Author Archives: sandsk2014

Interplanetary Women’s Day: Black Women Writers and Science Fiction and Fantasy

Next week I am going to be in Antwerp, lecturing to a Twentieth Century British Women’s Writers course.  Because the instructor for the course is the gifted and insightful Vanessa Joosen, the overall book list for the course is varied, ranging from Virginia Woolf to Kate Atkinson, Doris Lessing to Andrea Levy, and covering a wide variety of genres, including poetry, realism and fantasy for both adults and children.  I’ll be speaking about the UK’s Children’s Laureate from 2013-2015, Malorie Blackman, and specifically about her novel Noughts and Crosses (Corgi 2001).  Blackman is the only writer on Joosen’s list who has written in so many different styles; she has picture books about talking animals (I Want a Cuddle! Scholastic 2001) and imaginary play (Marty Monster Tamarind 1999), early chapter books including the Girl Wonder and Betsey Biggalow series, poetry (Cloud Busting Doubleday 2004), fiction dealing with the effects of technological advances (most famously, Pig-Heart Boy, Transworld 1999, which was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal—one of the only books by Black British writers to be so honored) and historical fiction (Blackman edited and contributed to the collection Unheard Voices, Corgi 2007).


Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses depicts a dystopian world where the racial power hierarchy is flipped but racism still abounds.

But Blackman is best known for her science fiction and fantasy, which again spans various types, from technological futurism (Robot Girl Barrington Stoke 2015) to horror (The Stuff of Nightmares Corgi 2012), ghost stories (the gentle Grandma Gertie’s Haunted Handbag, Heinemann 1996, is for younger readers, but she does ghost stories for older readers as well), magical creature fantasy (Whizziwig Galaxy 1998), and transformation fantasy (the human characters in Animal Avengers, Mammoth 1999, can turn into any animal they want).  She has interplanetary science fiction with her Chasing the Stars (Doubleday 2016) and, her most famous series, the dystopian Noughts and Crosses.  Most of her main characters are Black (British).  She has spent much of her career trying to write Black children into books, but unlike some writers, she doesn’t usually focus on race as the main aspect of the book: “I wanted to write books about black children where race had nothing to do with the story – just doing all the things white children did in stories I read as a child” (  Why shouldn’t Black boys have alien friends from another planet, and why shouldn’t Black girls pilot a spaceship, when white children did these things in books all the time?


The first book in Virginia Hamilton’s series, with a cover by Leo and Diane Dillon.

Blackman is definitely the most voluminous producer of Black British science fiction and fantasy for children, but she is not the first to write protagonists of African descent into children’s non-realistic literature.  The American author Virginia Hamilton, who is today perhaps best known for The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales (Knopf 1986) with illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon, published a science fiction series beginning in 1978 with Justice and her Brothers.  Hamilton’s series, which includes Dustland (1980) and The Gathering (1981) was “the first science fiction series written with African American protagonists by an African American” (Back in the Spaceship Again, Sands and Frank, 115) for young people.  Hamilton’s protagonist, Justice, travels into the future and uses extrasensory perception to communicate with her brothers.  Like Blackman, Hamilton felt it was important that young people see themselves in books; according to her website, she viewed her writing as “Liberation Literature” ( for young people.  The label recalls the Black Panther party, whose Liberation Schools tried to free the minds of young African Americans from the oppressive domination of white/European institutions.  Both Hamilton and Blackman provide readers, through their fantasy and science fiction, with alternative ways of seeing the world around them—ways of seeing themselves as active agents in that world, and even leaders.


Zetta Elliott’s fantasy for middle grade readers about American children meeting ghosts in the UK.

Hamilton and Blackman aren’t the only writers of African descent producing science fiction and fantasy for children; as Zetta Elliott pointed out in her School Library Journal article from 2011, “Magical things can happen to anyone, anywhere” (“A Storied Past” Her recently updated list of speculative fiction by US-based authors can be found on her blog (, and it shows that the numbers of writers focusing on characters of African descent is increasing in science fiction and fantasy. Zetta herself writes fantasy with African-American characters, including the transatlantic The Ghosts in the Castle (CreateSpace 2017) which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog. But the numbers are still small, especially outside of the US.  In Britain, science fiction and fantasy is still largely dominated by white characters.  Caribbean children’s literature is still a growth area, and although much early post-independence literature was either realistic fiction or folktales, there has been an increase in fantasy and (especially environmentally-based) science fiction; Diane Browne’s time travel fiction (A Tumbling World, A Time of Fire Arawak 2002) and Hazel Campbell’s Juice Box and Scandal LMH 1992) are two examples of books that paved the way for more recent authors such as Tracy Baptiste (The Jumbies 2015).  Nigerian American award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor writes science fiction fantasy for all ages based in Nigeria (Akata Witch, Speak 2017, is about a twelve-year-old girl).


Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor expands the world of fantasy to include Africa.

Often, however, science fiction and fantasy with Black characters is seen as being only pertinent to Black readers.  As Darren Chetty and I wrote in our Books for Keeps article in January of this year, “While BAME readers need books in which they can see themselves, it’s also important to challenge the idea that books with BAME characters are only for BAME readers. All children deserve to have literature that opens up the world in all its complexity” (  That article discusses the ways that Black authors often use canonical fantasy by white authors to broaden their audience.  In similar fashion, tomorrow also marks the opening of a film based on a canonical American science fiction fantasy novel, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1960).  The novel, written by a white author, is being produced as a film by Ava DuVernay with a multiracial cast including Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid playing Meg Murry. Reviews so far have been mixed—I’ll see it this weekend—but DuVernay’s efforts in opening up the universe to children of color in such a high profile effort may help publishers to be less reluctant about publishing authors who want to do the same.  So if you’re celebrating International Women’s Day today, why not make it Interplanetary Women’s Day, and open up your own universe to one of these authors.


Celebrating Vision: Faith Ringgold and Radical Black Art for Children

This weekend marks President’s Day in the US.  My undergraduate children’s literature students are spending the weekend finding a children’s book that details a US president’s interaction with people of color, because I wanted them to see what and who we do and don’t celebrate in this country.  However, I thought I would give the theme of presidents a miss this year; this weekend also marks the birthdays of two radical Black women visionaries, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, so I thought I’d celebrate them by looking at a Black woman artist who, like Morrison and Lorde, asked us to change the way that we see the world.


Faith Ringgold’s “For the Women’s House” from 1971.

I began thinking about this because on Friday, Buffalo’s art museum, the Albright-Knox, had a free opening evening for their new exhibit, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985” (   I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but for me, seeing Faith Ringgold’s activism and art contextualized put a new spin on how I understood her work for children.  A highlight of the exhibition is Ringgold’s 1971 mural, For the Women’s House.  The mural, which was painted for the women’s correctional facility on Riker’s Island in New York City, strikes the viewer long before she knows the story behind it.  A set of triangular panels formed into a square (similar to a quilt block, for which kind of art Ringgold is also known) show women of all races and ages working, creating, teaching and supporting one another.  Although the women mostly look directly out at the viewer, the mural is not confrontational; the women appear strong and calm.  According to the explanatory panel, the lack of confrontation is purposeful.  “In an April 1972 interview with her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, Ringgold described her goals for the piece: ‘If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have.’”  The canvas may not have been aggressive—given that it was painted in 1971, Ringgold could have focused on many of the difficult political moments of the prior five years in the US—but it was (and is) political.  The idea that all women should have satisfying work that gives them the financial support and time to be creative and look after (and be looked after by) a family is what we all should have.


Ringgold’s protagonist flies around the city, seeing people in unexpected ways.

Ringgold’s comments about what she creates for whom put her children’s books into a new context for me.  Seeing differently is always Ringgold’s aim.  For women prisoners, she painted a mural focused on the life that they could, and indeed should, have.  For children, she also creates visions of imagined worlds.  These visions often include fantasy: Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, involve her protagonist, Cassie, flying through time and space to see the world around them and how history has affected them.


Ringgold’s cover illustration begs the question: how can someone this arresting be invisible?

But Ringgold’s books also encourage readers to think about seeing the world around them—as it is, and as it could be.  In her fairytale set in the American south during slavery, The Invisible Princess, the reader (viewer) is instantly arrested by the cover illustration of the princess, with her large eyes and fantastic, halo-like cornrows.  But in the story, only the plantation owner’s blind daughter can see the invisible, but very real, princess.


See what you don’t expect is what happens when you open your eyes: Ringgold’s illustration for “Eldora, Who is Rich”.

Ringgold did not write all the books she illustrated, but even the ones for which she did not provide the text have a focus on what can, and perhaps should, be seen if young people open their eyes to the world around them.  In 2006, Ringgold celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book of children’s poetry by re-illustrating it, literally re-visioning it.  Gwendolyn Brooks’s Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a children’s book follow-up to her first adult collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), chronicled the lives of children in a working-class area of Chicago that had grown up as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north of the US in the decades following emancipation.  The poems in Bronzeville Boys and Girls do not seem on the surface highly radical; they are about ordinary things that most children experience—like, for example, what you can get away with doing when company comes over and your parents aren’t paying attention to you.  But I would argue that this is one of the reasons why Ringgold chose to re-illustrate it, fifty years later.  So many children’s books in the US about African-Americans resolutely ignore the ordinariness of African-American childhoods.  Brooks in 1956 and Ringgold in 2006 asked readers to see the invisible.  This part of Brooks’ and Ringgold’s vision may have been aimed primarily at adult buyers of the book; but there are specific poems that urge child readers to see the world, to look up and out, to re-vision.  Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is in the poem, “Eldora, Who is Rich.”  The poem opens with an expectation of what a rich girl looks like, someone with “a golden head” (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, n.p.).  But Eldora, in the illustration by Ringgold, looks so much like the other children that until a reader completes the poem, it is not clear if the rich girl of the title is in it.  Eldora, of course, is African-American and not white (or golden-headed) as the children expect.  Change your expectations, Brooks and Ringgold argue.  See differently.  See new.


