Beyond a Snowy Day: Out-of-Print African-American Children’s Book Classics
Recently Slate decided to create a “pop-up blog” of sorts with a concentration on children’s literature. They’ve called it nightlight. A good name. We would have also accepted “flashlight under the sheets”. In any case, I was initially worried that this would be another case of writers who have just found themselves to be parents writing the same articles we’ve seen a million times before about the usual. And while their writers aren’t children’s literature experts, they’ve surprised me with the quality of their pieces. There was one defending Anne Carroll Moore in a very balanced manner, one on branded children’s books, and one on the rise of LGBTQ stories for families. Yet the one getting the most attention so far is We Don’t Only Need Diverse Books. We Need More Diverse Books Like the Snowy Day.
Professor Ebony Elizabeth Thomas was the person who raised some concerns about the piece in a series of posts the fell under the title Should *The Snowy Day* Be the Example for Diverse Children’s Books?
In the piece Ms. Thomas discusses something that’s always sort of struck me as difficult when we discuss the Keats classic. A classic that I should say I adore, mind you. But consider a situation I encountered about a year and a half ago. From December 10, 2014 through February 7, 2015, the Grolier Club hosted the exhibit One Hundred Books Famous in Children’s Literature. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Collectors from all over the country donated their most precious pieces, bringing together titles never seen together before (and probably never to be seen again). I was floored by some of the offerings. It was only as I looked through them that I began to get a nagging sensation that it was awfully awfully awfully white. In fact, the sole dark face I saw (aside from Uncle Remus on a cover) was Peter’s on The Snowy Day. Coward that I am, I didn’t bring this up at the time. Had I, I suspect the answer would have been similar to the justification given for the inclusion of Harry Potter. Mainly, that the exhibit was only covering “books famous”. And after all, how many diverse children’s books are overwhelmingly famous?
Well . . . quite a few, but let’s first consider why it is that The Snowy Day was included. It was a groundbreaking work during its day (and if you haven’t read the K.T. Horning story of its history or heard about Andrea Davis Pinkney’s upcoming and eerily lovely bio of Keats A Poem for Peter then do so now). Often I hear people say that it was the “first” picture book featuring a black protagonist on the cover. Or that it was the “first” picture book where the color of his skin was incidental. I am not a scholar in the field, but this sounds sketchy to me. Let us consider something else that Ebony Elizabeth wrote in that recent post:
“Where has the mainstream media covered Black authors & illustrators of books for children published in the 60s & 70s that are out of print?”
That got to me. She’s dead right. Because Keats was wonderful but he was by no means the only guy making books about African-Americans out there. A lot of Black authors and illustrators books were out there at the time (paging Langston Hughes). Consider the 2014 Walter Dean Myers article in the New York Times Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? Actually, no. Scratch that. Go back further. Look at the 1986 Walter Dean Myers article in the New York Times I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry. He writes:
“By the end of the 60’s the publishing industry was talking seriously about the need for books for blacks. Publishers quickly signed up books on Africa, city living and black heroes. Most were written by white writers. In 1966 a group of concerned writers, teachers, editors, illustrators and parents formed what was to be called the Council on Interracial Books for Children. The council demanded that the publishing industry publish more material by black authors. The industry claimed that there were simply no black authors interested in writing for children. To counter this claim the council sponsored a contest, offering a prize of $500, for black writers. The response was overwhelming . . .
. . . In 1974 there were more than 900 children’s books in print on the black experience. This is a small number of books considering that more than 2,000 children’s books are published annually. But by 1984 this number was cut in half. For every 100 books published this year there will be one published on the black experience.”
Now let’s double back to Ebony Elizabeth’s question. I repeat, “Where has the mainstream media covered Black authors & illustrators of books for children published in the 60s & 70s that are out of print?”
Well, shoot. I’m mainstream media, right? And out-of-print titles are a delight to me. And yet I have never seriously considered just how many Black penned and illustrated children’s books have disappeared from the public consciousness.
Here’s something else I realized. There are publishers out there that reprint out-of-print titles. Folks like New York Review of Books and Phaidon and such. Yet even in the era of We Need Diverse Books, not a single publisher has ever created an imprint specifically designed to reprint classic and older multicultural children’s literature. Correct me if I’m wrong about this. I’d love to be wrong. But at this moment in time, I haven’t seen a publisher fully commit. Which is to say, there is a gap in the marketplace.
Today then, let’s conjure up a list. Since we began with The Snowy Day, let’s limit it today to picture books by and about African-Americans. I want you to tell me your favorite out-of-print titles. The stipulation is that they have to have been published by a major publisher, they have to feature Black characters, and they have to have been written and/or illustrated by someone African-American. To do this list properly I wish I still had access to New York Public Library’s lists of The Black Experience in Children’s Books dating back decades. In lieu of that, I’ll just start with my own personal favorites.
Here are the books that should be reprinted and reprinted right now.
Baby Says by John Steptoe
I’m beginning with the most egregious of the errors. There are a lot of out-of-print Steptoe books to choose from, but this is the one that’s the weirdest. I mean, Harper Collins itself basically acknowledged that this book was a classic when they included it in their Harper Collins Treasury of Picture Books Classics (<—see? In the title and everything!) That book contains everything from Goodnight Moon and Harold and the Purple Crayon to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie and, you guessed it, Baby Says. So I decided to do some checking. Are any of the other stories in this book out-of-print? Yes. One other – George Shrinks. Be that as it may be, I’d argue that Steptoe’s book is board book perfection. My son, who is two, specifically asks for the “baby book” in that collection and I have read it over and over and over again. So what exactly is going on here? Why is it out-of-print?
My Aunt Came Back by Pat Cummings
This one also makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in fury. A brilliant book. A fun, catchy, magnificent board book that’s so colorful and delightful that you’ll be happy to read it over and over again. So why exactly is it out of print? Again it’s a Harper Collins title. So, uh, hey, HC. You guys are big. You have a back catalog that’s immense and impressive. Why not start that out-of-print diverse imprint I was just talking about? You clearly have the stock.
The Everett Anderson book series
Had to do some research on this one. As it happens, Everett Anderson’s Goodbye is still in print, but all the other books in the series are long gone. Why? I used to get parents and teachers in my library asking for the other books in the series. Particularly One of the Problems of Everett Anderson which discusses the incredibly difficult topic of what to do when you’re a kid and one of your friends at school is being abused at home. And after all, if you can find another book that covers the same topic with half the skill, all power to you. Until then, reprint these books. Re-illustrate them even, if you like. I wouldn’t mind, as long as the text was available again.
Blast Off by Linda C. Cain and Susan Rosenbaum,
ill. Leo and Diane Dillon
I’ve written about this one before and admittedly I haven’t read it myself. However, it looks beautiful and features an African-American girl dreaming of becoming an astronaut.
And from my readers, here are some picture books they’d like to see . . .
Don’t You Remember written by Lucille Clifton, ill. by Evaline Ness
Cosmo and the Robot by Brian Pinkney
Hush, Little Baby by Brian Pinkney
Snow on Snow on Snow illustrated by Cheryl Chapman, ill. Synthia St. James
This is just to start. Your turn now. Which titles would you add to this list? Tell me and I’ll do my best to add them.
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network