- Early Images of American Minorities:Rediscovering Florence Crannell Means
The list of Newbery Award winners and Honor Books (as the Runners-up are now called) slices through twentieth-century children's literature, revealing, like an archeologist's trench, as much about changing social values and attitudes as about the particular qualities of a fine children's book. For example, while many of the titles selected in the 1920s and '30s are set in foreign countries, almost none deals with the various racial and religious minorities of America. Laura Adams Armer's American Indian story, Waterless Mountain (1932), is the one prominent exception. In the 1940s, award winners Daniel Boone (James Daugherty, 1940) and The Matchlock Gun (Walter D. Edmonds, 1942) promote violent and negative stereotypes of American Indians.
After World War II, a new stratum of awareness appears with Arna Bontemp's Story of the Negro as a 1949 Runner-up, the first on the list, I believe, written by a minority-group member, followed by award-winners Amos Fortune, Free Man (Elizabeth Yates, 1951) and . . . And Now Miguel (Joseph Krumgold, 1954). Authors encouraging a sympathetic understanding of American minorities are now being positively reinforced by the highest award in American children's literature. In the 1960s, the era of civil rights movements, such rewards proliferate. Between 1966 and 1974, four of the award winners—I, Juan de Pareja, Sounder, Julie of the Wolves, and The Slave Dancer—focus on minority peoples, in addition to eleven of the Honor Books.
Then, in 1975, the Newbery trench reveals an abrupt shift in attitude. The first award-winner by a minority-group member, Virginia Hamilton's M. C. Higgins, the Great, is followed by Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (Mildred D. Taylor, 1977). At the same time, books about minorities by non-minority authors disappear from the list. It seems that authors are no longer being rewarded for writing about racial or religious groups to which they do not belong: in fact, in books like Children's Literature: An Issues Approach (Masha Kabakow Rudman, 1976) and journals like Interracial Books for Children, harsh criticism is now being aimed at the very books praised [End Page 98] and honored a few years before—books like I, Juan de Pareja, Sounder, and The Slave Dancer. Several contributors to The Black American in Books for Children (edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard, 1972) deny that any white author can depict the black experience with authenticity; logically, this caveat would apply to other minorities as well. And it is this opinion that has prevailed. Today, a fine array of authors and illustrators who are themselves members of black and other minority groups have come to dominate what one might call American ethnic literature for children.
So Florence Crannell Means (1891-1980), an often controversial author in her own time, may be even more controversial today. In the 1930s and '40s she made herself a specialist, all but unique, in ethnic children's literature. In books designed mainly for girls in their teens, her attractive heroines were black, Chicano, Hopi, Navajo, Japanese-American. These novels won high praise from contemporary reviewers; one, as we shall see, was a Newbery Runner-up in 1946. But on what grounds might we—both adults and young people—want to reread Florence Crannell Means today? Now that we have writers for children who are themselves black, Chicano, American Indian, and Japanese-American, why reconsider this white woman, most of whose books were written forty, even fifty years ago? First, I would say, because her best novels give us insights, comparable to those of a fine historical novel, into black and Navajo experience of the 1930s, and Japanese-American life during World War II. Secondly, because what she did as a writer can still work.
Three strong influences pervaded Means's life and career: religious faith, strong family support for creative work, and a first-hand acquaintance, from childhood onward, with a variety of other cultures and races. Her father was a Baptist minister, a scholar and poet. According to Siri Andrews, Means's earliest memories were "of the men and women of many races who visited...