This morning I was among many Americans who read word for word, side by side, the beautiful and searing pieces by two of my lit-heroes, author Walter Dean Myers and his son, author-illustrator, Chris Myers. Respectively titled, Where Are the People of Color In Children’s Books? and The Apartheid of Children’s Literature, both pieces speak to the lack of color in the characters children meet in the vast majority of the literature available to them.
Both pieces are really must-reads on their own, because of their powerful storytelling as well as their arguments. Walter Dean Myers recounts his teen years, in which he went from being a voracious reader to dropping out of school and abandoning reading altogether once he discovered he was constantly reading only white characters. That changed when he read “Sonny’s Blues” and met its author, James Baldwin, and was encouraged by a teacher to write stories for a magazine. He eventually found his way toward a life committed to writing books that reflect the humanity and diversity of black people in this country. I can attest to how much his books have spoken to many of my students over the years–bringing them joy and offering occasion to think and share deeply on issues in their lives and communities. (On p. 131 of my recent book, Whole Novels for the Whole Class, I share an example of a discussion of Myers’ The Dream Bearer.)
Chris Myers points out the narrow cast of characters in children’s literature, “in which characters of color are limited to the townships of occasional historical books that concern themselves with legacies of civil rights and slavery but are never given a pass card to traverse the lands of adventure, curiosity, imagination, or personal growth.” He pushes the mirror metaphor–which emphasizes “the sense of self-love that comes from recognizing oneself in a text” (and which I use in my book, too)–a step farther to say that literature creates maps for children, who “are also deciding where they want to go. They create, through the stories they’re given, an atlas of their world, of their relationships to others, of their possible destinations.”
And so, I come away with two thoughts.
1) The Value of Fiction Must Not Be Ignored.
At a time when there’s a dangerous (misinformed) idea mirking about out there that fiction is some kind of fluff that doesn’t prepare kids for “college” and non fiction is what’s valuable when it comes to the written word and bettering our society, I’m struck by a powerful underlying notion that these articles affirm: reading literature is vitally important for young people. Literary works are worth much more than their lexile numbers, their relative weight in complexity, and even the opportunities they present for rigorous analysis. Literature does prepare children for their futures, not only as readers but as people who are striving to understand life’s possibilities and make their own way. Literature, even, can impact a young person’s decision to stay in school, in a country with a nearly 50% high school dropout rate. Despite the clarification that the Common Core standards do not mean that English classes should teach 70% non fiction, the idea is still out there and spreading. Schools are making a shift toward funding and encouraging English classes to focus on non fiction texts, and students are reading fewer literary works as a direct result. That is a huge mistake, one that will have irreversible consequences on many lives.
2) Fiction Writing Cannot Be a White Privilege.
Chris Myers talks about the veiled racism in what publishing companies report that “The Market” demands in terms of books, and their “color.” This issue must be addressed in the publishing world, since 40% of students in schools across America are not white, according to Myers. We need more driven authors like Walter Dean Myers and Chris Myers and many others to get their work out there for our kids.
Now, though, I’m thinking about the implications for educators. So there aren’t enough characters of color in children’s literature? Publishing politics aside, are there enough aspiring authors of color writing for children? Are students of color getting enough opportunity and encouragement to write original stories? Perhaps all students could use more opportunity to write creatively in today’s schools, but in my experience there is a lot more drilling of the basics in urban schools that serve mostly students of color than in schools that serve predominantly white, privileged students. Testing alone helps create this disparity. Test scores mirror socio-economic status, so the focus on test prep is much greater where test scores are low. Schools that serve poor communities of color are under the gun to raise those test scores. Unfortunately, in such contexts, spending time on creative writing is often viewed as an unaffordable luxury. Of course, these conditions for students and teachers only exacerbate the gap in quality education and “achievement.”
I’ve always been a rebel when it comes to carving out time for my students to write fiction (working in both high need urban schools, serving 100% students of color, with pressure to raise test scores, and in my current racially and economically diverse school, with about 50% of students qualifying free or reduced lunch). I’ve discovered that giving my students the opportunity to write fiction is not only empowering and motivating on a personal level, it has several academic advantages.
- Students get to develop their writing voices. In fiction, the writer is instantly the authority on the story he or she is telling, which is not as clearly true in a lot of non fiction writing. Writing fiction and narrative is how I developed my writing voice as a child. Now I write almost exclusively non fiction, and the skill does translate. My students, too, start the year writing lackluster essays, generally devoid of style and voice. One of my biggest sources of pride is seeing how my students grow after several cycles of fiction writing and essay writing (we do both in every unit). Around March, I notice they are now applying their own voices and styles in their essay writing. The result is not only better, but SO much more interesting to read!
- By writing fiction, especially when it is connected to the literature they are reading, students gain an understanding of the role of “author” in the texts they read. Concepts like “author’s purpose” or “author’s craft,” both emphasized in Common Core Language Standards, don’t really make a lot of sense to young people unless they have some first hand experience making decisions that authors make. [For short exercises that help students accomplish this, check out “Rewriting the World of the Novel” on pages 165-170 in Whole Novels for the Whole Class]. Exercises that allow students to “play author” make this concept more concrete, and open up doors for them to critique authors’ choices that were too abstract to understand before.
Am I suggesting that English teachers take more time in their classes to let students explore the power of fiction writing? Yes, I am. Do I believe this can help students achieve more academically, even if that takes a leap of faith on the part of a teacher or administrator? Yes! Does this experience also give students opportunities to explore their identities, relationships, struggles and dreams through writing? That too. And I am also convinced that a major part of solving the problem of too few characters of color in children’s literature is to stop denying our students, especially our students of color, the opportunity to write creatively in school and develop their own dreams of becoming authors.