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

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