Growing up I wanted to be three girls: Rudy Huxtable, Lisa Turtle, and Dominique Dawes. And if you’re a black girl born in the ’80s/early ’90s, at least one of these girls is probably on your list too. These girls were the epitome of #blackgirlmagic to me. My mom often tells the story of a summer trip to New Orleans during the 1992 Summer Olympics. I had been watching the gymnastics competition every night and Dominique Dawes was everything to me. I spent the whole trip turning every curb into a balance beam, jumping off, and sticking the landing. I was her. Seeing her mattered. These feelings of representation (or a lack thereof) came full circle when I saw my niece enamored with Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics. These images still mattered.
So as I continued my search for the perfect book series for my niece, I started to think about the types of books I read when I was younger. The more I thought about it, I realized that I had not been privy to a ton of books featuring black girls as characters. I’ve talked to several of my friends who mimic this sentiment. However, I did remember one of the first books I could recall reading. The name of it was Bright Eyes, Brown Skin.
The book was full of colorful pictures of beautiful black children. I read that book more times than I can remember, flipping through the pages in awe of the images I saw. Of course, as a five year old I didn’t know why I was so drawn to that book. But as I have gotten older, I realize it’s for the same reason that my mom bought it for me—the characters looked like me. The power of seeing characters, images, or real-life successful people who look like you, is underestimated. This power still rings true for me as an adult. For every Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes, or Issa Rae I see, it empowers me to feel like I can aim a little higher. I would argue that these images are even more powerful to little black girls. If you don’t see them, you might be led to believe that these images don’t exist, or that they’re not important enough to be shown.
So, there I was. A simple Christmas wish from my niece had brought an overshadowed problem back to the forefront in my life. No matter how hard it seemed, I was determined to find a good book series with a black girl as the lead character. As I scoured the children’s section of several book stores—a section that I had not frequented in years—I started to notice a few trends:
- Most of the books featuring black characters were for younger kids (5 and under)
- Most books in the age range I was looking for usually fell into two categories: 1) Stories that featured black girls as best friends/sidekicks or 2) Stories that featured black girls during slavery or the civil rights movement
While these stories are good (historical fiction is essential), what about ones with black girls just being themselves? What about stories that show black girls in everyday situations, without being a sidekick or having the weight of the world on their shoulders? What about stories that encourage them to dream, face challenges, be strong, be beautiful, or just have fun?
I finally found The Sugar Plum Ballerinas by Whoopi Goldberg. A wonderful series featuring a whole cast of diverse characters. Fortunately, McKenzie really enjoyed the series, but the entire process had stirred up something in me. Maybe there was something I could do to make sure my niece had more books to read like this. While I thought that my book journey had successfully ended, it turned out it was just beginning.