Monday, March 22, 2010

EVERYBODY Should Read Black Children's Books

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.

Subversive? Yes.

Necessary? Very.

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'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!)

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  1. I'll head over in a minute to add my comment but I wanted to shout, "Amen!" Being a Black children's author that is trying to get her book published, I so understand how tough it is to get books about Black kids out there AND read. I know that books that Black kids aren't featured or the main characters are usually snapped up in a heartbeat. There is a book by an African American author, Dork Diaries which is very successful and I'm thrilled for her but if the main character featured was Black, I'm sure it would make a difference in how much the book was in demand. (I'm in no way putting her writing abilities down at all.)

    I get you, Girl. I really do.

  2. I had white barbie for a long time growing up and then one Christmas I got, not one, but two Christie (black barbie) dolls. I looked at them weirdly like, ummm, what's this. But then I started to dig them and my black Besty Wetsy, LOL. I like to collect children's books and I've bought a lot of "black" books on Amazon that my future kids one day will read. I've also purchased Spanish books. I think it's important to appreciate all cultures. (Sorry folks are acting like you want them to eat their children, LOL)

  3. My daughter loves Ruby & The Booker Boys! Like you, I give my favorite books to kids as gifts and yes, most of them happen to be books with African American characters. I love the photo of your daughter's Barbie daughter's dolls' hair looks just like those LOL.

  4. Thanks for the list of all of these great books! I just bought a bunch of Ruby books for my niece.
    My daughter started giving out Tiana dolls these past few months as gifts for all of her friends, and they love them to no end. By far, the most enthusiastically embraced gift for any 3 year old girl!
    I'm so eager to check out the selections posted above. Scholastic has great deals, too, so I can for sure stock up, and keep them as gifts as I need them.

  5. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. For starters, Thanks for all of the amazing books that craft and create. You have such a rich and sincere voice. Second of all, you do wonders for other AA authors by spreading the word and broadening our audiences. I think you immensely, Mrs. Millner.
    I feel like I owe you an i-pad, or a weekend Caribbean getaway for you and your husband (I can hear my wife now, "Damn that! You better spring for US a Caribbean get-away!"

    I appreciate you, Denene.

    peace and blessings

  6. Reading is so important in our home, and I think Chase's library of books may be almost as big as me and his dad's at this point. :-)

    As you mentioned, it's a diverse collection (though primarily African-American) and, funny enough, this happened organically... it wasn't forced or premeditated. I love what you've said about the positive impact (even if only subconsciously) of integrating more brown books into little European children's library. Chase has a birthday party to attend this weekend for a classmate, and I haven't picked up a gift yet. I think I may test this out and see how it goes... I was gonna get a Babies R Us gift card for mommy and a toy for little George - but now George will be getting a toy AND a "special" book. ;-) I guess I'll see from his mom's reaction how it is received! LOL

    I wish I was as evolved as you re: buying multi-cultural dolls.... I still can't bring myself to pick up/purchase a European doll from the shelves (to buy for a little girl of color), but who knows how I'd actually feel if I had a daughter of my own. Lord knows I don't WANT to breed a prejudiced child.... but sometimes it takes a while to reconcile our own stuff that we grew up internalizing, you know?

    Thanks for these great book recs!

  7. After winning the books in December, I am forever a fan of Derrick Barnes. My son enjoyed his books and I can't wait until my 3yo daughter is old enough to appreciate the books. One night when me and the ideas went through our prize pack and read the books. I even assigned my son to read the books that were relevant to appreciating our achievements. It never dawned on me to exchange African American books or dolls with my son's classmates. I do like the idea though......

  8. Wow. This just made me so sad. The friend and her mother and sister that is. Wow. As a white mom I prefer all black toys for my child. I think black is where it's at : ). My husband laughs at me all the time and says I am more black than he is. I can only hope so! Interestingly enough, as a social worker in an inner city, when we give our students something they want white toys. I had a few BRATZ dolls to give out at Christmas and do you know, several of my girls wouldn't even touch them because they wanted white ones. THAT breaks my heart. What can we do to give them back the pride they should feel because they are black? Great post. Thanks!

