Only a month after many librarians were in Chicago for the 2013 ALA conference, a number repacked their bags this week and headed for the Cincinnati, Ohio/Covington, Kentucky area for the 8th National Conference of African American Librarians. The theme of the conference was Culture Keepers: Challenges of the 21st Century: Empowering People, Changing Lives. The conference had several tracks, and the Diversity and Cultural Heritage track included a panel called “Empowering the Voice of the Black Male in Children’s and Teen Lit.” The panelists and audience discussed a number of YA books and how they might or might not attract reluctant teen readers, especially young black men. The discussion began with talks about how black male children perceive the world of fiction: many see American fiction as a place where they do not belong or are not wanted. The result of this alienation is lower reading abilities and standardized test scores among these young men. The discussion centered on the differences in the kinds of material that attract boys vs girls, especially regarding covers, and how to change the current status quo.
The people at the session talked about issues with covers, such as those given to the books in the Numbers trilogy by Rachel Ward: The Numbers, The Chaos, and Infinity. These covers give librarians and readers no clue that the central character, Adam, is a black youth dealing with the ability to tell the day when someone is going to die. Adam’s ability makes him realize the population is going to be devastated by a major catastrophe. He knows the date and that more than a quarter of the people around him will die in agony, but he cannot get anyone to believe until it’s too late. By the third book, Infinity, his struggle is to just to keep himself and his small family alive in the dystopian aftermath, while what’s left of the government finally believes in his ability and is hunting him down to make use him. This is a book that could appeal to many black boys, but there is nothing on the covers to let them know this has anything for them or to tell librarians this would be something to recommend to them.
The science fiction Pathfinder series by Orson Scott Card gives no hint on the covers that the inhabitants of the planet Garden, an Earth colony, are all brown-skinned people, including the three young narrators. This is only revealed near the end of the second book, when the POV characters are surprised by the arrival of a spaceship from Earth carrying crewmembers of different skin colors (after many generations of interbreeding in the colony, all of Garden’s inhabitants have the same brown skin). But no kid that might find that enticing finds out until reading almost a thousand pages into the series. The cover may appeal to boys in general, but there is nothing to say to boys of color that there is something extra here that shows they are not forgotten in the world of fiction.
The session included a booklist of recommendations created by author G. Neri to attract young black men to fiction. The list included books such as:
The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, a science fiction story about Matteo, a boy who discovers he is the clone of Mexican strong-arm ruler “El Patron” and that he is destined to become spare parts to keep the aging dictator alive.
Pick-Up Game: A Full Day of Full Court, a 2011 anthology of stories by both male and female authors that follow a group of kids spending the day at a playground, each with a tory to tell, as they join or leave a pick-up basketball game going on in the court.
Ship Breaker, an award-winning dystopian story by Paolo Bacigalupi that’s about a Hispanic boy called Nailer forced to choose between his crew, a group that has sworn loyalty to each other, or to his family. Or is there really a difference? The three main characters are Hispanic, black, and Asian.
The all-too-short session began with the question of whether more male authors were the solution, especially male authors of color. We ended with the idea that reading habits, needs, and requirements for young boys and girls are different. The issue wasn’t about having a male or female author or the race or ethnicity of the author, but about the way books are portrayed. Too many hide gender and race, either by accident, by oversight, or deliberately. This leaves fewer book choices for black youth.
The problem is more than just covers showing females, or books written by female authors, or boys preferring non-fiction. Its about kids who almost never see themselves in a book and therefore see no reason why reading books could be “fun,” much less a masculine activity. It’s about validating the reading choices boys make, including non-fiction, magazines, and graphic novels. The librarians present hoped that publishers, authors, and other interested individuals and potential role models would create more books designed to help show boys that reading and masculinity do go together.
- Barbara Binns is retired but still associated with the Arlington Heights Memorial Library. She is the author of Pull and Being God, and was a recent presenter on reluctant readers at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference.
- Edith Campbell, librarian and blogger, Indiana State University.
Lists of the books recommended by the presenters are available on their websites.
— B.A. Binns, currently reading Sasquatch in the Paint by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld and listening to The House of The Scorpion by Nancy Farmer