Voicing Black Lives

I enjoy reading biographical picture books. When they’re well done, the interplay between the words and images really enliven the story. The picture books focus on a particular aspect of the life making success possible for young readers. Biographies specifically for young adults are rare, but when they exit they usually incorporate photographic evidences to document the history of someone’s life.

I’ll continue revieiwing biographies of Black women as we morph into Women’s History Month because Women’s History Month is Black Women’s history month, too.

Reflecting on some of the bios I’ve seen, I can’t help but think of all the bios I’ve not seen. Looking over biographies shared in the the past month, the biographies of African Americans continues to deliver a carefully curated, conservative collection. The lives of revolutionaries and black nationalists are rarely documented for young readers, re-enforcing the myth of a monolithic community. There are never enough biographies of women. Sure, we hear about Malcolm X more than we used to but what about Sonia Sonchez, Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver, Marcus Garvey, Septima Clark, Martin Delany, Marian Wright Edelman, Dorothy Height or David Walker? As society focuses more on the contributions of young people, we continue to get biographies of jazz musicians and civil rights leaders rather than Hydeia Broadbent, Kya Allums , Samuel Sinyangwe and Trayvon Martin. Writing stories gives validation to their efforts, their causes and their identities. Imagine a teen in Chicago reading a book that walks a teen through the murder of Trayvon Martin and how that became the birth of a movement. Or a youngster in Miami witnessing on paper the purposeful and prideful life of RuPaul. There is neither shyness there nor hesitation there. The socio political climate changes and a sad but necessary truth is that sometimes a book with someone else’s story is all we have to cling to.

Little known black history fact: there were and there are and there will be accomplished African Americans who are disabled and who are lesbian, gay or transgendered. And, their existence should be documented. Erasing them from our history lessens us all.

When you read about Harriet Tubman, how often do you read that she had epilepsy? When is the last time you saw a book about Wilma Rudolph? Did you know that Harry Belafonte, a constant presence in the civil rights movement, had dyslexia? Where is the story of Johnnie Lacy, a leader in the independent living movement and leader for disabled Black women? There are books for young readers on Langston Hughes (that never mention his sexual orientation) but what about James Baldwin? Alice Walker? Audre Lorde? Alvin Ailey? E. Lynn Harris? Bruce Negent? Pat Parker?

Let’s not stop there! Young people have got to know about Afro Latinxs Celia Cruz, Minni Minoso, Roberto Clemente, Pura Belpré and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. And there’s mixed race African Americans such as directors Albert and Allen Hughes, twins of Armenian and African American descent; Bob Marley, August Wilson, Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Jeter.

I’d like to see more biographies told as photographic essays and graphic novels.

For the past 27 days, I would like to think you’ve been surrounded by articles, images and stories of African Americans that were once again taken from the shelf and dusted off. Who else would you like to see in a biography for children and/or teens that speaks to the complexity and diversity of being Black in American today?

What I personally want, what I really want is a RuPaul biography for teens.

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Biographies: Black Men in Picture books

img_4019Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas by Gwendolyn Hooks and Colin Bootman (Lee and Low; 2016)
Tiny Stitches is as much a history of modern medicine as it is a children’s biography of Vivien Thomas. The book revisits a time when someone could become a respected practitioner of medicine based upon their skills and abilities rather than their education. Vivien Thomas was a self taught African American surgeon who developed open heart surgery for children in 1969 but was not recognized for this work because of the color of his skin until 1971. Hooks’ writing captures the grace and poise with which Thomas must have conducted his life.
“Vivian remained standing behind Dr. Blalock, coaching him through more than one hundred and fifty operations.”

Jimi Sounds Like A Rainbow: A Story of the Young Jimi Hendrix by Gary Golio and Javaka img_4018Steptoe; Clarion Books 2010
Gary Golio creates a collage with textual snippets of Jimi Hendrix’ life in a cohesive fashion much the same way that Javaka Steptoe pastes together images in the book. Hendrix heard color and innovated sound. He seemed to have such a passion for art that it underscored his belief in himself.
“Don’t let nobody turn you off from your own thoughts and dreams.”

