Beverly Cleary refused to teach kids how to be good — and generations of young readers fell in love with her rebel Ramona


Beverly Cleary’s beloved characters, including Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, have enthralled readers for decades.
AP Photo/Anthony McCartney

Kristin Girten, University of Nebraska Omaha

There’s nothing like being reasoned with by a 4-year-old girl.

“‘Stop it,’ ordered Beezus. ‘Stop it this instant! You can’t eat one bite and then throw the rest away.’

‘But the first bite tastes best,’ explained Ramona reasonably, as she reached into the box again.

Beezus had to admit that Ramona was right. The first bite of an apple always did taste best.”

The author of this scene is Beverly Cleary, who died on March 25, 2021, at the age of 104. The book is “Beezus and Ramona.” Most readers appreciate Ramona’s arguments, admiring the innocence, the free-spiritedness, the insight that inspires her to take a whole carton of apples and indulge in one first bite after another, only ever tasting “the reddest part.”

Many fans love Cleary’s work for a lifetime – first as young children, then as adults. As a mother of twin boys, I have been surprised at how her writing continues to resonate. But what is it that makes Cleary’s characters so enduring?

Novels that teach

As a scholar of 18th-century British literature, I recognize the pressure on novelists to teach children through their writing. This expectation was set in the 18th century when it was assumed that the modern novel, newly developed, would teach as well as please. Reading was expected to be, in the words of Horace, both “dulce” (literally sweet, or enjoyable) and “utile” (literally useful, or instructive).

Though readers have, at least since the early 20th century, generally let go of this expectation for authors who write for adults, the expectation persists for those who write for children. With a writing career beginning in the early 1950s, Cleary directly challenged such a notion.

Beverly Cleary wearing a red suit and gold medal
Cleary was a 2003 recipient of a National Medal of Arts, which honors artists and patrons of the arts.
Getty Images/Time Sloan

Cleary once told PBS that her fans love Ramona “because she does not learn to be a better girl.” She went on to explain what inspired her to create Ramona’s character: “I was so annoyed with the books in my childhood because children always learned to be better children, and in my experience, they didn’t.”

In fact, Cleary’s Ramona doesn’t just challenge the assumption that readers must learn “from” and “with” fictional characters; one of Ramona’s distinguishing characteristics is rebelliousness.

Take, for example, the time Ramona’s parents are disappointed by her report card:

“‘Now, Ramona.’ Mrs. Quimby’s voice was gentle. ‘You must try to grow up.’

Ramona raised her voice. ‘What do you think I’m doing?’

‘You don’t have to be so noisy about it,’ said Mrs. Quimby.”

The scene continues:

“Ramona had had enough. … She wanted to do something bad. She wanted to do something terrible that would shock her whole family, something that would make them sit up and take notice. ‘I’m going to say a bad word!’ she shouted with a stamp of her foot.”

Then, in the culmination of the scene: “Ramona clenched her fists and took a deep breath. ‘Guts!’ she yelled. ‘Guts! Guts! Guts!’ There. That should show them.”

Gendering Ramona

So exactly where does Cleary’s Ramona fit? She doesn’t. She’s an outlier of school standards and gender expectations. Before there were terms like “gender nonbinary,” “gender nonconforming” or “genderqueer,” there was Ramona. Ramona defies categorization. Her friendship with Howie offers one of many examples:

“‘At my grandmother’s,’ said Howie. ‘A bulldozer was smashing some old houses so somebody could build a shopping center, and the man told me I could pick up broken bricks.’

‘Let’s get started,’ said Ramona, running to the garage and returning with two big rocks. … Each grasped a rock in both hands and with it pounded a brick into pieces and the pieces into smithereens. The pounding was hard, tiring work. Pow! Pow! Pow! Then they reduced the smithereens to dust. Crunch, crunch, crunch. They were no longer six-year-olds. They were the strongest people in the world. They were giants.”

This passage is from “Ramona the Brave,” which both is and isn’t of its time. Published in 1975, the novel may be seen as an expression of second-wave feminism, which sought to recognize gender as a social construct and to challenge how mainstream society kept women from fulfilling their potential. However, it also previews third-wave feminism by insisting that women need not abandon their femininity to claim equity for themselves.

Ramona, though quite boyish, insists on writing her last name, “Quimby,” with the “Q” shaped into a cat “with a little tail,” reminding the reader of her feminine side.

I see in Cleary’s writing a nostalgia for the time in childhood before gender is clearly defined. By looking back to that time, children and adult readers alike may imagine a future in which people are able to think beyond gender.

Cleary now

Most of Cleary’s books are set in the mostly white Grant Park neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, where she grew up. The lack of racial diversity in Cleary’s work is a likely consequence of her having followed the adage adhered to by many writers: “Write what you know.” However, current readers might wish that she had stretched herself and her abilities a bit further to have imagined a more racially or ethnically diverse cast of characters.

