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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People?

So I’m in the office talking with my colleagues about A Girl Called Problem by Katie Quirk and how awesome it is. Then the topic shifts to books with African-American protagonists published in 2013 for kids between the ages of 9-12.  You know.  Middle grade fiction.  And in the midst of my lamenting how few African-American girl protagonists I’ve seen in 2013 it hits me.  Yeah, I’ve seen few girls, but I’ve seen pretty much ZERO boys.

I run through my mental database and the results are not good.  I’ve read approximately fifty-one middle grade novels for 2013 by this point.  Of these, one starred an African-American male character (Etched in Clay by Andrea Cheng).  Of the other books, I’ve seen quite a few black girls as either the hero’s friend or as the hero herself.  And I have seen ZERO ZERO ZERO African-American boys.  Like, zip.

COME ON, PEOPLE!!!  Seriously now.  Is the rule that we can’t let anyone besides Greg Neri and Walter Dean Myers write middle grade fiction with boys?  Is no one writing anymore?  What is the friggin’ deal?

After venting my venom at Twitter I got a couple suggestions.  Some were YA, some early chapter fare (though I am seriously gonna grab that Karen English book Dog Days the minute it gets within my periphery), a picture book here, an adult novel there.  Here then is a complete list, insofar as I can tell, of ALL the books starring African-American boys in middle grade fiction for 2013.  Don’t blink or you might miss it.

That’s all she/he wrote, folks.

I have the sense that there’s an obscure historical middle grade from a very small publisher that I’m forgetting here.  Otherwise, it appears that unless you’re writing about history, you’re Walter Dean Myers, or you’re a basketball star / former basketball star, you simply cannot get a middle grade book about black boys out there.  Sorry to be a debbie downer but this is something we friggin’ need to talk about. Full credit, by the way, to the publishers listed here that actually ARE publishing something.  Imagine if they weren’t.

Please for the love of all that’s good and holy, tell me what I’m missing.  If you’re hiding a full cache of these books somewhere (or you know of some awesome fall releases that are unknown to me) I’d love to hear it.

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. 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 NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. Paige Ysteboe says:

    I must say that I am floored (and depressed). As a middle school librarian, I well aware of how few books I have with African American boy protagonists, but I didn’t realize that so few were coming out this year. I do think it’s interesting that there are tons of biographies about famous African American men, but little to know fiction.

  2. Paige Ysteboe says:

    Little to no fiction — I cannot believe I just made that mistake!

  3. Kate Messner’s Silver Jaguar Society books have three main characters: Anna, Jose, and Henry, and Henry is African-American. Hide and Seek was released in 2013.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      AH HA!! Very good, Megan! I think you win the award for the day. Totally forgot that. Must read now.

  4. But, yes, overall, clearly not enough diversity.

  5. Chrystal says:

    Elizabeth Bird, thank you for the article. I’ve been saying this for years, perhaps not to anyone who could make a difference, but it’s been said. I’d like to pitch a series in this genre, but I’d be hard pressed to get a publisher willing to accept the project. Perhaps I should work diligently on perfecting a pitch.

    Thanks again for posting this article.

  6. MM says:

    Finally, someone else has noticed. Thank you. Me and my fellow brown-skinned friends have been complaining about this every time a birthday or holiday comes up and we want to find a middle-grade book for a son or nephew. I asked a sales associate at the Last Surviving National Bookstore Chain for a recommendation and she replied, “Well, there aren’t many. Those kinds of boys…and that age…they don’t like books, you know.” As I turned on my heel I said, over my shoulder, “By the way, I’m not white.”

  7. Victoria Stapleton says:

    Well, I’ll just un-lurk this morning to say that James Patterson’s popular MIDDLE SCHOOL series will have a spin off beginning in Spring 2014 called KENNY WRIGHT: SUPERHERO whose main character is an African-American boy living in Washington, DC. Co-written by Chris Tebbetts, this series will have the same humor as the current MIDDLE SCHOOL and I, FUNNY books, but with more action and adventure. That’s my two cents.

