Peter goes for a wintry walk. He is adorable in his little red coat. He puts a snowball in his pocket for later.When it was published in 1962, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats stood out as a children’s book that just so happened to be about an African-American child.
At the time, a children’s book with a normal black protagonist was a rare thing. Yet many readers felt that by not acknowledging Peter’s race in The Snowy Day and sequels, Keats was not thoughtfully advancing the cause of the civil rights movement in children’s literature. He was a white man who had created a charming black character, but Peter could just as easily have been made white.
The call for diversity in children’s literature is based on the idea of windows and mirrors. Children grow in empathy and self-awareness from reading books that are windows into the experience of others and mirrors that reflect their own cultural experiences.
It’s Black History Month, and whether or not these twenty-eight days are going to ensure that people talk about it, we have quite a lot of picture books that offer windows and mirrors in the form of the Underground Railroad, the Harlem Renaissance, civil rights activists, and black inventors. These books have a shelf life longer than the month of February.
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at UW-Madison receives copies of most trade children’s literature, and starting in 1985, they began to keep a tally of how many books had black protagonists or significant characters.
In 2013, 69 of the books they received were by black authors and 94 were about black characters. In 2016, that number tripled to 287 books about black characters. 94 books were by black authors. This indicates that stories or illustrations have become more diverse, but the body of authors and illustrators has not. Instead, non-black authors are drawing from the Snowy Day formula of a wide-eyed child who happens to be black delighting in the world around him. In contrast, many black authors feel compelled to make another book that educates on black history or at least presents an admirable fictional black character who is most often an introspective child growing up in Harlem.
In my work developing curriculum for a nonprofit that promotes literacy with families on the west side of Chicago, I’ve been working with and adding to an inventory of picture books primarily about African-Americans. I find myself delighted by some of the most beautifully illustrated, lyrical, and joyful picture books I’ve read and frustrated that there aren’t more books that students we work with could see themselves in.
There’s value in both sorts. The dream-like quilts in Faith Ringgold’s books bear witness to the history of blacks in the United States. The Snowy Day is a simple story but there’s something deeply appealing about joining Peter on his snowy walk. I’m hopeful that 2018 will be the year of more black authors bringing a diversity of characters to children’s literature.
- Yesterday I Had the Blues by Jeron Ashford Frame, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
- Lion, Lion by Miriam Busch, illustrated by Larry Day
- Metal Man by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Paul Hoppe
- Hot City by Barbara Joosse, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
- My Best Friend by Mary Ann Rodman, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
- Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold
- Windows by Julia Denos, illustrated by E.B. Goodale
- Chicken Sunday by Patricia Polacco
- The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
- After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson
- Finding Family by Tonya Bolden
- Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke
India Daniels (’17) studied English literature and history at Calvin. She is serving a year as an Americorps VISTA curriculum development specialist for Turning the Page, a nonprofit promoting literacy and parental engagement in Chicago’s North Lawndale schools.