Nightlight is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s books, running for the month of August. Read about it here.
When we had our first son, four different people gave us the same present: a copy of Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. A new child often inspires duplicate gifts—we were given a dozen mostly useless baby blankets, just one more thing to spit up on—but this one was different. Our son is black, and those four friends wanted to make certain our library contained one of American literature’s most beautiful depictions of a little black boy.
The Snowy Day is a classic for a reason. Keats’ illustrations are so inviting you almost don’t notice how modern his eye is. The text is perfectly poetic, at once surreal and yet so real; a hard note to strike, as anyone who’s ever tried to write for small children (and their caregivers) will agree. And the simple fact that its protagonist is a black boy is revolutionary even decades on. It’s important not to sell Keats’ work short by discussing it only through the lens of race, but leaving aside the question of blackness would be either disingenuous or treacherous, like claiming Muhammad Ali “transcended race.” The blackness of The Snowy Day is indivisible from its excellence.
Wishing there were more children’s books like The Snowy Day is a bit like wishing there were more grownup books like Anna Karenina. There are only so many masterpieces out there. But when I look at the library we’ve built for our kids, I do wish for more books for children that followed Keats’ lead, books that use children who look like mine to capture the magic in the mundane, as the best books for children do. Because what I’ve learned—and what I hear often from other parents of children of color—is that all too often the books that do contain kids who look like mine are, alas, not that fun to read.
Well-meaning acquaintances regularly forward me lists of great children’s books with black children in them; close friends regularly buy me such books, when they come across them. It’s not that a literature for children of color doesn’t exist; it’s that so much of the extant literature is lacking in the essential quality that makes literature for children so extraordinary a form: imagination.
It’s not hard to find charmingly illustrated biographies of great Americans such as Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson, Dizzy Gillespie and Barack Obama. It’s not hard to find black and brown faces in folk tales and fables from unfamiliar cultures. It’s not hard to find frank histories that use fiction to teach about fact, whether it’s the slave trade or the struggle for civil rights. It’s not hard to find storybooks with the noble aim of teaching our children that their skin, their hair, their noses are beautiful.
My family owns many of these books. They are important. It’s imperative for our black children, for all our children, to understand their connection to a rich and often difficult heritage. It’s imperative to inculcate self-esteem and say, in no uncertain terms, that black is, indeed, beautiful. But these are books that are more concerned with reality, a state in which children only sometimes dwell. Must every book featuring black faces force our children to confront the tortures of our past and the troubles of our present? These are important things that our black and brown children must learn—but they must also learn the pleasure of reading a story in the relaxed, quiet moments before bed, reading not to learn but to feel safe, feel loved, laugh, wonder. That’s a fundamental privilege of childhood and should not be reserved for only one set of children.
The Snowy Day is the ideal book to read at bedtime. It traces the arc of a day spent doing nothing much in particular, a day that concludes with a bath and a bed, a day in which the line between what is real and what is imagined is hard to discern. It’s a day like the reader has just had, regardless of the weather; it’s a book that reflects my sons back at themselves, but, as importantly, it’s a book that reflects the essential quality of childhood itself. It imparts no lesson other than the most important one books can impart: Books are enjoyable.
Peter is a gift to readers like my sons because what’s never in question is that he is the everyman—an everyboy—and that he is black. That this is so rare is maddening. We need books that proclaim the territory of childhood belongs to all children. Lisa, the human protagonist of Don Freeman’s 1968 classic Corduroy, is someone I think of as akin to Peter; her blackness is never in question even as it’s beside the point. She saves her money for the toy she wants and brings it home with her; end of story.
All children (and the adults who are reading to them) would benefit from more kids like Peter and Lisa: kids of color as the heroes of utterly quotidian stories. Such children are a paltry fraction of the body of literature for children. Within the genre, the everyman, the default hero, when it’s not a talking animal or a sentient toy, is almost always a white child.
Blackness, any sort of difference, is not a burden. Relegating blackness or other sorts of difference to serious books that explicitly engage with issues creates a context in which it can seem like one. Yes, of course, we all benefit from reading about Rosa Parks or the horrors of slavery, but to give young readers who are black, brown, or any sort of different only books about their difference is burdensome. It looks like inclusiveness, but is an insult.
We need diverse books to be sure, but those must be part of a literature that reflects our reality, books in which little black boys push one another on the swings, in which little black girls daydream about working in the zoo, in which kids of every color do what kids of every color do every day: tromp through the woods, obsess about trucks, love their parents, refuse to eat dinner. We need more books in which our kids are simply themselves, and in which that is enough.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Penguin Books for Young Readers.
See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.