90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Children’s Literature: Apartheid Or Just A General Lack of Color?

Children's books (San José Library/Flickr)

Of 3,200 children’s books surveyed by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, only 93 were about African-Americans. (San José Library/Flickr)

A survey of children’s literature by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has found that of 3,200 books surveyed (out of an estimated 5,000 books published) in 2013, only 93 were about African-Americans.

African-American children's book authors Walter Dean Myers (right) and his son Christopher Myers are both concerned about the lack of diversity in children's literature. (Malin Fezehal)

African-American children’s book authors Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers are both concerned about the lack of diversity in children’s literature. (Malin Fezehal)

That dismal statistic prompted African-American children’s book author Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers to write side-by-side op-ed pieces for The New York Times.

Walter Dean Myers’s piece asked “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” while Christopher Myers characterized the situation as an “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.”

As Christopher Myers tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, the issue is not only that children of color need to see people who look like themselves in these books, but also that “these books are used as fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives, and if we don’t give them proper road maps, where are they going to end up?”

Interview Highlights

On books providing a ‘road map’ for kids

Chris Myers: “There is this thought somehow that children should just want to see themselves, to see their own circumstances. But in fact, these books are used as tools of fantasy, these books are used as ways that kids can make road maps for their own lives, and if we don’t give them proper road maps, where are they going to end up? It’s not simply a numbers game. This crisis of diversity in children’s books is better named and better understood as a crisis in our country — a literacy gap. When we look at the achievement gap in economic terms, when we look at the achievement gaps in education between low-income communities and their richer counterparts, we see that our country, our nation, is in a deep deep crisis.”

Walter Dean Myers: “There’ve been studies saying that if the kids are behind in the third grade, only 20 percent of those kids ever catch up. What happens, the kids also understand the gaps. They see this wide divergence and they give up. And so one of the tools we can use to try to bring them back into the mainstream is transmitting values in books. When you go to a book and you see your circumstances — here is a poor child, here is a child who doesn’t have breakfast every morning — when they see themselves, they’re saying ‘look, I am valuable.'”

On the argument the market doesn’t want books with African-American characters

Walter Dean Myers: “The market’s not demanding it, but that cannot be our solution. Because by shunting off so many thousands and thousands of children, you have a graduation rate throughout this country which is obscene. New York City has a terrible graduation rate. And when you break that down to the poor kids, you’re getting 50 to 65 percent of the kids going through the school system not being able to function in America. And we can’t say ‘oh, there’s no market for them.’ What we’re saying is that there’s no need for these kids. When I go to the schools and the juvenile prisons and I talk to kids on the street, they deserve a future.”

Chris Myers: “As people who deal with fictions, we’re very familiar when we see them. And the market is a fiction and it’s worked on and we make up our best theories as to what will sell or what won’t sell. But in the end, the market is a fiction, and we’re constantly being surprised by the market in various other media industries. For example, maybe 15 years ago — I’m not the biggest Tyler Perry fan, but the idea of a Tyler Perry, of a vernacular black cinema, was not commonplace. … And now you see that he is by himself a cottage industry.”

On the social media outcry over Rue in ‘The Hunger Games’ being black

Walter Dean Myers: “I remember [TV producer] Norman Lear came to me and wanted to do ‘The Young Landlords,’ one of my books. I was all happy until he said ‘except we’re going to change all the black kids to white kids and move it from Harlem to Greenwich Village.'”

Chris Myers: “The idea is that — children’s literature, children’s media — we are making for our children a picture of the society that they’re going to be living in. And if we’re making these segregated images, then we can’t be surprised when people are outraged when they see images of little black girls in ‘The Hunger Games.’ In trying to make books that reflect our dreams, our hopes for what our society can be, we don’t want to use such a feeble excuse as ‘the market’ to limit what our society can be.”

