Color proofing is a familiar concept in publishing. It’s the process of producing a test print of an illustrated book to preview the colors before the final printing. I will reappropriate this term—color proofing—to discuss a common misunderstanding of how human diversity can be achieved in children’s book art.
Sustained observation of children’s book art (Western children’s book art, in particular) reveals that many creators are relying solely or heavily on the specter of brown and black skin as visual proof of the Black human presence in storybook worlds. While continuing to use aesthetic principles and artistic traditions developed over the course of centuries within societies, art institutions, and aesthetic cultures where Black people have traditionally been excluded or are simply not present, children’s books are increasingly adding more melanin.
What this means is that Black people are often being represented in children’s book art using formal artistic properties, judgements of taste, and architectures of expression emanating from outside of Black environments, communities, history, and culture. In large part, the illustration, design, and aesthetic packaging of children’s books continue to reflect the field’s foundation of hegemonic Eurocentric ideologies and epistemological systems that claim universal validity and unquestioned acceptance.
The truth is, we cannot “color proof” children’s book art against centuries of Eurocentric dominance. Art that stands on the fragile bedrock of skin color has never—and will never—captured the Black human presence faithfully, unreservedly, and inspiritingly. The bedrock has to be much stronger. French artist Henri Guérin has noted that “color is art’s charm and its seduction—a siren of whom the prudent person should beware.” Indeed, there is a dangerous allure to the idea that diversifying children’s book art is as simple as darkening the complexions of human characters.
Honestly rendering and honoring the Black human presence in children’s book illustration requires that illustrators embrace a lifelong education in the rich, long, ever expanding lineages of art created by African/African-descended peoples. Additionally, the children’s book industry must be prepared to enter into open-hearted, committed, respectful conversation with Black people’s cosmology, which Matthew Karangi defines as “the way Africans perceive, conceive, and contemplate their universe; the lens through which they see reality, which affects their value systems and attitudinal orientations.”
Of course, Black people’s experiences vary widely across the globe, yet our ancestral roots inform how we inhabit the world. Science has proven that memories pass down generations, and, as Glenn Chambers, former Director of the African American and African Studies Program at Michigan State University, notes, “it is impossible to elude the numerous similarities in art, cuisines, religion, community organization, speech patterns, and world view that pay homage to the legacy of the African experience” across the Black diaspora.
Susan M. Vogel, former executive director of the Center for African Art, has identified key characteristics of African aesthetics. A growing body of research is exploring the highly developed, culturally idiosyncratic aesthetic frameworks that African and African-descended artists have developed throughout countless generations. African aesthetics communicate subjective, metaphysical, existential truths about Black experience in the world that art rooted in other cultural and stylistic positions does not and cannot. Moreover, African aesthetic frameworks are intertwined with the lived histories of African peoples in the world; without these frameworks, children’s book art implicitly reinforces harmful narratives of Black people as ahistorical.
Illustrated children’s books are representational constructions, pictographic edifices, and their aesthetic frameworks must provide the foundation, support, and structure that will allow Black cultures to stand strong in their own identities. It is beyond time for children’s book aesthetics to widely reflect and articulate the cultural, conceptual, and perceptual specificities of African heritage, knowledge, values, beliefs, identity, and imperatives. This, after all, is the very definition of art.
Summer Edward is a young readers’ editor.