Faith Ringgold and her daughter, the writer Michele Wallace, protesting the lack of Black Women Artists on show at the Whitney in New York, 1971.

Audre Lorde once wrote, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change” (Black Women Writers at Work).  Faith Ringgold’s art, for all ages, demand that we ask why that joy should not belong to everyone around us as well.

Reality, Reflected? CLPE, and the Search for Statistics about BAME Children’s Publishing

When I was writing my first book, Soon Come Home to this Island: West Indians and British Children’s Literature (Routledge 2008), a number of people asked me if there was really all that much literature to write about.  Most could not name a single Black British author or character in a book for children, and if they could, it was because they had gone looking for Black British literature specifically either for their own children, or for children that they knew and/or taught.


When I wrote Soon Come Home, many people wondered if there were any West Indians in British Children’s Literature.

By the time I wrote my most recent book, Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, 1965-2015 (Palgrave Macmilan 2017), this situation had changed for the better somewhat; most (British) people that I asked could name a few authors (though they were less likely to be able to name characters, indicating something about the “classic” status, or lack thereof, of Black British children’s literature)—and my American family, friends and students, who had to listen to me banging on all the time could also name a few authors, despite the fact that Black British authors are seldom published in the US.  But nonetheless, I still found myself able to write in that later book, “Depressingly little has changed in British publishing over the last 50 years” (Children’s Publishing 184), and “Publishing is an industry which is self-reinforcing: books that ‘sell’ are books that serve the majority population in society, so these are the books that are published—but groups outside the majority population do not see themselves in books, so they do not buy these books, and then publishers can argue that certain groups ‘don’t read’ and therefore don’t require attention from the publishing industry” (185).  Obviously this formulation is something of an oversimplification, but it has been true for a long time that the publishing world did not mirror the real world when it came to children’s books.


By the time of Children’s Publishing and Black Britain, more people were aware of Black British authors–but they could count the ones they knew on a single hand.

Just how far apart the industry was from reality, however, was an unknown quantity.  The British publishing industry did not keep (or release) statistics about the diversity of either its authors and illustrators or the characters in its books.  No UK institution (government or academic) attempted to keep such statistics either, as far as I know.  But this is about to change.  This week, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) published a press release.  It read in part:

“The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) has announced a pioneering new study into ethnic representation in children’s literature. The Reflecting Realities initiative will evaluate the extent and quality of ethnic representation in children’s publishing and will be the first ever survey of its kind in the UK.

The study will be produced alongside and complemented by research from BookTrust, who will publish a Representation research project focusing on the number of children’s titles created by authors and illus­trators of colour in the UK in recent years. Both surveys are funded by Arts Council England and aim to promote conversation and awareness around representation in children’s books. Findings for CLPE’s study, looking at books published in 2017, will be announced in July and followed by BookTrust’s report in Sep­tember.”

I’m very excited to be a part of the Reflecting Realities project.  CLPE’s Farrah Serroukh, who is directing the project, has put together an excellent team.  We come from a variety of disciplines—sociology, philosophy, education, literature—and organizations (including Letterbox Library and Amnesty International), so we bring different ideas, suggestions, and frameworks to the question of ethnic diversity and publishing for children.  But we all hope to move beyond a “numbers game” where a publisher can say, oh, I published a BAME author last year, so I don’t need to do it this year.  Or, I have an award-winning diverse author on my lists, so I don’t need to encourage and nurture new authors.  As Sita Brahmachari wrote in a tweet on hearing about the project, “The fissure between the children I visit in schools and representation in stories is a constant reminder to me of how that absence feels as a child & what impact it can have on opportunity.  Knowing, seeing & feeling it fuels my energy to imagine stories” (2/8/18).

Sita Brahmachari’s latest book, from Barrington Stoke, is part of a long list of books reflecting the different realities of BAME people in Britain.

In the Reflecting Realities project, we hope to fuel publishers’ energy to produce such books and celebrate the ways that publishers are trying to respond to the nation’s child reading population, through looking at the quality of ethnic representation, and not just the quantity.


Books like Dhondy’s East End at Your Feet were part of publishers’ efforts in the 1970s to produce more books that reflected the realities of British youth.

