Friday, September 29, 2017

Looking Back: Teammates by Peter Golenbock, ill. Paul Bacon

Teammates by Peter Golenbock, ill. Paul Bacon.  HMH Books For Young Readers, 1990. 9780152842864. Click here to purchase.

When I was in fifth grade, my teacher assigned us an essay on our hero (original, I know).  I was in the middle of a major Jackie Robinson phase.  I loved the whole “courage not to fight back” mantra, the way he played (have you seen him steal home?), and especially, the book Teammates written by Peter Golenbock and illustrated by Paul Bacon.  So when I heard about the assignment, I knew immediately who I would write about.

I came home and told my mom about the assignment.  “Who do you think you’ll write about?” she asked.  Herman “Pee Wee” Reese, I said.  The guy who, by putting his arm around Jackie Robinson’s shoulders in full view of a crowded stadium, hushed the bigoted spectators and bought Robinson a bit of a respite from the hate and vitriol regularly hurled at him.

“No, you won’t,” my mom said decisively.  I was surprised, since like me, she was a big Robinson, Reese, and Teammates fan.  Also, she rarely interfered in my schoolwork.

“Uh, why?”  I said.

“You may write about Jackie Robinson, or you may write about them both,” she said.  “You will not elevate a White man to hero status, especially over Jackie Robinson, for the mere act of putting his arm around someone’s shoulders.  Jackie Robinson was the real hero.”  (Those probably weren’t her exact words, but that’s how it’s enscripted in my memory.)

Jackie Robinson steals home in Game 1 of the 1955 World Series.
I was stunned.  I’d never thought of it that way, but it was true--I took a hard look at what Jackie Robinson endured and accomplished: Broke the color line in baseball nearly two decades before Freedom Summer.  Became the first pro athlete to have his number retired.  Posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Helped found a Black-owned and -operated bank based in Harlem.  Marched with Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington.  Stole 197 bases.  Retired with a .409 on-base percentage and a stellar fielding record.  And then I took a hard look at what Reese did:  Refused to sign a petition, circulated by his fellow players, to prevent Robinson from joining the team; and, put his arm around Robinson’s shoulders, essentially telling a hateful crowd to shut up.  Although Reese was certainly admirable, Robinson was undoubtedly heroic.

And then I was forced to self-examine.  Why had I, despite being so thoroughly obsessed with Robinson, defaulted to Reese as my hero?  And what did that say about me?  11-year-old-me didn’t have the language or tools to grapple with this, but I had a vague sense that it was something very ugly within me, a predilection for White saviorism and a willingness to elevate White people over Black people even within the Civil Rights movement, thereby co-opting that movement.  For years after this incident, I connected this vaguely negative, un-articulable feeling to the book that had spurred it.  I put Teammates aside for a long time.

Roughly fifteen years later, I revisited it in the midst of a long process of re-educating myself about race and racism, and Teammates is now once again a favorite of mine.  I’ve been thinking about it non-stop over the past week, in light of the protests of police brutality and institutional racism launched by Colin Kaepernick and the resulting national conversation.  I feel certain that some of the commentators demanding that the NFL “keep politics out of sports” would benefit from reading Teammates, which reveals the truth that politics is already, and always has been, in sports.  And, I always encourage educators to be thoughtful and deliberate in how they read and teach Teammates to children.

In Teammates, straightforward and accessible text pair with a combination of black-and-white photographs and painterly watercolors to tell the story of the Robinson/Reese friendship.  Segregation, the Negro Leagues, the KKK--Golenbock uses just the right level of detail to skillfully set the historical context, yet this is no “single story” of Black pain.  Even as the injustices of segregation are listed, the Negro Leagues are introduced as “two wonderful baseball leagues”.

I wish Golenbock had devoted similar space to the more positive and uplifting aspects of Robinson’s character and backstory; the list of indignities to which he was regularly exposed, from fellow Dodgers (I will not call them “teammates”) refusing to eat with him to pitchers aiming at his head, is gut-wrenching, as is the palpable tension and discomfort in Robinson’s face and body language in the team picture that appears in the book.  It would have been nice to balance these painful elements with positive stories of Robinson’s incredible sports feats, home life, and family.

