Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to explore some of the children's literature in the Joanna Banks Collection of African American Books. This collection overall is interesting because Joanna Banks is a regular person who collected books for years as a hobby; she just saw books by Black authors, books featuring Black children, and many other types of media like cookbooks, and bought as many as she could, starting in the mid-1960s. This means that this collection represents books that were available to the average person at the time, and grew to include more and more books by Black authors or about Black people as the years went on.
In an interview with Penn Professor of Africana Studies Barbara Savage, Banks talks about the children’s books she collected. She explains that growing up, she had very few books that featured Black children like herself, and that she started to seek out these books when her nieces and nephews were born, both to gift to them and to add to her collection.
Her collection is extensive, with over 10,000 pieces, of which about a 1,000 are identified as children’s literature. I was able to see the shelves that hold the collection, located in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. There were so many shelves of just the children’s books and cookbooks, and it was difficult to imagine all of these books fitting in one person’s house. Notably, these shelves only hold a small part of the collection; many of the books are not even stored on site at the library, yet even that small part was incredible.
This collection includes a wide variety of materials and highlights the broad range of written information that is available and made for children. From biographies and alphabet books to magazines and poetry collections, the Joanna Banks Collection has every kind of publication for children that one can imagine. When studying children’s literature, I’ve found that scholars often focus on picture books and novels. This collection reminded me that many children find other written materials like magazines, poetry collections, and short stories, to be more fun. These materials are necessary to really understand children’s literature, especially when thinking about what kids are taking away from the things that they read.
I requested about 30 books to read and analyze in detail out of the 900 that were available. Within that small selection, around 25 different publishers were represented. Some of these publishers, like Associated Publishers, specialized in publishing works by Black authors and about Black history. Others, like Holiday House, focus on children’s picture books. The wide variety of publishers, even within such a small selection, demonstrates the true magnitude of the collection.
While the Joanna Banks Collection as a whole features books written by Black authors, the children's books from the collection specifically have a focus on Black characters and stories, and these books are not always written by Black authors. Some picture books, like Ada Twist, Scientist, written by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by David Roberts, have plots that do not center on the race of the character. The book portrays Ava as a questioning child who might grow up to be a fantastic scientist, and the family in the illustrations happens to be Black. The author and illustrator are both white, and the book does not discuss aspects of African-American culture. The inclusion of a Black family here seems to be more about representing one possibility of an average family, rather than telling a particular African-American narrative.
Other picture books written by white authors do seek to tell African-American stories. Happy Feet by Richard Michelson tells the story of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, where anyone, regardless of race, could come to dance. D is for Drinking Gourd, by Nancy I. Sanders, is an alphabet book about African-American history that covers famous people, movements, and other aspects of history and culture. These authors both worked with African-American illustrator and artist E. B. Lewis, and the illustrations are striking and beautiful. E. B. Lewis also illustrated books by Black authors in the collection, including I Love My Hair! by Natasha Tarpley. This book describes all the different hairstyle options for a young Black girl, and why she likes each of them.
D is for Drinking Gourd is also interesting when compared to The Black BC’s by Lucille Clifton. The Black BC’s was published in 1970, while D is for Drinking Gourd was published much more recently in 2007. Notably, the version of The Black BC’s in this collection appears to have been photocopied from a library book. It is made up of copy paper stapled together, and a reflection of the plastic sleeve that many picture books at the library have can be seen on the cover page. Both of these books take a very expansive approach to an alphabet book, with paragraphs explaining each figure or idea represented by each letter; many alphabet books only have one or two sentences connecting the idea to the letter and do not seek to provide a deeper understanding of the concepts.
One book in the collection, Black Fairy Tales, written by Terry Berger and published in 1969, has an interesting dedication: “This book was done especially for the Black Children who have never read black fairy tales.” This book was not written by a Black author though, and the Kirkus Review for the book suggests that the stories were very similar to, and possibly based on, “Fairy Tales in South Africa,” a British publication from 1908. The author’s intention may have been good, but the execution seems a little flawed. This is one of the older books in the collection, but some of the other books published around the same time were published by Black authors for Black children, and include much better examples of on-page representation. Specifically, The Picture-Poetry Book written by Gertrude Parthenia McBrown and illustrated by Lois Mailou Jones, published in 1968, includes drawings of children of many races, and the poems do not focus on the race of the children, instead describing children as a whole.
Another noteworthy book is Caribbean Canvas by Frané Lessac, from 1987. Each page has a painting accompanied by a proverb, poem, or song from the Caribbean. This book is a reminder of the global nature of diversity in literature. When working to collect books that represent Black people, that does not only mean Black people in the U.S., and the histories of various places and people are represented so beautifully in this book.
Though the materials in this collection are amazingly varied, they all include representations of Black people — particularly children — and stories. Some of these books were written by white authors about historical events, some just have representation in the illustrations and not the plot, and others have written myths and stories that claim to be from African and African-American culture despite evidence to the contrary. However, so many other books in this collection were written by Black authors for Black children, and some of these are especially beautiful. Exploring the children’s literature in the Joanna Banks collection has been an amazing experience, and there is so much more to discover within the shelves.