Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Cocoa Kids Collection© Thesis: “Revaluing Children of Color’s Lives Through Children’s Literature”

[This is a revision of a story originally published December 3, 2015, 
presented to Lesley University, Boston, Massachusetts on December 15, 2015.]

Children’s literature and picture books are serious business. The rainbow-bright images of friendly creatures, chatty animals, and cartooned smiles influence developing minds about formative relationships. Social codes and cultural values imbued in these works inform and impact our interactions. However, amidst all the storybook charm, there is a huge absence that impacts all of us.

I am the author of a series of self-published children’s books, called the Cocoa Kids Collection©: Isaiah and the Chocolate Mountain©; Eddie and the Hot Cocoa Hot Rod©; and (coming in 2016) Lorena and the Magic Mocha Mirror©. These books feature multi- racial characters whose learning adventures teach and entertain. They are vividly illustrated, whimsical narratives, meant to encourage reading, facilitate learning and uplift commercial publishing’s most underrepresented audience: children of color.

My fledgling series of hand-drawn children’s stories are in their nascent stage, just gaining ground with niche, multicultural audiences that enjoy the work simply for its straightforward storylines and family- friendly visual qualities. Demonstrative of this, in recent remarks to one particular book-signing audience, I explored, in a discussion, the importance of the children’s literature genre and the broader thesis of my books.

Then as now, I contextualized my work with the need for ethnically relevant content and aligned my efforts with those of #BlackLivesMatter, the social media-based campaign seeking heightened awareness and civic action in response to police actions that increasingly have resulted in the tragic loss of black lives.

My position was received with skepticism. My little book was perceived by at least one event-goer as simplistic and one-dimensional. Ostensibly, that is what Isaiah and the Chocolate Mountain©, the first book in the series, is meant to be: a light-hearted and frolicking, kid-friendly tale of a multicultural child who deals with the disappointment of receiving an unwanted birthday gift. But, the story aspires to be more, much more.

The Cocoa Kids Collection© seeks to present yet another interpretation and vision of life, an authentic narrative that reflects the too often ignored and overlooked minority and multi-cultural experience. The series strives to serve as a platform to explore psychosocial and literacy development for those minority and at-risk youth whose experiences have more often than not been left in the margins.

My aspirations for the series include that the books become favorites for all kids. Particularly for children of color, the series is meant to be one in which they see themselves, and are encouraged to imagine themselves in ways that are larger than life, untethered and free to imagine their authentic selves beyond boundaries imposed by race, class, and gender.

To understand the underpinnings of the story and the big-picture intent of the Cocoa Kids Collection©, it is helpful to look back to the landmark article by Rudine Sims Bishop, “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Doors.” Published some 25 years ago in the Ohio State University publication Perspectives, this scholarly work examines the dynamics of race in children’s literature and the critical role books play in our society’s cultural, media and emotional development. 

Sims Bishop writes:
“Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection, we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading books, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.”

In that vein, The Cocoa Kids Collection© seeks to reflect the lives of children of color and, to refract the flood of negative media and messaging, both visual and textual, that buttress institutions which systematically rob children of color of their innocence, potential and childhood, every day.

Bishop’s work updated an earlier look at the same phenomenon which first called the issue to the country’s attention. That work was Nancy Larrick's landmark essay, "The All-White World of Children's Books," published in 1965, in The Saturday Review. 

Larrick writes:
"Across the country, 6,340,000 non-white children are learning to read and to understand the American way of life in books which either omit them entirely or scarcely mention them. There is no need to elaborate on the damage, much of it irreparable, to the Negro child's personality.

"But the impact on all-white books upon 39,600,000 white children is probably even worse...There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books."

Sadly, as will be quantified later in this piece, little has changed since Larrick first explored how monolithic children’s narratives stifle the development of a child’s ability to empathize with diverse populations. More than a question of content, these sins of omission have exceeded critical mass to deadly effect.

This phenomenon is real, often presenting mortal consequences which increasingly are manifest in our society, as Alexandros Orphanides articulated in his June 15, 2015, article for The Huffington Post’s Black Voices, “The Dehumanization of Black Children: Tamir Rice, Kalief Browder, and Dajerria Becton.”

In his time-traveling essay, Orphanides explores recent and historical accounts in which children of color have been denied the protections of childhood to fatal consequence. He deftly recounts the plights of three recent victims: Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by police in a Cleveland public park while he was playing with a toy gun; Kalief Browder, 22, who committed suicide following his release after three years of false imprisonment at Riker’s Island, which began at the age of 16, for allegedly stealing a backpack; and Dajerria Becton, 15, the girl who was filmed being violently thrown down and pinned to the ground, clad only in her bikini, by police responding to calls of raucous kids at a birthday pool party.