The 1947 Dodgers.  Most of the (White) players appear comfortable and relaxed; Jackie Robinson sits with his arms and legs held tight into his body and his brow furrowed, appearing tense and uncomfortable.
Details of Reese’s life are similarly sparse in Teammates.  We get the highlights: he grew up in the thick of segregated Louisville, KY; the Cincinnati spectators hurling hate and bigotry at Jackie Robinson could have been his neighbors.  Reese must have had a strong moral compass to fly in the face of his upbringing and most of the Dodgers by forming a friendship with Robinson, and a strong backbone to demonstrate that friendship publicly, but Teammates manifests the arm-around-the-shoulders moment a little too simplistically.  I could see these final pages becoming fodder for a White Savior narrative in the hands of an irresponsible educator or caregiver.  I could also see it becoming a highly useful tool for teaching about advocacy and taking risks to stand up against bullies and oppressors in the hands of a skilled teacher.  As is true for so many books, its substance depends on its delivery.

As a White adult learning about anti-racism, returning to once again study Pee Wee Reese’s story was invaluable for me.  Segregation and other forms of racial oppression would have been part of the landscape during Reese’s childhood.  The buzzwords and acronyms so dear to me would not have been part of his vocabulary.  When he refused to sign a racist, anti-Robinson petition circulated by other Dodgers, he famously said, “I don’t care if this man is black, blue, or striped--he can play and he can help us win.”  I steer clear of language like this, and encourage others to do the same, since it trivializes very real injustices and promotes a colorblind view of the world that is only available to racially privileged White people.

And yet, Pee Wee Reese is a strong role model for White people like me.  When Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, everyone expected him to take Reese’s position: shortstop.  Reese was the only player who actually stood to lose something from Robinson’s presence, and yet, he was the one who refused to sign the petition attempting to keep Robinson off the team.  When asked about this, Reese simply answered that he’d thought, “If he’s good enough to take my job, he deserves it.”

Ultimately, Robinson started as first baseman, and then moved to second, while Reese stayed at shortstop.  I don’t know this history thoroughly enough to know why Robinson was never made shortstop; given his stellar fielding, it would have made sense for him to play his natural position, and keeping him at second base may well have been an injustice against him.  It seems, though, that it was not Reese’s decision; he was perfectly willing to cede the coveted shortstop spot.  And his refusal to sign the petition took much of the wind out of its sails.

These are acts of White allyship (NOT saviorism) from which I can learn.  It’s easy to learn the jargon and concepts of anti-racism.  The true test comes when I am asked to give up something real, something material, perhaps something related to money or physical safety.  I can attend every anti-racist training, read every book, and know every buzzword--at the end of the day, what matters is whether, like Pee Wee Reese, I lead with compassion and a willingness to make real sacrifices.

This is the angle I would highlight, were I to read Teammates to kids (I haven’t yet, but am planning to this year). Don’t get me wrong; the arm-around-the-shoulders thing is important.  It takes real courage to stand up to bullies and say “You are wrong, and I am standing with the person you are targeting;” and, one can easily slip into grandstanding with actions like these.  I don’t believe Reese was grandstanding; from what I’ve read, he made a habit of openly and publicly chatting with Robinson at the beginning of games, particularly those with especially vitriolic spectators, with the deliberate intent of getting the hate-filled crowds to back off.  Robinson talked openly about how much he appreciated these actions.  But, I do think that it’s easy to slip into public displays of allyship (i.e., grandstanding) that draw attention away from the systemic changes needed to make real progress.  So, while I would support children who are inspired by the arm-around-the-shoulder narrative, I’d encourage them to focus more on Reese’s willingness to sacrifice the shortstop position and his refusal to sign the petition.

And, of course, I’d make sure to backend it with Stealing Home by Robert Burleigh and Promises To Keep by Sharon Robinson and maybe a documentary or even a screening of 42.  I’d make sure that kids understand the difference between advocacy and heroism.  (And that Jackie Robinson stole home 19 times.)