Nevertheless, many assert the “universality” of Cleary’s stories. One such reader is young-adult author Renee Watson, who, upon Cleary’s death, commented that Ramona “wasn’t afraid to take up space.”

“I needed a friend like Ramona,” Watson said. “Cleary introduced to me this rambunctious girl, and I love her. … The power of her storytelling is the respect she had for young readers. She had a deep understanding that a girl articulating how she feels is an asset, not a flaw.”

As I’ve read Cleary’s books to my own Gen-Z sons, I have been particularly struck by how her writing has gotten them interested and invested in female as well as male protagonists. They love the books about Henry and Ribsy, but they love the Ramona books too. When it is so common for boys and men to ignore–or merely “glance” at–women’s writing about girls, this is significant. Through Cleary’s work, my sons can see that the big guys don’t always know best or win. Such perspectives can create new normals that are less, well, normative.

[You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.]The Conversation

Kristin Girten, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Arts and Humanities/Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska Omaha

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From erasure to recategorizing: What we should do with Dr. Seuss books


In our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove.
(Shutterstock)

Monica Eileen Patterson, Carleton University

Was the decision to stop publishing six obscure Dr. Seuss titles containing racist imagery and messaging an erasure of history?

Media coverage of the controversy has presented it as an example of censorship, an attack on free speech and yet another example of cancel culture. These reactions are rooted in both a lack of awareness of the challenges and realities of maintaining collections and a false understanding of history.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a children’s entertainment company that functions as both a business and a family estate dedicated to preserving and promoting Theodor Seuss Geisel’s legacy. After consulting with educators and other experts, they decided to halt publication of six books because, in their words, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” An examination of many of the images and text in question confirmed the use of racist tropes in depicting Asian and Black characters.

This decision reflects norms in publishing, archiving and collecting.

Making space for new materials

Publishing companies regularly review their titles and sales to determine and reassess print runs. This is a necessary part of making space for new publications, and maintaining desirable profit margins.

In this context, thinking about museums and archives is helpful.

For cultural institutions tasked with collecting, preserving, ordering and exhibiting, utility is derived from selectivity: not everything can be saved, or it would prove so overwhelming as to render everything inaccessible. That is why galleries, libraries, archives and museums don’t only collect new materials, but also regularly remove them.

The role of curating is key: as both a form of care taking and as a selection process that chooses specific works. Exhibits can serve a variety of roles: they can educate, inspire, call to action, memorialize, entertain. And as new works are being produced at unprecedented rates, space must be made for new material.

A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture
A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture in London, U.K.
(Shutterstock)

History is not neutral

Even in our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove — this often causes controversy.

Whether focused on removing confederate and colonial statues, or retiring a small handful of Dr. Seuss books, these moral panics and culture wars are often rooted in a false premise; that anything from the past comes from a pure and total point of origin, in other words, that representations of confederate soldiers tell a “true,” authentic and complete story that is neutral and objective.

“Don’t erase history!” people often cry, as if history itself wasn’t full of erasures from the beginning.

In historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s foundational book Silencing the Past, he examines the relationship between history, power and silence to explore the ways that certain experiences, historical actors and events are kept out of archival collections and the historical knowledge they help construct.

Trouillot illustrates this through highlighting the Haitian revolution: the possibility of Black slaves successfully revolting against their white colonizers was so inconceivable within the western ideology of white supremacy that it was effectively written out of history.

Recategorizing remnants of racism

The racist pages of Dr. Seuss books are not in danger of being lost forever, but recategorized as evidence of outdated attitudes grounded in racial denigration and stereotyping that no longer have a place in popular culture.

Scholars of racism, like myself, can draw on these images and use them to better understand the past.

Some of Geisel’s earlier work was even more explicitly racist than the titles in question, but hasn’t been erased or destroyed and can be found in museums around the world. His earlier work also appears in scholarship on histories of racism, the Second World War and children’s literature, which would be a great place for the images and text from these six books as well.

There are many ways that racism can and should be tackled that don’t result in the erasure of history. But it shouldn’t be shrugged off — especially by white people who are not in a position to make such determinations.

Nowadays, parents and students object to racist texts used in class, people contact the media, political leaders, HR departments and investigatory commissions to report incidents of racism. Companies are boycotted. Protests are organized, movements are mobilized. And organizations like Dr. Seuss Enterprises revisit their policies to ensure they are not perpetuating old-fashioned or harmful practices.

A teacher reads to a group of students
It is time to retire racist representations.
(Shutterstock)

Not without value

I regularly take racist materials out of general circulation — through yard sales, used book stores, discount stores like Dollarama and in tourist shops — so they might be used in research and teaching. I have made many donations to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, including some family heirloom photographs of one of my ancestors performing in vaudeville in blackface. In my classes on African history, I carefully use racist objects and texts to help teach students about histories of anti-Black racism.

While abhorrent, these texts, memorabilia and objects can be useful.

