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First Books for African American Children

Author Rita Smith
Air Date 2/20/2007

First Books Transcript

Before the 1950s, there was very little that an African American child could look at or read that reflected his experience, fostered a pride in his heritage, or inspired him in any way. As Barbara Bader notes in her book on American picture books, “Any history of the Negro in American children’s books before [mid-century], …would have to be concerned chiefly with the bad.” 1 Up to this time, almost all African Americans in children’s books were portrayed in caricature, and the dialogue was in broad dialect, difficult for children to read; sometime authentic, but often exaggerated and phony.

In 1932, Langston Hughes wrote a brief article on “Books and the Negro Child,”2 and he came up with only five titles to recommend: Black Majesty, a tale of the Haitian kings, Elizabeth Haynes’ Unsung Heroes, Arthur Fauset’s For Freedom and two novels by Mary White Ovington, Hazel and Zeke. They were all for older readers.

Appended to the Hughes article was the first widely circulated list of books considered appropriate for African American children. It was produced by the American Library Association and contained 17 titles; among them was Helen Bannerman’s The Story of Little Black Sambo, several collective biographies of African Americans, a book of poems by Langston Hughes, several stories which took place in Africa, and three titles by Joel Chandler Harris, two of them dated from the 19th century. It was a short list.

But with the publication of this list came a growing awareness of the inappropriateness of many children’s books and the understanding that many of them “hurt and alienated one part of the reading public and perpetuated stereotyped ideas in the minds of others.”3 Authors, illustrators, and publishers began thinking about these issues and began to publish books which would develop children’s intercultural understandings.

Two books by Ellis Credle illustrate this. Little Jeemes Henry was published in 1936. It is the story of a boy whose sharecropper father goes to town to get work and becomes the “Wild Man of Borneo” in a circus show. The dialogue is in dialect, and the illustrations are drawings. The book was favorably received, but, according to Bader, the publisher and author were aware of the growing objection to dialect and to drawings in general. Credle’s next book, The Flop-Eared Hound, published in 1938, is about the adventures of an African American boy and his dog. The dialogue is rich in local color without resorting to dialect, and the book is illustrated with wonderful photographs by Charles Townsend.

It would be several decades yet until that breakthrough book by Ezra Jack Keats, The Snowy Day, arrived, but the 1930s saw the beginnings of sensitivity and the need for children’s book lists devoted to diversity and the democratic ideal.

1 Bader, Barbara, American Picturebooks, p. 373.
2 Hughes, Langston. “Books and the Negro Child,” in Children’s Library Yearbook, No. 4, p. 108-110.
3Baker, Augusta. Books about Negro Life for Children, p. 5.

Bader, Barbara. American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1976.
Baker, Augusta. Books about Negro Life for Children. New York: New York Public Library, 1963.
Hughes, Langston. Books and the Negro Child,” in Children’s Library Yearbook, No. 4, Chicago: American Library Association, 1932.

Posted in Literature