Recently, my friend, poet/author extraordinaire Nikki Grimes posted some very interesting , thought-provoking and in my opinion dead on observations when it comes to picking books for kids. Read Nikki’s blog here: http://www.hungermtn.org/color-me-perplexed/ Specifically, as she says, “a good book is a good book is a good book.” Regardless of the race of the writer or the student. This is something that I have been championing and writing about since the beginning of my career. It is also what my parents Virginia Hamilton & Arnold Adoff dedicated their life’s work to as well.
I was inspired to add my voice to this discussion after reading Nikki’s post. This is a dialogue that has been ongoing for some time. Although too often it is one of those “swept under the rug” type issues, as race, as it pertains to kids and books is sometimes deemed to be a thorny topic. I am so glad Nikki decided to lend her beautifully eloquent voice to this issue and begin the conversation anew.
Nikki’s words put me in the mind of an article I read some months back, perhaps even last year? (How can you keep track anymore?) Anyway, it was in one of the major trade mags and it was written by a school librarian who was weeding her YA collection based largely on the popularity of the book’s cover. i.e. letting the students decide if a book should stay or go by the general coolness or lack there of, of the book’s cover. I was shocked, but even more shocking was that some people wrote in and said this was a good idea. Really? For obvious reasons what is inside a book is far more important than its cover. Although a good cover is quite important for marketing and catching the eye of a perspective buyer and reader, in a school setting what is of most importance is the quality of the written word not the book’s appearance.
And if I change one word in that last sentence it would read: What is of most importance is the quality of the written word, not the author’s appearance.
If I may borrow one of the most overused phrases of the last couple of years this can be a “teachable moment.” (Ugh, but it works here.) Teachable in that there are still many who don’t know that a book by an author of color could or should be read by any and all students. They assume or are lead to believe by what has been standard practice in the past, or by our culture that a child or teen would only identify with a character that looks like he does, when in my experience the truth is quite the opposite.
Like Nikki, I get many emails and letters from kids from all backgrounds who love and relate to, the books I’ve written. And in almost all of their correspondence, race is usually never mentioned. Granted, a biracial teen is going to relate on a different level (and rightly so) to Keith in “Jimi and Me” than a white teen, but it is what Keith goes through and what he learns, how he changes, and what he discovers about his family and himself . . . this is what my readers relate to and talk about.
A compelling character is a compelling character, a good plot is a good plot. To be more blunt in relation to my books: Suicide knows no color, Bullying does not discriminate; tragedy does not strike one particular race more than another. These are universal themes that are experienced by all human beings. And therefore the books that contain these themes and many others should be read by all.
If a cover looks dated and corny but the book is great, it is incumbent upon the librarian or teacher to say, “hey, I know this doesn’t look cool, but wait until you read it.”
Or if you are in a school where it has been general practice that white kids read books by white authors and black kids read books by black authors etc.. etc… why not stand up and say, hey wait a minute this doesn’t make any sense. “A good book is a good book is a good book.”
As adults we are supposed to know better than our kids, or at least act as if we know better. But there are times when we simply don’t know, or have never known any other way. (There are also other times but I’m trying to stay positive here!) Well, it happens. But the great thing about life is that we can change. We can learn, we can try new things. It’s never to late to try something new. As teachers and librarians you all have the power. The power to change perception, and perspective and teach our children that we should never judge a book by its cover or an author by their color.
Lets get good books into the hands of our youth. There are enough roadblocks standing in the way of our children reading quality literature, lets not be a part of another.