Thursday, December 3, 2015

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

Planning a past weekend’s activity, my beau and I were considering attending a talk by Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of The New York Times bestseller “How to Raise and Adult.” Acquainted with the book, I was interested. My mate however, a longtime friend of the author’s family, had sentimental motives to attend the event hosted at his alma mater, the Rockland Country Day School, a private prep school in Congers, New York. Ms. Lythcott-Haims’ mother was my beau’s former headmistress.
“Oh yeah, OK,” I said, at the suggestion of attending the event. “I’d love to ask her a couple of questions related to my books.” To this, he replied off-handedly, “She’s writing serious books.” His knee-jerk remark, while not intentionally hurtful, bespoke a familiar misconception about the genre. 
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©. The three titles feature multi-racial characters whose learning adventures teach and entertain. They are brightly colored and chocolate-dusted narratives, meant to encourage reading and to uplift the self-esteem of commercial publishing’s most underrepresented audience, children of color.

Now clearly, my fledgling series of rainbow-bright, hand-drawn and illustrated children’s stories haven’t begun to reach the commercial heights of Ms. Lythcott-Haims’ critically acclaimed work. Her work to mine is an apples to oranges comparison, for sure. However, my mate’s unintended jab echoed some very intentional criticism that had been leveled about my work previously, during a recent book signing.

Why Children's Books Matter.

In remarks to another audience, I had presented the merits of the genre and broader thesis of my books. Then as now, I contextualized my work with the need for ethnocentric content and aligned my efforts with those of  #BlackLivesMatter, the social media-based campaign that seeks heightened awareness and civic action in response to police actions that increasingly have resulted in the tragic loss of black lives.
Isaiah and the Chocolate Mountain©
My position was received with skepticism, my little book perceived by at least one event-goer as simple 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 yarn about a multicultural child who deals with the disappointment of receiving an unwanted birthday gift. But, on closer reading, the story aspires to be more, very much more.

History Is Today.

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 critical role books play in our society’s cultural, media and emotional development.
Sims Bishop wrote: “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.”
Eddie and the Hot Cocoa Hot Rod©
In kind, 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, everyday.
Sims Bishop’s work sought to update an earlier look at the same phenomenon which was first called to the country's attention in Nancy Larrick's landmark work, "The All-White World of Children's Books." As published in the 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 39,600,00 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 called this issue to America's attention. More than a question of content, these sins of omission have exceeded critical mass to deadly effect. 

Childhood Denied.

The issue is real, as Alexandros Orphanides articulated in his June 15, 2015, article for The Huff 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 historic 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 while playing with a toy gun by police who responded to a call in Cleveland public park; Kalief Browder, 22, who committed suicide following his release following three years of false imprisonment at Riker’s Island, at age 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 swim party.
There is ever-growing frequency in reported “isolated incidents” where black children are dehumanized, and worse, killed, in situations and circumstance 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 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, education subverted and literacy was a punishable crime in which lynch mobs were judge and jury for these and lessor offenses. 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 his humanity, judged and mercilessly slaughtered by a gang of white adults: childhood denied.
Such atrocities continue today. Twelve-year-old, 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 and sweeping change in the formal institutions which look past the litany of civic and social inequalities inherent in American society.

Consider The Numbers. 

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 Sims Bishop discusses, that reflect our citizens and society. Fact and fictional books, news, social media and 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 and statistically lacking.
Consider the numbers. Diversity pub-lisher, Lee & Low reported in 2013, that only three of 124 The New York Times’ bestselling authors in 2012 of adult print and e-book fictional titles were of color: Sylvia Day (Half-Chinese), E.L. James (Half Chilean), and Tess Gerritsen (Chinese American). It is clear, authors like Ms. Lythcott-Haims, multicultural authors who land on The New York Times bestsellers list, are few and far between, according to Lee & Low statistics.

The data for children’s literature are just as stark. Lee & Low reports that from 1994 to 2014 the volume of multicultural content in children’s publishing has hovered at around 10%, despite the fact that the same wedge of the nation’s population has increased to 37%
The absence and marginalization of diversity voices and narratives has far reaching implications. In children’s books and beyond, this content, 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.
And while improvements are slowly being made, the need remains. In a 2014 report, The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC), reported that despite record amounts of media coverage citing the dire need for diversity books, the industry segment registered a meager 14% increase, (up 4% from the prior year) from 3,000 to 3,500 books in the diversity category for the  year. However slight, the increase marked a definite improvement. And yet gaps remain. 

Whose Story Is It, Anyway?

Books for this swath of readers not only feature the least multicultural content, but also the fewest number of multicultural authors. This means that the few writers who are writing stories about children of color aren’t themselves of the culture about which the write, according to Lee & Low statistics. In 2015 Lee & Lowe Books, revisited the diversity gap, as quantified by CCBC’s findings:
“They 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, more books are being published about characters from a particular culture by someone who is not from that culture than by someone who is. 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 that is characterized for its ability to help children imagine themselves and their worlds. 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.
As a result, there is an unspoken message and overt practice that devalues authentic black narratives. For black children in particular, the industry practices policies that suggest that their stories are not of value, or are 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..."

And the effect of this violence is present even when a child is not a first-hand witness. Televised acts are just 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.

Veterans Of Childhood

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 has 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, that 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.”

Helicopter Parents Should Care, Too.

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, those whom Ms. Lythcott-Haims addresses in her writing. 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 adults, too, are those who might consider incorporation 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 about and 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, particularly books and learning materials targeted for children in 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.
For many individuals the larger challenges of fractured or non-existing self-esteem begin in early and middle childhood, the ages targeted by my series of books. This is yet another reason why multicultural characters in multicultural narratives matter.
While publishers have relied on anthropomorphizing characters to meet diversity quotas, this approach doesn't go far enough and has inherent challenges. 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.                                                            

Anthropomorphizing Isn't The Answer.

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 person-hood.
Anthromorphizing 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.
Blacks portrayed as apes, uncultured and uncivilized jungle animals and worse is a long established paradigm that perpetuates notions of blacks as animalistic characters whose savage and barbaric actions are the natural response of primitive beings. Consequently, swift and often deadly responses and reactions to such actions by non-blacks are perceived as justified.
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 his article for, “Why Do We Anthropomorphize?” by Rick Nauret, Ph.D. supports this notion, writing, “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 books’ and reading’s biggest benefit, and fortifies the walls of otherness that distance people of diverse races and cultures. Left unchecked, racist attitudes conceived in childhood can fester, grow and manifest in adulthood.
A 2014 study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, called “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 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. 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 increasingly slipping away. 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, efforts must be redoubled 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, and it doesn’t get more serious than that. 

©2015 - Valerie Williams-Sanchez, Valorena Online, L.L.C.
Also available for download at

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