No children should see racism as something that is normal or funny. There is a lot of research that has examined the impact of the overwhelmingly negative representations of racialized people in popular culture. The research shows that images hurt people. That they contribute to assumptions that translate into discrimination in hiring, renting, selling, lending, treating, teaching and policing in ways that are hugely consequential for all of us.




Read more:
Caillou cancelled by PBS: Kids’ TV is now more diverse, but must do better


These realities accumulate across people’s lifetimes in ways that devalue us all because they perpetuate unconscious and conscious racism and inequality.

Retiring racist texts from children’s literature is a crucial step in interrupting the racist legacies that continue to hurt and divide us. With careful contextualization, these historical materials can help document and teach people about the realities of racism that are so often belittled or denied. It also makes space, literally and figuratively, for new texts by diverse authors featuring diverse characters that provide a fuller picture of the world that better reflects the rich variety of people, experiences and perspectives it has to offer.

This is especially important considering how much work still needs to be done in galleries, museums, libraries and archives. These institutions are still overwhelmingly white and male.

It is past time we reach social consensus that racist caricatures should be obsolete. Not everything from the past should be kept alive through republication. Move this content to museums and books on racism where it belongs, but don’t keep it circulating among children.The Conversation

Monica Eileen Patterson, Assistant Director, Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture (Curatorial Studies) and Associate Professor, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From erasure to recategorizing: What we should do with Dr. Seuss books


In our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove.
(Shutterstock)

Monica Eileen Patterson, Carleton University

Was the decision to stop publishing six obscure Dr. Seuss titles containing racist imagery and messaging an erasure of history?

Media coverage of the controversy has presented it as an example of censorship, an attack on free speech and yet another example of cancel culture. These reactions are rooted in both a lack of awareness of the challenges and realities of maintaining collections and a false understanding of history.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a children’s entertainment company that functions as both a business and a family estate dedicated to preserving and promoting Theodor Seuss Geisel’s legacy. After consulting with educators and other experts, they decided to halt publication of six books because, in their words, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” An examination of many of the images and text in question confirmed the use of racist tropes in depicting Asian and Black characters.

This decision reflects norms in publishing, archiving and collecting.

Making space for new materials

Publishing companies regularly review their titles and sales to determine and reassess print runs. This is a necessary part of making space for new publications, and maintaining desirable profit margins.

In this context, thinking about museums and archives is helpful.

For cultural institutions tasked with collecting, preserving, ordering and exhibiting, utility is derived from selectivity: not everything can be saved, or it would prove so overwhelming as to render everything inaccessible. That is why galleries, libraries, archives and museums don’t only collect new materials, but also regularly remove them.

The role of curating is key: as both a form of care taking and as a selection process that chooses specific works. Exhibits can serve a variety of roles: they can educate, inspire, call to action, memorialize, entertain. And as new works are being produced at unprecedented rates, space must be made for new material.

A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture
A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture in London, U.K.
(Shutterstock)

History is not neutral

Even in our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove — this often causes controversy.

Whether focused on removing confederate and colonial statues, or retiring a small handful of Dr. Seuss books, these moral panics and culture wars are often rooted in a false premise; that anything from the past comes from a pure and total point of origin, in other words, that representations of confederate soldiers tell a “true,” authentic and complete story that is neutral and objective.

“Don’t erase history!” people often cry, as if history itself wasn’t full of erasures from the beginning.

In historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s foundational book Silencing the Past, he examines the relationship between history, power and silence to explore the ways that certain experiences, historical actors and events are kept out of archival collections and the historical knowledge they help construct.

Trouillot illustrates this through highlighting the Haitian revolution: the possibility of Black slaves successfully revolting against their white colonizers was so inconceivable within the western ideology of white supremacy that it was effectively written out of history.

Recategorizing remnants of racism

The racist pages of Dr. Seuss books are not in danger of being lost forever, but recategorized as evidence of outdated attitudes grounded in racial denigration and stereotyping that no longer have a place in popular culture.

Scholars of racism, like myself, can draw on these images and use them to better understand the past.

Some of Geisel’s earlier work was even more explicitly racist than the titles in question, but hasn’t been erased or destroyed and can be found in museums around the world. His earlier work also appears in scholarship on histories of racism, the Second World War and children’s literature, which would be a great place for the images and text from these six books as well.

There are many ways that racism can and should be tackled that don’t result in the erasure of history. But it shouldn’t be shrugged off — especially by white people who are not in a position to make such determinations.

Nowadays, parents and students object to racist texts used in class, people contact the media, political leaders, HR departments and investigatory commissions to report incidents of racism. Companies are boycotted. Protests are organized, movements are mobilized. And organizations like Dr. Seuss Enterprises revisit their policies to ensure they are not perpetuating old-fashioned or harmful practices.

