Diverse Books

A friend recently reached out asking what her good-hearted, brave daughter, barely a teenager, could do to combat racism in her mostly white small town. The kid had overheard a discussion about racist incidents and wanted to go out and bust some Nazi heads, and directing that impulse to something peacefully productive instead of stifling it entirely was her mom’s first response.

In the round-robin text thread that ensued we came around to the idea of making sure the local library had books by and about people of color, for all age groups. I thought of that reading this: 

Fattal: In your book you talk about nostalgia and how parents are reluctant to acknowledge racism in the books they loved growing up and want to read to their kids. Can parents share these books with their kids while also acknowledging their troubling elements?

Nel: I think that what we have to do is admit that our relationships with these books can be complicated. It’s okay to think fondly of a beautiful story, but you need to also think about the way in which that beautiful story may also be racist. We can talk about what is masterful about it or what is artistic about it, but we also need to talk about some of the things in the book which are not, and if presented uncritically are simply transmitting these ideas to a new generation. I think adults need to recognize that their fondness for a book or a movie is not a defense of that. I think you would actually have a richer and more profound relationship with a work if you do think about it critically, and if we do acknowledge those mixed feelings.

Kick has a bazillion books and lots of them have characters who are black; fewer and farther between are Asian or Hispanic characters. Often the children of color in these books are one of an ensemble; a named character is almost always white or Deliberately Vaguely Biracial. She has a book about Maya Angelou she’s obsessed with, however, and one about Frida Kahlo.

Do you remember the first book you read about a person of color? What was it? Would you recommend it to someone else?


8 thoughts on “Diverse Books

  1. The Snowy Day, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Five Chinese Brothers, The Story about Ping…I love you and miss you, Mom.

  2. For an almost-teen, “Akata Witch” by Nnedi Okorafor. It’s like a soul food Harry Potter. The rest of her stuff is also great, I just read that “Who Fears Death” is getting made into an HBO show which is easily the happiest thing I read all week.

    For little kids, “My Two Grandmas” and”My Two Grandpa’s.” The Corduroy stories are great, I hadn’t remembered until we got the books for my kids that Lisa, Corduroy’s friend/owner is Black.

  3. The Good Earth by Pearl Buck shocked me as a young teenager. Famine, mon-Christians, anther and father who were not married in a ceremony of any kind…

  4. While I don’t recall the first book I read with a POC in it (I read prolifically as a kid – stacks from the library every week), one stands out a couple of years before high school (shortly after it was written), a book of 672 pages called “Yes I Can” -the autobiography of Sammy Davis Jr. – I grew up very aware of bigotry/racism, but even then the life in this book was revealing, shocking, powerful…and then my Mother took it away (before I’d quite finished it), thinking it too violent – and perhaps too “real” in some way. It was too late anyway, I’d read the worst parts. It was not the last experience reading of peoples inhumanity to ‘the others’…nor the last time living it.
    Sadly, we don’t seem to have moved forward socially at all since then.

  5. The first book with a POC main character was also the first book I remember and ever “read” through memorization. “Boo, the little Indian boy.”

    A quick google tells me it was published by Avon in 1952, and the authors – one of them worked for Disney, the others, it is unclear.

    My grandmother had her MA in Special Ed, and taught in rural Idaho from the 1920s until the 1970s. This is the book she chose to use to teach me how to read. . . in the 70’s. . . just like she had with my aunt and uncles, and two generations of kids in logging country. (ok, that’s an exaggeration, she had other books, too)

    A small boy, tending his father’s sheep, has to defend the flock from a mountain lion, rock slides, drought, starvation, etc. Danger, adversity, responsibility, clear-thinking and bravery are the themes I remember – vaguely.

    I think it is important to remember that we weren’t all, always homophobic, woman-hating racists. That there has also been a part of our schools, our communities and our families that worked quietly for the principles of diversity, democracy and inclusion. That our side is often silenced, and always ignored, does not mean it has not also always been there.

    Childrens’ books from the ’40’s-70’s are filled with good ideas. The environmentalism and the limited but crucial personal agency of The Lorax, for example, with it’s conclusion “unless someone like you cares a whole lot” etc.Or another of Seuss’ greats “The Sneeches” – see Driftglass’s edition available at his place.


  6. 1001 Arabian Nights, Roots, and The Good Earth, and Huckleberry Finn are a few I was checking out from my rural elementary and junior high school libraries in the late 70’s and 80’s.

    I would probably not recommend them to my nieces, since there are many more choices these days.

    I often wonder how I would’ve reacted reading a book with a LGBT character, if it would have helped me not feel so isolated and alone.

  7. If her mom thinks she’s old enough, get that young activist a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Then get her an adult to talk to afterward, who will help her channel that righteous anger into something worthwhile.

  8. I still don’t track the race of authors whose books I read, so the first book I read that I know was by a person of color was “Manchild in the Promised Land.” It’s an autobiography about how heroin changed Harlem in the 20th century. I was pretty young when I read it and it expanded my mind to a painful degree. I’m so grateful.

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