Some of the books that have been given the title “classic children’s literature” haven’t really earned that title. I’m not going to badmouth specific titles on this blog, but many of them exclude girls or children of color from their pages while others are downright racist and sexist. More than once I’ve found myself reading one of these so-called beloved classics to my kids and wanting to choke back down the words on the page. You may have seen the Rebel Girls video in which a mother and her daughter begin removing books from her bookshelf: first the ones with no female characters, then the ones where girls don’t talk, then the ones where girls do not have career/life aspirations…and the bookshelf is left practically bare. There’s plenty of bias in this video, but it is annotated with statistics from well-reputed studies. It’s a pretty startling image, to see a little girl’s bookshelf completely decimated because of underrepresentation. The results are even more startling for children of color.
So, in part, that’s why I am writing about Coruduroy by Don Freeman today. Published in 1967, it tells the story of a stuffed bear who wants a home but is missing a button and a little girl named Lisa who loves him. It was rejected by his publisher originally, but happily Freeman persisted and now children have been reading this book for decades. On the website managed by his son, we read these words from a note Freeman sent to his editor about the inspiration for Corduroy: “Then I also wanted the story to show the vast difference between the luxury of a department store [and] the simple life [most people live].” Freeman wanted to portray the REAL New York City, the city the majority of New Yorkers knew beyond the bounds of the excess wealth of the Upper East Side. With Corduroy, he did just that. Lisa’s mother won’t buy her a toy because they’ve already spent too much money, they live in a cozy apartment without an elevator, and Lisa is African-American.
Recently, we’ve been talking about the need for diversity in children’s books, but that hasn’t always been the case. Back in 1967, Freeman, along with Virginia Hamilton, Ezra Jack Keats and a few other writers, was ahead of the game. Lisa is a child of color, but the book isn’t about her African American identity. While it is very important that kids have access to books that are about how people have been marginalized from society, it’s also important to recognize the multi-faceted nature of identity, that there are MANY factors that make up who we are, that our gender and racial identity is just one of them. In Corduroy, Lisa is a child whose mother won’t buy her a toy, so she breaks open her piggy bank to buy it on her own. Freeman was onto something significant here. He created a character that most children could relate to and he made her a child of color. So many children were able to read Corduroy in 1967 (and also today) and say “she looks like me!” That wasn’t something that happened very often until recently for children of color, and the impact of not seeing yourself represented in literature or movies or TV shows or in careers is deeply dangerous. When Freeman created a character who was both a girl and African American, he provided countless girls with representation.
At any rate, if you haven’t read Corduroy with your kids, you should get in your car and head to the library immediately to check it out. All three of my kids LOVE Lisa and Corduroy (Finn, at 16 months old, sat and listened to the entire thing without wiggling away tonight). I’ll take the bet that your kids will too.