Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Valuing Reading

In 1986, Walter Dean Myers wrote a piece for The New York Times titled "I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry." In the article, Myers wrote about his experiences as a child reader seeing only negative images of Blacks in children's books and being fully aware of the power those images had on readers of all races in influencing how they viewed African Americans. He also addressed the hopefulness of the 1960s and 70s as the interest in books by and about African Americans grew, in part due to the social unrest of the time. As the title quote indicates, Myers thought this interest and demand would be the beginning of something that would be ongoing. Of course, as we know today, and as Myers knew almost thirty years ago when he wrote this piece, that wasn't the case.

Myers ends his piece by stating that while he still felt the publishing industry was responsible for not allowing the publishing of books with racial stereotypes and negative images of African Americans, he no longer felt the industry had an obligation to him or to African American. He acknowledged that publishing is a bottom-line business and that if we place our needs in the hands of an industry for whom profit is all that matters, we are going to be disappointed. And then he went on to ask the question we're still asking today. If we can't count on the publishing industry to produce more books by and about people of color then what can we do? Myers wrote: "We must first acknowledge that in much of the black community reading as both a skill and as a recreation is seriously undervalued."

There. In that one sentence written almost thirty years ago, Walter Dean Myers addressed an issue we still don't ever really talk about when discussing the topic of the crisis in the publishing of books by and about people of color. There tends to be a lot of finger point, but the finger is rarely even pointed at oneself. Obviously there are larger issues at play, but there is truth to Myers' assertion that many of our communities just don't give a rat about reading. I come from a family of non-readers who are raising non-readers who will probably raise non-readers and so on. Most of the kids I went to school with growing up were not "readers." And by "readers" I mean that they didn't read for fun. These were kids who read for school, if that. I don't know where or how my love of reading developed having not grown up surrounded by books or seeing the behavior modeled so, obviously, it isn't to say that only environment influences behavior. But it's pretty damn hard to imagine many African American and Latino kids growing up readers when it isn't a modeled or encouraged activity and when there are so many other distractions like video games, social media, television. The fact that there aren't many characters who look like them in books doesn't help either. Wait. Did we just go full circle? Which came first? Do communities of color not value recreational reading because it seems irrelevant, especially when no characters resemble the readers, or does the publishing industry not publish books by and for people of color because they don't see people of color as readers? It's probably some of both.

I don't know if Walter Dean Myers' viewpoint has changed since he wrote this piece (will have to do some research), but I am curious what those of you reading this think. Is it too harsh an assessment? Is it generalizing? What are the real issues / problems with the lack of books for children that are by and for people of color? How much responsibility do we actually have in this?