Connecting Through Diversity

March 25, 2014 § 1 Comment

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy DempseyA rousing op-ed piece by acclaimed children’s author Walter Dean Myers, recently appearing in The New York Times, poses the uncomfortable question: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” The startling statistic cited at the beginning reveals that of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black people. Myers later compares this statistic to the 40% of public school students nationwide who are black or Latino. As a black boy growing up in Harlem, Myers’ initial love affair with reading quickly turned to disinterest, as he discovered the glaring lack of literary characters who looked and lived like him. As an adult, Myers has dedicated his career to writing prolifically about inner-city youth, calling his novels “a validation of their existence as human beings.” But it’s about more than providing validation to people with color, he notes. It’s also about how these individuals are seen by the rest of us:

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

As someone who sold picture books for many years, what often strikes me about today’s offerings for young people is not the lack of books featuring people of color (that is clearly a fact), but how quickly a book with a black figure on its cover almost always signifies a story about a “race issue,” be it a story about a slave traversing the Underground Railroad or one about a contemporary black girl overcoming her classmates’ prejudice to star in the school play. Many of these are beautiful, powerful picture books—but they are also ones that, too often, only end up seeing the light of day during calendar events like Black History Month. Especially among us white families, they are treated more like “teaching tools” for the classroom and less like the books we purchase and leave strewn around our house, hoping for our children to discover and devour them.

It is worth noting one exception. In today’s bookstores, racial diversity is most evident in picture books that are concerned, not with a story about an individual, but with a broad, sweeping depiction of urban life. Books like Water in the Park (discussed here) and In the Town All Year Round (discussed here) do a fine job of representing people of different skin colors “as an integral and valued part of the mosaic” (to borrow Myers’ words), in which kids are growing up today. But, let’s be honest: from the standpoint of the publishers and the booksellers, this is a safe route to take; these harmonious covers show white children alongside those of color. In other words, they are still seen by white buyers as relatable.

Which leads me to my own question. I wonder if we as parents play a larger role than we realize in the scant publication of books starring individuals of color. Are we unknowingly standing in the way of our children seeing and identifying with the communities around them? When I read Myers’ piece last week, I immediately thought of my initial reaction to the uplifting new picture book, A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream, by Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper (Ages 4-10). The story is about a poor black girl, living in mid-twentieth century Harlem, who longs to be a ballerina. Dempsey and Cooper have loosely based their book on those, like our young, wide-eyed heroine, who had the opportunity to watch Janet Collins’ debut as the first African-American ballerina to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1951.

When I first paged through the book at my local bookshop, I got goose bumps from the sheer lyricism of the language. Certainly, a story-told-in-poems format seems perfectly matched to subject matter about dance and transcendence; but what really struck me is how this beautiful, buoyant language contrasts the daily struggle of the girl and her single mother—a mother who works days and nights as a laundress and seamstress, but a mother who doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice a new sewing machine in order to give her daughter a glimpse of what her promising future might hold. The moments leading up to the performance are breathlessly described through the daughter’s eyes:

Waiting now
for the bus,
my feet won’t stop
their trippy-trappy,
jumpin’ jiggle,
can’t-hardly-wait wiggle.

But then I fell directly into the trap. I thought, “I have to bring this book into JP’s school!” I immediately categorized it as “a book with a lesson” (race! poverty! history!). I didn’t buy the book, but instead took a picture of its cover and requested it from the library, as I do the other books I bring into my son’s elementary classroom. Once I classified it as such, it never occurred to me to share it with my three-and-a-half year old daughter, who loves dancing as much as she loves snuggles and pizza and playing with her brother.

And yet, who ended up going through my pile of books by the door and picking out this one for story time? “Mommy, look! This one is about a ballerina!” I started to say that this story was intended for older kids, but I stopped myself when I saw her sheer delight upon flipping through the subdued, grainy paintings, in hues of browns and pinks, each one filled with longing and sadness and wonder and joy. And so I read it. And then I read it again. And again. And I saw that I had been grossly mistaken. Yes, this is a book with a powerful and important message about breaking down racial barriers. But it is also about a little girl with a passion; about a mother who loves her; about the awe that we all feel in the presence of art. It is also about something that every single child, regardless of race or class or background, feels at one point or another—and that’s the inner stirrings of hope. Or, in our narrator’s words:

Hope
puffs up my chest
just a bit.
One day,
those voices
will be
for me.

As Walter Dean Myers fervently reminds us, books starring children of color or children of lower economic classes are critical to the identity formation of those individuals (not to mention their interest in reading). Equally important, however, is that these stories, especially the ones about everyday triumphs and failures, find their way into the hands of the broader population as well. Our children are not nearly as literal as we often assume them to be. They aren’t born seeing the world in black and white. They are born with a natural ability to connect as human beings. And books are a great place to nurture these connections. But we need to make them accessible to our children. And we need to spend money on them—in order that there will be more published every year.

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