In Philip Nel’s newly published monograph Was the Cat in the Hat Black?, he concludes his intriguing analysis of the insidious and steadfast presence of racism in children’s literature historically with a manifesto, a concrete list of “action items” that children’s-literature professionals can do to start to make the genre an inclusive one. Point No. 11 of the manifesto is: “Don’t just be an ally. Be an accomplice.” When I think of that exhortation, I imagine the allies as the white folks who showed up and started to march for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr. but fled when the police dogs and billy clubs appeared. The accomplices went to jail with him, and some died fighting so that African-Americans could have the same freedoms they enjoyed.
I’d like to apply this analogy to the task facing teachers, librarians, and other professionals who put books into children’s hands at this moment in children’s literary history. If you stay current, you know about the We Need Diverse Books movement. But has it changed what you do from day to day?
When a tween comes in excited about her first reading of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, what read-alikes do you recommend? More Hinton? How about Jacqueline Woodson’s Miracle’s Boys? I’ve often taught the two books together in young-adult literature classes, and the parallels are striking, but the differences that arise because of race and the systems’ (penal and social services) treatment of black males offer lots of opportunities for discussion and food for thought. And how many books about African-American life do you recommend regularly that aren’t about slavery, civil rights, or important historical figures? How many Jewish books do you suggest that aren’t Holocaust stories? How many Japanese texts that don’t tell of the internment? How often do you seek out works of fantasy like Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight or Nnedi Okorofor’s Akata Witch when students have been transported to Hogwarts and want another compelling journey? How often do you read across cultures or practice Reading Without Walls, as Gene Luen Yang encourages us to do, rather than reading (and recommending) what you know and love best?
Early in my academic career as an assistant professor, teaching an undergraduate children’s-literature survey course to education majors at a state university in the South, I received an end-of-semester teaching evaluation that said, “I appreciate all this multicultural literature, but there is real literature too.” I hope that you are contributing to raising readers who would not only be incapable of making this assertion, but who understand deeply that real literature reflects many different realities.