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
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
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. …