While waiting for my taxes to be done on April 14 of this year, I picked up a magazine and quickly located a feature about children’s literature and the publishing world. With the decline of Anglos in the U.S. population (By 2019 children of color will outnumber white children in the U.S.), the writer of the article questioned the small numbers of children’s books that feature characters of color as well as the small number of minority writers of children’s books. According to the feature, the market for sales of children’s books is driven by demand, and the buyers are predominantly white. The acquisition editors making decisions on what will be published are primarily white females, and as Rosemary Brosnan, editorial director at Harper Collins Children’s Book indicates, sales can “certainly impact visibility and output.”
Of the 5,000 books published last year, researchers at the University of Wisconsin assessed 3,600 of them and learned that 3.3 percent were about African Americans, 2.1 percent about Asian Americans, 1.5 percent about Latinos, and 0.6 percent about Native Americans.
This made me think about my early experiences in reading and the race/ethnicity of characters. I could write a graduate thesis on the books I loved which have now been deemed unsuitable for children. There is The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman. Sambo was originally depicted as a South Indian who was approached by four vain tigers to whom he gave his clothes and umbrella rather than be eaten alive. I applaud his quick thinking, as I’d do the same. The tigers got in a quarrel about who was the prettiest and ended up in a pool of melted butter that the child’s mother, Black Mambo, used to make delicious pancakes for the little boy. Famous African American poet Langston Hughes claimed the book was hurtful to black children.
The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop is next on my list of books I loved as a child. These brothers had the most interesting talents and one could even stretch his neck- all the way lengthwise across two pages of my book. What astonishing feats these brothers had in their repertoire and Bishop tells such a great story — until someone decided the book promoted ethnic stereotypes by featuring the brothers with yellow skin and slanted eyes.
Native Kentuckian Emma Speed Sampson wrote the Miss Minerva books, and my siblings and I sat enthralled as Aunt Muriel Adams (with a master’s degree in library Science from the University of Kentucky), using black southern dialect as appropriate, read the charming accounts of Miss Minerva’s life in the south. My aunt also delighted me by bringing “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby” to life.
All are now considered politically incorrect; however, if you think for a minute that they made me stereotype others by race/ethnicity, you are mistaken. Why? I’m not going into the complexities, but one thing I will indicate is that from the time I was a child in Sunday school at the Central Baptist Church in Cumberland, I sang with joy, “Jesus loves the little children/ all the children of the world/ red and yellow, black and white/ they are precious in his sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
I am now teaching a course in writing and illustrating children’s literature. This presents a dilemma to my students. If they write what they understand about Asian American, African American, Hispanic American or Native American culture, will they be accused of being racist? Or if they choose to be race neutral, they can be accused of being politically correct.
We have an African American, or is the correct word biracial, president and the insults hurled his way because of his color should embarrass those who are throwing them as well as those who stand back and do nothing. Articles on segregation I’ve read this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Atlantic bring all of up short when we realize how far we have yet to travel in race relations.
I will throw out a question that is closer to home. Native Harlan Countian and respected author of children’s literature George Ella Lyon at times uses Appalachian settings, characters and culture in her work. Should she be careful so as not to stereotype Appalachians?
Our world is complex, and daily we learn of atrocious acts, both verbal and physical, as some Americans interface with others whom they concern unworthy because of their age, weight, religion, class, skin color, sexual orientation or political party.
How did the books of your childhood impact your adult stance in regard to any of these issues? I’d like to hear from you.
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