Martin de Porres: The Rose in the Desert by Gary Schmidt and David img_4016-1Diaz; Clarion Books, 2012
David Diaz’s jewel toned artwork give a richness to this story of Martin de Porres, a young man who was an outcast in Peru because of his parentage, poverty and mixed raced heritage. This is a story of Martin recognizing and nurturing his spiritual gifts and how he humbly shared them with others. This literally led to society accepting him. This is a story for readers who believe in the goodness in us all.
“After thirteen years, every soul in Lima knew who Martin was: Not a mongrel. Not the son of a slave. ‘He is a rose in the desert,’ they said.’’

Step Right Up: How Doc and Jim Key Taught the World About Kindness by Donna Janell img_4014Bowman and Daniel Minter; Lee & Low Books, 2016
William “Doc” Key is one of the few black men in these biographies I hadn’t heard of before. His story reminds us that what we leave behind isn’t about how famous we become, but about the model we set for others.
‘“Doc” was born into slavery but was owned by people who taught him how to read. “Doc” eventually taught his horse, Jim Key, how to read. Together, they traveled the country entertaining people and often delivering messages about equality. The author provides a wealth of material to document this story.
“‘The whip makes horses stubborn and they obey through fear,’ Doc explained. ‘Kindness, kindness, and more kindness, that’s the way.’

Henry Aaron’s Dream by Matt Tavares; Candlewick Press 2010
It can be easy to read about Jackie Robinson, hear about the records he set after breaking img_4013the color barrier in professional baseball and think segregation, particularly in baseball ended. But, it hadn’t. The Negro League continued, athletes of color were still called out of their name (as were people of color in general) and facilities particularly in southern towns remained segregated. Young black boys living in this oppressive society watched Robinson closely, particularly a young boy name Henry Aaron who dreamt of being a professional baseball player like Robinson. Biographies often remind us of the importance of having a good support network, but they seldom remind readers of the importance of having a hero. Sometimes, we need to see people who look like us who are successfully doing the thing we most want to do. Henry Aaron, who became one of the greatest baseball players of all time, dreamt about being like his hero, Jackie Robinson.
“On April 15, 1947 when Henry was thirteen,
Jackie Robinson played his first game
for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Finally, there was a black ballplayer
in the big leagues.
Henry’s whole life changed.”

Biographies: Black Men

img_3983Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of young John Lewis by Jabari Asim and E. B. Lewis. (Nancy Paulsen Books; 2016)
I remember reading about John Lewis adopting his family’s chickens as his congregation when he was a child. Asim details this time in Lewis’ life as a character building activity. The muted water color illustrations take us to dusty, hard working times of days gone by.
“Trusting God was easy. Work was a harder bargain.”

Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History by Walter Dean Myers and Floyd Cooper; Harper, 2017
img_3979Walter Dean Myers use the theme of ‘voice’ to develop the story of Frederick Douglass. Myers gets to the core of Douglass’ humanity by examining his desire to read. Artist Floyd Cooper uses sepia shading throughout this book. The faces expressions are filled with emotion, bringing life to the story. I think the full color background of the pages with light (and sometimes white) text could be problematic for readers with visual disabilities.
Douglass believed that by reading, he could speak and enunciate clearly. After grasping his own freedom, Douglass became a speaker and an author who opposed slavery.
“His voice, born in the soft tones of the slave population, truly became a lion’s roar.”

Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Capture Black and White America by Carole img_3981Boston Weatherford and Jamey Christoph; Albert Whitman & Co; 2015
Weatherford writes about Parks’ career as a photographer for social justice. In this book, young readers get a sense of how a person can build a career around something in which they believe through the example of one of America’s greatest photographs. Her About page fills in the details of the story presented. Original photos document some of the images in the book however, there are no source notes. The books would be perfect for independent reading by elementary students.
“Yet, she dares to dream of – and strive for – better. Through Gordon’s lens, her struggle gained a voice. You don’t have to hear her story to know her prayer.”