And I’d make sure that White kids know that while Jackie Robinson is the hero in this story, I deeply respect and admire Reese.  It is hard to provide positive examples of anti-racist White people to children.  Too often, we White adults provide negative examples--what not to be--or else slide into stories of the Great White Hope.  Teammates, when read thoughtfully, can be a powerful story of a role model, an example for White kids to live into rather than avoid.  I’d like to think that it was this need for a positive example that led eleven-year-old me to latch onto Teammates; in reality, I think I just liked the White savior story I’d internalized.  But with some deep conversation and thoughtful reading, maybe I could have understood the nuances in Teammates a little better.  And then, I could perhaps have understood that while I can never be a hero like Robinson, I can strive every day to be a teammate like Reese.

Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese

-Allie Jane Bruce

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Looking Back: The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

Today we are featuring a Looking Back post by Diane Bailey Foote. Diane is Curator of the Butler Children's Literature Center at Dominican University in River Forest, IL. Thank you, Diane!

Original cover of The Yearling.
"Let me talk to you a little bit before you read this," said my dad when I was about nine years old. He handed me a paperback copy of The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, which had been published in 1938, and had won a Pulitzer Prize, although that distinction was lost on fourth-grade me in 1976. "You're going to read language in here that isn't correct. I want you to know this isn't the way I expect you to read and write, but I don't want you to look down on the people who speak this way in this book. This is the way they learned to speak at that time." Of course, he was referring as much to relatively innocuous vernacular dialogue spoken by the poor, rural White Floridians such as "That's what I figgered," "sich as that," or "Them that steals offen us;" as he was to flat-out racist terms such as "Injuns," or saying in criticism that someone has "a heart as black as midnight."
Of course, this really is how the people in the book would have spoken at the time and place it was set. Unfortunately, when a narrator uses objectionable language, even a 1930s narrator, it is somehow harder to accept than when such terms are spoken by a book's characters. For example, in describing a pet raccoon, the narration reads: "A tiny black paw, like a n*****’s baby's hand, reached out." Seriously!? I honestly don't remember how I reacted to this kind of sentence at age nine, but reading it today makes me angry, because it's so unnecessary and mars what is otherwise an enduring work of writing that is both critically acclaimed and popular. I recognize now that my nine-year-old White self was privileged to just kind of blow past that; for kids who may have been called that name, it wouldn't have been so easy. It's especially jarring, because this very scene, in which main character Jody's friend Fodder-wing is introduced, is remarkable in its ahead-of-its-time treatment of a person with a physical disability. Fodder-wing, the youngest son in the large Forrester family, neighbors to Jody's family, was born with a "hunch-backed frame" and people think he's "witless." But Jody, the main character with whom readers sympathize and identify, sees and values him for who he really is: a kind boy and a gentle friend to people and animals.
Internal illustration by N. C. Wyeth, "Jody and Flag"
The storyline itself remains compelling and, for the most part, exquisitely written, today. Jody Baxter is an only child living in an isolated setting; his family's cabin is located on what was called "Baxter's Island," not a true island but a clearing in the scrub. It is a harsh life, with constant struggle for survival against starvation, illness, and predatory animals; it is also beautiful, with Jody finding joy in nature when he can sneak away from his endless chores. His "Ma" is not overly warm or maternal; his father, known as "Penny" both for his small stature and for being "sound as copper itself; and with something, too, of the copper's softness." Jody longs for companionship and befriends a young fawn after Penny, bitten by a poisonous snake, kills its mother to use her flesh to draw out the poison. Jody grows up over the course of the episodic story; he wrestles with a number of ethical situations, from having to kill animals for food, to conflicting loyalties among the other people in the scrub and in town who must rely on one another in hard times. He also learns to cope with death, fear, and loss; Penny is gravely injured more than once, and in one of the more tear-inducing scenes (which is saying something in this book) he finds out his friend Fodder-wing has died. All of this leads up to the time when he must do the unthinkable or his family will starve: His beloved fawn, now a yearling he's named Flag, can't be trained to not eat the corn crop, and manages to escape from every enclosure Jody builds. The end of Flag's life marks the end of Jody's childhood. In a powerful ending, "He did not believe he should ever again love anything, man or woman or his own child, as he had loved the yearling. …Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever." The language is evocative and unflinching, balancing the haunting beauty of the Florida backcountry setting with the harshness of the lives of the people in the scrub.
The Yearling has felt like an old friend itself to me for much of my life, but I'm angry at it today. Angry because so much of it is so remarkable, but it is tainted by the legacy of racism that may have been more common at the time of its writing, yet sadly persists. I won't be sharing this with young readers; I might share it with older (teen) readers, but would take the same care my own father did with me, with perhaps some more explicit discussion about the language as spoken and written here, and by whom.

