Yup, I admit it: For years, I've been on a secret mission to integrate the bookshelves and toy chests of a bunch of my daughters' white friends. Every time Mari and Lila were invited to a birthday party, I'd send them with fancy gift bags full of copies of Debbie Allen's "Dancing in the Wings," bell hooks' "Home Made Love," and Faith Ringgold's "Tar Beach," plus a chocolate Barbie for good measure.
See, the majority of the parents of my daughters' friends, no matter how kind and smart and sweet they are, didn't buy black books, dolls, or movies for their children. I don't think they were being racist or striking out against diversity, by any stretch; it just never seemed to really occur to them that maybe, just maybe, their daughters would identify with the pretty, round-faced girl pie in "Home Made Love," or Sassy, the talented but shy ballerina in "Dancing in the Wings" -- or that there would be value in letting their daughters read their sweet, insightful, beautifully human stories.
Indeed, one of my mom friends, the mother of three boys, recently confessed to me that she'd gotten into a nasty argument with her mother and sister when she gave her niece a black doll for her birthday. The store, see, had run out of the white version of the doll, which her niece really wanted, and so my friend just went on ahead and bought the brown version. Well what did she do that for? "My mom and sister were livid," she said. Two weeks later, they were still speaking to her only when spoken to.
To my friend's credit, she couldn't understand what the big deal was. And the fact of the matter is, it shouldn't be. It's not like the black doll is going to jump out of the toy chest and go "boogedy, boogedy boo" at the first kid who finds it, or that a black children's book is going to be chock full of stereotypical Ebonics and rated "R" storylines ready to turn out the innocent ears of the babies. But this, it seems, is how all-too-many white parents treat them.
I speak from experience, you know. I'm the co-author of a three-book teen series called "Hotlanta," and I've stood by and watched white teenage girls excitedly read the back jacket, only to have their moms literally wrestle the book out of their hands and lead them to white books. A fellow author, Derrick Barnes, recently told me that books four and five in his brilliant children's book series, "Ruby and the Booker Boys," will likely never make it to bookshelves if sales for the first three in the series don't pick up -- a problem that could be remedied easily if black moms weren't the only ones shelling out $5 a pop for Derrick's books. Hell, the black Barbie dolls that were priced to move in Louisiana last week -- they were being sold for nearly half the price of the white dolls -- are there not just because black moms aren't buying them, but because white moms pass them up for the white ones.
I get it: I want my daughters to play with dolls that look like them, too, for all the obvious reasons. But when my friends gifted "Good Night Moon" and "Eloise" and countless "Junie B. Jones" books to my babies, I didn't have a conniption. When they served up blonde Barbies to my girls, I didn't take them out back and burn them in effigy. I simply added them to the collection. My girls have a literal rainbow coalition of doll babies—chocolate brown ones, Asians, Latinas, white with blonde hair, red-haired, olive-skinned ones. We bought some of them. Some of them were gifts. Neither their bookshelves nor their toy chests discriminate: Indeed, my girls' toys reflect the truly diverse world they live in, where the kids who fill their school rooms and playgroups speak different languages and come from different countries and backgrounds and income levels and aren't necessarily a bunch of frilly little tea-toting girls.
My hope is when I pass along a black children's book or a black doll baby to my daughters' friends, that they get the same subliminal lessons -- that brown children matter. Books like "Ruby and the Booker Boys" speak to our experiences and show both our differences and our commonalities with white culture. Introducing books like these to white children is the most simple, basic way to introduce a child to another race in a positive, thoughtful way. A white child introduced to Ruby may not necessarily say, "Oh look! A black girl is the star of this book!" when she reads it. She might not notice the character's color at all. But she just might decide to make friends with a little black girl out on the playground because she looks like the character in the book she liked. And since she really liked that book, she'll probably really like that little girl, too.
Children really are that simple. That uncomplicated.
My prayer is that we moms get a little of that act right in us, too.
In the meantime, if you want to make a difference, pick up one—or all—of these beautiful books for your child (click on the titles to purchase them online):
The Ruby and the Booker Boys series, by Derrick Barnes
Tar Beach, by Faith Ringold
Homemade Love, by bell hooks
We Had a Picnic This Sunday Past, by Jacqueline Woodson
The Gospel Cinderella, by Joyce Carol Thomas
Olu's Dream, by Shane Evans
Precious and the Boo Hag, by Patricia McKissack
Whistle for Willie, by Ezra Jack Keats
A Chair For My Mother, by Vera B. Williams
The Willimena Rules! series, by Valerie Wilson Wesley
NOTE: This piece originally was written for my column at Parenting.com's The Parenting Post. To see the rest of my columns there and to enjoy great mom-to-mom advice on raising children, CLICK HERE.
(And um, since there are a few moms over there acting like my request that they let their children read black children's books is tantamount to me asking them to grill their children and eat them for Sunday dinner, maybe you could go on over there and add to the conversation in the comments section. I'd greatly appreciate that.)
(Even more importantly: I'm asking each of you to show Scholastic that we love Derrick Barnes' Ruby and the Booker Boys series and want it to continue by BUYING THE BOOKS. You can get the first four in the series for $20—very reasonable considering the gift you'll be getting in this beautiful series. Buy the books as a gift for a lucky little girl in your life or your local library or a local community center or a church playroom or your doctor's office. Every book sold is a vote in favor of authors like Derrick and me, who spend every waking moment of our working lives dedicated to telling beautiful stories for and about our children—all children. Please: Support Ruby!)