Archive for Walter Dean Myers

“The Boundaries of Imagination”; or, the All-White World of Children’s Books, 2014

Christopher Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? (art, photographed, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014)

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”

too often today’s books remain blind to the everyday reality of thousands of children. Children of color remain outside the boundaries of imagination. The cartography we create with this literature is flawed.

— Christopher Myers, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”

In case you missed it, yesterday’s New York Times (16 Mar. 2014) carried two essays that should do what Nancy Larrick’s famous “All-White World of Children’s Books” (Saturday Review, 11 Sept. 1965) did nearly 50 years ago: Sound the call to the publishing business to increase representation of people of color in children’s books. If you haven’t read these articles, please take a moment and do so.

As Walter Dean Myers notes, though there are now more people of color in books for young readers than there were in 1969 (when he entered the children’s book field), there are also more young readers of color. So, “Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious.”

Christopher Myers, Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? (art, photographed, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014)

These articles — and many others that I’ve read over the last few years (links below) — should point to a critical mass of support for increased representation of non-white people in children’s books. There are already efforts under way, like The Birthday Party Pledge (promise to give multicultural books to the children in your life) and Hands Across the Sea (promoting literacy in the Caribbean).

The pressing need for books featuring children of color inspires me to share some resources I’ve gathered for my own research and for students in my graduate-level African American Children’s Literature class — a course I’m teaching for the first time this semester (and which will, I promise, improve in subsequent years; this is my first attempt).  I’m aware that these resources are not comprehensive, and so please feel free to add suggestions in the comments.  Indeed, I’d be grateful if you would.

Essays on the Need for More People of Color in Children’s and YA Books

  • Laura Atkins, “White Privilege and Children’s Publishing: A Web 2.0 Case Study,” write4children 1.2 (April 2010). Note: document is a pdf. Scroll down to page 21.
  • Regina Sierra Carter, “YA Literature: The Inside and Cover Story,” The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults, 18 Apr. 2013. “America is steadily becoming more diverse. So should YA literature. “
  • Jen Doll, “The Ongoing Problem of Race in Y.A.,” The Atlantic Wire, 26 Apr. 2012.  Great overview, with lots of links to relevant articles.
  • Zetta Elliott, “Decolonizing the Imagination,” Horn Book, Mar.-Apr. 2010. “My goal as a writer of speculative fiction is to engage the tropes of captivity, migration, and transformation in a narrative that is thrilling, compelling, and revealing…. I believe speculative fiction generates the kind of narrative possibility that enables us to revise, re-view, and reclaim the past.”
  • Zetta Elliott, “Stranger Than Fiction: Depicting Trauma in African American Children’s Books” or “One Hot Mess,” Fledgling: Zetta Elliott’s Blog, 16 June 2012.
  • Josh Finney, “Yes, But Is It Racist? Science Fiction and the Significance of 9%,” Broken Frontier, 10 Sept. 2013. “Over the years, I’ve known plenty of writers who’ve shied away from creating black characters due to the perceived consequences of getting it wrong.”
  • Malinda Lo, “A Year of Thinking About Diversity,” Diversity in YA, 19 Dec. 2011. “The concept of diversity is complex, messy, and charged. It means different things to different people. “
  • Jason Low, “Why hasn’t the number of multicultural books increased in eighteen years?” Lee & Low Books, 17 June 2013. Seeking answers, Low talks to Kathleen T. Horning, Nikki Grimes, Rudine Sims Bishop, Debbie Reese, Betsy Bird, Sarah Park Dahlen, Jane M. Gagni, and others.
  • Jessie-Lane Metz, “Ally-phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions,” The Toast, 24 Jul. 2013. “When a person of colour speaks to their own experiences of racism, they are speaking to a collective pain, and speaking truth to power. When a person with white skin privilege gives an anecdote about racism, whether their own or someone else’s, they are exposing more racialized people to this discrimination, and reasserting their own privilege. The narrative is no longer about Black victims of racist crimes and a deeply flawed justice system, it is about white feelings about Black bodies and their experiences.”
  • Christopher Myers, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature,” New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014. “children of color… recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.
  • Christopher Myers, “Young Dreamers,” Horn Book, 6 Aug. 2013. “The plethora of threatening images of young black people has real-life effects. But if people can see us as young dreamers, boys with hopes and doubts and playfulness, instead of potential threats or icons of societal ills, perhaps they will feel less inclined to kill us.”
  • Walter Dean Myers, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?,” New York Times 16 Mar. 2014. “this was exactly what I wanted to do when I wrote about poor inner-city children — to make them human in the eyes of readers and, especially, in their own eyes. 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.”
  • Walter Dean Myers, “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry,” New York Times, 9 Nov. 1986. “if we continue to make black children nonpersons by excluding them from books and by degrading the black experience, and if we continue to neglect white children by not exposing them to any aspect of other racial and ethnic experiences in a meaningful way, we will have a next racial crisis.”
  • Mitali Perkins, “Straight Talk on Race: Challenging the Stereotypes in Kids’ Books,” School Library Journal 1 Apr. 2009. “Here are five questions that’ll help you and your students discern messages about race in stories. Try these in the classroom, and my guess is that you may end up engaging teens who had seemed reluctant to share their literary opinions.”
  • Alyssa Rosenberg, “Malinda Lo on Why White Creators Default to Colorblindness,” 20 Feb. 2013. “Race-blindness is more risk management strategy than a means of actually making television, movies, and books more diverse.”
  • Meg Rosoff, “You can’t protect children by lying to them — the truth will hurt less.” Guardian, 20 Sept. 2013. “There is a theory that children’s literature should uphold the idyll of childhood, offering charming scenarios and happy endings to protect the innocent from life’s harsh realities. But children have extraordinary antennae for the things no one will explain.” This essay isn’t about race. It’s about not lying, and its insights are applicable in this list — that’s why I’ve included it.
  • Shadra Strickland, “Do Great Work and the Rest Will Follow,” Horn Book March-April 2014. “It’s strange being black and a woman in a field that has historically celebrated white male contributions. Before I was published, I wondered if the only way in was to write and illustrate stories about slavery and black history. When all of my graduate school friends landed book contracts before me, at times I thought, ‘Is it because I paint black people?’ I talked myself down from that ledge, but why was I up there to begin with?”