Reflecting Realities is based on a model from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, Wisconsin, who publishes similar statistics on US children’s publishing and has done in some fashion since 1985.  The CCBC began keeping statistics because one of their librarians had judged a national prize for African-American authors and found that very few authors existed.  The CLPE Reflecting Realities project is somewhat different in origin, because it comes at a moment when many stakeholders—including publishers—have expressed a desire for change.  But—as those who were around to witness publishing efforts of the 1970s (Macmillan’s Nippers and Topliners series) and 1980s (Rosemary Stones and Andrew Mann’s Other Award plus multiculturalism in series such as Puffin’s Happy Families by the Ahlbergs), and on into the 1990s and 2000s well know, desire to participate in a trend is not enough.  Alison Flood’s article in the Guardian, “Ethnic Diversity in UK Children’s Books to be Examined” allowed CLPE director Farrah Serroukh to sum up both the positive and the negative: “Serroukh at the CLPE, a charity which works to support the teaching of literacy in primary schools, said that there was currently ‘a momentum across the industry calling for better representation’. ‘We want to contribute to that conversation and move it on,’ she said. ‘It’s great that the industry has been reflecting on this, but that’s only effective if it ultimately leads to change’” (  No single person, publisher, or organization can change children’s publishing—but we are hoping to do our part to make the nation’s children’s literature better reflect the reality of its reading population.

Bodies, Power, Women, Race: How Children’s Books Depict Black Female Athletes, Pt. 2

Last week I looked at biographies of Black female athletes for older readers—and was largely disappointed at the way they depicted all females as defined by their looks, and Black females particularly as perennially unable to reach a male-set standard of beauty or female athleticism.  This week I am looking at picture books to see how they present Black female athletes.  Spoiler alert: books for older readers ought to look to picture book biographies as a model, as they are much less likely to concentrate on the female body in negative ways.


Mark Stewart’s biography comments on Griffith-Joyner’s fingernails, fashion–oh, and she runs too.

Interestingly, I found that books with photographs rather than illustrations to be more likely to focus on ideas of femininity and what a female athlete should be.  Mark Stewart’s biography of Florence Griffith-Joyner (1996), part of the Grolier All-Pro Biographies series, is for a much younger audience than the Venus and Serena Williams biographies that I looked at last week (though perhaps not as young as a typical picture book audience—somewhere in between the two).  However, like them, Stewart’s story opens with a focus on his subject’s urban environment: Griffith-Joyner was born “in the Watts section of Los Angeles, California . . . a poor but proud community comprised mostly of African-American families.  During the 1960s, its residents protested against racial prejudice, and they often clashed with police” (8).  And even more than the Williams sisters’ biographies, Stewart spends considerable time on Griffith-Joyner’s sense of “style,” describing the “explosive colors” of her outfits and “super-long fingernails” (31).  There is even a two-page spread entitled “Designing Woman” (32-33), and a quotation from earlier Olympic medal-winner Wilma Rudolph in which she says that Griffith-Joyner “brings in the glamour” (37) to running.  Stewart, according to the blurb about him at the end of the book, “is the author of every Grolier All-Pro Biography”—most of which are about men.  That the white male author focuses so much of his time on Griffith-Joyner’s fashion sense, rather than her athleticism, is disappointing.


Not enough to be a girl: Stauffacher and Couch’s biography of Althea Gibson requires men to support Gibson’s dreams.

Like the biographies for older readers, the picture books I found in my university and local public libraries (I visited two branches) about Black female athletes mostly concerned tennis players and track and field stars.  I’m sure a whole paper could be written on why this is; why Wilma Rudolph or Althea Gibson make better picture book subjects than the French skater Surya Bonaly or the American gymnast Dominique Dawes.  However, for now I will focus on what I could find, rather than speculate on what I couldn’t.  I want to start with a 2011 biography of Althea Gibson, written by Sue Stauffacher and illustrated by Greg Couch, both of whom are white Americans.  The book’s title suggests an attitude toward Gibson that highlights attitudes toward Black female athletes trying to succeed in white society; the book is titled Nothing But Trouble.  To be fair to Stauffacher and Couch, the book is exuberant (Couch’s illustrations which place a rainbow of color surrounding Gibson are quite striking) and make a concerted effort to highlight African-American success.  But Gibson is portrayed, as were athletes in other biographies I’ve covered, as wanting to be like a man; she wants to be “Somebody big, like Charlie Parker or Sugar Ray” (n.p.).  She is too wild to succeed in tennis until she meets jazz saxophonist Buddy Walker, who teaches her to conform to white society’s expectations: “With Buddy’s help, Althea realized she could dress up in white and act like a lady, and still beat the liver and lights out of the ball” (n.p.).


Despite the book’s title, Heather Lang and Floyd Cooper’s Queen of the Track focuses on Alice Coachman’s athleticism rather than her queenliness.