Guests

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

A survey from the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that out of 3,200 books published in 2013, only 93 were about African-American characters, the lowest in two decades. Well, Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher did not need that survey to know that. Walter is the African-American author and former ambassador for children's literature. His son Christopher is an author and illustrator who says he remembers his dad suggesting a book about wizards or something years ago. Well, that'll never work, publishers said. There's no market for that. Then years later, hello, "Harry Potter."

The two wrote side-by-side op-ed pieces for The New York Times recently on the pitfalls of the market and what Christopher called the apartheid of kids' literature with characters of color limited to the townships of occasional historical books on civil rights and slavery. Chris and his father, Walter Dean Myers, both join us from the NPR Studios in New York. Chris, welcome.

CHRISTOPHER MYERS: Hi. How are you?

YOUNG: I'm good. And Walter Dean Myers, welcome back to HERE AND NOW.

WALTER DEAN MYERS: Hi. Thank you.

YOUNG: Christopher, start with you, If I got this right, that kids seeing themselves in books, someone who looks like them, isn't as much about having a mirror, having their self reflected. It's about having a roadmap?

MYERS: Absolutely. I feel like there is this thought somehow that children should just want to see themselves, to see their own circumstances. But in fact, these books are used as tools of fantasy. These books are used as ways that kids can make roadmaps for their own lives. And if we don't give them proper roadmaps, where are they going to end up?

It's not simply a numbers game. This crisis of diversity in children's books is better named and better understood as a crisis in our country, a literacy gap. When we look at the achievement gap in economic terms, when we look at the achievement gaps in education between low-income communities and their richer counterparts, we see that our country, our nation, is in a deep, deep crisis.

MYERS: There've been studies saying that if the kids are behind in the third grade, only 20 percent of those kids ever catch up. What happens, the kids also understand the gaps. They see this wide divergence, and they give up. And so one of the tools we can use to try to bring them back into the mainstream is transmitting values in books. When you go to a book, and you see your circumstances - here is a poor child, here is a child who doesn't have breakfast every morning - when they see themselves, they're saying look, I am valuable.

Sometimes when I talk to children and try to give them my (unintelligible) talk, oh, you must read a lot. They say they're not interested. They don't have the vocabulary to say, I've given up. But this is what's happening. The kids are actually giving up.

YOUNG: Well, talk more about what happened to you, because if I'm reading your op-ed correctly, things happen in your family, you begin to despair. And part of that was you weren't seeing yourself or this roadmap that we're talking about, reflected in the books that you were reading. And you stopped reading, and then this is such a powerful line, in retrospect, you say, you lost the potential person you would become.

MYERS: I stopped reading. I stopped writing altogether. I just did not see who I could be anymore. I just felt lost.

MYERS: Dad, did you feel like you gave up in the way that you talked about when you see this children that have given up, do you feel like that had happened to you?

MYERS: I felt that had had happened to me quite a lot.

YOUNG: But then you picked up James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues."

MYERS: It was a shock to me. I did not love the story, but it was about my neighborhood. It was about poor people. And I said to myself, well, who is James Baldwin? And I discovered that he lived only like a half a mile from me in Harlem. It revived me. It gave me permission that I did not know that I needed.

YOUNG: It gave you your roadmap.

MYERS: It gave me my roadmap.

YOUNG: Yeah.

MYERS: One of the most disheartening things about the overwhelmingly positive response to Dad and I's piece in the Times is the idea that this is not a new conversation. This is a conversation that has been happening for at least since 1965 when Nancy Larrick wrote an article called "The All-White World of Children's Books."

YOUNG: Talk a little more, both of you, about that. You have been told and I - we're seeing it in the articles today that the market doesn't want more books with African-American kids as characters.

MYERS: The market is not demanding it, but that cannot be our solution because we're shunting off so many thousands and thousands of children. You have graduation rates throughout this country, which is obscene. New York City has a terrible graduation rate. I mean, you break that down to the poor kids. You're getting 50 to 65 percent of the kids going through the school system not being able to function in America. And we can't say, well, there's no market for them. What we're saying is that there's no need for these kids. And, you know, when I go through the schools and the juvenile prisons, and I talk to kids on the streets, they deserve a future.