Essays on the Need for More People of Color on the Covers (a.k.a. Essays Against Whitewashing)


Resources, Both Historical and Ongoing Projects



Penultimate note: I’ve not included most of the critical texts on our syllabus, because my students already know what those are (and so will you, if you follow the link!).

Final note: As I said above, suggestions welcome. Thanks!

Page last updated, 4:15 pm CDT, 21 Mar 2014. For their suggestions, thanks to Laura Atkins, Sarah Hamburg, Sheila Barry, Kate Pritchard, Keilin H., Hannah Ehrlich (Lee & Low Books).

Image credits: Art by Christopher Myers, from New York Times, 16 Mar. 2014. I decided to photograph my copy of the newspaper rather than just lift the art from the Times‘ website simply because I like print culture. You can find clearer digital images on the Times‘ site.

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Book-Banners Hurt Young People

Banned Books Week 2010 posterAs I look at the American Library Association’s lists of Banned and Challenged Books, one recurring theme emerges: most (though not all) depict difficulties faced by children and teens. Though the motive for banning books is protection, restricting access to these books hurts the children and teens who are most in need of them.  Laurie Halse Anderson‘s Speak and Maya Angelou‘s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings both addresses the aftermath of rape. Harry Potter tells of a child who thrives despite the active neglect of his foster parents. Rudolfo Anaya‘s Bless Me, Ultima depicts the experience of facing peers who ridicule you for your culture and of facing parents more invested in their dreams than your own.  Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers‘s Fallen Angels depicts how war shapes a young psyche.  Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three shows that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too.  Alex Sanchez‘s Rainbow Boys depicts the challenges gay teens face.

