Reading While Black

I wrote a guest post for an amazing new blog started by some equally amazing librarians and children’s book experts in the field–Reading While White.

I really wanted to address a recent debate sparked by an award-winning YA author, but she’s not the focus of this piece, really. You can read the full essay here.

“I don’t like to read” is a something I hear very often in New York City public schools, which I’ve learned to translate as, “I don’t like to read what my teachers make me read.” Which, in fact, does not always mean, “I don’t like to read books that don’t reflect my experiences.”

I once asked a class of Brooklyn ninth graders, many of whom were avid readers, if they’d like to see a Twilight or Harry Potter set in the ‘hood. They all shouted no. I didn’t ask them why. I already knew the answer.

My children’s school has an annual book fair. I have a hand in selecting the titles sold there, and of course, I pick out a wide range of diverse books that reflect the school’s demographic (which isn’t very many). I handed a copy of Christopher Grant’s Teenie, with a beautiful black girl on the cover, to a beautiful black girl. She scrunched up her face and shook her head, as if I’d just handed her a plate of chocolate-covered Brussels sprouts. She’d already bought two John Green novels—neither of which had any black girls on the cover, or in them.

As I’m writing this, my almost 11-year-old comes over to announce that she’s just finished reading Edwidge Danticat’s new YA novel, Untwine. She tells me to read it soon so we can discuss. Yesterday, my almost 13-year-old returned Julie Murphy’s Dumplin’ to me. “How was it?” I asked. “It was interesting,” she said. “It’s not as vanilla as the other book. It’s not vanilla at all.”

By vanilla, she means white. Not just white people, but a white feel, a white tone. A book can have only white characters and feel very much not-vanilla—there’s something universal about the voice, the characters, and the themes. She’s probably heard me say this about books. And maybe, in some indirect way, I’ve taught my daughters how to read like this. Because their mother is a children’s book writer, and has to read the canon as part of her job, my daughters are privy to most of the award-winning, bestselling, and even some of the obscure, and under-the-radar children’s books. This sets them apart from their peers, and maybe their ELA teachers, too. I tell them they’re privileged in this sense. They’re little black girls who love to read, and own books, and have parents and grandparents who read. This is their black privilege.

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