  8. Fuse #8 says:

    Cheryl Klein made a great comment on Twitter that I feel compelled to mention here. It’s not necessaily a question of what publishers want to publish. It may be a lack of manuscripts submitted by authors with black protagonists. So get on it, authors!

  9. Jenn Reese says:

    Greg van Eekhout’s BOY AT THE END OF THE WORLD has a dark-skinned male protagonist. Since the book takes place in the far future and he’s the last human, there aren’t any references to countries or ethnicities, though.

  10. Laura Ruby says:

    An article in Hornbook by Yolanda Ware touched on this problem. Christine Taylor-Butler’s comment on that same article was particularly interesting. (You have to scroll down). CTB says that writers are writing the books, but people aren’t buying the manuscripts:

    http://www.hbook.com/2013/01/choosing-books/horn-book-magazine/beyond-the-friends/

  11. Shelley says:

    The Last Station Master by S.A.M. Posey came out in February from a tiny publisher– The Key Publishing House.

  12. Kori Miller says:

    I’m on it! Just began a story with a male and female sharing the lead roles. They’re interracial. Why? Because there aren’t many of us represented in books either.

    And, check out Charis: Journey to Pandora’s Jar. AF-AM female. MG. I know, not male, but there aren’t many in either category.

    Nice to hear about Kenny Wright.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Actually there’s a fair amount of black girl / white boy books out this year. But black boys? Forgettaboudit.

  13. Kori Miller says:

    RE: writers are writing, but the manuscripts aren’t being purchased: This is one reason why self-publishing is a viable option for non-white authors. I was fortunate to have mine (non-fiction) picked up by our local library. I’ve read about this issue for several years and was hoping the industry would pick up more multicultural books.

  14. Perfection Learning published my six time-travel adventure biography books, all of which feature a black middle school boy and girl as the main characters. They’re still selling well — and, in fact, my junior high school (where I graduated just a few years ago — tee hee!) is just finishing up an essay contest for the 6th and 8th graders based on those characters. Kenneth is alive and well, despite how Aleesa and he snipe at each other. :)

  15. *sheds a tear

    Thank you for posting this Betsy. This kind of thing raises my blood pressure but we do need to talk about it.

  16. Hello,

    As everyone else said already, you’ve hit on a hard truth in today’s literature for kids. A few resources that might help:

    - Crazy QuiltEdi: http://campbele.wordpress.com/ She blogs about issues related to literature, libraries and people of color.
    - Crazy QuiltEdi’s Pintrest boards: http://pinterest.com/crazyquiltedi/ Every month she gathers the covers of YA and MG books being published with POC.

    There’s also a webinar coming in a few days out of UNC SILS about meeting the needs of African American Male Youth. http://sils.unc.edu/events/2013/webinar-literacy-african-american-male-youth

    Thanks for raising awareness,
    Katy

  17. Jen Robinson says:

    I am pretty sure that one of the protagonists of the latest Infinity Ring book (The Trap Door, by Lisa McMann) is an African-American boy. I haven’t read it, but Lisa talked in her book signing about how he time travels and meets slaves that he’s descended from. But Lisa or someone would have to confirm that. Still a pretty sad showing all around.

    • Sarah says:

      This is true. Riq is one of three main characters in all the Infinity Ring books, although he (and his race) take the focus in The Trap Door. However, while the books are for a middle grade audience, Riq is 16.

  18. Julie Dahlhauser says:

    I thought Crow by Barbara Wright was wonderful. Maybe that’s the historical novel that eluded your memory. Also there are Sharon Flake’s books–Pinned is new and features alternating chapters from the POV of a boy and a girl who seem to be in jr. high. And then I could also mention some really exciting nonfiction, like We’ve Got a Job, but you said fiction.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Crow, alas, was 2012. I’ve not forgotten it. A lovely little novel. Pinned is VERY very very very YA, yes? And We’ve Got a Job was 2012 too. You see the difficulties.

