Judy Allen Dodson remembers reading The Magic Tree House series to her seven-year-old son when he asked, “Mommy, how come I don’t see me? Any children that look like me in there?” “
And I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to write you that story’,” Dodson said.
This August, more than a decade later, she plans to submit the completed manuscript of her kids chapter book, "Micah’s Magic," to publishers. It’s about a black boy named Micah who time travels with his friends to 1930s Chicago, where they meet the first all-black professional basketball team.
“My children are avid readers,” said Dodson, who juggled work on the book with her job as a librarian in Raleigh, and raising her two kids, now 19 and 21. “But they don’t see themselves. And that...that works on your psyche...your spirit!”
Just a quarter of approximately 3,700 children’s books published in the U.S. and Canada last year feature non-white characters, according to a report from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But only half of American kids are white.
“For all children, whether that be children of color, whether that be children who may have a disability, they just want to feel normal, and see themselves,” said Dodson.
This October, Dodson is co-hosting a symposium for children’s authors and illustrators of color at North Carolina Central University. The group will meet with educators and librarians and discuss why diversity matters – not just in characters, but among writers and illustrators, too. That’s because authenticity is equally as important as inclusion, said Raleigh children’s author Kelly Starling Lyons.
“You’ll see more books that have a brown face in a crowd or even, a brown child on the cover,” said Lyons, a co-host of the symposium. “But then when you look and you see who wrote the book or [ask], ‘Is there any cultural authenticity to the story?’, then sometimes that’s lacking.”
Lyons called it “coloring in brown.” She said it sends the wrong message that anyone can tell stories about people of color: that it doesn’t have to be writers and illustrators of color, who can tell their own stories with nuance and cultural understanding.
“Where it’s just somebody who’s brown on the surface, but there’s no connection to where they come from or what they value or who they are,” Lyons said.
Lack Of Representation In Books, And Among Those Who Publish Them
Minority authors penned just fifteen percent of children’s literature published last year, according to the UW-Madison report.
“People of color are writing, but people of color are not getting published as much as they should be getting published,” said Pauletta Brown Bracy, a scholar of children’s literature at NC Central University.
Bracy said minority authors hit stumbling blocks in the publishing industry, a business in which four out of five employees are white, according to a 2015 survey of more than 30 American publishing houses.
“That poses a conflict sometimes for people of color who are working with white editors who don’t have the same level of appreciation for the culture,” said Bracy, who has chaired the jury of the Coretta Scott King Award, the most prestigious honor for black children’s book creators.
Bracy said change needs to come from the industry side. Lyons said it has to come from the parent side, too.
“Judy [Dodson] and I are moms first. If we want to have those books for our kids, we can’t just leave it to the publishers,” she said. “We also have to be advocates and activists. And it doesn’t have to be holding a picket sign, per se, it can be little things. Your dollar speaks really loudly.”
Raleigh parent Kia Byrd has lived this sentiment. As her 7-year-old daughter browsed the children’s section at a southeast Raleigh public library branch, she talked about her book-buying habits.
“We’ve really made a lot of efforts to make sure that she reads books at least at home that are representative of our ethnicity, of our culture, of the black experience,” she said. “Because she’s going to get a lot of everything else outside of home. So we wanted her to know that there are people that look like her, that have had similar experiences to her, that are doing extraordinary things.”
Her efforts are not lost on her daughter, Amia.
“I think it’s important for us to have books that tell us, 'Hey, it’s okay to be who you are',” she said. “You can stand out, you can be who you are, you can do what you want to do.”