A teacher reads to a group of students
It is time to retire racist representations.
(Shutterstock)

Not without value

I regularly take racist materials out of general circulation — through yard sales, used book stores, discount stores like Dollarama and in tourist shops — so they might be used in research and teaching. I have made many donations to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, including some family heirloom photographs of one of my ancestors performing in vaudeville in blackface. In my classes on African history, I carefully use racist objects and texts to help teach students about histories of anti-Black racism.

While abhorrent, these texts, memorabilia and objects can be useful.

No children should see racism as something that is normal or funny. There is a lot of research that has examined the impact of the overwhelmingly negative representations of racialized people in popular culture. The research shows that images hurt people. That they contribute to assumptions that translate into discrimination in hiring, renting, selling, lending, treating, teaching and policing in ways that are hugely consequential for all of us.




Read more:
Caillou cancelled by PBS: Kids’ TV is now more diverse, but must do better


These realities accumulate across people’s lifetimes in ways that devalue us all because they perpetuate unconscious and conscious racism and inequality.

Retiring racist texts from children’s literature is a crucial step in interrupting the racist legacies that continue to hurt and divide us. With careful contextualization, these historical materials can help document and teach people about the realities of racism that are so often belittled or denied. It also makes space, literally and figuratively, for new texts by diverse authors featuring diverse characters that provide a fuller picture of the world that better reflects the rich variety of people, experiences and perspectives it has to offer.

This is especially important considering how much work still needs to be done in galleries, museums, libraries and archives. These institutions are still overwhelmingly white and male.

It is past time we reach social consensus that racist caricatures should be obsolete. Not everything from the past should be kept alive through republication. Move this content to museums and books on racism where it belongs, but don’t keep it circulating among children.The Conversation

Monica Eileen Patterson, Assistant Director, Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture (Curatorial Studies) and Associate Professor, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

From erasure to recategorizing: What we should do with Dr. Seuss books


In our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove.
(Shutterstock)

Monica Eileen Patterson, Carleton University

Was the decision to stop publishing six obscure Dr. Seuss titles containing racist imagery and messaging an erasure of history?

Media coverage of the controversy has presented it as an example of censorship, an attack on free speech and yet another example of cancel culture. These reactions are rooted in both a lack of awareness of the challenges and realities of maintaining collections and a false understanding of history.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises is a children’s entertainment company that functions as both a business and a family estate dedicated to preserving and promoting Theodor Seuss Geisel’s legacy. After consulting with educators and other experts, they decided to halt publication of six books because, in their words, they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” An examination of many of the images and text in question confirmed the use of racist tropes in depicting Asian and Black characters.

This decision reflects norms in publishing, archiving and collecting.

Making space for new materials

Publishing companies regularly review their titles and sales to determine and reassess print runs. This is a necessary part of making space for new publications, and maintaining desirable profit margins.

In this context, thinking about museums and archives is helpful.

For cultural institutions tasked with collecting, preserving, ordering and exhibiting, utility is derived from selectivity: not everything can be saved, or it would prove so overwhelming as to render everything inaccessible. That is why galleries, libraries, archives and museums don’t only collect new materials, but also regularly remove them.

The role of curating is key: as both a form of care taking and as a selection process that chooses specific works. Exhibits can serve a variety of roles: they can educate, inspire, call to action, memorialize, entertain. And as new works are being produced at unprecedented rates, space must be made for new material.

A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture
A child approaches a Dr. Seuss BookBench sculpture in London, U.K.
(Shutterstock)

History is not neutral

Even in our current context of rapidly improving technology, archives and museums must constantly make tough decisions about what to keep, what to refuse or even remove — this often causes controversy.

Whether focused on removing confederate and colonial statues, or retiring a small handful of Dr. Seuss books, these moral panics and culture wars are often rooted in a false premise; that anything from the past comes from a pure and total point of origin, in other words, that representations of confederate soldiers tell a “true,” authentic and complete story that is neutral and objective.

“Don’t erase history!” people often cry, as if history itself wasn’t full of erasures from the beginning.

In historian and anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s foundational book Silencing the Past, he examines the relationship between history, power and silence to explore the ways that certain experiences, historical actors and events are kept out of archival collections and the historical knowledge they help construct.

Trouillot illustrates this through highlighting the Haitian revolution: the possibility of Black slaves successfully revolting against their white colonizers was so inconceivable within the western ideology of white supremacy that it was effectively written out of history.

Recategorizing remnants of racism

The racist pages of Dr. Seuss books are not in danger of being lost forever, but recategorized as evidence of outdated attitudes grounded in racial denigration and stereotyping that no longer have a place in popular culture.

Scholars of racism, like myself, can draw on these images and use them to better understand the past.

Some of Geisel’s earlier work was even more explicitly racist than the titles in question, but hasn’t been erased or destroyed and can be found in museums around the world. His earlier work also appears in scholarship on histories of racism, the Second World War and children’s literature, which would be a great place for the images and text from these six books as well.

There are many ways that racism can and should be tackled that don’t result in the erasure of history. But it shouldn’t be shrugged off — especially by white people who are not in a position to make such determinations.

