Black Books for Black Kids

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 9th, 2016

A few weeks ago, I invited POC booksellers to be guest bloggers for ShelfTalker, and to write about any aspect of bookselling for children they wanted to address. Bookseller Alia Jones from Blue Manatee in Cincinnati was the first bookseller to respond, with this post. We are delighted to welcome Alia to ShelfTalker. Take it away, Alia!

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Cincinnati children’s bookseller, Alia Jones of The Blue Manatee.

I’m black and I sell books. Kids’ books at that. I sell the books that are full of whimsy.

They’re the books that spark creativity, imagination and wonder. When a customer walks into my store, I’m ready to help them fall into a great story.

Recently, a black couple visited my store and I noticed they were picking up books that feature black girls, so I handed them a few more. As I checked them out, we briefly discussed the need for more diversity in children’s books and the woman said something that has stayed with me. She said, especially these days, our children need to see themselves in books.

And so I started to really think about the role I play in providing positive images of blackness. Especially since black men and women are being hurt and killed by the police at an alarming rate and nothing is changing. It’s physically and emotionally draining to live with violence and racial injustice. I can only imagine what black children are feeling, the questions they’re asking their loved ones and teachers and how they’re coping.

Self-care is crucial. Books can heal and empower.

When I see a bad-ass black woman in a book, TV show, or movie, I get a boost. When I read about a bad-ass black woman in history, a smile spreads across my face. When I listen to our First Lady, Michelle Obama, I think, “She’s like me.” Mirrors and role models are important and representation matters. Diverse books can be a balm; a balm that helps children of color and native kids cope with loneliness, fear, self-doubt and anger. They’re also a boost of confidence!

 

Black kids, infants to teens, need all the images of shining black faces they can get right now so let’s give them excellent stories. Black kids deserve to have stories where they’re adventurers, scientists, veterinarians and sleuths too. Historical books are necessary but we need more books with carefree black kids. Some argue that race shouldn’t matter when reading a book; if you’re enjoying it, you’ll connect to the story and characters regardless.

Children of color and native kids don’t have the privilege of a long history of books written for and about them and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to read about someone who looks like you. Publishing houses are signing and hiring a few more minorities and putting a few more non-white faces on books, but parents, teachers, librarians and booksellers know how urgently diverse books are needed. Powerful movements like Step Up Scholastic are telling us how dire this situation is. Kids also need #ownvoices. Black kids are surprised and inspired when they meet black authors because they don’t expect them to be black. What does that tell you? I’ll say it again, representation.

While we work towards providing more diverse books for children of color and native kids, let’s be sure to read, teach, recommend, and sell them to white kids as well. This is how we build a better world. I’ve noticed that many white kids don’t care if a book has a non-white person on it; they’ll pick it up as long as it looks fun. Usually adults are the ones who carry biases and are “gatekeepers.” On several occasions I’ve recommended a book, per the customer’s specifications, that happened to feature a child of color or native child, only to find it didn’t make it to the checkout.

Books help us expose children early to cultural diversity. These “windows” teach respect and nurture open-mindedness. I like to highlight and “face-out” diverse books in my store because making an effort to do this not only exposes customers to new books but can also help them feel more comfortable. Many non-white customers enter bookstores expecting not to find a lot of books that feature people like them. Children’s booksellers, regardless of their race, should have at least a basic knowledge of quality diverse children’s books. If you can recommend children’s “classics” but can’t put at least four good books that feature black kids (that aren’t about slavery!) into a customer’s hands, that’s a problem. Provided a bookstore has the inventory (I’m looking at you, book buyers!) and booksellers have the knowledge and desire to help, good diverse books should get good homes. I’ve seen too many booksellers freeze up when asked about diverse books.

Compared to thirty years ago, we’ve certainly come a long way in the quantity and quality of diverse books. That being said, we still have a long way to go. We need more diverse authors and their stories. Because children need these rich resources, if traditional publishing routes aren’t working, writers, please self-publish! If you decide to self-publish, please make sure your book has an ISBN and barcode so that bookstores can seriously consider your books.

As a black bookseller, I’m asking for more diverse books so I can better serve my customers, so I can send them home with treasures and so I can show black kids how much they’re loved.

Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana that means “Go back and fetch it.” I like to think back to formative books from my childhood that showed me reflections of myself. I grew up loving Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe for its lush depictions of blackness and kindness. I connected to Addy from the American Girl series because she was black like me and was a snapshot of my ancestors.

Because I love sharing good books, here are five more excellent black books that I hope you’ll enjoy (and recommend).

1) The Stories Julian Tells by Ann Cameron/Illustrated by Ann Strugnell
– Do cats really come from a catalogue and help you plant your garden? Black boys dream in this magical beginning chapter book.

2) Marvelous Cornelius by Phil Bildner/Illustrated by John Parra
– Already a pillar of his community, a singing and performing trash man becomes a hero during Hurricane Katrina.

3) Drum Dream Girl by Margarita Engle/Illustrated by Rafael López
– Millo, an Afro Chinese Cuban girl in 1930s Cuba, is determined to drum despite what everyone thinks.

4) Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown/Illustrated by Frank Morrison
– Melba Doretta Liston, a musical genius from Kansas City, grew up with music in her blood and rocked the jazz world!

5) Ten, Nine, Eight by Molly Bang
– A black girl and her father get ready for sleep. This is a beautiful counting book and display of black family and love.

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Alia Jones attended Cornell University for Cultural Anthropology and after graduation flew to South Korea on a Fulbright to teach English. After returning to the US, she became a children’s bookseller and enjoys reviewing and blogging about diverse books. You can find her blog here: readitrealgood.com.

10 thoughts on “Black Books for Black Kids

  1. Chrisy

    Alia, I don’t know if you’ve come across this book, but the middle reader “Sophie Quire and the Last Storyguard” features a young black girl as its protagonist. The book was expertly done. I was so intrigued when I saw the cover because I could tell that Sophie was black–she had her natural curls and a fierce look of determination–and yet the book made no big deal of it. Sophie goes on amazing adventures and accomplishes incredible things, and I was thrilled that her race wasn’t made into a plot device. I love and appreciate books that incite important conversations about race, but I also see the need for books that feature minority characters just being themselves, apart from race, sexuality, etc. Check it out if you come across it!

  2. Barbara Miller

    This should no longer be a problem but it is. My mother taught in predominantly African American elementary schools in the early ’60s to early ’80s and this was her complaint back then. During the ’00s when I sold in Special Markets she was relieved to see more books available in my catalogs, especially Scholastic . She said the teachers she worked with often had to put together their own materials or work hard to find them. I agree there were not enough that were just fun, not enough of them beyond the necessary meaningful titles. In addition to sales meetings i learned a lot from a Black store owner and an African American History museum buyer who knew the wider range selected from a variety of publishers, but they should be more obvious. Also some gift shops or toy stores would say they don’t sell. I say if you have a few good ones, even if they don’t sell as fast, they make a wider group of people comfortable in your store. If you’re in a shopping center or near office buildings there are people there who can be interested in these books. Even in an area that appears less diverse, customers may have friends, relatives, neighbors, coworkers they are gifting. Books for children as well as adults. BMM

    1. Alia Jones

      Yes! Even if those titles aren’t selling as fast, they should be given a chance. A customer might not know that they need it until they see it. That’s the power of a good book. I’ve also noticed that we’re getting a few more black girls on book covers but not many black boys! I hope to see more picture books about little black boys so that children (like the ones your mother taught) can see themselves in stories.

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