-Diane Foote

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh

Step Up to  the Plate, Maria Singh by Uma Krishnaswami. Tu Books, 2017. 288 pages ISBN: 978-1600602610

During the first part of the 20th century, immigrants from India were not allowed to become citizens of the United States (the law changed in 1946).  Restrictions on immigration also meant many Indian men came alone to the California area, and a number of them, especially from the Punjabi region, married Mexican or Mexican American women. These were farming families, and many of them leased land because the law prohibited them from owning it outright.

These historical details, explained in an author’s note as well as woven into the narrative, inform important elements of Step Up to the Plate, Maria Singh.  But at the center of the story is a small-town girl in California who just wants to play ball. Softball, that is.

It’s the spring of 1945 when one of Maria Singh’s teachers announces she’s going to form a girls’ softball team. Maria worries Papi, who is more old-fashioned than her mother, won’t let her play. When he does agree, she decides to hold off on lobbying to wear shorts: she’ll save that battle for another day.

Maria and the other girls face chiding from the boys but they keep practicing and slowly become a team under Miss Newman’s guidance. Maria’s rival on the team is Elizabeth Becker, a White girl whose father owns the land Maria’s papi farms. Mr. Becker, clearly upset by the growing diversity in their small town where a number of “Mexican-Hindu”* families, as they’re called, have settled, decides to sell his land and move. Maria’s papi wants to buy the land. But because he is an immigrant from India, he can't. (*A misnomer, Maria notes, since most of the fathers are either Sikh, like her Papi, or Muslim.)

There’s a lot packed into this novel: racism, sexism, politics, including the struggle for Indian independence from Britain (Maria’s papi and the other Indian fathers follow the news from their homeland closely), as well as the inevitable loss experienced by a community and individual families during wartime (including among the families with immigrant fathers). Maria’s Mexican American mother and her family have been in the United States for generations; her father’s present and future are here but a piece of his heart is also with the fate of India.

All of these things matter in the bigger world of ideas and action and social justice, of course, but here they matter first and foremost because Maria cares about her family and community. All of these things impact her. At the same time, none of them change the fact that she is still a girl who wants to play ball, and author Uma Krishnaswami weaves them artfully through the story of Maria and her team.

Step Up to the Plate Maria Singh is not as blithe as Krishnaswami’s middle grade novels The Grand Plan to Fix Everything and The Problem with Being Slightly Heroic, nor is it meant to be. Like Book Uncle and Me, her terrific 2016 novel that is an homage to the love of reading and also a joyful look at political activism, it offers honesty and optimism both.  

Reviewed by Megan Schliesman

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: It's Shoe Time! (Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!)

Today we are posting a review from guest blogger Eric Carpenter. Eric is the school librarian at Fred A. Toomer Elementary in Atlanta, GA. Thank you, Eric!

Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!: It’s Shoe Time! By Bryan Collier. Disney-Hyperion, 2017. 64 pages. ISBN 9781484726471. Click here to purchase. (Pub Date: November 7)

At first glance the reader might assume that Bryan Collier's It's Shoe Time! is a typical entry into the “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!” series from Mo Willems. The cover, with its three pairs of wide-eyed and grinning shoes, certainly sets us up for an over-the-top story of walking, talking footwear. However, unlike the previous three entries in the “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!” series (or the twenty-five original books featuring the two pals), It's Shoe Time! includes human characters. Specifically a Black girl and her father, painted in Collier’s recognizable watercolor and collage technique.  

