What is the first book about a person of color that you remember reading as a child?
I answered that question for myself last week as Wyatt and I continued enjoying the books on our summer reading list.
Our summer reading list, which I've mentioned before and will mention again, is excellent. Without exception, we've enjoyed every book, and each one has given us something to discuss. Our list includes about thirty books. I've been requesting ten or so books off the list at a time from the library. Why so many? I feel unbelievably rich walking out of the library with a giant stack of books in my arms. Also, it's fun when Wyatt opens his eyes wide and grins so hard to see how many of the books on the hold shelf are for him
Many of the books we picked up in the first third of our list were about music. I can't even say which Wyatt liked more than another. We read all of them several times. Wyatt does keep talking about borrowing Sweet Music In Harlem again, though--it's a really fun story. My Name Is Celia/Me llamo Celia: The Life of Celia Cruz/la vida de Celia Cruz got us listening to lots of salsa music and prompted Wyatt to ask me why, when it comes to famous people of color, the story starts out with white people not liking the person, but by the end, white people love the person.
We're in the middle of reading the second third of the books (see the photo above). Some stand-outs so far include: Daniel's Ride (featuring a '63 Impala), Ruby's Wish (a true story), and Hip Hop Speaks to Children (a music CD!). I found President Barack Obama's Of Thee I Sing incredibly moving, and Wyatt was into it, but found fault with the last page that says America is made up of people of every kind. After studying the illustration, he said, "There aren't any disabled people in the picture. Maybe that girl in the front who's holding the other girl's arm is disabled? But there aren't any people in wheelchairs." Good point, I thought. We went on to discuss how sometimes you can't see peoples' disabilities, but we were left curious why the illustrator opted not to depict someone in a wheelchair.
The two collections of stories we've read, Her Stories: African American Folk Tales, Fairy Tales, and True Tales and The Girl Who Helped Thunder and Other Native American Folktales might be the best books of all, in part because they last longer than the single-story picture books. Wyatt will sit for over an hour just listening to me read, absorbing the magic of the stories and identifying with the characters in them. He listens so intently that he has noticed parallels between stories. For example, he observed how greedy, selfish people turned into owls in the Wiyot tale, "Why Owl Lives Away From The People," and in the supernatural African American tale "Who You!" I had missed that similarity. (In my defense, it's easier to read critically when you're not the one who's reading aloud.) I was impressed with his observation. How interesting that in some traditions, owls are considered conniving, greedy and selfish. I had only ever seen them portrayed as aloof and wise.
Then again, owls might only be aloof and wise for white, western storytellers like A. A. Milne. And that's kind of the point of our summer reading list. The books we read help inform our view of the world. I want Wyatt's view to be many things, including broad, open, honest, empathetic, and embracing of race, culture, and differences. The stories we have been reading support all of those values and invite Wyatt to consider himself in relation to the individuals in the stories.
Meanwhile, all these stories contrast sharply with the first book about a person of color that I recall from my own childhood. That book was Little Black Sambo. I went digging around for it last week while Wyatt was at camp and found my copy buried in the back of a closet. I reread it by myself, cringing at how truly ignorant and racist it is, and thinking how even if you somehow gave it new illustrations and revised it to avoid the ignorance and racism, the story would still be pretty dumb. I'm not alone in this opinion. My copy should not have survived as many moves as it did, and it should not have escaped our annual Spring Cleanings, either. My excuse? I was embarrassed to own the book and embarrassed to throw it away, lest someone else find it and keep it.
But there's no room for paralysis when it comes to harboring racism, especially racism in the form of picture books. I'm pleased to report that the book is now gone. To be clear: I am no book burner; I am a book shredder. After all, there are so many worthy books that deserve shelf space (or even back of closet space) instead of that one.