“Children’s books may be the last significant part of African-American culture yet to be exported around the world,” said author and illustrator Christopher Myers as part of a panel discussion entitled “Black Books Matter” at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair on Monday, April 1. The panel was held in conjunction with a Bologna exhibition of reproductions of images from Coretta Scott King Award-winning books offered in partnership with the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature in Abilene, Tex. Other speakers on the panel included Rudine Sims Bishop, author and lecturer at Ohio State University; Claudette McLinn, chair of the Coretta Scott King Award Committee; and authors Joshunda Sanders and Nikki Grimes.
Children’s book historian Leonard S. Marcus moderated the event and opened with a thorough history of African-American children’s publishing, from W.E.B. Du Bois’s work on The Brownies’ Book in the early 20th century up to the establishment of the Coretta Scott King Award, which has been instrumental in highlighting the success of African-American authors and illustrators and bringing their work to a broader audience.
Each of the speakers then in turn reflected on Marcus’s survey. As the story has evolved, they acknowledged, African-American children’s book publishing has moved from focusing primarily on historical narratives about slavery and biographies of important historical African-American figures, to using representations of African-American children as protagonists, in milestone books such as Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day. Bishop pointed to Walter Dean Myers’s 1991 book Now Is Our Time as a touchstone work for the previous and current generation of African-American authors, such as Sanders, who used the panel as an occasion to debut her first children’s book, I Can Write the World, which is illustrated by Charly Palmer and will be published by Six Foot Press in June.
Myers, following Bishop’s comments, acknowledged his patrimony. “I miss my daddy,” he said, before starting an overview of his own globetrotting career, which includes artistic projects in Indonesia, Kenya, Rwanda, and Vietnam. Myers then offered an impassioned argument as to why African-American culture, and literature in particular, is relevant to other cultures and countries across the world.
“When we think about wrestling with difficult histories, these are the things we have been doing as African-Americans forever,” Myers said. “When you think about what does it mean to connect cultures, I think about living as an African-American and the ways in which we find ourselves living on that hyphen. That is the way the rest of the world is going: when you ask someone where they are from today, you get increasingly complicated answers.”
Alluding to the unacknowledged ways many contemporary stories echo those of the slave narrative in African-American history, Myers noted that, “When we think about all the issues facing our nations, from migration of people crossing the Mediterranean in boats today, to the Philippine nannies in Abu Dhabi taking care of other people’s babies, or the West Africans in Calabria picking fruit, these are all our stories.”
He argued that the experience of African-Americans and the way in which the African-American community continues to deal with its difficult history could be a model for other societies. “We can [ask ourselves] ‘how did you tell the story, use the materials available to you, how did you cope with that history,’ and maybe use that as a model all across the board.”
Opening the floor to questions, Marcus asked foreign publishers to share their experiences. A Brazilian publisher noted that the African heritage of the country was virtually non-existent in children’s literature available in his country. He added that several African-Brazilian writers said they would not be comfortable working with him because he was white.
The Brazilian publisher asked if anyone on the panel had encountered similar circumstances. Myers replied that indeed there is a dearth of African-American editors, but noted that there were some changes afoot, citing the launch of Kwame Alexander’s Versify imprint at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and the presence in the room of editors like Charles Kim, a Korean-American, who has worked with both Myers and Sanders.
Publishers from Jamaica and the U.K. thanked the panelists for their frank discussion, with the U.K. publisher acknowledging that her country could use an award similar to the Coretta Scott King Award. Myers replied with a challenge, which itself echoed the original challenge issued in 1969 by publisher John Carroll, who in overhearing librarians Mabel McKissack and Glyndon Greer discussing the lack of award recognition for African-American authors, said, “Why don’t you establish your own award?”—an exchange that led to the establishment of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.
Myers then went on to suggest that savvy international publishers would do well to look at the CSK Award winners each year and commit to publishing at least two titles a year. “You know the books have been vetted and are of high quality,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity.”