There is an ever-growing frequency of reported “isolated incidents” where black children are dehumanized, and worse, killed under circumstances that defy conventional notions of childhood.

Orphanides’ writes:
“These seemingly unrelated stories are inextricably linked through the span of American history in the ways in which the bodies of Black children have been exploited, dehumanized and policed through the centuries. This manifests in a justice system, which is supposed to protect the rights and vulnerabilities of children, that is 18 times more likely to sentence a Black child as an adult. It also manifests in a public that accepts institutionalized racism in our formal institutions and reinforces it through the litany of inequalities inherent in American society.”

Exploring several historic, highly publicized instances of violence against black children in our country’s history, Orphanides posits that attitudes and practices that seek to undermine the humanity of black children are no mere coincidence:

“Throughout the slave period, Black children were regularly separated from their parents and sold to other plantations -- both their childhood and humanity were denied in the face of a racial capitalism that valued only their value as a commodity and source of labor.”

This dark history didn’t end with slavery. Through the antebellum period and beyond, blacks’ humanity was denied, their education subverted, and literacy was a punishable crime in which lynch mobs were judge and jury. Childhood offered no refuge or defense for any sort of perceived criminality, as evidenced in the plight of Emmett Till, the 14- year-old boy who was savagely killed in 1955 Mississippi for reportedly whistling at a white woman. Till, a middle-school-aged child, was robbed of his innocence and humanity when he was judged and mercilessly slaughtered by a gang of white adults: childhood denied.

Such atrocities continue today. Tamir Rice’s plight is a powerful reminder that change is
still needed. The incident is also a strong indictment of the public’s fragmented response, broken along lines of race, in calling for radical, sweeping change in our country’s judicial system and law enforcement institutions which look past the litany of civic and social inequalities inherent in American society.

The media are active agents of the “formal institutions,” Orphanides condemns. Media of all types, developed for all ages, audiences, and segments are mirrors, as Bishop discusses, that reflect our citizens and society. Factual and fictional books, news, social media, films, all project and reflect the narratives of our culture’s beliefs and values, our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. In each of these channels, minority narratives and perspectives are woefully lacking.

Consider the numbers for adult fiction. Diversity publisher Lee & Low reported that in 2012 only three of 124 The New York Times’ best-selling print and e-book fictional titles were written by authors of color: Sylvia Day (Chinese American), E.L. James (half Chilean), and Tess Gerritsen (Chinese American). A recurrent reality, it is clear that commercially successful authors are statistically more frequently multicultural. Though, by and large, ethnically diverse authors who land on The New York Times Bestsellers List, are few and far between.

The data for children’s literature is just as stark. Lee & Low reports that from 1994 to 2014 the volume of multicultural content in children’s publishing, (which in this instance align with the Cooperative Children’s Book Center description of books for children and young adults written by and about people of color and First/Nation Nations), hovered at around 10%, despite the fact that the same wedge of the nation’s population has increased to 37%.

Changes are slowly being realized, however, there is a need for something specific. In a 2014 report, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) noted that despite record amounts of media coverage citing the dire need for diversity books, the industry segment registered a meager 14% increase. The increase marked a definite improvement. And yet gaps remain.

Books for readers aged 6 to 10 not only feature the least multicultural content, but also the fewest number of multicultural authors. The drought of authentic, culturally conscious, and multicultural content has been attributed, in part, to a lack of African American writers. At least this is one conclusion, according to a report by San Jose University’s Kira Isak Pirofski, titled “Multicultural Literature and the Children's Literary Canon.”

Pirofski writes:
“The lack of African-American authors, in part, accounts for the lack of children's books with African-American characters. The sentiment that more African- Americans authors are needed, was echoed by Boyd (1991) who stated, vis-a-vis Newberry Medal winners, there is a "need for children's literature by and about African- Americans," (Boyd, 1991, abstract).”

Identified in the 90’s, this phenomenon persists, according to Lee & Low statistics. In 2015, Lee & Low, revisited the diversity gap, as quantified by CCBC’s findings, citing:
“[The CCBC report] categorized books as 'about,' 'by and about,' or 'by but not about' people of color. 

Based on those numbers, we can also calculate the number of books that are 'about but not by.' In every category except Latino, someone who is not from that culture rather than by someone who is publishing more books about characters from a particular culture.

“This disparity is most dramatic when it comes to books with African/African American content, of which only 39% were by African Americans.”

Looking specifically at children’s literature, it is significant to note that content about black children is largely absent in this category of media – media that is characterized by its ability to help children imagine themselves and their worlds. That absence and marginalization of diverse voices and narratives have far-reaching implications.

