Wednesday, March 13, 2019

UPDATE: Black History Month and Children's Books

Black History and the New World of Children’s Books
DUKES FANS “Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.” Dr. Mae Jemison, first African-American female astronaut
"We should emphasize not Negro History but the Negro in history. What we need is not histories of selected people or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate, and religious prejudice." Historian Carter G. Woodson, 1926, father of Negro History Week,now Black History Month "Books Saved My Life" Saying on T-Shirt sold at Uncle Bobbie's coffeeshop in Germantown
One of the things that I have been doing since I retired from teaching is serving as a volunteer librarian at a local public elementary school. Penny, my late wife, established the program at this school in 2015 when we both retired, and it involves some 18 or so retired teachers and educators who spend 4 mornings a week reading books to students, helping them choose and take books out for their own pleasure, helping them with research projects, and more. There are many reasons I love doing this, but one of the biggest is that I get to discover, read, and share with the kids books that I could not have imagined existing when I was their age-or even older. The world of children's books is undergoing a major change, and the volunteering puts me in touch with that. When I was in elementary school in the 1950's there were no reading books that featured people who were remotely familiar to me or who lived in neighborhoods such as mine. There were lily-white Dick and Jane and their dog, Spot, and houses with picket fences around them. During history time we rarely mentioned people who looked like me except in discussions of slavery in the South, George Washington Carver and the peanut, Langston Hughes' poetry, and one or two other Negroes, as we were then called. Now I was not ignorant about or unaware of the accomplishments of blacks in the US; my family subscribed to the Philadelphia Tribune newspaper as well as Jet and Ebony magazines, and we frequently discussed issues of civil rights, as the Movement was growing through the 50's and 60's, both in strength and news coverage. Public schools at that time, though, did not pay much attention to dark skinned people except in some limited and/or stereotyped ways. While we were not totally invisible, we were in no way fully "there." Fortunately, there were public libraries and I loved to haunt their stacks. Those places had books about a wide variety of topics, people and issues that appealed to me. It was at the library that I first found out about Black cowboys and later started wearing cowboy hats as a tribute to them. It was there I discovered writers such as Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Ishmael Reed, and many more. It was there in the late 1960's and 70's that I could encounter the work of the burgeoning "Black Arts Movement" and expand my ways of thinking. Libraries were a place where I could go beyond what I knew to encounter and embrace new ideas, new people and new thoughts. To me, libraries are essential parts of a civilization, and school libraries are important ways to introduce young people to reading, questioning and learning. So helping to keep a public school library open in a city that does not have enough funding to fully staff its schools is, to me, a vital thing to do.
But the thing I love most about volunteering has been discovering how radically changed the world of children's books has become. There are now an amazing number of books featuring characters who look like me, stories about people who look like me, and biographies and history books about people who look like me. Yes, I know these changes have been happening for some time now, but were I not volunteering in the library I would probably be unaware of the extent and reach of these changes. There are loads of stories now where African-American characters feature prominently and they and their lives are the main point of the story. And they live in a variety of times, places and situations, just as we do in the real world. There are also a lot of biographies for children now, not only about famous African-Americans, but also of folks very few people know about. One of the things I love doing for my read-aloud sessions with the kids during Black History Month is to read biographies about these lesser known people, many of whom even I did not know about until discovering them in a children's book. Many of these new biographies are also picture books, so I get to introduce young students to African-Americans such as Kansas potato magnate Junius Groves, New York City's Molly Williams, the first female firefighter in the United States, Texas cowboy and wild horse trainer Bob Lemmons, Maryland's astronomer, almanac-writer, and surveyor Benjamin Banneker, and many, many more. The kids I read to may be unaware of how momentous the existence of books such as these really is, but the importance of this is not lost on me. This has been a quiet but stunning revolution, and its effects will be long lasting and far ranging.
So I invite you to become a kid again for a little while and read some children's literature that can take you to some new places in the world and in your mind and give you some new information, new thoughts and new realizations. Go to your local public library and explore. Re-discover how much fun reading and learning can be just for its own sake. Enjoy the pictures, the stories and welcoming some new people into your life. It will be a wonderful and thrilling experience. (some of my favorite books the library has introduced me to; No Small Potatoes: Junius Groves and His Kingdom in Kansas Tonya Bolden; illustrated by Don Tate Molly, by Golly: The Legend of Molly Williams, America's First Female Firefighter Dianne Ochiltree; illustrated by Kathleen Kemly Black Cowboy, Wild Horses: A True Story Julius Lester; illustrated by Jerry Pinkney Dear, Benjamin Banneker Andrea Pinkney illustrated by Brian Pinkney (and a good website for searching out African-American children's books: )

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