  19. cindy pon says:

    depressing and infuriating.
    i’m afraid this is a problem across
    the board as far as seeing boys
    or girls of color as leads. it extends
    into young adult.

    i’d like to be able to stop talking
    about the need for diversity in children’s
    books one day. as of now, that day feels
    far off.

  20. Worse than I thought.

  21. Nancy Paulsen says:

    Well it was last year but Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods is a great MG read

  22. Kate Messner says:

    My Silver Jaguar Society mystery series with Scholastic (HIDE AND SEEK is the 2nd book and came out in 2013) has three kid sleuths, one of whom is black. But here’s the thing… sometimes, I think we only notice those diverse characters when their faces take up the whole cover. My mysteries certainly aren’t ABOUT Henry being black; they’re about the mystery & adventures the kids experience, and so the diverse characters get noticed less than they do when the book is, say, a historical novel. These characters are out there, though!

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      I dunno. I think that if we take into consideration all the black best friend characters for 2013, we have your book, Tom Angleberger’s The Surprise Attack of Jabba the Puppett, the latest Infinity Ring, aaaaaand . . . . that’s it. I’m not counting Captain Underpants because it’s early chapter fare not middle grade (I get to be nitpicky, I guess). So that’s an additional three side characters to go with the aforementioned scant heroes. Not so sure the characters are as out there as all that.

  23. Megan says:

    I work in a Children’s Library just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I cannot tell you how often we talk about the fact that if a child of color is on the cover of a book…we cannot get it off of our shelves. It’s so depressing. And it’s across the board…kids, YA, doesn’t matter. We can have a series on display, say Sports Illustrated Kids, and you guessed it…all goes out but those without white skin. What is the deal with people? Do they really think that they are living in a giant vat of vanilla? It’s infuriating!

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      I know this is sometimes the case, but I think the blame may often lie with how those books are designed. Take the Sassy series by Sharon Draper. That series moves like hotcakes because it looks fun. But it’s rare in that way. I can think of no other series starring a minority kiddo that looks like that.

    • Dominique says:

      I believe it.

  24. Charlotte says:

    I have one for you! The Menagerie, by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland stars an African-American boy. And I second a comment above–The Infinity Ring series has a central protagonist who is a black teen.

    But I agree in general–2013 has been a bad year for middle grade diversity.

    • Charlotte says:

      Although, viz the Infinity Ring, it’s true the black kid is kind of a secondary central protagonist….

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      THIS is without a doubt the first I’ve heard of this. Thank you, Charlotte! Shoot, I even had a librarian read this for me and they failed to mention that fact. Good inclusion.

  25. Kate Messner says:

    I haven’t read the new Infinity Ring title, but with HIDE AND SEEK as well as the other two titles in my Scholastic series, Henry isn’t a “black best friend” character. He’s one of the three main characters. All three of their faces are on the covers, even if those faces don’t take up the whole cover. The books’ jackets don’t scream “This-is-multicultural-literature” because that’s not the focus of the stories, but I don’t think that should make the characters invisible.

    I guess I’m a little troubled that somehow, black characters in more commercial mystery-action books like my mysteries and the newest INFINITY RING title don’t seem to “count” when these diversity discussions take place. We spend a lot of time talking about how we need more diverse characters in ALL kinds of books for kids – regular school stories and adventures and mysteries, and not just historical novels and basketball books. But at the end of the day, those books seem to be the ones we talk about in this kind of conversation. Maybe because those are the first titles that come to mind, but I can’t help wondering if this perpetuates the idea that books about kids with brown skin must somehow be ABOUT diversity – rather than just regular stories with characters who happen to be as diverse as their readers.

    Regardless, as a former middle school teacher, I do agree with you that there aren’t enough of these books. We need a lot more books with a lot more diverse characters whose faces are on the books’ covers, and not just as a silhouette. But I also think we need to recognize the books that are already out there – even when (and maybe especially when) the diversity is not the point of the book.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      This reminds me of the time my husband wrote a screenplay while in his grad school film program. The script had a protagonist cop fighting for the rights of a slain black woman. One kid in the class asked, “Is he black?” My husband said he wasn’t. “Then why does he care about black people?”