YOUNG: It's funny you're saying that you may agree that, right now, there's not a great demand. But it sounds like it may be because kids and their parents may not even know what they're missing. But, Christopher, you say that you don't even believe that because you've been told that white kids won't buy a book with a black kid on the cover. But as you say, white kids buy CDs with black kids on the cover all the time.

MYERS: Absolutely. As people who deal with fictions, we're very familiar when we see them.

MYERS: Right.

MYERS: And the market is a fiction and it's worked on, and we make up our best theories as to what will sell or what won't sell. But in the end, the market is a fiction, and we're constantly being surprised by the market and various other media industries. For example, maybe 15 years ago - I'm not the biggest Tyler Perry fan - but the idea of a Tyler Perry, of a vernacular black cinema was not commonplace.

YOUNG: Tyler Perry, the producer - uber-producer with films and TV shows now to his credit, yeah.

MYERS: Yes. And now you see that he is, by himself, a cottage industry.

YOUNG: Well, it strikes me this isn't just about poor kids of color. It's about poor white kids as well.

MYERS: Exactly.

YOUNG: And changing the children's literature is also about all kids. We're thinking of - there was a recent brouhaha when the book "Hunger Games" went to the big screen. One of the characters, Rue, is described very purposely by the author as black, of color. And yet when an African-American actress was cast to play Rue, there was this outcry in social media mostly by white young people, saying, why is she black? Why is she black? They couldn't even - in their minds' eye, they'd seen so few black characters in literature, they didn't even pick up that she was black.

MYERS: Exactly right. I remember Norman Lear came to me and wanted to do "The Young Landlords."

MYERS: One of your books.

MYERS: One of my books. I was all happy until he said, except we're going to change all the black kids to white kids and move it from Harlem to Greenwich Village.

MYERS: But the idea is that children's literature, children's media - we are making for our children a picture of the society that they're going to be living in. And if we're making these segregated images, then we can't be surprised when people are outraged when they see images of little black girls in "The Hunger Games." In trying to make books that reflect our dreams, our hopes for what our society can be, we don't want to use such a feeble excuse as the market to limit what our society can be. I really don't want my society being dictated by what I think will sell at the local B. Dalton - if there will be Daltons anymore.

YOUNG: Right.

MYERS: And I don't want my grandchildren - hopefully Chris.

MYERS: I'm working on it, Dad.

(LAUGHTER)

MYERS: OK. OK. I don't want my grandchildren to think of themselves only in terms of slavery, the civil rights movement. I want them to have a full range of imagine of literature.

YOUNG: Like the heroic character Rue in "Hunger Games."

MYERS: Yes.

YOUNG: Yeah.

MYERS: Except that I don't want my children to necessarily have to die at the end. I mean, I'm just - not spoiler alert. Sorry for your "Hunger Games" fans.

(LAUGHTER)

YOUNG: Yes. Yeah. Christopher and Walter Dean Myers, talking about the lack of people of color in children's literature. We'll link you to their op-eds at hereandnow.org. Thanks so much to you both.

MYERS: Thank you so much.

MYERS: Thanks for having us.

YOUNG: OK. They've probably read the book anyway. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston, in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

November 27 Comment

Poet David Roderick Explores What It Means to Be American

Award-winning poet David Roderick joins us on this Thanksgiving to discuss his second book, "The Americans."

November 27 Comment

Mother Of Released Hostage Theo Padnos Speaks Out

Nancy Curtis discusses her son's capture and the behind-the-scenes negotiations that led to his release in August.

November 26 2 Comments

UC President Janet Napolitano Says Tuition Must Rise

Napolitano defends the planned tuition increases, which some students and lawmakers say are too steep.

November 26 19 Comments

National Bar Association Critical Of Ferguson Grand Jury Process

St. Louis attorney Pamela Meanes, who is president of the association, explains her concerns with how the D.A. handled the process.