Thinking About Picture Books

Two things have got me thinking especially hard about picture books this morning. First, the Picture Book Intensive class I’m going to be teaching on begins on Wednesday, so I’m putting the finishing touches on things. Trying to pick a nice mix of old and new to illustrate some of the finer points of writing picture books. Always fun, because you get to delve deep, but hard because you have to choose! (Click here if you’re interested in finding out more! It’s going to be a blast!)

But the other thing that’s got me thinking is more personal. My niece has a new baby joining her family this week. A photo was in my inbox this morning. Such a cutie! A wonderful mix of diverse genes! And what do you do when a new baby’s joining the family? You buy him books, of course!

But here’s the thing. Every time I thought of a title that I loved reading with my kids, I was brought up short by how very white it was! Not all of them, mind you. Rachel Isadora’s Ben’s Trumpet was a favorite, The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, and Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain by Verna Aardema. And there were others, but not many. And it’s not that I was searching out books about white kids when my children were small. It’s just that most books for kids were about white kids.

Anseed magicd there are amazing books being produced by such publishers and Lee & Low, which is in the forefront of diversity in publishing, and Peachtree, which published my book, Seed Magic. There is the We Need Diverse Books website, and the Brown Bookshelf. And there are librarians who are working hard to get diverse books into their collections.

But despite efforts to be more representative, we’re still way behind.  And suddenly that fact is much more in the forefront of my mind.

There are amazing writers and illustrators of color out there producing stunning work. And, happily, Matt de la Pena’s new picture book, Love, has finally hit bookstores! My copy, ordered months ago, was picked up yesterday at my local independent bookstore! I recommended it to my sister, the new grandma, who was excited to find it was in at her bookstore. She texted me to say it made her cry! Me, too!

But, much as the common perception is that girls will read books about boys, but boys won’t read books about girls, there’s also a similar belief about books with characters of color. Children of color will read about white children, but white children won’t read about children of color.

It’s not true, of course. The refusal to read usually stops long before the child gets his or her hands on the book. It is adults–the gatekeepers–who have deemed it so.

Many is the time I’ve sat at a table in a bookstore with my books in front of me and had parents take a book out of a child’s hand explaining to them that they wouldn’t like it because it’s about a girl or a child who isn’t like them. Sad. How will we learn to understand each other if we only read about people like ourselves?

So thank you to the writers who are writing their stories, and the publishers who are publishing them. Thank to to the librarians who are adding them to their collections, and the bookstores that are selling them.

And here’s to you, the adults who read them to your children! You’re a big part of this equation. The more you read, the more they’ll publish. And maybe one day no one will have to try to find diverse books for the children in their lives. They’ll just be there. Everywhere. Celebrating our differences–and our similarities!







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