Children’s books created to tackle lack of black characters
STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) – For the past five years, the Homestead Education Center in Starkville has raised money for community initiatives through its Holiday Helping Hands Project – everything from helping a child with cancer to saving a family’s home to putting a roof on a community center.
But this year’s project is, quite literally, the most creative project yet for Homestead director Alison Buehler.
Beginning on Nov. 6, the Holiday Helping Hands drive hopes to raise $20,000 to print and distribute a series of chapter books geared specifically toward African-American children in grades 2-4, an idea that has been germinating in Buehler’s mind for about five years.
Buehler, who has written five books – including two children’s books – is a former elementary school teacher and has long recognized the achievement gap in reading between black and white children. From grades 3-6, black children’s performance in reading range anywhere from 22.1 percent to 27 percent lower than their white peers, she said.
Buehler believes she has stumbled by accident onto an effective tool for closing that gap. When her daughter was in second grade, Buehler was shopping for a book to give as a birthday present to her daughter’s friend, who is black.
She shopped for a book the child might relate to, perhaps a chapter book. Specifically, maybe a book that is part of a series designed for intermediate readers, usually ages 7 to 10, that follows a recurring main character or group of characters in a playful way with lots of illustrations. Chapter books serve a critical role as children progress from beginning to advanced readers.
But as she shopped, Buehler could not find any chapter books that featured black characters.
That experience stuck with Buehler. Three years ago, on a hiking trip to Colorado, she raised the topic with her longtime friend and college roommate, Lenora Witt, an African American.
“I asked her what her boys were reading,” Buehler recalled. “She named all the books. There weren’t any black characters in any of them, either.”
By the end of the hiking trip, Buehler and Witt had devised a plan to write their own chapter books.
“Chapter books are so important,” Buehler said. “That’s how you become fluent, reading those chapter books. But there are no chapter books with black characters. When you don’t have those, it impacts a child’s motivation for reading, comprehension, vocabulary. I thought, ‘We could really move the needle here.’”
An authentic voice
Buehler immediately knew the book needed not only relatable black characters, but they need to have an authentic black voices and experiences.
“I didn’t just want the books to have a white voice speaking through black characters,” she said.
That’s where Witt came in.
“I’ve got some writing experience, but it’s all in technical writing,” Witt said. “Alison has experience in creative writing, so the way it works out, she planned out the stories and I gave the characters their words, their personalities.”
Together, the women wrote three chapter books revolving around a fifth-grade boy who lives in Memphis named Merlin Montgomery.
Merlin doesn’t like his name, so he comes up with a nickname he likes – “Big Monty” – and tries unsuccessfully to persuade his friends to call him by that name, which is a recurring subplot in the stories.
In addition to a name he doesn’t like, Merlin also struggles to bridge the gap between the “science nerd” he is and the cool kids, especially a boy name A’lo.
Other recurring characters are his fellow science enthusiast, Global, and Merlin’s clever little sister, Josephine.
The decision to make the lead character a boy, Buehler said, was calculated.
“What we’ve learned is that girls will read books where the boys are the main characters, but boys won’t read books about girls,” she said.
Keeping the stories funny
Another conscious decision was the types of stories featured in the books.
“They need to be funny and about the kind of goofy things that kids that age love,” Buehler said, noting the popularity of such off-the-wall books as “Captain Underpants” and “Stink” series.
Buehler said after initially pitching the idea to a major children’s book publisher, her team of teachers, parents and community members (dubbed Matt Maxx) chose to self-publish.
“There were a couple of reasons,” Buehler said. “First, they wanted to change the concept to make them more serious books. But we really wanted to stay with the idea of making them funny. Then, we wanted to make sure that these books weren’t just about sales. We wanted them to stay true to the idea of encouraging kids to read. We felt it was important to make sure profits weren’t the driving part of the equation.”
For Witt, the project is deeply personal.
“I grew up in the Delta,” said Witt, who now lives in Illinois. “I didn’t see anybody who looked like me in any of the books I read as a child.”
The absence of black characters, Witt believes, is something that has impacted black children’s lives in areas far beyond reading.
“When black children read stories with black characters, it can change the way they think about themselves,” Witt said. “I think (black children) are afraid of who we are because we’ve been told we aren’t great people. We feel defeated because we feel ignored.
“So when you can catch black kids at a very early age and give them stories of people just like them, it builds confidence in those children,” she added.
Fundraising and marketing
With Buehler and Witt collaborating on the stories, the two turned to Nashville-based illustrator Chris Miller to provide the artwork.
“He just seemed to fit,” Buehler said. “We liked his work, the wholesomeness of it. His characters looked natural, authentic. And he’s Southern, which I think was important to because we really focused on these books having a regional feel.”
With the stories and artwork for three books completed, the big hurdle will be funding.
Based on her previous experience, Buehler estimates it will cost $20,000 to market, publish and distribute 1,000 copies of the “Big Monty” series to every elementary school library and Boys and Girls Club in the state before the end of the school year in May.
“We have three books right now, but we’d love to extend the series for a lot more if we can get the funding,” Buehler said. “We really hope everybody will see how important this is and be a part of it. It’s really a fun project.”
The Holiday Helping Hands project will begin its Kickstarter fundraising campaign on Nov. 6. To contribute, go to www.thehomesteadcenter.org.