Nowadays, parents and students object to racist texts used in class, people contact the media, political leaders, HR departments and investigatory commissions to report incidents of racism. Companies are boycotted. Protests are organized, movements are mobilized. And organizations like Dr. Seuss Enterprises revisit their policies to ensure they are not perpetuating old-fashioned or harmful practices.

A teacher reads to a group of students
It is time to retire racist representations.
(Shutterstock)

Not without value

I regularly take racist materials out of general circulation — through yard sales, used book stores, discount stores like Dollarama and in tourist shops — so they might be used in research and teaching. I have made many donations to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, including some family heirloom photographs of one of my ancestors performing in vaudeville in blackface. In my classes on African history, I carefully use racist objects and texts to help teach students about histories of anti-Black racism.

While abhorrent, these texts, memorabilia and objects can be useful.

No children should see racism as something that is normal or funny. There is a lot of research that has examined the impact of the overwhelmingly negative representations of racialized people in popular culture. The research shows that images hurt people. That they contribute to assumptions that translate into discrimination in hiring, renting, selling, lending, treating, teaching and policing in ways that are hugely consequential for all of us.




Read more:
Caillou cancelled by PBS: Kids’ TV is now more diverse, but must do better


These realities accumulate across people’s lifetimes in ways that devalue us all because they perpetuate unconscious and conscious racism and inequality.

Retiring racist texts from children’s literature is a crucial step in interrupting the racist legacies that continue to hurt and divide us. With careful contextualization, these historical materials can help document and teach people about the realities of racism that are so often belittled or denied. It also makes space, literally and figuratively, for new texts by diverse authors featuring diverse characters that provide a fuller picture of the world that better reflects the rich variety of people, experiences and perspectives it has to offer.

This is especially important considering how much work still needs to be done in galleries, museums, libraries and archives. These institutions are still overwhelmingly white and male.

It is past time we reach social consensus that racist caricatures should be obsolete. Not everything from the past should be kept alive through republication. Move this content to museums and books on racism where it belongs, but don’t keep it circulating among children.The Conversation

Monica Eileen Patterson, Assistant Director, Institute for Comparative Studies in Literature, Art, and Culture (Curatorial Studies) and Associate Professor, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies, Carleton University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

When Black kids – shut out from the whitewashed world of children’s literature – took matters into their own hands



A newspaper boy hawks copies of the Chicago Defender.
Library of Congress

Paige Gray, Savannah College of Art and Design

Hanging on the wall in my office is the framed cover of the inaugural issue of The Brownies’ Book, a monthly periodical for Black youths created by W.E.B. Du Bois and other members of the NAACP in 1920.

The magazine – the first of its kind – includes poems and stories that speak of Black achievement and history, while also showcasing children’s writing.

Although much of American children’s literature published near the turn of the last century – and even today – filters childhood through the eyes of white children, The Brownies’ Book gave African American children a platform to explore their lives, interests and aspirations. And it reinforced what 20th-century American literature scholar Katharine Capshaw has described as Du Bois’ “faith in the ability of young people to lead the race into the future.”

Most likely inspired by The Brownies’ Book, several Black weekly newspapers went on to create their own children’s sections. While the children’s publishing industry may have shut out Black voices and perspectives, the editors of these periodicals sought to fill the void by celebrating them, giving kids a platform to express themselves, connect with one another and indulge their curiosities.

A pioneering publication

The cover image of that first issue of The Brownies’ Book, published in January 1920, epitomizes this effort. In it, a young Black girl stands on the tips of her toes, dressed in a ballet costume.

Already, this image represented a radically different vision of Black childhood. Children’s literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries very rarely focused on African Americans. The few Black children who did appear in print were often written or drawn as variations of Topsy, the enslaved young girl from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” who is initially considered “naughty” only to be redeemed by Eva, who plays the role of the “white savior.”

A smiling girl dressed in white raises her arms and stands en pointe.
The inaugural issue of ‘The Brownies’ Book.‘
Library of Congress

As children’s literature scholar Michelle H. Martin has noted, “children who wanted to read about black characters in children’s literature could read about buffoons, mammies, Sambos or savages,” but not about “the beauty” of Black children.

The girl on The Brownies’ Book cover offers a vastly different vision of Black childhood than the caricatures seen throughout popular culture of the time. She’s confident, excited and talented. The pages that follow feature an assortment of fiction, commentary, history and news for young readers that honors and extols Black identity.

One of the most compelling recurring sections is titled “The Jury,” which features children’s letters to the editor. In the magazine’s first issue, a boy named Franklin writes to ask about “things colored boys can work at when they grow up.” Eleanor wants the editor to recommend “some books on the Negro” so that she “can learn more about [her] race.” And a 15-year-old girl inquires about possible funding sources so that she can attend a boarding school that accepts African American students.

