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Children's Literature: Apartheid Or Just A General Lack of Color?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A survey of children’s literature by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has found that of 3,200 books surveyed (out of an estimated 5,000 books published) in 2013, only 93 were about African-Americans.

That dismal statistic prompted African-American children’s book author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers to write side-by-side op-ed pieces for The New York Times.

Walter Dean Myers’s piece asked “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” while Christopher Myers characterized the situation as an “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.”

As Christopher Myers tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, the issue is not only that children of color need to see people who look like themselves in these books, but also that “these books are used as fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives, and if we don’t give them proper road maps, where are they going to end up?”

Interview Highlights

On books providing a ‘road map’ for kids

Chris Myers: “There is this thought somehow that children should just want to see themselves, to see their own circumstances. But in fact, these books are used as tools of fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives, and if we don’t give them proper road maps, where are they going to end up? It’s not simply a numbers game. This crisis of diversity in children’s books is better named and better understood as a crisis in our country — a literacy gap. When we look at the achievement gap in economic terms, when we look at the achievement gaps in education between low-income communities and their richer counterparts, we see that our country, our nation, is in a deep deep crisis.”

Walter Dean Myers: “There’ve been studies saying that if the kids are behind in the third grade, only 20 percent of those kids ever catch up. What happens, the kids also understand the gaps. They see this wide divergence and they give up. And so one of the tools we can use to try to bring them back into the mainstream is transmitting values in books. When you go to a book and you see your circumstances — here is a poor child, here is a child who doesn’t have breakfast every morning — when they see themselves, they’re saying ‘look, I am valuable.’”

On the argument the market doesn’t want books with African-American characters

Walter Dean Myers: “The market’s not demanding it, but that cannot be our solution. Because by shunting off so many thousands and thousands of children, you have a graduation rate throughout this country which is obscene. New York City has a terrible graduation rate. And when you break that down to the poor kids, you’re getting 50 to 65 percent of the kids going through the school system not being able to function in America. And we can’t say ‘oh, there’s no market for them.’ What we’re saying is that there’s no need for these kids. When I go to the schools and the juvenile prisons and I talk to kids on the street, they deserve a future.”

Chris Myers: “As people who deal with fictions, we’re very familiar when we see them. And the market is a fiction and it’s worked on and we make up our best theories as to what will sell or what won’t sell. But in the end, the market is a fiction, and we’re constantly being surprised by the market in various other media industries. For example, maybe 15 years ago — I’m not the biggest Tyler Perry fan, but the idea of a Tyler Perry, of a vernacular black cinema, was not commonplace. … And now you see that he is by himself a cottage industry.”

On the social media outcry over Rue in ‘The Hunger Games’ being black

Walter Dean Myers: “I remember [TV producer] Norman Lear came to me and wanted to do ‘The Young Landlords,’ one of my books. I was all happy until he said ‘except we’re going to change all the black kids to white kids and move it from Harlem to Greenwich Village.’”

Chris Myers: “The idea is that — children’s literature, children’s media — we are making for our children a picture of the society that they’re going to be living in. And if we’re making these segregated images, then we can’t be surprised when people are outraged when they see images of little black girls in ‘The Hunger Games.’ In trying to make books that reflect our dreams, our hopes for what our society can be, we don’t want to use such a feeble excuse as ‘the market’ to limit what our society can be.”


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