Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Denene Millner recommends books for kids

The following is from Denene, who will give away signed copies of three children's books she's authored or served as editorial consultant on:

My Brother, Charlie, by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Peete
March On, by Christine King Farris

Read below and leave Denene a comment for a chance to win! Feel free to chime in and tell us what children's books you are giving this year. You have until December 20th to leave your comment. Denene will send the books in January. Thanks much Denene!

Why I Buy Children's Books by Black Authors and Why You Should Too

I hated bugs, so playing in the backyard wasn’t an option. And my parents, who worked and slept and worked around the clock, didn’t have time to entertain me, so being taken to the park or bowling or the museum hardly ever happened—if at all. And I didn’t have many friends, so there was that. Books were my refuge. My babysitters. My BFFs. Judy Blume. Beverly Cleary. Frances Hodges Burnett. Their worlds, their spirits, their thoughts, their shenanigans—all of it made me… happy.

I never really noticed that none of the characters looked like me. There were no black girls, no cornrows, no thick lips and chocolate kisses and double-dutch rhymes on the library shelves or at the bookstore at the mall or in the cleverly-wrapped boxes under our Christmas tree. It just was what it was.

So long ago, it was what it was.

But when I got pregnant with my first baby, I promised that this didn’t have to be her reality—that my child didn’t have to spend the most impressionable part of her life missing and longing for herself in the pages of the best gifts I could ever give her: literature. And before she made her big debut on this sweet Earth, she had a shelf full of books, many of them books that featured characters that looked like her: Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day,” “Goggles,” “and Whistle For Willie”; Vera B. Williams’ “More, More, More Said the Baby”; Faith Ringold’s “Tar Beach,” Nikki Giovanni’s “The Sun Is So Quiet,” Donald Crews’ “Big Mama,” Andrea Davis Pinkney’s “Duke Ellington: The Piano Prince and His Orchestra.” Admittedly, the pickings were slim. But I found them.

Some eleven years later, the pickings are still slim. I mean, presumably there are more books for, about and by children of color being published today than there were back in 1999, for sure. But finding them is about as elusive as a towheaded elf beneath a four-leaf clover. I swear, at least once a week I find myself standing in Borders or Barnes & Noble, watching some unsuspecting clerk search in vain for children’s books featuring black characters, knowing full well they’re not there. Their exasperation with the search always leads to a heart-felt discussion about why the store doesn’t bother to carry black children’s books (they insist no one buys them; I suggest that it’s impossible to buy something that isn’t available for purchase), which inevitably leads to me lecturing about how important it is for stores, librarians, teachers and parents to recognize that books featuring children of color not only can help make black kids fall in love with the written word, but, in the most basic of ways, give white children an up close and personal view into the worlds of little people who don’t look like them, but, in many ways, are just like them. I wrote about that last point in a piece for the MyBrownBaby page on, in which I fessed up to integrating the bookshelves of my children’s white friends by giving them black books for birthdays, Christmas and, well, just because:

My hope is when I pass along a black children's book or a black doll baby to my daughters' friends, that they get the same subliminal lessons -- that brown children matter. Books like "Ruby and the Booker Boys" speak to our experiences and show both our differences and our commonalities with white culture. Introducing books like these to white children is the most simple, basic way to introduce a child to another race in a positive, thoughtful way. A white child introduced to Ruby may not necessarily say, "Oh look! A black girl is the star of this book!" when she reads it. She might not notice the character's color at all. But she just might decide to make friends with a little black girl out on the playground because she looks like the character in the book she liked. And since she really liked that book, she'll probably really like that little girl, too. Children really are that simple. That uncomplicated…

And really, it is that uncomplicated. Debbie Allen’s “Dancing in the Wings” is every bit as poignant a tale about self-esteem as, say, Jamie Lee Curtis’s “I’m Gonna Like Me,”  just as Derrick Barnes’ “Ruby and the Booker Boys” series is as sassy and humorous and identifiable as Beverly Cleary’s “Ramona” books. But black children hardly know this because the black stories are hardly ever made available to them and white children are clueless about it because no one ever fixes their mouths to suggest them as good books they might enjoy.

And that is the shame of it all.

And so this Christmas, I’ll be stashing black children’s books in as many gift bags as I can, donating them to as many charitable causes as I can find, and requesting them as additions to my own incredible and burgeoning black children’s book collection. Here’s what I’ll be purchasing for my sweet little friends:

Miss You, Mina, by Denene Millner
My Brother, Charlie, by Holly Robinson Peete and Ryan Peete


Wilhelmina said...

When my first child was born 40 years ago, there were so few books for children that included black characters that my friends and I made our own using pictures from magazines like Ebony and National Geographic. I can't tell you what a joy it was when a few books like "Bubbles" by Eloise Greenfield began to appear. Thank you to all of the wonderful authors who make it possible for me to fill my grandsons' bookshelves with a multicultural rainbow of children's books!

evelyn.n.alfred said...

I don't remember reading a lot of books that had Black characters when I was growing up either, but there were a few.

I search for YA books that feature teens of color so that I can use them in my English and Literature classes.

MBB Founder and Editor Denene Millner said...

@WDJenkins1: Eloise Greenfield is a favorite around these parts! You can feel the love she has for children in every word, in every picture. Fantastic!

@Evelyn: Thank you for helping us authors of color reach our audience. May I suggest my teen series, Hotlanta? It's like The Gossip Girls, but written from the perspective of African American teenagers in ATL, and there's WAY less sexual innuendo and inappropriate stuff. Teenagers who get their hands on it love it, and parents appreciate that it isn't as racy as some of the other more popular teen fare.

Doret said...

Most booksstores this time of year, are doing holiday book drives.

If you donate a book please consider giving one by a Black author and don't forget the older readers.

I've already donated Ninth Ward.

Carleen Brice said...

Doret, Thanks for the note about donating and for mentioning Ninth Ward.

MBB Founder and Editor Denene Millner said...

@Doret: That's EXACTLY what I'm talking about. I did a post on MyBrownBaby recently about donating a book to a book drive at our local Borders, and none of the pre-selected books they recommended for donations featured children of color. So I insisted on making my own choice, and I searched all over that store for a black book to donate and there were TWO: Miss You, Mina (mine) and Sassy (Sharon Flake). That was it. Let's just say the resulting conversation with the saleswoman made for interesting debate. I was NOT happy. But now, whenever I'm in the store, I donate, and whenever I donate, I search and search until I find a book by or featuring writers and characters of color.

Unknown said...

I agree and love what you are doing here. Our children and society as a whole need exposure to cultural diversity at an early age. I have made my initial contribution to the early elementary segment with Aha Jones! Check out The Adventures of Aha Jones "New School Blues." Through Aha and these other great books we are "empowering our children with wisdom!"

Unknown said...

Hey! Just thought you might be interested in checking out my latest book giveaway at!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Thanks for this post! You have some great ideas here. As a librarian I have always worked to make sure we have POC books and display them prominently all year round. Just to make sure kids of all colors notice the options!

I am getting my sons (age 8 & 5) He's Got the Whole World in His Hands by Kadir Nelson. Any more suggestions for boys this age range? Esp. beginning readers and early chapter books.

Anonymous said...

I used to search voraciously for these books when my children were younger. I have some of the classics like Hundred Penny Books and Roll of Thunder in my 7-12 library but I have the picture books, too. The art teachers use them for the illustrations while social studies and language arts teachers use them to introduce lessons.