      You’re absolutely right that it was lame of me to say that your character had to be a black best friend buddy ala Wilson on The New Girl or the fellow in the Infinity Ring series when, in fact, he’s a protagonist in his own right. Let us also admit that your book is then the exception rather than the rule. I would agree vociferously with Charlotte that the character in the Infinity Ring series really is secondary. It would be different if he had hopes and dreams of his own, but he doesn’t. And we could probably get into a very different and very interesting conversation about such inclusions in all forms of entertainment, whether it’s movies or sitcoms or books for kids. Compare Infinity Ring, for example, with last year’s Pickle by Kim Baker. Now there you had an interesting and even complex multi-ethnic cast that would most certainly be the kind of books I’d be looking for this year. That wasn’t a book about diversity. It was about pranking. So to say that we’re just looking for books about black boys being black isn’t fair. You’ll note that the books I mentioned in the initial post all had single male black protagonists. All I’m saying about that is that they are rarities. I don’t care about covers as much as I care about characters. If you can mention to me more books like your own, I would love to hear about them. Please.

      • Kate Messner says:

        And now I am wondering how I missed PICKLE since it sounds fantastic, AND since it was an SCBWI Crystal Kite winner alongside CAPTURE THE FLAG. Will get myself to the library tomorrow to check this one out, which is the real gift of these conversations, methinks — making us aware of the books that are out there and encouraging more. Many thanks for the discussion, Betsy!

      • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

        I totally agree. The nice thing about having a blog is that you can throw ideas out there and smart people come back to fill in the gaps of what I do not know. And totally check out Kim’s book! It was one of my favorites last year. We can’t keep it on the shelves and it was one of NYPL’s 2012 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.

  26. bamauthor says:

    Glad that you wrote this article…maybe now some writers and illustrators will take note and come out with some new works,

  27. Moira says:

    We may never know how many of these books have been written. We only know what’s been published.

  28. Daniel says:

    For what it’s worth, the Marvel Comics title “Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man” has a boy who’s about fourteen inside the Spider-Man costume. He’s part African-American and part Latino.

  29. Margaret Bateson-Hill says:

    Will black British do? Isaac Ankaama is the hero in my Dragon Racer Book 2 -Legacy Of Fire and of Book 3 – The Silver Flame to be published in November. I also have an African American young man as one of the main characters in all 3 books of the trilogy

  30. Michael Green says:
  31. McCourt says:

    My favorite recent middle grade with a black male protagonist – How Lamar’s Bad Prank Won a Bubba-Sized Trophy by Crystal Allen from Balzar & Bray. It is laugh out loud funny as well as touching, and Lamar is such a great character. It’s my recent go-to recommendation, especially if I’m looking for a strong African-American protagonist. It also has a nice multicultural cast of friends to round things out. If feel like it may have been overlooked when it came out (2012?), so I wanted to mention it.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      I was a big fan of that one too. I was reading it on a plane back in 2011 and the stewardress and I got into a great conversation about it. Always been one of my favorites. Bummer about the cover, though.

  32. Charlotte says:

    I have another one for you that I think counts, although it’s a tad ambiguous–Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Race Against Time is a multicultural family–and so the boy protagonist could be counted as black.

  33. I’m a librarian at a highly diverse elementary school near Washington, DC and am always looking for diverse characters in books. Since our school has a high immigrant population (almost 90%), many of our kids read well below grade level, and they adore Capstone’s Field Trip Mysteries series (http://www.capstonekids.com/characters/Field-Trip/index.html#AboutFriendsAnchor)– books written at a 2nd-3rd grade reading level, but with 6th grade protagonists who represent a variety of cultures, including an African American boy.

    Unfortunately, I’ve noticed more hi-lo novels featuring African American boys that straight up middle grade novels (the Jake Maddox series is one that comes to mind).

    Did anyone catch snippets of Michelle Obama’s speech at Bowie State University’s commencement ceremony this past Friday? One quote from her that has stayed with me is this:

    “Please reject the slander that says a black child with a book is trying to act white,” Obama said. “In short, be an example of excellence for the next generation.”

