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Milestones in African American Children's Literature

Black History Month is a time for recognition, reflection, and inspiration as we acknowledge the contributions of African Americans to the progress of the United States. Dr. Nanika Coor introduces listeners to literary figures in African American history who led the charge to publish positive images of African Americans in children’s literature. 

By
Nanika Coor, Psy. D.
6-minute read
Episode #663
The Quick And Dirty

In the world of African-American children’s literature, pioneering Black authors, illustrators, and librarians helped to usher in a new era of authentic portrayals of the everyday stories, experiences, and joys of Black children in children’s books and worked for those books to be available to all children. New versions of the struggle for representation have begun to arise in concerning ways.

Happy Black History Month! All month long I’m centering African American contributions to the history of the United States and beyond! Today I’m talking about the world of African American children’s literature: the people who helped to usher in a new era of authentic portrayals of the everyday stories, experiences, and joys of Black children in children’s books, and worked for those books to be available to all children.

In 1919, the first national literacy initiative, Children’s Book Week, was established as an annual celebration of books for children as well as the powerful impact and joy of reading. That same year, Macmillan hired the first children’s book editor, Louise Seaman Bechtel, to head the first U.S. publishing department exclusively devoted to children’s books.

However, until the late 19th century, most depictions of Black people in literature for people of any age were sources of ridicule, made up of negative images, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes—and were being consumed by African American children right along with White children. One publication that attempted to counter these damaging images that was written specifically for Black children was The Brownies’ Book, published in 1920, during the Harlem Renaissance.

This monthly children’s magazine was associated with a quarterly journal called The Crisis, put out by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Edited by author, poet, and educator Jessie Redmon Fauset and W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the founders of the NAACP, The Brownies’ Book was created for all children, but especially for Black children, who Du Bois felt should be taught to have pride in their racial history and identity as well as their ability to achieve great things despite the oppressive society in which they lived.

The Brownies’ Book cover was illustrated by prominent Black artists, and published stories, games, plays, poetry, current events, literature, music, and biographies of successful Black people, along with the artistry, academic achievements, and queries of Black children who wrote letters to the magazine. With only 24 published issues spanning two years, The Brownies’ Book helped launch the genre of African American children’s literature. Building upon this tradition of writing for Black children, in 1928 two authors and poets who had been featured in The Crisis, Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes, coauthored Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti. The first children’s book by a Black author to be published by a mainstream White publishing house, Macmillan, it was also the first novella for children written and illustrated by African Americans.

The Coretta Scott King Award recognizes outstanding books for children and young adults by African American authors and illustrators that depict the African American experience.

Pioneering librarians also worked to rid library shelves of books featuring negative stereotypes of Black people. In 1932, Charlemae Hill Rollins, the first Black librarian hired in the Chicago Public Library system accepted the position as the head of the children’s department at the George Cleveland Hall Branch Library, which was the first full-service library to serve African Americans on the South Side of Chicago. During her 36-year career, she was a staunch advocate of changing the derogatory images and stereotypes of African American life and culture in children’s literature.

In 1941, in response to her letter of complaint about the lack of published children’s books depicting African Americans with dignity, the National Council of Teachers of English told Rollins that if she wrote a book about this problem that included a list of recommended books for Black students that countered negative images of Black people, they would publish it. So Rollins wrote We Build Together, A Reader’s Guide to Negro Life and Literature for Elementary and High School Use (1941, 1947, 1967) and they published it!

Children’s librarians have been influential in championing diversity. When authors and illustrators of color win children’s book awards, it impacts what gets published next, helps break down barriers, and leads to increased diversity in literature overall. In 1922, the American Library Association approved the first children’s book award in the world; The Newbery Medal is awarded to the most distinguished American children’s book from the previous year. Originally chosen by only public library children’s librarians, the award now also includes school children’s librarians as well. In 1975, 53 years after its creation, M.C. Higgins, the Great was the first book by a Black author to win the Newbery Award. Written by Virginia Hamilton and published by Macmillan, M.C. Higgins is for early middle school readers.

