As a member of SCBWI, I follow topics of interest through LinkedIn. Recently the question, "Where are the People of Color in Children's Literature?" generated many comments. When I read a personal response from a Charlotte, NC illustrator, Vanessa Bradley-Newton, I asked her permission to post it here. Vanessa is also our featured illustrator in this issue of Talking Story.
I am a child of the 60's. I remember a time when I didn't see myself in children's book. I loved Golden Books and Humpty Dumpty magazines, but they never got around to putting people of color into their stories. We were not a thought really. My mom and dad would purchase these books for my sister and I and we never saw ourselves through the pages, even though we could identify with the characters in our own way. The Little Golden Book about prayers was very important to my sister and I. My mom and Dad used it to teach us our prayers and that was the thing that we identified with. As a child, when I saw a person or person of color in pictures book, they were often crudely depicted. They weren't drawn beautifully as in other picture books.
One day when I was about five, a teacher named Mrs. Russell, put me on her lap and read a book that set my very soul and heart aflame with passion. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jacks Keats was a life changing book for me.
Since I am dyslexic, the words at the time didn't make sense but the pictures spoke volumes!!! There was this deliciously yummy chocolate boy that looked like me. He was beautiful and exciting. His Mama looked like my Mommy and this Daddy had a mustache just like my Daddy. Even the wall paper in his house looked like mine. Peter and I were brother and sister in my world or head. It was the very first time that a black character would be at center stage in a book. It was drawn so beautifully that now at 51, the illustrations still make me cry and smile and feel proud.
While visiting the Jewish Museum in New York one year, I got to see the Ezra Jacks Keats show. It was wonderful!! They displayed a letter written by an editor to Mr Keats. The editor wanted to know why Ezra made Peter black. "Are you trying to make a statement?" she asked.
Mr Keats replied, "I am not trying to make a statement. I'm just saying that Peter should have been there all along." It moved me to tears again.
There are many wonderful writers and illustrators of color just waiting for an opportunity to illustrate the multicultural world around us. I just illustrated a book with the fabulous Debbie Levy called, We Shall Overcome with Disney-Hyperion Books.
Sometimes I ask myself, "Are we still there?" and answer, "Yes we are."
I'm not talking about just being inclusive, but we need to be intentional when creating books. There is a great need for diversity. Children live in a real world with many different cultures all around them and we can't shelter them from this truth. It helps children with their self-esteem when they can identify with people that look like them or the people in their communities. There are more blended families and the need is ever before us as writers and illustrators to meet the need [of representation] or not.
I come from a very, very blended family. I am Gullah Geechee and we come from Low Country, South Carolina. My grandfather was Chinese and Gullah and my dad had Gullah and Jewish roots.
Just recently I was at a conference and I was going upstair to my room when I passed the cutest little golden blonde-haired and blue-eyed 4-year-old holding the hand of her dad. I had on a full face of makeup and conference attire as well. As I strolled by, I spoke to them and said, "Hello there!" (Because Ms.V can't pass up a chance to have a chat with a 4-year-old!) The little girl waved at me and then asked her dad, "Was that a black person, Daddy?" Just being real, I said to myself, " Y'all need to get baby girl out a little bit more!" But then it made me even more conscious that not only children of color need to see themselves, other cultures need to be exposed to them as well!
It disappoints me greatly when people say that there is no need for diversity in children's publishing, but it also means that we STILL have a long ways to go and lots of work to be done. I have had editors ask me to lighten the characters as well as remove some. But at the same time, it is refreshing and reassuring to see that many writers and illustrators are seeing the need and are filling in some of this great gap in children's publishing. It is important for all children to be represented in books.
An Illustrator and writer of children's books as well as a collector of them, I can visibly see the gap. It's getting better, but we still have a ways to go.