Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Where are the People of Color in Children's Literature? An Answer from Vanessa Newton

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. 


We put a little black girl on the cover of the book. A week or two later, l read an article that stated, "Black children on the cover of children's book don't sell."

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.  

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Congratulations to Vanessa and Debbie Levy for winning the 2014 Honor Award given by the Jane Addams Peace Association. 
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Interested in reading more? Here is an excellent article by author Walter Dean Myers on this topic.

21 comments:

JoyceHostetter said...

The Snowy Day - such a perfect book for you to meet your first beautifully rendered black characters in since it is also refreshing in its illustration style.

The children's book world is more than blessed to have your fabulous illustrations and personality.

An you are right, some of us just need to get out more!

Vanessa Brantley Newton said...

It was indeed an honor to share Carol. Thanks so much for sharing my little story. Best, with hugs

Kara Stewart said...

Way to go, Vanessa! :) And thank you, Carol for featuring Vanessa.

sheri levy said...

While teaching school I always tried to find stories that represented my classroom. It was hard back in those days. I plan on every book I write, to have many different types of children from all backgrounds. I don't plan to make am issue of their appearance, just make them part of the story.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Kara for your comment and Sheri for yours too. That sounds like a very good plan. "Just part of the story." They are!

Carol Baldwin said...

thanks, Vanessa. I enjoyed putting this blog together!

Linda A. said...

Vanessa and Carol,
Great topic. There will always be room for growth and acceptance.

Young Authors Program said...

I am so happy you shared this post, Carol! And thanks to Vanessa for making the literary community more aware of how big this issue really is.

Beth Hull said...

Thank you for sharing Vanessa's post, Carol! It's powerful and inspiring.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Dorothy, Beth, and LInda, My pleasure!

Anne O'Brien Carelli said...

Please take a look at my picture book Amina's New Friends, about a Somalian refugee girl and her first day in an American school. The illustrator is Roberta Collier-Morales and I love the way she depicted Amina. Enjoy!

Carol Baldwin said...

I will look for your book, Anne. thanks!

Rosi said...

What a wonderful, important post. Thanks, Carol, for putting it up and, thanks, Vanessa, for telling your story. I love The Snowy Day and know it opens minds and hearts every day. I certainly buy books with black children on the covers! Vanessa's cover for We Shall Overcome is beautiful. Charlesbridge is bringing out Imani's Moon this fall with a gorgeous cover with a black child. It's happening, but too long coming.

Carol Baldwin said...

thanks, Rosi. And thanks for sharing on FB!

Anna E. G. said...

What a wonderful article! I loved The Snowy Day when I was little. I remember that I never even noticed that Peter had a different skin color than me, I was too caught up in the beautiful illustrations. As for books with black people on the covers not selling, how ridiculous! I know that I've never even thought about that when buying a book, I just care if the plot sounds interesting or not. I hope that we reach a time where representation is there for all people, and that we stop caring about if we are different from one another or not. People like Vanessa will help us reach that time. :)

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Anna. So good to hear from you. And I agree- plot rules!!

Unknown said...

We are right here. however, making our way into the mainstream of the literary world is being rejected. Like Debbie Levy and many others I have been rejected by many publishers, agents, and more. I believe that there are more out there, but who is there to assist in soliciting our work? Who can I turn to and say that I have a nine-book children's book series complete with assume illustrations and an educational base with Black characters? At this point, I'm not certain. But it would be nice to be given a chance. Lamont-Deangelo Ferebee on Facebook.

Carol Baldwin said...

THANKS For your comment, Lamont-Deangelo. Publishing is a tough business-- you need belief in your work and perseverance to make it happen--as well as a few good breaks along the way!

Hazel Mitchell said...

Rosi - thanks for the shout for Imani's Moon, coming Oct 14th from Charlesbridge, a great story about a coloured girl.See more on FB https://www.facebook.com/imanismoon

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Hazel. I just added Imani's Moon to my TBR list!

Naomi C Robinson said...

lovely post Carol