March 06

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Why Twenty Yawns Almost Made Me Cry by Deana Metzke

twenty-yawnsI purchased the book Twenty Yawns by Jane Smiley and Lauren Castillo because 1) I have an addiction to children’s literature and 2) it is one of the books our school will be reading for our Mock Caldecott award this year. As I often do, I decided to take it home to read and share it with my kids. My 7 year old daughter pounced on it that evening, said she liked it, but made no other comment. However, as I sat down to read it later, my mouth dropped open when I realized that Lucy, the main character, was a biracial child and that both her parents are also in the book. Now this was personally important to me because, as the parent of biracial children, I feel like it is imperative that my children see themselves in books that they read, partly because it wasn’t so easy for me.

Now, I realize it makes me sound like an old person, but kids have it easy these days.  As I reflect on my childhood as a reader, thanks to Grace Lin’s TEDtalk, I realize how rare it was for me as a young reader to read books about characters that looked like me. Don’t get me wrong, I had people who tried. My aunt always gave me books like The People Could Fly and Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters as gifts, and her sister, my mother, also did her best to expose me to the same. I can still see her copies of Roots and The Autobiography of Malcolm X on the bookshelf in my parents’ bedroom. And as a result of their efforts, I came to love reading as a child; it was my favorite pastime.  But, what do all the aforementioned titles have in common besides African American characters? None of them took place in current times. When I reflect on some of my favorite books as a child, they include Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor (Black characters, but still not contemporary), and the series The Babysitters Club by Ann Martin. And when it came to that series, who did I cling to, who did I imagine myself as? Jessi Ramsey, the one African-American character in the series, even though I really felt like my personality was more like Mary Anne’s.

By the time I was in high school, African-American authors writing fictional stories for adults were becoming really popular, led by author Terry McMillian. Now I could not understand many of the trials and tribulations that these 30-something aged characters were going through, but I was a reader, and if I wanted to read about characters who looked like me and lived in the 90s—this was my only option. For whatever reason, I was never able to or never felt the need to articulate my desire to read more age appropriate books with characters like me. I read, and enjoyed, a variety of other books throughout my childhood, but there was definitely a void.

Nowadays, its nothing for me to pick up books like Ghost by Jason Reynolds, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander or Last Stop on Market Street by Matt De La Pena, all contemporary books that have characters of color. Man, as much as I enjoyed those books as an adult, I would’ve LOVED to read them as a child. They may not have reflected my exact experience, but hey, neither did any of the women in Waiting to Exhale. I say all this to say, kids these days have options. Still not enough, but they have options.

So when I opened Twenty Yawns and not only was Lucy biracial, but the book had nothing to do with her racial identity, and was just about a girl trying to fall asleep, I got a little emotional.

While admiring the illustrations in this book I was reminded that although disappointing statistics say that in 2014, only 14% of children’s books were by or about people of color, even though 37% of the country’s population is of color, I can only imagine what the percentage was like in the late 80s and early 90s. And even though the pace may not be as fast as many may like, I feel like progress is being made. I also know that I was lucky, I had support at home to help me to become the reader I am today. Other children may not be as lucky, or like myself, may not be able to articulate what they need, so it underscores the need that we adults who are able, to actually step in and help those children find books to fill that void. We cannot underestimate the importance of making sure that we’re finding those books that reflect their experiences, or at the very least, characters that look like them. Trust me, their adult selves will thank you.

 

 

Deana Metzke is a 30-something wife and mom of two who is trying her best to raise children who will enjoy reading long after she’s gone. During the day, she is also a Literacy Coach at an elementary school, which strengthens her drive (or adds to her stress) to have her own children be book lovers. She recently started a blog about raising readers at

http://raisingreaderssite.wordpress.com/.

 

You can also find her on Twitter @DMetzke.