Diversity in children's books

Multicultural: Many educators agree that young readers are more likely to become absorbed in, and learn from, books about people who are familiar.

February 13, 2000|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

A little girl runs down the street, her socks melting into folds around her ankles.

A mother gazes tenderly at the newborn baby cradled in her arms.

As a boy lies dreaming, a smile drifts across his lips.

These images of African-Americans in children's books serve an important purpose, say award-winning illustrators who visited Baltimore last week as part of a Black History Month program sponsored by the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"Children read what they're drawn to, what they're excited about," said Jan Spivey Gilchrist, a black painter from Chicago who has illustrated "Night on Neighborhood Street," "Jump Back, Honey," and more than 40 other children's books since 1988. "When children see themselves in books, they listen."

Educators say that youngsters become more involved in the books they are reading when they see children who look and behave like themselves and their friends.

"Children are trying to figure out who they are, where they fit in," said Deborah Taylor, coordinator for school and student services at the Pratt, who arranged the visits by illustrators Gilchrist, Chris Soentpiet and James Ransome. "Picture books are a vital part of that."

When children are involved in what they read, they learn.

At Frankford Intermediate School in Northeast Baltimore on Thursday morning -- where Gilchrist appeared, to show slides of her work and answer questions -- 11-year-old Desean Hundley said that Gilchrist's illustrations move him to read her books.

"The people in her books look like they're real," he said. "They have expression."

Educators have long recognized the value of picture books in teaching young children how to read. The combination of many pictures and a few simple words helps beginning readers to fill in the blanks and understand how words convey a story.

Gilchrist taught her two children, now grown, how to read by age 5, using books she made that depicted scenes and objects from her children's life, such as their cereal bowls or their dolls.

She started with pictures and gradually added words as her children's mastery of the stories and language grew.

But picture books also have applications for older children, according to the Pratt's Taylor.

"We can hook kids who think they can't handle more text by showing them the pictures these books contain," she said.

Ransome's most recent book, "Satchel Paige," written by his wife, Lesa Cline-Ransome, is a colorful biography of the legendary Negro League pitcher. The illustrations complement a text that is particularly suitable for children ages 9 to 12.

But educators and illustrators emphasize that picture books depicting African-Americans aren't solely for African-American children. Their appeal can be universal, said illustrator Chris Soentpiet, who is Korean-American and who illustrates many of his books with images of African-American children and adults.

"Whether the books are about people who are Japanese, Chinese, African-American or Lebanese, they have a common theme everyone can relate to," said Soentpiet, who has illustrated 12 books, including "Something Beautiful," which is about a little girl's search to find beauty in her gritty, urban neighborhood. "It doesn't matter what color you are."

In 1986, 18 of the estimated 2,500 children's and young adult's books published were by black authors and illustrators, according to the Cooperative Children's Book Center, a library of the school of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Though the proportion remains small, the number of books by black authors and illustrators had grown to 81 of 5,000 children's books published last year.

Black authors and illustrators also are being recognized for their work. This year, Christopher Paul Curtis -- author of "Bud, Not Buddy," about a 10-year-old boy's search for his father -- won the John Newberry Medal, the most prestigious award in children's literature, and the Coretta Scott King Author Award, for African-American children's book authors and illustrators.

Curtis is the first author to win these honors in the same year, and the first African-American to win a Newberry Medal since 1976.

Taylor, chairwoman of the Coretta Scott King Awards for the past two years, is pleased to see the greater number of children's books by and about African-Americans. "There is such a big difference now than there was a number of years ago," she said.

But there is room for more African-American authors and illustrators, and for more books about African and African-American themes, she added. "When you see how much publishing is done, you realize this is just a drop in the bucket."

Excerpt from `Satchel Paige'

Excerpt from "Satchel Paige" by Lesa Cline-Ransome, paintings by James E. Ransome (Simon & Schuster, $16)

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