In children’s books and beyond, the absence of content that introduces readers to new perspectives, by virtue of its omission, is a socializing dynamic that perpetuates the suppression of diversity narratives, and the dehumanization of black children and kids of color.

Without the ability to empathize, children of the dominant culture have few opportunities to see the humanity of those outside of their immediate worldview. Books offer a solution. Jennifer Johnson Higgins at Johns Hopkins University School of Education described the requisite tone and texture of the particular type of work in her article, “Creating and Applying an Evaluation Tool in Response to the Needs of Urban Educators.”

Higgins writes:
“Text and illustrations should reflect reality, attempt to transcend stereotypes and seek to rectify historical distortions and omissions. They should avoid the “model” (well behaved) and "super" (perfect) minority syndromes and accurately reflect the diversity within cultural groups.”

For the developing child growing up in a homogenous environment, those outside of the dominant race, class, and gender remain incongruent and nameless entities, irrelevant to a larger social context, at best. In instances where stories about black and minority children are being told, the stories, according to these figures, are in large part narratives created by authors outside of the culture.
Granted, children reading picture books are rarely aware of an author’s race. However, authenticity matters. Multi-cultural content has identifiable, qualitative characteristics, as described in Jennifer Johnson Hughes piece for the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University-Multicultural Children's Literature: “Creating and Applying an Evaluation Tool in Response to the Needs of Urban Educators.”

Hughes also cites Rudine Sims’ discussion of cultural consciousness in African-American children's books, from her work Shadow and Substance, (1982).

Hughes writes:
“Culturally conscious literature is that in which the author is sensitive to aspects of African American culture and ‘consciously seeks to depict a fictional Afro- American life experience,’ (p. 49). The characters are African American, it is set in an African American community or home, the story is told from their perspective, and the text describes the ethnicity of the characters in some way.”

Having defined what is so as relates to multicultural or culturally conscious books, Hughes springboards into this:
“Sims found faults, however, even in culturally conscious books, finding differences in books written by members and nonmembers of the African American cultural group. The culturally conscious books written by non-African American authors emphasized different aspects of African American life than did African American authors, and the authentic detail in story and illustration was often lacking in those written by non-African Americans.”

Authenticity goes beyond the amount of melanin in the author’s skin, according to the Hughes piece. It “includes the accuracy and validity of the text as well as of the illustrations (Mikkelsen, 1998; Sims Bishop, 1991; Slapin, Seale & Gonzales, 1992). If the illustrator does not have an accurate picture of the culture he or she is drawing, the result is an inauthentic portrayal of that culture.”

While often authors exist in relative anonymity, a statistically few ethnic authors are heralded in the canon and fewer still have works that are called out as exemplary at the levels of the mainstream, non-ethnic authors. Books that fit Sims’ description are what are lacking.

As a result, there is an unspoken message and overt practice that devalues authentic black stories and narratives. For black children, in particular, the industry practices policies that suggest that their stories are not of value.

In the broader context of news media and adult fiction content, this message is repeated as black narratives are seemingly not worthy of attention, save discussion of inequality, disparity, crime, law, and order. In these narratives, children of color more often than not star as victims or perpetrators of criminal acts and crime. Often the purported crime is that of simply being black.

Such narratives send a chilling message to children and affect damage that reaches beyond the immediate. In the May 1999 article, “Brain Development Altered by Violence,” a Washington Post piece cited:
"Most child witnesses to violence in America live in inner cities, where shootings occur repeatedly, and where parents often are as traumatized by them as children. And counselors rarely come calling on them in the aftermath of horrors..."

The effects of violence are present even when a child is not a first-hand witness. Televised acts, for example, can be as impactful, according to the report:

“Recent breakthroughs in brain research have revealed alarming dimensions to the problem. Particularly for young children, traumatic experiences such as witnessing violence--much less experiencing it--can alter a developing brain's anatomy and chemistry in ways that inhibit learning, concentration, attachment, even empathy.”

Children of all colors, therefore, very seriously need less exposure to violence and more access and interactions with uplifting content and images that feature children of all colors. This is truer for inner- city children who more than others are witness to acts of violence in their communities and with increased frequency are witness to crimes against their peers in media and in real life.

Again, the long-term implications are stark. In some cases, post-traumatic stress disorder caused by exposure to such violence can cause lasting damage and predispose children to impulsive violence later in life, researchers said in The Washington Post report. Neurobiologist and psychiatrist Bruce Perry is quoted in the report:

"If you influence the way the brain functions in ways that become chronic and permanent, that's fixed. Impulsive violence is only a piece of what we're finding. The big picture is the lost potential of kids."