Duke Ellington by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Brian Pinkney; Hyperion Books 1998
img_3976Davis uses language to take us to a time when swing was the thing and Edward Kennedy Ellington was the Duke. Brian Pinkney’s etchings swirl rhythmic movement into the dancer, the musicians and their instruments. It’s hard to believe someone who resented practicing the piano could rise to fame so quickly, but Ellington did. The Pinkney’s present a light, fun approach to a gifted musician.
“For all those homebodies out in radio-lovers’ land- folks who only dreamed of sitting pretty at the Cotton- the show helped them feel like they were out on the town. Duke’s Creole Love Call was spicier than a pot of jambalaya. His Mood Indigo was a musical stream that swelled over the airwaves.”

CCBC Data Dive

In 2015 Nielsen released Increasingly Affluent, Educated and Diverse a report that focused on the increase buying power of African Americans earning >$60k/annually. The information on this group, which is growing at a rate faster than white counterparts would be seen as specifically relevant to businesses and industries hoping to increase profit margins. The report noted the increased diversity of Blacks in stating that 1 in every 11 were immigrants (They did not report data indicating how diverse this group is in terms of disabilities, religion or sexual orientation.) With a median average age of 31.4 yars and increased college enrollment rates it’s obvious that this group would have an increased proclivity for media consumption. (To me, media means sources of information.)

Bookstores are reported as the third highest basket ring for Blacks. “These households also exceed the basket ring of non-Hispanic Whites in department stores, toy stores, book stores, auto stores and dollar stores.”

Book Reading 2016 was a study indicating reading habits among adults. The only racial component of the report related that 69% of Blacks had read a book in any format in the past year. More women read than men and the percent of books read increased both with educational attainment and earned income.

Remember, Nielsen reported significantly growing numbers of Blacks in these categories.

While I can find data that indicates what format children and teens prefer to read and the increase in overall purchasing of teen books, I cannot find a socio-economic breakdown for children’s book sales. I believe the information is available behind a paywall and is probably in Nielsen 2016 Children’s Book Business Review.

There are lists out there of best selling children’s books in 2016, 2015 or of all times, but I classify them as unreliable sources of information until I know how this data is gathered. What is the source of the books sales? If a librarian orders a set of books from Baker and Taylor, are those counted toward book sales? Are all books stores and book jobbers counted, or is this list based upon an industry average? I mention these lists (in passing) because I’m not seen one list that mentions a book written by a person of color or a Native American. So, I ask how are these numbers obtained?

The best information I could get on multicultural books sales was a statement printed in Publishers Weekly.

Courtney Jones, v-p of multicultural growth and strategy at Nielsen, shared insights on the growth of multicultural consumers that puts very real data behind the cry for more diverse books. Jones showed that the largest sector of population growth in the U.S. is coming from the Hispanic communities, and she showed figures demonstrating a large growth in purchasing power among African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American communities. Perhaps most telling in the shift in demographics was the statistic Jones shared that today’s children under the age of nine are split demographically 50/50 between multicultural and white.

Jones also pointed to popular properties, in particular Doc McStuffins, which features an African-American protagonist, and is demonstrating resonance across all groups. Doc McStuffins is most popular among Asian-American children, but is highly popular among non-Hispanic whites, African-American, and Hispanic groups as well. Jones added, “If you create content that speaks to [specific] cultural segments,” the data shows that “it is resonating across all races and ethnicities.” Furthermore, Doc McStuffins, a female character, also has strong appeal for boys.

source: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-industry-news/article/68083-nielsen-summit-shows-the-data-behind-the-children-s-book-boom.html

All this makes me wonder why the figures released today by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center indicate little to no growth in book by or about Native Americans or people of color and more specifically, it makes me question the decreasing number of books by African Americans and Latinx. And, why are only 1/3 of the books that feature African Americans written by them? The above data documents bountiful economics resources as well as strong book related spending habits, so what data are we not seeing?