Collier’s simple and heartwarming story leaves plenty of space for visual gags and creative puns from the aforementioned footwear. Preparing for her special “Daddy and Me Day,” a young girl decides to wear two different shoes – much to the alarm of the rest of her footwear. The remaining pair (an anxious left flip-flop and gloomy right boot) attempt to save the girl from her footwear faux pas. Full of creative puns and visual gags, young readers will enjoy picking up on the personalities of all the shoes even if some of the right/left wordplay doesn’t always garner a laugh.

Image from edelweiss

Like many of Willems’ “Elephant & Piggie” stories, Collier’s entry into the series follows a similar construction – energetic crisis leading into a heartwarming resolution. Also following Willems’ example, here text is confined to character-specific, color-coded word balloons, allowing readers to understand that the words in purple belong to the girl even when she is off the page. These familiar features paired with Collier’s expressive paintings prove to be a winning combination for this excellent early reader.
Reviewed by Eric Carpenter. 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Spotlight on #OwnVoices: Hey Black Child

Today we are sharing a post by guest blogger Megan Dowd Lambert.
Thank you, Megan!

Hey Black Child. By Useni Eugene Perkins. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Hachette, 2017. 9780316360302. Click here to purchase. (Release date: November 14)
When Andrea Davis Pinkney spoke at the biennial Children’s Literature Institute at Simmons College this summer she said that one of her go-to sayings as an editor and advocate of diverse children’s books is “Show the face.” In other words, on book jackets and in picture book art, illustrations should prominently and regularly show the faces of children of color as a visual means of centering them and their experiences. It seems simple, doesn’t it? But her remarks reminded me of Allie Jane Bruce’s work with her students regarding the whitewashing of children’s book covers, which exposes how very much more there remains to be done in terms of “show[ing] the face.” Davis’s comments also made me want to more closely examine of one of my favorite picture books of 2017, Useni Eugene Perkins and Bryan Collier’s Hey Black Child. There are many, many things I admire about Collier’s work in this book and in others, and his dedication to “show[ing] the face” is among them.
C:\Users\lamberm3\Pictures\ALAAC17 Collier.jpg
Megan Dowd Lambert with Useni Eugene Perkins and Bryan Collier at ALA Annual 2017. Photo provided by the author.
I’d read the poem before, and erroneously thought it was written by a Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen. When I heard it was being published as a picture book with Collier’s illustrations, I was delighted to stumble across him signing it with its true author, Perkins, at the ALA Annual meeting this summer in Chicago. The book’s official release isn’t until November, so I was especially grateful for the chance to snap up an early copy at the Little Brown booth.
I was intrigued to learn from the author’s note that the poem has often been misattributed to Cullen and also to Maya Angelou. Perkins is gracious in his Author’s Note, remarking, “I’m honored that my poem has been associated with these two gifted writers, but I’m glad that the world can now learn about the poem’s true roots” as a “closing song for my children’s musical, Black Fairy and Other Plays” published in 1975. I’m glad for this, too, and I’m also glad for the rich visual interpretation that Collier brings to the affirming, inspiring text and its unabashed centering of Black children in the book and as its audience.
Image result for hey black child book
Cover image of Hey Black Child from
The direct address of the title and body of the text is affirmed and expanded by front jacket art that “shows the face[s]” of two Black children. A boy stands to the left in profile, anticipating the opening of the cover, and a girl stands next to him, her face turned toward the reader, her eyes looking outward to meet the viewer’s gaze. Collier’s decision to expand beyond the title’s singular “child” with this depiction of the two children presents an inclusive vision of childhood that allows neither boyhood nor girlhood to be the default for childhood.
