I didn’t mean to offend, I promise you this. It’s just that he was a sweet boy and incredibly bright and engaging, and really, the book didn’t cost that much.
This is what I’d planned to say to the mother of my daughter’s classmate, a little boy who I’d come to adore. I’d seen him in her class before, but I’d talked to him one-on-one for the first time at our school’s Scholastic Book Fair last year. My first conversation with King (I’m using a description of little man instead of his name, to protect the innocent) went a little something like this:
Me: Do you need help finding a book?
King: I’m not going to buy a book.
Me: Well, why not?
King: I don’t like to read.
Me: *I play-clutched my heart and died 2,000 deaths* What?! You don’t like to read? That’s the craziest thing I’ve EVER heard a kid who doesn’t like to read! Do you know what you’re missing out on? Do you know how many great stories you don’t get to hear because you won’t pick up a book? Have you any idea
Ten minutes and 40 great-books-I-know-a-kid-your-age-would-just-love suggestions later, King agreed to read with me the back covers of a few offerings to see if they kinda sounded like something he might slip and read if forced. He giggled at the first few pages of The Diary Of A Wimpy Kid, and wondered aloud how hard it would be to go a whole day without saying a word, like the kids in Andrew Clement’s No Talking. He even thought it would be cool to work on a school newspaper, like the lead character in Walter Dean Meyers’ Darnell Rock Reporting. By the time we finished talking and laughing and exploring, he was reasonably convinced that maybe, just maybe, reading wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Small problem, though: His mom, he said, hadn’t given him money to buy a book. “No problem,” I said simply. “Pick out one book, and I’ll buy it for you. All you have to do is promise me that the next time you see me, you’ll tell whether you liked it or not.”
Well let me tell you: Every time I saw that little boy after that day, which was often because I was always up there at that school, he’d have something to say about yet another book he was reading. He was into fantasy and mystery and humor books—loved the magic of the stories and how they made him laugh out loud. This child, a beautiful little 4th grade black boy, was officially in love with the written word.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I met up with King at a second Scholastic Book Fair and he told me he wasn’t going to purchase a book.
Me: Well why not? There’s lots of wonderful books here today.
King: My mother didn’t give me money.
Me: Well, you know the drill go on ahead and pick out something and Ms. Denene will get it for you.
King: I can’t. My mom will get really mad if I let you do that.
He was so stiff when he said it and he had tears in his eyes. Turns out his mom was pissed that some lady bought her kid something without her permission.
The hell? I was undone when I heard this madness; what in the world kind of mother, I fumed (on the inside, of course), would get mad at her son for accepting the gift of a book? In this day and age, when little black boys who’d much rather play Madden and watch Lil’ Wayne videos outnumber damn near 1,000 to one little black boys who get pleasure from reading?
I really had to fix my face on that one, and, at the same time, say something encouraging to King, who, by that point, was tearily watching his classmates skip out of the fair, book purchases in hand.
Me: I’ll talk to your mom, okay? I blurted out.
King: Really? You promise?
Yup, that was me and my big mouth in action. I’d told the boy I was going to step to his mother and make her let me buy him a book.
Later, when I recounted the story to Nick, he was quiet for a moment. “Maybe,” he said simply, “you need to think about how you’d feel if somebody bought books for the girls without your permission after you told them you didn’t have any money to buy them. Pride, babe.”
Yup. As usual, I didn’t think of it that way. I was so focused on the high of getting a boy hooked on books that I hadn’t considered how my actions could have been misinterpreted by his mom and how she may have thought they made her look in her son’s eyes. And for that, I was deeply sorry.
This is what I told her a few nights later, when our kids’ class met for an evening activity. I introduced myself and told her how amazing I thought her son was, and asked her if it would be okay if I talked to him about books and, from time to time, slipped him an age-appropriate novel or two just to see what, in a 4th grade black boy’s mind, constitutes a good book. “No pressure,” I insisted. “I won’t go crazy. Just a book or two that we can discuss whenever I see him here at the school.”
“Of course you can give him books,” she said, smiling. “How could I argue with free books?
Exactly. Who can argue with free books?