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Honestly, the data is no better with regards to #ownvoices when we look at Asian Americans or Native Americans. (What do you think the numbers would look like for LGBT+ or disabled people?) My interpretation of the data is continued colonization of children’s literature where marginalized people are not free to tell their own stories.

Maya Gonazalez and Janine Macbeth, I think you’re on the right track.

 

 

 

 

 

Biography: Mahalia A Life In Gospel Music

210GV1V3G6L._AC_US160_.jpgtitle: Mahalia A Life in Gospel Music
author: Roxane Orgill
date: Candlewick, 2002

Roxane Orgill began her writing career as a music critic and she eventually transformed to an author of children’s and young adult biographies, often of those of African American musicians. Her knowledge of music history is definitely present in Mahalia A Life In Gospel Music.

Mahalia Jackson was a gospel singer who was born into one of the last generations of African Americans missing papers to document the year of their birth. Orgill presents this fact, as well as the optional nature of education to Halie’s family simply as the way things were. The author uses comfortably structured sentences and phrases to tell Halie’s story while guiding us into her world. This world, this narrative structure maintains a flow and polish that must in someway reflect Halie’s life. This is a book for young readers, a book meant to teach and motivate, but one does leave the book wondering exactly what kind of person was Halie? Her deep faith is evidenced throughout the book, but what struggles did she face along the way? She was steadfast in her conviction to only sing gospel music, yet she was put out of her aunt’s home in New Orleans after a late night party. I think there’s room for more of Halie’s humanness in the story.

Black and white photos are well placed in the book, with images from the time period used when there were none from Halie’s collection. Supporting characters, relatives and ex-husbands are developed clearly enough to be memorable, making for a good story. I particularly liked having the author’s note upfront, setting the stage for the evidence of the life that is about to be presented.

Ogrill focuses more on Halie’s talent, a voice so rich and blessed that her singing was viewed as preaching. Orgill contextualizes Halie’s emotion filled voice in the history of religious music in America and the contributions that Halie made to the development of gospel music. Is it not difficult to image a time when gospel music was played on the radio along side popular music? Halie sold millions of records through radio airtime in the early 1960s, a time when successful African Americans could not divorce themselves from the tempestuous political climate. Halie, who grew up in the South and knew the limits of living in a segregated society and could not turn her back when she was called to sing when Dr. King preached.

Halie’s biography provides young readers the opportunity to read the life of a woman who was truly a revolutionary; one who had the conviction to work to change music and to change America. #ShePersisted, this woman with a fourth grade education.

Sunday Morning Reads

Perhaps today’s post is going to be an uncomfortable one, but in opening up conversations about money and finances with my friends and family, I’ve found a mutually beneficial exchange of ideas. Discomfort is a sign of growth.

We usually think of money and finances when we think of economics, but this science is actually the study of decision making. Money and finances often influences our decisions, don’t they? It has for me!

At the end of last year I was fortunate enough to be invited to make several presentations. While may of the organizations that invited me to present were able to provide me with a small stipend, I never had all my expenses covered and as a result, I’ll be paying off credit cards for the next couple of months. Sure, I could have said ‘no’ but, what would have been the cost of doing that? As a pre-tenure faculty member, these opportunities to grow the perception of me as an expert in my field are critical.

I wish I could wholeheartedly say my message was critical, too. I think I refrain from saying that not because I think I’m a completely ineffective speaker but, because I think I’ve strayed from my message. This blog has been the core of my platform and it is where I work to promote Native Americans, authors of color and their works. It’s also where I promote literacy for marginalized teens. White authors are not my focus. Sure, I’ll occasionally do a critical review of something written by other authors, but there has consistently been so little attention given to marginalized authors that I want to keep that focus.