Children in vulnerable populations need to read books that help them make sense of their experiences.  As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. … Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to. … They tend to express themselves more clearly, and they usually have a passion for following their thoughts through to the end” (189).  Or ,as Holden says earlier in the novel, “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author was a friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it” (18).

Many of the books that have been banned or challenged are exactly the books that can be the friend to the young person who desperately needs to know that she or he is not alone, that other people have faced similar struggles.  Though there are many such teens, I have been thinking a lot about the high suicide rate among gay teen-agers.  (And, yes, Given Holden’s anxiety about “flits,” The Catcher in the Rye may not be the book to which gay teens turn.)

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” Project has strikes me as particularly effective because it lets GLBTQ youth know not only that they’re not alone, but also that the traumas of high school do end and life can be good and even wonderful at times.

David Leviathan, Boy Meets BoyOf course, I’d much rather that young people lived in the world of David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy, where teen-agers are allowed to express their sexual preference without fear of bullying.  But we don’t live in that world.  In the past three weeks, bullying has led to the suicides of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, and others whose deaths have not made headlines.  It’s extremely hard for teen-agers to realize that life can get better for them. Videos like this can help.

I think that books can help, too.  In my Literature for Adolescents class, I teach Francesca Lia Block’s Weetzie Bat and Sara Ryan’s Empress of the World.  I teach the former for its frank depiction of sexuality, but also its magical realism, its lyrical prose, and its influence on later writers… such as Sara Ryan, who alludes to Weetzie in her novel.  I teach her Empress of the World because — in addition to being a well-written narrative — I find that my students are more likely to teach it than Weetzie Bat.  They’re able to appreciate Weetzie Bat as art, but the conception of Cherokee Bat makes some uncomfortable.Sara Ryan, Empress of the World Since many will go on to be high school teachers, I want them to have a book about gay teens that they feel comfortable teaching.

(Incidentally, I’m definitely open to other suggestions for other gay-friendly books for that “slot” on the syllabus.  Each time I teach the class, I change it a little, swapping out some books, adding new ones, and so on.  So… if you have suggestions, please place them in the comments below.)

High school can be a difficult time — especially if you’re a member of any group that’s mocked, bullied or ridiculed for being “different.”  It’s hard enough growing up knowing that, say, your government believes that your sexuality makes you unfit to serve your country in uniform.  Or growing up knowing that you need to keep your love a secret, lest you be the victim of a hate crime.  If you’re taught to feel ashamed for who you are, you may not be inclined to talk to other people.  A library is one place where you might find the books that can talk to you, and to help you know that you’re not alone.

Teen-agers of all types (different genders, sexualities, nationalities, ethnicities, body types, religions, etc.) need access to books that help them make sense of what they are going through.  Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk.

Why do some parents want to deny young readers access?  I say “parents” because, according to the American Library Association, over half (55%!) of all challenges to books come from parents.  To put that in perspective, the next-highest group of challengers are patrons (13%), followed by other (11%), administrators (9%), and board members (3%).  I have to believe that, in seeking to deny readers access, these parents are acting in what (they think) is the best interests of their community.  And, certainly, the desire to protect one’s children is universal (or nearly universal) among parents — and for good reason.

But any individual young person will not match one parent’s idea of what teenage-hood (or childhood) “is” or “should be.”  There are as many different kinds of teen-agers (and children) as there are different kinds of adults.  Never do we hear an adult say, “This book is inappropriate for adults” or “adults will like this.”  Yet, if we replace the word “adults” with “teen-agers” or “children,” then we’ll see a phrase encountered far too often.  A grown-up resists generalizations about him- or her-self, but is often quite happy to generalize about younger people.  This (well-intentioned) impulse to protect young adults by upholding such generalized, abstract notions of “teen-ager” or “child” not only fails to prepare young persons for the sometimes cruel world they face, but in fact has a greater potential to make their lives harder.

I know that literature is not in itself a solution to the problems of homophobia and bullying.  But it can help diminish the effects of both. And for the friends and families of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and all the other young GLBTQ people out there, we need to support the freedom to read.

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