The Brownies’ Book had a relatively short run – 24 issues from January 1920 to December 1921. But it nonetheless seems to have encouraged a number of other Black newspapers to launch children’s sections in the early 1920s. The Pittsburgh Courier, Baltimore’s Afro-American and the Journal and Guide, published in Norfolk, Virginia, each experimented with children’s sections.

But by far the most successful effort was that of the Chicago Defender, which would launch a periodical section for Black youths that ran for decades.

‘Let us make the world know that we are living’

The Chicago Defender was perhaps the most influential Black newspaper of the 20th century. Its readership extended across the United States, and it helped spur the Great Migration, a time during which millions of African Americans left the South, by promoting job opportunities in Northern industrial cities like Chicago. Roi Ottley, biographer of Defender publisher Robert S. Abbott, wrote that only the Bible was more significant to Black Americans during the first half of the 20th century.

It contains spaces for a child's name, address, age, city and state.
An application form to join the Bud Billiken Club from the April 29, 1922, edition of the Chicago Defender.
ProQuest Historical Newspapers

In 1921, the Chicago Defender started publishing a section called the Defender Junior, run by a fictional editor named Bud Billiken. Billiken was really a 10-year-old boy named Willard Motley, who later became a noted novelist, though sometimes the paper’s adult editors wrote under Billiken moniker. In his first column, Billiken tells readers that he wants to fill “this column with sayings and doings of we little folks,” and implores them to submit their poems, questions and opinions.

Young readers could become members of the Bud Billiken Club by mailing in a form with their name, but they could also mail in letters and poetry as a way to correspond with their fellow Billikens. In June 1921, a girl named Ruth McBride of Oak Hill, Alabama, submitted the following letter to Bud:

“As I was reading the Chicago Defender a lovely paper of our Race, I came across some beautiful poems written by some of the members of your club. It filled my heart with joy to read such sweet poems. I am a little girl 9 years old, and I wish to join your club. If there is any space for me. I go to school and am in the fifth grade. My mother gets the Defender every week. Here is a poem I am sending:

  Down in the sunny South, where I was born,
  Where beautiful flowers are adoring,
  The daisies white and the purple lily.
  This is where the land is hilly."

In July 1921, Juanita Johnson of Washington, D.C., sent the Defender Junior her poem:

  "When you are lonely and don’t know what to do,
  When you must admit that you are feeling blue, 
  Take your pen in hand, my dear child, I entreat,
  And write the B.B. Club something nice and sweet.
  Your blues will depart, I’ll surely guarantee.
  You’ll cheer up at once, for so it is with me."

Black children could find – or at least attempt to find – their voices on the pages of these periodicals. For Bud Billiken, there was no greater urgency. In his introduction to the April 23, 1921, edition, he tells the story of a fly that “sat on the axle of a chariot wheel and said, ‘What a dust I do make.’”

“The fly imagines that he is causing the wheel to go around,” Billiken continues. “Let us not be like the fly, thinking we are doing something when really we only move as the world moves us.”

He concludes by writing, “The world would move on if we were not in it. This paper would be published just the same without our space. Let us make the world know that we are living and helping to make the noise and dust.”

The Defender Junior proved popular – so popular that the newspaper launched the Bud Billiken Parade in 1929 in Chicago’s South Side. By midcentury, the annual parade had become one of the largest gatherings of African Americans in the U.S., attracting national figures such as Duke Ellington and Muhammad Ali. In 2020, the beloved event was canceled for the first time in 91 years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A birds-eye view of a throng of kids marching in the parade.
Kids march during the 1967 Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

The Brownies’ Book, the Defender Junior and the children’s sections of other African American weeklies gave Black children a space to tell their stories, express their anxieties and assert their ambitions.

In that photograph of the ballerina on The Brownie’s Book’s first cover, I imagine her saying something similar to Bud Billiken’s appeal – “Let us make the world know that we are living.”

Or perhaps more simply, “Black lives matter.”

[Like what you’ve read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation’s daily newsletter.]The Conversation

Paige Gray, Professor of Writing and Liberal Arts, Savannah College of Art and Design

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Picture this: These beautiful books help children read the world



Detail from ‘Birdsong’ by Cree-Métis artist Julie Flett, which won the 2020 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for most distinguished book. The story follows an intergenerational friendship and speaks to change in children’s lives.
(Greystone Kids)

Beverley Brenna, University of Saskatchewan

Contemporary Canadian picture books are sweeping readers off their feet with compelling images as well as — or instead of — words.

Julie Flett’s Birdsong, for example, recently earned the 2020 TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award for the most distinguished book of the year. Before winning, the book was shortlisted alongside two other picture books and two middle-grade novels for this prestigious prize. Since 2014, many of the winners of this award have been picture books.

Combinations of images and words have come into their own as spectacular products of arts and culture. As such, they have tremendous potential in the wide field of literacy as families, schools and communities embrace shared reading opportunities.