Many of the picture book sports biographies mention the difficulty of being a female athlete, as Stauffacher and Couch do. White author Heather Lang’s 2012 Queen of the Track, about Olympic high jump champion Alice Coachman does at least put gender inequality in historical context; Lang writes, “In the 1930s, running and jumping weren’t considered ladylike” (n.p.).  And the rest of the text is relatively gender neutral—as in, if a reader imagines the book is about Albert rather than Alice, the text reads the same.  There are no comments about fashion, no diminutive adjectives, no negative comparison of Coachman to either male athletes or “proper” ladies.  The illustrations, by African-American artist Floyd Cooper, depict an athlete who knows how to use her body to purpose, whether she is in training clothes running, playing basketball in a dress, or dancing to jazz.


Eric Velazquez’s illustrations for Anna Malaspina’s book about Coachman also highlight her strength and power.

Another biography of Coachman for picture book readers, also by a white author, Ann Malaspina’s Touch the Sky (2011), is similarly structured, with an admonition from Coachman’s father to “Sit on the porch and be a lady” (n.p.) early on, but with no further suggestion that Coachman’s gender got in the way of her dreams.  The text mentions Coachman’s long legs, but certainly not her outfits.  The illustrations by African-Puerto Rican illustrator Eric Velazquez, depict Coachman as strong and powerful, including in a text-free double-page spread of Coachman at the Olympics.  Both authors of these biographies write exclusively stories of strong women and social justice themes, according to their websites ( and; both illustrators are well-known for their depiction of African-American subjects.  Compared with books written for older readers, exclusively by white male sports writers, or picture books written and illustrated by white people only, these books focus on the achievements of female athletes rather than their “too masculine” or “unladylike” bodies or their need for male role models.


Manchester primary school students attribute Holmes’s success to hard work, full stop.

I’d like to end my discussion of Black female athlete biographies with a book that is different from those I’ve discussed so far because it is written and illustrated by children—more specifically, multiracial schoolchildren in Manchester, UK. Britain’s Black Olympians (2012), published by the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Centre, contains biographies of male and female athletes, but there is no material difference in the text based on the athletes’ gender.  The biography of middle distance runner Kelly Holmes, for example, argues that “Kelly was a very good runner because she trained all the time” (13).  The child authors in this book tend to highlight hard work, persistence and training—not gender or fashion or even anything to do with the bodies of the athletes.  Kelly Holmes is a good runner not because of her determination to be like a boy, her fashion sense, or even her legs, but because she trained all the time.  And that is the best way to teach young readers how to be a good athlete.

Bodies, Power, Women, Race: How Children’s Books Depict Black Female Athletes Pt. 1

This week, former USA gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, was sentenced to a total of 175 years in prison for abusing more than a hundred young female gymnasts over the course of decades.  Nassar’s conviction is an important step, but many of the survivors of his abuse have been asking about the wider gymnastics and sports community: why did USA Gymnastics not do anything about allegations?  Why did Michigan State University ignore the allegations as well?

These questions must be addressed, for the sake of these young women (who will likely struggle all their lives with trust and relationships), but also for the sake of the little girls who are just being introduced to gymnastics now.  Most of the young women who testified at Nassar’s trial mentioned being afraid to speak out, or being silenced when they did.  Simone Biles wrote on Twitter that she was “TOLD to trust” Nassar ( Gabby Douglas said that “she was part of a group ‘conditioned to stay silent’” ( These comments indicate that Nassar’s actions happened in the context of a society that was not prepared to fight for the rights of young girls.  We need to look at how we present, give voice to, and respond to female athletes across our entire society.


Do we support the courage of Black female athletes as a society?

This understanding of society’s complicity in silencing female athletes includes an examination of children’s books.  Jennifer Miskec’s critique of ballet stories for children (well, girls) can be applied to many nonfiction stories about female athletes; she argues that these books encourage girls to desire “to be enviable and beautiful, apolitically disengaged from any ideological flaws” (“Break Dancing”; The Embodied Child 233), and “to see only the story they are conditioned to expect, that of the romanticized exploitation and commodification of the ballerina’s body rather than the flawed system” (239).  The commodification of the female athlete’s body is problematized further when the athlete is Black (throughout this blog, I’ll use Black because what I say about the particular athletes discussed here also applies to women of African descent around the world).  Michelle Martin and Rachelle Washington note that “pressure to conform to the White beauty standard persists in contemporary Black American culture” (“Kitchens and Edges” The Embodied Child 86) while at the same time, as a 2016 study at the University of Iowa suggested, even young Black children were seen as threatening by white college students: “images of harmless-looking five-year-olds could elicit threat-related associations that were on par with those elicited by images of adults” ( White reporters often depict Black athletes as “muscular and aggressive” and Jennifer Lansbury in A Spectacular Leap: Black Women Athletes in Twentieth Century America suggests that, for Black women, this has led to “claims of unfair Amazonian advantage” (197).  This contrasting set of expectations about beauty and aggression set Black women athletes up for failure.  I went to look at children’s books about Black female athletes to see how many of these ideas were present—and if any of the depictions of Black female athletes in the media were challenged or problematized by children’s books.