This new data challenges conventional wisdom that have long held that children's resilience somehow spared them the long-term harmful effects of trauma:
"More than 5 million children in the United States witness or experience traumatizing violence every year," according to the report, "including a reported 3 million who see or hear domestic violence, 1 million who are victims of abuse or neglect and others who are exposed to community violence."
As a result, Perry, a pioneer in the study of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Vietnam veterans, said in the report, his research has shown that there are now more incidents of PTSD among "veterans of childhood," as he calls them than among Vietnam veterans. Such exposures to violence demonstrate the other side of the coin “of heartening evidence in the last few years that the brain is shaped dramatically by stimuli in early childhood.”

In the converse, such findings have been the proof that has served to motivate and propel conscientious parents “to coo, cuddle, sing and read to babies as never before in hopes of boosting intelligence and emotional health.”

These are the same parents who evolve into helicopter parents. These parents carefully select reading materials, monitor media exposures and orchestrate “appropriate” peer interactions to which their children will be exposed in early childhood on through early adulthood.

These parents, too, are those who might consider incorporating diversity books in their children’s libraries and learning repertoire, in order to offer access to media that depicts diversity in ways that challenge the status quo. My books seek to do just that: to offer a remedy for children of color who are systematically excluded and dehumanized through the marginalization and omission of their images and narratives from books.

Stories featuring characters of color offer methods to mend identity diffusion – in which individuals have not yet made personal choices to solidify their identity. They do so through presenting representations, images, and narratives that heal, and help children to imagine themselves and their lives in ways not readily available or even possible in their everyday lives. My books offer an alternative to media, including the news, entertainment programs and recurrent narratives that reinforce ruptured identities.

In picture and chapter books, learning materials targeted for middle childhood when children are learning to make their own choices and beginning to imagine themselves and their feelings in the context of social groups, it is important that children see stories and images of people of color.
This call to action is echoed in the recent New York Daily News article, “See the Sweetness of Black Boys,” by Warren Spielberg, Kirkland Vaughn. The psychologists/psychoanalysts and co-authors of the book “The Psychology of Black Boys and Adolescents,” offer five suggested strategies, of which the first is most relevant to this discussion:

“Most white Americans, especially those in positions of authority like the police or teachers... are unable to see the vulnerability and tenderness in boys of color. As a result, especially under stress, they imagine only aggressiveness and criminal intent....We must develop large-scale public awareness campaigns and entertainment vehicles that feature the vulnerability and humanity of boys of color.”
My book series takes this notion further, offering imagery and narratives of children of color in revolutionary ways: my books show multicultural kids being kids. The Cocoa Kids© face universal childhood issues, like getting bad birthday gifts, struggling with schoolwork and managing their changing But when such stories are told through a multicultural lens to multicultural children, the result is transformative.

For many kids in early and middle childhood -- the ages targeted by my series -- face larger challenges of fractured or non-existing self-esteem. Seeing characters that look like themselves reaffirms their experience, grounds their humanity in a larger, social, critical mass.

While publishers have relied on anthropomorphized characters to meet diversity quotas, this approach represents a missed opportunity. Colorful creatures are no replacement for humanity. That’s because such characters and characterizations inevitably reinforce a social and racial hierarchy and the dehumanization of peoples and children of color.

As much as this approach serves as a covert means to perpetuate cultural norms, the prevalence of stories about human-like animals undermine the value of authentic narratives about people of color and support consideration of black and brown people as being animalistic, and by extension undeserving of the consideration, benefits, and civil rights extended to those who are granted full personhood.

Anthropomorphism fuels the fire. Ethnic-acting and sounding animals and non-human, fantasy characters at once dehumanize minority peoples and their narratives while perpetuating the marginalization and socializing effort that supports the racist discourse and practice. Historic and current comparisons of blacks to non-humans offer a clear example, most commonly with negative associations.

While these days, inherently racist portrayals of blacks and other ethnic groups as animals are less frequent, animal characters with human qualities miss the mark and the opportunity to expand young readers’ worldview about diverse peoples and cultures.

One such example can be seen in the children’s show the Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Cartoon Network. The program aired from June 5, 2008, through August 30, 2010, and since April 20, 2012, has aired in re-runs. The series revolves around the adventures of friends Captain K'nuckles and Flapjack, a young boy who was raised by his “Bubbie,” an anthropomorphic talking whale.
Bubbie is Flapjack's adoptive single mother, who is voiced by Actress Roz Ryan. Big, fat, soft and loving unconditionally, Bubbie’s character, appearance, and characteristically black speech pattern evoke for viewers young and old the Black Mammy of yesterday and today. Portrayed as a whale, Bubbie is at once lovable and mutable. She is perceived a hypocrite and afforded none of the considerations of human frailty that are afforded to the program’s central character, Flapjack, who is a blond-haired, blue-eyed white boy. Flapjack’s trials and tribulation are simply misadventures, a series of mishaps from which the child emerges unscathed and loved.

