African Children’s Literature – Where is it?

I’m currently taking a directed study in the education department. The course is called Multicultural Literature. Amongst other elements, the major focus in the course is the representation of people of color (POC) in children’s picture books. As a Zimbabwean and member of the African diaspora, it has been important for me to hone in on the representation of Africa and African characters for my course assignments. Reflecting on my own childhood experience of finding representation in books while I was growing up, I knew finding such books would be a challenge.

Nappy Hair
Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron

Throughout my schooling in the Unites States, I’ve attended predominantly white institutions where I was the only POC in the majority of my classes. The books that I had access to were as lacking in diversity as my classes were. I was fortunate that my parents made a conscious effort to get books with African/African American characters and themes in them, so that I could find myself in literature. One of my favorite books used to be Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron. The beautiful dark skinned girl with a giant afro on the cover always made me smile. I used to also love Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. It is a lovely Afro-centric spin on, “Princess and the Frog”, the western fairytale which most kids learn.

But my education and creativity were still quite white-washed. I can remember writing stories in 3rd grade and all of the characters I created were white and did things that I dreamt of doing. Thinking back on this now is disheartening, because white representation was the default that I was mostly exposed… It reminds me of a YouTube video I watched a few years back where a young African American girl had a doll with brown skin and a doll with white skin placed in front of her to choose from: The girl chose the white doll because she thought it was more beautiful than the brown skinned doll. This is the epitome of societal conditioning.

So far, my assumptions have been relatively spot-on. I went to the Worcester Public Library two weeks ago to see what I could find, and I only found five children’s picture books that somewhat fit what I was looking for. This is upsetting because in Worcester there are large populations of Ghanaian, Liberian, Kenyan, and Somalis. On the bright side, there were several books with African American characters in them as well as great selections of books with Spanish speaking characters from Mexico, Chile, Puerto Rico, and many other countries. The selection at the Worcester Public Library seems like a much more diverse one than in the libraries I went to when I was in elementary school; however, these books are far from outweighing the breadth of literature featuring White characters.

I’ve spent time searching online for children’s books with African representation. I’ve used several different databases and academic search engines and have come up with between 15 and 20 books. These are books which have been published with in the past 10 years in the U.S. This is a tiny amount compared to the thousands of children’s books that are published in the U.S. every year. After having read some of these children’s books for my course, I’ve begun to notice a lot of similarities amongst them. Many of the books are African folklore and bedtime stories. They often times teach morals. A lot of them use Africa in a historical context and refer to it in association with slavery.

In addition to my reading of children’s books, I have been reading the book, Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature by Rudine Sims Bishop. I’m about halfway done with the book. Much of the themes I’ve encountered in Sims Bishops’ book have helped set the stage for my thinking for this course and the projects I’ll be endeavoring in. Bishop discusses the origins of African and African American children’s stories as going from songs that taught of history, religion, and slave life. She also introduced the impactful African American writers before and during the Harlem Renaissance.

A writer that Bishop has introduced that has helped open up my thinking for this course so far has been W. E.B Du Bois. I’ve spent time thinking about his Brownies’ Book, and how it was initially developed to empower African Americans by representing them in literature as beautiful, intelligent, valiant people. The publication was intended to shatter the caricatured, stupid, sneaky, workhorse image White writers were continuously producing. His legacy has transcended him in the way that there are now Black authors challenging the White represented default. Jaqueline Woodson, an African American, is one of the newer authors who won the scene and has been noted for her book, Brown Girl Dreaming.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson

But in thinking about the books that I read while growing up and the books that I’ve researched, I keep asking myself: where are all the African children’s literature writers? Why aren’t there more books being produced? Have we, as African writers, moved away from this pride and responsibility of rearing conscious, confident, and self-aware African children? One of the elements I’ve begun to consider in effort to find an answer to these questions is if African and diasporic Africans are focusing too exclusively on producing supportive works for adults. One of my favorite African writers who is also involved in social justice and education is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She has brought to life the stories of Africans in the homeland and immigrant Africans. She and other authors have been so powerful for teens, young adults, and adults. But young children are missing out on these critical opportunities to find representation.

Over this semester I hope I will find some answers for these questions by further research. I’ve started contacting some of these authors who have published some of the stories that I’ve been reading in hopes of gaining their perspectives on my research. More importantly, I hope to locate more books with African/diasporic characters and donate them to schools in the area. I also hope to band together with student-run organizations in effort to get more books in schools. To top all this wonderfulness off I, myself, will be writing a children’s book telling a story that I find important and hopefully have it published. There’s a lot of awesome work ahead of me this semester. We’ll see what happens!

– Lulu

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2 Comments

  1. Lulu, great article and project you’re working on. There is a lot of deep insight in here that provokes us to ask a lot of questions we don’t think of every day, “we” meaning white Americans who never struggled to find ourselves represented in any book or media. After reading I went to I’m Your Neighbor Books, a positive initiative of the past few years that is great but hasn’t grown too much. I searched “by group represented” for African American and sadly only found two. I think they would benefit from your suggestions greatly. They need more added to the section!: http://imyourneighborbooks.curiouscitydpw.com/category/groups-represented/african-american/

    The whole time I was reading this article I felt a frustration. When I was abroad I frequented a local book store that had amazing children’s books in about six or seven different African languanges… Sometimes all in one book! It makes me wonder how local authors of African countries could play a collaborative role with the diaspora to spread word and access of those books to the US, and encourage more to be written in the US. Oral history is huge in this country but often it’s not translated to material for children’s absorption. Maybe there’s something there.

    Keep us posted!!!

  2. Lulu, great article and project you’re working on. There is a lot of deep insight in here that provokes us to ask a lot of questions we don’t think of every day, “we” meaning white Americans who never struggled to find ourselves represented in any book or media. After reading I went to I’m Your Neighbor Books, a positive initiative of the past few years that is great but hasn’t grown too much. I searched “by group represented” for African American and sadly only found two. I think they would benefit from your suggestions greatly. They need more added to the section!: http://imyourneighborbooks.curiouscitydpw.com/category/groups-represented/african-american/

    The whole time I was reading this article I felt a frustration. When I was abroad I frequented a local book store that had amazing children’s books in about six or seven different African languages… Sometimes all in one book! It makes me wonder how local authors of African countries could play a collaborative role with the diaspora to spread word and access of those books to the US, and encourage more to be written in the US. Oral history is huge in this country but often it’s not translated to material for children’s absorption. Maybe there’s something there.

    Keep us posted!!!

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