When I was a little girl, I was fortunate enough to have books like Thunder Rose, Raising Dragons, and Pet Show! I had all of the Messy Bessey books about Messy Bessey’s clutter-induced trials, which my neat Bajan grandmother was all too pleased to read to me. I had a treasury of stories that included “A Big Spooky House,” part of which I can still recite to this day. My first grade teacher read my class The Stories that Huey Tells and The Stories that Julian Tells. While I don’t remember it in much detail, I can still remember parts of the stories. The thing about all of those books is that they were about black kids just being kids.
While books that focus on slavery, the civil rights movement, and overcoming racism are important and should be available to children, children, especially young children, need to be able to read about characters who not only look like them but also act like them and have the same concerns as them. Peter’s Chair was about a boy who didn’t want to share with a new sibling. Messy Bessey was about a girl who could never keep her room clean. They weren’t about fighting racism or the stress and sorrow that comes with being a racial minority. They were concerned about the things I, as a little kid, was concerned with. I couldn’t keep my room clean, I got a new little sister, and I loved playing pretend. While it was important for me and my peers, and remains important for today’s little children of color, to be aware of the struggles that their forebears faced and the struggles that they will face, no child needs to be reminded of struggle all the time – not in their books, not in their movies, not in any of their media.
One might assume that the best way to avoid this is to allow children to escape to the cute and cuddly. Animal characters, though charming, can’t cut it, even though I’m sure they make up a well-remembered part of people’s childhoods, as they do mine. I fondly remember Russell Hoban’s Frances books, particularly Bread and Jam for Frances and A Baby Sister for Frances. I was rather proud of my copy of If You Give a Pig a Pancake, and recently, while poking around a used book store, I found a copy of Sophie’s Masterpiece. I distinctly remember my kindergarten teacher reading that to the class, and until I re-discovered it, I’d forgotten how much I loved it (I bought it and almost bought a Frances book). But while all these stories, and the others like them, are important, I never saw myself in them; I never imagined myself doing the things they did. (Considering that the subject of If You Give a Pig A Pancake paints the yard in wood glue and maple syrup, my mother was probably thankful for this). Children perceive more than given credit. They start to realize Frances and Sophie are just a badger and a spider sooner than people realize. I don’t know if children realize how much a lack of representation affects them, but I do know they notice it and they do feel it later. Something universal like the Frances books, while useful and necessary, don’t satisfy the need to see oneself reflected back from the pages of a book. Animals and imagined characters aren’t children of color living the same lives as real children of color, encouraging children of color to follow their dreams and be the best they can be.
Children require affirmation and characters that look like them doing things they do. There needs to be more books for little children of color, and not just the black ones, so that they can be represented at an early age. Children are more than just the past actions of those that got them here. They have dreams that will push them into the future, and they have joys that keep them in the present. They deserve to see that in what they read, as well.