Image shows front and back covers of Hey Black Child.
And there’s more: open the book to look at the back of the jacket and we see another Black boy and girl there, this time with a boy looking out at the reader and a bespectacled girl looking to the right. It’s here, too, that Collier introduces a visual motif, brightly colored balloons, that is present throughout the picture book as a connection between the spreads that adds a sense of joy and levity to his illustration. Another prominent motif in the collage, rays of light, cross the spine to unite the front and back of the jacket and to graphically underscore the hopeful, encouraging tone of the book as a whole.
Picture book scholars Nikolajeva and Scott write that “a character gazing from the picture straight at the reader/viewer may be apprehended as an ‘intrusive’ visual narrator” who, in essence, breaks the fourth wall between the world of the book and the world of the reader, perhaps evoking a greater sense of alignment and intimacy between the character(s) and the reader(s). I believe that to be the case here, where the outward gazes of the girl on the front of the cover and the boy on the back are inviting, open, warm, and just the slightest bit impish. They act as both antidote to and movement beyond the limited and limiting images of Black childhood that so often emerge in children’s books and other media as they embody the same spirit that I’ve seen in so many of the photos and videos shared online under the hashtags #BlackBoyJoy and #BlackGirlMagic.
Interior art follows suit, with the children depicted on the jacket each starring in a separate series of spreads with words and pictures that affirm their individual potential and greatness. At book’s end, Collier shifts to use photographs of real Black children, many of whom gaze out at the reader, to reinforce the closing line “Do what you CAN DO/And tomorrow YOUR NATION/WILL BE WHAT YOU WANT IT TO BE.” This shift in media underscores the book’s earnest effort to communicate its message to Black child readers, saying in effect, your photo could be on these pages, too.
Throughout, the picture book offers what Critical Race Theory would call “counter-narratives” or “counter-stories” to dominant discourse about Black childhood, resisting engagement with, or even overt acknowledgement of, stereotypes and what Solórzano and Yosso call “majoritarian stories of racial privilege.” Writing broadly about stories (not just literary ones, but ones that might be described in Barthesian terms as “mythologies,”) they continue:
We define the counter-story as a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told (i.e., those on the margins of society)…Counter-stories can shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform. Yet, counter-stories need not be created only as a direct response to majoritarian stories. As Ikemoto reminds us ‘By responding only to the standard story, we let it dominate the discourse’ (136). Indeed, within the histories and lives of people of color, there are numerous unheard counter-stories. Storytelling and counter-storytelling these experiences can help strengthen traditions of social, political, and cultural survival and resistance. (32)
So what are the counter-narratives in Perkins and Collier’s picture book? As a multimodal text, we must examine those offered by words, and those offered by pictures. In terms of the text, Perkins offers a general counter-story of Black childhood as the locus of potential, possibility, and capability. The lines on the first spread read: “Hey Black Child/ Do you know who you are?/ Who you REALLY ARE/ Do you know you can be/ What you want to be/ If you try to be/ What you CAN BE.”
