I hated bugs, so playing in the backyard wasn’t an option. And my parents, who worked and slept and worked around the clock, didn’t have time to entertain me, so being taken to the park or bowling or the museum hardly ever happened—if at all. And I didn’t have many friends, so there was that. Books were my refuge. My babysitters. My BFFs. Judy Blume. Beverly Cleary. Frances Hodges Burnett. Their worlds, their spirits, their thoughts, their shenanigans—all of it made me… happy.
I never really noticed that none of the characters looked like me. There were no Black girls, no cornrows, no thick lips and chocolate kisses and double-dutch rhymes on the library shelves or at the bookstore at the mall or in the cleverly-wrapped boxes under our Christmas tree. It just was what it was.
So long ago, it was what it was.
But when I got pregnant with my first baby, I promised that this didn’t have to be her reality—that my child didn’t have to spend the most impressionable part of her life missing and longing for herself in the pages of the best gifts I could ever give her: literature. And before she made her big debut on this sweet Earth, she had a shelf full of books, many of them books that featured characters that looked like her: Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day,” “Goggles,” “and Whistle For Willie”; Vera B. Williams’ “More, More, More Said the Baby”; Faith Ringold’s “Tar Beach,” Nikki Giovanni’s “The Sun Is So Quiet,” Donald Crews’ “Big Mama,” Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra.” Admittedly, the pickings were slim. But I found them.
All these years later, the pickings are still slim. I mean, presumably there are more books for, about and by children of color being published today than there were back in 1999, for sure. But finding them is about as elusive as a towheaded elf beneath a four-leaf clover. I swear, more times than I care to, I find myself standing in Barnes & Noble, watching some unsuspecting clerk search in vain for children’s books featuring Black characters, knowing full well they’re not there. Their exasperation with the search always leads to a heart-felt discussion about why the store doesn’t bother to carry Black children’s books (they insist no one buys them; I suggest that it’s impossible to buy something that isn’t available for purchase), which inevitably leads to me lecturing about how important it is for stores, librarians, teachers and parents to recognize that books featuring children of color not only can help make Black kids fall in love with the written word, but, in the most basic of ways, give white children an up close and personal view into the worlds of little people who don’t look like them—who, in many ways, are just like them.
I wrote about that last point in a piece here on MyBrownBaby, in which I fessed up to integrating the bookshelves of my children’s white friends by giving them Black books for birthdays, Christmas and, well, just because:
My hope is when I pass along a Black children’s book or a Black doll baby to my daughters’ friends, that they get the same subliminal lessons —that brown children matter. Books like “Ruby and the Booker Boys” speak to our experiences and show both our differences and our commonalities with white culture. Introducing books like these to white children is the most simple, basic way to introduce a child to another race in a positive, thoughtful way. A white child introduced to Ruby may not necessarily say, “Oh look! A Black girl is the star of this book!” when she reads it. She might not notice the character’s color at all. But she just might decide to make friends with a little Black girl out on the playground because she looks like the character in the book she liked. And since she really liked that book, she’ll probably really like that little girl, too. Children really are that simple. That uncomplicated…
And really, it is that uncomplicated. Debbie Allen’s “Dancing in the Wings” is every bit as poignant a tale about self-esteem as, say, Jamie Lee Curtis’s “I’m Gonna Like Me,” just as Derrick Barnes’ “Ruby and the Booker Boys” series is as sassy and humorous and identifiable as Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books. But Black children hardly know this because the Black stories are hardly ever made available to them and white children are clueless about it because no one ever fixes their mouths to suggest them as good books they might enjoy.
And that is the shame of it all.
And so I’ll keep stashing Black children’s books in as many birthday gift bags as I can, donating them to as many charitable causes as I can find, and requesting them as additions to my own incredible and burgeoning Black children’s book collection. Simply put: everyone should buy Black children’s books by Black authors. Here’s are some of my girlpies’ favorites—all of which have found their way into the hands of their friends:
Tar Beach, by Faith Ringold
Homemade Love: Picture Book, by bell hooks
We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past, by Jacqueline Woodson
The Gospel Cinderella, by Joyce Carol Thomas
Olu’s Dream, by Shane Evans
Ruby and the Booker Boys #1: Brand New School, Brave New Ruby, by Derrick Barnes
Precious and the Boo Hag (Anne Schwartz Books), by Patricia McKissack
A Chair for My Mother 25th Anniversary Edition (Reading Rainbow Books), By Vera B. Williams
Zora and Me, by Victoria Bond and T.R. Simon
We Could Be Brothers, by Derrick Barnes
Candy Apple #27: Miss You, Mina, by Denene Millner
My Brother Charlie, by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Peete
Ellen’s Broom (Coretta Scott King Honor – Illustrator Honor Title), by Kelly Starling Lyons
When I Am Old With You (Orchard Paperbacks), by Angela Johnson
The Ghanaian Goldilocks, by Tamara Pizzoli
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.