With Memorial Day weekend upon us, I’m thinking about relaxing by a pool or in the shade with a delicious book–which brings back fond memories of my childhood summer reading adventures. A few months ago, I came across a piece in School Library Journal for which children’s book creators were asked to describe their favorite childhood books about the black experience.
The final entry, by Rita Williams-Garcia, the award-winning author of several young adult novels, described one of my own favorite books, Reba Paef Mirsky’s Thirty-One Brothers and Sisters (Willcox & Follett, 1952), the well worn copy of which I still have. Williams-Garcia recalls her delight that, unlike the characters in most of the other books in her school library, the heroine, Nomusa, young daughter of a Zulu chief, “drawn with brown inks and short, thick hair,” looked like her.
While Nomusa didn’t look like me (well, I did have thick bobbed hair, but it capped off fair, freckled skin), she resonated with my nine- or 10-year-old self too: As Williams-Garcia notes, Nomusa was “the only girl allowed to go on a hunt with her father and the men of the community. And she was smart.” I, too, loved Nomusa’s adventurous spirit and the confidence with which she speaks up among her siblings and elders. She didn’t look like me, but she was every bit as much of a role model for me as my beloved Nancy Drew. The ambition to speak up (always) and set out on adventures (as often as possible) has stayed with me throughout my life, and is something that my husband and I have passed on to our now grown son and daughter.
What storybook heroes and heroines have had a lasting impact on you since childhood? And which ones have you introduced to students along the way? Please share them, and we’ll look at the richness and importance of children’s literature in a future post.