Reading in Color: Children's Book Illustrations and Identity Formation for Black Children in the United States

Article excerpt

In her Coretta Scott King Award acceptance speech, Virginia Hamilton said, "Literature gives us images with which to think" (684). This is literally true for the illustrations which accompany much of children's literature. In these post-modem times, meaning lies with readers, or, in the case of illustrations, with viewers, who bring their experiential past, including literary experience, to bear upon their understanding of present circumstance. The late Israeli scholar Joseph Schwarcz has proposed that illustrations have a psychological effect upon children, that the illustrations which children encounter in literature teach them how to deal with problems in their lives, how to model their lives, how to become adults. Though Schwarcz couches his arguments in terms of psychological development, he assumes some principles of visual literacy, a term which Richard Sinatra defines as "the active reconstruction of past visual experience with incoming information to obtain meaning" (57). Visual literacy takes as one of its concepts the idea of schemata, which Piaget defines as "mental image[s] or ... pattern[s] of action [which] become a way of representing and organizing all of the child's previous sensory-motor experience." (Sinatra 9). The illustrations children encounter in their early literature, as sensory experience, can become important parts of this schemata, part of the building blocks of their thinking, something to which they will refer in their actions as they grow up, fulfilling the role Schwarcz assigns them in the formation of identity. Schwarcz, however, did not deal with the effect of illustrations upon identity formation in children of minority cultures. In this essay, I shall apply some of Schwarcz's ideas, as well as some ideas from the visual literacy school, to the possible effect of illustrations on black(1) children in America.

Schwarcz begins his chapter on the emergence of identity in The Picture Book Comes of Age by observing that,

throughout childhood, the individual's personality grows and expands. Slowly, yet forcefully, biopsychological processes, genetic inheritance, physical constitution, and life experiences lead the child toward a larger measure of consciousness of his or her own self and of independence.... The search for individuality includes many interrelated aspects.... the contemporary picture-book story attempts to entertain the child and to aid him or her by offering plots, relationships, and metaphors for the various facets of the search. (84)

The formation of identity is a crisis each of us must go through on our journey to adulthood. The separation from parents and the development of a code by which to rule our adult lives are very serious undertakings. Difficult as these processes are for all children, they are especially difficult for those of African descent in the United States. In addition to defining their adult character, they must define themselves in terms of their cultural heritage as well as their national heritage - African American as well as American - what W. E. B. Du Bois called their "double-consciousness" (45).

One of the ways in which black children in America create their schemata is through the illustrations they encounter in the literature to which they are exposed as children. Children, especially young children, are sensitive to illustrations. They concentrate on illustrations while another person reads to them, and they are subject to the impressions illustrations create. The images these children soak up remain with them for the rest of their lives. The importance of children's illustrations has long been recognized, but recognition of their importance as a force in the psychological growth of the child is a fairly new phenomenon.

Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment (1977) changed the way some scholars came to think about children's literature. Stories were no longer perceived as gentle things to while away the hours, as innocuous children's amusements, or as harmless vehicles for the formal education of children, as were the chapbooks of eighteenth-century England and America Though Bettelheim may have been haphazard in his application of Freudian principles and though Freudian concepts seem outdated in the 1990s, Bettelheim spurred the application of theories of psychological development to the interpretation of children's literature. …