I can’t say I have an audience in mind when I write. I can remember after a couple of years of blogging, I was surprised to get responses from teens when I reviewed books they were reading. And, I’m even more surprised when faculty members tell me they use this blog in their classes. I realize I have a variety of readers and the best thing I can do for them all is to stay focused and to stay true.

I’ve declined several opportunities already this year because I don’t want to talk to white authors about what they can and should write. From my perspective, white authors who embrace decolonization will work to insure opportunities for WOC/NA but those lost in the marketing concept of diversity will be stuck trying to understand how to write The Other.

I have to admit that finances did play a role in leading me realize that I too was caught up on the marketing of diversity. I hae to admit that finances played a huge role in bringing me to this awareness.

Which leads me to the presentations and conferences.

I recently posted on FB about the high cost associated with a conference at which I’ll be presenting later this year ($299 registration fee). This is an ALA affiliate conference. Friends, librarians like to conference! The American Library Association (ALA) has two conferences each year. Each of their divisions has a conference every year or two as do the ethnic caucuses.  These caucuses come together to hold a joint conference every 5 years. There are also state and regional library conferences. Librarians also find ourselves at literacy and reading conferences at the national, state and local levels, children’s literacy conferences and even education related conferences. I attended ALA MidWinter in January and spent over $1000 for travel, registration and lodging )for that one event. Librarians are not particularly well paid professionals.

But I digress! I posted about the high cost of an upcoming conference and generated a rather robust conversation on FB among librarians, academics and authors who are caught in this money pit. We need the conferences because they allow for exchange of information, networking (which is not the same as online networking), committee meetings, validation and rejuvenation. And conferences allow those of us in the hinterland to connect with a NYC focused industry. But at what cost? There are numerous externalities to conference attendance, but money remains a major opportunity cost.

Some authors are sponsored by their publishers and some librarians are sponsoring by their libraries. Public and academic librarians often have a pool of money that is shared among all librarians. School librarians! School librarians have to worry about release time, finding substitutes and getting financial support.

Self-published authors, who really need to be in the conference where it happens, are among those who can least afford these opportunities. Publishers use conferences as a marketing tool and rather than purchasing ad space in major media outlets, they rely heavily on the use the panels and exhibition halls to advertise their goods.

They also rely upon book reviews which have systematically excluded self-published authors. Thanks goodness Zara Rix (zaralrix@gmail.com ) at Booklist is trying to open doors for inde presses and authors by reviewing their books for Booklist.

As a result of these costs people who are much better at it than me find themselves strategically selecting where to make their investment. When does attending one more conference make a difference? How do we measure the return on our investment?  Are the organizations who sponsor these events working to promote our profession? I have to say too many kidlit related conferences seem more concerned about promoting books and authors than addressing issues relating to librarianship, the art and science of literature or to literacy. It’s incumbent upon us to see beyond the conference and examine the mission and actions of the association behind the event. Find out how well organized the events are and determine how well they align with our purpose. Not all kidlit conferences are the same; some are just too White [exclusive in nature] for me. Yesterday, I read Tweets from a participant at an annual writer’s conference who painfully and critically examined the ways participation by people with disabilities was marginalized by poorly planned accommodations. We will not continue to show up if we are not made to feel welcome.

I love that I’m in a profession that pushes me to learning and evolving. I just have to work to keep finding ways that allow me optimal opportunities to do so.

Black History Month 2017: Biographies

Roll out Black History Monday and roll out the biographies. This month is always filled with lives of the successful, accomplished and little known African American heroes and sheroes who contributed to the improvement of life in American. While these individuals have overcome most obstacles in front of them, they’re often unable to clear the hurdles that would allow them to be part of mainstream American history. Black History is too often seen as tangential to American history.

