In case you missed it, the New York Times ran a perfectly ridiculous story on it’s cover yesterday, extolling the virtues of lining our public library shelves with salacious urban “street” fiction. The piece, “From the Streets to the Libraries,” hangs it’s premise—that black folks just love street fiction and want their kids to read it, too—on one mom, who, in addition to being an avid street fiction reader dedicated to getting titles like “Riding Dirty on 95” and “Paper Chasers,” into her local library, actually encourages her entire family—kids included—to read street fiction for an hour every night. “I don’t care what they read,” the mom says. “I only care that they read.”
Ha’ mercy. This mess right here? That’s like saying, “I don’t care what my kids eat, so long as they’re eating. More Doritos and Coke, baby?”
For as long as we black authors have been lamenting our role in the publishing industry, we’ve heard the argument that young street fiction fans eventually trade up to more quality work. But maybe someone should ask a librarian or a bookseller how it really goes down. Kids who kick off their love of reading with sensational, titillating, hyper-sexualized street fiction rarely, if ever, run off in search of James Baldwin or Alice Walker because they fallen in love with great books. They go looking for the literary equivalent of more Doritos and Coke.
Now don’t get it twisted: I’m completely in favor of everyone’s first amendment right to write what they want. But I’m tired, tired, tired of the argument that we black folks and our kids read street fiction because it “speaks” to our experience. Raise your hand if you’re in agreement on this one: A large part of the black community knows nothing of drug dealers preying on children or prostitutes strolling the block. In fact, I’d argue that a lot of our children are about as familiar with street crime as they are with the details of The Bush Doctrine. (Actually, they probably know more about The Bush Doctrine.) And it’s high time we black folks stopped apologizing for that. There are so many more layers to our community—so many different ways to live as African Americans in America. And stories like that in The Times make it hard for people—black people included—to recognize and acknowledge this. I mean, really, we’re on the verge of electing a black man to the White House who represents a very different side of the black experience—but a side that is much more common than the New York Times would have us realize.
In fact, if you want to know what black children are reading, ask Michelle Obama what Malia is devouring this month.
That said, MyBrownBaby is going to do its part to help introduce parents to great books for our kids, featuring kids that look like ours. I figure if we help our beautiful babies fall in love with good literature early, they’ll love it long time. And if you want to find out more about great books written by and about children of color, go see my friends at The Brown Bookshelf, a wonderful website dedicated to introducing the myriad of African American voices writing for young readers.
So, without further ado, MyBrownBaby encourages you either read to your baby, or have your child read:
Precious and the Boo Hag
by Patricia C. McKissack, Onawumi Jean Moss, Kyrsten Brooker (Illustrator); Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing
This is a delightfully clever and (a smidge) scary tale about a courageous little girl too smart to be fooled by Pruella the Boo Hag, a legendary creature from the Gullah tradition. It opens with the main character, a cute, round-faced little girl named Precious, who stays home alone with a stomachache while her family goes to plant corn. Before he leaves, Precious’s brother warns her that the Boo Hag may try to get into the house, which of course gets Precious quite scared. To calm her nerves and make sure she remembers not to let the Boo Hag in the house, Precious makes up a little ditty that she sings incessantly. Sure enough, Pruella shows up and wants in, and even tries to fool Precious by changing into various forms. But each time Pruella transforms, Precious figures out the Boo Hag’s game, and refuses to let her through the door.
This was a favorite in my daughter Lila’s kindergarten class; the kids got a kick out of Precious’s courageousness, and especially how smart the little girl was to recognize and ward off the Boo Hag’s trickery. They also loved the song (I croaked my own melody to the lyrical prose and they still let me continue reading!), and were happily held in suspense the entire story through as they waited to see if the scary Boo Hag would trick sweet little Precious. You and your child will also love the incredible illustrations, a mixture of oil painting and collage work give a charming glimpse into Precious’s world.
To enhance your child’s reading experience:
• Have your child write her own “Boo Hag” story.
• Give him a basket-full of colored paper, buttons, lace, and yarn, and let him make his own version of a Boo Hag.
• Let her check out Gullah Net, a children’s site that explores South Carolina’s Gullah culture. There are stories, a glossary of Gullah terms, and some pretty amazing history about the transformation of African music into today’s more popular musical genres.