A Stark Race Gap - in Kids' Books ; as More African-Americans Get Published, Educators Ask: Might Their Tales Raise the Reading Skills of Black Students?

Article excerpt

The girls in the sixth-grade at New York's Manhattan School for Children fell hard for Bobby. They fell so hard, in fact, that author Angela Johnson decided to pluck the doting teenage father and his daughter, Feather, from her 1998 book "Heaven" and cast them as the central characters in a later novel. She dedicated "The First Part Last," published in 2003, to that 1999-2000 sixth-grade class.

They weren't the only ones taken with "Heaven." A young girl walked into a book-signing in Columbus, Ohio, last fall, clutching a battered copy of the book. She threw her arms around Ms. Johnson, then ran off in tears, without ever uttering a word.

"More than likely it was her story," says Johnson. "She didn't stay to fill me in, but I sort of got through the bookstore owner that she had been through tough times."

It's only been in the last decade or so that African-American children and teenagers have been able to see their experiences carefully rendered in books by African-American authors.

Before the explosion of multicultural children's literature in the early '90s, books by black authors with black protagonists were largely missing from the canon - absent from bookstores and school reading curricula.

While few educators would suggest that this vacancy has contributed to the achievement gap - that stubborn performance divide between black students and their white counterparts - anecdotal evidence suggests that these books may be inspiring more black children to read, and perhaps helping to redress the pernicious divide.

Just 12 percent of African-American fourth-graders were reading at grade level in 2000, compared with 40 percent of their white peers, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

If nothing else, African-American children's books are capturing the imaginations of black children. And they are engaging their classmates - black, white, Latino, Asian - by throwing open a window onto previously untold stories.

"I've had students in class become more excited about reading when they happen to read a book that reflects their own experiences," says Nancy Livingston, a fifth-grade teacher at Littlebrook School in Princeton, N.J. "I find them coming to me for more books by that author."

The majority of Ms. Livingston's students are white. But she likes to remind all her pupils that growing up, she "never, ever read a book with an African-American character."

That didn't stop her from developing a love of reading, but she can imagine how it might have affected a more reluctant reader, one struggling to find a place in the world of books.

"This invisibility in literature had at least the potential to make kids feel as if literature were something that was outside them," says Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University's School of Teaching and Learning, whose specialty is African-American children's literature.

As a doctoral student, Professor Bishop took part in research on children who spoke stable American dialects. In places such as Maine and Texas, which retained the distinctiveness of the dialect, children were asked to read two stories. One, they all read. The other was culturally relevant to their individual lives - either through setting or subject matter. The finding? The children better understood the culturally relevant story. This may imply that "relevance can make a difference in kids' achievement," says Bishop.

Without more evidence, she is hesitant to draw a causal link between cultural relevance and reading achievement. …