Where Are All the Black Boys? A 2017 Assessment and Comparison
Recently I had a chance to see an upcoming jacket for a 2018 middle grade novel. Check it out:
If the name “Varian Johnson” is ringing a bell, it may be because of this cover a couple years ago:
His 2018 book, The Parker Inheritance, is billed as having distinct similarities to The Westing Game (and if your mouth suddenly started to salivate after hearing that, I can’t even blame you). The Great Greene Heist, of course, is more in the vein of Ocean’s 11. Now The Parker Inheritance stars a girl with a boy sidekick, but The Great Greene Heist starred a boy protagonist. That got me thinking about black boys as heroes in middle grade books. It’s not the first time I’ve thought along these lines.
On May 10, 2013 I wrote a piece on this blog called 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People? In it I made a count of all the middle grade books I could find with African-American boys as the heroes. I came up with five. Later, on March 15, 2014 Walter Dean Myers wrote the seminal New York Times article Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books? which I think a lot of people would agree was the spark that lit the match that would become the We Need Diverse Books movement. In his piece he didn’t specifically address this lack of male boy protagonists (a genre he perfected until his death) but it was definitely folded into the larger problems at hand.
More than four years have passed since I wrote my piece. In that time there have been many discussions about the difficulties that surround anyone’s attempts to keep an accurate count of diverse materials being published in a given year. Even the CCBC can only keep track of what they’re sent. With all this in mind, I decided that I might as well do what I did back in 2013. I’d look at everything I’d been sent in the current year and see how many books seemed to feature black male characters as leads.
Why boys? Why not girls? Well, to be perfectly frank, if I were to make a conservative estimate, I’d say that black girl protagonists outnumber boys 3:1. We’re all familiar with the great work of 12-year-old Marley Dias who has worked tirelessly on her #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign. But this year, like every year, black female protagonists are far easier to find on our nation’s shelves. I won’t speculate as to why black boys are difficult to locate as the heroes of books. I’m just going to list the books I was able to find.
Please note that this list is NOT complete. I haven’t studiously been keeping track from the beginning of the year onward, so this is just what I’ve been sent. I know that there may be some popular series sequels that I’ve missed, for example. If you can think of ANY 2017 books that I haven’t listed where the main character (not the friend or sidekick, though I will allow for ensemble pieces) is black and male please tell me in the comments and I’ll add them here.
Armstrong and Charlie by Steven B. Frank
Better Off UnDead by James Preller
Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
A Crack in the Sea by H.M. Bouwman
The Great Shelby Holmes Meets Her Match
(I have been informed that in spite of the fact that Shelby’s name is in the title and she is most prominently displayed on all the book jackets, the true hero of the series is John, the kid seen here hiding behind a book. I very specifically stated that I didn’t want sidekicks, but two of my commenters have informed me that John is the actual hero of the series and not Shelby, so I’m taking their word on this.)
Jake the Fake Keeps It Real by Craig Robinson & Adam Mansback, ill. Keith Knight
One Mixed-Up Night by Catherine Newman
One Shadow on the Wall by Leah Henderson
Pottymouth and Stoopid by James Patterson
Rooting for Rafael Rosales by Kurtis Scaletta
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore
Tournament of Champions (A Rip and Red Book) by Phil Bildner, ill. Tim Probert
A couple notes. When I made this list four years ago I was able to produce only five books, and three of those were by celebrity sports stars. This year, knowing full well that this isn’t a complete list, I see twelve books, none of which are written by celebrities. I see no works of historical fiction, the first Wimpy Kid-esque book I’ve ever seen about a person of color, and everything from realistic fiction to fantasy to a kind of science fiction. This list is egregiously small compared to the number of middle grade books published yearly, so while we can celebrate that some change has happened, there is a lot more to be done.
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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.
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