This past weekend we were clobbered here in Maryland by the blizzard of 2016. Saturday, as the snow began to accumulate, many little ones were getting anxious (like one of our Pennsylvania grandkids in the photo above) to get outside and play in the snow.
The photo reminded me of another little Black boy clad in his red enjoying the snow – Peter from The Snowy Day published in 1962. Peter went on to warm the hearts of American readers, Black and White alike, and continues to do so today.
Peter was significant for he was the first Black child to be featured as the main character in a full-color picture book. The author, Ezra Jack Keats of Brooklyn, NY, who was White, didn’t set out to make a statement book – he simply noticed that the characters in the books he illustrated were always White. Seeing the unfairness to other children who he felt deserved to see themselves in books, he made the decision to make Peter the hero of this story because as he stated, “.. he should have been there all along.”
Fast forward to 2013.
Christopher Myers, award-winning children’s author/illustrator, also remembered Peter in his red suit playing innocently in the snow. Reflecting after the man who shot and killed young Trayvon Martin was found not guilty, Chris writes in an essay, “ I wondered: if the man who killed Trayvon Martin had read The Snowy Day as a kid, would it have been as easy for him to see a seventeen-year-old in a hoodie, pockets full of rainbow candies and sweet tea, as a threat? What might have been different if images of round-headed Peter and his red hood and his snow angels were already dancing in his head?
The late Walter Dean Myers, children’s and young adult author (and Christopher Myers’ father) explained in his NY Times Op-Ed piece that he was an avid reader that had chosen to stop reading as a teen because “…books were more like friends with whom I no longer felt comfortable. As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine.” Discovering a story by James Baldwin he finally saw himself and his Harlem neighborhood and it was that experience which set him on the path as a writer to provide those images to the young people for whom he wrote. Myers states, “I need to make them feel as if they are part of America’s dream, that all the rhetoric is meant for them, and that they are wanted in this country.”
And I will be forever grateful to both James Baldwin and Walter Dean Myers for the familiar images I’ve experienced reading their books.
Not long after the NY Times piece, the WNDB (We Need Diverse Books) movement kicked into gear fueled in part by their Social Media campaign. It’s now an official organization (check out their website)whose vision reads - A world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book. They recently announced the recipient of their 1st Annual Walter Award (honoring the memory of Walter Dean Myers), an award for a Young Adult book written by a diverse author featuring a diverse main character. The award goes to All American Boys. This organization is definitely at the forefront for making change happen.
Two friends sent me a link to an article in the Philly Voice showcasing the social activism of 11 year-old Marley Dias (thank you Dalton and Sandy). Marley fed up with reading the books “about white boys and dogs” took matters into her own hands. She has started a book drive collecting books “where Black girls are the main characters in the book and not background characters or minor characters.” Her goal is to collect 1000 books that will be sent to a limited resource library in Jamaica (her mother’s childhood home).
Marley’s mother discusses the importance of identity for Black girls living in the U.S. where Blacks only make up 12 percent of the population, “They want to read stories where they see themselves and familiar experiences.” Sound familiar? She also stated, “It doesn’t have to be the only thing they get, but the absence of it is clearly quite noticeable.”
As I’ve written in the past (see Sept.2015 post) I believe all children should have a mirror and window experience when reading.
Well with all this diversity talk, it was just a matter of time before corporate America became involved. Pinterest engineer Tracy Chou led the movement in the tech industry to take a look at their lack of diversity. In 2014 they gathered the data, released their statistics and new initiatives were
announced (think girls in Stem careers).
The publishing industry was next. The publishers Lee & Low (one of my go-to resources to find diverse book titles) led the charge. It took them a year, but finally 34 publishers and 8 reviewers agreed to participate in the first Diversity Baseline Survey of the publishing industry.
This was a major step needed to show where the industry is now and help them measure progress as they move forward. The results were released yesterday and a particular point that stood out for me in the analysis - “While all racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented when compared to the general US population, the numbers show that some groups, such as Black/African Americans, are more severely underrepresented. This mirrors trends among children’s book authors. In 2014, just 2 percent of the books tracked by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center were by black authors.”
The entire report is an interesting read and shows there is much to be done in order to change the status quo.
As an educator, literacy advocate for minority children, mother, and “Nana Judi” to a “Special Family” I’ll continue to do my part promoting diverse books so that Peter is one of many beloved diverse characters in the years to come.
Knowing how important images are to our children, and seeing the necessary steps being taken to make changes in the publishing industry and the tech industry, I wonder when that other influential group (teachers) will follow suit and take a long hard look at its data and practices in order to be a part of changing the status quo?
See you next Wednesday!