Friday, October 24, 2008

Read A GOOD Book

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.

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  1. You would think that NYT would do a better job at finding parents that represent the diversity of black families. It is very rare that I read "urban" fiction and reading has been my "hobby" since I was five years old.

    Thank you for providing a review of a book that is for us by us. I have several that you can add to the list.

  2. You, Denene, are beyond inspirational!


  3. Thank you so much! I'm so tired of people thinking that the only way to be Black means living in the projects and that living in the projects means loving street fiction. In fact, sometimes we hold ourselves to this stereotype too. I was an English major and have very diverse taste in books: Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, Toni Morrison, etc.

  4. Thanks for this post. I am an avid reader and have been since I was a child. I read ROOTS when I was 9 years old! I have a HUGE problem with street fiction. While I admit that I did drift into Donald Goines during my high school years (I know!), as an adult, I have taken a strong position against street fiction as an adult. Both of my brothers (21 and 45) love to read, but only read street fiction (Zane, Dickey, etc.). Extremely frustrating. Did you post an essay on this on The Root as well? I'm glad this issue is getting some attention.
    Even as an adult, I really enjoy reading children's literature. My favorite author is Mildred Taylor.

  5. When I read this latest blog entry it made me think of one of the authors that had me compulsively running to the book store and buying way to many books at once. I ran across the book "Bluest Eye" and devowered it than ran to the book store and bought everything else she had written and spent days on the couch reading everything. No thought to the idea if she was black, white, hispanic, or the color of a tangerine until your post.

    For the NYP to write an article like that I find it rather insulting to all readers and to the amazing writers as well. I am so tired of this silent line of racism that runs rapid in the United States.

  6. Raising my hand to agree with you. I really hate that there's still supposed to be only one way to be black and if you're outside of that realm, you're "different" or "unique". And I really don't buy that "as long as you read" junk either. It offends me as an avid reader and book collector. Just because it was published doesn't make it worth reading. And for the record, my three brown babies are reading Junie B. Jones, "Woody, Hazel, and Little Pip", and "The Diggers" among others right now.

  7. Great inspiration and recommendation- also love the experience enhancements!! Looking forward to this one with our kids!

    Happy Saturday blessings
    kari & kijsa

  8. I loved reading your description of the "Boo Hag" story. As a former elementary teacher, I am obsessed with children's literature and your description made that book come to life for me. I'll definitely be trying to find it to share with my children. :)

    You are such a gifted writer...

    Angie in OH

  9. THANK YOU for posting this, Denene! It's so frustrating to see/hear more of the things with which we have to compete when it comes to raising our brown babies!! Aaaarg!

  10. I love this post, love it!! As a white mommy raising a brown baby, I am always looking, searching, trying to find more books, toys, even movies and shows that reflect my daughter's looks heritage. It has been such a pleasure to find you, Denene and your community of readers.

    Thank you.

  11. *Screams* Tell it! The NY Times articles supposedly geared toward people who look like me have never been a resource for people who look like me. The more hype placed on salacious literature and supposed black sub-culture falls back into the laps of those who promote it. Even those children growing up exposed to drug dealers and prostitution pick up a book to escape the travesty, not wallow in it. I'm thankful I missed that article, I've already read enough of them. "Let them keep storyin' the Boohag'll get 'em d'rectly!"

  12. Great post. I have to say that I am reader and lover of street fiction... well, more like urban erotica. I read so much academic writing that sometimes I just need a fantasy or two as an escape.

    I in no way think that kids should be avid readers of these books though. I mean, young minds need to be positively shaped and that ain't gonna happen with this genre. No young person should be getting lost in that world until they have been properly introduced to the real world.

    Thanks for giving us a resource to find books that feature brown babies.

  13. AMEN! Thank you for this! Passing it on to some folks who will appreciate it as much as I do! You would like my sister's blog ( She's new at blogging but a great writer and this kind of stuff she is very passionate about!

  14. Raising my hand! I totally agree with the Doritos and Coke analogy. And I would take it one step further to say that "street fiction" is like dessert - indulgent, unnecessary and often unhealthy, but more importantly, should not be consumed until AFTER you eat your dinner (or read the classics)

  15. Thanks Denene,

    I'm an avid reader, I love Eric Jerome Dickey, LaJill Hunt and Carl Weber just to name a few. Last month a co-worker turned me on to Nora Roberts (Blue Smoke). When she gave it to me, the first thing I thought was, this book will sit on the shelf and collect dust...I'm not reading it! I'm just taking it to be nice (no brown faces on the cover) Well I started reading it and I LOVE IT! Just goes to show, you can't judge a book by its cover.

  16. i did a post about the infection of street lit back in the summer, but you're right, it's not what kids should be reading. it's like giving them the remote and letting them watch BET UnKut all day.

    for those kids who like realistic stories i'd suggest ANYTHING by Sharon G Flake. we read a short story from her collection, "Who Am I Without Him" and my students LOVED it. another gem is Walter Dean Myers. I read "Monster" with my students in the spring. I'd also suggest Niki Grimes.

    great post!

  17. Great post! Kudos to you Denene!

    As a sign of respect, I tip my hat to you for choosing to speak up and challenge both writers and readers to raise the bar.

    The naysayers told me that Black boys and men don't buy books and won't read the books given to them by the women in their lives. I disagreed and am grateful that I refused to heed their bad advice.

    I have dedicated my creative efforts as a writer and image-maker to shatter the pervasive stereotypes that do nothing to edify, inspire, and empower the next generation of leaders.

    Thank you for sharing.


  18. As the mother of a 2-year-old daughter, I am so pissed that some parents are deliberately advocating for their children to read inappropriate material just to get them to read. This is especially disturbing because of the wide variety of age appropriate, culturally informed literature that is available these days, as opposed to when I was a kid 30 years ago. Honestly its just pitiful. Great post D. You know I've got your back on advocating for empowering and engaging literature for our young people any way I can. We might need to start a My Brown Baby book club, even if its virtual...let me know...I'm down..jd

  19. JD,

    You may be on to something. Let me think about how to make that happen.


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