Cheering for a pixie: Chris Evert in Harrington’s Top 10 Women Tennis Players.

I took a look at books for older readers first. Of the books I looked at, sports biographies for middle grade and older readers were the worst (or best?) at othering Black females.  Most of the books (at least in my library) for older readers are about female tennis players, so I tried to do a comparison of how these books treated Black women vs. either white women or men of any description.  In Denis L. Harrington’s Top Ten Women Tennis Players (1995), white tennis player Chris Evert is described as “pixie-like” (15) but Althea Gibson is “a tall, lean, muscled African-American” (22) who “served remarkably like a man, and played the whole game with strength and power” (24).  I would argue that both these descriptions are problematic (would anyone describe even the coxswain on a men’s crew team as “pixie-like”?), because both women are being compared with male standards (of beauty or athleticism).  Evert meets the male writer’s standard of beauty; Gibson does not, but also is depicted as trying to be “like a man” rather than like a strong athlete full stop.


Harrington’s depiction of Gibson is a marked contrast with Evert.

Black female athletes suffer in comparison with black male athletes as well. Perhaps the best-known writer of sports biographies for children, Matt Christopher, wrote a biography of the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, but a comparison of the first page of their biography with the first page of the biography of Michael Jordan shows a marked difference.  While Venus Williams is depicted as hero-worshipping her father (“The little girl eagerly followed him”; On the Court with Venus and Serena Williams 1) and a product of her environment (“a ghetto” of “mostly African-American and Hispanic” residents; 1), Michael Jordan “defies the laws of gravity” (On the Court with Michael Jordan 1), and is apparently superhuman, as his family and environment are not mentioned until page three, and Jordan is still disconnected from them textually—they are sharecroppers, but Michael is only mentioned in this scenario as learning “valuable lessons” (37) from them, not interacting with them.


The first pages of On the Court with Venus and Serena Williams and On the Court with Michael Jordan, both by Matt Christopher.

Venus, like Gibson, is compared with men: her trainer “often had her play against his male students” (37) because she is too powerful to play against women.  Bill Gutman’s Venus and Serena: The Grand Slam Williams Sisters (2001), part of the Scholastic biography series, goes a bit further; the athletes grow up “in the dangerous, drug-infested ghetto area of Compton” (1) and “They play a power game never before seen in women’s tennis” (3). And yet, despite comparing the Williams sisters with “aggressive” male players and placing them in a ghetto, both books also focus on their clothing.


The Williams sisters are “glammed up” . . .



. . . but Jordan’s only accessory is his trophy.

The picture pages of each show the sisters dressed up (or “glammed up” as the Gutman book puts it) for events, and comments on their clothing.  This is not something that happens in the Jordan text; although he is dressed up in one of the photos, the emphasis is on his trophy and not his outfit.  Even in Simone Biles’ autobiography Courage to Soar, one of the few my library had for older readers about gymnasts (the rest were about Nadia Comaneci), the Black female athlete is framed by white expectations, in this case by former Olympic champion Mary Lou Retton.  Retton’s introduction begins: “The first time I met Simone Biles, I knew she was special.  She was an outrageously talented twelve-year-old dynamo . . . she gave me that now famous smile” (9). The reader’s first introduction to Biles, then, is through terms that “little” her (teenage male athletes are never referred to as dynamos) and focus on her appearance rather than her skill.  Tennis and gymnastics, like ballet and figure skating, have been historically concerned with female appearance (skirt and spangle sports, as one person I know called them), but this should not be an excuse to continue the focus on female athletes’ “femininity”.

I think it’s important to say that (unlike, for example, much of the press coverage many Black female athletes around the world get), these biographies all are trying to present positive depictions of young women who work hard to achieve their dreams.  But female athletes, and Black female athletes especially, continue to be othered in sports biographies in distinct and problematic ways.  In next week’s blog, I’ll have a look at picture books about Black female athletes to see if they present a better image for young readers.


The Old African(-American): In Memory of Julius Lester

Julius Lester came to children’s literature via Harlem, folksinging, and the Civil Rights Movement.  Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1939, by the early 1960s he was in New York City, singing songs of lynching (“See How the Rain Falls”) at rallies for SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).  “I wasn’t big for going on demonstrations and being thrown in jail and this-that-and the other, but music was . . . a gift that I had to offer” he says, in a PBS documentary about him (  In 1964, he took his songs to the south (his “freedom songs,” he called them).  In 1965, he returned to look for old blues singers on behalf of the Newport Folk Foundation.  But he didn’t think the photographer who came with him understood what to look for, and Lester began taking his own photographs.