The lives of those who have gone before us are important, particularly for young people who are learning to maneuver their way in the world. By their example, those who have Screen Shot 2017-02-03 at 4.55.23 PM.pngsuccessfully overcome odds give us all a belief in the possibilities of life as well as a road map for getting there.

While entire libraries could be filled with biographies, finding those that truly inspire readers can be a challenge. I’ve spent the past few days searching my library’s collection of children’s biographies and wanted to dig in and update, deselect and read!! So many of the books in that collection, particularly those written for 9-12 year olds were clearly written to accommodate school research. The books are fact laden with little effort to inspire and engage readers. You know those books: the ones that are often part of a set, written by someone who has 4 books coming out on one year and the others are about World War II, dolphins and the inner workings of cell phones. Or, they have bobble heads on the cover. Those books will not be considered this month.

Carol Jones Collins prescribes the following for biographies.

“Black biography should reflect the author’s vision. It should reveal the many selves of the subject and tell the reader how the subject came to be the person he or she became. It should not merely chronicle a life, displaying the dry facts of a person’s life, but should explain that life, but should explain that life. It should engage itself deeply in the emotional life of the subject. As for the biographer, he or she should not be afraid to display emotion or passion, for this is what separates good biography from bad biography. Vision, passion, regard for the subject, lively prose, and a willingness to seek beneath the surface are all qualities of good black biography.”

Don Tate, well known children’s illustrator has also grown into an accomplished author of children’s biographies. He provides the following advice for writing biographies, advice that will provides much complexity in its simplicity.

“There is no formula for finding the right person or subject to write about. My advice would be the same whether an author chose to write about their own culture or cross-cultural: Do your research and find a subject who excites and inspires you. Your story will absorb the enthusiasm.” source

I think particular challenging to African American biography for young readers is to not be lost in the subject’s deficiencies, not to wallow in how much they’ve had to overcome. This would be as likely to reinforce deficit thinking as well as it would reinforce the myth of the ‘Super Negro’: that extraordinary individual is able to overcome all odds. In the hands of those who have mastered the biography, people like Tonya Bolden, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Carole Boston Weatherford, Phillip Hoose and Larry Dane Brimmer the lives will be extensively research and narratives constructed in ways that display the lives of fully actualized people. Collins goes on to describe the noteworthy techniques employed by Lerone Bennett (What Manner of Man) James Haskins (James Van DeZee:The Picture Takin’ Man), Walter Dean Myers (Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary), Elaine Feinstein (Bessie Smith), Mary Lyons (Sorrow’s Kitchen the Life and Folklore of Zora Neale Hurston) and Virginia Hamilton (Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave; W.E.B. DuBois: A Biography; Paul Robeson: The Life and Times of a Free Black Man).

There are reasons why we pull out the biographies in Black History Month. African American biographies allow us to dig deep into the lives of successful African Americans. The lives of these individuals are contextualized in eras and locations of what America once was and remind us what we can grow into becoming. Their stories are often germinate in tiny towns other than New York City and connect to many on a geographic level such as Michael Jackson in Gary, IN or Adam Clayton Powell in New Haven, CT. Others relate to the hopes of and dreams built upon a skill or passion.  Think of Michael Jordan, Romare Beardan or Leontyne Price. They give the African American child a place where they can stand on the shoulders of those who have come before and it provides them a reason to put their should back and hold their heads high. Can they not do this for white, Asian, Native American or Latinx children? These biographies can also provide honor and praise to someone who was unable to obtain it during their lifetime. I think of Bayard Rustin. Marian Anderson. Claudette Colvin.

Over the balance of this month, let’s explore African American biographies for children and young adults. Of course there will be reviews, but let’s also discuss the limits and possibilities of these books. They’re a very important part of African American history. We are all an important part of African American history.

Collins, Carol Jones. (1994) “African American Young Adult Biography: In Search of the Self” in African American Voices in Young Adult Literature edited by Karen Patricia Smith.