  9. I love your post..I'm so baffled by white people..I can't believe I am one!! Shortly after we adopted our son I remember my little 5 year old niece had saved up her allowance and begged her mom to take her to toys r us to buy a new doll. My sister in law was surprised when my niece picked out a little brown doll to take home. Since then she has added many shades of dolls to her collection. I think in her case she didn't relate to any dolls but white ones until our son was born and then all of a sudden she realized there were "options"!! I'm grateful when he can provide "a learning experience" to those around him! I just want to scream "OPEN YOUR EYES" to the world sometimes :)

  10. At Color Online we openly promote POC books. Nothing subversive. :-)

    No one thinks POC can't identify with white protags and I believe children will embrace POC characters. First, you have to give them the book.

    I'd love to have more brown moms like you actively commenting at Color Online.I'd like to see more interaction between brown bloggers. I'm glad I saw your link at Derrick Barnes' FB page.

  11. There are a group of us who have been actively,progressively promoting POC books. I just read the comment about some of the reactions. Not surprised yet I clearly have been insulated because my band of bandits have been involved in Readers Against WhiteWashing, The POC Challenge and <a href=">I Read In Color</a>.

    And there are some wonderful blogs:
    The Happy Nappy Bookseller
    Reading in Color (by an AA teen)
    Crazy Quilts
    Black-Eyed Susan's

    I'll visit your other link. And I'd love to talk about connecting more moms with POC book blogs.

  12. I'm with you 100%. The consensus seems to be that white things are universal while color-specific ones are only for people of that specific color. That only makes people put more unnecessary emphasis on color/race difference.

  13. I am a big reader and push my children to be the same. I however buys all kinds of books and dolls. One of many different colors because I want my children to accept people of all colors. I used to only single out books and dolls of color but I want them to love ALL people.

  14. Great post, Denene! I remember as a kid in Oak Park IL, I had a black teacher that would read to us from Richard Wright's Black Boy, and how exciting it was to hear these pages read; and then moving to Georgia, there were no more stories like this, worse, no black kids at my new school- at all. There was such a change. Raised by a single French parent, my mother told me the Empress Josephine of France, Napoleon's wife, was a black woman, & was one of the most beautiful women that ever lived. I always wondered about this. Was it true? And if so, why was it never talked about? what a great story it would be for girls if there was one.
    (My white kids prefer the black Barbies too- but we'd buy them all...that is, back when they played with them. My eleven year old is now 'too old'- yikes!)

  15. My girls have all different barbies and we have some wonderful books with different races and cultures. WHy not? We are all the same yet different. My girls will play with them all the same. Now Ken, he really gets the shaft, no one wants to pay with Ken.

  16. Wow! I am all about beautiful black images! Keep up the good work. I have also launched a DVD and book with a black male as the lead character. It is called, Cherub-You Shall Never Walk Alone and it is a DVD. Douglas learns that with God on his side he is never alone! Check it out at! Thank you - J

  17. Beautiful black images are out there, we just have to patronize them. Check out Cherub-You Shall Never Walk Alone DVD. In this DVD Douglas, a young black male, learns that he has God's rod on the left side to help us stand; God's staff on the right side to guide us; we stand on a solid rock, Jesus Christ; angels are all around us... that is, with God on our side, we are never alone.

  18. Hi there, my name is Grace and I am seventeen years and a mix of Black and Italian. I was fortunate as a little girl that my mom was creative enough to write stories for me because she wasn't able to find books with black or mix race kids in them. I have a five year old niece and a three year old nephew who are black and since I'm not able to find a great many blacks that they can identify with, I decided to write books for them and epublished them where they are now being placed on The stories are cute and literally about them. I certainly agree that more books should be published for kids with different skin color to identify. This is a great blog. Please visit my blog sometime and feel free to comment - I also wrote a short article called 'True Identify' about living in a world (Toronto Canada) when some people attempt to make you feel different if you look different.

