“First day of school” picture books are a pretty basic staple of children’s publishing. If a book about a new character does well, a common second act is So-and-so Goes to School (or Celebrates a Holiday or Has a New Baby Brother/Sister). Looking at first day of school books is kind of like taking a sample of children’s publishing as a whole.
I’m not sure when I first realized that I couldn’t find any “first day of school” picture books that featured contemporary African American boys. It may have been after years of pulling books for the annual display, or a hazy gift idea, or only after attending a conference where one of the panels addressed the need for diverse books. When I realized that there was a gap in the collection I started keeping an eye out, but I only found historical fiction to buy.
This past fall, I tried to help a mom find books for her son. Her face fell when she saw one of the books on her list–which featured an African American girl–was historical fiction. I found a book from 1990 featuring a contemporary African American girl to offer her (because the one from 2005 was already checked out) and at least one book about starting school in a diverse classroom. I figured it was time to ask for expert help.
I tried contacting Edith Campbell, who had been on a panel at a national conference I attended. She teaches grad students about the history of children’s literature; she is African American and I learned from her Tweets that she has a son. If the books existed, she would know.
She reached out to her network on Facebook and came up with the following list:
Shawn Goes to School by Petronella Breinburg, about going to nursery school (1974)
Jamal’s Busy Day by Wade Hudson (1991)
(This book shares an illustrator and publisher with Bright Eyes, Brown Skin by Cheryl Willis Hudson. Both show a typical day at school, although I’m not sure either is strictly about the first day.)
David’s Drawings by Cathryn Falwell (2001)
We own this one! Technically, it’s about the first day after transferring to a new school, rather than starting school for the first time.
Little Cliff’s First Day of School by Clifton L. Taulbert (2001)
We used to own this. It’s set during the 1950s, but it’s about the ordinary stuff (new clothes, not wanting to go, the prospect of new friends) rather than anything as scary as Ruby Bridges’ experience.
The First Day of School by Margaret McNamara (2005)
We own this one! It’s a beginning reader, so when I searched the picture book section I totally missed it.
Kindergarten with Charlie by T.J. Jeremie (2015)
This one was independently published. I couldn’t find it in WorldCat (Zetta Elliot has written about the difficulty of getting published and the stigma attached to self-published books).
School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex (2016)
The school building literally is the main character here, attended by a diverse group of children depicted by Christian Robinson, an award-winning African American illustrator.
This makes fewer than 10 books in more than 40 years. It’s part of the bigger picture of children’s publishing, which you can also get a snapshot of in this infographic:
The Cooperative Children’s Book Center keeps statistics on diversity in children’s books. This was the newest infographic I could find, but you can find statistics through 2016 on their website. You can see how the numbers compare to the US population at the census website. If twice as many books were about African Americans, that would be close to the percentage of people in the country who are African American.
Even these numbers don’t tell the whole story, because it is easier to find books about African American girls than African American boys. What really brought this home to me was the blog article 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People? by Elizabeth Bird. She found 5 chapter books published about African American boys that year. Readers commenting on the article added a tiny handful more. She returned to the subject last year and found 12– and a wider variety– but still fewer books about boys than girls.
Why does this matter? I’m going to defer to two authors who have the experience of having been African American boys. Walter Dean Myers wrote about the feeling of “something missing” in the books he read as a teen. Later, when he read the work of James Baldwin as an adult, he felt recognized and valued. He wanted to give young readers the same feeling from reading his own work, as well as “a sense of who they are and what they can be.”
Towards the end of the essay that’s linked to above, he wrote about some ideas that his son, Christopher Myers, has also expressed. As important as books by and about African Americans are for African American readers, these books are also for all of the other people who are going to live and interact with African Americans. They can widen everybody’s imagination– especially if they’re not always about the same old topics.
A book about starting school is a book that helps a child imagine where he (or she) is going and who he (or she) is becoming in the most basic and practical sort of way. It’s an acknowledgement of a rite of passage and a pretty universal experience. I’m looking forward to being able to buy The King of Kindergarten. I wish I could depend on more books like it being published soon, but I suspect I might have to plan for the copies I buy to last as long as those books from the 1990s.