by Marsha Qualey
This month’s Bookstorm™ Book is Catch You Later, Traitor, the latest novel by Newbery medalist Avi. Set in the 1950s in New York City during the era of communist-hunting, the novel explores the long and frightening reach of government into private lives under the guise of security and patriotism and how a pointed and accusing finger can cause so much damage. Accompanying the Bookstorm™ is a conversation between Avi and Newbery Honor author Gary D. Schmidt and our usual bullet point book talks for some of the Bookstorm™ companion books.
After prepping and reading for this month’s 1950s-influenced Bookology, I’m ready to claim the podium and assert that the most important year in American Children’s publishing was 1957. Thanks to two of that year’s events, everything changed.
- The publication of The Cat and the Hat. In one fell swoop, reading instruction and the type of books early readers could encounter would never be the same. Dick and Jane would hold on for a few years, but not much longer.
- The launch of Sputnik. According to author and children’s literature scholar Anita Silvey, after this salvo in the space race the “school market for children’s books surged into the forefront of children’s publishing” (Children’s Books and Their Creators, p. 5 43). This surge was strengthened a year later with a tremendous increase in the federal funds available for purchasing school books—texts and general reading material.
Well, that’s a bit of hyperbole, isn’t it? It’s also quickly refuted because one big thing that didn’t change was the whiteness of American children’s literature.
The world of children’s book writing and publishing is now engaged in a needed and wonderful campaign for diversity in the topics and subjects of the books and in the voices creating, publishing, and promoting those books.
A wonderful campaign, but not a new one, though the definition of diversity has expanded in ways the early proponents might never have imagined. One of those proponents was Nancy Larrick, whose 1965 Saturday Review article “The All-White World of Children’s Books” brought the topic to the general public’s eye, much like Walter Dean Myers’s 2014 article in the New York Times shortly before his death.
The whiteness of children’s literature came into sharp relief as I was reading and reading about books included in this month’s storm. We include several Red Scare novels on the list, but they are centered on white lives; I’d love to hear about books that explore what a child or teen of color experienced. In the terrific book The Other Black List, author Mary Helen Washington writes “Because J. Edgar Hoover suspected that anyone working against segregation or in the field of civil rights also had communist ties, the FBI (in league with Joseph McCarthy’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and the House Un-American Activities committee) persistently targeted the black intellectual and cultural community of the 1950s” (pp. 22–23). At least some of those targeted adults must have had young people in their lives who were affected. I want to read their stories.
In her excellent book Free Within Ourselves: The Development of African American Children’s Literature, Rudine Sims Bishop, Professor Emerita at Ohio State University, states there is a surprising dearth of children’s novels about the organized civil rights events of the fifties (and by extension, I suppose, the Red Scare).
Which brings me back to 1957 and yet another momentous event: the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. At the center of that were nine teenagers: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo. Perhaps one reason there are so few fictional explorations of the 1950s civil rights period is that the real stories and people involved tend to blow everything else out of the water. Still, desegregation is one civil rights era experience that many authors HAVE tackled in novels, and our timeline this month shares some of those.
The upheavals of the 1960s, on the other hand, have inspired many writers, and later this month we’ll have an interview, “Writing History,” with Kekla Magoon, author of How it Went Down, Fire in the Streets, The Rock and the River, and many more books for teens and middle grade readers.
And of course throughout the month we will run our regular features and columns, beginning today with a Knock Knock column: “Being Ten” by Candace Ransom.
We also have a contest! Anyone who comments (on any article in Bookology) during the month will be entered into a random drawing to win a signed hardcover of Avi’s book, and our featured Bookstorm, Catch You Later, Traitor.
And by all means…if you disagree with me about the year 1957, tell me why. In a comment, please. You might be a winner.
Thanks for visiting Bookology.