Last weekend, The New York Times published essays by two prominent African-American children’s book authors, Walter Dean Myers and his son, Christopher Myers, reflecting on a recent study finding an astonishing dearth of black characters in recent children’s literature. In his piece, Walter Dean Myers worries that this literary imbalance will only further entrench “preconceived notions” around race:
What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?
Christopher Myers similarly argues that the situation—driven, he says, by a “comfortably intangible” but dictatorial “Market"—severely restricts children’s imaginative map of the world:
But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart, and we wonder why they feel lost. They are threatened by difference, and desperately try to wish the world into some more familiar form. As for children of color, they recognize the boundaries being imposed upon their imaginations, and are certain to imagine themselves well within the borders they are offered, to color themselves inside the lines.
In a nice post on her Center for Teaching Quality blog, language arts teacher Ariel Sacks calls the Myers’ essays “beautiful and searing” and says they should disabuse educators—and school leaders—of the “dangerous (misinformed) idea mirking about out there that fiction is some kind of fluff that doesn’t prepare kids for ‘college.’”
She also wonders if school systems aren’t at least marginally to blame for the lack African-American representation in children’s books:
Publishing politics aside, are there enough aspiring authors of color writing for children? Are students of color getting enough opportunity and encouragement to write original stories? Perhaps all students could use more opportunity to write creatively in today's schools, but in my experience there is a lot more drilling of the basics in urban schools that serve mostly students of color than in schools that serve predominantly white, privileged students. ... Unfortunately, in such contexts [i.e., where test preparation is a priority], spending time on creative writing is often viewed as an unaffordable luxury.
Sacks goes on to say that she has found that, beyond altruistic aims, fiction writing has purely academic benefits for students, including developing a voice as an author and better understanding the “role of the author in the texts they read"—both touched on in a variety of ways by the Common Core State Standards.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.