Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

Reflections on the Development of African American Children's Literature

Academic journal article Journal of Children's Literature

Reflections on the Development of African American Children's Literature

Article excerpt


Bishop reflects on her scholarship in the field of African American children's literature and the emergence ofthat literature as a cohesive body of work.

As a doctoral student at Wayne State University in Detroit, I taught, along with a few other doctoral students, some of the undergraduate courses in children's literature. One year in the early 1970s, we graduate student-instructors were recruited as helpers at a book fair. Among the books to be displayed was a set of children's books, all related to African Americans, that the late Donald J. Bissett, director of the children's literature program, had named the Darker Brother collection after a line in Langston Hughes's (1932) poem "I, Too": "I, too, sing America. / 1 am the darker brother" (p. 76). Don encouraged me to read all the books in that collection and suggested that he and I should write an article together based on our assessments of those books from our differing perspectives: that of a White male children's literature expert and that of a Black female doctoral student in education. At the time, I was focused on my dissertation, and Don and I never got around to writing that piece, but the seeds of a scholarly vocation had been planted.

The exciting thing about the Darker Brother collection was that it was a sign that what Larrick (1965) had labeled the "all-White world" of children's literature was no longer all White. By the end of the decade, combined social, political, and economic forces had begun to propel the field of children's literature toward greater diversity. The numbers of contemporary children's books focused on Black characters and Black life and history were beginning to increase, offering opportunities for scholarly examinations of their content.

Much of the scholarly attention to children's books ing African Americans in the 1970s and early 1980s focused on critiquing the visual and verbal representations of Black characters in such books. One of the most frequently cited studies is that of Broderick (1973), who analyzed more than a century (1827-1967) of children's fiction featuring Black characters. Broderick's analysis revealed that those books reflected, with some slight variation, the same history of racist stereotypes and caricatures that had been identified in adult fiction 40 years earlier by Brown (1933). Many critics saw a ation of those patterns in some award-winning rary children's books, such as the Newbery Medal Sounder (Armstrong, 1969) and the Jane Addams winner The Cay (Taylor, 1969), which became centers of controversy. Although I contributed to the controversies with my review (Sims, 1980) of Ouida Sebestyen's novel Words by Heart (1979), my main focus was not searching out stereotypes and misrepresentations in individual books. My concern was how the growing body of featuring Black characters was taking shape.

Differentiating Shadow from Substance

By 1980, 1 had decided to follow up on a variation of Bissett's suggestion regarding the Darker Brother collection. I set out to analyze as many of the existing contemporary Black-inclusive children's fiction books as I could find, with a view to describing the shape and content of what I was thinking of at the time as an incipient African American children's literature. I searched for books that had been published between 1965 (the year of Larrick's "all-White world" article) and 1979, the year before I started my study. I was curious about what stories were being told and whether I could discern any recurring thematic or stylistic features that might distinguish the literature as a cohesive body of work. I was able to locate 150 books, which was a substantial portion of the realistic fiction featuring Black characters that had been published during the period. My readings of those books became the basis of my first book, Shadow and Afro-American Experience in Contemporary Children's Fiction (Sims, 1982).

My study was guided by three questions derived from my perception of the issues surrounding the publication and criticism of post-1965 children's books with Black characters. …

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