Celebrating All Kinds of Children

The final 2016 issue of Children's Literature Association Quarterly was a special issue on African American Children’s Literature and Genre. Sara Austin (SA), a PhD candidate in English at the University of Connecticut, and Karen Chandler (KC), an associate professor of English at the University of Louisville, served as guest editors. The pair joined us for a Q&A to talk about the issue and the field of African American children's literature.

How did this special issue come about?

KC: Sara approached me about working with her on the special issue, and so maybe she can speak about what initially motivated her to propose a special issue on African American children’s and young adult literature. I will say I was drawn to the project because I have been greatly influenced by the earlier special issue in African American Review on African American children’s literature.

SA: I was working on an article about Virginia Hamilton and talking to Arnold Adoff about life in New York before Zeely was published. While researching the article, I noticed how little scholarship there was on these authors. Hamilton’s body of work is so prolific and important that I wanted to spark conversation. A special issue seemed the best way to do that.

KC: In deciding what to focus on, we wanted to be inclusive but also decided to set some limits. We decided on genre because children’s literature, which is often defined as a genre, actually encompasses many different kinds of texts, such as social realism, folk tales, fantasy, non-fiction. Having the genre focus served as an important filter, allowing us to concentrate on criticism that really engaged with the idea, at some level, of how a text relates to established literary conventions and classifications. Looking at genre can open up questions about revising tradition and innovating, as well as about the relationship between form and reader response. Sara and I also decided to focus on African-American literature, as opposed to children’s literature of the African diaspora, which would have also been a great but broader focus. Yet the focus on U.S. literature allows for some coherence and historical resonances that, I think, really enrich the special issue.

SA: Exactly. Coming on the heels of the Children’s Literature Association conference on diversity with Kate Capshaw’s keynote, the We Need Diverse Books movement, and so many other conversations popping up around race and children’s literature, an American context for the issue made sense at this cultural moment.

How important is it to bring essays on this topic together in a special issue?

KC: A special issue helps bring to light relationships between different authors’ questions and ideas. It really underscores not only the richness and diversity of African American children’s literature but also the various ways it is read and responded to. Although many readers will probably just go to one article or another in the issue, it’s possible to learn a great deal by reading the articles in connection with one another.  For instance, Melissa Jenkin’s essay on place and agency in Faith Ringgold’s books nicely complements Cara Byrne’s essay on picture-book versions of Zora Neale Hurston’s notes, in which Byrne is arguing for the need to respect Hurston’s integrity as a writer. Even though the two articles are quite different in methodology, they are both exploring ideas about female agency. Also, there’s are poignant links between Byrne’s acknowledgement in the essay about the Hurston picture books of their neglect of Hurston’s working-class sources and Eleanor Reed’s analysis of collective biography of Negro League players.  Giselle Liza Anatol’s examination of the continuing influence of the dead in Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiographical Brown Girl Dreaming is also relevant.

SA:  This issue is a small portion of the breadth and depth of African American children’s literature.

Not only, as Karen points out, do the articles really build onto one another and offer explorations of a few key themes, they also represent cross-sections of children’s literature scholarship. The great thing about special issues generally is that they can expand the way we think about a given topic. By collecting articles on similar themes which discuss vastly different texts, especially texts across genres, the issue shows how discussions of poetry and picture books can intersect. Sometimes we can focus on one tiny piece of scholarship because that small piece seems knowable, but if forced out of that familiar landscape, might discover a new scholarly love.  

What surprised you about the submissions you received?

KC: In spite of what I said about the published essays’ resonance, I was surprised that every submission we received was so distinct. The essays on poetry, for instance, were taking up separate questions about language, authorship, or poetic form. There were wonderful submissions on a genres like film and on 19th century literature that point to the depth and breadth of scholarship on black children’s and young adult literature. It was inspiring and instructive to read such different kinds of criticism.

SA: I was also surprised by how well the essays went together. Despite different approaches and topics, the essays really do seem to fit in a way that feels cohesive and significant. That fit was not something we manipulated in any way, it just happened organically and I was both surprised and very pleased to watch it come together. Also, there are not enough people who do this kind of work. Both the people writing submissions and the people who reviewed work for us are wonderful and dedicated, but there just need to be more of them.

Where do you think the study of African American children's and young adult literature is headed?

KC: With the ongoing concern with racist rhetoric and violence targeting African Americans and members of other minority groups, I think there will be a continuing effort to explore how children’s literature has resisted these forces and how it encourages critical thinking and reading. Studies of African American literature that is not openly political in this way will also proceed. I think there’s a real concern with exploring the breadth of black children’s and young adult literature.

There will be more attention to historical texts and historical audiences for African American children’s and young adult literature. Just last year, for instance, there was the discovery of what is generally thought to be Frances Harper’s first book. She wrote with children in mind, as did many other early African American writers. I also think there will be continuing attention to African American fantasy.

SA: I recently spent some time looking at the Scholastic special collection for We Need Diverse Books, and reflected on how children’s literature scholars have been talking for a long time about the importance of celebrating all kinds of children through diversity in characters, authors, artists, publishers, and scholars. If the visibility and marketability of African American children’s texts continues to grow, and I hope that is the case, then we may also see growth in the study of these texts.

Besides the artistic and political merits of these texts, they are also historically important. Whether we are talking about Harper or Hamilton, these texts are vital parts of the historical and cultural moments they inhabit. American children’s cultural and literary studies projects need African American texts. They are just necessary for scholarship. I think that as more texts are produced and become popular, these works become even more necessary. It becomes increasingly impossible to understand American culture without studying African American children’s literature