Race in Children's Literature

Dick and Jane

Dick and Jane first appeared in the Elson-Gray Readers in 1930 and continued in a series of basal readers until 1965. The series remained in use throughout the 70s until the text were gradually replaced in the 1980s. Beginning in the late 1950s, critics pointed out stereotypes regarding gender, class, and racial bias as well as the fact that those that were not from a white, middle-class culture could not identify with the characters. In her article “Not So Fast, Dick and Jane: Reimagining Childhood and Nation in The Bluest Eye”, Werrlein states “[t]he Dick and Jane books, in particular, exist almost entirely outside of history-as if nothing and no time exists beyond the suburban present. They, therefore, treat American childhood as an abstraction that excludes all but white middle-class children.” In 1965, Scott Foresman became the first publisher to introduce a Black American family as characters in a first-grade reader series. 

Alice and Jerry was a basal reader published from the mid-1930s to the 1960s

Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood

James Baldwin, a world-renowned author and civil rights activist, wrote a sole picture book. The book offers a glimpse into the joys and challenges of Black life in 1970s Harlem through the eyes four-year-old protagonist, TJ. In spite of being surrounded by the very visible effects of systemic oppression, TJ and friends, 7-year-old WT and 8-year-old Blinky, dance, play, and experience joy, a clear form of resistance to the social inequity all around them. TJ is surrounded by a community that looks after him and a loving family who impart valuable lessons to him: “‘I want you to be proud of your people,’ TJ’s Daddy would always say.” Baldwin referred to the book as “a celebration of the self-esteem of Black children”.

“In 1965, Nancy Larrick published ‘The All-White World of Children’s Books,’ highlighting the lack of racial diversity in children’s literature, finding in a survey of over 5,200 children’s books, only 6.7% included a Black character. In a recent follow up study, a review of new books showed that only 10.5% of all new children’s books published in 2013 depicting human beings include a person of color.”

“African-American Children’s Literature: Examining the Genre in Childhood.” Schubert Center for Child Studies 

Reading Dick and Jane with Me

Reading Dick & Jane with Me, is an artist’s book created to interrupt the authority of old elementary school textbooks called ‘The Dick and Jane Readers.’ These textbooks of the 1940’s and 1950’s, used to teach reading, presented a white upper middle class suburban familyas normal life for most Americans. Although the average American at that time was working class, the artist as a young girl thought these depictions meant that her family must be an aberration outside normal family life. Simple, repetitive sentences are constructed to simulate the rhythm of the old readers. Fragments of snapshots of the artist’s brothers and sisters and children from her neighborhood stand in for elementary school students who now ‘talk back.’”

Sligh, Clarissa. “Reading Dick and Jane with Me,” Clarissa Sligh

Peeny Butter Fudge

Nana knows how to take an ordinary afternoon and make it extra special! Nap time, storytime, and playtime are transformed by fairies, dragons, dancing, and pretending --and then mixing and fixing yummy, yummy fudge just like Nana and Mommy did not so many years ago

The Big Box

To make this group of kids abide by the rules, the grown-ups create a world inside a box . . . with toys, games, treats, and gifts, but these clever children are able to find their way out of the box and back into reality.

Please Louise

A library card unlocks a new life for a young girl in this picture book about the power of imagination. With the help of a new library card and through the transformative power of books, what started out as a dull day turns into one of surprises, ideas, and imagination!

Race in Children's Literature