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A Tale of Two Canons

From: Children's Literature
Volume 33, 2005
pp. 242-251 | 10.1353/chl.2005.0020

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Children's Literature 33 (2005) 242-251

Philip Nel

Brown Gold: Milestones of African-American Children's Picture Books, 1845–2002, by Michelle H. Martin. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.
100 Best Books for Children, by Anita Silvey. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

Michelle Martin's Brown Gold and Anita Silvey's 100 Best Books provide detailed, if different, maps for the vast field of children's literature. Silvey offers a kind of Baedeker's guide to children's books published in America over the last century; readers seeking a compact course in the subject would do well to begin here. If Silvey maps a mostly known territory, Martin undertakes the more ambitious task of constructing the history of African American children's picture books, establishing a canon of the influential (for both good and ill), the innovative, and the landmarks of the genre. In the three decades since this journal was founded as Children's Literature, or The Great Excluded, children's literature has become much more included, but African American picture books still number among the excluded. Martin's Brown Gold will go a long way to help them becoming part of the Great Included. Both works should be included on the shelves of every library and of any individual with an interest in the history of children's literature.

As to which works can be considered "African American Children's Picture Books," Martin opts for inclusiveness, bringing in books by non–African American authors and illustrators, too. Of her decision to discuss works by Ezra Jack Keats and Verna Aardema, Martin fairly observes that "a critical consideration of this genre should include those who have made substantial contributions even if they do not share the ethnicity of the people about whom they write" (xviii). Such a sentence may seem to sidestep the toughest questions posed by a study of her work—namely, what is an African American picture book? Are there any stylistic traits that distinguish it from other picture books? However, Martin answers this question, too, and does so with the even-handedness that characterizes her book. As she writes in chapter eight, "if there is something identifiably 'African American' about these texts," then that something would have to be "stylized language—and more specifically, black modes of discourse" found in "many of these stories authored by African-American writers who have lived experience with these modes of communication" (165). So, while her study does not exclude works by writers who lack an African American background, it does note aesthetic features that books by African Americans may have in common. Anyone who teaches such works as Carolivia Herron and Joe Cepeda's Nappy Hair (1997) or Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney's Sam and the Tigers (1996) will want to read this chapter closely. Knowing about traditional African American styles like call-and-response, signification, and narrative sequencing helps students without experience of African-American culture better appreciate the books. It also helps teachers and does what the books themselves do: "these picture books dignify a practice that has traditionally been stigmatized as a sign of ignorance and its speaker labeled uneducated" (176). This is a good lesson for all students, especially those who are prospective teachers.

Those who teach these works in the college classroom will welcome chapter nine because there has been little written on teaching African American picture books at the university level. For example, Martin explains how she teaches Nappy Hair in a call-and-response style. Having passed out copies of Nappy Hair to her class, she reads Uncle Mordecai's story and has her students read the relatives' responses. At the Children's Literature Association conference session a few years ago, Herron had those of us in the audience read the book this way with her; since then, I have also taught Nappy Hair in the call-and-response style, consequently teaching my students about call-and-response as a genre. What Martin shows—and what I hadn't thought of—are the ways that the book foregrounds so many other issues. Martin teaches the book on the first day of class because she wants her...

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