An 11-year-old girl from New Jersey named Marley Dias received national media attention this month for her drive to collect 1,000 books featuring protagonists who are black girls.
"I was sick of reading about white boys and dogs," Marley explained in an article on PhillyVoice.com. The sixth-grade activist plans to donate the books she collects to her school and to schools and libraries in her mother's hometown in Jamaica.
Marley's far from the only one looking for representation in children's books. Tracey Baptiste, author of the fun Caribbean monster story "The Jumbies," spoke in Baltimore last year at the annual KidLitCon about the illustrated fairy tales she loved during her childhood in Trinidad.
"There was one thing not quite right about my books," she said. "The only people like me [in them] ... were slaves. For a reflection of myself, this was all I was offered. Where were all the small brown girls with thick braids?"
Despite national initiatives like We Need Diverse Books — an organization that advocates for increased representation in children's books — it can still be difficult to find books featuring African-American girls solving mysteries, kicking butt or just getting through another day of cafeteria food and playground drama. We've assembled a few.
Great picture books can show pre-readers that the world of books welcomes them, no matter what they look like or where they live. The mischievous title character of "Ella" by Mallory Kasdan lives in a hip big-city hotel, Sonya of "Sonya's Chickens" lives in the country, and Alta, whose hero is the sprinter Wilma Rudolph, is "The Quickest Kid in Clarksville," a small town in Tennessee.
Sophia in "One Word From Sophia" by Jim Averbeck demonstrates how persuasion works as she asks for a special pet; Grace in Kelly DiPucchio's "Grace for President" does a great job explaining the Electoral College, while little Winifred Schnitzel of Lane Frederickson's "Monster Trouble" just wants a good night's sleep. Happy Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa with her boisterous multigenerational family. Little kids will enjoy her antics in picture books such as "Double Trouble for Anna Hibiscus" and then graduate to short chapter books like "Hooray for Anna Hibiscus" and "Have Fun, Anna Hibiscus!"
It's especially important for children who are new to reading to see themselves reflected in their reading material. When your skills are still a little shaky, it can be reassuring to meet a character with whom you can identify. Look for the Lulu books by Hilary McKay, "Nikki & Deja" by Karen English, Katherine Cox's "Katie Fry Private Eye" and the "Sassy" books by Sharon Draper.
Tween readers who like realistic fiction can try "Twintuition," a new series written by TV stars Tia and Tamera Mowry, "Cleo Edison Oliver: Playground Millionaire" by Sundee Frazier and "The Magnificent Mya Tibbs" by Crystal Allen. The girls in these upbeat novels navigate minor school and relationship crises with ingenuity and resourcefulness.
Kids who like stories set in the past are in luck. Bravery in the face of racism and peril is the theme of "Stella by Starlight" by Sharon Draper, set in the South in the 1930s. "The Unstoppable Octobia May" by Sharon Flake is about a 1950s-era self-styled sleuth. Thirteen-year-old Reesie Boone lives through Hurricane Katrina and its long-term effects on her family in "Finding Someplace" by Denise Lewis Patrick. And the three award-winning books of the Gaither girls trilogy ("One Crazy Summer," "P.S. Be Eleven" and "Gone Crazy in Alabama") by Rita Williams Garcia shine a light on many facets of life in 1960s America, from the Black Panthers to the Vietnam War, from New York City to California to rural Alabama.
Some exciting choices for slightly older readers are the graphic novel series "Ms. Marvel" by G. Willow Wilson, the hard-boiled, fast-paced detective novel "Scarlett Undercover" by Jennifer Latham and "Shadowshaper" by Daniel Jose Older, a thrilling tale of magic set in Brooklyn, N.Y.
One factor that may contribute to the relative rarity of African-American girls as main characters is the assumption that boys won't read books about girls. Librarians hear this from parents all the time. So when picking a book for a class to read, many teachers may select a book they think boys won't balk at. That means a book that stars a boy — a book, as Marley Dias notes, "about white boys or dogs."
It's sad to think that people have such low expectations of boys. After all, we expect African-American children to read about white kids all the time, and any girl who refused to read books with male main characters would end up in serious academic trouble.
Gene Luen Yang, the newly minted National Ambassador for Children's Literature, has made reading about "people who are different from us" a priority message that he plans to deliver during his two-year appointment. "By reading other people's stories," he says, "we can develop insight and compassion." He suggests that kids "read a book with someone on the cover who doesn't look like you or live like you."
Paula Willey is a librarian at the Parkville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library. She writes about children's and teen literature for various national publications and online at unadulterated.us. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.