Julie Zuckman: Applauds diversity of children’s books today

Published: 06-09-2023 8:15 PM

I applaud Tolley Jones’ column today [“A mermaid with locs matters,” June 8]. Representation is critical. I worked with kids from 2003 to 2012 and was delighted by the scope and diversity of children’s literature today. If I could include a photo it would show my personal collection of children’s books.

As a bookish Jewish child growing up in a diverse suburb of NYC between 1955 and 1973, I also looked for myself. Until I could read adult books I found only Anne Frank (didactically edited, scary, sad victim, another country/continent, hardly a child’s role model) and the All of a Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor, to which I did not relate as it was historical and rather saccharine, and the family was religious and lived in a city.

I was a modern girl living a middle class assimilated and non-observant life in a house in the suburbs. I was nowhere. That was bad. It’s different now for sure, and that’s a good thing.

Readers may be interested to know that the first picture book featuring an African American child as the hero was the wordless “A Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats, published in 1963. The first U.S.-published chapter book for children featuring Black characters, “Popo and Fifina,” was written in 1932 by the famous Harlem Renaissance writers Arna Bontemps and Langston Hughes. It takes place in Haiti.

The first modern novel with a Black American child protagonist was “Call Me Charley,” 1945, by Jesse C. Jackson (no relation to the Chicago minister/political activist), which is about Jackson’s own experiences as the only Black child in a white school. Before I did a little research to write this letter, I had only heard of or seen “A Snowy Day.”

“A Snowy Day” and “Popo and Fifina” are currently available in print.

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Julie Zuckman