Black Characters Fill Roles in Children's Books Children's books written to include black characters have become easier to find in recent years. But have they really gone mainstream? And what does it mean to write a culturally specific children's book?
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Black Characters Fill Roles in Children's Books

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Black Characters Fill Roles in Children's Books

Black Characters Fill Roles in Children's Books

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Now, we continue our discussion of the black literary imagination by exploring a young, but growing market: African-American children's books.

In recent years, stories written to include lead black characters have become easier and easier to find in main street bookstores. The genre got a jumpstart in 1982 when the Coretta Scott King award honoring African-American contributions to children's literature became an official unit of the American Library Association.

But have those books gone mainstream enough? And how important is it to child development that the first storybook characters kids interact with look like they do? Well, for more on all of that, we have with us three guests. Floyd Cooper, who is an illustrator and author of over 60 published children's books and the winner of three Coretta Scott King awards. Welcome to the program, Mr. Cooper.

Mr. FLOYD COOPER (Illustrator; Children's Books Author): Thank you.

CORLEY: And in the studio here with us is poet and author of "Young Cornrows Calling Out the Moon," Ruth Forman. Hi, Ruth.

Ms. RUTH FORMAN (Poet; Author, "Young Cornrows Calling Out the Moon"): Hi.

CORLEY: And Claire Jefferson-Glipa, a mother and former public school teacher who only allows multicultural books into her home. Welcome, Claire.

Ms. CLAIRE JEFFERSON-GLIPA (Former Public School Teacher): Hello.

CORLEY: Well, Claire, let's really begin with you because you only allow your 4-year-old to read multicultural children's books. Tell us why.

Ms. JEFFERSON-GLIPA: I just feel it's important for her to begin her life in a world that looks like her that's positive and encouraging.

CORLEY: And has it been easier for you to find such books in libraries and bookstores these days?

Ms. JEFFERSON-GLIPA: It actually isn't, believe it or not. Most mainstream bookstores have a very slim to small section. I actually always have a budget on hand and my husband knows that if I see a book, I buy it at that second because it's oftentimes you will never see it again.

CORLEY: Really?


CORLEY: Hmm, mm-hmm. Well, Floyd, you started out as an illustrator, and you know that children are visual learners.

Mr. COOPER: Yes.

CORLEY: Tell me what you try to convey through your illustrations and how might that vary if the book is a multicultural piece.

Mr. COOPER: Well, actually, I try my best to bring the viewer as close as possible to the imagery. And I try to create, giving it a sense of place, trying to make it as real for them as possible, so that we can convey these positive images on the direct main line right into their lives. It seems that, as humans, they would connect better with something that they could really feel. And so that's - these are some of the issues that I try to address when I create my paintings.

CORLEY: Well, you, of course, are an author, have written several books. Were you surprised to hear Claire say that she finds it a little difficult to find things?

Mr. COOPER: Yes and no. I learned early on in this industry that things are cyclical and that - I was possibly enjoying the benefits of one of those positive swings when I first entered the industry back in the middle '80s. And I was just sort of anticipating the old pendulum swing back, but I hadn't realized that it had occurred already. So, in that sense, it was surprising to hear that. But to be expected, I would assume.

CORLEY: To be expected. Why do you say?

Mr. COOPER: Being a cyclical industry and the pendulum that swings - I've talked to some of my predecessors in the industry and they would tell me stories of the way it was for them initially, and I could start to see and give a sense of how things sort of shift and swing to and fro. And whether or not that's connected directly with the society, I wasn't quite sure but I do know that it does happen in children's publishing.

CORLEY: Well, Ruth, you - let me bring you into this conversation - you started out writing poetry and you moved into children's books. First, talk about that a little bit. Why did you decide to do that?

Ms. FORMAN: I believe that - I always wanted to do children's books. And as a child, I loved reading children's books and poetry. And I had suggestions from people to move into children's books because my work was very visual and celebratory and accessible. So that's something that I wanted to move into.

CORLEY: And was it different for you writing from that perspective as opposed to earlier things you'd written?

Ms. FORMAN: Not really. And my first children's book, "Young Cornrows Calling Out the Moon," is a poem itself. And so…

CORLEY: And you are a poet.

Ms. FORMAN: …and I'm a poet. So it was just the poem moving into another arena, so to speak. And Cbabi Bayoc, the illustrator, did such a beautiful job with it. I feel very comfortable with the poem as a children's book. And how the book is being accepted, it's wonderful. It doesn't, it just feels like a slight shift.

CORLEY: All right. Well, we've asked all of you to pick a selection that moved you - that's part of children's literature. I see, since you are in the studio, you have a big advantage. I see the book opened there. So, Ruth, why don't you read us something?

Ms. FORMAN: Would you like me to read some on my own book or would you like me to…

CORLEY: Sure. Go ahead.

Ms. FORMAN: Okay.

(Reading) We don't have no backyard, front yard neither. We got black magic and brownstone steps when the go down. We don't have no backyard, no soft grass, rainbow kites, mushrooms, butterflies. We got South Philly summer when the sun go down.

CORLEY: That's very nice, very nice. I wanted to - and applause, too, from our fellow participants. I wanted to ask all of you, and why don't we begin with you, Claire, but how necessary do you think these books are in our multicultural society that we'd live in today?

Ms. JEFFERSON-GLIPA: I think they are imperative. As a mom working to raise a daughter, as a strong contributing member of society, I think it's significant for her to first have a strong sense of self to be able to compete academically and to have a strong sense of self to develop socially.

