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Black History Month: Folktales Offer Diverse Characters with Unique Voices

Black History Month is an annual celebration that we observe every February, recognizing the achievements and significant roles that African Americans have played in U.S. History. To gain a deeper appreciation of Black History Month, let’s look at some of the ways that the African American oral tradition has produced unique voices and rich characters for young readers.

Like most of us, when young children are attracted to a particular book, they are typically drawn to the cover, a main character they can relate to, or a theme that is interesting to them. In today’s multicultural world, it’s more important than ever to offer a wide variety of diverse books for kids, not only so that children can experience characters like themselves, but also so that they can explore the lives of characters who are very different from their world.

Billy Brown hanging upside down from green tire swing.

In fact, the homepage banner of We Need Diverse Books reads, “Imagine a world in which all children can see themselves in the pages of a book.” Since the main character can have such a strong influence on whether a child is attracted to a book, you might ask yourself:

  • Could the child easily see herself/himself in the character?

  • Does the main character look similar or seem familiar?

  • Is the character’s background similar to the child’s?

  • Is the character someone roughly their age or a few years older?

  • Could the child relate easily to the character’s values and point of view?

  • Is the character someone the child might want to emulate?

While these factors are important considerations in choosing a book for a child, it doesn’t mean that kids should limit their reading to books with characters similar to them. Even if kids don’t necessarily relate to the main character or if a story is from a region of the world they’re not familiar with, it’s still impactful to expose kids to diverse characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Not only do diverse books open doors into different cultures with other ways of looking at life, they’re also important for helping children appreciate the many similarities and differences of people who don’t look the same, speak with the same accent, or whose families come from a distant part of the world. Learning to respect and value these differences through stories is an easy, safe and entertaining way to develop empathy for other people.

Books like The Adventures of High John the Conqueror and The Natural Man, the True Story of John Henry, not only provide compelling role models for African American children, they also provide important examples of perseverance and bravery for any child. Much like the Greek slave Aesop and Aesop’s Fables, High John was the main character in a series of subversive narratives where he outsmarts his oppressive master.

Similarly, A Natural Man, the True Story of John Henry has been part of American folklore for over a century. Born with a hammer in his hand, John Henry is a steel-driving man who inevitably meets his match in a race against a steam drill that provides a powerful metaphor for the disruption and loss of innocence created by the industrial age. Although John Henry’s bravery is a powerful example of perseverance for young African American children, his courage in the face of overwhelming odds is meaningful to all children, regardless of their ethnic background.

Children have a natural attraction to “underdog” characters who must survive by using their wits to defeat their bigger, more powerful opponents. Trickster characters can also be found in Southern folktales like Pickin’ Peas and in African folk traditions like the Anansi stories by Bobby Norfolk.

In Pickin’ Peas, a clever rabbit matches wits with a young, African American girl while Anansi, the trickster spider, must survive by using his wits to get himself out of a series of misadventures. Each of these timeless stories from the rich African-American folk tradition offer potent examples of perseverance, wit, and courage that are relevant to all of us.

Billy Brown relaxing in the tub with hands behind head.

A case in point that highlights the surprising ways that children are attracted to diverse characters is our popular picture book, Billy Brown and the Belly Button Beastie. The main character is a young African-American boy, Billy Brown, who was originally conceived to appeal to young boys of color who were 5-8 years old. However, after the book was published, our research found that the kids who are most attracted to this story were actually young girls (4-6 years of age) of no particular ethnicity. The fact that young girls are attracted to this whimsical character reinforces the value of choosing diverse books for kids.

High John the Conqueror looking up.

The point is that all of us are attracted to a variety of characters for a number of reasons. By reading a wide range of diverse books, we can easily explore different points of view and different places from the pages of a book. How can children learn to expand their world view or learn about other cultures if they are pigeonholed into reading a specific genre or only exposed to a limited range of characters who are just like them?

Children develop a stronger sense of tolerance for other people and different perspectives by reading about a broad range of characters from different cultures. As a result, books play a unique role by giving kids a greater sense of the complex world they live in and the society they’ll live in as adults. This knowledge is invaluable in broadening their outlook and nurturing their natural curiosity.

With each book I read at August House, and with each writer or artist I interview, I learn something new about people, and for that matter, the world. Since so many issues are now being raised and discussed openly that have been “buried” for decades, it reinforces the value that diverse books can have in influencing our worldview. While it may be easier for adults to choose to speak up at a meeting, voice their political opinions in public, or stand up for someone’s rights, it’s not so easy for children to take these actions. Children simply have less exposure with other ways of seeing the world, more limited life experience and fewer resources to help them make well-informed decisions. So reading diverse stories with characters like themselves, as well as stories with characters who are very different can help shape a child’s worldview so that she or he is better able to interpret complex situations and respond thoughtfully to challenging situations.

Little Girl holding Rabbit, looking out window.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we not only honor the African American experience and rich cultural traditions, but also the many underrepresented voices that are sometimes overlooked, people with insights and talents who might get lost in the pace of today’s frenzied world. That’s why folktales play such a crucial role in passing along and sharing cultural traditions and core values.

As Bobby Norfolk explains in commenting about the unique contributions of storytelling and folktales, “Not only do they change children’s minds, it changes their hearts.” With Bobby’s message in mind, let’s look for ways to share books and stories that will broaden a child’s sense of wonder at the many rich traditions in the world. To do otherwise will short change their future and limit their ability to not only appreciate but to thrive in a world where people have so many different life experiences with unique perspectives about the world.


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