These affirming words don’t offer a specific vision for who the Black child addressee is, which leaves the door open for Collier to move from the general to the specific in his artwork. And, as in other titles such as Martin’s Big Words, Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave, and Trombone Shorty, in which he revels in visual metaphor and pushes well beyond mere redundancy between text and art, Collier rises to the occasion with aplomb. The first line is accompanied by an extreme close-up of the same picture of the boy depicted on the back of the jacket, his larger-than life, smiling face filling the recto and arresting the reader’s gaze. Never mind “show[ing] the face,” Collier exalts it. Turn the page, and Collier interprets who this boy “REALLY [IS]” as a crowned young Black man with the transparent form of the African continent superimposed on half of his face. This is not the same boy, but perhaps an ancestor, communicating the notion that the child on the prior spread is descended from royalty; he is, by extension a young king.
In the foreground of this picture are collaged photographs of art supplies, which set the stage for the culminating spread in this series in which the young boy, himself now crowned, stands at an easel where he paints a picture of a dancing girl wearing a hair bow that looks like a crown, too. This portrait anticipates the next series of words and pictures, which are devoted to the girl who meets the reader’s gaze on the front of the jacket. Perkins’ lines again offer a general counter-story and ask, “Do you know where you are going/Where you are REALLY GOING/Do you know you can learn/What you want to learn/If you try to learn/What you CAN LEARN.” Collier’s art then steps in with specifics, depicting this Black girl as a dancer and a pianist. While collaged sheet music on two spreads reference first the eponymous text “Hey Black Child” and then the song “We Are the World”, I can’t help but think of Nina Simone’s recording of “To Be Young, Gifted & Black”, with lyrics by Weldon Irvine in honor of playwright Lorraine Hansberry as I read these spreads.
The girl’s counter-story of learning and musical achievement gives way to the next counter-story of strength and doing as Collier depicts the Black boy from the front of the jacket in a sequence that positions him as a protester holding a partially obscured sign that can nevertheless be read as stating “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” The next spread shows a Black man in a suit and tie, perhaps this child all grown up, and standing at a podium giving a speech before an audience. In the crowd is a Black girl sitting atop a man’s shoulders, holding what seems to be a pair of binoculars to her eyes, which send beams of light up and over the head of the man at the podium and into the sky. The next sequence of images belongs to her, the girl who is depicted on the back of the jacket. The text pulls in phrases from the prior three sequences, starting with: “Hey Black Child/Be what you CAN BE.” Collier once again builds on this general affirmation to offer a specific counter-story of this young girl, first shown looking skyward, as an astronaut.
Although I’ve now owned this picture book for three months, I haven’t read it with my Black children, who are now ages 11, 12, 18, and 20. Truth be told, I don’t get much opportunity to read picture books with any of them now, which is the bittersweet reality of their progress into ardent independent readers who have little interest in shared reading (though I can occasionally convince the younger two to read with me). But, I have read this book with my 2½-year-old, Jesse, who is White. One reason I’ve done so is that this book, like others that overtly name race, challenges White readers to resist the socialization that has taught so many of us to adopt a “colorblind” mentality, something that librarian Jessica Anne Bratt addresses in this series of google docs, “Talking about Race at Storytime.” I thought about this as we read Hey Black Child and named his Black brothers and sisters and his Black uncle as people who were or are Black children like those in Perkins and Collier’s book. Doing so afforded us the opportunity to also name his Whiteness, and my own, and to acknowledge his other sister as Latina.
Furthermore, the text’s repeated refrain “Hey Black Child” denies Jesse as the addressee, which is an experience I want him to have since so much of his world (in children’s books and beyond) is skewed toward privileging him and his experience, as this oft-cited info-graphic reveals:
Image shows infographic by David Huyck from Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen's website at