SNCC asked him to document civil rights movements in the south, and Lester did—although I wonder if SNCC got what they expected.  Lester’s photographs focus on the reality of life in the south, and the people who had to live those realities.  Whereas photographs of sit-ins and marches may have gotten all the attention, I find myself drawn to a photograph Lester took in Selma, Alabama in 1966.  The photograph shows an African-American woman walking past a white Chevrolet with a bumper sticker proclaiming the single word, “WALLACE”.  The bumper sticker, whether purposefully or accidentally, has a rip in it.  (You can see the photograph here: Lester wanted people to hear the words and see the lives of African-Americans clearly.


Lester’s versions of the Brer Rabbit stories used a mix of African-American dialects to give voice to these trickster tales originating from enslaved Americans.

His early work led to him wanting to write about Black History for children, to tell the stories and give voice to the people he met and sang about.  While his first book, To Be A Slave (1968) was historical, he turned to telling the stories he had heard growing up.  But he quickly realized that many of the stories he remembered had been mediated in print through white authors, such as Joel Chandler Harris.  The invented dialect that authors like Harris used to represent African-Americans often made the characters seem uneducated; but more than that, Lester knew that these characters did not speak like African-Americans—not the ones he knew in the south or the north.  So he reclaimed the stories, by retelling them.  He put in jokes that modernized the stories (talking about washing machines) or familiarized them to a new generation.  In “Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby,” when Brer Fox is going to barbecue Brer Rabbit, Brer Rabbit takes the time to opine, “If you got to go, go in a barbecue sauce.  That’s what I always say.  How much lemon juice and brown sugar you put in yours?” (15).


In Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, the titular character is frightened and gives away his clothes to save his skin.


But in Lester’s version, Sam is always in charge of the situation–even when he gives away his possessions, the reader knows he will get the upper hand in the end.

Lester performed similar reclamations with other stories that had been seen as racist texts that caricatured children of African descent.  Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo (1900) is a folktale-like story in which Sambo is terrified by tigers who take his clothes; he only regains power (and his clothes) when the tigers are too busy to notice him.  Lester rewrote the story as Sam and the Tigers, with pictures by Jerry Pinkney. Although the basic plot is the same, Lester does not depict his protagonist as cowering or weak.  When a tiger threatens to eat him, Sam counters, “If you do, it’ll send your cholesterol way up . .  . You could be the first Tiger smart enough to carry an umbrella” (Sam and the Tigers n.p.).  Although both stories are called trickster tales, only Lester’s version has a true trickster character, one who uses his brain to talk the tiger into something different than what he wanted.


Bob Lemmons was something of a wild horse himself, living alone and free. But he was one of the best Mustang-tamers in the west because of his persistence.

In addition to folktales, Lester produced (also with his friend Jerry Pinkney) stories of legendary African-Americans (such as that steel-driving man, John Henry) and of the historical realities of African-Americans.  His historical stories, including Black Cowboy, Wild Horses and The Old African are, like his photographs, not about the famous, the celebrity, the well-known, but about ordinary people who struggled.  Black Cowboy, Wild Horses concerns a former slave who becomes a legendary tamer of mustangs in Texas, Bob Lemmons.  Lemmons was well-known in part because he persisted, and in part because (unlike most mustang-tamers) he worked alone.  Lester’s story embraces this strength and persistence against the odds.  Similarly, in The Old African, the titular character “had learned that enduring was a power too” (46) and because of his patience and endurance, he is able to provide visions and relief for slaves who are brutalized by the plantation owner and by a system that ripped them from their homelands in Africa.  Based on a story from coastal Georgia, Lester manages to combine the historical reality of slavery within the confines of mythical storytelling (the slaves, under the leadership of the Old African, walk into the sea and return to Africa over the bones of their ancestors).  His stories give voice and vision to African-Americans, and salutes their courage and persistence through struggle.  Lester made the ordinary person a hero, and gave those historically neglected a central role in his stories, photographs and songs.  His vision and voice will be greatly missed in children’s literature.


Lester gave voice to the voiceless, and his vision will live on beyond him.

Actively Engaged: Diversity, Activism, and Children’s Books

This week I’ve been visiting the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) in Madison, Wisconsin, to find out more about their work.  The CCBC is a state examination site, which means (among other things) that they get sent review copies of most of the books published for children in the US in any given year (in 2016, this amounted to about 3,400 books).  They keep track of all these books in logs, but they only keep most of them for a limited amount of time (they save award winners and unique books for teacher education and library students to use in their research).  They’ve been doing this since 1963, but that’s not the reason I know about the CCBC. If you aren’t already aware, the CCBC publishes yearly statistics on diversity in children’s book publishing in the US and have done so in some form since 1985.


These shelves hold the fiction that arrived at the CCBC over the last 18 months. Picture books and nonfiction are shelved separately.