  19. THank you for this list!

  20. Hello everyone! I am a mother of two beautiful black girls and we live in the UK. Growing up in the UK all the dolls were white as were the models and actors on TV (unless off course they were criminals). I think due to the fact that I spent some of my childhood in Africa I always knew that black is beautiful but i did see the effects that a lack of black dolls/actors etc had on some of my black and bi-racial friends. I have therefore made a point of ensuring that my children are surrounded by black dolls and books. Whilst the book shelves are quite diverse I have not quite bought myself to the stage where I can buy a blonde doll for my girls... maybe when they are older and they can express their thoughts and I can guage how they feel about being black in the UK..??? I don't know. I love your post though... to all the authors, please bring your book to the UK too please. Great list I will look out for the books...

  21. I love Amarapara book which celebrates diversity and community. The story is based around the Carnival and highlights many aspects of traditional Caribbean Carnival and shows positively black family, black teachers and children from diverse backgrounds including children with disablities.

  22. I think we need more black books that celebrate the cultures of different people and show children that the world is wonderful because of difference and diversity. I have been privileged to have been given a pre copy of a wonderful childrens' picture book titled 'Amara Para and the Carnival Fete' I really enjoyed reading it to my daughter. It potrays a happy Caribbean family from Parents, Grandparents, Cousins to friends and locals as they celebrate the Carnival. Though the main characters are black it portrays children and adults from different cultures. The best part of it is that even though it is a children books the author has intelligently inserted very important aspects of traditional Caribbean culture which will teach not only non Caribbean but also Caribbean parents about hitherto discussed topics. We need more books so that our children grow up with open minds and are culturally aware.

  23. When I was in the third or fourth grade, I started reading the book Thank You, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr! because it was on one of our book lists. I don't remember why I picked it, but the black girl on the cover never made me feel like the book wasn't meant for me or I shouldn't be reading it. I really loved that book (I found your blog because I spent two hours trying to google the title that I couldn't remember) and completely related to the character even though I'm not black. I could relate to feeling ashamed about not being pretty or popular enough. This book just really spoke to me at that time. When I asked my mom to buy the book for me because I knew I would want to read it again, I did fib because I knew she wouldn't want to get it for me. She eventually did after I called the book store to see if they had a copy, but told me that I didn't need it because it was a "black book". She was never overtly racist, I just think she saw a very separate distinction (as most people do when they get older) between races and that it wasn't my place to read it.

    I want my own children to read all kinds of books and play with different colored dolls because I think that a willingness to understand people you perceive as different from yourself makes for a kinder person overall.

  24. I have read the Amara Para and the Carnival Fete after reading Adi's comments about it. It is a beautiful story about a families day at the Carnival with their friends from around the world. It's a great book about culture and diversity. My daughters loves the story and bright colours. I purchased on Amazon.

  25. I've just published my first illustrated children's book, Halloween Ooga-Ooga-Ooum, the first in a series. It's a fantasy I dreamed up, a mixture of American tradition and ghost stories from my native Cameroon.

    In future books, using the same characters, I want to confront some of the dysfunctional issues I see in my daily life as a social worker. I'd like my books to not only amuse and educate, but also to grapple with real life situations. We tend to be so politically correct. Can't we tell it like it is, if it's done tastefully, in illustrated books?

  26. Our team is multicultural: my husband re-writing, editing, publishing; our illustrator, Suzette, from Utah, proves there is creativity in the Red states.

    We just created a Facebook page, my first foray into social media. Most fun was turning it into an eBook for the iBookstore. This allowed us to use Apple's Read Aloud feature, where the book really reads itself.

  27. Thanks so much for your article, i really enjoyed it. Do you have any more suggestions of books for boys?


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