Both of us looked at King; his grin was infectious worth every cent of the cost of his new book, times a million.
* * *
10 GREAT BOOKS FOR BLACK BOYS
by Rachel Isadora
A toddler plays a game of peekaboo, and you’re invited to play too. First there’s Mommy to find, with Daddy not far behind. Then Puppy comes peeking around the corner, and a favorite toy train brings the toddler to Grandma and Grandpa. Isadora’s brilliant, joyful pastel illustrations capture the familiar and cozy people, toys and animals that will delight babies.
The Snowy Day
by Ezra Jack Keats
The simple tale of a boy waking up to discover that snow has fallen during the night. The little boy celebrates the snow-draped city with a day of humble adventures–experimenting with footprints, knocking snow from a tree, creating snow angels, and trying to save a snowball for the next day. Awakening to a winter wonderland is an ageless, ever-magical experience, and one made nearly visceral by Keats’s gentle tribute.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me
by Brian Collier
This powerful and inspiring book shows the love that an absent parent can leave behind, and the strength that children find in themselves as they grow up and follow their dreams.
You Can Do It!
by Tony Dungy
Tony Dungy’s little brother, Linden, is a third grader who is having a bad day at school. Linden is the youngest of the Dungy family and the least motivated because he hasn’t found “it.” In a family where everyone seems to have found their special talent, all Linden knows is that he wants to make people happy. With encouragement from his parents, a helping hand from his older brother Tony, and inspiration from God, Linden learns that if he dreams big and has faith, he can do anything!
by Taye Diggs
The boy is teased for looking different than the other kids. His skin is darker, his hair curlier. He tells his mother he wishes he could be more like everyone else. And she helps him to see how beautiful he really, truly is.
When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop
by Laban Carrick Hill
Before there was hip hop, there was DJ Kool Herc. On a hot day at the end of summer in 1973 Cindy Campbell threw a back-to-school party at a park in the South Bronx. Her brother, Clive Campbell, spun the records. He had a new way of playing the music to make the breaks–the musical interludes between verses–longer for dancing. He called himself DJ Kool Herc and this is When the Beat Was Born. From his childhood in Jamaica to his youth in the Bronx, Laban Carrick Hill’s book tells how Kool Herc came to be a DJ, how kids in gangs stopped fighting in order to breakdance, and how the music he invented went on to define a culture and transform the world.
We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball
by Kadir Nelson
The story of Negro League baseball is the story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field. It is a perfect mirror for the social and political history of black America in the first half of the twentieth century. But most of all, the story of the Negro Leagues is about hundreds of unsung heroes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay to do the one thing they loved more than anything else in the world: play ball.
During a three-day suspension, two young men visit each others’ home, and “chop it up” on a multitude of subjects including respect of self and Black women, the dire state of hip-hop music, the use of the dreaded “N” word, and masculinity, a relationship and collision course that addresses the presence and lack of positive male leadership in the home, and how it dictates the way young African American men view themselves, each other, and the world around them. Mentorship, brotherhood, and an emphasis on that old adage “each-one-teach-one” are very real and tangible themes.
In Daddy’s Arms I Am Tall: African Americans Celebrating Fathers
by Alan Schroeder
In this intergenerational collection of poetry by new and established African American writers, fatherhood is celebrated with honor, humor, and grace. The book testifies to the powerful bond between father and child, recognizing family as our greatest gift, and identifying fathers as being among our most influential heroes.
The Watsons Go to Birmingham—1963
by Christopher Paul Curtis
A wonderful middle-grade novel narrated by Kenny, 9, about his middle-class black family, the Weird Watsons of Flint, Michigan. When Kenny’s 13-year-old brother, Byron, gets to be too much trouble, they head South to Birmingham to visit Grandma, the one person who can shape him up. And they happen to be in Birmingham when Grandma’s church is blown up.
by Walter Dean Meyers
This New York Times bestselling novel and National Book Award nominee from acclaimed author Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon, a teenage boy in juvenile detention and on trial. Presented as a screenplay of Steve’s own imagination, and peppered with journal entries, the book shows how one single decision can change our whole lives.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.