I believe that at this time in human history, a new breed of hero is emerging. We as writers and publishers; as keepers and key holders of imagination, have the unique opportunity to reshape children’s literature by shifting the paradigm of imaging and content in relation to children of color.
There is a quietly held belief that certain ethnic groups seldom read or buy books and if data shows that idea as accurate, then this article might hold a few keys to unmasking the apparent disconnect and relaying a foundation that works for everyone.
Lets presume without any polling or research whatsoever, that most modern, ethnic-AMERICANS have migrated away from solely identifying with certain “old-world” imaging when it comes to their culture. If that is true, then bridging the gap between the “imagery of old” and the current imagery or our ever expanding, multi-faceted, present-day, portrait becomes paramount.
In my opinion, within most popular and current African-American picture books, the mood and atmosphere sometimes feels reminiscent of a time that still resonates but doesn’t reflect our cultural or societal evolution as a people. I have always adored my heritage and had a strong reverence for my cultural history in this country, but consistently introducing certain imagery when it comes to children’s literature feels stifling.
I firmly trust that present-day, whimsical (Princess Truly and the Hungry Bunny Problem; Kelly Greenwalt, Amariah Rauscher), warm, endearing (In the Leaves; Huy Voun Lee books), quirky, “artsy"(A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin; Jen Bryant, Melissa Sweet), cute and humorous (Oh, No Gotta Go!; Susan Middleton Elyta, G. Brian Karas ), galactic and other worldly imaging (Chalk; Bill Thompson); etc; will ignite the hearts and minds of children from all walks of life. It is our responsibility as artists, writers and innovators to tap into our divine gifts and find a way, at any cost, to make contrasting artistic imaging, a commonplace for all children.
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting that traditional artistic homage be compromised. I am simply saying that just as with all of life, things change, people flourish and life presents itself anew.
In addition, CONTENT can sometimes inadvertently show up as patronizing.
We as ethnic people love ourselves, we love our hair, we think our skin color is fantastic, and the prospect of spending time with our grandparents never grows old (unless their mean). We don’t all play sports and jazz music, though those things are wildly enjoyable and important to highlight, and we’re not all interested in books established in an “urban” setting.
However, what some of our children do as a part of normal human experience is: cry for their favorite toy, make mud pies, eat licorice, hug their pets, inspect fancy do-dads, peer through telescopes, search for lady bugs, explore their spooky attic; etc.
It’s disheartening to be inundated with books that continually perpetuate certain content. Telling a good story for an ethnic-AMERICAN audience does not always include their historical experience in this country.
In addition, word count can sometimes be a deterrent. As a Screen Actors Guild Book Pal, it’s frustrating to consistently want to pull a multi-ethnic selection of picture books only to find that most picture books categorized as “ethnic” are packed with an astronomical amount of words.
While I’m a fan of hearty, classic, storytelling, I am equally as charmed by a concise, beautifully written story that stays within the parameters of standard industry word count.
If we’re honest, most books featuring white children could’ve just as easily featured a child of color. Ezra Jack Keats believed that ethnic children needed to see themselves in literature without having their ethnicity attached to the story and thus proved, even in his day in time, that the most important thing is a lovable story and a lovable character (http://www.ezra-jack-keats.org/introduction/a-biography/).
That being said, I believe that beyond all of the smoke and mirrors, weather we admit it or not, we recognize intuitively that we’re all family. Whatever we as writers, publisher and image-makers seed the hearts and minds of children, ultimately seeds the landscape of our planet. I am convinced that bookshelves bursting with an array of images and content that moves, twirls and presents an infinite display of possibilities, will find themselves ravished by tiny hands again and again.
It is time to dawn our creative capes, draw our led infused ammunition, put away any notions that no longer serve the higher good and protect the journey of the innocent. Now look, I’m not saying that we're really super heroes and that it's our divine birthright to save the world one book at a time, but yeah, we kind of are. And yeah, it kind of is. Let’s re-IMAGE-ine, shall we?