Increased variety of stories

My research team and I recently explored 500 picture books created by authors or illustrators living in Canada and published since 2017 by Canadian publishers. I’ve also reviewed an array of modern titles that demonstrate the evolution of what Eliza Dresang, a professor of library science, called “radical change” in children’s literature.

Dresang identifies that in our digital age, we’re seeing an increased variety of forms and formats in children’s literature, and wider content boundaries. Children’s literature is currently engaging more serious subject matter and including perspectives that have been historically marginalized, such as stories about Indigenous people’s experiences of residential schools.

Through literary and artistic merit, many picture books attract wider age ranges and engage older adults than ever before. Some titles can even support struggling teen readers.

Today, picture books appear in a variety of genres, fiction and non-fiction, and generally unfold in 24 or 32 pages. Many of these books rely greatly on images to create and deepen meaning, and image quality is therefore critical. Readers now have access to multi-media projects with tremendous artistic merit, as well as stunning projects without any words at all, such as Sidewalk Flowers, illustrated by Sydney Smith and authored by JonArno Lawson. This wordless picture book won the 2015 Governor General’s Award in the category for children’s illustrated books.

‘Sidewalk Flowers,’ written by JonArno Lawson and illustrated by Sydney Smith.

Choosing books for children

Children need access to stories that authentically represent their lived lives. Educators and parents who are selecting picture books for children should examine the illustrations as well as the words, seeking titles that are representative of the world we live in. Audiences need diverse characters who are portrayed respectfully and accurately in terms of culture, language, religion, social class, ability, sexual orientation and gender.

The increasing availability of dual-language books offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate multiple languages, with translations either embedded as single words or full text variations.

The following books are extraordinary in both text and illustration, grouped here as a snapshot of contemporary excellence that represents diverse communities, identity themes and artistic media. Include them in home and school collections or enjoy them from your local public library.


A girl on a ship.
‘The Land Beyond the Wall.’
(Nimbus Publlishing)

The Land Beyond the Wall, by Veronika Martenova Charles.

Nimbus Publishing, 2017.

This allegory, presented in evocative narrative and watercolour, follows a young girl who moves to a country where she is free to be an artist. The author’s afterword discusses her childhood behind the Iron Curtain, arriving in Canada via Pier 21 in Halifax. For ages 5–12+.


A child with birds.
‘My Beautiful BIrds.’
(Pajama Press)

My Beautiful Birds, by Suzanne Del Rizzo.

Pajama Press, 2017.

Sami has escaped war-torn Syria and lives in a refugee camp. As he befriends four new birds, he begins to adjust to his new life. Poetic language pairs well here with stunning illustrations created through Plasticine, polymer clay and acrylics. For ages 6–10+.


A cat sits on a man.
‘My Cat Look Like My Dad’
(OwlKids)

My Cat Looks Like My Dad, by Thao Lam.

OwlKids, 2019.

This unique story, presented with retro-style collage, lists the various ways the narrator’s dad resembles their cat. A surprising twist at the end: the narrator is actually a bird. The message is that family is what you make it. For ages 3–8+.


Cover of book showing children in an Arctic town.
‘Kisimi taimaippaktut angirrarijarani/Only in my hometown’
(House of Anansi Press)

Kisimi taimaippaktut angirrarijarani/Only in my hometown, written by Angnakuluk Friesen, illustrated by Ippiksaut Friesen and translated by Jean Kusugak.

House of Anansi Press, 2017.

Free-verse childhood memories, paired with evocative paintings, illuminate growing up in a small Arctic town. The text unfolds in two languages: Inuktitut (using both syllabics and transliterated roman orthography) and English. For ages 5–adult.


‘Africville’
(Groundwood Books)

Africville, written Shauntay Grant and illustrated by Eva Campbell.

Groundwood Books, 2018.

A young girl visits the former site of Africville and imagines this historic Black Nova Scotian community while thinking about family stories. Textured oil-and-pastel-on-canvas illustrations extend the lyrical text. An author’s note provides more information about Africville’s development from an early settlement, and how the community was razed by the city of Halifax in the 1960s. For ages 4–8+.


A boy and a cat.
‘Seamus’s Short Story.’
(House of Anansi Press)

Seamus’s Short Story, written by Heather Hartt-Sussman and illustrated by Milan Pavlović.

House of Anansi Press, 2017.

When Seamus wears his mother’s high-heeled shoes, he can reach everything! But … there are definitely times to be tall and times to be small. This is a nuanced story about innovation, self-acceptance and love, presented with a bright palette of colour. For ages 4–8.


A leaping dog.
‘The Dog Who Wanted to Fly’
(Annick Press)

The Dog Who Wanted to Fly, written by Kathy Stinson and illustrated by Brandon James Scott.

Annick Press, 2019.

This warm-hearted story, enriched by Brandon Smith’s highly animated illustrations, encourages readers to follow their dreams. Zora is a well-developed and compelling canine character that audiences will cherish. For ages 3–8.


