Tuesday, 19 February 2013

World Book Day - A Teacher's Dilemma

World Book Day is coming up on March 7th. I like World Book Day and I love books.

In the run-up to World Book Day few years ago, I received a phone call from a colleague. He asked me for suggestions for Black male characters from children's books as he wanted to dress as one. We came up with a depressingly short list and got to talking about why this might be, whether it was important and what we could do about it.

Together with another colleague of mine, we created the resource below. It is grounded in a real-life situation but raises some philosophical issues. I have used it with teachers, teacher-educators and with Year 6 pupils. People have responded to it in a range of ways, some very positive, some quite hostile. Either way, it has generated some interesting discussion.

The point of it is not merely to suggest a Black character from children's literature - but please feel free to do so - but rather to identify and discuss the issues that this seemingly mundane e-mail (based as it is on a real-life phone call) raises.


  1. Interesting post - and one that made me reflect on my adult literature consumption and the "black" characters therein.

    Interestingly, I too could not overly identify any off hand, except the central character in Richard Morgans Takeshi Kovacs book, who is Black, but this play no real role or story arc in the books.

    I wonder if as part of WBD if we could create a contemporary list of "non white European Christian" central characters?


    1. Thanks Glen! I think a list might be a start. The year 6 pupils I shared this with, started making a list. The discussion moved to whether the list was a solution to the problem or evidence of the extent of the problem!

  2. (Led here by Twitter)

    My favorites are The House of Dies Drear, and The Stories Julian Tells, but my upbringing involved tie-dye and food stamps, so maybe I got lucky. There's Anansi, but very few children read about his adventures growing up.

    I know the names of a solid handful of Black Men From Books, but so much mainstream literature portrays Black Men as horrible creatures or useless things; The Bluest Eye, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God...

    Even Easy Rawlins is a reluctant, tarnished noir hero.

  3. Thanks for your comment and suggestions Megan. A couple of new titles for me there. I think the Anansi stories are quite popular in some schools in London.

    I wonder if you share Mark's concerns about the lack of Black characters in children's literature? There is also the argument, presented in the e-mail, that race or ethnicity is not important for children - perhaps not even for adults. Indeed that raising the topic is 'the wrong thing to do.'

    1. I absolutely do. To borrow from the Miss Representation documentary "You can't be what you don't see."
      If young children are seeing only people who look different than them, then they end up with a sense that they do not belong in the fantastic worlds of literature.
      I am always pleased when a story uses anthropomorphic or monster characters, because that removes the question of identifying with the way a character looks, and moves them to identify with the way a character *feels*.
      That's obviously for very young readers, but if it starts at such a young age, then how are children supposed to cope?
      What I find especially disturbing is the lack of color in much sci-fi and fantasy. How are young people supposed to imagine themselves into a book, when the characters are described in painstaking and often erotic detail... and even though they live on a planet far away, they still look like a nordic runway model?
      How are young black men supposed to identify with positive role models when all the literary heroes are white?
      It is less about identifying the ways that people are different, and more about showing them that diversity isn't a bad thing, and isn't exclusive to skin color or nationality. Why do we (as westerners, and esp here in the US) associate the best traits of humanity with whiteness?

  4. I believe that Vetch of Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea has very dark brown or black skin, and black hair. Vetch is not the protagonist but he is very important and very good. The protagonist, Ged, has light brown skin.