“Ms. Taylor [my maiden name], I liked this book. Why ain’t no Black people in the pictures? There not no Black people where they live? -Tay (one of my second grade students in 2006)
This is a comment I encountered when I was teaching 2nd grade back in 2006. I was speechless and had no clue what to reply to this child. I juggled several responses in my mind for about 8 seconds. I knew I had to say something. Looking into the eyes of this beautiful sun-kissed child I could feel his concern and confusion. His words played loudly in my head. What was I suppose to say,“Well, Black people don’t exist in the “All White World” of picture books,” of course not. His bold statement sparked a conversation about how he feels when he doesn’t see himself, family, or environment reflected in picture books. The conversation lead me to think about not just what Black children see but, how ALL children interpret and internalize illustrations.
Tay was using his “visual literacy” skills by creating meaning that was not outlined in the text. Visual literacy is simply the reading of images. It is the ability to discuss and make meaning out of the images on the page. Much like with literacy, a person can be more advanced than another depending on what each person brings to the text. Children should have the opportunity to talk and question images in order to create meaning beyond the surface. By allowing children to engage in a healthy conversation about what they see; their eyes can then be opened to new perspectives. These discussions improve their visual literacy by not just accepting what they are told to see but, to interpret subliminal meaning as well. When choosing a picture book to share, think critically about how the illustrations deliver meaning to children. In doing so, you can prevent providing books that devalue students, omit students, and/or perpetuates racist stereotypes.
So, parents, family members, librarians, and educators how will you look at a picture book differently? How will you strengthen your visual literacy skills so, that you can build on a child’s visual literacy skills? I challenge you to take the extra 5 minutes to look at the illustrations before sharing a book with a child. Ask yourself, are these illustrations harmful? Are they stereotypical? Are they accurate and authentic? Is there a lack of representation? By doing so, you are reassuring an African American child that they too are visible and important enough to be reflected in picture books.
When I wrote Oh Brother, Little Brother, it was important to me that it was a story that displayed two African American boys experiencing normal childhood activities. Even more importantly I wanted the illustrations to reflect Black cultural. So, when a mom text me saying that her son made mention that the brothers had hair grease and a brush like theirs, it filled me with so much joy because those were the little details I purposely inserted for Black children to identify with. These are things adults don't necessarily need to point out because the child's visual literacy will kick in and they will notice it on their own.