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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

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

BabySays

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

MyAunt

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

OneProblems

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

blastoff

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

DontYouRemember

Cosmo and the Robot by Brian Pinkney

CosmoRobot

Hush, Little Baby by Brian Pinkney

HushLittleBaby

Snow on Snow on Snow illustrated by Cheryl Chapman, ill. Synthia St. James

SnowOnSnow

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.

 

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About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.

Comments

  1. Perhaps not a familiar classic, but a book that I’d love to see back in print is Joyce Hansen’s The Captive, a middle grade work of historical fiction that starts a story about slavery in Africa, beautiful researched and told, I think. I use it with my 4th graders and snap up as many used copies as I can find via amazon. The cover of the Apple Paper is pretty dated but my students like it nonetheless. The main character is based on two real people: Olaudah Equiano and Paul Cuffee.

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Excellent. I thought about delving into middle grade but all I could come up with was Andre Norton’s LAVENDER GREEN MAGIC which is now available in ebook form through Open Road Media.

  2. K. Harris says:

    One of my favorite books growing up was Mary Jane, by Dorothy Sterling. Now that I think about it, though, I have no idea if the author was black or white.

  3. Don’t You Remember written by Lucille Clifton and illustrated by Evaline Ness. This was my favorite book for a long time. Every time my parents took me to the library I had to check out this book.

  4. Stephanie Whelan says:

    Hah! You’ve already included Blast Off! And here I was all ready to add it onto the list . . .
    Here’s another SF book though : Cosmo and the Robot by Brian Pinkney Just the story of a kid and his robot on Mars . . .

  5. Natalie SW says:

    “The House of Dies Drear” by Virginia Hamilton was great–about an African American 13-year-old whose family moves into a house that was an Underground Railroad stop, that is said to be haunted by two skaves who ran away and were killed. It’s a really good mystery, and good history, too!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Happily that book is still in print. I came to it as a kid through the movie first. Oh yes. There was a movie. And that guy emerging out of the ground like the devil himself scared the bejeezus out of me.

  6. Megan Butterfield says:

    Brian Pinkney’s “Hush, Little Baby” – I want this book back in print so badly! I also long for “Snow on Snow on Snow,” illustrated by African-American artist Synthia St. James. While it doesn’t exactly fit your author criteria, I really want “I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother” by Selina Alko back in print as well. We need this imprint!

  7. Curiously watching the suggested titles for possible new material at Purple House!

  8. Stephanie Best says:

    Yes, Blast Off! needs to be reprinted right now. Publication of Blast Off! + 19 years = Mae Jemison. Coincidence? Maybe not… 🙂 It is at least available digitally through Open Library: https://openlibrary.org/works/OL16033950W/Blast_off

  9. Nora Hale says:

    Two books by Jeannette Caines, Just Us Women, and I Need a Lunchbox.

    • Nora Hale says:

      Let me clarify. These titles are available as paperbacks, so they aren’t technically out of print, but I would very much like to see them back as hardcovers.

  10. Hi Betsy,

    Our assistant editor, Raven Neely, brought your recent blog post to my attention so I’m writing to respond to your concern over the lack of characters of color in children’s literature. In citing Professor Thomas, you pointed out disappearing literature that celebrates the Black plight and stated, “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.”

    If I may, I would like to respond to your challenge. Although, it is true that we haven’t created a specific imprint to reprint these works, August House is constantly seeking exceptional multicultural books, where the rights have reverted back to the author. As you know, we are a relatively small, independent publisher of folktales and resource books (approximately 250 active titles), however, in recent years, we have acquired the rights and brought a number of award winning, multicultural out-of- print, folktale titles back to life including: Pickin’ Peas, by Margaret Read MacDonald and illustrated by Pat Cummings, A Natural Man: The True Story of John Henry, by Steve Sanfield and Peter Thornton and Broken Tusk: Stories of the Hindu God Ganesha, by Uma Krishnaswami. As you might imagine, at times, it can be challenging to identify when the rights have reverted back to the author and it can be challenging to negotiate the intellectual property issues but there are many timeless books that deserve to be enjoyed by a new generation of children. These three titles are representative of our effort to locate and publish similar multicultural titles.

    We share your interest in continuing to re-introduce classic literature to the market and we share this passion with you. For the record, we are actively engaged in identifying these opportunities and we would love to hear from you, as well as, other librarians or anyone else who can connect us with other deserving multicultural properties that have gone out of print.

    All the best,

    Steve
    August House

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Marvelous! This is precisely what I hoped to hear when I wrote the post. Thank you for bringing August House to my attention. I’ll be sure to cite you in the future when this discussion comes up again (as it is certainly wont to do). Much appreciated.