WebExtra: A disconnect in reading

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As a teacher, LaVerne Coke has no trouble finding books that might appeal to girls. But when it comes to books for boys, especially black boys—including her own 8-year-old son—she has to search harder.  Sometimes, she’s allowed kids to choose comic books, “as long as it gets them to read.”

“I have thought about writing a book myself because it’s so important for our students to get engaged,” says Coke, whose 14-year career as a Chicago Public Schools teacher includes 3rd and 4th grades and middle-school science.

In libraries and bookstores, African-American boys are missing, both as characters in books and as readers. The two absences are related and feed off each other, according to literacy experts: If young African-American males don’t see themselves in books, they aren’t inclined to become readers, and if publishers perceive that black boys don’t read, they won’t approve books that might interest them.

“For publishers, it’s a business. And they’re publishing for how they feel the market is defined,” says Kathleen Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which studies and compiles data about books for kids. 

Of the 5,000 children’s books published every year, no more than 5 percent are written by or about blacks, Asians, Latinos or Native Americans, Horning says.  Last year, the center catalogued 172 picture books, novels and nonfiction books published that were about Africans or African-Americans.  Of those, 83 were written or illustrated by blacks.

Horning says that despite the growing diversity in classrooms, there hasn’t been much change in the industry, which has few editors of color. “Children just are not seeing themselves in children’s books,” Horning says.

Publishers are loathe to talk publicly about whether they ignore black readers. However, last month, one major publisher was widely accused of racial insensitivity. Bloomsbury Children’s Books put a photo of a white girl with long, straight hair on the cover of a teen novel about an African-American girl with short hair.

The book’s author, Justine Larbalestier, says the cover decision was made over her objections.  Publishers, she says, have outdated notions of race and think books seen as “black” won’t sell. “The publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it,” Larbalestier, who is white, wrote on her blog. “…I hope it [the controversy] gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions.”

In early August, Bloomsbury decided to change the “Liar” book jacket to feature an African-American teen when the novel is released in October. The company said in a statement that it regretted that its original cover had been “interpreted by some as a calculated decision to mask the character’s ethnicity.”

Many librarians and teachers say that publishing more books for African Americans isn’t merely a matter of political correctness. It’s crucial to lowering the achievement gap.

Reading test scores show that blacks significantly lag behind whites. Among 4th-graders, the gap was 27 points; it was 26 points for 8th-graders, according to 2007 data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. On average, black boys scored 28 points behind their white counterparts, while the gap between white girls and black girls in the 4th grade was 25 points.

Deborah Taylor, a leader in several national children’s book organizations, says that most black children who are first learning how to read have no problem finding engaging material. Many picture books appeal to all kids because they feature animals as main characters. Others recount folk tales from different cultures.

The challenge comes when the kids are ready to move on to books for older readers, Taylor says. That’s when their interest can lag—and there’s a dearth of books with characters and storylines with which they can relate. Black girls don’t face the same level of frustration in finding engaging books as do black boys, since the overwhelming majority of children’s books feature female characters and are written by women.

“We’re losing African-American boys at the 3rd grade,” says Taylor, a Baltimore librarian who chairs the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee, which honors notable children’s books by black authors or illustrators. “That’s the age where you’ve been taught how to read, but the critical piece is reading practice. Having books that kids will just want to keep reading every night—that’s where kids can become fluent readers.”

Alfred Tatum, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago whose research focuses on reading and black males, has argued that even the best teaching methods in the world will fail to reach students if they aren’t paired with interesting texts.

In one of his studies, Tatum worked with a 16-year-old black male student from Chicago’s West Side who had been held back three times because he had failed to meet the minimum reading score for promotion to high school.  The student told Tatum that he had never finished a book. That changed when Tatum gave him the book, “Yo, Little Brother…: Basic Rules of Survival for Young African-American Males.” The teen stayed up all night to finish it.
Author Greg Neri says that he thinks of how to inspire such youths when working on his books. In his award-winning “Chess Rumble,” a middle-schooler learns to take his anger and frustration from the streets to the chess board.  A forthcoming book by Neri is a graphic novel about Robert “Yummy” Sandifer, the 11-year-old Chicago gang member whose murder by older gang members made national news in 1994. Both are published by New York-based Lee & Low Books, which specializes in multicultural children’s literature.

Neri says that in elementary school, he was a reluctant reader until he discovered the “Phantom Tollbooth,” an adventure novel, and books about urban life written by Walter Dean Myers.  “It’s all about finding your book,” says Neri, whose ethnic background is a mix of Creole, Mexican and Filipino. “It’s a book that surprises you and changes your concept about what a book can be and what a book can do.”

Neri, who lives in Tampa, was inspired to write young adult books when he attended a reading festival. A teacher in the audience begged a panel of authors to write for African-American boys.     “I find it a great niche to be in,” says Neri, who previously taught animation and storytelling to inner-city teens. “I’ve found a tremendous response from teachers and librarians and parents. It’s become this mission for me.”

But until more writers and publishers see books that appeal to black youngsters as both a mission and a market, teachers have to be persistent and creative.

Stacy Stewart, who teaches 6th grade at Adam Clayton Powell Academy, says she’s passed out sports magazines and newspaper articles to her student. Graphic novels are popular, as are audio books. The motivational book, “Letters to a Young Brother,” by actor Hill Harper, was a hit with boys as well as girls.

Kids will read, Stewart says, “as long as you give them something that sparks their interest. Otherwise, they’re not going to see reading as anything more than a classroom assignment. As long as the content is appropriate, I don’t care what they read.”

Phuong Ly is a Chicago-based freelance writer.