By Molly Alexander
In celebration of Black History Month, the staff and board members of Family Reading Partnership had the chance to watch and discuss a 30-minute free access documentary called “Tell Me Another Story: Diversity in Children’s Literature” produced by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. We encourage you to watch it! The film presents key figures from the past and present who have contributed to advancing diversity in children’s literature.
The film opens with the question, “A book can show you the world, and it can also show you a reflection of yourself. But what happens if you never see a reflection of yourself in a book?” This is a profound question that we grapple with often in our work at Family Reading Partnership. In the film, we learn from acclaimed children’s book authors and illustrators of color as they respond to this question. Grace Lin talks about growing up in upstate New York in a town where there weren’t any people who looked like her at school, and there weren’t any people who looked like her in books, either. She recalls a librarian bringing out a book that portrayed a racist representation of Chinese characters, “I remember feeling so horrified because the characters in that book were so far away from what I wanted to be seen as.” Author Jessixa Bagley (2018 Ezra Jack Keats Writer Award Honoree) says that a child seeing themselves in a book is permission to be themselves— permission from the world to exist. Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie (2020 Ezra Jack Keats Writer Award Honoree) touches on this idea, saying representation in books gives children “permission to exist with your head up, to speak up, to raise your hand, to create that art.”
At Family Reading Partnership we are committed to centering diversity, equity, and access in our programming. We bring a rigorous criteria to our selection process for every book that gets distributed through our programming, with anti-bias books at the forefront of our minds. Through watching Tell Me Another Story, we have been inspired and motivated by the work of librarians, activists, authors, illustrators, and publishers who have challenged and pushed forward representation in children’s literature throughout history. Deborah Taylor, librarian and youth literacy advocate, discusses how children’s literature was always a tool of white supremacy until it was challenged: “It was a way of othering people that you intend to exploit. If you’re going to exploit people you have to have them in a position where there’s no possible hint of their humanity.” She discusses how the way people are represented and perceived in childhood sets them up for life, which is one of the reasons it is so critical to challenge representation in children’s literature.
The work toward positive representation of children of color in books has a long history, starting with the Brownies’ Book by W.E.B. DuBois, which showed Black children in a positive light. DuBois is quoted in the film: “What is light, but the attempt of human beings to be happy and contented in a world, which with all its ill, has a mass of sun and waters, of trees and flowers, of beauty and love.” The film also pays homage to the critical work of librarians Augusta Baker and Pura Belpré, who curated book lists and provided Black children with books and stories in which they could see themselves represented positively.
The publishing of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats in 1963 was a wake-up call to the publishing community. As a Jewish American, Keats knew what it meant to feel like an outsider, yet doors were open to him in the publishing world that weren’t yet open to artists of color. He chose to represent Black children in his books purposefully, to “help fill this enormous void that is yet to be filled.” The Snowy Day features Peter, a Black child, enjoying a playful day in the snow. Author and illustrator Christopher Myers says, “One of the things I love about The Snowy Day is this moment of carefree childhood that is afforded to kids who care infinitely more than they should have to.” Not only was The Snowy Day groundbreaking for centering a Black child, it was groundbreaking for centering a Black child doing what all children deserve to do: playing. This year’s Black History Month theme is Black Health and Wellness. More and more research points to the value of play in promoting children’s health and well-being. Representation is powerful, and children’s books that represent children of color playing have an important role to play in advancing equity.
Keats is quoted in Tell Me Another Story, “What goes on inside the hearts of kids to prepare them to live in peace and to understand each other? … That while we all have our differences, we all have our universality, too.” The Ezra Jack Keats Award celebrates the universality of childhood, as well as our differences. As a staff and board, Family Reading Partnership challenged ourselves to complete a mock Ezra Jack Keats Award. We hope you will be inspired to watch the film, and to check out our book selection:
- I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott and Sydney Smith
- The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali
- Dario and the Whale by Cheryl Lawton Malone
- A Boy Named Isamu by James Yang
- Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho
- The Magical Yet by Angela Diterlizi
- Chimoc, el perro calato by Andrea y Claudia Paz
- One Good Night til Valentine’s Day by Frank J Berrios III
- Pepper Zhang Artist Extraordinaire by Jerry Zhang
- Aaron Slater Illustrator by Andrea Beaty
- Fatima’s Great Outdoors by Ambreen Tariq
- Families Around the World by Margriet Ruurs
- What I See by Christine T. Leung
- The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson
- I Am Enough by Grace Byers