Nappiness and Unhappiness: An Example of Controversy in Children’s Lit

I remember reading bell hooks in college and graduate school. A scholar, activist, and champion of intersectionality, she addresses issues of race, class, and gender in her work; I’d absolutely recommend looking into some of her scholarly articles. Needless to say, when I saw that she had written a book for children, I was immediately intrigued. Happy to Be Nappy is a fun read; the text lends itself well to being read aloud, and is accompanied by lovely illustrations by Chris Raschka. However, I had no idea when I found this book that it responds to a contentious debate, spurred by a particular event that occurred in the New York City school system in the late 1990s. This event was triggered by a white teacher’s use of the book Nappy Hair in a diverse classroom setting, and echoes of it still reverberate in classrooms today.

The short version of the story: In 1998, teacher Ruth Sherman read Carolivia Herron’s award-winning picture book to her Brooklyn classroom. Students loved it so much they wanted to take it home with them. Unable to oblige them all, Sherman made photocopies. The quality of cheap and quick Xerox copies, found by parents in their children’s book-bags and folders, did the illustrations little justice. Rendering a deceptively complex text and its colorful pictures into black and white does it no favors. From there, the events escalated, until the teacher transferred to another school, and Herron’s book was banned from classrooms all over.

It can be very challenging to teach a controversial book. It can be questionable even having it in a classroom. But what was at the heart of this issue? Herron maintains that her book was written as a celebration of nappy hair, but somehow a white teacher using it in her classroom appeared racist. The teacher was marked. The book was tainted. The topic was touchy. This is the atmosphere that bell hooks attempted to break through by creating a book of her own that addresses the same touchy topic of textured tresses, in an even more celebratory way than the original controversial text, but whether or not it’s been successful at addressing the controversy is hard to determine.

One could look and see how many copies each book has sold, whether they’ve been continuously in print, their placement on bookseller’s lists. One could check their local bookstore and see if they’re on the shelf. But the truth of the matter is I’ve never seen them on display in a classroom I’ve visited. Neither of them are on the shelves at my local library. I could find them through the library loan system, surely, but that’s not the easiest way to get one’s hands on a particular book – especially if the hands they need to get to are the hands of children.

Would you teach either of these books in your classrooms? If so, would you address them differently than you would other books? If you didn’t teach these books, would they still be welcome on your shelves?

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