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Children’s Literature Celebrates Black History

Published: February 2, 2015

“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives.” – Graham Greene

The celebration of African-American culture that is Black History Month finds valuable expression in Black children’s literature.

Africana Studies’ Bede Ssensalo is an expert in Black children’s literature in the U.S., Africa and the Caribbean. He also teaches a class called International Black Children’s Literature.

“What happens a lot in this country is that when children go to school in the first or second grade, they are very impressionable,” he said. “They see a meeting between their world and the academic world. That does not happen for Black and other minority children. For them, there is no resemblance of one to the other. Children of color are bombarded with images of characters that look nothing like them. They are asked to deal with issues that have nothing to do with them. The role of Black children’s literature is to bridge that gap between academia and the Black children’s experience.”

Ssensalo talked about some major themes in the genre and applauded how authors have addressed them.

“One of the important themes in Black children’s literature are the holidays,” he said. ”Christmas can be celebrated from the African-American perspective.”

Books that help children do this include Here Comes Christmas by Caroline Jayne Church published in 2010 and tells the story of a little boy who imagines what he’ll receive for Christmas: a dragon to ride, a lollipop tree, etc.,– but can these things be?; Mim’s Christmas Jam by Andrea Davis Pinkney observes a father who cannot be home for the holidays. Toung Saraleen and Royce send their pap a gift that may just inspire a Christmas miracle; and Santa’s Kwanzaa by Garen Eileen Thomas talks about painfully funny merry-making that wraps up sweetly in this enchanting celebration of two holidays under one cover.

Another theme in Black children’s literature is African-American music.

How Sweet the Sound by Vanessa Miller tells the story of Shar Gracey who jumps at the chance to join a traveling choir led by the father of Black gospel music; and When Marian Sang: The True Recital of Marian Anderson by Pam Munoz Ryan offers a harmonious introduction to one of the nation’s most important singers.

The Obama Presidency and sports are both important when it comes to children’s books, according to Ssensalo.

“There have been more children’s books written about President Barack Obama than all the previous Presidents put together,” Ssensalo said. “There are at least 100.” And for young sports fans, he recommends I Shook Up the World: The Incredible Life of Muhammad Ali by Maryum “Maymay” Ali.

How African Americans relate to other minority cultures registers big in Black children’s literature.

Snapshots from the Wedding by Gary Soto, for example, is sprinkled with Spanish words and is both eloquent and funny. It deftly captures the flavor of a Latino wedding, complete with a Mariachi band and Waiting for Papa by Rene Colato Lainez tells about the day a young boy read his letter to his absent dad on RADIO Voz Del Inmigrante and spurs a surprising chain of events.

Other children’s books combine the various experiences of children of color by addressing their common experiences. For example, Nappy Hair by Carolivia Herron tells a lively, empowering story about Brenda’s knotted-up, twisted, nappy hair and how it got to be that way; and Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman tells when a young girls gets a chance to play a part in Peter Pan. She knows exactly who she wants to be.

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Violence in poor neighborhoods is something many children of color can relate to. It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way by Luis Rodriguez tells a compelling tale of a young boy’s encounter with the world of gangs.

Furthermore, bringing African-American history into the classroom through children’s books is a must.

“Books like these help Black children to feel good and improve their self-esteem,” Ssensalo said. During this year’s Black History Month, Ssensalo feels parents should have their children read the following two books and combine them with the viewing of the current academy award nominee film “Selma.”

If You Lived at the Time of Martin Luther King by Ellen Levine and Beth Peck tells the story of what it was like during the era when Martin Luther King led the fight against segregation, and The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and George Ford which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first African-American child to integrate a New Orleans school.

Finally, there is poetry. Meet Danitra Brown by Nikki Grimes is a spirited collection of poems which introduces young readers to Danitra Brown and her best friend, Zuri Jackson.

Ssensalo earned his B.A. in English from Makerere University, Uganda, East Africa, in 1970, his M.A. in African Studies in 1972 and his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature in 1978 are from UCLA.

The future of Black children’s literature is in the hands of public schoolteachers, according to Ssenalo. That is why his class, which meets the requirements for the Teaching Credential at CSULB, is extremely important.

“The whole purpose of International Black Children’s Literature is to let the people who are going to become teachers know that these books are available and that these future educators have the responsibility of exposing the children in their classes to these books,” he said. “Once a child has been exposed to books like these, they will read them and they will like them. He tells his students to go to the classroom and create lifelong readers.”

The future may also see great biographies rendered in comic form, Ssensalo added.

“Already Malcolm X, President Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have their biographies in comic books,” he said. “In addition, Nelson Mandela joked he knew he had really made it when he saw himself in a comic book.”

–Richard Manly