Originally written for BlackPrintATX.
Scholastic Book Fair weeks were heaven: new games, stationery, and pens were always something I looked forward to as a geeky kid. But I loved experiencing the pages upon pages of new adventures the most.
Books were my escape from the mundanity of most of my early years. I was in a new school, in a well-to-do district, and never felt as though I truly belonged because of how I looked and what people thought of me. Shying away from who I really was and often code switching, I sought escape in the imaginative world of literature. I read stories to escape the chaotic world I was living in.
I grew up reading the most popular books such as “Junie B. Jones,” “Percy Jackson and The Olympians,” “The Hunger Games,” “Dear Dumb Diary,” and countless others. Stories about coming of age, magical adventures, and quirky characters enriched my reading experience, but at the same time, these books and authors had failed me.
It left me wondering, where did my Blackness fit within these narratives?
I read between the lines, but I still failed to see myself written on the pages. These stories snuffed out or allocated my voice and countless others to the margins. There were hardly any Black and diverse characters with unique personalities; where did I belong? If I didn’t exist in a purely fictional sense, did I even exist at all?
I began to resent these authors who assumed that everyone could easily imagine themselves in these white placeholders, and resented them even more once I realized that I had been reading the same characters for my whole life.
I was four when my mom gifted me William S. Gray’s “Storybook Treasury of Dick and Jane.” It was a huge, yellow tome of simple subjects and predicates: “Dick saw Jane,” “Jane kicked the ball,” etc. When I read that book, I wondered why none of the characters ever looked like me. Those books helped me to grasp the concept of reading, but I never liked reading them (aside from the fact that they never truly contained a plot). Dick and Jane exemplified what white America stood for. It reinforced the idea that I didn’t belong in their world from the get-go. Why would I want to read stories that I couldn’t relate to and experiences that I would never share?
As I moved up in elementary school, I felt like the only person with my background who actually enjoyed reading. According to a study published in the American Association of School Librarians’ research journal, children would engage more with literature that accurately reflected their personal experiences. It also noted that a constant disconnect between their experience and fiction could cause them to disengage totally from anything related to literature. And in my peers’ cases, it was true. We wanted books that we could see ourselves in. We wanted Black books written by Black people.
In the sixth grade, Dia Reeves’ “Slice of Cherry” changed my life. It wasn’t a well known novel, but it left a lasting impression. Reeves wove a story about two Black sisters who could transport into alternate universes and create infinite possibilities. It was unlike anything I had ever read before, and it meant so much more to me that a Black woman from Texas took initiative to create compelling stories for Black individuals. For the first time in my life, I truly felt that a story was written for someone like me.
Black authors like Toni Morrison, Sister Souljah, and Ta-Nehisi Coates inspired me to create my own narratives and weave my own stories — stories that would appeal to my people and my culture. The world needs more storytellers to record the voice of our nation, offering hope to future generations of individuals who wish to see themselves as something other than an afterthought. The world needs more Black books. •