and young adults, hoping that my readers will take after the good souls and stand up for the noble causes.

I also seek to advance the dream with this credo: All the children need all the books.

We, who truly care about the future of this nation, we who truly want our youngsters to be their best selves, we absolutely must become more involved in the campaign for all children to have mirrors—books in which they see themselves—and for all children to have windows—books through which they learn about people who do not look like them, speak as they do, or worship as they do— people who do not share their cultural norms.

A few years ago, I was one of six authors featured at a two-day festival of children’s literature in Connecticut. We did readings; we were on panels; we visited schools. There was also a major book signing, I believe, on the last day. The men and women who came to meet us and learn more about our work were educators, parents, and others with a passion for children’s literature.

I was the only black author and the only author of color, so on the day of the book signing, whichever author was to my left or to my right was white. At one point, I looked up and to my right and saw that one of my colleagues had just signed two of her books for another white woman. One was on Eleanor Roosevelt. The woman was middle-aged and looked like a professional.

Our eyes happened to meet. She stiffened a bit, then hugging her two books and with a nervous smile, she said to me, “These are for my children. I’ll be buying your books for my school. Your books are perfect for those children.” My books included a biography of George Washington Carver.

Here was an educator who apparently felt that her biological children could not benefit from a book on the life and mind of a black scientist and environmentalist (and visual artist). It is beyond sad that she was captive to such miserable thinking. More grievous is that she let those words come out of her mouth. Did she think I’d take it as a compliment? I shudder to think how insulting and condescending that woman must have been to those children at her school.

All the children need all the books.

All our children need to know about the Trail of Tears and about the many Irish and Chinese men who were injured and killed while building the Transcontinental Railroad. All our children need to know that many of the “black codes” that put restrictions on people of African descent also put restrictions on people of European descent. All our children need to know that the civil rights movement did not start in the 1950s, and that only a small percentage of white Americans were slaveholders, and that slaveholders hurt white workers because the existence of slave labor kept the wages for free labor low.

All the children need all the books.

The internment of Japanese Americans, German Americans, and Italian Americans during World War II is all our history, so is the feat that the Wright Brothers pulled off on December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. So are the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots in Los Angeles.

How can the murder of Emmett Till not be European American, Asian American, Latino American, and Native American history, too? Along with Ella’s scats, Dizzy’s rebop/bebop, and Jacob Lawrence’s Migration (1993) series. Is John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry black history? White history?

As MLK said in...