In 1937, Frederic G. Melcher, who had originally proposed The Newbery Medal, suggested that there should be a similar award for artists creating picture books for children, and thus The Caldecott Medal was born. It would be 39 years before an African American illustrator was recognized by this award, when in 1976 Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears, written by Veran Aardema and illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, won the Caldecott Medal. This book actually has special significance to me, because growing up my younger brothers and I listened to the vinyl version of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee’s narration of this book and other tales over and over again. Having lost the album somewhere over the years, I was pleased to be able to find a vinyl copy for my own child, who loves it just as much as we did as kids.

It wasn’t until 1969 when a group of Black librarians that included Charlemae Hill Rollins formed to promote the creation of the Coretta Scott King Award. Named for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife, the award recognizes outstanding books for children and young adults by African American authors and illustrators that depict the African American experience.

In 2020, a graphic novel for middle schoolers, New Kid by Jerry Craft, won the Coretta Scott King Award, becoming the first graphic novel to be awarded the Newbery Medal. New Kid chronicles the experience of a 12-year-old Black boy managing the culture shock of attending a predominantly White private school. Along with the everyday trials and tribulations of being an American preteen, the protagonist also experiences microaggressions, which are intentional or unintentional verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights that communicate derogatory, hostile, stereotyped, or negative attitudes toward historically marginalized groups.

No matter your family’s racial or cultural makeup, your child benefits from literary experiences of diversity.

In the backlash to the global racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, New Kid was (among numerous other books) accused of promoting critical race theory (it doesn’t). It was banned in some school districts in Texas and Pennsylvania after parents protested, but the Pennsylvania ban was eventually overturned. Protesting parents, mostly White, argue that because the book depicts microaggressions, Craft is trying to convince children that systemic racism is real and that White people are horrible and privileged. Because of this, the argument goes, their children will feel guilty about being White—thus this book, and others like them, should not be allowed to be read or taught in school.

In a recent interview discussing the controversy, Craft describes New Kid as a book he wished he’d had when he was a kid. In his youth, he mentally divided the local library into the "general" books and the “Black” books. The general books felt to him like they were for White kids who dream big, go on adventures, have fantastical lives—while in the “Black” books, kids who looked like Craft had sad and hardscrabble stories and didn’t always meet a happy ending, or they were struggling to overcome enslavement or gain civil rights. 

When Craft was a boy, he states, he wanted to read books with kids who looked like him, whose largest stressor was not knowing which video game to play next, so that’s the book he wrote. Like his literary ancestors before him, Craft wrote a book for all children portraying an authentic experience of a 12-year-old African American boy. The reality is that microaggressions are a part of most African Americans’ lives to greater and lesser degrees.

One hundred years ago, when The Brownies' Book was in circulation, African Americans in the children’s literary world worked tirelessly to make sure that all children had available to them positive and realistic portrayals of African Americans to counter the distorted views of Black life in children’s books of the time. One hundred years later, children’s books with realistic portrayals of African American life can be banned from your child’s school.

It was only in putting together this episode that it really sunk in that books featuring positive images of Black children and families barely existed during my own parents’ childhood. I can only imagine the joy and excitement they had in the era of my childhood when they had award-winning children’s books by African Americans about African Americans available in their local bookstore. They were able to share with me stories and images of African American children doing the everyday things kids do—play, laugh, cry, love, and involve themselves in fun and fantastical adventures.

Challenge yourself!

Representation matters. Do an audit of your child’s bookshelf and if you’re low on books portraying authentic African American childhood life, get out there to your local book store or library and stock up! No matter your family’s racial or cultural makeup, your child benefits from literary experiences of diversity.

For me, I know that seeing those joyful and realistic images of kids who looked like me has contributed to my own racial pride and self-esteem, and I’m really thankful that this was a priority for my parents and the other elders in my extended family when I was very young.

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About the Author

Nanika Coor, Psy. D.

Dr. Nanika Coor is a New York-based clinical psychologist and respectful parenting therapist. She helps overwhelmed parents hear a kinder inner voice and experience more mutually-respectful interactions with their children. Find out more about her work at www.brooklynparenttherapy.com.

Got a question that you'd like Dr. Coor to answer on Project Parenthood? Leave her a message at (646) 926-3243 or send an email to parenthood@quickanddirtytips.com