A girl and a wolf.
‘The Girl and the Wolf’
(Theytus Books Ltd.)

The Girl and the Wolf, written by Katherena Vermette and illustrated by Julie Flett.

Theytus Books Ltd., 2019.

A girl gathers berries with her mother when she becomes lost in the woods. A wolf helps her use her wits and she finds her family. Later, she leaves tobacco in a red cloth as a gift of thanks. Julie Flett’s textured mixed-media images extend Katherena Vermette’s powerful text about finding courage and wisdom inside ourselves. The author’s note says this story was “inspired by traditional stories, yes, but in no way taken from one.” For ages 4–9+.


A horse rider in the distance.
‘The Outlaw’
(House of Anansi Press)

The Outlaw by Nancy Vo.

House of Anansi Press, 2018.

A young boy speaks on behalf of an outlaw returning to make amends in this story about redemption. The images use ink, watercolour and newsprint transfer, with newspaper clippings and fabric patterns from the late 19th century. For ages 5–9+.The Conversation

Beverley Brenna, Professor of Curriculum Studies, College of Education, University of Saskatchewan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Six Australians in the Running for the 2021 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award


The link below is to an article reporting on six Australian authors, illustrators and organisations as having been announced as candidates for the 2021 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the world’s richest prize for children’s literature.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/30/158875/six-australian-nominees-for-2021-astrid-lindgren-memorial-award/

2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards Winners


The link below is to an article reporting on the winners of the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards.

For more visit:
https://www.booksandpublishing.com.au/articles/2020/10/16/158101/cbca-book-of-the-year-2020-winners-announced/

Five books to read to children that adults will enjoy


Alison Baker, University of East London

Recent research from the Literacy Trust has indicated that children’s interest in and enjoyment of reading increased during lockdown. However, some children who were less confident as readers did not report that their reading was as easily supported by parents when schools and libraries were closed. As some parts of the UK go into lockdown, what books can parents and carers share with children that both adults and children can both enjoy?

Oi Frog! by Kes Gray

In this wonderful picture book for kids aged three to six, an officious cat explains to a frog why it must sit on a log, even though it is bumpy and there is a danger of splinters in the bottom. All animals must sit on objects that rhyme, such as pumas on satsumas and gorillas on chinchillas. The inventive rhymes, combined with Jim Field’s colourful illustrations, will provide many laughs and make repeated sharing enjoyable.

Illustrations by Jim Field.

Look Up! by Nathan Bryon

Rocket loves looking up at the stars and wants to be an astronaut when she grows up, like Mae Jamieson, the first Black woman to travel into space. Her brother Jamal, who is more interested in looking down at his phone, has promised to take her to the park to see a meteor shower, but first, they have to go to the supermarket, where Rocket tries to get the other shoppers excited with amazing space facts. Can she interest her neighbours? And will anyone else come to the park? Rocket’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the tender portrayal of the siblings’ relationship will delight adults and children six and up.

Illustrations by Dapo Adeola.

Harriet Versus the Galaxy by Samantha Baines

Harriet has had to move in with her gran because her dad’s lorry driving job takes him away from home. While looking for her hearing aid under her bed, Harriet finds an alien and discovers that when she wears her aid she can understand its language. Harriet learns that her gran is a member of an intergalactic security agency and Earth is under attack. Can Harriet, her new friend Robin, her gran and a sock munching alien save the planet? This funny and exciting book, from inclusive publishers Knights Of, has short chapters and lively illustrations, making it a perfect shared book for readers not quite ready to read a novel for themselves (ages six to 11).

Illustrations Jessica Flores.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

Ten-year-old Morrigan Crow was born on the unluckiest day, Eventide, and as such is blamed for all misfortunes that befall her town. Worst of all, Morrigan is cursed to die midnight on her eleventh birthday. However, just before the curse can come true she is whisked away by traveller, adventurer and hotel proprietor Jupiter North to the hidden Free State city of Nevermoor, home of the Wundrus Society. Can Morrigan pass the trials to join the mysterious society? Can she outwit the Free State immigration officers? And is Morrigan’s life still in danger?

This book is enormous fun. Jessica Townsend has created a fantastic cast of characters, and it would be a wonderful book to read with or to children aged eight and above. The audiobook, read by Gemma Whelan, would also be wonderful to share.

Sawbones by Catherine Johnson

Film writer and novelist Catherine Johnson is well known for her historical novels, and this is one of her best. In 18th-century London, Ezra McAdam, a mixed-race 16-year-old surgeon’s apprentice, foils a break-in at his master’s house. This sets off an exciting chain of events that include grave robbing and murder. Along the way he is befriended by Loveday Finch, the daughter of a man whose murdered body has similar injuries to corpses that Ezra has dissected; can Ezra and Loveday survive to find out the truth behind her father’s murder? A fantastically exciting read to be shared and discussed with readers aged ten and above.The Conversation

Alison Baker, Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies, University of East London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.