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Authors on the Frontlines: Authors of Color Are MIA

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           My son's reading list. NO authors of color on list.
Last year I reviewed the book The Mzungu Boy (Groundwood, 2005), by Kenyan born author, Meja Mwangi, after working with a teacher who spent most of her summer preparing for the novel – which was new to her curriculum. You see, the language arts faculty members were eager to diversify their reading selections, so she and I worked tirelessly trying to locate resources, to no avail. As a result, I created a wiki for the book, with basic activities that could be used in class. 

The following article was featured in School Library Journal.

A Wiki Gives a Worthy Book New Life By Amy Bowllan — School Library Journal, 9/1/2008

I encountered a rare black hole. Not a single teacher-created lesson plan could be found for this story. This seemed incredible given the quality of the book, a charming, yet riveting tale of two boys seeking friendship and adventure spanning cultural divides. Set in colonial Africa in the 1950s…
But our experience with the The Mzungu Boy—a story rich with ideas for learning—begs the question: Why do some books have related online resources for the classroom teacher while others do not?

While that question is still a mystery to me, well not really because what I learned was, when it comes to what students read, it depends on the teachers – or savvy librarians and parents – not necessarily the authors. So if a teacher uses the safety, tried and true, one-stop shopping, novels – with all the resources one has available to her – then who in their right mind would want to venture out and have their students read new releases? In the nutshell, no online, easy-to-access resources, means no new novels will enter the classroom doors. That’s my opinion.

But lately I’ve been wondering if that’s the reason why "less than 3% of all published kidlit authors last year were black:" (via Zetta Elliot sending me data from the CCBCI am not an author, so this issue has never been on my radar, until now.

This brings me to my next question.Why? I know it’s been a topic of discussion for the librarians, and authors of color communities, but for parents and teachers, I wonder if they’ve given this issue much thought.

At Chasing Ray there’s extensive discussion around the issue of "What a girl wants#3 Representing All Girls, "In the sea of titles with straight white female (blonde) main characters, there are disturbingly few that are African American, Native American, Jewish, Muslim, Asian American, Indian, LBGT and on and on."  

After writing about Dr. Stanley’s book, Night Fires, and Zetta Elliot’s Lesson Plan, it prompted me to check my own kids’ reading list. 

I was shocked! My son has NO, and I mean not ONE author of color listed, and my daughter has one, Ruby Bridges, Through My Eyes. Out of a five page list, there’s only one. Initially I was outraged. Okay I still am miffed that I didn’t pay attention to this before, and quite frankly I am not sure why I hadn’t.  I will say that teachers are the ones who put these lists together and if they are not aware of new releases, or care to diversify their selections, how will they know? Who’s responsible, the librarian? The teachers? Maybe the authors? 

E-mails have been sent out to publishers to hear their voices. I have to thank Sourcebooks publishing for responding to me so quickly. They will have their thoughts in a future post. 

Thanks to author/educator, Dr. Zetta Elliot, who provided me with resources which is helping me to untangle, in my own mind, what’s going on. This week you’ll also hear from authors, in the know.

War: Writers Against Racism by Dr. George E. Stanley 
Black-Eyed Susan
Color Online
Chasing Ray
The Brown Bookshelf


  1. George Edward Stanley says:

    Interesting, intriguing, and puzzling, Amy – all these points. I too had been wondering in recent days just how the holdings in a school library stack up against the ethnic populations of a school. If there are 43% black students, let’s say, are 43% percent of the books about the black experience? I’m sure the holdings might never match completely, but if there are 43% black students and only 5% of the books are about the black experience, that’s quite a gap. Is this because the titles simply aren’t available or is it a result of the school’s simply not ordering the books… or what? I am very much a proponent of racial harmony and of our all sharing the American experience together. I like books that have characters from many different ethnic groups… BUT there are times in a young person’s life when she or he needs ethnic assurance about who he or she is – and this comes mainly from books devoted to one ethnic group’s experience.

  2. Amy Bowllan says:

    Precisely, George! That’s why I am certain that with the Obama administration on board, we will begin to not place blame, but to figure a way diversify our collections – so we can get on with the business of learning.

  3. I’m a school librarian in a middle school with a fairly diverse ethnic population including caucasians, african-americans, hispanics and asians. I attempt to purchase a diverse selection of books, both in subject and by authors. I am assuming that your children are a little younger, Amy, from the titles you are mentioning. In the past year or so, the Bluford High series (considered a YA book series) has become very popular because of the interesting titles and covers which portray multi-racial characters. Another reason these books are popular is because they are very short (most are about 125 – 150 pgs). In an attempt to springboard off their popularity, I arranged a display of books by authors such as Sharon Flake, Sharon Draper, Walter Dean Myers, Sandra Belton, Jacqueline Woodson and others. The books generated some interest, but unfortunately the older kids/students get, the more they are attuned to what is popular and what “everyone is reading”. So often good titles and authors go unread by the students/readers choice.

  4. Amy Bowllan says:

    Chris, thank you so much. My son is entering 7th grade and my daughter, 4th. I applaud your efforts to maintain a diverse collection. Any thoughts on how to engage the older students? I welcome your input and ideas. Thank you!

  5. George Edward Stanley says:

    … and then, of course, there’s the problem that Chris explained so well. How do you get students to read books that might challenge them more than books about things that are popular this season? This reminds me of something an elementary school librarian told me once during a classroom visit: Many elementary students only check out books which are shelved at eye-level. Of course, publishers hope their titles are shelved at eye-level in bookstores, too, because it seems this is how a lot of people choose books they’re going to buy! There are so many layers which make up human behavior.

  6. Amy Bowllan says:

    My dream has always been to have “shelve-less” libraries. This would make books accessible to all – including those who are physically unable to reach books. Thanks, George!

  7. Doret, over at the Happy Nappy Bookseller, just left a comment on my blog that addresses this same issue: parents coming into her Atlanta bookstore with a list sent to them by their child’s school…only to find there are NO books by or about people of color. Doret has all KINDS of suggestions, and she specializes in books about girls and sports…so I hope parents will swing by her site AND send teachers/librarians there, too. And I have to say again that some teachers/librarians/literacy coaches are doing a fantastic job of staying on top of new books and getting them into the classroom.

  8. Mayra Lazara Dole says:

    “Tintin au Congo” has been censored and is under lock and key at Brooklyn library labeled, “Racially offensive to black people.” The Cuban book, “A visit to Cuba” was taken off Miami library shelves because Cuban-Americans felt it wrongly portrayed Cuban children in Cuba as “happy” and shows no signs of deterioration in the country, etc. What do you think? (If you haven’t read it, you can check the New York Times article on my Facebook page)

  9. Amy Bowllan says:

    ANY book that is taken off a shelf is a book I MUST read. I want to know it ALL and have a problem with someone defining for ME what is offensive. And if it is offensive, let me be the judge.

  10. Deborah Sloan says:

    I just checked my kids’ summer reading lists and same deal, NO writers of color. Time to get writing letters to the powers-that-be and talking and getting people thinking.

  11. Amy Bowllan says:

    Deborah, thank you for commenting. Letters have been sent to the White House and to local congress folks. Please join us! :)