In 1985, Ginny Moore Kruse was not only directing the CCBC but serving as a judge for the Coretta Scott King Award.  The Coretta Scott King is awarded annually to the best book written by an African-American, but out of 2500 books published that year, only 18 met the criteria for the award.  Kruse, and the other librarians at the CCBC, began publishing statistics on African-American authored books; in 1994, they expanded to include Latin@, Native American and Asian authors as well as books with major characters from those groups.  These are the statistics you can find on their website (

I learned that the CCBC actually keeps track of much more than these basic statistics.  Each book is logged in for several different attributes, and each category has various sub-categories.  Therefore, while the statistics available on the website give a snapshot of the number of books published about Africans and African-Americans, the CCBC logs will actually indicate the geographic region (if identifiable) or cultural background of major characters—such as Jamaican or Jamaican-American.  This is a massive operation compiled each year by the relatively small staff at the CCBC, and I’m grateful to K. T. Horning, Merri Lindgren, Megan Schliesman and Madeline Tyner, all of whom took the time to explain to me the who, what, when, why and how of the workings of the CCBC.  The statistics they compile have helped to raise awareness in the US about the deficiencies in US publishing for children.  Even though the numbers have increased since the dismal 1985 numbers, they are still incredibly small; the statistics give scholars, writers and activists information that they can (and we all should) use to help put pressure on an industry which has for too long ignored what the US looks like.

In addition to the CCBC, Madison is home to a wonderful independent bookstore called A Room of One’s Own.  They have a wider variety of children’s books than I’ve seen in a long time at an American bookstore, and—at least in terms of what they highlighted and displayed while I was visiting—many of these books are by or about people of color.  Recently, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of books written about activism for (and by) children.  I’m not sure whether this is due to the current political climate or to the historical political climate (Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated fifty years ago this April, not to mention the other uprisings and protests of 1968 around the globe).  Either way, there seems to be a (renewed?) interest in teaching kids, not just about past protests, but about how to become activists themselves—and many of the books that are being published focus on young activists of color.  I’ll just highlight two books that I purchased at A Room of One’s Own to give an idea of what is available for kids.


Bob Bland produced The Little Book of Little Activists after the 2017 Women’s March.

The first is The Little Book of Little Activists (Viking 2017), which was created (it’s not really authored, per se) by Bob Bland, the co-chair of the January 2017 Women’s March on Washington.  Bland, who was nine months pregnant at the time of the march, wanted to create the book to emphasize two things: one, that ordinary people can make a difference (she started it as a Facebook event), and two, as she writes in her introduction,

People from all walks of life joined together in solidarity, many of them engaging in social activism for the first time.  This book seeks to inspire them and others to keep on resisting.  And to remind us all that the future is in the hands of our children, and they are poised and ready for action. (n.p.)

The rest of the book contains photographs of and quotations from young children (some too young to offer quotations or create the signs they were carrying) who participated in the march.  Additionally, a couple of pages define words connected with the march, such as “Equality”.  One of the pages I find most interesting is the one that defines “protest” as “Disrupting the usual flow of things in order to call attention to an injustice and demand that it be changed” (n.p.; bolding in original).  It then goes on to list several types of protests, including boycotts, sit-ins, and walkouts.


The defining of protest types gives young activists different ways to react to injustice.

This caught my eye because the first book I had picked up at A Room of One’s Own, Innosanto Nagara’s The Wedding Portrait (Triangle Square 2017) had a discussion of the types of protest as its very raison d’être.  The subtitle of the book is, “The Story of a Photograph and Why Sometimes we Break the Rules” and it opens with an epigraph from Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience.  After an opening page introducing the photograph of the title, the book continues with a discussion of different types of civil disobedience—beginning with the bus boycotts in the American south in the 1960s.  This discussion struck me particularly because rather than show the expected picture of Rosa Parks, Nagara decided instead to introduce readers to an earlier protester—the 15-year-old Claudette Colvin who, like Parks, refused to move to the back of the bus when police demanded she do so.  Nagara indicates that Colvin was arrested, but also that “In the end, the laws were changed.  This is called CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE.”



Most books that mention the bus boycotts highlight Rosa Parks, but Nagara focuses on the young protester Claudette Colvin.

The book continues through different types of protests (my favorite line is in the section about the Salt March in India, where Nagara writes, “So the people said, ‘Sorry, British Empire, but it’s time for you to go home’”) including a page on Black Lives Matter and their protest against the confederate flag, before finally returning to the original wedding portrait.  It is only then that we learn that they bride and groom were married at a protest, and were handcuffed and arrested.  Like The Little Book of Little Activists, The Wedding Portrait shows protesters of every color.  It also emphasizes what young (and not-so-young) activists need to hear in troubled times: protest does not always lead to change right away, but with enough time and commitment, all people have the power to make a difference.  How you decide to do it is up to you.