    Lots to think about and discuss. Betsy, thank you for opening up this conversation on your blog.

  34. shar says:

    one librarian mentioned not being able to get books with black protagonists (on the cover) off the shelves. this is probably a huge reason why you don’t find these types of books published – because if librarians can’t get them off the shelves, neither can bookstores. and the publishing industry is getting pickier with what manuscripts they buy because their sales are hurting. they need books that sell big. so i can understand the why for publishing, but why is it hard to sell in our community? i don’t know . . . it makes me sad. and what can we do to help it? buying those particular books instead of just checking them out at the library – and encouraging others to buy them – would help. if the books sell well, then publishers want to make more of that kind of book.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      And I would reiterate that often it’s not the fact that the kid is black but the fact that the design of the cover is lame. If the book looks boring, a kid’s not going to want to read it. And a LOT of books with black characters on the covers are booooooooooring looking.

  35. Maurice Rabb says:

    Thanks for bringing this travesty to our attention. Just for perspective, do you know on average how many middle grade books are published in a given year? This might give us a sense of what fairness might look like demographically. Thanks.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      It’s really hard to say. PW and other sources can tell you how many children’s books in total, but it’s difficult to break it all down to specific types of children’s literature. If I was going to guess off the top of my head I’d say 600 in a given year, but I’m sort of pulling that number out of thin air.

  36. Beth says:

    My middle-grade novel Seven Shades of Luminosity has a 13-year-old African-American protagonist :)
    http://www.etreasurespublishing.com/seven-shades-of-luminosity-by-beth-bowland/

  37. Stephanie says:

    What were the YA novels you thought of?

    I’m looking for some to read and it doesn’t matter what year as I can’t recall ever reading any, so anything you can come up with will probably be new to me.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Well, I specialize more in middle grade so right now I’m not coming up with any YA either. Look through these comments though and you’ll find a couple YA titles that might do the job.

  38. Edytha Ryan says:

    I have a middle grade manuscript featuring two African-American brothers who are traveling to Pinnacles Monument with Gran following the departure of their military Dad. Boys are 9 and 13. Both are surly and feeling abandoned. They’ll have a short camping trip with Gran before starting a new school in SF. An unexpected brush with danger during the trip helps re-kindle the friendship between the boys and gives them courage to get through the separation from their Dad and the upset of starting a new school in a new city.

  39. Lynn Johnson says:

    You are so right and in general the good books with strong male protagonists are few and far between. The boys at my school would love to read books they can relate to, protagonists that hunt and fish. Once I go through the dismal list that is out there it is a struggle to find the right match for them. We need more authors to step up to the plate and not all African American protagonists need to be portrayed as gang members either or just live in the projects. We really need a push outside of the rut.

  40. Jo says:

    Hey, I thought others might be interested in this list I found for upcoming books in 2014: https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/45146.A_Patient_Man_Will_Eat_Ripe_Fruit_Incoming_MG_YA_Books_Written_by_Black_Authors_for_2014

    It is both Middle Grade and Young Adult, though. I couldn’t find a list for just Middle Grade.

    This one in particular looks really cool and I think needs to be added to a lot of too buy lists: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17928557-the-great-greene-heist

    I’ve read a book by this author before and it was good, so I have high hopes on that particular book.

    • Elizabeth Bird Elizabeth Bird says:

      Oh good. They kept the original cover. I saw this cover early on and its Ocean’s 11 flair attracted me right away. I wasn’t sure if it was official, though, so I kept mum. VERY much looking forward to this one.

  41. I’m REALLY late in reading this, but am not surprised that you couldn’t find many. Boy books tend to be less available than girl books in general. Multiply that with the lack of multi-cultural characters and it’s skim pickings for male African American protagonists. But I did run across a really fun one a few months ago (was asked to review one), and thought I’d share: THE HOOPKID FROM ELMDALE PARK by Teko Bernard.

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  3. [...] Posts/Opinion 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People? By Betsy [...]

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