Bubbie is but one example. Animals stand in for humanity, time and time again in children’s literature. By letting animals represent people of color, characters are denied the power and sovereignty of their humanity, while yet and still being held responsible for their actions and others’ reactions.

In the article for, “Why Do We Anthropomorphize?” by Rick Nauret, Ph.D., this notion is supported when he writes: “Anthropomorphized entities become responsible for their own actions — that is, they become deserving of punishment and reward.”

Conversely, Nauret writes:
“Anthropomorphism in reverse is known as dehumanization — when humans are represented as nonhuman objects or animals. ‘These examples also suggest that those engaging in dehumanization are usually part of a cohesive group acting against outsiders — that is, individuals who feel socially connected may have an increased tendency toward dehumanization. Social connection may have benefits for a person’s own health and well-being but may have unfortunate consequences for intergroup relations by enabling dehumanization.’”

Nauret concludes, few of us “have difficulty identifying other humans in a biological sense, but it is much more complicated to identify them in a psychological sense.”

Identifying or empathizing with others’ experience is part of understanding the human experience, as noted previously in the Rudine article. Anthropomorphism in books undermines one of literature and reading’s biggest benefits, and fortifies the walls of otherness that distance people of diverse races and cultures.

In a Scholastic interview, Marc Brown, author of the Arthur the Aardvark series, noted:
"But one of the reasons that most of my books have animals as characters is that I wanted characters that all children could identify with. Arthur's become more human over the years, and he's lost most of his nose, but he's still Arthur inside.”

While few children might feel a connectedness to the universe of real aardvarks after reading the Arthur series, the author touches on an important aspect of anthropomorphism. It subverts the readers’ perception of identity and humanity. These are the same perceptions that shape how we view each other and ourselves in each stage of life.

In a 2014 study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, titled “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” researchers sought to determine whether black boys are given the protections of childhood equally to their peers. The study found:
“...converging evidence that Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers. Further, our findings demonstrate that the Black/ape association predicted actual racial disparities in police violence toward children.”

The consequences are clear. Tamir Rice was shot dead for doing what children are encouraged to do. He was at a park, playing. However, for responding police officers, a 12-year-old with a toy gun presented in their minds a significant threat, or they felt emboldened and empowered enough to shoot to kill.

Such attitudes must be checked. Only through increased exposure and opportunities to empathize with and to humanize others can change be achieved. Noah Berlatsky reported in his article for Pacific Standard, “The Answer to Implicit Racism Might Be in Children's Literature: Could diverse protagonists reduce racial anxiety?” children of color are not the only beneficiaries.

Berlatsky writes:
“Diverse kids' literature gives children of color a chance to see themselves as heroes, which is vital. But smart, thoughtful books with non-white protagonists can also give white children a chance to see black people and people of color as something other than anxiety-producing others or stereotypes.”

For all of these reasons, there is value in a culturally rich, ethnically diverse canon of children’s literature that emphasizes and values a wide range of human interaction. This is also why literature’s most widely used tropes, anthropomorphization, and personification; dilute the power of the medium to build bridges of cross-cultural understanding and awareness.

Books provide such opportunities and can serve as cultural and racial portals. For black children, others’ ability to empathize, and extend the same protections afforded to other youth are critical.
As more and more news footage emerges of black children and teens being shot down and brutalized in the cities and towns of our country, more must be done, at the earliest levels to mitigate the psychological and neurological damage, and to present alternative views which bolster the sense of humanity and challenge perceptions which fuel racist ideology.

In books, on the news, and in playgrounds, more must be done. Opportunities to learn, to imagine and to empathize through reading and play in childhood have clear reverberations. Increasingly, it’s a matter of life and death. It doesn’t get more serious than that.

©2015 - Valerie Williams-Sanchez, Valorena Online, L.L.C.
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The Cocoa Kids Collection© Thesis: “Revaluing Children of Color’s Lives Through Children’s Literature” -  Bibliography

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Williams- Sanchez, Valerie. Isaiah and the Chocolate Mountain. Lulu Publishing Services, 2015. 


Edited by Edith Updike, fellow member of Columbia U. Journalism, MS cohort  1994, currently a Professor at St. John's University, Jamaica, NY.

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