As did I, Jesse will grow up “Reading While White,” and I think it’s crucial that he experience counter-stories that decenter Whiteness and affirm Blackness and the experiences of people of color and First/Native Nations to avoid the inflated sense of importance that comes through in the image above. Along these lines, reading this book with Jesse made me recall the SNL sketch “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” that aired in 2016 shortly after Beyoncé performed “Formation” at the Super Bowl. In it, White cast members are disoriented at best, and appalled at worst, at the ways that the song centers Blackness.
“Maybe the song isn’t for us,” exclaims a White man.
“But usually everything is!” cries a White woman in response.
I don’t want Jesse to “los[e] his damn White mind” when he comes upon (counter)-stories or songs that decenter Whiteness, and providing him with a rich array of books and media that don’t imply him as the reader is one step in raising him to resist expecting to find what Rudine Sims Bishop calls “mirrors” at every (page-)turn.
A photo of Lambert's son looking at the astronaut illustration. 
But there are other reasons to share this book with Jesse, and with all kids, even as I think it’s crucial to affirm Black children as its implied audience. First is the potential for connection with characters that transcend race. When we got to the picture of the Black girl suited up for spaceflight, Jesse exclaimed:
“I want to be an astronaut like her, too!”
He’s stated this ambition for the past few months, prompting me to find lots of books about space for him, and I am grateful for this title’s counter-story of a Black girl aspiring astronaut that is now part of his repertoire of images of role models. And finally, I want this book in every child’s hands simply because it’s the work of one of the most gifted artists, of any race, of our time.
Cover image of Martin's Big Words from 
Collier’s work consistently astounds me, particularly due to its use of visual metaphor and how this element of his vision for expanding beyond literal interpretations of text places such trust in his readers. I wrote about my now-twelve-year-old Black son’s deep appreciation for Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave by Laban Carrick Hill for the Horn Book when this title won a 2011 Caldecott Honor when I was on the committee, but it was a prior Caldecott Honoree, Martin’s Big Words, written by Doreen Rappaport that first introduced me to Collier’s genius.
Talk about “show[ing] the face!” The bold jacket art with its beatific portrait of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. eschews any display type and relies on the reader to recognize his image and be pulled into the book to read about him. Once inside the book proper, Collier alternates between images that bear close literal relationship to the text, such as this one below depicting a moment from King’s childhood:
Image shows a Black child pointing at a water fountain with "white only" painted on it from 
and those that demand that the reader critically examine how seemingly unrelated imagery interacts with the text:
Image shows a collage illustration of a Black child standing before the American flag.
When I’ve read this book with children, they’ve often paused to respond to this picture, which, with its subject’s direct gaze at the reader arrests attention and compels analysis. Readers have commented on how tattered the flag is and how this symbolizes the ways that our country hasn’t lived up to its ideals and promises. They’ve commented on the emotion in the girl’s face, saying that it shows resolve, anger, disappointment, and more. They’ve said that she is one of the Americans the text says King cared about, and they’ve speculated that she’s from another part of the world since the text makes such a reading possible, too. They’ve commented on how the words present a moment of triumph, with King winning a Nobel Peace Prize, while the picture, which doesn’t depict him at all, instead expresses a sense of struggle or determination and hardship.
“It’s like she’s what he’s fighting for,” said one child at storytime, and shivers ran up my spine.
My storytime work is grounded in an interactive method I call the Whole Book Approach, which asks children to make meaning of picture book art and design. Another discussion about a picture book paratext, the endpapers, similarly moved children’s reading of this book from one that emphasized hope, and justice, peace, and light, to also acknowledge struggle, injustice, and oppression. The endpapers depict luminous stained glass windows, and Collier writes in his Illustrator’s Note, “For me the windows are metaphors in a lot of ways. In the dark they blaze out at you like beams of light. The multicolors symbolize multi-races. Stained-glass windows are also a vehicle to tell the story of Jesus. And, whether you’re on the inside or the outside, windows allow you to look past where you are.” In a second-grade classroom where I was leading storytime with this book, children picked up on this intended symbolism and drew upon prior knowledge to name King as a minister and to comment on the central role of the Black church in the Civil Rights movement. And then, just as I was about to turn the page, a child spoke up and said, “I see prison bars, too.”
An image of the endpapers of Martin's Big Words, which resemble stained glass windows.
You could’ve heard a pin drop.
After everyone absorbed it, this comment prompted the group to talk about how King and other activists were imprisoned, and how they put their lives and their freedom on the line to try to create change in our country. Our entire storytime was enriched by an openness to discussion about not just progress and hope and love, but resistance and oppression and hate.
Based on his Illustrator’s Note, Collier didn’t intend for readers to “see prison bars, too” when they looked at these endpapers, but I’m generally more interested in reader response than I am artist intent. I can’t un-see those prison bars now, and I’m grateful for that since they open up possibility for deeper, richer interpretation of the book as a whole and for how Collier places trust in the reader to make meaning of the complex relationship between art and text. This, it seems to me, is the hallmark of his entire career: to invite children, and especially Black children, to critically engage with how words and pictures work together to tell (counter-)stories, convey information, and to invite us to inhabit a world where the aspirations, potential, and strengths of all children are validated and held up to the light.


1 Nikolajeva, Maria and Carole Scott. How Picturebooks Work. Routledge, 2001, 119.

2 Solórzano, Daniel G. and Tara J. Yosso. “Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research” Qualitative Inquiry, Vol 8, Issue 1, pp. 23 – 44. 

3 Ikemoto, L. (1997). Furthering the inquiry: Race, class, and culture in the forced medical treatment of pregnant women. In A. Wing (Ed.), Critical race feminism: A reader (pp. 136-143). New York: New York University Press. 

4 Solórzano, Daniel G. and Tara J. Yosso. “Critical Race Methodology: Counter-Storytelling as an Analytical Framework for Education Research” Qualitative Inquiry, Vol 8, Issue 1, pp. 23 – 44. 

5 Huyck, David, Sarah Park Dahlen, Molly Beth Griffin. (2016 September 14). Diversity in Children’s Books 2015 infographic. blog. Retrieved from