She started preschool, and already at such a young age, she has noticed her differences. And there aren't always African-American representations in the classroom, and she notice this. You know, we think our kids should only see our primarily colors. We struggled so hard to give them those primary educations. Well, once they can see red, green, blue and yellow, they can also see shades of brown. And so, it's significant for our children to see their shade of brown in their world.

CORLEY: Floyd, you are an illustrator, so what do you think about the…

Mr. COOPER: Yes. Well, that's right up my ally, isn't it? Shades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: And absolutely, a place right into my latest project with Joyce Carol Thomas. She's written a book - wonderful book called "The Blacker the Berry," which celebrates the different skin tones without - within our community, and that's where my excerpt will come from.

CORLEY: Interesting title.

Mr. COOPER: Yes. "The Blacker the Berry."


Mr. COOPER: We all know that one.

CORLEY: Yes, we do. So it's interesting that it's with a children's book.

Mr. COOPER: And we know what follows…

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: So, Ruth, what do you think about the - just the necessity of these books?

Ms. FORMAN: I agree with that. I'm a new children's author, so I'm kind of experiencing this first hand. And what I've noticed is that the children drink it up when they see the cover. I was recently at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and the book was sitting in the table. And there was a girl who looked just like the cover, and she run up to the book and she just immediately said mommy, mommy, I want that one. And, as she was turning the pages, she was turning them so fast and drinking it up.

And then another friend of mine was telling me her 2-year-old niece thinks that she's the girl in the book. So she points at the book, and she says her name, and then the little boy in the book. She points to that little boy and says her little friend from preschool's name.

So I think they see themselves in that book. And, I think, you know, just remembering going back to my own childhood, it was so rare that I was able to identify with those characters in the books that I was reading. I think that affects the child's love of reading.

CORLEY: If you're just tuning in, we're talking about African-American children's books with poet and first time children's book author, Ruth Forman, who just heard; Floyd Cooper is an illustrator an author of over 60 published children's books; and Claire Jefferson-Glipa is a mother and former public school teacher.

Floyd, why don't I have you read something for us. You have 60 books…

Mr. COOPER: Okay. Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOPER: Give me a moment, you know.


Mr. COOPER: I have one here.

CORLEY: Yes, one is fine.

Mr. COOPER: It's "The Blacker the Berry" by Joyce Carol Thomas, and it's the title poem, "The Blacker the Berry."

(Reading) The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice. I am midnight and berries. I called the silver stars at dusk. By moonrise they appear, and we turned berries into nectar. Because I am dark, the moon and stars shine brighter. Because berries are dark, the juicer is sweeter. They couldn't don without night, colors without black couldn't sparkle quite so bright. The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice. I am midnight and berries.

CORLEY: Wow, that is lovely. That's lovely. Claire, you're going to be pulling out a lot of money, I think, out of your…

Ms. JEFFERSON-GLIPA: Yeah, I know. I'm writing the title fast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: …heading to the store. Absolutely. Floyd, I just wanted you to talk a little bit, real quickly, about your process for illustrating. It's a little unique as I understand.

Mr. COOPER: Yes, I can't draw so, and here I am in New York (unintelligible). But I have developed a way of working backwards, using a subtracted method with erasers, and it allows me to create images and expressions and sense of places and times that I couldn't normally do until I learned this technique. And too bad this is radio, I'd give you a quick demonstration. But you can catch me someday at a school near you.

CORLEY: All right. And we'll check out. We'll check it out.

Mr. COOPER: Yes. Yes.

CORLEY: Claire, I wanted to also give you a chance to showcase maybe a favorite piece for you as well. So what do you have for us?

Ms. JEFFERSON-GLIPA: All right. I'll read an excerpt from "I Dream for You a World: A Covenant of Our Children" written by Charisse Carney-Nunes.

(Reading) I dream a world for you where imaginations not delayed and where the tools for our tomorrow are at your fingertips today. And in this world, my child, you'll know how very much you're loved. That you're family is central as is God from up above. So today, my child, please work with me. For just as surely as I dream, we can build up our tomorrow. We'll create a freedom team. So promise me you'll learn these words, and you will heed them as your yolk. They are a covenant for our future, a covenant of hope.

CORLEY: Very nice as well. I want to just touch briefly with all of you. I would imagine that you had your own personal experience with African-American story big characters when you were younger. We just have a few moments. Ruth, why don't you tell me was there one that really stuck with you?

Ms. FORMAN: The one that I remember the most I believe was "The Snowy Day." I can't remember the author. I want to say Ezra-something but I'm not quite sure.

CORLEY: I'm going to stop you there. He's going to chime in and tell you the author. Okay. And how about you Floyd?

Mr. COOPER: Well, my influences came from outside of publishing, it's mostly James Brown, "I'm Black and I'm Proud."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: All right.

Mr. COOPER: And that's still what I reflect on to this day. But, I mean, it could be viewed in the same way. It's all coming at us, giving us positive strength and encouragement.

CORLEY: Claire, any - one thing in particular?

Ms. JEFFERSON-GLIPA: One of my favorite book as a kid was the Corderoy Series. Where the…

CORLEY: I'm going to have to stop you right there, and leave it at that. All right, thank you so much all three of you. Floyd Cooper, illustrator and author of several children's books; poet and first time children's book author Ruth Forman and Claire Jefferson-Glipa, a mother and former public school teacher, all talking with us today about African-American literature - children's literature.

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